A brief rundown of Chinese modern history

This is to continue the last post, which is actually a conversation with a friend.

The stories in China have a completely different thread than those in the west. To understand China and things happening there, you have to have some knowledge of this thread. Here is a brief rundown of Chinese recent history. (I don’t intend it to be complete and academic as this is just from a conversation with a friend. This is just intended to be a very basic introduction for beginners. However, I still feel it should be tremendously helpful.)

When China’s door was opened by first the Opium War and then by many other wars, China was sunk into a huge crisis. Land was occupied by various countries and we were robbed a lot of money. Those robbery alone probably was enough to make a rich country poor. There was really no way for China to fight with the westerners, who had the cannons and all those much more advanced weapons. At that time, we were really in the crisis of losing our country, our culture and our race. (Just to remind you, it is a very different world 200 years ago. Then you were invaded and occupied, you might really lose your country. It is not like our current time, when countries’ identities are mostly settled and recognized.) So at that time, we were really thinking that we were losing our country and becoming slaves of other countries. It is war after war after war. Countless wars. A lot of suffering. So the Chinese intellects are thinking how to save China. So there is always a big debate in China whether we should learn from the west and adopt the western things or we should keep our own system. For people who advocated learning from the west, there were people who advocated only learning the science of the west. There were some other people arguing instead that we have to learn the whole western system, there is no way of only learning the science without learning the whole western system.

So Chinese intellects started to translate and introduce western ideas. They felt China needed an educational movement on a massive level. They said China needed its own renaissance, like the one Europe had. So it was about enlightening the people, educating the mass. However, this educational efforts could not continue very long since the country was sunk into deeper and deeper crisis and a lot of people felt that the top priority, the emergent task is to save China first. That means they wanted bloody revolution. They needed military. So there was the revolution. But the revolution was still modeled with the western capitalism ones like those in Britain and America, with the advocate of private property and democracy (although China definitely didn’t have a good base for that as the mission of education was far from accomplishment).

After world war one, the western countries gave the land of China that was occupied by Germany to Japan. China was fighting on the allied side during the WWI. So this really made many Chinese very angry and disappointed with the western capitalism. At the same time, the new Soviet Union treated China very well. So the Chinese intellects seeking medicine for saving China thought they found new hope and thus started studying the revolution of Russia and communism. Communism at least has a very noble purpose, although its theory and practice have many flaws. At that time, it seemed to be the real solution for China’s crisis. A lot of intellects, many of who are the same ones who have been advocating educational movement and western democracy, turned to communism for solutions.

Since the supposed Chinese Renascence was never accomplished, the soil was still the same. It was still the same old culture. Combined with the inherent flaws of communism, it turned very disastrous for China after the founding of the new China.

Revolution accomplished. We saved ourselves from the crisis. The system was changed. But the education was far from its mission. This is why I devote myself to education and peaceful social changes, and why I think the most important thing for China is the cultural communication with the west on the bottom level of the normal people on a massive scale.

The media in the west started to report more and more news about China, but without providing the whole historical thread and context. If you don’t see the whole picture, you can report any news you want according to your own presumed image of China. If you presume that China is just a communism country and run by dictatorship, you then just report news that fit your presumption, and there will be always enough news to feed your presumption. I think it reflected the self-obsessed mindset of the west. This is my impression of the (mainstream) media in US. This is also the way  that I felt Chinese media reported news in US.



Filed under Chinese, Cross Culture Communication

4 responses to “A brief rundown of Chinese modern history

  1. Pingback: Watching Olympics opening « A hacker of the Internet for the purpose of growth, fun, and creation

  2. Good post!
    I do know this history, but I’d be interested to hear more in-depth info about education and power in China. You are able to shed a lot of light on this issue from a viewpoint not often heard here. I have a lot of questions!

    When you say the mission of education is far from being accomplished, and that building a new Communist structure on top was disastrous for China, what are the elements of education that you think are most essential?

    Do you feel that access to power is restricted because of lack of access to education? That is, if the enormous population had access to quality eduction, they would be more empowered? How best could that power be exercised in the current system, nonviolently, since the population does not have voting rights?

    And what are the reasons that China is not an autocracy, or run by dictatorship? Do you see many power struggles inside the country that are not reported outside it? I am really curious about this and would love to know more.

    For example, I have read about terrible food shortages in the countryside, and how famine riots have occurred due to tremendous hunger and suffering, but the despite the riots, the rural population does not seem to have much access to power to change the situation. From the outside, it looks like central government in Beijing seems to only suppress the rioters and not solve the problem.

    It looks like it fears loss of power more than anything else, and that is the source of suppression. (Fear of losing power is a worldwide trait of politicians, of course, but few governments have the resources for near-complete suppression of dissent that the CP appears to have in China.)

