China and the Historians

March 1, 2001 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Chinese NationalismHan Chinese

China and the Historians

Mini Teaser: A fresh look at China's last dynasty is leading sinologists to a more complex--and less deterministic--reading of modern China.

by Author(s): Charles Horner

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the study of modern China was informed by a "master narrative" whose climax was the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. All roads seemed to lead to Beijing's famous Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao's proclamation of China's new order. Of course, the historian cannot but tell the story this way, for he surely knows that this is how China's political struggles during the first half of the twentieth century resolved themselves. In this respect, the student of modern China is not much different from his fellows who are interested in other parts of the world; no matter any historian's claim that he seeks to understand the past on its own terms, his work is always conducted in full knowledge of how things actually turned out. He becomes a determinist de facto, reading consequences back into causes, even as he struggles against it.

And yet new interpretations, re-interpretations and syntheses do appear. Sometimes, without anyone's planning it or even desiring it, the rewriting and reworking of history can provide a new framework for the consideration of contemporary questions. When the subject is a relatively exotic place like China--whose story is not very well known to begin with--the time lag inherent in this process will be that much greater than normal, and a change in the focus of even the attentive public will take that much longer. To this, one must add the ladylike and gentlemanly pace at which the study of China progresses, a reflection of the difficulty of the subject matter, but also a legacy of the careful, deliberate and unhurried way in which the Chinese themselves have studied their own history. And again, we must remember that conditions inside China during the past century and a half have hardly been conducive to the Western or Chinese study of the country's modern history. Inside, chaos and political repression have inhibited the work; outside, foreigners have been constrained by these obstacles--and by a few of their own making, as well.

This said, during the past twenty years, at least three important trends in the investigation and presentation of modern Chinese history have been altering our view of contemporary China--and will therefore influence our stance toward it. There has been, first of all, a profound and revolutionary change under way in interpreting China's last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912), with important implications for our understanding of the very meaning of even fundamental terms like "China" and "Chinese." There is also a comparable revisiting of the history of the first half of the twentieth century, focused more on comprehending both the complex China and the "greater China" we see before us today, rather than the Maoist China that monopolized our vision for so long. And there is a demographic change in progress: the previously dominant position of non-Chinese sinologists in the study and teaching of China around the world is gradually shrinking as greater numbers of Chinese, whether inside or outside of China, whether citizens of China or of other countries, become involved.

Manchus and Chinese: Whose Great Enterprise?

In February 1912, Prince Chun, the regent acting on behalf of his five year-old son, the emperor of China, executed an instrument of abdication whereby the last Chinese dynasty came to an end. The Qing ("Ch'ing" in the older system of Romanization) dynasty had begun in 1644. It was not the creation of Chinese at all, but the work of a hitherto obscure inner Asian people, the Manchus, who had gradually come to prominence beyond the Great Wall. In the traditional Chinese sense of things, the Manchus' decision to attempt "the Great Enterprise"--that is, the conquest of all of China--was momentous, but far from unprecedented. Non-Chinese dynasties--dynasties of conquest, as they are styled--had governed China for about half its history. The one most familiar to us was created by the Mongols, whose dynasty was known to the Chinese as the Yuan (1260-1348); the emperor of China during Marco Polo's visit, Kublai Khan, was one of these Mongol rulers, a grandson of Genghis. Between the collapse of the Mongols and the ascendancy of the Manchus, China had been governed by the wholly home-grown Ming dynasty, whose rule began in 1368 and lasted for some 275 years.

The decay and decomposition of the Ming house, and how its empire was acquired by the previously unheralded Manchu invaders, is one of the great tales of Chinese history. It is the stuff not only of legend and literature. Chinese resistance to the gradual consolidation of Manchu rule throughout the country created a powerful political tradition of its own, for the Manchu ascendancy raised fundamental issues of loyalty and legitimacy for common folk and elites alike. The relatively tiny number of Manchu outsiders had to perfect a complex strategy of co-optation and intimidation, and then develop a governing style that would hold together their hard-won holdings. How they did this, who owed what to whom, and how to reconcile the initial grand successes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the catastrophic collapse of the nineteenth century--these issues of historical analysis have informed the debates about Chinese politics for the past century and a half.

