Modern China, An Introduction


1. Definition:

Unlike the Western world where the modern era is usually defined as starting from the Renaissance, a movement that was started within Europe, modern China is usually defined as starting from the mid-19th century, when it was forced to open its doors to trade from Europe.  Indeed, Westernization was a central characteristic of China in the past 150 years and the modern history of China has been one of how to navigate between traditional values and practices and Western ones.

2. China before 1840:

China, being a continental country, is one of the four most ancient civilizations in the world (the other three are: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indian), with a history of written records dating back to 4,000 years ago (the Chinese talk about a civilization of five thousand years). 

3. Qing China:

Historically, imperial dynasties ruled over a unified China from around 220 B.C. up to 1911.  Periodically, the unification would disintegrate for various reasons, but it would invariably be restored.  The last dynasty to rule over a unified China was called the Qing (pure) Dynasty (1644-1911), established by the Manchus, an ethnic group.  Like most previous foreign rulers in China, the Manchus were much assimilated into the Chinese culture.  The Manchus consisted of various tribes that originated from what later became northeastern China (called Manchuria).  

In the 18th century, Manchu emperors encountered what later would turn out to be a more formidable foe than rebels or the Han (the majority of ) Chinese whom they ruled over, the Europeans who were beginning to undergo the Industrial Revolution and were looking for overseas markets for their machine manufactured goods.  Initially, Manchu emperors tried to ignore these European envoys for trade.  But in 1839, China and Europe clashed in a war over opium.  The Chinese destruction of British opium, grown in India, (c.f. our drug war today) led to British government retaliation and declaration of war on China.  The Chinese defeat by the British led to China's concession of five ports for trade with Britain and indemnities of millions of ounces of silver, as well as many privileges to Britons in China, such as one sided most favored nations status, and extraterritoriality.

The First Opium War(1839-42) was followed by a series of humiliating defeats of China by foreigners in the second half of the 19th century, which finally propelled the Chinese to decide on "self-strengthening."  The decision to reform ultimately led many Chinese to identify the Manchu rulers as what obstructed their demand for change.  This led to the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 and the ushering in of a Chinese republic.

4. Trajectories of modern development:

Wars with foreign countries in the second half of the 19th century

  • The Opium War (1939-42)
  • The Second Opium War (1858-60)
  • The Sino-French War (1884-85)
  • The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95)
  • The Boxer Rebellion (1900-01)

The republican era (1911-49)

  • Establishment of the republic (1911)
  • National disintegration and warlord rule (1916-27)
  • National reunification by the government led by the Nationalist Party. (1928)
  • War with Japan (1937-1945)
  • Civil War between the Nationalist Party and Communist Party (1945-49)
  • Nationalists' fleeing to Taiwan (1948-49)

The Communist era (1949-present)

  • Various political movements (e.g. anti-Rightist movement, and the Cultural Revolution, as mentioned in Jung Chang, Wild Swans) with an emphasis on Marxist class struggle against the "enemies" of the Communists.

Communist reform (1978 to the present)

  • Export oriented economy;
  • Gradual expansion of market control;
  • Rapid urbanization of large coastal rural areas.
  • Government cooptation of non-Communist elements such as intellectuals and capitalist entrepreneurs.

5. The issue of historical memory.

 Memory has always been an inseparable part of history. For some people, writing history is to draw a closure to certain memory. On the other hand, memory of the past is the most important source of a written history. Memory as a particular topic of historical study has drawn new interest after Sept.11, 2001, when many Americans, in the wake of the shock, started to dig into a collective memory for renewal, strength, and inspiration. To the amazement of some of them, they realized that so little has been studied of the collective memory of the Americans. Since then, historical studies of memory have proliferated.

The study of memory as a historical subject is equally important in a better understanding of modern China because of the tremendous changes China underwent in the 20th century. The Chinese constantly rewrote their history to revise their memory of the recent past in order to have the past agree with the vision of a new future that they tried to usher in. This revision of history not only applied to the Chinese, but to many peoples in the world. In this course, we discuss the revision of historical memory especially by the Japanese in addition to the case in China, in relation to the war between China and Japan that lasted from 1937 to 1945. We pick one of the most traumatic episodes of the war called the Nanking Massacre (or the Rape of Nanking) to examine how the Chinese and Japanese remembered the event differently, for different purposes. We then proceed to three other themes to examine the role of collective memory in shaping modern Chinese history: political campaigns in Communist China in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese economic reforms.

This course proceeds in chronological order despite its thematic arrangement. Understanding that most who take this course are studying modern China for the first time, I try to fill in the gaps of history between themes. Therefore we have sessions dealing with the rise of modern Chinese political parties including the Communist Party, and the Sino-Japanese War, before we proceed to Communist China, so that a historical background is in place. Chronological history is also offered in the online readings for Communist China. To a great extent, this is a conventional modern Chinese history course, but I have tried to also go beyond that, to make this a more methodology-conscious course--aiming at an understanding of how we remember, and try to revise our own collective memories in order to accommodate the future through a study of how the Chinese did it in a tumultuous century.