  3. Thanks, Ellen.

    Regarding what kind of education, it is a very good question. People at that time (including many early leaders of CP) were involved in some educational movement that they hope can have similar effect of European Renaissance. To be specific, they wanted to invoke the awareness of the people of their own individuality, pursuing their own happiness instead of always sacrificing for the country. For example, there were literature about the suppression of individuals by the family (typical big Chinese traditional family hierarchy), young men and women pursuing free love instead of marriage set up by their parents, women pursuing their Independence (influenced by the same movement in the west. The work of Ibsen like The Doll’s House was very popular and widely discussed). There were writers experimenting writing novels like the western ones, such as deeply self-confessional. They deeply analyze human nature, explore humanities under various circumstances. They advocates the potential of individuals. They advocated and practiced themselves development their diverse personalities. They emphasized the potential of individuals to free themselves through learning, and the responsibilities to do so. They wrote essays to tell their countrymen to develop their body and mind so there can be a new young China.

    They felt Chinese traditional written language is too obscure and difficult for the mass to learn. So they advocating writing the same way as the oral language and they explored how to write that kind of style. This is a long time of practice. It took almost a century for some great Chinese witters to figure out how to write beautifully in the plain spoken Chinese.

    They translated the Wealth of Nation and many such great works into Chinese to introduce western ideas. They criticized deeply the traditional Chinese culture, especially the Confucianism. Some even advocating not reading any traditional Chinese text, saying it is full of words that eats people.

    They tried to adopt the three branches government system of the west, even willingly to be killed for that cause.

    Deeply, they wanted to wake people up of their individual consciousness, and develop their individual consciousness. They felt that was the future of China. That was the only way to fight the old deeply drenched habits of culture. This is indeed a trust in common individuals to find their own happiness instead of being bound by many traditional artificial values.

    Just some examples above. (Thanks for asking such a good question. It reminded me a lot of things that had become vague in my memory.) Maybe they can give an idea what kind of education they were talking about. They felt that was the basis for real change. Whenever we can make progress in that direction in the current system, we should push for it. That is the real change. Then we have hope that many many individuals awaken themselves will stand up and change the system little by little.

    Though very slowly, I think there are some areas that Chinese government are making efforts. For example, abolishing all fee for students before college. (I just heard from a cousin. I didn’t verify it.) This I felt very important effort. And during these 30 years peace, people’s minds are not agitated as they were before. People started to realize life is about having a happy life, instead of fighting for ideologies like we used to. More people start to make efforts to develop their interests in various arts and we can see more individuals who are able to have very deep experiences in the arts they are doing and become more complete human being because of profound experience in arts.

    So these are probably the kind of changes that are not usually reported by the western media. But living there, i certainly could feel this kind of social progress. The society is becoming more peaceful. Social life is richer, having more diversity. All these are very subtle but very tangible changes.

    I certainly feel we have the space to grow faster. I definitely felt that some members of CP holding on to power too much and too afraid of giving the people more space (totally unnecessary worries. I guess they don’t have much experience with free society and cannot imagine how a free society can be constructed and how it can be more stable. I think the work that westerner can do to help is to help them gain that kind of experience. Taiwan, actually serves as a very good example for mainland China since they can observe it is really not bad in a free society. However, the meddling of US government in Taiwan’s democracy is really outrageous. See this: https://freestone.wordpress.com/2006/11/06/on-american-foreign-policy/ ).

  4. ellen9

    This is fascinating, Leon!

    The West’s predilection for viewing every other culture as either victim or enemy has created some amazing responses among non-Western cultures.

    What you say about the Chinese language is very interesting. It seems to parallel what the modernizer Kemal Ataturk did in Turkey after World War I, when he got rid of the Arabic script used to write Persian and the elaborate, arcane, and intricate expressions and grammar of the old Persian language. He not only instituted a Romanized alphabet but also a simplified Turkish language based on the plain vocabulary of ordinary Turks.

    And just like you say of the Chinese, “It took almost a century for some great Chinese witters to figure out how to write beautifully in the plain spoken Chinese,” it took many decades for writers to learn to write beautifully in plain Turkish.

    Also you explained to me why when my company sells Chinese translation rights, sometimes we sell simplified Chinese rights – ha ha – it is the Chinese that is simplified, not the rights!

    Who do you like among the modern Chinese writers and artists? Do you like Ha Jin? Do you like Guo Xingjian? to me Guo’s book Soul Mountain and his amazing paintings seem to exemplify what you say about deep and profound experience of individuality in the arts. He is in exile, tho’, from China.

    Also, have you seen To Live (Huozhe) by Zhang Yimou? to anyone who says he can’t tell a story – tell them to see that movie! it is an amazing story of one man’s life in China in the 20th c., beautifully shot and simply, but movingly told. I am curious what you think of it.

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