A Coming Distraction–Rana Mitter’s Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

If I rode the subway to and from work, I’d be seriously addicted by now to the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introductions” series in which Rana Mitter’s next book is about to appear (it’s due out late in February in Britain, soon after that in the U.S.). This is because these slim volumes seem custom-made to be read over the course of a day-or-two’s worth of hour-there and hour-back train rides.

The best way to sum up the series is that it’s made up of little books on big topics. They are all short (100 to 150 pages of text). They all have the same subtitle—as in Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (a work I’ve come to rely on in my research on Shanghai, whenever I’m trying to keep straight which treaty-port era landmarks should be called “neo-classical,” which “art deco”) and Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (a book I wrote about for Newsweek International–fittingly enough, given the brevity of the book, in a mini-review that was only about 100 words long). And each VSI (easy to remember, rhymes with CSI: I’m not sure whether the publisher or the TV producers got there first with the abbreviation) is issued in the same attractive, shrunk-down format. They are just the right size to slip into the back pocket of your jeans. Unfortunately in one sense (but fortunately for my health and the health of my research account, lest I be tempted to squander too much of it on VSIs), I generally get to and from work by bike, so consuming them en route isn’t an option (though I suppose if they came as podcasts…).

Having grown fond of the series and liking Mitter’s earlier books, The Manchurian Myth and A Bitter Revolution, I was eager to get my hands on an advance copy of Modern China, but then found myself feeling a bit anxious about reading it once it arrived. After all, it seemed possible (maybe even probable) that I’d come away disappointed, less enamored of the series than I had been. I wondered if I would feel, after reading Mitter’s latest, that the VSI were fine when dealing with subjects one knew little about (the case, for me, with architecture) or had just a passing knowledge of (the case, for me, with globalization a few years ago), but not when they were right up your alley. As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried.

This is because there’s a lot to like about this book, which covers a great deal of ground in a consistently engaging fashion and manages to remain accessible even when tackling complex issues. For example, the varied things that being “modern” has meant to Chinese actors of different generations—and the ways that the second word in the book’s title, “China,” can also turn out to have a far from simple and stable meaning.

One of the book’s many strengths is its catchy opening. Mitter begins with a quotation from a book called New China, which reads in part: “It is impossible to do other than assent to the unanimous verdict that China has at length come to the hour of her destiny…Even in the remote places we have found a new spirit—its evidence, strangely enough, the almost universal desire to learn English” (1). Mitter knows that his readers will find these lines familiar, as they come across ones like them in newspapers and magazines all the time in stories about the current phase of China’s history.

But, he stresses, the Westerners who wrote New China “did not pen their observations having landed back at Kennedy or Heathrow airports on one of the many Air China 747s that ferry thousands of travellers daily between China and the West. They wrote their book a full century ago” (2). New China, you see, may have been subtitled “a story of modern travel,” but it was published in 1910, while the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) still clung to power and the most “modern” routes from West to East and back again were by railway or steamship.

Don’t get me wrong: much as like this opening (the rhetorical device is a familiar one, but the source was new to me and seemed particularly well chosen) and other sections as well, there is a lot in Mitter’s account with which a specialist can quibble. Each of us—and I’m no exception—can find plenty of nits to pick. For example, especially if I were thinking of using this in the classroom, I would have liked to see it peppered by more quotations from Chinese sources.

In addition, though he is hardly alone in this, Mitter falls prey to the somewhat misleading tendency with both the May 4th protests of 1919 and the Tiananmen ones of 1989 of placing these upheavals into too intensely Beijing-centric a framework. Yes, actions by students in the capital were crucial in 1919. But the May 4th Movement peaked with a general strike in Shanghai. It is remembered now largely as a Beijing and student story, but without workers joining in (and merchants, too) and other cities being affected, it seems doubtful that it would have had the same impact. Would, for example, the three officials that Beijing students targeted for criticism have been dismissed from office if the movement hadn’t spread like wildfire across geographical and class lines?

