China: A Modern History

Kerry Brown on a masterfully concise account of two tumultuous centuries in the life of a giant

October 21, 2010

Michael Dillon is glad of the return of narrative history, he says in the foreword to China: A Modern History, after the recent dominance of social and political science-based treatments of modern China.

Admittedly, narrative history does have particular traction when it comes to telling the story of how China has ended up being the contradictory entity that it is today - a massive economy, with global reach, but one full of inequality, poverty and fractures. Some of these - the areas of Tibet and Xinjiang with their high proportion of ethnic minorities, and the particular problems they pose for the central government - get special attention in this accomplished new overview of Chinese history since the late 18th century. Dillon has done important work in the past on Xinjiang in particular, and his views on this area are especially interesting.

But his real theme is announced quite early on, and that theme is the attempt, over almost two centuries, for China to engage with modernity, and to shape a coherent sense of national identity over a territory that is vast and diverse and has a history of great fractiousness.

Its recent history can be broadly divided into three periods. The first, up to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, involved unsettling and unsuccessful initial engagement with the industrialised West, particularly with Britain. The outcomes of this engagement were later labelled "a century of humiliation" by historians in China after 1949.

During the Republican period from 1911 to 1949, China suffered division, instability and finally a devastating war against the Japanese, during which it was, as Dillon shows vividly, almost destroyed as a single entity. From 1949, it entered an era of reconstruction and redefinition.

Post-1949 history may have been quite different, but many of the themes that appear early in this book raise their head in this new period, in a slightly different guise. The attempt to modernise China's economy was to lead to the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, and, perhaps, to the famines in the early 1960s (although Dillon makes clear that China in its long history has suffered frequent, massive famines, and has only recently become anything like self-sufficient in its food supply). The Korean War from 1950 to 1953, into which China was unwillingly dragged because of the bellicosity of North Korea's leader Kim Il-Sung, resulted in the country's ostracisation from the international community until the 1970s.

China's highly ambiguous and sometimes tense attitude towards the rest of the world was one that first appeared in the Qing era, and it has resurfaced time and again in the past six decades. Even in 2008, the triumphant year of the Beijing Olympics, nationalists in the People's Republic declared in a best-selling book (Unhappy China - The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges, written by Song Qiang, Huang Jisu, Song Xiaojun, Wang Xiaodong and Liu Yang) that the country was tired of serving as a sweatshop to the world, and being run along lines that suited developed countries rather than itself. Such statements would not have looked entirely out of place 100 years earlier.

Nor, for that matter, would the constant declarations by elite leaders of the need to reform. Since 1978, China has been continuously engaged in a process simply labelled "reform and opening up". "What other country", one official asked me in Beijing this summer, "can state that it has placed reform at the heart of all its economic and social policy for over three decades, and intends to do so in the future?"

But Dillon's discussion of the final years of the Qing dynasty and the ill-fated Hundred Days' Reform of 1898 shows how old some of these supposedly new ideas are. Even in the late 19th century, officials and advisers in Beijing were trying to create the rule of law, empower representation through congresses, and find some way of solving the perennial problem of how to balance the relationship between Beijing and the many provincial centres in the country.

Dillon's book is a reminder that much about modern China is inexplicable without at least some understanding of its past. Tibet and Xinjiang, and indeed Mongolia, before it was carved in two after the First World War, are all vast territories about which the current government has strong feelings. The unrest in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, however, showed how difficult it is to control these areas, with their unique histories and their remoteness to Beijing.

Both Tibet and Xinjiang enjoyed highly complicated relationships with previous Chinese dynasties, and can only really be said to have been brought into the Qing empire during an aggressively expansionist phase that ran from the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century. Paradoxically, it was only when Qing China reached its greatest extent, and experienced a remarkable cultural and political flowering under the three great emperors of the middle Qing era, that it also started to have to engage with the outside world in a wholly new way. The celebrated 1793 delegation to Beijing led by Britain's first envoy to China, Earl Macartney, was only the symbolic start of a process that has continued to this day, with many highs and lows.

For a crisp, concise and authoritative overview of where China has come from in the past two centuries, this book would be hard to better. Dillon is comfortable using a range of Chinese sources, and can draw on more than four decades spent studying in and visiting, and now being based in, China. (He is currently visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.)

He is able to describe treacherously complex events, such as the epic Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, with commendable brevity and clarity. That does give the book a slightly breathless feel as events such as the Sino-Japanese war and the Great Leap Forward are conveyed in just a few pages. Dillon manages to cover not only internal affairs, but also international relations and cultural and social history, and he does so with constant focus on facts and sources.

Thankfully, as he admits, the days of ideologically driven histories of the People's Republic of China are long past. Now we are simply left trying to find some kind of framework within which to understand this vast, complicated and often contradictory country.

In that light, it is a pity that Dillon doesn't return more frequently to the theme with which he started the book and that may perhaps have brought all the disparate material and events together - China's search for a meaningful identity.

This seems to be the true journey that this extraordinary country has been making in recent time - to recover from the terrible collapse that Dillon relays largely through the accounts of many of the foreigners who were witnesses from the mid-19th century onwards, to becoming once more a global force with a strong sense of national purpose and identity, which it seems to be in the first decade of the 21st century.

In this narrative, the mystery of how a country can move from imperial stagnation to febrile communist mass movements becomes at least a little more comprehensible.


Recently a visiting professor in modern Chinese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Michael Dillon is an author, amateur photographer and China specialist with an "inexplicable" fascination for the early postage stamps of Nepal and Tibet.

China has always been at the centre of Dillon's working life. He has travelled the country extensively, exploring its language, history and culture, and the ethical and political questions raised by the developmental path of the People's Republic.

As one of the few Western scholars focused on the country's Muslim communities, particularly that of Xinjiang, he has enriched the literature on the region. He is currently editing an encyclopedia of Chinese history.

Dillon gained a BA and a PhD in Chinese studies from the University of Leeds, and has taught in the department of East Asian studies at Durham University. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society. He enjoys travelling and has most recently developed personal connections with Taiwan, where his son lives and works.

China: A Modern History

By Michael Dillon

IB Tauris, 512pp, £45.00

ISBN 9781850435822

Published 30 July 2010

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