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China’s Other Global Moment

April 1, 2009

Ivy Wang

The Age of Openness: China before Mao
By Frank Dikötter
Hong Kong University Press
October 2008
140 pages, $21.95

Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s decision to liberalize the Chinese economy, and in keeping with the occasion, the Mainland press dutifully filled its pages with stories commemorating “Thirty Years of Reform and Opening Up.”A new book by Frank Dikötter, however, argues that modern China opened its doors to the world much earlier than 1978.

Taking the Republican Era from the fall of the Qing in 1911 until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 as his subject of inquiry, Dikötter argues against the received wisdom about this chapter in Chinese history. Rather than merely a period of decline in which fractured rule led to social unrest, the Republican period was a “golden age of engagement with the world,” in which Chinese people contributed greatly to the international exchange of goods and ideas.

Wellington Koo is emblematic of the time. Born and raised in Shanghai and educated at top universities abroad, Wellington became one of Republican China’s most effective ambassadors. He helped form the League of Nations, was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945, and during his illustrious career was made judge and vice-president in the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Koo was just one of a generation of cosmopolitans whose international education and experience not only enabled them to bring the ideas of the world to China, but just as importantly, empowered Them to give China a voice abroad. Under their leadership, China became a leader in the field of sociology. Bingham Dai studied at Yale and produced a groundbreaking study of drug usage  in Chicago in 1937 that is still referred to today. Domestically, a dozen sociology departments existed in 1930. Chinese scholars put out nearly 2,600 publications and collaborated with foreign staff to write important studies of China such as the classic Peking: A Social Survey.

China also led the world in codifying penal reform, sending delegations to major conferences on penal administration in the U.S., Czechoslovakia, and Denmark. It became a signatory to the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War in 1929 and adopted minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners set by the League of Nations in 1934. The acceptance of these standards was not merely an empty gesture. At least six journals dedicated to prison reform were published in China, and archival evidence demonstrates that such reforms were implemented down to county jails, putting China firmly in the company of the most progressive nations of the time and ahead of the policies of illiberal regimes in Spain, Germany, or Italy.

The same was true of the arts,where political openness allowed for a blossoming of the avant-garde. Beyond the renowned generation of May Fourth writers who transformed China’s existing literary forms to better reflect its social reality, composers, photographers, painters, and filmmakers also pushed the boundaries of their art forms. The photographer Lang Jingshan hand-painted negatives to give his pictures the effect of ink landscapes, while the composer Zhou Wenzhong combined Chinese folk music with atonality. Both artists, however, saw their work erased from public view after 1949.

Moreover, Dikötter takes care to argue that this global field of vision was not limited to the elite. Hinterland schools stocked the biographies of Lincoln, Napoleon, and other foreign luminaries. In remote communities, religious beliefs such as Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Buddhism mixed with indigenous custom to form new syncretic faiths. Extending his survey beyond intellectual history and into material culture, Dikötter points out the widespread accessibility of foreign accoutrements. He writes that “by the end of the Republican period even the very poor were likely to be wearing clothes spun from imported yarn.” Bread, ice cream, and yogurt became popular snacks and the wealthy farmer was “proud to display his leather shoes and panama hat.”

Underlying his discussion of cross-border contacts, Dikötter has a more polemical point to make. According to Dikötter, scholars of China’s modern history have taken “revolution as the key to historical change,” focusing on events such as the Opium Wars or the Cultural Revolution, the forces that led up to them, and their reverberations. This approach has led historians to emphasize the political dissolution and civil unrest that plagued the Republican Period, viewing it primarily as a stage on the way to the Communist Party’s consolidation of power.

This approach not only robs the Republican Era of its intellectual, artistic, and diplomatic contributions, it also assumes that strong, centralized rule was better for the Chinese people. In fact, Dikötter tells us that recent scholarship has painted a more nuanced portrait of the time. Fragmented rule, while vulnerable to corruption, also proved fertile ground for experimenting with democratic institutions like representative elections and fostering democratic voices, such as that of Zhang Pengjun, the Chinese delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights who was charged with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. To be sure, famine and social inequality remained endemic, but recent surveys have shown them to be far less devastating than what took place under Communist rule.

Rather than revolution, Dikötter proposes that we view China’s recent history in terms of globalization, as an “unfolding embrace of the world, an intensification of global connectivity, a gradual increase in the flow of people, goods, ideas, institutions, and techniques”—a change in perspective that would not only shed new light on China’s past, but also pose a new set of questions about the direction of its future.

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