Similarly, there is good reason to concentrate on Beijing when talking about 1989, but there is more to the story than just what was done by locals (again of many different classes, though students were key). It is worth remembering, for example, that the groundwork for the Tiananmen protests was laid partly by the 1986 campus demonstrations in Anhui and other cities. And that one thing that kept the struggle going through May was the steady influx into the capital of students from other provinces.

These kinds of quibbles aside (and I have no doubt that had I written the book instead, some would have felt that Shanghai showed up too often in its pages), it would be wrong to end this review (or perhaps I should say “preview,” given the “Coming Distractions” title of this feature) on a critical note. Instead, I’ll close by drawing attention to something I find appealing: the stress Mitter puts on continuities as well as ruptures between the periods of Nationalist Party rule (when Generlissimo Chiang Kaishek held power) and of Communist Party control of the country.
While well aware of the differences between the Nationalists and Communists that need flagging, one of his chapters does a nice job of showing how appropriate it can be to treat Chinese “politics since 1928 as a changing of the baton” between two parties that shared many fundamental beliefs, including a conviction that China’s best shot at becoming strong and modern lay with top-down rule by a tightly disciplined Leninist organization (73). He is not the first to make this argument, but he puts it forward very nicely indeed.

For example, while many people (myself included) have played with the idea of pondering what Mao would make of twenty-first-century China, with its many capitalist dimensions, Mitter puts a novel twist on the notion by bringing the Generalissimo as well as the Chairman into the picture. After pointing out that “the Communist Party of today has essentially created the state sought by the progressive wing of the Nationalists in the 1930s rather than the dominant, radical Communists of the 1960s,” Mitter leaves us with this compelling image (particularly apt at a time when there is talk of transporting the Generalissimo’s body from Taiwan to the mainland): “One can imagine Chiang Kaishek’s ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao’s ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision” (73).

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  1. Dear Jeff,

    I thought you might be interested in this column the OUPblog runs with the authors of VSI books. http://blog.oup.com/category/uk/vsi/

    We ask them five questions and then have them tell us which five books we should read if we want to learn more about their area of expertise.

  2. Thanks for the tip! I’ll look forward to checking it out. And as for “five book lists” (a nice format), as you may have noticed, we’ve experimented on our site with the same sort of thing. JW

  3. Man, I wish these books existed back when I was in college. In law school, we had the nutshell series.

  4. Jeff, thanks first of all for your very kind comments on the book. It’s just come out in the UK (review in The Guardian here), and is due out in the US in April.

    The issue I’d like to flag up is a weird but interesting coincidence. You and I both came up with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a lens to look at China today. I wish I’d seen your book (or at least the title) before my VSI went to press so I could have mentioned this – but I guess this is our chance now!

    For those reading this who haven’t read either of our books – in Jeff’s title, the reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel is not accidental. And the final chapter of my VSI is called “Brave New China” – in which I excerpt the conversation between the World Controller Mustapha Mond and the Savage. I won’t reproduce the whole thing here – go and buy our books if you want full disclosure., gentle reader! – but I end with the famous exchange :

    The Savage claims “the right to be unhappy.” The Controller replies:

    “Not to mention… the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
    There was a long silence.
    “I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
    Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulder. “You’re welcome,” he said.

    Why is this an important exchange for thinking about China now? Because, as you point out in your essay, beyond a certain point, it is not particularly useful to class contemporary China with the likes of Burma or North Korea. The recent crackdown in Tibet shows clearly that the Chinese regime can and will use repressive violence. Yet Hu Jintao is not Kim Jong Il and it doesn’t help serious analysis to claim that he is. How far, in other words, can we justify or oppose Brave New World’s vision of a world where citizens are infantilized politically, yet well-fed and secure?

    Jeff, you are admirably honest in your essay in admitting that you have yet to think through the implications of some of your questions. It’s a tremendously stimulating read, and I am going to take (unfair) advantage of this blog to take you back to your title essay and ask you where you come down: is China really Huxley’s new world (up to a point), and if so, is that a good or bad thing?

