The Creation of Modern China, 1894-2008: The Rise of a World Power

The Creation of Modern China, 1894-2008: The Rise of a World Power

by Iain Robertson Scott


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The Creation of Modern China, 1894-2008: The Rise of a World Power by Iain Robertson Scott

China preoccupies us; yet its recent past is still relatively unfamiliar. No country has undergone a greater period of sustained and turbulent change than China in the twentieth century, but it has emerged again as a leading global power. It is, therefore, more important than ever to understand the society it has become and its rise to such influence. This timely study uses recent research to explore how China has been transformed from an economic and political backwater at the start of the twentieth century to its current pre-eminent position one hundred years later.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783084975
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 06/30/2016
Series: Anthem Perspectives in History , #1
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 16.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Iain Robertson Scott is Director of Sixth Form at Stewart’s Melville College and The Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh.

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The Creation of Modern China, 1894â"2008

The Rise of a World Power

By Iain Robertson Scott

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2016 Iain Robertson Scott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-498-2



1.1 The Crisis of China in the Late Qing Era

Revolutions rarely occur at the moment of greatest hardship or at the point of severest oppression, but rather when conditions are beginning to improve, when hope is kindled and the prospect of a better world can be glimpsed – when change seems possible but is neither adequate nor sufficiently fast. So it was in France in 1789; so it was in China in 1911. During the last years of the Dowager Empress Cixi there had been numerous attempts to reform backward, corrupt, semi-feudal conditions; in education, industry, taxation, government and the military there had been reforms and modernization – small sometimes grudging improvements, but progress nonetheless. These reforms, however, merely whetted the appetite for more extensive changes and, instead of being regarded as the first steps along a path of reconstruction, merely led to cries for far greater and more immediate changes – changes that first engulfed the Qing dynasty, which had initiated the reforms, and then swept away the imperial system altogether.

The historical interpretation of these last decades of the Qing dynasty has undergone substantial revision in recent years. Traditionally, the Chinese themselves have always had a great respect for the study of history and tend to regard the past as a source of object lessons for the present and the future. However, in the twentieth century, Chinese historical scholarship became heavily influenced by the views of the Communists, after they won the civil war in 1949 and formed the People's Republic of China; thereafter all past events were viewed through the prism of Communist belief, particularly as articulated by Mao Zedong. Grounded in Marxist thinking, Chinese writers rejected the feudal repression of the imperial period with its reliance on Confucian scholarship and the court's focus on high culture and elitism. However, they were to be equally damning of the period that followed the downfall of the empire in 1911, that of the newly formed Republic of China; truly admirable history only began with Mao's assumption of power in 1949. The only early history worth studying and emulating was that of the growth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the actions of the peasant rebels against the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists, and the transformation of China into a Communist state. The study of high culture was replaced by the study of folk culture and the only inspiring figures from the past were Mao and a few of his comrades who led the early struggle. History had become an uplifting chronicle of the popular collective and its economic successes; it was to become a political propaganda tool.

After the demise of Mao in 1976, there has been a gradual revision of Chinese history; now Marxist history, and its succession of class struggles, has itself been rejected and, though Mao is still seen as a major figure, his flaws are increasingly acknowledged and he is no longer the object of cult status. This, in turn, has led to a reappraisal of the Maoist interpretation of the past. Although there will be no subsequent rehabilitation of the imperial era, contemporary Chinese are quite willing to encourage mass tourism based on their imperial past. The new generation, who have witnessed huge economic successes since the 1980s, are liable to look more favourably on the early years of the twentieth century, when fledgling capitalist business was being developed, a new middle class of entrepreneurs was beginning to form and there were experiments in a greater degree of democratic government.

In Europe and America, historians have also begun to reappraise the history of the late Qing era. In opposition to CCP historiographical interpretations, mainstream scholarship in the West (dependent on Western-friendly sources in Hong Kong and Taiwan) has always sympathized with the regimes that preceded the victory of Mao in 1949, while acknowledging that the Communists were instrumental in fighting and defeating the Japanese Empire. Although the late imperial period has had a certain exotic fascination for writers and the tale of the last emperor Puyi (who ended as a gardener in his former palace) has always been of interest, historians have tended to criticize the imperial court for being out of touch, bound by outmoded tradition and mired in corruption. The court's blind intransigence and their economic, military and political failings thus inevitably led to the revolution of 1911. However, in the wake of America's own 'imperialist' intervention and aggression in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Western liberal historians have begun to take a kinder view of the Qing emperors, who had to face a multitude of intrusive foreign powers, and tried to defend their traditional life and customs against rapacious, mercenary Europeans. There has also been increasing interest in the reforms which the emperors, and the Empress Dowager Cixi, began to introduce in the late nineteenth century. Although these reforms were largely ineffective, they still spoke of a system which was not inflexible or totally blinkered, but which was trying to understand and adapt. Thus the last years of empire have been reassessed in a more generous light: the fault was not so much the intransigence of the imperial rulers, but rather the lack of boldness and urgency in the reforms they did undertake. The Qing court had acknowledged that there were problems, but their limited measures in response to the situation merely drew attention to their own shortcomings and their inability to deliver a solution. Thus revolutionary animus tended to focus on the Manchu dynasty itself – a desire to lop off the corrupt head rather than construct a more democratic body.

