Wealth and Power (富国强兵)
The Burden of Dreams
As the Chinese empire was unraveling at the beginning of the twentieth century under the combined pressures of internal decay and foreign assault, political essayist and reformer Liang Qichao began writing an unlikely novel, The Future of New China. Published serially in a popular journal, it was a strange blend of patriotic reverie and science fiction conjuring up what a rejuvenated China might look like sixty years hence—after it had reemerged as a strong, prosperous, and respected country once again. Although Liang, the most influential public intellectual of his generation, completed only a few chapters, his fictional exercise allowed his many readers, distraught by the Qing Dynasty’s inability to adapt to modern times, to dream a little about what their benighted country might be like in an idealized future, circa 1962. As he imagined it then, the world’s leading scholars, statesmen, and merchants would all clamor to visit and pay tribute both to China’s modern present and its Confucian past at an international exposition to be held in Shanghai—strangely like the World Expo the city actually did hold in 2010. “I truly believe that this type of book can be a great help to China’s future,” Liang wrote.
The Future of New China was not exactly great literature, and Liang admitted as much, commenting self-deprecatingly that the work-in-progress made him “laugh at myself.” But reading the novel’s chapters today, when China is, in fact, ever more wealthy, powerful, and respected, imbues that long-ago moment with a triste sense of just how passionately Chinese then yearned to escape the bitter reality of their country’s humiliating decline, even if only by projecting themselves for a moment into an imaginary future.
Such fantasies were an all too understandable antidote to China’s century-long decline, and Liang was not the last to indulge in dreaming of remote triumphs. Four decades later, another well-known writer, Lin Yutang, contemplating a China largely occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army and steeped in even deeper misery, experienced a similar wishful prefiguration of the future. In his 1942 book Between Tears and Laughter, Lin described being visited by an “intuition,” almost “mystic” in nature, which “blew like a whiff of clean air through the tortuous maze in which my will and my mind were imprisoned and paralyzed.” He wrote defiantly how, even with backwardness and despair everywhere around him, he nonetheless “saw China growing strong.” “I know that this nation of 450,000,000 people, united and awakened and purged by the war-fire, is coming up,” he insisted against all evidence. “The strength lies in her and nothing the western nations can do can stop her or keep her down.”
Such improbable dreams of a wealthy, strong, and proud China gave expression to widespread but frustrated yearnings for a revival of national greatness that arose in the nineteenth century, when for the first time in centuries Chinese could no longer think automatically and indisputably of their empire as Zhongguo (中国), the “Central Kingdom.” Today, however, after three decades of dynamic economic growth on a scale and speed beyond anything the modern world has ever known, the fantasies of Liang Qichao and Lin Yutang seem prophetic.
Such a starkly unexpected ending to modern China’s torturous developmental story compels us to reexamine the narrative of endless modernization failure with which we have all grown up. How did China’s modern history of relentless humiliation and backwardness, of failed reform and disastrous revolution—the curse of generation after generation of would-be activists trying to create a “new China”—suddenly morph into such a story of triumph? Was it really just a sudden post-Mao miracle conjured up by Deng Xiaoping, or were the seeds of the present planted long ago, only germinating so slowly that at the time it was difficult to see, or even imagine the shape of things to come . . . except in a few fictional dreamscapes?
This is not another book heralding or bemoaning China’s rise. Instead, we have chosen to engage in what is more of a historical reflection on the backstory to China’s “economic miracle,” an attempt to use history to find a new vantage point on its progress, emphasizing the perspectives of the Chinese themselves. In short, our goal has been to embark on a somewhat different kind of explanation for how, after over a century of decline, occupation, civil war, state repression, and socialist revolution, China finally did manage to catapult itself into an era of stunning dynamism and economic growth. To do this, we have chosen to primarily rely not on new archival material, but instead on preexisting scholarship—both the older classics in the field and some more recent research—works in which both of us have been immersed over our many collective decades of studying China’s history. By standing on the shoulders of this collective body of work we hope to see a bit further toward the horizon of China’s future, so bound up as it is with China’s past. For it is these works that shaped, and continue to shape, our own thinking and understanding. And since both of us have also had long personal odysseys studying, living, and working in China, we have also drawn on some of these more immediate experiences that have also played an important role in helping us make sense out of how and why things have worked out as they have in this most singular of countries.
