The Nation takes on China

Making sense of the Middle Kingdom is hard enough without Qing Dynasty historians going on the rampage

Published October 22, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

It's tough out there in the sino-blogosphere. Writing in The Nation, John Feffer delivers "Big Red Checkbook," a lengthy thumb-sucker on all-things-China that employs five different recent books as multiple launching points. Feffer is generally well-informed, eschews alarmism, makes a bunch of sensible points, and thus is likely to satisfy no on either on the left or right.

To wit:

Predicting what will happen with China is a fool's errand. China is the exception that proves so many rules wrong. It is a Communist system that has managed a transition to "capitalism with Chinese characteristics." It has fostered market growth without much political reform. And it has pulled huge swaths of its population out of poverty and illiteracy faster than all the well-paid development professionals in the West. Yet as Gifford argues, "For every fact that is true about China, the opposite is almost always true as well, somewhere in the country." The data set is so large that it defies generalizations.

But I'll bet that of all the critiques Feffer might have expected to be assailed with, the last thing on his list would have been a quick jab followed by a couple of uppercuts from a Qing-era historian.

Jottings From the Granite Studio evidently has a chip on his shoulder regarding how Western non-historians of China are prone to frame the disastrous encounter between East and West that ended imperial China's long run (until recently) as one of the world's great powers. Feffer suggests that the Qing emperors failed to appreciate the formidable truth of the British threat, and he even predicts that the United States of 2007 may be about to relive the Qing's sorry performance. The Iraq war is compared to problems that the Qing had with Vietnam, 200 years ago.

Bad history, declares Granite Studio, and proceeds to demolish the Iraq-Vietnam analogy, vent on Western preoccupation with the word kow-tow, and otherwise display an impressive mastery of Qing history. It's not often that you get to see a Qing historian in high dudgeon, and I highly recommend it.

A taste:

But the larger point is that this narrative of Qing obstinacy in the face of Western dynamism is an old wives tale that makes Westerners feel better about what happened next: Namely, the imperialist dismantling of Qing sovereignty for the purposes of profit and filthy lucre. It's the classic date rape defense: The Chinese didn't know what they really wanted, so we gave it to 'em anyway.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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