The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence
When I was very young, like a lot of kids I was fascinated by the slightly skewed geological notion grown-ups liked to tell us: that if I dug a hole straight down through the center of the earth, I’d arrive eventually in China. I tried it once, around the age of six, with my pail and shovel on the beach in California, my first attempt to travel out of state, unfortunately, the wet sand stopped me a few feet beneath the surface, and it would be quite a number of years before I tried to make the journey again.
The lingering point of this story is that for those us in the West, China remains as far away as far can possibly be – psychologically, culturally, geographically, politically as distant as we can get. For me, this was a challenge, and I got there eventually in the mid-1990s, to spend a year in Beijing with my wife who was teaching English at a university. Like other Westerners, I found China fascinating, frustrating, and often extremely difficult to understand. For me, China seemed more than another country, a mindset so different from my own it was as if we inhabited two different sides of the human brain.
How do you make the leap to such a foreign culture? Being a bookish person, I read omnivorously, gobbling up all the information I could find. Simply to get a grasp of China’s long history is a challenge for the beginner – separating Ming from Qing – and here I found a very useful book indeed, The Search For Modern China, by the noted Yale scholar Jonathan D. Spence. At nearly 900 pages, this is a volume that gives new meaning to the idea of weighty literature, but for me it was worth every pound, lugging it across the Pacific.
“In the year A.D. 1600, the empire of China was the largest and most sophisticated of all the unified realms on earth,” Spence begins, setting an almost fairy tale tone. He starts his long book with the Late Ming Dynasty at a pivotal point in Chinese history, just as the closed, insular world of China was about to meet the West, on one hand, and also be invaded from the north – a group of Jürchen tribesmen from across the northern frontier who called themselves the Manchus. Big changes were in store for the huge sleeping dragon of China, and the change has continued relentlessly to this day.
The last Ming emperor committed suicide in 1644 and the empire dissolved into chaos, to rise again as the Qing Dynasty under the Manchus. A series of strong Qing emperors responded to the challenge from the West – Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong – doing their best to fend off the hungry appetite of European imperialism, and also absorb the new science, technology, and often disturbing ideas that the West brought in its wake. The succeeding centuries were busy with crisis, attempts at reform, the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion, nationalism, and more war still as China struggled to find its place in the 20th century. Spence narrates the unfolding story of China with many maps and photographs and tables, taking us through the fall of the Qing, Sun Yat-Sen, the Guomindang, the horrors of the Japanese Occupation, Marxism under Mao Zedong . . . on and on, “The Great Leap Forward”, the Sino-Soviet rift, the Cultural Revolution, and finally reopening the doors to the West, the Nixon visit in 1972.
Published in 1990, The Search For Modern China ends with the heady freedom of the 1980s that Deng Xiaping crushed in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. What is in store next for China? No one knows for sure, but it is obvious that with its huge 1.4 billion population and seething energy, China, whatever direction it chooses, will be a major player in the 21st century. Jonathan D. Spence manages to turn his huge history into a clear, endlessly intriguing narrative, giving the Western reader a strong base from which to understand this most fascinating nation.