China: The Longest Journey 1850-1949

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am

China: The Longest Journey 1850-1949

by Jonathan Fenby

FormAsia, HK$460

A reader could hardly wish for a better virtual tourist guide through the abstract and actual alleyways of historical China than Jonathan Fenby. With treatments of Hong Kong, the Dragon Throne and Chiang Kai-shek behind him and the handover-era editorship of the South China Morning Post on his resume, Fenby is an accomplished Sinophile and the type of author to wrestle into being a meaty new Penguin History of Modern China (recently released).

But is China: The Longest Journey another bandwagon book handily shoved out in time for the Olympics? Why would Fenby put his name to what appears to be a picture-led China primer that's best enjoyed over coffee?

He hasn't and it isn't. The book is a sometimes muddled, sometimes irritating, always informative effort to plot the schisms that transformed the mainland into a global economic powerhouse, new world leader and all the other reverberating cliches now bouncing around newspapers and television. That the story stops with the ascension of Mao Zedong matters not; living memory still recalls what happened next.

Disinterring the preceding century of conflict, Fenby assiduously re-erects the road signs, indecipherable at the time, which pointed to social, economic, military and human upheaval.

For all its arrogant posturing as an 'eternal nation' in possession of the Mandate of Heaven and some supposed divine right to be top dog representing all humanity, the Middle Kingdom of 1850 already concealed the rotten beams that would bring its house tumbling down. Beginning with the section Empire, Fenby jauntily tackles the standard topics needed to introduce the subject: its vastness, its rough-hewn beauty, the language barriers and the entrenched social divisions.

'Eternally impoverished farmers and peasants' needed little persuasion to turn to banditry. Small rebellions, which would later grow up to be muscular revolts, were common. 'On the Lower Yangtze,' writes Fenby, 'boatmen banded together in ... the Green Gang', which became Shanghai's chief underworld outfit. Down south, 'the Triads, anti-dynastic self-help secret societies, raised a dozen local rebellions'.

The complacent rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), meanwhile, having no use for modernisation or economic planning, or foreigners and their strange ways, trusted that the past would be the future and refused to upgrade the country. Allowing it to stagnate and its infrastructure to rot, they set the stage for The Great Rebellions (Fenby's next topic), particularly the vicious 14-year Taiping uprising.

By the time the 20th century rolled round, foreign footprints, particularly military, business and missionary, besmirched China. Pride in the Qing, however misplaced, and resistance to a suddenly shocking pace of reform animated reactionary movements - particularly the martial-arts Spirit Boxers of Boxer rebellion infamy - aimed at driving 'foreign devils' into the sea.

With the edifice creaking something had to give. It did when the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated in 1912 after another revolution. More revolts followed, notably propelled by Sun Yat-sen, whose revolutionary philosophy helped close the Qing innings at 268 years.

Cue the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang's rise and fatal political and military tango with the Communists. Mao's emergence in the handy guise of approachable peasant, writes Fenby, concealed a ruthlessness that allowed him to purge a few thousand of his wavering communist faithful.

But the spat between Chiang and Mao was only a warm-up for the main event, which arrived when Japanese forces clashed with Chinese troops in Peking. Two years before the rest of the world joined in, the lights went up on the second world war in Asia.

The domestic exertions of Communist versus Nationalist resumed at full speed after 1945. The history of events leading to Mao's declaration of the People's Republic in 1949 is neatly potted by Fenby and lo and behold, we find ourselves back at the beginning, with a regime insisting on total authority telling the disposable millions (now billion) what to do.

As Fenby notes, 'the tension between authority and the pursuit of freedom', which is the real story of this book, 'will shape the future of China as ... in the century of conflict'. Plus ca change.

China: The Longest Journey is a more studious volume than it first appears, so would have benefited from better organisation. For the casual reader the perfectly reproduced and historical gold-dust photographs that dominate the book are the reason for purchase. But arriving as they sometimes do, as extended asides or almost as chapters within chapters, they destroy the progress of history's complicated reenactment. The (perhaps unavoidable) vagueness of captions is an occasional nuisance for sticklers; and what of the photographers? Who were they?

But here's the trick: for maximum enjoyment, read this book as two distinct volumes. Follow Fenby first and ignore the photographs; then go back and read the standalone photo-essays that crop up every few pages. These depict all the major players and their stages: the Forbidden City, the imperial family, Confucianism, the Empress Dowager, reformer Li Hung-chang, foreign faiths, the Boxers, the last emperor, the rape of China (not solely Nanking), Chiang Kai-shek, Mao and more. It is an unwieldy history that requires double the telling.