The Rise of Modern China
by Immanuel C.Y. Hsu
Oxford University Press
Considering the role that China plays in the modern world, my own ignorance of recent Chinese history is breath taking. Here is what I knew prior to reading The Rise of Modern China: The Communist party, led by Chairman Mao, came to power after World War II, and then, in the sixties there was a "cultural revolution" that was bloody and insane. Before that China was poorly governed and the Western powers treated China like a sort of semi-colony.
What I learned from The Rise of Modern China is that until about the 1850s, the Chinese made ZERO- ZERO effort to learn ANYTHING about the west because they felt it was beneath their dignity. Well into the 1890s knowledge of anything western was restricted to a small minority of educated scholars and students sent abroad. Under the Ch-ing Empire (which held onto power until the early 20th century), the Chinese were ruled by a different race, the Manchus (from Manchuria.) The Manchus had their own language and conquered the Ming dynasty in the early 18th century. Thus, the early modern period in Chinese history has a heavily racial element- with "foreign" Manchus ruling over, and discriminating against, the much larger Chinese population. This gave the Chinese little reason to support their own government during the increasingly chaotic 19th century, as Western powers imposed their will on the decrepit Ch'ing.
The racial element of the Ch'ing dynasty is, I think poorly understood in the conventional "the Chinese Empire was sad in decrepit in the 19th century" narrative. The fact is that it wasn't a Chinese empire at all- it was a Manchu emperor ruling over China, so their own royal family was about as foreign as the foreign invaders. The Manchu's obviously adopted Chinese customs and language to the point where the Manchu language essentially no longer exists, but they maintained their separate racial identity to the bitter end.
In terms of the 20th century power struggle between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists- what is clear is that the Chinese Nationalists were simply out manuevered by a more intelligent opponent: Mao Tse Tung. Mao's decades long rise from library assistant to supreme ruler of China is obviously a story unto itself, but it is hard not to have an appreciation for what he accomplished, especially if you look at China post his death.
True, China lacks many of the cultural nicieties of the West: a free press, freedom of speech, an impartial justice system, but China was never about being exactly like the West, and furthermore it is clear that they have never, ever had any ambitions to rule outside of their immediate sphere of influence, so my take is that we should give them whatever the fuck they want in Asia and just keep them at bay everywhere else (like in Africa.) Simple!