The Search for Modern China 
by Jonathan Spence.
Hutchinson, 876 pp., £19.95, May 1990, 0 09 174472 5
Show More
Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s to the 1980s 
by Jack Gray.
Oxford, 456 pp., £35, April 1990, 0 19 913076 0
Show More
Show More

Nobody really knows what’s happening in China. Analysis must proceed from triangulation, relying on a few uncontroversial facts, specific knowledge about the Chinese past and general knowledge about the dilemmas and solutions that emerge in countries in similar predicaments. History matters for a number of reasons. One is that similar causes tend to produce similar effects. China’s topography, weather and soil impose perennial constraints on warfare and agriculture. A striking example is found in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China: ‘Chiang Kai-shek [in 1949] had roughly the same range of options that had faced the southern Ming court once the Manchus had seized Peking and the North China plain 305 years before. He could try to consolidate a regime in central or southern China, perhaps in Nanjing, relying on the Yangzi river as a natural barrier; he could try to consolidate in the south-west, or establish a coastal base in the Ximan region of Fujian or in Canton; or he could use Taiwan as a base, as Koxinga [a naval warrior fighting the Manchus in the 1650s] had done.’ Even more obviously, Chinese agriculture is dominated by immutable natural conditions. It is not surprising that Karl Wittfogel, perhaps the foremost advocate of geographical determinism in our century, was also a specialist on China.

Moreover, past events survive in memory and provide models for how to behave or not to behave, as well as an inexhaustible source of allusions for those who find it more convenient to criticise their opponents par empereur interposé. (An example is given below.) Most important, perhaps, continuities in values and habits provide keys to otherwise puzzling patterns of behaviour. Among the persisting values discussed in Jack Gray’s Rebellions and Revolutions are those of collective responsibility, respect for the elderly, economic egalitarianism and outward conformity to the changing dictates of authority. Surprisingly, neither Spence nor Gray mentions how the traditional Chinese distrust of explicit written codes of law has carried over to the Communist regime.

Knowledge of the past is like the seabed, connecting scattered islands of observable facts. But it does not exhaust all useful connections or all relevant contexts. We do not have to accept the Annales gospel – les hommes ressemblent plus à leur temps qu’ à leurs pères – to understand the value of comparisons across societies and cultures. The need for comparison is illustrated in the overarching Chinese dilemma: the choice between modernisation and other values. Almost all non-Western countries have encountered this problem, in the form of a conflict between the imperatives of economic development and the traditional forms of politics and culture. Usually, the first response is to try to have it both ways: Western technology without Western culture; capitalism without democracy and human rights. In China, the ti-yong writers of the late 19th century, who wanted to preserve the Chinese ‘essence’ (ti) while adopting Western ‘function’ (yong), advocated this policy. And usually, it turns out that one cannot have the best of both worlds. Some countries have got the worst of each; others have achieved economic success at the price of cultural assimilation.

Similar conflicts persist today: Jonathan Spence tells us how in 1975 radicals attacked Deng Xiaoping’s modernising policies by criticising the ti-yong policies of a late Qing governor-general. Yet the dilemmas are now more complex, since three rather than two sets of values are involved. Can China modernise while remaining simultaneously Chinese and Communist? Recent events have given new dimensions to this question. Will Communism undergo the same fate in China as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? If it does, will it be because of contagion from these countries or because of an internal process that would in any case have worked itself out? Or might the two mechanisms interact, with the East European examples speeding up – or slowing down – a dissolution that was bound to occur?

The books under review succeed splendidly in providing historical triangulation points. They do not help much with the comparative perspective. They are traditional, narrative works of history which not only refrain from suggesting comparisons, but do not even appear to have been much inspired by them. Of the two, Spence’s book is more ideographic and narrative, Gray’s the more self-consciously explanatory. Spence is telling a story, relying on a time-honoured alternation between pointillistic details and broad strokes, with no inclination to canvass multiple explanations of events he is relating. Reading Gray, one feels part of a scholarly and political debate. He will pause to refute alternative accounts – those of Chinese patriots as well as Western scholars. Even, when the two authors reach similar conclusions, Gray’s procedure is often more illuminating. Both assert, for instance, that a major cause of popular unrest in the early 19th century was the increasing competition for jobs among minor officials, which led to greater pressure on the peasantry. In Gray’s account, however, that conclusion is reached after he has discussed and rejected a number of other explanations.