  5. Rana,
    I was delighted to see your comment on my review show up on China Beat, and also to learn that your VSI has gotten noticed by the British newspaper I read most often online. (I just checked out the review there, by the way, and was pleased to see that they flagged one of your best lines: “China is a plural noun.”)

    Given the centrality of Brave New World to your comment, you might be interested to learn of a funny coincidence. Namely, just this past Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece by Susan Salter Reynolds about Huxley called “A Prophet Returns.” It is filled with intriguing comments about the afterlife of Huxley’s work. For example, I learned from it why there has been such trouble making a film of his best known novel, and that a Canadian edition of Brave New World exists that has a “Foreword” by Margaret Atwood, one of the most fitting people imaginable to do the honors.

    Alas, the piece doesn’t mention any of the various references to China as a “brave new world” that have showed up lately. In addition to your book and mine, there have been several invocations of the term by journalists, including Howard French’s use of it in a very interesting International Herald Tribune commentary published on November 2, 2007.

    But, then again, one point I tried to make in the title chapter of my book was that when it comes to some of the issues that Huxley flagged, such as apathy being fueled by distracting media and stability being fetishized, China is not the only place to look to see elements of his prophesy coming true. Americans, at least, can look much closer to home. This led me to note in my book that, while 2003 was “Orwell’s year” (due to all the hoopla over the 100th anniversary of Eric Blair), this might well turn out to be Huxley’s century. So, I’m not surprised that a more general revival is underway of interest in Huxley–who, among many other things, was one of Eric Blair’s teachers at Eton, well before that future author of 1984 had published any work of fiction.

    The question, though, which brings me to your challenge, is how far to take the analogy. It is one thing to say that there are features of Chinese (or American) political life that resonate with Huxley’s dark vision in Brave New World. It is quite another to say that that this novel is the only or even the best lens through which to look at a particular context.

    Thinking about the issue anew, in a year that for China has been off to such a dramatic start, two things come immediately to mind. One is that the role that new technologies of communication played in the recent anti-Maglev protests in Shanghai, and the extent to which those demonstrations remind us how quickly a social group that seemed apathetic can start to find its political voice, suggest a need to be cautious about how far we take the China as a high-tech and increasingly controled “brave new world” notion.

    On the other hand (and it should be no surprise to find a fellow academic interjecting that prevaricating phrase, even in a comment to a blog), recent events in various parts of the PRC underscore something I have always found problematic about using 1984 as framework for understanding that country. Namely, a key part of Orwell’s vision is that it was easy to imagine nearly everyone feeling similar grievances toward the oppressive Big Brother state. They are scared into submission, yet if a chance for resistance arises (a la Poland in 1989, or indeed China in 1989), many are likely sieze it.

    What we’ve seen in China in recent years, by contrast, is that many specific groups have engaged in protests, yet these have not always been viewed sympathetically–and have sometimes been viewed hostilely–by other citizens of the country. What this suggests is a population that increasingly sees itself as having distinctive lifestyles and interests. This fits in more comfortably with Huxley’s vision of an authoritarian setting in which social differentiation helps rulers rule and mitigates against people making common cause agains the state.

    So, I probably haven’t answered your challenge satisfactorily, and you could respond that the question isn’t just Orwell vs. Huxley but what exactly is China like. But I do think the Cold War era notion that 1984 explains it all remains quite powerful in the West, and that it is worth trying to undermine, even when, as right now with Tibet, there are things taking place that call Big Brother to mind.

    It may take us at least a bit toward thinking about “China” as a “plural noun,” if we simply make room for the assumption that Huxley as well as Orwell provide us with a useful fictional lens through which to look at the PRC. We might assume that both can help us bring certain phenomena into clearer focus, but also insist that neither can provide anything like a perfect guide to such a complex and protean country.

    Thanks again for your comment, and I look forward to more of them, if this inspires any further thoughts from you or other readers of the blog.