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China’s Response to the West

January 29, 2010

Ssu-yu Teng and John K. Fairbank. China’s Response to the West, a Documentary Survey 1839-1923. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1954).

Christian Hess (2000)

In this seminal work, Teng and Fairbank set out to chart the ways in which China’s educated ruling class reacted to growing contact with the West. To accomplish this, the authors have collected and translated sixty-five documents drawn from the journals and memorials of officials and reformers from 1839 to 1923. With such a large time span, it is the broader outline of Western contact and Chinese intellectual response that is dealt with in this piece (p.5). These documents are organized into an outline of seven parts, starting with early responses from the opium war period to Sun Yat-sen’s adoption of the Russian Party system. The main argument here is that the increased presence and penetration of the West into the economic, political and social spheres drove the processes of change operating in China (p.1). Moreover, the outline is used to argue the point that it was often the faults of the decaying political system and the incompetence of China’s leaders that led to failed attempts to modernize based on a Western model. The book was also designed to encourage further monographic study of the issues of acculturation and the process modernization and its effects on modern Chinese society.

In 1954 the field of Chinese history was just beginning to grow. Until this time, the literature on China consisted mostly of monographs dealing with larger issues of politics, dynastic changes, military affairs, and economics. This work, when viewed in such a context is extremely creative and important. It is the first attempt at giving a voice to the Chinese intellectuals that many younger scholars had only read second hand accounts of. At this time it was quite necessary to open up inquiry into the intellectual and social history of modern China. China’s Response to the West also sets up a powerful framework for the study of modern Chinese history that would have ramifications for years to come. The authors argue that to understand modern China you must understand it in terms of its contact with the West. Of obvious importance during the cold war era, this concern included the communist victory in China (p.2). This work then is viewed as a beginning for understanding the communists rise to power in China. Indeed, the introduction ponders the question of whether or not the rise of communism in China represents an acceptance or rejection of the West. This framework always involves comparing China to the West, a theme that would become a departure point for many Harvard school studies on China.

There are several problems with the arguments laid out in this book. The downplaying of the impact of imperialism on economic development is one large aspect that was attacked by scholars in the early 1970’s who saw imperialist control of markets as the major factor to slow economic development, rather than deficiencies in the political system as argued. Little importance is given to the weaknesses of the Qing brought on by internal problems such as rebellion as a factor in its “failed” attempts to modernize. The “attempt-failure” approach taken by several of the chapters (XIV, XVIII) is also a weakness. This seems to leave out process, it is as if the Chinese were expected to immediately accept and radically change their society or just fail. This is indicative of the problems with the comparative framework. It is all too easy to use this to frame questions about China that produce negative histories focusing on weakness, failure, and stagnation. There are still strengths to the book. The documents are all quite important and many are only found in translation in this book. Moreover China historians from the West and Chinese intellectuals today are still grappling with issues that stem from increasing contact. The drive toward modernization launched by Deng Xiaoping and continuing today emphasizes Western science and technology. Chinese intellectuals must grapple with how to apply this in a Chinese context. Thus while the position that the West was the prime spark driving change in China is highly criticized, the book still presents an important outline for attempting to trace how Chinese intellectuals, through various levels of acculturation, dealt with how to change their country.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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