As China grows in power and revolutionary achievement the Western world begins to take her history seriously. Chinese studies, particularly in the usa, have developed from an eccentricity to an industry. The American government, in its role of world gendarme concerned to strangle or corrupt popular revolutionary movements, has poured enormous sums into research on every aspect of modern China. The temptation to dismiss nearly all the work thus produced is one that may be indulged in without great damage to an understanding of China or excessive injustice to the career men who churn out tedious books and articles, based all too often on the work of the helots who translate and analyse the material for them in Hongkong or the usa. It is rare that an American scholar (to use the term by which they designate themselves) has any real understanding of what the Chinese revolution has been all about, though there are honourable exceptions. There is no American academic treatise I have yet seen that gives half so good an introduction to 20th century Chinese realities as Edgar Snow’s classic Red Star Over China or the passionately committed books of Agnes Smedley. The Chinese revolution has been made by the struggles of real people, not by organizational techniques and conference resolutions.
Even though Professor Fairbank was an American government pr man in China after the Second World War, Professor Reischauer has recently finished a spell as us ambassador in Tokyo, and both men have openly supported the Vietnam war they cannot be fairly regarded in quite the same terms as many of their colleagues. They do at least know their subject and know it well where the history of the ruling classes in China and Japan is concerned. In the first volume of their historyfootnote1 of East Asia they gave a useful and readable introduction to the American interpretation of the earlier periods, and in this sequel they give us a full, heavy-footed and scholarly version of us imperialism’s myth of the modern era.
The rough equality of space devoted to China and Japan despite the enormous difference in size between the two countries is not accidental: we are clearly meant to make a comparison between the right and the wrong way for an Asian country to modernize. Japan’s record of
China apparently failed to make the correct responses to Western ‘stimuli’, which is why it now is doomed to suffer under the wicked Communists. It is also significant that a lot of attention is given to Western doings, and very little to the peasants, the vast majority of the makers of modern Chinese and Japanese history. In contrast to the shocked treatment of the killing of some hundreds of foreigners in the Yi Ho T’uan troubles of 1900 the atrocities committed by foreign troops before as well as after the siege of the Legation Quarter are omitted, as is the systematic extermination of the peasants in large areas of Kiangsi province by Kuomintang troops when they overran the Red bases. The reader will find no explanation of why Christian missionaries and converts were often hated by ordinary Chinese people, no serious discussion of the hideous cruelties of agrarian landlordism. Class struggle, a concept without which modern Chinese history is meaningless, is carefully played down; the term is, in the reviewer’s memory, used only once, and then in inverted commas. The picture of traditional village society is the standard American myth, complete with the scholar-gentry, an elite open to all on academic merit, providing leadership and performing good works. Fairbank’s description of China since 1949 reads rather like a Time magazine account.
The chapters by Reischauer and Craig on Japan are probably better than those on China. Japan, after all, has not committed the sin of revolution, and can provide consolation for America’s Chinese failure. All the same, one would have liked more attention to the numerous peasant risings that accompanied modernization in exchange for a little less detail on the factional struggles within the ruling group.
It might have been better if the sections on South-east Asia and Korea, both sinocentrically dealt with under the chapter-heading ‘The Peripheral Areas,’ had been written by specialists. Unfortunately this is bound to become a standard work on its subject, if only because other general histories are much worse. Let us hope that its reign will be a short one.
Dr Michael Loewe’s handbookfootnote2 on what might or might not be called the feudal period of Chinese history—the two millenia or so before the 19th century—is a model of professionalism. Instead of writing another chronological narrative he has taken a number of topics and devoted a chapter to each of them. Each chapter is made up of short sections some two or three paragraphs long that summarize the modern western view of the subject in question. His chapters on the growth of cities, political organization and economics are among the best introductions to these aspects of traditional China available in English. Agriculture, the peasantry and war are the most serious gaps in Dr Loewe’s coverage, but then there are limits to what can be dealt with in 300 pages. One might also quarrel with some of his generalizations as not always