Book review: Wealth and Power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:28pm

Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century
by Orville Schell and John Delury
Random House
4 stars

Alex Lo

How you understand and translate the Chinese phrase zhongguo says much about what you think about China, and the presuppositions and biases you entertain about it. Quite simply, it means "China". But if you analyse the two constituent characters that make it up, it may be translated either as "the Chinese nation" or "the middle kingdom".

The former translation is modern and politically neutral, just another country's name, such as Britain, Japan or the United States. However, quite often, "the middle kingdom" is used in the western media to hint at Chinese chauvinism and isolationism.

In Wealth and Power, zhongguo is translated as "the central kingdom". You could argue "central" is a more accurate translation for zhong than "middle" because it is not geographic centrality, but political and civilisational centrality that is key to understanding the exalted position in which Chinese rulers had over the centuries placed their empire in relation to the rest of the world.

It was from this exalted height that China fell after its defeat in the First Opium War. The resulting psychic trauma inflicted on generations of the nation's ruling elite and intelligentsia form the main themes of this book: the humiliation by the western powers and Japan, and the self-belief in national rejuvenation through wealth and power.

This is a familiar tale. But what is different here is that Orville Schell and John Delury pick 11 Chinese whom they identify as "reformers" from the time of the Qing dynasty to China today to tell this story of national collapse and revival.

And what an eclectic list of reformers. More than half of the book is devoted to Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji. But it begins with lesser-known Qing officials such as Wei Yuan, Feng Guifen and, probably to the surprise of many readers, the Empress Dowager Cixi.

To me, the first part of the book is the most interesting. The authors make good use of the latest scholarship to revise Cixi's vile historical reputation - perpetuated as much by Confucian misogyny as western orientalism - as an arch-conservative who presided over China's collapse.

In fact, she was open to piecemeal regional reforms and surrounded herself with a few capable reformist officials such as Li Hongzhang. Li's discussions with the English-speaking Ito Hirobumi, the architect of Japan's successful Meiji reform - before signing a humiliating treaty in 1895 that ceded Korea and Taiwan to Japan along with several treaty ports - were the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy.

The book also has chapters on Liang Qichao and Chen Duxiu, with whom students of the history of the May Fourth Movement and the Communist Party would be more than familiar.

It ends with a moving portrait of jailed dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. It shows how Liu grew in stature from being the enfant terrible of Chinese letters early in his career, picking petty literary fights, through his baptism of fire during the June 4 crackdown to become the magnanimous humanist in the western mould that he is today.

Precisely because he advocates western standards of human rights and democracy as universal, he has a wide following overseas, but not on the mainland.

Wealth and Power is a fine work of scholarship. But I suggest reading it alongside Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, which incidentally also studies the careers of Liang and Sun. The reader will get a much better appreciation of how the Chinese reformers were part of a larger group of Asians who resisted western dominance while learning from western science, technology and ideologies.