In reading through historical accounts of the lives, writings, and speeches of the diverse group of iconic political and intellectual figures presented in this book, a common chord rings through all their work—the abiding quest for fuqiang (富强), “wealth and power.” Our account of modern China is thus the story of how these national leaders marched their people down the long road to fuxing (复兴), rejuvenation, and, by doing so, made Chinese society finally more ready than ever before for the possibility of a more open and democratic future.
The couplet of characters fuqiang has most commonly been translated as “wealth and power,” and as a result the term—a shorthand version of the ancient adage fuguo qiangbing (富国强兵), “enrich the state and strengthen its military power”—has thus worked its way into historical literature in the English language. The expression was coined during the Warring States Period more than two millennia ago, as when the Legalist philosopher Han Feizi explained bluntly, “If a wise ruler masters wealth and power, he can have whatever he desires.” For Chinese reformers since the early nineteenth century, these two characters have repeatedly stood in for the profound desire among China’s cognoscenti to see their country restored to the kind of greatness their ancestors had once taken for granted. Above all, these patriotic Chinese yearned for their nation to be able to defend itself against foreign incursion. Although in classical times these two characters conveyed a certain sense of aggressiveness, when the phrase was revived in the nineteenth century in a context of an empire in decline and struggling to maintain its territorial integrity, the subtext of “wealth and power” was self-defense rather than foreign conquest. A more fitting translation might actually have been: “prosperity and strength.”
As China’s humiliation deepened through each defeat by imperialist powers from the Opium War (1839–42) onward, the scramble to find the keys to China’s lost “wealth and power” gained an almost unbearable urgency. The ardor with which successive generations of Chinese intellectual and political leaders pursued fuqiang—even though most of them ended up with very little to show for their efforts—ultimately proved a unique dynamo fueling the country’s constant and fervent pursuit of self-reinvention and rejuvenation.
The obverse of the elusive dream of “wealth and power” was, of course, China’s chronic reality of poverty, weakness, and ignominy. As the West and Japan encroached ever more on its territorial sovereignty and as its people began to lose confidence in the superiority of their Confucian system itself, first uncertainty, and finally debilitating doubt and self-disparagement infected the entire society. When China was defeated by Japan—a presumably inferior Asian power—in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, the shock was staggering. By the end of World War I, the notion of their country as a global victim had become an organic part of how Chinese looked at themselves and their place in the world, with variations on the theme of “humiliation” infecting every aspect of China’s cultural, psychological, and political being. Confronting this narrative of prey versus predators, in which they were inevitably bested, Chinese reformers and leaders wrestled with the complex task of blaming the predatory great powers, while at the same time somehow absolving their own countrymen of too crippling a sense of inferiority and hopelessness. Myriad new slogans arose, and many have endured to this day, all emanating from a crushing sense of China’s having fallen from a previous state of grace: “Restore the nation and erase the stain of humiliation!” “Endure humiliation to carry out our important task!” By the 1940s, Chinese were speaking regularly of “a century of humiliation” and had even established a National Humiliation Day. To this day, children are still exhorted to “never forget national humiliation and strengthen our national defense.”
Modern Chinese intellectuals have continuously woven these grievances together into an ever more elaborate tapestry in which a weakened China is depicted as being unfairly pitted against a powerful, aggressive imperialist world. Within this frieze of history, our book examines how foreign exploitation and the ensuing humiliation that flowed from it became a deeply seductive, if painful, way of understanding their country’s inescapable failures, how these failures also became organic parts of a new national identity (marked by what one scholar has described as the “sanctification of victimhood”), and finally how they paradoxically provided raw material for escaping the dilemma of perpetually being both stepped on and one step behind the great powers of the world. Foreign superiority may have been humiliating and shameful, but it also served as a sharp goad urging Chinese to sacrifice for all the various reform movements and revolutions that came to be launched as a way to remove the stigma of their shame. And nationalism, which reformers and revolutionaries alike turned to as a way to galvanize the populace against their ignominy, grew directly out of China’s evolving consciousness of failure and weakness, its roots well irrigated by the aquifer of historical humiliation that had long been pooling beneath it.
