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China’s Rise in Historical Perspective

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286 PAGES, 978-0-7425-6722-1, PAPERBACK

Although China’s Rise in Historical Perspective, edited by Brantley Womack, may be too advanced for secondary schools or lower-level undergraduate classes, it is an important book meriting serious attention from teachers at all levels for deepening their understanding of how China has come to challenge the economic primacy of the United States in such a short time. Discussion of China’s rise has been either nonhistorical or based on such a short historical timeframe that a serious examination of the historical roots of China’s recent rise is in order.

This book has a rare—one is tempted to say unique—origin and format. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs sponsored a set of five forums in the spring of 2009. The authors of the various chapters were invited to present papers that were discussed at each conference. Based on comments at the forums, the final chapters were prepared for publication. The success of this technique is evident in the quality of the chapters in the book.

Each forum paired a historian with a contemporary China ex- pert discussing an important topic. The synergy created by the use of the historian and nonhistorian was another technique that improved the analysis. The first conference paired historian Joseph W. Esherick with contemporary observer Lowell Dittmer in what they choose to call an examination of the “dilemmas of identity for the Chinese (an examination that can only fully be understood when read with the concluding essay by Qin Yaqing).

book cover for china's rise in historical perspectiveEvelyn S. Rawski provided the more distant historical information on China’s security issues and strategy, while Michael D. Swaine provided an account of these issues in the post-Cold War period. Dwight H. Perkins offered a global perspective on China’s pre-reform  economy, and then Barry Naughton ad- dressed the dynamics of China’s current reform-era economy. Environmental issues were addressed under the heading of “Ecological and Resource Inter- action.” Mark Elvin looked at the history of the environmental impasse of the latter days of the Imperial period, while Erica S. Downs discussed contemporary issues in China’s current energy rise. Political and governmental issues were discussed under the heading of “Political Creativity and Political Development.” R. Keith Schoppa offered the more historical view, and Joseph Fewsmith provided the contemporary analysis. Each of these paired essays deserves greater attention to give each full credit, but space does not permit a more detailed examination. The five paired essays culminate in a superb essay by Qin Yaqing.

Collectively, these eleven essays focus research and scholar- ship on at least one area that needs additional attention. Qin Yaqing does not mention Confucianism except in a few references that directly or indirectly suggest it was abandoned a century ago. He examines China’s political psychology without directly men- tioning that the current Chinese system is still Confucian at its core, albeit with the transformations that occurred in the belief system between the fifth century BCE and the present.

Even though Qin Yaqing barely mentions Confucius, evolved Confucian-centered Chinese traditional thinking abounds in his essay. More than once, he refers to China’s 5,000-year, continuous cultural history, but he can only refer to 5,000-year, continuous cultural history if he makes Confucian assumptions. Confucius said the ideas he espoused were not really his own but were distilled from China’s ancient past. This past was already ancient when Confucius wrote about it 2,500 years ago.

Qin Yaqing cites Hu Jintao’s proposal at the 2005 UN Summit to “Strive to build a harmonious world with long peace and common prosperity.” This sounds quaint to Western ears, but it is fully understandable as a twenty-first century restatement of Confucian relationships applied internationally. Qin Yaqing correctly asserts that China does not intend to recreate the old “tribute” system in which Chinese “vassals” gave gifts to the Chinese emperor, and he gave gifts of greater value in return. The “tribute” system of international trade—such as it was—is clearly dated, but it is possible that some current Chinese practices could be traced to it. China has undervalued its currency, thereby giving their trading partners more in value than they receive in return. This could be justified as stimulating economic activity for everyone (using the Keynesian logic that justified the US Marshall Plan for postwar Europe). Still, is it possible that, subconsciously, the Chinese find this policy agreeable because it resembles a Chinese idea of a tribute system?

For the past six decades, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square has been a shrine to the icons of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought. Those who purveyed this worldview were unapologetically anti-Confucian. Yet a careful examination of the Maoist period revealed a great deal of Confucianism. This reviewer must be included among those who struggled to find much Karl Marx in Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought, but never had any trouble finding evidence of Confucius. It is therefore refreshingly honest that the government of the People’s Republic has erected a statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square alongside his Maoist critics.

That the new statue is of Confucius, and not of a Westerner such as Milton Friedman, may tell us something. Perhaps future Chinese studies should move in the direction of considering whether evolved, Confucian-centered Chinese traditional thought is also a factor in China’s rise to greatness. Chinese traditional thought has always recognized the importance, if not the inevitability, of dynastic cycles. Perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about evolved, Confucian- centered Chinese traditional thought as a cause of China’s return to greatness.