How "Chinese" was Manchu-era China? That is the nub of the matter. Some Chinese who turned against the dynasty at its end for its failure to fend off the onslaught of the Western barbarians concluded that the country had been betrayed by the Manchus. They argued that, whatever their degree of "Chinese-ness", the Manchus were of a different race, and, therefore, were willing to collaborate with white imperialists against the interests of the Chinese as a people in order to protect "China" as a Manchu imperial possession. This racial aspect of things also served in some ways to further discredit the entire Confucian imperial idea as inherently opposed to the interests of the Chinese as a people; it fed the argument for junking the imperial system itself and substituting a modern republic in its place. The curious combination of revived racial consciousness (stoked by the "Social Darwinism" of the late nineteenth century), recollections of Ming dynasty loyalism, and different strands of Western political thought all came together in the anti-dynastic, pro-republican movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, famously led by Sun Yat-sen.

On the other hand, there was no denying the greatness of prior Manchu achievements. These had been known throughout East Asia, and also to literate Europeans from the reports of Catholic missionaries who had actually witnessed and described with great insight and detail the last days of Ming rule, and who had then over time gained important positions in the Qing court. Western sinology began here, and it was the inspiration for the West's future fascination with chinoiserie in all its forms. The sixty-year reign of Kangsi (1662-1722) and the equally long reign of his grandson, Qianlong (1736-96), are arguably the most successful political tenures in the history of the country--perhaps even in the history of the world. The Chinese themselves once knew about the expansion, prosperity, regional hegemony and cultural efflorescence of Qing-era China, and were proud of it and their own role in it. While that memory was dimmed by subsequent humiliations and disasters, the more the Chinese have recovered from the shock of Western intrusion, the more prepared they have been to acknowledge Qing achievements.

Nor has it been so hard to square this particular circle. For many years, received historical interpretation had attributed Manchu successes to "sinicization", that is, to a long-established process whereby various aliens became "Chinese." Among Chinese, it was thus possible to have it both ways--that the Manchus were both "Chinese" and "not Chinese" at one and the same time, depending, of course, on how the country was faring under Manchu tutelage.

This is not a debating point or a merely theoretical matter; it is a fundamental geographical one, a nation-defining one. The Republic of China that replaced the Qing dynasty was pleased to include in the new country all of "China", that is, all of China proper as the Manchus found it, plus the doubling of the size of the realm as they left it. For China as we know it is more or less China as the Manchus created it. To the historic Han core of the country they added Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet--as well as Xinjiang, an additional 600,000 square miles (more than three times the size of France) of "new territories" in the far northwest. Indeed, the western half of the country today is sparsely populated, and by non-Han Chinese. It is these peoples--Turkic Muslims in the northwest, Buddhists in Tibet, for example--whose place in today's People's Republic of China is highly problematic. The place of Taiwan, another Qing addition of the late seventeenth century, is of course even more contentious.

There is a growing argument among historians about what history as such can teach us about these issues. The traditional way of imagining "China"--culturally coherent in its "sinicization", politically coherent in its "Confucianism", governmentally coherent in its "mandarinate", and geographically coherent as "one country"--is now challenged by new notions, the results of careful re-examination of the Manchu era and the theory and practice of Manchu governance. Indeed, the rise of "Manchu studies" is in itself a powerful indicator that China as we have known it need not be China at all.

To try to condense two decades of academic debate among a relatively small number of well-informed specialists will probably disconcert all parties to the discussion. On the other hand, our purpose here is well enough served by rather arbitrarily referring to but two of the many relevant works of scholarship that have appeared in the past two decades. In this way, the argument can be more conveniently bracketed.

