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To Change China

January 29, 2010

Jonathan Spence. To Change China: Western Advisors in China, 1620-1960. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.

Chris Hess (2000)

This work examines the lives of sixteen Western men as they attempted, by various means, to bring some form of change to China. The chronologically arranged chapters span from the early Jesuit missionaries such as Adam Schall, to the Soviet advisors of the 1950s. By organizing his work in this way Spence finds that although these men come from diverse historical and cultural backgrounds, “their cumulative lives have a curious continuity” (p.xiii). He argues that all of them came to China with similar attitudes of cultural superiority, yet none were able to enact the changes they had originally planned (p.290). For the early missionaries like Schall this led to a feeling of ambiguity, as his confidence in Western superiority was challenged by equally strong Chinese beliefs (p.13). Two hundred years later, missionary educators like Edward Hume realized that their goals were increasingly incompatible with the rising nationalism in China. Hume, reflecting on his educational work, criticized his Yale-in-China colleagues for a “Western insistence on certain traditions, and a Western judgment on each passing phenomenon” (p.177). The goals of these men, Spence argues, met with resistance because their expertise was often bound with ideological aims to which the Chinese were not willing to submit (p.290).

Spence sees a common pattern in how these Westerners dealt with Chinese realities. They often came to China with a preconceived notion of how and what they wanted to change; yet Chinese realities inevitably altered the effectiveness and ultimately the form of change for which they strove. Many were simply used by the Chinese for their technical skills, and accomplished little else. Spence concludes that upon realizing this they either threw themselves further into work, or resigned and argued that the Chinese were “unworthy to receive Western help” (p.292). In a chapter dealing with the Protestant surgeon Peter Parker for example, Spence finds that due to his technical skills, Parker was unable to spend time attending to his primary goal in China, converting the Chinese. Rather, he “ended up enslaved by his own skills and incontinently angered by those he had meant to love” (p.56). For Spence, the Soviet advisor Borodin exemplifies this pattern, as he originally came to China to accomplish world revolution, but became overwhelmed by the situation in China. As Borodin told a journalist, “The revolution and the fight for freedom in China became an end in itself and no longer a means to an end” (p.202).

Spence adds little new historical information in this work, but this is not his goal. By constructing the biographies of these men as they struggled to implement their visions of change in China, he illuminates an important aspect of cultural contact. Throughout the three hundred-year period examined here, none of these men were able to enact the kind of change they advocated. Chinese resistance, particularly to their ideological aims, was consistent from the early Qing period to the revolution. As Croizier points out in his review, Spence does contribute insights about the problems of forced cultural change (Pacific Affairs, 43.2:271-272). By focusing on these men as individuals, he is able to construct their stories to reflect such problems and he succeeds in bringing individuals out from the larger construct of “the West.” Moreover he is sensitive to the process of acculturation that operated among these foreigners. For example, Spence portrays Robert Hart not just as the most powerful Westerner in China, but also as a person struggling with personal ambiguities because of his acculturation (p.120). Similar tensions are described among men like John Fryer (p.145). But Fryer’s case also touches upon something else noted by Spence, that these individuals used China as much as China used them. While men like Gordon and Ward came for money and glory, others like Bethume or Martin came for greater personal or religious reasons. “China seemed to offer them freedom of maneuver, a chance to influence history by the force of personality, and thus to prove their own significance” (p.292)

This book was written for a non-specialist audience. It is an exciting read, and is important because it offers an intelligent, non-sensationalist account of Chinese history to a broad audience. In terms of genre, this work is more a historical biography than intellectual history. This reflects the maturity of the field at this time. Contemporary reviewers like Croizier praised Spence for his work and its broad appeal to both specialists and non-specialists (Pacific Affairs 43.2:271).

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