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Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present

Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present

4.5 2
by Jonathan Fenby

No country on earth has suffered a more bitter history in modern times than China. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was viewed as doomed to extinction. Its imperial rulers, heading an anachronistic regime, were brought low by enormous revolts, shifting social power patterns, republican revolutionaries, Western incursions to "split the Chinese melon"


No country on earth has suffered a more bitter history in modern times than China. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was viewed as doomed to extinction. Its imperial rulers, heading an anachronistic regime, were brought low by enormous revolts, shifting social power patterns, republican revolutionaries, Western incursions to "split the Chinese melon" and a disastrous defeat by Japan.

The presence of predatory foreigners has often been blamed for China's troubles, but the much greater cause came from within China itself. In the early twentieth century, the empire was succeeded by warlordism on a massive scale, internal divisions, incompetent rule, savage fighting between the government and the Communists, and a fourteen-year invasion from Japan. Four years of civil war after 1945 led to the Maoist era, with its purges and repression; the disastrous Great Leap Forward; a famine that killed tens of millions; and the Cultural Revolution.

Yet from this long trauma, China has emerged amazingly in the last three decades as an economic powerhouse set to play a major global political role, its future posing one of the great questions for the twenty-first century as it grapples with enormous internal challenges. Understanding how that transformation came about and what China constitutes today means understanding its epic journey since 1850 and recognizing how the past influences the present.

Jonathan Fenby tells this turbulent story with brilliance and insight, spanning a unique historical panorama, with an extraordinary cast of characters and a succession of huge events. As Confucius said, To see the future, one must grasp the past.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping, reasoned history portrays China as still caught in its age-old bind between authoritarianism and the need to join the world. The nation's economic transformation since the end of the 1970s under Deng Xiaoping has been "blinding and unprecedented," notes journalist and China historian Fenby (Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin & Churchill Won One War and Began Another, 2007, etc.). Moreover, it was achieved on the heels of a deeply flawed past not yet fully assessed and comprehended. The theory of the Mandate of Heaven-which gained its apotheosis during the Middle Kingdom and established a stratified master-servant relationship that ran from the court down to rural villages-is still reflected in the huge disparity of wealth between the top and bottom, the author avers. The arrival of Westerners eager for economic exploitation in the mid-19th century added to China's instability. Fenby considers China's booming present in terms of its convulsive recent history: the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the establishment of a republic; the election of revolutionary theorist Sun Yat-sen; anarchy of the warlords and aggression by the Japanese; debilitating civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists followed by the latter's victory in 1949. The magisterial sections covering the "Rule of Mao" incorporate strands from China's past to highlight the Great Helmsmen's monstrously despotic policies, which used millions of lives as fodder for his increasingly irrational dreams. The author completes his thorough survey with an evaluation of the Deng era and the disastrous Beijing Spring of 1989, closing with a look at the recent regime's efforts to maintain stabilitythrough a combination of ideology, reform and party loyalty. Essential desk-side reference to help with the sifting and understanding of the enormous changes taking place in a China poised between the old and the new.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Modern China
The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present

Chapter One

Sons of Heaven

Sitting on the Dragon Throne in the Forbidden City in Beijing,* China's emperors personified a system based on Confucian teachings which exalted the harmony of society and the planet, and demanded awe from all. Expressing their majesty and power through elaborate ceremonials and art, the dynasties which ruled China claimed semi-divine status. The ruler was set apart, rarely appearing in public apart from such symbolic occasions as his procession to the great circular Temple of Heaven in the south of the capital to offer prayers to the gods. He usually ate alone, choosing from a lavish array of dishes brought by eunuchs. At night, his chosen concubine was brought into his chamber wrapped in a red silk gown and laid naked at the foot of his bed.

Imperial mythology and Confucian tradition gave social and administrative glue to a country which covered only 7 per cent of the surface of the globe but contained around a fifth of its population. Dynasties operated on the basis of filial piety, the cornerstone of old values. In return for unquestioning allegiance, the sovereigns promised to be benevolent, caring for the welfare of their people and invoking divine protection on their behalf. A master-servant relationship ran from the court down to rural villages. Every man, it was said, regarded those above him as tigers to be feared, and those below him as dogs to be kicked. The empire reached back to 221 BC, when the First Emperor established himself in Xi'an after his kingdom of Qin had won out over warring states. His dynasty was one of theshortest-lived, enduring only until its fall under his son in 207 BC. Ruling houses came and went in cycle of rise and fall that would become engraved on the national psyche as they won and lost the Mandate of Heaven granted by the gods. Chinese civilization reached apogees under the Tang and Ming dynasties and prospered under less-remembered sovereigns. But there were constant threats from the nomads of the steppes, and two major invasions from the north by the Mongols in the late thirteenth century, and the Manchus, in the mid sixteenth century. Yet the idea of unifying rule from the centre had been implanted by the First Emperor and remained the foundation for the country, while the Mandate of Heaven contained the idea—however imperfectly implemented—that the rulers had a duty to care for the people.