About fifteen years ago, Professor Beatrice Bartlett of Yale, taking advantage of greater access to China-housed archives in the wake of the post-Mao liberalization, analyzed a parallel set of Qing-era governmental records, these written in the Manchu language, not in Chinese. This allowed her to argue for a different way of understanding the system of imperial governance; Manchu rulers were quite self-consciously neither "Chinese" nor the captives of a venerable Chinese-dominated bureaucracy. Instead, they had an agenda of their own and knew what they were doing to implement it.

This notion of a Manchu self-consciousness could, of course, be analyzed in various ways, and one comprehensive analysis will serve to form the other bracket to the argument. The analysis appeared at the end of the twentieth century in the work of Professor Pamela Crossley of Dartmouth. In her view, there was a well-wrought Manchu imperial ideology that departed in many ways from the inherited Chinese one. In particular, the emperor himself, though he may have displayed a sinified face to his Chinese subjects, did not pretend either to himself or to his many other, non-Chinese subjects that he was Chinese. The enlargement of the empire was therefore not understood at all as the enlargement of China, but, rather, as the accretion of ever more and diverse holdings within a Manchu imperial portfolio. Thus, the emperors did not, on principle, pursue the sinification of newly acquired possessions, but instead respected their traditions and often represented themselves as somehow belonging to one or another of those diverse traditions rather than to the Chinese one. Indeed, the various parts of the Manchu empire developed a loyalty to the emperors seated in Beijing precisely because they viewed them not as the embodiment of an expansion of Chinese influence, but as something quite the reverse: For these outliers, the Manchu emperors were a bulwark against Han domination, not the agent of it.

Is this how it "really" was? The question remains unsettled, but the argument by itself has already given us a new way of looking at the governance of "China" at the time of its greatest size, wealth, power and standing in the world. It is a way of comprehending the governance of this vast land mass that presupposes a genuinely cosmopolitan outlook, one that is tolerant and ecumenical and, most of all, successful. Translated into the language of contemporary politics, it implies something akin to federalism, devolution and pluralism, new political words to be sure, but now legitimated by the splendors of a great historical epoch. It thus becomes possible to imagine a high tradition of political thought and practice, properly understood, that can be placed at the service of the requirements for the effective governance of a modern state of growing wealth, power and standing. Indeed, it also becomes possible to argue that this newly rediscovered model of "tolerance" and "diversity" and "decentralization" may be the only effective template for a twenty-first century system that can hold China together and preserve its civil peace.

How Modern Is Modern?

Just as close scrutiny of the details of a now-defunct imperial system can yield a new understanding of the "traditional", a comparable re-examination of the first half of the twentieth century invites us to consider a new understanding of the "modern." In one sense, the received view of the meaning of Chinese modernity tracks the ensuing life of that forlorn child whose throne disappeared in 1912. In due course, he became the subject of a highly regarded and commercially successful film, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. In one of its scenes, the former Son of Heaven expresses to his British tutor a desire to be part of the modern world that His Majesty knows exists outside the walls of the Forbidden City, though he is weak on the details. He wants to learn to drive a car and to dance the two-step. His first empress suggests that their initial intimate encounter be adjourned with a handshake--as a "modern couple" might end their first date. He learns to play tennis.

We now know, of course, that neither the last emperor nor his country would experience modernity as a series of such leisurely and pleasant experiences. Rather, both lived through the chaos of warlordism and economic collapse, then of protracted and destructive war with Japan, then the resumption of civil war between Nationalists and Communists, then imprisonment in a Maoist madhouse. The last emperor died in 1967, after "reigning" as Japan's puppet in Manchukuo, then spending the years between 1945 and 1959 under Soviet house arrest and in a Chinese prison camp, and finally ending up tending plants in a Beijing botanical garden.

