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The Fall of the Ming
In the late sixteenth century, after two hundred years of rule, the Ming Dynasty seemed at the height of its achievement. From science and the arts, to governance and technology, China at this time was as advanced, if not superior to any of its counterparts in Europe. It represented a pinnacle of high culture and social stability unprecedented in the history of human civilisation before and maybe since. All the more startling then, that in a little over forty years, the whole dynasty had crumbled and the last Ming Emperor, having received the news of his capital’s fall, walked from the Forbidden City to Jingshan Park and hung himself from a tree.
It is with the various failings that led to this collapse that Jonathan Spence’s account of the last four hundred years of Chinese history begins. But though The Search for Modern China certainly is an account – of people and places, their glories and struggles – it is by no means a simple chronicle of events. Indeed, as Spence himself states in the very first paragraphs of this epic book, it is in order to understand China as it is today that an understanding of its past is necessary. The past is not simply the stuff of dead emperors and fallen dynasties, it is the key to our present and the problems we face.
From the very first chapters we are presented with a nation almost tethered to a set of problems uniquely its own. For four hundred years, from the fall of the Ming to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, the cycles of “collapse and reconsolidation” that have characterised Chinese history are analysed to reveal the economic, political, technological and societal changes that contributed to one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of any nation to date.
The Cancer of Corruption
We read, for instance, how the sheer logistical headache of governing such a vast and diverse kingdom did for the Ming just as it did, almost three hundred years later, for the Qing Dynasty that followed; while the failings of the Republican period under Chiang Kai-shek, showed that the perennial problems of collecting taxes, managing the bureaucracy, governing the provinces and dealing with the outside world, could be just as much a stability wrecker in the 20th century as it had been in the years preceding it.
Back in the seventeenth century, peasants crippled by unfair taxes, an underpaid army and disaffected officials, all combined to foment the discontent that, once the seeds of the Ming downfall were sown, saw it come swiftly and with little resistance. Yet while the Qing administrators that replaced them were not unaware of the task ahead, for all their good intentions, the problems they faced proved just as entrenched as those that came before.
By the late eighteenth century, corruption was more or less endemic. Officials were regularly using government money “for their own private purposes,” while competing factions sought the consolidation of their own power through favours doled out and positions promised in return for support. There were rebellions by Muslim minorities in the far north west which challenged the very basis of Qing rule, as well as numerous other uprisings gathering support in response to the humiliations suffered by China at the hands of foreign powers in the so-called treaty ports.
If the search for modern China remained ongoing when the first edition of Spence’s book was completed in 1989, it would be interesting to know whether he believes the China he seeks is any closer to being realised in the early decades of this century. Certainly, if to be modern means to overcome the problems of the past and break free of the cycles of turbulence that have for so long held it back, the answer is maybe obvious.
We only have to look at the motivations behind the recent trial of Bo Xilai, the clashes in Xinjiang, and the constant stream of corrupt officials being ‘outed’ on Weibo to draw our own parallels with the past. With political in-fighting and competing ideologies having proved fatal for the Ming Dynasty, the same issues have been a feature of the Communist party since its inception. The apparent prosperity of the Ming elite, moreover, in masking the growing social problems of the era, is not too far removed from the widening gap between rich and poor that exists today.
Despite its size and scale, The Search for Modern China never feels as long as the 700 pages that comprise it. It is remarkably readable, with the narrative pulled along by the characters that populate its pages. Each period is brought to life by the men and women that defined it – how they rose to prominence and how eventually they were overtaken by the history they helped create.
From Cixi to Mao, from Sun Yat-sen to Deng Xiaoping, the search for modern China is one which has sought a nation at once loyal to its traditions, yet bold enough to forge its own way forward in a world of equals. That each attempt has brought untold suffering as well as progress, only demonstrates the difficulties with which any such search must necessarily contend.
China may have become preoccupied with the “challenges, rewards, and ambiguities” of its own economic growth in the last thirty years, but as Spence writes, “it is also a giant bureaucracy whose leaders insist on their right, in the name of a higher truth, to define people’s aspirations in virtually all spheres of life.” The latter part of this conception may have eased somewhat in the intervening years, yet the apparent impasse between individual freedom on the one hand, and one party rule on the other, is still the primary issue facing the Chinese leadership in the decades to come. For now the Mandate of Heaven appears strong. But if the history of China has taught us anything, it is that continuity is never a given.
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