Review: The Cambridge History of China; & The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985

A review from History Today in 1988.

Chinese history from BC to the present.

The Cambridge History of China. Volume I: The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC – AD 220
Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe
Cambridge University Press, 1986 – xli + 981pp – £60

The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800- 1985
John King Fairbank
Chatto & Windus, 1986 – xv + 396pp – £25

cambridgehistoryChina is the oldest surviving universal empire with several millennia of an extraordinarily rich and complex history, and the decision in 1966 to produce a Cambridge History of China in six volumes soon proved hopelessly inadequate. As it stands now, the set will consist of a total of fifteen volumes. What is more, this multi-volume coverage does not include the pre-empire millennium of Chinese history. As Denis Twitchett and John Fairbank, the general editors point out in their preface, the wealth of new information coming to light with the continuing flood of archaeological discoveries makes the production of a definitive history of the earliest and crucially formative period of the distinct Chinese civilisation rather premature.

Volume I is, therefore, devoted to the first unified empire in Chinese history, comprising the short-lived Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (221BC-207BC) and the four centuries of Han rule (206 BC-AD 220), with the brief interlude of Wang Mang’s Xin dynasty (AD 9-23) separating the Former (Western) and the Later (Eastern) Han. Eleven internationally renowned scholars have produced sixteen chapters on the political, economic, institutional and intellectual history of this period. In the first of three illuminating introductory chapters, Derk Bodde traces the phenomenal rise of the minor feudal principality of Qin to bring about the unprecedented unification of China in 221 BC, ‘by far the most important single date in Chinese history before the revolutionary changes of the present century’.

Qin power and control rested on the establishment of a centralised administration, staffed by centrally appointed non-hereditary officials, the thorough militarisation of society, the operation of mutual surveillance systems, the rigorous application of codified law as developed by a school of political theorists known as the Legalists, the mass mobilisation of forced labour to carry out large-scale public works, and a number of empire-wide standardisations, including an attempt to standardise thought. This ‘true revolution of ancient China’ contributed significantly to the remarkable integration of state, society and culture, an enduring characteristic of the Chinese polity.

Yet it has often been asserted that it was the ruthlessness of ‘legalist totalitarianism’ which led to the overthrow of Qin within a few years of the First Emperor’s death. But as several volume contributors note, it is now clear that the harshness of Qin rule has been exaggerated by biased ancient Chinese historians. Han did, in fact, retain much of what had been developed by the preceding dynasty, but added a number of innovations which further consolidated the imperial system and ‘bequeathed to China an ideal and a concept of empire that survived basically intact for two thousand years’. Han rulership rested on the assumption that dynastic power was ordained by Heaven. The imperial government operated under a dual system of ‘law’ and ‘Confucian virtue’, administered by a bureaucracy selected on the basis of the meritorious civil service examinations which required arduous study of the ‘Confucian classics’ and thus achieved a high degree of elite indoctrination.

Because of their lasting importance, the contributors have concentrated on the institutional, bureaucratic and ideological-religious foundations of empire. But a number of other aspects have been sadly neglected, such as the early flowering of the arts and technology, or the sheer grandeur of the vast capital cities of Han. Whereas the introductory chapters afford us glimpses of the hazards of elite life at court (endemic political intrigues, succession crises, boy emperors being dominated by ambitious empresses – dowager and powerful court eunuchs, frequent executions and decreed suicides), we are told very little about the apparently calmer environment of the provinces and the social condition of the common people.

Nevertheless, the rigorous analysis and meticulous assemblage of information extracted primarily from the three major ancient standard histories provides us with an outstanding account of a glorious period in Chinese history that will serve us well for the foreseeable future.

great-chinese-revolution-1800-1985-john-king-fairbank-paperback-cover-artBy the nineteenth century, the established imperial institutions were no longer adequate to cope with the growing problems that beset the long-lived empire. Now social and economic forces were at work that would set in motion the painful processes of slow but ultimately revolutionary change. John Fairbank’s ‘personal account of China’s long disaster, struggle, and rebirth’ takes us from before the Taiping Revolution – by far the greatest uprising in the history of mankind – via the republican revolution that swept away the last imperial dynasty in 1911, to the Communist Revolution of the 1940s and beyond the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, ‘one of the most bizarre events in history’.

This narrative history of modern China was primarily written with the non-Sinological reader in mind. At the same time, the author’s often speculative and thought-provoking interpretations are bound to elicit responses from the academic community as well. After an illustrious career at Harvard University, octogenarian Fairbank is, of course, no longer ‘up for tenure’ and thus has the freedom to engage in what he calls ‘a bit of irresponsibility’. Note, for instance, his assertion that indigenous factors (such as the rapid growth of the population, massive peasant migrations, rising unemployment amongst the scholarly elite and the significant expansion of the traditional economy) contributed more to China’s turbulent transformation than did foreign encroachment. (‘The real bite of imperialism was psychological.’) Throughout the narrative, the author returns constantly to his main theme: the ways in which China’s awesome past remained powerfully at work in her present, ‘as an architectonic framework for China’s revolution’. He even notes many residual features of Confucianism embedded in a sinified Marxism. We are told, for example, that the cult of Mao Zedong served to meet the Chinese need for a single authority figure. Mao thus had two careers ‘one as a rebel leader, the other as an updated emperor’.

The reluctance to abandon the peculiarly Chinese custom of female footbinding is yet another example of the tenacity of tradition. Fairbank describes in titillating detail the painful preparation, attractions and functions of the small ‘lily foot’, calling this ‘symbol of feminine frailty’ and oppression ‘a major erotic invention’ and a ‘feat of physio-psycho-sociological engineering’.

This entertaining book, expertly written and inspired by much recent scholarship (most notably volumes 10-15 of the Cambridge History of China), is an excellent introduction of modern China not only for the sophisticated general reader but also for the advanced student of Chinese history.

R.G. Tiedemann is lecturer in the history of the Far East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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