To return to Beijing (better, Shanghai) today is to wonder whether things have returned to square one. It is too simple-minded to say that the country has somehow wholly reverted to its pre-communist modus operandi and overall affect, and yet the communist China supposedly gestating in the preceding two centuries of "modern China" is not much in evidence either. Viewed narrowly as an issue in China studies, it is certainly fair to say that, beginning in 1950, what we wanted to know about was the origin of the PRC. Thus, things that happened between 1900 and 1950 mattered to the degree that they prefigured the Maoist victory and its social and political vision. But today nothing remains of any of that, and whatever the claims put forward for it at the time, nobody nowadays pays any attention to the earth-shaking potential of Chinese communism.

Yet, if today's China is no longer what it was assumed or projected to be even twenty-five years ago, what then is it? Where did it come from, and how did it get here? These are the questions that lie beneath a slow-motion revolution in the academic study of the first half of China's twentieth century. Though perhaps not yet so far advanced in a technical sense as the newer approaches to Qing history, recent reworkings of the story of "Republican China" (1912-49) now lead to a new, and perhaps happier, ending. It used to be that we were taught to regard this era as nothing but an exercise in futility, a series of false starts, an odd sort of opera buffa, albeit with a cast of millions in misery. Now we are encouraged to see the teens, twenties and thirties as a fertile seedtime, with advances in politics, commerce and culture that prefigure the China--and the Hong Kong, the Taiwan and the Singapore--we see today.

As in the "imperial" case, it is a disservice to the range and volume of "Republican" studies since 1980 merely to pick (even if not quite at random) representative samples. But to take just one example, it used to be widely thought that Chinese foreign policy and especially China's diplomacy during the 1920s and 1930s was close to nonexistent and, by and large, irrelevant. Harvard's William Kirby points us in a dramatically different direction, drawing our attention to the deep origins of contemporary China. In Kirby's summation, "The story of Chinese diplomacy in the Republican era is one of stunning accomplishments from a position of unbelievable weakness." The new Republic took only a shaky title to a huge piece of real estate:

"No Chinese empire had been so big for so long as the Qing realm of the Manchus. The first decade of the twentieth century was full of portents of its dissolution. But the amazing fact of the Republican era is that this space was not only redefined as 'Chinese,' and as the sacred soil of China, but also defended diplomatically to such a degree that the borders of the PRC today are essentially those of the Qing, minus only Outer Mongolia. The Qing fell, but the empire remained. More accurately, the empire became the basis of the Chinese national state. This was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Republican diplomacy."

Kirby also notes that the Republic was successful in recovering the country's internal sovereignty, so that the PRC inherited a state unencumbered by extraterritoriality, foreign concessions and the like. He also praises the skill of the Republic's diplomats in maintaining between 1912 and 1945 an intricate pattern of international alliances and affiliations within a constantly shifting--and always dangerous--international environment.

China's contemporary strategic situation, of course, is not what it was then. What gives the history of the Republic's diplomacy relevance to the present day, however, is its style and complexity. After all, during its first twenty-five years, the PRC had a narrow range of international relationships, especially so-called institutional relations. Much of its energy in foreign affairs was consumed in those peculiar intra-Communist International relations of the old communist world, reflective of the old "two bloc" strategic balance. But the situation of today's China is far more complicated, and its international operations far more varied and intricate--not only on the plane of formal diplomatic relations with dozens of countries, but also with "global" bodies of many kinds. The Republican era thus has new relevance, and will probably earn a new status in Chinese eyes before very long.

If we are able to see things differently from the commanding heights of high politics and grand strategy, the view from the bottom up is also under revision. For one, there is a renewed interest in and a growing appreciation of China's early Republican experimentation with a variety of forms of democratic self-government and local administration. Indeed, many of these preceded the founding of the Republic. In the last days of the Qing dynasty, provincial assemblies and debates therein about political theories--inspired by developments in Meiji Japan, Bismarckian Germany and even post-1905 Romanov Russia--held out the possibility of a constitutional monarchy in China that might have transformed people from subjects to citizens.

