Thursday, August 26, 2010

What Everyone Needs to Know about China

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Oxford University Press, USA, $16.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Xujun Eberlein

Being surprised is something I expect from a good work of fiction, but not necessarily from nonfiction, especially when I am familiar with the subject – or so I thought.

Thus it was a treat when I found plenty of surprises in Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s new book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, such as the following passage from the section titled “What is the alternative to viewing Mao as a monster?”:

There are many alternatives to thinking of Mao as a fiend who was China’s Hitler. One useful one is to see Mao’s place in China today as comparable to that of Andrew Jackson’s in the United States. Though admittedly far from perfect, the comparison is based on the fact that Jackson is remembered both as someone who played a significant role in the development of a political organization (the Democratic Party) that still has many partisans, and as someone responsible for brutal policies toward Native Americans that are now often referred to as genocidal.

Both men are thought of as having done terrible things, yet this does not necessarily prevent them from being used as positive symbols. And Jackson still appears on $20 bills, even though Americans tend now to view as heinous the institution of slavery (of which he was a passionate defender) and the early 19th-century military campaigns against Native Americans (in which he took part).

This comparison is refreshing, and it could only come from someone who knows both American and Chinese history intimately. Admittedly, I have limited knowledge about President Andrew Jackson. Growing up in China before “reform and opening,” the most familiar images of US presidents to my generation then were Johnson and Nixon – the former a caricatured warmonger and the latter a chameleon suddenly changing from China’s number one enemy to the hero who normalized Sino-America relations to the world’s biggest scandal maker. (If you find those one-sided images laughable, perhaps it sheds some light on why many images of China commonplace in the West make no sense to Chinese.) 

On the Chinese internet today, however, when searching for “President Jackson,” glorious descriptions fill my eyes: “people’s friend,”  “the bank killer,” a war hero who defeated the British army, a wise politician who prevented the US from splitting apart. No mention of his not-so-glorious role in killing Native Americans.  You wonder how an average internet surfer in mainland China can get a complete picture of this controversial American president.

But, before you feel fortunate to have the benefit of a free press and internet, hold on a second. Can the average American reader get the whole picture of Mao? This really depends on what you happen to read or hear. If you have only read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005, and see my review here), for example, then Mao was born a monster. If you have only read Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China (1937), on the other hand, then Mao was a legendary hero of the Chinese peasants. The actual Mao, of course, was a more complex historical figure than either of those works portray.  

Chinese in the Tang Dynasty already understood “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened; heed only one side and you will be benighted” (兼听则明,偏听则暗), but it is never easy to consistently follow this practice. The few American writers I know of who write about China with this maxim in mind include James Fallows, Peter Hessler, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. If you are interested in China and don’t want to be benighted or brainwashed, read books with different views before forming your opinion. Or, as a short cut, start with a book like China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. The parallel between Mao and Andrew Jackson might be imperfect, as Wasserstrom has noted, but it is a big step up from good-evil dichotomy that seems so pervasive.

In fact, one of the most appealing characteristics of Wasserstrom’s new book is that it does not sidestep controversial issues and opinions.  On the contrary, it deliberately provides the reader with views from opposite sides, in a rather straightforward and balanced manner.  Here’s another example. In addressing the question “How does the reputation of the [Boxer] crisis differ in China?” Wasserstrom writes:

In the West and in Japan, the Boxer Rebellion is presented as a tale of the rise and fall of a violent Chinese group. Emphasis is placed on the Boxers’ superstitious beliefs, including their notion that they could make themselves impervious to bullets and that railway tracks should be torn up to appease local gods. In China, by contrast, while the violence and superstitions of the Boxers are sometimes criticized, there is more emphasis on other aspects of the crisis, such as the grievances that led to the insurrection. These injustices included decades of foreign powers’ extending their reach into Chinese territory, and the atrocities committed during the “Invasion of the Eight Allied Armies,” including the looting of Chinese national treasures and the revenge killing of thousands of northern Chinese. In Chinese accounts now, the Boxer Protocol is described as one of many humiliating and unjustly one-sided treaties.

Perhaps no viewpoints are as starkly in contrast as those on the so-called “Boxer Rebellion” crisis. I still remember the shock, just after moving to the US, of hearing how Westerners view the Boxers as nothing more than a frenzied mob engaged in slaughtering and burning. In China, now as then, a common view is that the Boxers were patriots, though perhaps too superstitious and prone to violence.  In other words, they were regarded as flawed and tragic heroes. Tales of a bare-handed Boxer, with his outstanding kungfu, beating an armed foreign bully are still greatly entertaining among common Chinese.  There has been a change over the past three decades though: today when people talk about the historical event itself, more emphasis seems to be placed on how stupid the Boxers were to use bare-hands to fight firearms, and how backward China was then in terms of national defense.

The official view has changed more dramatically. As a deeply cultured Chinese writer, Feng Jicai, whose novel about the Boxers was very popular in the 1970s and who is now unhappy with the portrayal in that book, says in an interview earlier this year, Chinese understanding of the Boxer movement has never been free of political utilitarianism. During the Cultural Revolution, to meet the political needs of the time, the Boxers were portrayed as revolutionaries consciously anti-imperialistic. Today, on the other hand, to comply with the reform and opening policy “we treat the Boxer movement as a typical case of blind xenophobia.” As such, Feng believes no historian has really touched the truth of that history, which he is trying to find. A native of Tianjin, a city with rich stories of the Boxers, Feng says the subject is always a knot in his heart. He has been writing new stories about it.

I like what Feng said, that the truth has yet to be found, because it whets my appetite to learn something new about an old topic. In a sense, Wasserstrom’s book has a similar effect on me. In recognizing differences between Western and Chinese views, Wasserstrom helps break stereotypical perceptions and opens the reader’s inquiring minds. He does so throughout the book.

The breadth of this relatively short, 150-page book is amazing. Starting with “Who was Confucius,” it continues without pause to  “What was the Dynastic Cycle,” “What was the Opium War,” “Why did the Qing Dynasty Fail,” and much more. Given the brevity and the format, there is a necessary lack of nuance, but there is a great overview of the backbone of Chinese history presented in the blink of an eye.

Building off of the past, the book devotes a chapter to the post-Mao development of China into the modern state it now is. Then it outlines “U.S. –China Misunderstandings,” and finally presents a chapter on what the future holds, providing useful insights into the different ways that Americans and Chinese view one another and how differently they interpret the same events.

Understanding what is happening in China, or America, is difficult for even the best informed people on both sides of the globe. If you are trying to get real insight into the Boxer Rebellion, Mao Zedong, Tibet or a host of other issues relating to China, one short book is surely not enough. But whether you are new to things Chinese or are an old China-hand, something said in China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know will make you think twice, and the references included should carry you quite a way. If you feel a bit lost for not getting a definitive answer to some questions, then you might be one step closer to learning the truth.


vernezze said...

Thanks for posting this. I hadn't heard about the book and now I am definitely going to pick it up. Hope it's avaiable on Kindle.

Sino-Gist said...

I definitely agree with your comment about the book being appealing in not side-stepping the big issues. Well perhaps not a book for the reader who has already read a variety of western books on the subject, it serves as a useful introduction to a very complex topic. His observation about the western media's tendency to report bad news driving perceptions of an anti-China bias was particularly interesting.

Xujun said...

"His observation about the western media's tendency to report bad news driving perceptions of an anti-China bias was particularly interesting."- agreed.

Anonymous said...

dear xujun and others, there is an interesting audio lecture by wasserstrom available online here,, regards, faiz

Xujun said...

Thanks for the link, Faiz.