It will be argued that the revolution of 1911 fundamentally disposed of a ruling dynasty. Despite the proclamations of contemporary liberal reformers, the revolution was more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic. The causes of the revolution lie deeply embedded in the nation's experience of the nineteenth century; as always, in China, the present is freighted by the burden of the past. Behind the revolution lay decades of dissatisfaction with a weak, corrupt imperial system – a government that was overwhelmed and humiliated by the external threats of foreign intervention, both military and commercial. China was also subject to the internal threat of social, religious and economic unrest and the uprisings of an increasingly divided, heterogeneous nation, cut off from the elite centres of power in the West. The imperial government's attempts at reform were far too limited in scope and were often made fearfully, under duress. When bolder schemes of reform were promulgated they were instantly curtailed or completely crushed by the forces of conservatism at court. Imperial reforms stirred, rather than quelled, rebellion. The revolution also grew from the work of individual thinkers, writers and groups of agitators who articulated an agenda for change which struck a chord with some of the more radicalized elements in the cities. These reformers helped to foster a growing sense of national distinctiveness which shunned foreign intrusion, but still hoped to use Western ideas and systems. This resulted in a search for more liberal forms of government, though it must be stressed that this political, ideological aspect of the revolution affected only a small, educated, liberal elite, which perhaps helps to explain why the final advent of a republic never met with more widespread support and enthusiasm. Finally there was the hardship of the immediate economic and social circumstances of 1910–11, which crystallized all these issues and finally impelled people to act. Not only did all of these factors serve to undermine the Qing rulers and result in the revolution of 1911, but their potency stretches far beyond the deposition of a boy emperor, for they represent broad, ever-present forces which were to shape the destiny of China for the next half-century and were only addressed effectively by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party in their bid for power in the 1940s.

* * *

The Qing dynasty had ruled China since 1644, when they invaded the country from the north and terminated the three-hundred-year rule of the Ming emperors. Initially they were a very successful imperial family, bringing stability to this vast, racially heterogeneous land and creating a period of economic prosperity when new agricultural crops were introduced and trade was expanded. However, they were never a popular dynasty as they were regarded as foreigners. The Qing were Manchus, who were originally hunting tribes from beyond the Great Wall, which divided the civilized Chinese from the 'barbarians' who lived in the north. The Manchus were not from native Han stock (though the Han themselves were merely the most numerous of the countless ethnic groups that constituted China). The Qing actually saw themselves as an elite, separate from the rest of the Chinese population, but though they forced people to accept some of their own customs, such as shaving the forehead and wearing a 'queue' of hair at the back, they also tried to rule in compliance with traditional Chinese practice. As a result, in government, they continued to use a traditional elite class of scholars who had passed civil service exams based on ancient Confucian texts, but who did not necessarily have much knowledge of everyday life in China; it was unfortunate that the customs which the Qing sought to honour were often those which should have been subject to more critical appraisal. This ill-fated attempt to ally the dynasty to ancient Chinese precepts never convinced the people that the Qing emperors were any more than foreign usurpers, and this attitude was to be a major factor in the eventual overthrow of the dynasty in 1911.

