The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329

The Preservation of Tradition

Jonathan Spence explores how China has consistently sought to free itself of foreign interference by strengthening its borders and nurturing its own intellectual and spiritual traditions. He describes how Kangxi, the most renowned emperor of the Qing era, systematically fortified the boundaries of the realm and also restored the examination system. This system governed appointments to high offices in the state bureaucracy with their power and prestige by testing applicants on their knowledge of ancient Confucian texts. He also details how succeeding rulers severely restricted the access of Western merchants for centuries and quotes an imperial missive to King George III which refers disdainfully to England's "ingenious articles."

The Impact of Revolution

Numerous uprisings by downtrodden groups accompanied the effort to preserve traditions. The author begins with the last Ming emperor, Chongzen, committing suicide in the spring of 1644 as the troops of the rebel Li Zicheng entered Beijing. His dynasty had also faced another uprising in the east, but it was aggressive incursions from the north by the rebellious Manchus that sealed its fate. Later in the century, the Ming faced a rebellion originating in Shangdong province, closely followed by one on Taiwan. The author describes a multitude of other uprisings that followed down through the centuries, culminating in the revolution led by Mao Zedong.

The Study of History as Essential to Understanding the Modern World

Spence emphasizes that one must turn to China's history to understand the country today. The author traces the ruling elite's efforts at controlling the population's "aspirations in virtually all spheres of life" back to the 1600s. He also shows that the challenge of dealing with population growth dates back to the 1700s. Studying Chinese history, Spence writes, one continually comes upon "events, personalities, moods that appear to echo the present in haunting ways." The author sees beyond "modern" as merely meaning recent, stating that modern countries have existed even before 1600. His major premise, however, is that China has never been among them.

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