In the nineteenth century, the effort to efface national humiliation and restore China to wealth, strength, and respect had been largely focused on the question of how the West’s military technology and economic yong (用), “techniques,” might be harnessed to China’s own national ziqiang (自强), “self-strengthening” effort. By the early twentieth century, however, the need for more far-reaching and radical approaches had become painfully apparent. It was in this period that Chinese thinkers first began seriously questioning the wisdom of maintaining the inner ti (体), or “core,” of the country’s traditional culture, fearing that China’s backwardness and inability to adapt to the modern world was rooted in Confucian values themselves. Fin de siècle public intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Yan Fu, for example, were ready to jettison the foundations of Chinese culture and import Western ideas in their place as part of a desperate effort to restore their country to greatness. “We have no time to ask whether this knowledge is Chinese or Western, whether it is old or new,” Yan wrote imploringly. “If one course leads to ignorance and thus to poverty and weakness . . . we must cast it aside. If another course is effective in overcoming ignorance and thus leads to a cure of our poverty and weakness, we must imitate it, even if it proceeds from barbarians.”
Soon thereafter, even more radical skeptics had launched a cultural and intellectual uprising known as the New Culture Movement, calling for a wholesale repudiation of China’s past and a new regimen of even more extensive foreign borrowing. For these activists, around whom much of twentieth-century Chinese history turned, the demolition of the country’s ancient Confucian escutcheon became part of a sacred mission to “save the nation.”
Unlike democratic political reform in the West, which developed out of a belief in certain universal values and human rights as derived from a “natural,” if not God-given, source, and so were to be espoused regardless of their efficacy, the dominant tradition of reform in China evolved from a far more utilitarian source. Its primary focus was to return China to a position of strength, and any way that might help achieve this goal was thus worth considering. What “liberté, egalité, fraternité” meant to the French Revolution and to the making of modernity in the West, “wealth, strength, and honor” have meant to the forging of modern China. As a result, Chinese reformers tended to inhabit what looks to Western eyes like a pragmatic kingdom of means, rather than an idealistic world of ends. Reformers have been interested in democratic governance at various stages in China’s tortuous path, not so much because it might enshrine sacred, inalienable political liberties but because it might make their nation more dynamic and thus stronger. “We cannot decide whether an idea is good or not without seeing it in practice” was the way Sun Yat-sen, “Father of the Nation,” who helped bring republican government to China, once pragmatically observed. “If the idea is of practical value to us and to the world, it is good. If the idea is impractical, it is no good.”
By this logic, since the liberal political philosophies and governmental systems of the West had been so effective in creating such extraordinary national strength, would it not be foolish of Chinese reformers not to also experiment with them? But the same held true for communism, fascism, and authoritarianism. If one kind of “borrowing” did not do the job, the inclination was to try another, and another . . . until China could find a formula that worked. So in their relentless quest for wealth, strength, and finally greatness, successive generations of reformers bent their energies toward giving their country the equivalent of serial economic, intellectual, cultural, and political organ transplants.
Initially, conservative and sometimes xenophobic factions obstructed and inhibited this process, but over time, the scope of what might be acceptably imported from abroad kept growing. However, whatever means of borrowing were chosen, the goal was almost always the same: the “salvation” of the nation and its restoration to global preeminence. It was this pragmatic willingness to try anything that has given the drama of modern Chinese history its strangely disjointed quality, as if each succeeding act of borrowing had been imagined and written by a different playwright.
Alas, learning from foreign models turned out to have its own set of problems, for to borrow from elsewhere in such a wholesale way meant to deny the most organic aspect of being Chinese, namely, its own unique cultural tradition extending back thousands of years. Indeed, for more than a century and a half, the country found itself oscillating between attraction to and then repulsion from a culture that had for millennia served it well, yet now seemed the very cause of its weakness and failure. Finally, under Mao Zedong the project of destroying the old core of Chinese identity was carried to a grim conclusion with a violent and totalistic resolve. But, like a forest fire that clears the way for new growth, it may have ironically also helped prepare the way to usher in a spectacular new kind of economic growth under his successor, Deng Xiaoping.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury. Copyright © 2013 by Orville Schell. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.