Klaus Mühlhahn. Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping. Cambridge: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2019. xiii + 717 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73735-8.
Reviewed by David Buck (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
This innovative and fresh new textbook covers China’s history over the last 475 years, from the founding of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1644 to present-day China. Mühlhahn divides this long period of time into four obvious segments: the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1900; the Chinese revolutions, from 1900 to 1949; Mao Zedong’s remaking of China, from 1949 to 1977; and Rising China, from 1977 to the present. His narrative itself covers all the principal events during these years and cites standard studies supplemented by maps and illustrations. He begins each of these with a short essay in which he summarizes his conclusions about each period.
In interpreting this long period, Mühlhahn has chosen to employ the Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North’s (1920-2015) theory that historical change occurs through adaptations by various nations of their heritage of social and economic institutions. This approach makes institutions—such as social norms, economic practices, political systems, as well as religious and intellectual beliefs—rather than individuals or dominant social classes the motive force in history. This approach rejects both Marxist determinism and the “great leader” schools of historical explanation. Consequently, individual figures such as the Qianlong emperor, Chiang Kai-shek, and even Mao Zedong are portrayed as individuals facing institutional strengths and weaknesses beyond their control while contending with changing circumstances.
Mühlhahn is a careful German scholar and his greatest contributions are explicit discussions of issues including his rationale for periodization, his conception of what is modern, and his introduction to what he finds to be the most important characteristics of how China became modern. For example, he defines “modern” in temporal, not normative terms and rejects the thesis that a Western or universal model for being modern exists (p. 3). These commentaries will be of great use for students because in them Mühlhahn plainly states his conclusions concerning the main characteristics of each of his four periods. He marks out five realms for special attention: government, economy, national sovereignty, the natural environment, and intellectual history.
Mühlhahn uses the book’s introduction to state his approaches and themes as well as to present his main conclusions about each of the four subperiods: “After 1830 China slipped into a deep crisis” while remaining able to adapt to changed conditions (p. 12). He defines China’s revolution as beginning not with the fall of Qing in 1912 but rather with the Boxer Uprising of 1900. He argues that from 1900 onward China stopped trying to reform itself and began to innovate a completely fresh approach to its affairs. Those efforts appeared to have faltered repeatedly but in fact created conditions for future success. In the third subperiod, from 1949 to 1997, the Chinese Communist Party proved unexpectedly successful in centralizing power in a new national polity but let many problems become more entrenched, especially the urban-rural divide. Mao perpetuated national weakness by launching radical socialist programs. Finally, in 1977, after Mao Zedong’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s assumption of power, China finally undertook a cohesive program “promoting rapid economic growth” (p. 15) that succeeded while producing a reassertion of authoritarian control under Xi Jinping.
This elaborate framework may seem intimidating to students at first but in fact works very well. As a consequence, the nineteenth-century Manchu-Chinese elite appears less bumbling and more beset by the ever-growing inroads of Western imperialism; the struggles of the post-1900 China to gain any real momentum toward national regeneration reflect the continuing challenges from foreign imperialism, especially from Japan. The remarkable achievements and tragic failures of the Maoist era represent the remarshalling of preexisting Chinese institutional trends rather than will of the Great Helmsman or the fruits of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong. Finally, the astounding success of China over the last forty years is seen as the inheritance of China’s past greatness, represented in new forms.
Buttressing his choice of Douglass North’s institutional economic bias, Mühlhahn’s text rests on a comprehensive reading of current scholarship on the last 475 years of Chinese history by scholars publishing in Western languages. There are few citations or insights from Chinese, Japanese, or Russian scholarship. The result is a textbook with a clear line of argument carried out from beginning to end with little deference to other schools of interpretation of modern Chinese history.
Mühlhahn’s skillful presentation will make this book a highly popular one. It is fresher than the other standard textbooks while providing a solid grounding from which to understand the ongoing story of a revived and powerful China. Nevertheless, it may mark the apogee of social science histories of modern China. Many of today’s most influential historians publishing about European history continue to use social science conclusions about underlying forces shaping history but also add that some individuals have skills and positions that enable them to transform historical agendas. For example, see Peter Longerich’s Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (2010) or Brendan Simms’s Hitler: A Global Biography (2019). These historians see change coming from a combination of underlying social factors and individual leadership.
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David Buck. Review of Mühlhahn, Klaus, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping.
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