By the mid-nineteenth century, all the early great Qing emperors had passed away, leaving a succession of weak rulers who instead of determining events were swept along by them. Principally, the intervention of foreign powers limited their power over trade, the economy and territory. However, the rule of the emperors was also circumscribed by local lords who increasingly acted as they pleased – thus the geographical range of the emperors' power was also limited and they could not control events in the provinces. By that stage the Qing attempts to uphold traditional Chinese values, protocol and hierarchy had resulted in an ossified society, incapable of change. The government had become sclerotic, run by remote Confucian scholars in Beijing who knew little of the modern technological world and continued to see China as the 'Middle Kingdom' of the earth, whereas it had now become something of a peripheral backwater, untouched by the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the West. Its bureaucracy was infamous the world over for its byzantine complexity, corruption and complacency; the rules of cultural formality, which the Qing had been so keen to embrace, were now strangling the country and preventing progress. The peace and productivity of the previous centuries had resulted in a fast-growing population and a competition for land, crops and resources, without the benefits of the new agrarian practices which had enabled more food to be produced in Western countries to support their growing populations. The result was a people who lived at subsistence level and were at the mercy of the many natural disasters, such as droughts and floods, to which China was habitually subjected. These uneducated peasant farmers also had to pay taxes for local government and these were much resented as they often went to fill the pockets of corrupt officials. In this huge empire, so culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse, the ordinary Chinese people felt physically and metaphorically remote from central government in Beijing, presided over by a foreign Qing emperor. There was little to bind the peasant to the state except a deferential respect for traditional political, social and economic practices and an abiding regard for imperial rule, which was deeply ingrained despite their innate dislike of the Manchus. In the second half of the nineteenth century these ancient ties and assumed loyalties were to be subjected to enormous strain through a mixture of external and internal forces which were to erode traditional reverence for imperial rule. The weakness of the emperors in the face of foreign intervention inculcated a spirit of nationalism as well as anti-imperialism.

1.2 External Threats: Foreign Intervention, 1840s–90s

By the end of the 1830s the British were intimately involved in the affairs of China through the opium trade, which they sought to dominate. The British increasingly came into conflict with the Qing rulers, who had yet to decide whether they should legalize or proscribe opium, but who were certainly against the encroaching British presence in Chinese ports. This resulted in the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and victory for the modern military and naval might of Britain. The subsequent Treaty of Nanjing effectively ended the tight, exclusive control the Chinese had always maintained over their commercial and diplomatic relations and over any foreign activity on Chinese soil. The Opium Wars witnessed the most complete defeat the Qing emperors had ever experienced and its profound psychological effect, as well as its dire military and commercial implications, cannot be exaggerated. China was exposed as an outmoded industrial and military power. The British treaty, followed by even more extensive ones with the Americans and French, could hardly have been more humiliating. The Qing lost control of some of their most vital economic interests, opening five ports to the British, including Shanghai and Canton. Indeed in a 'most favoured nation' clause to a subsequent 1843 treaty the emperor agreed that if he granted any additional privileges or immunities to the citizens of foreign powers these would also be extended to the British. This meant that in future Chinese emperors could not effectively play off one foreign power against another or show favouritism in its dealings, thus drastically reducing its potential to make treaties or conduct diplomacy. This severely limited any room for manoeuvre in the remaining decades of the century and this period can be characterized as a time of increasing foreign interference and domination in Chinese affairs. From then on not only the British but other European powers, Japan and America were emboldened to take an interest in China and cut a slice of Chinese territory and trade for themselves.

There were sporadic attempts to reach an accommodation with the Westerners and to learn from their new technologies. In 1861, senior members of the emperor's staff set up the Office for the Management of the Business of All Foreign Countries (usually known as the Zongli Yamen), which attempted to aid the conduct of business with foreigners and try to understand them. At first some headway was made and there were productive discussions with the British concerning changes in administration. Government language schools were set up which taught a more modern vocational and scientific curriculum and used Western teachers. Even the small but culturally significant act of 'kowtowing' to the emperor was dropped in diplomatic circles. However, these efforts and the actions of the Zongli Yamen never really escaped from the commonly held view that the Chinese were inherently superior to other nations and there could be no possibility of dealing with foreigners, in any area, on an equal footing. This predisposition was to roundly affect Chinese politics, when its actual power, wealth and prestige could no longer support such notions. This belief greatly limited the Chinese capacity for useful diplomatic action and made the incursions of other nations easier and more destructive. The Chinese fear of a possible 'loss of face' in front of foreigners also meant that business and diplomacy could rarely be conducted transparently and, as a result, the attitude and the intentions of the Chinese government were often misinterpreted. Similarly, there was little attempt by any of the foreign powers to understand the social and business etiquette or the traditions of the Chinese.


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Last of the Emperors, 1894—1912; Chapter 2: Division, Deceit and New Directions, 1912—1937; Chapter 3: War and Civil War, 1937—1949; Chapter 4: Communism in Action, 1949—1957; Chapter 5: The Great Leap Forward, 1957-65; Chapter 6: The Cultural Revolution, 1966—1976; Chapter 7: Deng Xiaoping and the Boom Years, 1976—2008

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