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Date Posted: 10:34 23/08/2003



China is too big even for a big book

Review of THE CAMBRIDGE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF CHINA
by Patricia Buckley-Ebrey, Cambridge University Press


THERE IS nothing inevitable about the results of China's confrontation with the West,” Professor Buckley Ebrey writes, “a whole concatenation of contingent events contributed to the outcome.” A sensible statement in a very sensibly written - and handsomely illustrated - history.

But how does one interpret Chinese history as a whole? Are there what Simon Leys described as the 'recurrent rhythms' - the patterns which shape the course of history from century to century? Is it fair to compare, as Leys did, the violent and relatively short-lived regime of Qin Shihuang with the violent and relatively short-lived regime of Mao Zedong? The parallels are tempting, and Mao had personally welcomed them. It is also, according to the excellent epilogue of this book, a particularly Chinese view of history, where “civilization progresses through a series of yin-yang-like reversals of direction from excessive disorder to excessive order and back again.” Different interpretations of history, she suggests, “shape expectations for historical change”: historians, it seems, are not mere chroniclers: they make history, literally and figuratively.

But all history, of course, and as Buckley-Ebrey freely admits, is written in the context of its time and place. In the particular case of China, we are talking about a country so vast, so unforgiving, so unamenable to any sort of reductionism, that we are tempted - almost perversely - to draw a simple picture and to stick by it. That Chinese history lies somehow in “the Chinese character”, or in a pattern set at some point in an early dynasty, “seems to diminish the agency of the Chinese people,” Buckley-Ebrey writes, “their capacity to respond to new situations creatively, to make use of what they inherited from their ancestors without being immobilized by it.” Such considerations rarely troubled some of Buckley-Ebrey’s predecessors. English historians in the nineteenth century talk about the Chinese character as if it was inscribed on the Chinese forehead, and routinely described the Chinese as deceitful and lazy, inscrutable and cunning. Missionaries were similarly judgemental. Their interpretations were always a part of the history itself, justifying European imperialism and forcing China onto the rollercoaster it still occupies today.

Thankfully, reputable historians have discarded this easy racism. But there is still some degree of oversimplification - Marxists interpret the Cultural Revolution as if it were nothing more than a misguided solution to an ideological problem, while anti-Marxists interpret that 'decade of chaos' merely in order to denounce that despised doctrine. Others merely remember those stories about the red lights being switched in traffic lights, making red mean go. They remember the farmers, banging drums to scare the crows away from the crops during the Great Leap Forward. In short, they remember Chinese history as a towering, tragic absurdity - with disasters so vast as to make each individual tragedy seem almost trivial. Buckley-Ebrey quotes one statistic when she deals with the Great Leap Forward: in excess of thirty million died of starvation during the “three hard years” that followed Mao’s folie de grandeur. The estimate is, in some respects, a conservative one: some observers have suggested as many as sixty million casualties. How can any historian do justice to such a disaster?

My own, quite arbitrary, but certainly meticulous chronology of Chinese history lists the following events, none of which are included in The Cambridge Illustrated History of China: the 1853 uprising by the Small Swords Society in Shanghai and Amoy; the Elgin mission of 1856 which sought permanent British representation at the Imperial Court and which, when it ended in failure, led to the second Opium War; the uprisings in Hubei and Shandong, suppressed by the French at the request of the Manchu government; the 1872 Miao Rebellion in Guizhou; the 1873 Muslim uprising in Xinjiang; the White Lotus insurrection of 1876 in Nanjing and Shanghai; the Triad attacks against the French in Vietnam, aided by Chinese “Black Flag” volunteers, which led to a retaliatory attack on China by France and, eventually, to China’s abnegation of its rights in Vietnam; the 1923 uprising by the Peking-Hankou Railway Workers, “brutally suppressed by imperialists and the warlord Wu Peifu” (according to a People’s Daily retrospective), which did a great deal to solidify support for a popular front between the Guomindang and the Communist Party. There are more lacunae, of course.

Some scholars have toyed with vast historical generalizations, almost Spenglerian in their scope, which focus on a particular element of Chinese history and then extrapolate it. Despite being a modern coinage, the “secret society” seemed to sum up the integral and symbolic role played by banditry in the history of this vast nation. In fact, the secret society seemed to respond to that vastness, to provide an assortment of disgruntled or dispossessed peasants with the means of salvation, however short-lived it turned out to be. Responding to them were the great figures of Hong Wu, the head of the White Lotus sect who became the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty; Hong Xiuquan, who led the hugely destructive Taiping Rebellion; and Mao Zedong of course, a self-confessed brigand and rebel in the great traditions of Chinese folk literature. Small fishes in huge ponds, the average Chinese citizen sought out his little stories - of visionary monks preaching revenge, of fanatical heresiarchs dispensing immortality to would-be adherents, or of warrior-sages speaking the language of Marxism. Life - a painful, rewardless affair on the flooding banks of the Yellow River or in the starving plains of the North - is suddenly made a little more simple by the presence of a few marauders, offering food in exchange for loyalty. Add a few rituals, suggest some sort of ancient or natural provenance, and you have your own army.

Here, then, is one version of Chinese history, hinted at by no less a figure than Sun Yatsen. The future, Sun perceptively wrote at the beginning of this century, lies with the underclass - the lumpenproleteriat of peasants, prostitutes, crooks and secret societies. It is in their hands that the destiny of the nation lies.