For another and more encompassing example, Professor Wen-hsin Yeh of Berkeley, in reflecting on the history of modern Shanghai (China's most important and cosmopolitan city then and now), provokes us to reconsider one of the central conceits of the Maoist view--the "surrounding of the city by the countryside"--understanding it not merely as a metaphor for a tactic of guerrilla warfare, but as a shorthand way of expressing the overcoming of Shanghai's Western-derived reaction and decadence by the revolutionary and modernizing forces of "scientific socialism." Yet Shanghai, once a symbol of everything bad that the world had done to China and, worse, a major weapon that served Western interests against Chinese ones, is on balance better seen as something else entirely--the incubator and disseminator of the creatively modern. The false starts and blind alleys, irrelevant because they did not lead to 1949 and all that, have a powerful saliency today. They demonstrate a Chinese capacity to comprehend everything included in the contemporary definition of modernity, whether in politics, economics, science or, especially, culture.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of the hindsight provided by the two decades between the demise of Maoism and the consolidation of Dengism, we should not be startled by such a role reversal between the "proletarian" countryside and the now "globalized" city. All politics may be local, but all history is no longer localized; instead, it can be fitted into a re-evaluation of China's larger cultural history in recent times. After all, the "modern" in modern Chinese art and literature was itself once regarded as inseparable from Chinese political radicalism; but the political radicalism is now gone and still the cultural history remains.

That history has of late become a subject for the method of contemporary "cultural studies", and its technique and jargon have been applied to the material. In the general understanding of this obscurantist vocabulary, such cultural studies are supposed to reaffirm a left-wing view of things. However, even if that were once its intention, when applied to materia sinica, the result has been something else again. Taken together, these efforts have not only rediscovered a trove of neglected cultural materials, they have returned us to an older way of looking at China's culture, placing it well above political sectarianism. To invent some lingo of one's own that derives from "postmodernist" argot, the influence of modern Chinese cultural achievement is seen increasingly as universalizing, cosmopolitanizing and de-ideologizing.

The tyranny of politics, which seemed to have killed the Chinese literary renaissance of the 1920s, is now without apologists. The final verdict was delivered by China's first Nobel laureate in literature, Gao Xingjian, in his lecture accepting the prize in Stockholm on December 7, 2000:

"Chinese literature in the twentieth century time and again was worn out and indeed almost suffocated because politics dictated literature. Both the revolution in literature and the revolutionary literature alike passed death sentences on literature and the individual. The attack on Chinese traditional culture in the name of the revolution resulted in the public prohibition and burning of books. Countless writers were shot, imprisoned, exiled or punished with hard labour in the course of the past one hundred years. This was more extreme than in any imperial dynastic period of China's history, creating enormous difficulties for writings in the Chinese language and even more for any discussion of creative freedom."
Politics is no longer in command. The regime in Beijing today is waging at most a rearguard action against Chinese cultural creation on the Chinese mainland, and the regime, with due allowance for its intermittent brutalities and crackdowns, is losing. Moreover, it is without sway over cultural creation in greater China and among Chinese all over the world, and is, in any case, unable to insulate the mainland from the effects of that creation.

Sinology as a Chinese Vocation

For the past four centuries, the study of China has been an international undertaking with non-Chinese having the dominant, though not the exclusive, influence over the world's perceptions of the country and its history. This has been especially true since the mid-nineteenth century, given the enormous difficulties that the collapse of civil order and the subsequent Maoist brutalities presented to any Chinese who might be interested in learning about their own tradition. Those of us outside the country had to develop a kind of self-reliance, relying more on ourselves than we might have had times been more "normal." For example, in the United States the professional study of China and the university teaching that derived from it were initially and importantly the work of American missionaries resident in China and, later, their China-born sons. C. Martin Wilbur (1909-97) and A. Doak Barnett (1922-99) are representative examples, though, in citing them, one should not gloss over the enormous influence of Chinese scholars based at universities in the United States from, say, 1930 on. After all, these men were old enough to be among the last to receive classical Chinese educations, yet still young enough to be Chinese pioneers in earning doctorates from American universities.

