Three ways of looking at China and its history

A friend recommended I read Rana Mitter’s Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, and being a big fan of the Very Short Introduction series I was happy to do so. I’m glad I did: although the book surveys some fairly familiar material, it also puts forth some interesting historical ideas. What I found most useful is Mitter’s suggestion that our interpretations of modern Chinese history usually fall into one of three categories (the following are my terms not his):

Traditionalist. This is the view that “China has not essentially changed” despite the upheavals of the 20th century: that Mao and Deng were “new emperors” (as one book put it), that China is fundamentally Confucian and still on the same trajectory as in the rest of its supposed 5,000 years of history. This interpretation is quite common in popular discussions of China, and is implicitly invoked every time someone calls it “The Middle Kingdom” or talks about how Chinese foreign policy is still taking tips from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Socialist. This is the view that 1949 is the dividing line in Chinese history, and that the Communist victory in the civil war changed everything. Mitter associates this view mostly with romantic leftists of the 1960s, who were sympathetic to the Chinese revolution and willing to give Mao the benefit of the doubt. But there is a more contemporary version that also has a lot of currency, which emphasizes the present-day continuities with state socialism: how China remains politically authoritarian and how state-owned enterprises still play a major role in the economy.

Nationalist. This is Mitter’s own view: that the true dividing line in Chinese history is 1911, when the Qing dynasty was overthrown, not 1949. Since then Chinese politics has a “mass politics where there was a social contract between government and citizen” in which nationalism provides the major source of legitimacy. Both the Nationalists and the Communists sought national sovereignty, a strong state and economic development: Mitter sees both parties as engaged in “one long modernizing project.”

The standard academic thing to do would be to admit the obvious point that all three views have elements of truth and call for a nuanced combination: clearly some elements of Chinese traditional culture are still relevant, clearly it matters that the Communists and not the Nationalists have been in power since 1949, and clearly nationalism is a central issue in Chinese politics. So it’s nice that Mitter does not do this, and plants his flag firmly in the last camp. One of the more interesting passages in the book is his assertion that:

The Communist Party of today has essentially created the state sought by the progressive wing of the Nationalists in the 1930s rather than the dominant, radical Communists of the 1960s. One can imagine Chiang Kai-shek’s ghost wandering round China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s ghost follows behind him , moaning at the destruction of his vision.

There’s definitely something to this, but ultimately I’m not sure that I buy it. As regular readers will recognize, the legacy of Chinese socialism has been one of the major themes of this blog since I started writing it. So it’s probably no surprise that, if forced to choose among those three views of Chinese history, I might have to choose door #2, the socialist one.

These days it seems like it is not China’s similarities to other modern nations and economies that are most salient, but its differences. And if you interrogate the source of those differences, a lot of the time the answer is socialism and not Chinese traditional culture.

One Comment

  1. I think not 1911 but the May-Fourth of 1919 matters a lot more (in some way, it’s a continuation of what began to happen since 1911). Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, the part line on 5/4 today is that it was lead by the party, and seen as the start of real change to a modern and socialist China — essentially a Socialist view; while one can certainly argues that 5/4 is more of a Nationalist movement. And this fact shows in itself the distinctive features of our country and society.


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