Sun Yatsen’s pamphlet, unsurprisingly, is not mentioned here. This is certainly no criticism of Patricia Buckley-Ebrey’s splendid volume, but a reminder, perhaps, that all reviewers approach a history book - particularly one covering such a vast subject as this - with an eye towards what is omitted, particularly with an eye towards their own speciality.

With history, of course, we also look for parallels. We look at the consequences of China’s huge population increase from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century - Professor Buckley-Ebrey sees those consequences in an almost entirely negative sense, suggesting that such a huge surplus of labour spilled over into the many vicious revolts of that century - notably the Nian and Taiping episodes. “Those who did not join bandit gangs or emigrate tended to drift into cities. Now, as the Chinese population exceeds 1.2 billion, we see the spillovers - the “blind flow” from the starving countryside to the heaving cities. Recent crackdowns on crime show that the huge economic restructuring over the past two decades is not without its side-effects. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest an upsurge in mob activity.

All historical streams create many dissonant eddies. The triumph of Mao was a triumph for one of these eddies, an interpretation of history long suppressed. But Mao began to adopt the trappings of that traditional Chinese elitism. Mao was tapping an historical undercurrent, a force which could undercut traditional routes of power. But he was constantly struggling against the urge to adopt the traditional pattern - where rebellion, the breaking of the Heavenly Mandate, led to stasis. He did not want the Communist Revolution to turn into bureaucratism in the same way that the White Lotus rebellion turned into the Ming dynasty - he sought to perpetuate the revolution, to break the Mandate that he, himself, had inaugurated. The Cultural Revolution was, in some sense, Mao’s struggle against himself, against his Party, against the society he had not sufficiently controlled.

The brief account here of the Cultural Revolution is a fine summary. The years which led up to the events themselves are dealt with somewhat cursorily, and the pressures of space make the story sound more concise and clear than it actually was. It has been variously interpreted - chaos, of course, invariably produces conflicting messages.

It is tempting to begin with a theory and to cram everything one knows about Chinese history into a particular schemata. There are, perhaps, “recurrent rhythms” in the history of the Middle Kingdom, but one must avoid being overly reductive. Disquisitions on the “Chinese character”, flattering or otherwise, usually miss the point. Buckley-Ebrey summarizes the essayist Lu Xun's thought that it is 'folly to try to distinguish between what was Chinese or not - Did his moustache, which some thought looked Japanese, make him less Chinese? What if the Japanese style was itself copied from the Germans? Or if Chinese men in Tang and Song times had had moustaches that like his turned up at the tips?' It is a theme that Buckley-Ebrey returns to a few pages later, writing:

It was Chinese who were making Chinese history, but these Chinese were struggling to fashion meaningful lives in an environment where national boundaries had become increasingly porous, letting in goods, people, and ideas, all of which interacted in complex ways with what was already there. No region of China was so isolated that it totally escaped the impact of the political struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists or the war with Japan, all of which had roots in events that occurred outside China.. Paradoxically, the passion with which [some] cultural patriots erected barriers against foreign influence can be taken as further evidence of how overpowering the global context had become in shaping Chinese life.

When the New Youth magazine was founded in 1915, with the brief of rejuvenating the stale old feudal society, it discussed - among others - Adam Smith, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Tolstoy, TH Huxley, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Kropotkin. It barely touched upon Marx until the Bolshevik revolution. It reflected a sort of national hankering for salvation, preferably for the sort that came from outside. But it wasn’t until Lenin’s men stormed the Winter Palace that Marx came to mean something to the likes of Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, the founders of the Communist Party.

Throughout the nineteenth century, China increasingly found its fate determined, to some extent, beyond its borders. But we should not be mistaken into believing that, heretofore, the Chinese had been entirely hermetic, despite their efforts to seal their borders with walls.

We come, now, to another theme of Chinese history, a theme which Buckley-Ebrey just seems to hint at in the last sentence of that passage. Can the 'Chinese character' be described as one which has always been particularly keen to preserve what it thinks to be the 'Chinese character'? And is this one of the reasons for those long centuries of stagnation? An ingrained identity crisis which has led to prolonged bouts of xenophobia or conservatism? There has never been a “pure” China, as Lu Xun appreciated. Among the invasions and tribal absorptions, the Great Wall was still trying to demarcate the borders, still trying to turn the notion of Chineseness into a sort of fetish.

The cultural historian, Sun Longji, described the Great Wall as a cultural symbol, as a device designed to exclude, to define both geographically and symbolically what it really meant to be Chinese (similar themes were discussed in the documentary shown on Chinese television, River Elegy, which Buckley-Ebrey discusses). He drew attention to the role played by the “sodality” in Chinese culture, by which he referred to the Chinese tendency to seek solace in smaller units - the family, the village, the Confucian or Communist hierarchy. It explains why, when faced with global crises, the average Chinese seeks solace in the sect, and why the ravages of European imperialism led to the proliferation of gangs and movements - the Taipings, the Boxers and the Communists being the most successful.

Professor Buckley-Ebrey's book is factual and precise - in a history of this nature, there is little room or remit for such speculations. But from reading her cool, composed descriptions covering three millenia, one is given the space to reach one's own conclusions. And I suspect that China's problems - for its historians and its citizens alike - arise from the fact that it is, and - since the First Emperor unified the warring states - always has been, just too big.

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