I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.


Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)