Spence is a master of the telling detail, and it is hard to resist the temptation to share some of his facts with the reader. Ruling techniques: to ensure mobility in the aristocracy, the Manchus had a policy which held that, within a system of nine aristocratic ranks, a given family dropped one rung on the ladder with each noble incumbent’s death. Chinese ethnocentrism: in 1759, James Flint, a trader for the East India Company, was arrested for, among other things, having learned Chinese. Patriarchy: a father who had been sentenced to beating for having buried his son alive had the verdict overturned by the Ministry of Punishment, on the grounds that the son had directed foul language at the father, an act that deserved the death penalty. Continuities of Chinese history: in 1852 the Taiping rebels seized guns that had been abandoned by an early rebel against the Manchu dynasty two centuries before but were still serviceable. Resistance to modernity: the first stretch of railway built in China, near Shanghai, was bought by the Government and torn out in 1877. Communist morality: in their search for people who could form the basis for a new political order, the Chinese Communists excluded not only ‘those who stole crops, worked as prostitutes, had ties to bandits or opium smugglers, frequented Japanese-occupied areas, were prominent members of secret societies, or had once served in puppet forces’, but also those who ‘had a “mysterious past”, committed adultery, had bad tempers, failed to attend political meetings, smoked opium, or had roving wives’. Landlord deceptions: in the struggles over land reform, landlord tactics involved stratagems such as ‘dramatically dropping their standard of living to appear poorer than they really were, consuming livestock that could not then be counted as wealth, withholding fertiliser from land about to be confiscated, or failing to perform customary charitable deeds that might brand one as being of the landlord class’. Soviet arrogance versus Chinese patience: when the Soviet Union withdrew its experts from China in 1960, two Soviet nuclear experts who had refused to share information about atomic bomb construction with the Chinese tore to shreds all the documents they could not take with them. ‘Painstakingly reconstructing the shredded documents, the Chinese found in them crucial information on atomic implosion.’ Cadre ignorance versus peasant knowledge: in 1961, Chen Yun (the top Chinese economic expert and one of the foremost members of the hardline gerontocracy which is currently ruling China) travelled to a people’s commune near Shanghai to understand the failure of the Great Leap Forward. ‘In a hundred ways, Chen observed, the local peasants seemed to know those small details of ordinary rural life that were ignored by the party cadres who tried to make the peasantry conform to national norms and follow allegedly “logical” plans for collectivised development. It was local farmers, he noted, who understood how to protect the weakest piglets from death by attaching, them to the sow’s third nipple, the one with the richest milk supply.’

Gray’s more analytical and argumentative approach is especially useful on the late 19th-century modernisation processes. He argues persuasively that the failure of the ‘self-strengthening’ modernisers was not due to foreign competition (there was none) or to inherent inefficiencies of state-supported enterprise (it worked in Japan). He finds the explanation in the myopic and risk-averse attitude of the bureaucratic managers. ‘The Government, anxious to recover its investment, discouraged plough-back while the merchants, because they had never had full confidence in the relationship, were even less disposed to accept long-term risks. The Government, usually creditor rather than shareholder, expected to be repaid in full if a firm went into liquidation; it was the private shareholders who lost.’ Sheer incompetence also played its part. One of the great reformers, Zhang Zidong, ‘sited his Wuhan steelworks where it could be under his own eye, ignoring the distance of his site from the source of his raw material, so adding costs which doubled the price of his finished steel’. Another, Zuo Zongtang, ‘built his new woollen mills where there was actually no soft water within a thousand miles; he did not even know enough to realise that he should have sought advice’. The use of the possessive pronoun is presumably deliberate, to indicate an attitude in which enterprises are bureaucratic fiefs rather than independent entities. The story of central planning under Communism suggests that this, too, is among the continuities of Chinese history.

Gray is also consistently informative on political developments in the Twenties and Thirties. The struggle between the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang was always part of a triangular conflict, with either Japan or the Soviet Union as the third corner. The strategic vicissitudes and shifting alliances of these relationships are explained with admirable clarity. When he turns to post-1949 developments, Gray is less convincing. In particular, he seems to be moved by a compelling desire to exculpate Mao from responsibility for all the disasters in which he was successively involved. According to Gray, Mao was ‘the most passionately democratic of all Communist leaders, the author of the only intellectually intelligible, practical and humane Marxist alternative to Stalinism’. His good intentions were, however, consistently betrayed, either (on the first two occasions) by the Stalinist Right or (on the last) by the utopian Left. I lack the competence to argue in detail against this view: let me just state that I find it implausible.

I am equally unpersuaded by Gray’s analysis of the current situation. On the economic side, he believes that in China ‘the old sterile controversy over plan versus market’ is being superseded, and that in the future ‘the state will be related to economic enterprises, both indus trial and agricultural, not by direct command but by contract.’ Neither theory nor experience indicates that this is a workable alternative. I also believe he is grossly mistaken when he asserts that the Chinese peasantry believe they have secure heritable tenure of the land they cultivate: if they did, they would invest their earnings in equipment and fertiliser and not use them, as they do, to improve their housing. On the political side, his repeated assertions of the current leadership’s ‘sincere’ beliefs in constitutionalism, the rule of law, freedom and democracy completely fail to carry conviction. I am not implying, however, that Gray is engaged in crass apologetics. In his narrative he shows himself to be aware of many sides of the issues, even if the final summing-up tends to be skewed.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences