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China Trio 1: Chang, Bell, Spence

Updated on October 24, 2020

No end to them, let's take three at a time

Those with any interest in China agree on its wonders, even if they have never been there. The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. The Giant Panda. The Grand Canal. The wonders only increase when you have traveled there.

But there is another even longer series of wonders in reading about China. You might start, as so many foreigners have, with Marco Polo. That set off a torrent of books, one which increased hugely in the middle of the 19th century after China was "opened up" by western military force. Another surge came with China's war against Japan a hundred years later, when China joined with western powers in a global war. Yet another surge came when Mao died and China started to adopt modern economic reforms, eventually joining the World Trade Organization. The torrent continues not only to flow but to increase.

And that doesn't even take into account the books written by the Chinese themselves, a well that drops very deeply into history, very deeply indeed. Even if you include only those which have been translated into western languages, the wealth of literature is immense.

So many books to read!

One needs to pick and choose. And to start somewhere.

Jung Chang: "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China"

Few, if any, would disagree that one thing vital to insight into China today is understanding the road it has taken. This book of three Chinese women, Wild Swan grandmother, Wild Swan mother, Wild Swan daughter, provides ,b>perhaps the best view -- it's from the inside looking inside. I have reviewed this book before, but a fresh look at it only confirms its greatness.

But how time flies! Since it first came out it has been THE book, becoming the best-selling book about China ever written in the English language. But the last events in it are now decades old, and even the author, in a more recent Epilogue, has remarked how dramatically things have changed each time she returns. How distant fifty or even thirty years ago can seem when things are changing fast.

The fact remains, nonetheless, that this is a terrific saga, absolutely compelling to anyone with an interest in China, and really no less compelling to anyone with a simple interest in reading.

Few people know much about their parents lives and fewer still know anything at all about their grandparents. But in "Wild Swans" we are treated to the motives of the author's great grandparents in scheming to get their beautiful young daughter, feet suitably mashed, introduced to the local warlord, in hopes that he might take her as a concubine. Read the book and find out what happened -- it is irresistible, as is the grandmother.

Indeed each of the Wild Swans is irresistible, each in her own way. Together, as so many reviews have said, they constitute much of the modern history of China all within a single family: death of imperial China, rise of republican China, Sino-Japanese War, Civil War, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution.

Not so often noted is that the men in the story are also of great interest. One young woman who read the book recently commented: "I find some of the men fascinating. Old Dr. Xia has an interesting story, and Jung's father may be the most remarkable person in the book."

A brilliant Books-on-Tape recording of "Wild Swans" was made with the great English actress, Anna Massey (for you cinephiles: yes, she's the daughter of Raymond Massey). The inflections are perfect, the names pronounced accurately, the emotions throbbing. This is certainly a high point in that particular art form.

The book is worth all the praise heaped upon it, is it not?

Daniel A. Bell, "China's New Confucianism"

Not many political philosophers exhibit a sense of humor, at least not in public. This author not only has one but exhibits it, and that helps. ("A joke about China is that one can say anything about it without getting it right. Another joke is that one can say anything about it without getting it wrong. Yet another joke is that the longer one stays in the country, the more intimate the grasp of the language, culture, and history, the less confident one feels about judgments and predictions.")

He goes on to ask some tough questions: "Why do senior Communist Party leaders dye their hair black? And why do some local officials get promoted if they care for their elderly parents? Why do social critics use Mencius to criticize imperialism? We might also ask why hierarchical rituals contribute to material equality?" In social life, there are more puzzles.some of them hilarious but best left to your reading the book because they cannot be printed in a family newspaper like this.

A man capable of framing such questions is worth listening to.

The central story here is showing Marx the way out of town. The idea, perhaps, is not to shovel him out the door like tatters from a previous era, but to put him on a palomino and let him ride off into the sunset (or into that place where scholars are still discussing angels and the heads of pins). At the other end of town, in rides the Great Sage. In fact, of course, the Great Sage never left, just biding his time; he was in fact used even by Mao, whose emphasis on self-criticism had Confucian resonances. It's just a matter of how to reinterpret him once again.

But the transition is plain: "hardly anybody really believes that Marxism should provide guidelines for thinking about China's political future. The ideology has been so discredited by its misuses that it has lost almost all legitimacy in society. In reality, even the 'communist' government won't be confined by Marxist theory if it conflicts with the imperative to remain in power and to provide stability and order in society." Indeed, ". . it's the end of ideology in China. Not the end of all ideology, but the end of Marxist ideology. To the extent there's a need for a moral foundation for political rule in China, it almost certainly won't come from Karl Marx." But it is coming from Confucius. When Hu Jintao pronounced the new mantra, "a harmonious society," he was consciously echoing Confucius's "Harmony is something to be cherished."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that there is considerable debate within Chinese intellectual circles about what this means , even when just confined to the group of think-tankers and professors that the government listens to. (Bell taught in Singapore before coming to China, and he finds China more open to debate). The Central Party School emphasizes a kind of Scandinavian attention to social welfare. "New leftists," some of whom are at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, link Confucian values to political reforms, including that most difficult reform of all, a free press. They argue a free press would help control corruption by officials. There are other Confucianist positions being put forth as well.

This is a revival? -- Or is it something altogether different?

Jonathan Spence: "The Search for Modern China"

I haven't changed my mind from what I wrote in a previous review: that this, a hefty volume of about 800 pages (there's a new edition which is even longer), is the best one volume introduction to modern Chinese political history.

A preface about terms: "Modern" is interpreted here to mean the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing dynasty on through the modernizations of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. This is a period of almost 400 years.

Prof. Spence covers much familiar territory, but he does so in a way which not only demonstrates his mastery of the subject matter but which also is solid and entertaining and insightful all at the same time.

He chooses to begin with what can be called "the Ming-Qing cataclysm", the period when the last of the Han dynasties was swept away by Manchu barbarian invaders from northeast Asia who transformed themselves into Qing and the Qing dynasty. It seems fair to say that this transition has always been of special interest to him. And how could it not be? It is undoubtedly more dramatic, in general, to focus on the fall of the Qing dynasty itself and the profound struggle to replace it with a republic, but for the true student of China the final faults of the Ming dynasty hold a special interest because they sum up so much of that vast history which distinguishes China from all other nations.

On the other hand, by page 135 we are hearing about Hegel's views on China, delivered in the 1820's. The great majority of the book, then, covers a modern China which is less old, in some sense, than the United States.

Some criticisms of the book have been made, however. One is that the focus on Mao and Mao's version of communism underplays the connections between Chinese communism and the wider context of Marxism-Leninism, although he does note how the Comintern sent agents to China. The argument is in part that much of what Mao did can be explained simply, and best, in terms of what Stalin did before him. Another is that Spence spends much time trying to explain the underlying factors which caused Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution, but to some extent misses the most obvious factor -- that he believed in it, that it was a logical step in the philosophy he'd been preaching for many decades.

These are interesting criticisms, but they do little to detract from this weighty volume, which is a superb read and a superb way to take up the study of China.

The illustrations in this book are one of its major attractions, all of them as informative as they are interesting.

It is hard to imagine anyone doing better, at least for the extensive time period covered here. Right? Please discuss, as the Professor would say.



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