China was rarely as cut off from the world as subsequent history pretended. The Silk Road linked it with Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Sailors and traders went to south-east Asia, India and Africa. But China believed it was special, and the Qing expansion of the empire under the Three Great Emperors from 1166 11 to 1795 marked a high point. The realm reached westwards into Central Asia, and other neighbours were brought under control. This was a Manchu construction, in which the Middle Kingdom, for all its importance, stood alongside the other domains to the north, where the ruling house was most at home. Still, China was bound to predominate, so its customs became the public face of the Sons of Heaven from distant lands.

In a society arranged by strict and elaborate stratification, princes, mandarins and gentry figures of the Manchu Qing dynasty, which had seized the throne in 1644 to rule over the far more numerous Han Chinese, had specific ranks, denoted by robes and badges. Proper behaviour and sincerity were held to be all. As the classic text the Daxue ('Great Learning') put it: 'Thoughts being sincere, hearts are rectified. Hearts being rectified, persons are cultivated. Persons being cultivated, families are regulated. Families being regulated, states are rightly governed. States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom is made tranquil and happy. '1

In such a culture, it was only natural that the capital was laid out to exalt the regime and its ruler. The Forbidden City sat at the heart of the metropolis, which, after some false starts, became the centre of the empire. The Sons of Heaven resided behind a 5z-metre-wide moat and 52-metre-high walls that ran for two and a quarter miles round what was known as 'the Great Within'. Halls and gates were set on marble platforms amid huge courtyards. Symbolism was everywhere - power expressed through carved dragons, longevity by phoenixes in the inner palace. Imperial edicts were carried on ornate trays under umbrellas of imperial yellow to the balcony over the Tiananmen Gate to be read out before being lowered and distributed round the country.

Emperors might be quasi-divine, but it was not assumed that dynasties were for ever. The cycle of rise and fall had run through China's history. The Mandate of Heaven was, itself, eternal; but who held it was a very different matter. When the gods showed their displeasure, for instance by permitting major revolts or visiting particularly severe natural disasters on the country, it was time for change. Ambitious military commanders or rebel leaders could claim that they were the ones now qualified to mount the throne. Thus, the eternal melded with the temporal in a system which preserved itself by being able to accommodate fresh blood at the top without bringing fundamental verities into question.

A backward-looking concept of existence predominated, along with the proclamation of imperial authority over the whole realm which did not always accord with reality; the early decades of Qing rule had seen recurrent revolts, including one that stretched over ten provinces. Preserving stability rather than considering change was the watchword. The regime's view of its mission 'seems to be to keep records of past occurrences, legalise faits accomplis, and strangle whatever comes before it in embryo,' wrote the acute Western observer of the later nineteenth century, the British Customs chief, Robert Hart. The Confucian Great Learning enjoined 'keeping the state in order' as the path to universal peace. 'Generation after generation has upheld Confucian teachings, stressing proper human relationships, between ruler and minister, father and son, superiors and subordinates, the high and the low,' wrote a leading scholar-general of the mid nineteenth century. 'All in the proper place, just as hats and shoes are not interchangeable.'

Modern China
The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present
. Copyright � by Jonathan Fenby. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Fenby has edited the Observer, the South China Morning Post and Reuters World Service as well as held senior positions at the Economist, the Independent and the Guardian. His books include Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost; Dealing with the Dragon: A Year in the New Hong Kong; Seventy Wonders of China; Dragon Throne; and Alliance: How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another. He is the China Director of Trusted Sources. He has been made a Commander of the British Empire and a Knight of the French Order of Merit for services to journalism.

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Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
BrianGriffith More than 1 year ago
This is a huge book, describing almost every major twist and turn in Chinese politics for the past 150 years. The focus is mostly on the top leaders, and their generally murderous tactics for getting or staying on top. Many of the details Fenby documents are not things that the leaders concerned ever wanted you to know. Overall, the story is ugly and cruel. We don't hear too much about ordinary people, their struggles, their ideals, or their heroism. Mostly it's politics so calculatingly brutal, that it seems surprising that 100 years of war finally gave way to a general peace, with somewhat rising prosperity. --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
Anonymous More than 1 year ago