Something good is happening in history departments around the world when it comes to China. Western historians have finally taken a cue from their China-watching counterparts in journalism and put ideology to the side to describe China with a newfound clarity. Gone is the tendentious political correctness that for decades muddled a lot of academic writing on the Middle Kingdom; out, too, is the exoticism of China as a world apart. This is excellent news for people interested in China and the role it played in the past and could play in the future.
The latest example is “Restless Empire,” a wonderful book by the Norwegian-born and American-educated historian Odd Arne Westad. “Restless Empire” tells the story of the foreigners who helped China become what it is today, from China’s first interactions with the West to the current era. In doing so, Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia.
Westad’s book, along with “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” an authoritative history of arguably the word’s bloodiest rebellion, by Stephen Platt, and a new biography of Mao Zedong, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Stephen I. Levine, give us in different ways a China that we haven’t known before. Platt places China in the middle of the world during a huge 19th-century uprising called the Taiping Rebellion that left 40 million dead. The Mao book reveals a chairman who was part of the world as well, not some Oriental “agrarian reformer” but an ardent student of Joseph Stalin.
Westad’s book goes them one further, showing that the foreigners’ story in China is not the monochromatic account of malevolent imperialism that has dominated the discourse in U.S. universities but a much richer and more important tale. The brilliance of “Restless Empire” is that while acknowledging the threat to China inherent in its contacts with the West and Japan, Westad also shows that they inspired and amazed the Chinese and played the critical role in the opening of the Chinese mind.
Westad challenges the idea — repeated so many times in Beijing and by “friends of China” overseas — that China was never an expansionist power and that its last dynasty, the Qing, was “insular and inward looking.” Wrong, he argues: “The Qing was continuously expanding outward.” Indeed, at one point in the 18th century it carried out what Westad calls the first modern genocide against a Central Asian tribe while adding a massive province, Xinjiang, to the empire. In addition, he notes, despite misinformation to the contrary, the Qing loved to trade. More broadly, our image of the old China as timeless and unchanging just does not comport with the facts. “Chinese who embraced the new — when given the chance to do so — always far outnumbered those who did not,” he writes, an observation that makes absolute sense to anyone who has traveled to China in the past 20 years.
Central to Westad’s thesis is the idea that, despite claims by communist historians, foreigners were key to China’s modernization. British, Americans, Japanese, Germans and Russians played enormously important roles as advisers, models, teachers, guides and enlighteners of the Chinese. While Westad does not underplay the depredations meted out by the imperialist powers, he also tells the other side of that story — that American missionaries brought education, science and modern medicine to China, that the British imported modern administrative techniques, that the Germans taught the Chinese a significant amount about warfare. Heck, the French even created China’s postal service.
Westad’s exploration of the schizophrenic relations between Japan and China, part role model and part rival, is particularly incisive. And it’s all the more pertinent given the persistence of their troubles, illustrated by the recent spate of Communist Party-backed and -funded anti-Japanese demonstrations throughout China.
Westad reminds us that China was not the chaotic mess — all warlords and bandit kings — in the years between World War I and II that it has been portrayed to be for decades in the United States and in communist China itself. Indeed, China was alone among the great empires of the 19th century — the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman and the British included — to remain almost completely intact, thanks not to the toughness of Mao but to the brilliance of Republican Chinese diplomats.
Building on the work of other scholars, such as Jay Taylor’s remarkable 2009 biography, “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China,” Westad gives China’s Republican ruler credit. Chiang sat at the helm of what “became the most effective government China had had since the mid-nineteenth century.” And equally important, Chiang battled the invading Japanese, whereas his nemesis Mao, Westad writes, kept his powder dry. Again, despite Mao’s reputation in American academia as the real guerrilla fighter, Westad notes that during World War II, Mao authorized only one major — and disastrous — military campaign against the Japanese and that his troops killed far more Chinese soldiers from Chiang’s side than they did Japanese. “The war,” Westad writes, “provided a near perfect foil for the Communists to spread their influence.”
One of the best parts of the book is how Westad unpacks China’s complicated ties — he calls it an “obsession” — with the United States. No other country, he writes, has been more important to China’s rise over the past 40 years. Its open markets, society and universities have powered China’s modernization. Westad has an insight about the ties that bind Americans and Chinese that I wish I had myself. Both societies, he writes, are drawn together by a shared quality: More than any other countries in the world, they are both “primed to accept rapid transformation of their daily lives.” For the Chinese, he writes, the urgency comes from a desire to revive the past; for Americans it stems from the necessity to forge the future.
Westad does something else for American readers. He restores Taiwan to its central place of importance in China’s history. In Washington, the Taiwan issue is often viewed as a speed bump on the way to better ties with China. In recent years, some think tank specialists have urged the U.S. government to cut arms sales to Taiwan as a simplistic way to improve ties with China and hasten Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. But Westad, while clearly understanding the security implications for U.S.-China relations, reminds us that Taiwan is a real democracy and that it deserves protection so that Western ideas in a Chinese context can continue to inspire generations of mainland Chinese.
Unfortunately, Westad’s refreshingly even-handed approach — teasing out both threat and inspiration — is not the story told by the state-controlled historians in Beijing. His book will not be published in China because a mainland publisher demanded too many cuts. And that’s important, because how China frames its past weighs on how it will face our common future. I recently visited the permanent exhibition on China’s rise at the newly renovated National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square: “The Road of Rejuvenation.” Foreign contributions — other than those from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin — are nowhere to be found. Panel by panel, a story emerges of murder, rape and pillage by one Western army after another in a totally distorted netherworld of humiliation and pain. The operative sentiment I felt on leaving the exhibition was: “Earth to the Chinese Communist Party, grow up.” Reading Westad would be a good place to start.
China and the World Since 1750
By Odd Arne Westad
Basic. 515 pp. $32