Beyond their role as China scholars, Americans of backgrounds similar to that of Wilbur and Barnett also filled important positions in the U.S. Foreign Service. Most of the so-called "old China hands" were China-born, and that influence was felt even after the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Beijing in 1979, as if a kind of restoration had occurred. The man who had closed the embassy in 1949 was J. Leighton Stuart, a prominent China-based Presbyterian educator who was president of Yenching University when General George Marshall sponsored his appointment as ambassador. Since the post was reopened after "normalization", three of the ambassadors who served there were China-born: Arthur Hummel, Jr., J. Stapleton Roy and James Lilley.

The establishment of the PRC, and especially its deep isolation from the Western world in general and the United States in particular, destroyed the human linkages that had dated from the mid-nineteenth century. The sociology of American sinology also changed, tracking larger changes in American higher education and its new post-World War II meritocracy. Just as the student bodies in the Ivy League became less predominantly old-line Protestant, so too did the field of China studies, sometimes establishing new ties between ancient intellectual traditions. Back in 1992, for example, the late Benjamin Schwartz, professor emeritus of Harvard and one of America's greatest sinologists, noted that, "Some of the most meaningful encounters between the Jews and China have occurred only in recent years, as the number of scholars of Jewish origin who are interested in both traditional and modern China has grown significantly."

Predictably, the transformation of China from a crumbling place in need of patient American tending into a leading-edge revolutionary state bent on supplanting American influence everywhere transformed the nature of America's interest in the place. Students at Harvard and Yale, once drawn to China as a country ripe for religious and political conversion by America, now became interested in the connection between the advent of the People's Republic and other great upheavals in world politics. And the interest changed once again as "China policy" became linked to "Indochina policy" and the controversies surrounding the latter.

Beyond the political, the younger students of the older China scholars had a profoundly, indeed decisively, different educational experience. They were studying China at a time when Americans did not go there. Instead, they would go to the British enclave of Hong Kong and peer into the mists on the other side of the border. Or they would go to Taiwan, not yet the economic success it later became and, for all the claims of the rump Nationalist regime established there, a backwater so far as things Chinese were concerned--still showing more the legacy of fifty years of Japanese governance than the fifteen or twenty of Nationalist rule.

The graduate students of today travel throughout China in search of dissertation fodder, and the China they see is different from anything their teachers could have imagined. In a sense, the transformation of the past two decades, from 1980 to the present day, resembles the startling changes in China between, say, 1940 and 1960. At the least, it all takes some getting used to. Another change has been the enormous movement of young Chinese through the American university system. They now number in the hundreds of thousands, initially directed mostly to the sciences, then to business and management, and then into the study of China itself. These young Chinese from the mainland have joined the many tens of thousands from Taiwan and other places in the Chinese diaspora who have also studied in the United States. And the academic successes of Chinese-Americans have quickly become legendary.

So far as China studies are concerned, there is already an observable trickle-down effect. Even a cursory look at the faculty rosters in university and college catalogues shows how the study and teaching of China in the United States is increasingly the province of people who--in one way or another--are Chinese, who are connected to China and the Chinese world and things Chinese, just as older American scholars and teachers had personal ties to China of one sort or another. Of course, we have had a comparable experience in how we came to our understanding of imperial Russia, the old USSR and Eastern Europe, in that many of our greatest scholars were products of those places, either born there (Adam Ulam, Richard Pipes) or "first-generation" children of ŽmigrŽs. More interesting still, several Americans prominent in the conduct of U.S. relations with that part of the globe--Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright--were born in the old world.

But that was the twentieth century, and it is hard to predict what the repetition of that pattern in China studies and diplomacy might imply for the twenty-first. For those whose "old world" is in the East and not in the West, the differences cannot be inconsequential, even if it is hard to compare how a product of the collapse of the Hohenzollern or Habsburg empire has thought about America's connection to his ancestral home to how a product of the Manchu empire might come to view his own such connection. This kind of inner speculation must now inevitably engage those upon whom important responsibilities are devolving by the day--another episode in the endless meeting between East and West.

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