China In The 19th And 20th Centuries: The Time Of Writhing


Wealth And Power should be assigned reading in every high school in America.  It is the book on China for which I’ve been waiting for over a decade– a book explaining some of the reasons why early 21st century China is what it is.  This relatively slim single volume work offers a concise account of China’s trials and tribulations under the era of Western and Japanese Imperialism.  I define the stage of Western “Imperialism” as a second wave of Western Colonialism… the first wave consisted of colonizing the remaining tribal areas of the world, including the so-called New World, Australia, and parts of Africa.  During Imperialism, the West finished divvying-up Africa and began insinuating itself into even the large power centers of the world, such as the Ottoman Empire and China.

China began faltering beneath the heavy chains of Imperialism in the first half of the 1800s.  The country would suffer bullying and humiliating defeat for well over a century from both West and East (war-bent Japan did not allow a weak China to remain unchallenged)… until Mao Zedong, in the wake of his mid-20th century whirlwind of destruction, left a behind ravaged, bloodied, and starving China– that nevertheless was again able to hold its own in world affairs.

Other books, when approaching China, want to tell us about China’s ancient history, about its ancient philosophy, and about its ancient religious and social customs.  What the English-speaking world stood in sore need of, therefore, was a book exactly like Wealth And Power— a book that explains, to the extent that it can be done in one slim volume, how China –existentially challenged by Western Imperialism and Japanese aggression– rapidly evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries from a domain of feudal lands which had remained largely unchanged for thousands of years, to –arguably– the leading nation-state of the 21st century.  And all signs indicate China is well-positioned to obtain even greater wealth, strength, and prestige in the 22nd century.  The authors of Wealth And Power quickly paint the backdrop for us and set the stage, and then send out immediately the parade of modern thinkers and leaders that took China from the 19th century to the 21st.

The dominating sun of China’s political and social spheres for the last twenty-five hundred years has of course been Kung Fu-tse or Confucius (BTW… don’t ever allow your ego to inflate when it comes to your knowledge of the “proper” spellings of the English version of Chinese words… there is no one, correct spelling, and the accepted ones can change over the decades).

Confucianism is not really a religion, but is more of an ethical system or way-of-living.  One of the tenets of Confucianism is obedience.  Another strong Confucian mode of thinking is the belief that peace is good and turmoil is bad… I wouldn’t be the first to point out that this view can lead to a passive acceptance of one’s lot in life– as opposed to an active, aggressive warring against unpleasant circumstances.  This peaceful, passive outlook includes the political realm, wherein leaders and the upper class in China have often been viewed psychologically as father-figures.  As Confucius himself is said to have stated in his “Analects” (“collected sayings”):  “A man who respects his parents and his elders would hardly be inclined to defy his superiors.  A man who is not inclined to defy his superiors will never foment a rebellion.”  And to Confucius, this was a good thing.  The authors of Wealth And Power tell us that most Confucianists would view a struggle against a dominating power as an unwise “precursor to undesirable disorder and upheaval.”  If there is one thing Confucian thought attempts to eradicate it is Luan (Chaos).

The greatest counterweight to Confucianism in ancient China was Legalism.  It is a not a diametrical opposition between Legalism and Confucianism, but they do have vastly different approaches to ethics and to government.  Unlike Confucius, who thought every man had in him the potential to live like a noble “gentleman,” Legalists, our authors tell us, had a pessimistic view of human nature, and “viewed men as acting out of base motives such as fear and desire rather than loyalty and benevolence.” 

In Western philosophy, “Legalism” is defined as “the doctrine of salvation by good works,” and this is not so far from what the Chinese Legalists have in mind.  Unlike Confucius, who stressed the inner virtues, the Legalists didn’t worry with trying to improve the animal called “Man,” who is bound by nature to act basely if he can get away with it.  Instead, they concentrated on taming Man as fully as possible by using punishments to curb his worst qualities and moderate his uncouth behavior.  Thus, Legalists value Fazhi (the rule of law), whereas Confucianists believe in Dezhi (the rule of virtue).   A stable civilization, say the Legalists, must have rigid authoritarian controls, be highly centralized, and maintain an uncompromising system of strict laws and harsh punishments.  Laws in the Legalist mindset, our authors assert, do not exist for protecting people– they exist for controlling them.  What Legalism shares with Confucianism is a detestation of Luan.  And Legalists associated inward struggle with outward chaos.  As the Legalist expression goes… “Neiyou waihuan…” (“Anxiety within, calamity without”).

As can perhaps be surmised from this brief comparison, though both Confucianism and Legalism come from different angles, both schools-of-thought have as a major aim the minimization of Luan within the realm.  Thus, for centuries, Chinese society as well as the Chinese mind were contained and constricted by the fear and loathing of Chaos.  Confucianism and Legalism were like two strong jaws of a steel trap– coming from different sides, but collapsing upon the same point—Order… Order at almost any cost.  Thus, when the Imperialists arrived to smash the ancient Chinese Order and splinter the country into semi-colonies and even a (Japan-controlled) puppet state, the situation sent the Chinese reeling.  For over a century, the people would flail about looking for answers  and for the way forward and out of their subjugation to modernized nations.


For our purposes, we can move on from the Confucianism versus Legalism disagreement and fast forward two thousand years or so through Chinese history.  China– due to its high level of civilization and stability, to its military might, and to its geographic size and vast population– maintained its cultural identity throughout the centuries– even when its government was seized by outsiders such as the Mongols.

But in the 1800s, China began experiencing a series of military and diplomatic defeats that sent shockwaves down to the very deep, very old soul of the nation.  It is interesting how the eye of a defeated nation turns inward during times of catastrophe as the people attempt to figure out where they went wrong.  Much of the literature of the Scripture of the Hebrews stems from the wrestling of the Hebrew mind with the problem of their suffering, with the question as to why their nation was suffering, and as to why their god was allowing it to happen.  The Hebrew prophets usually declared that their people were suffering because they were not living according to the Old Ways.

The Chinese, in their time of turmoil, mostly took another tack.  Their prophets claimed the people were suffering defeat and humiliation precisely because they WERE still following the Old Ways.  This accusation came as a real soul shock to a nation who had never before had to seriously question the value, validity, and vigor of their ancient values and traditions.  And yet, the facts were the facts… the West– with its very different mindset and society– was dominating them.  Furthermore, the Japanese, who had adopted many ideas from the West, had suddenly– seemingly overnight– outstripped their fellow Easterners in China and become the dominant East Asian and Far Pacific power.  The lesson to learn seemed clear to many thinkers and writers of the late 1800s– adopt at least some of the ideas and values of the West, or else continue to suffer shameful defeat and experience loss of independence and territory.

Thus, China spent the better part of two centuries writhing, searching first this way and then that for answers.  Just as with Confucianism and Legalism, which take two different paths toward the same end, China 1839-2000 considered many different ways forward, but always with the same ends in mind… 1) Feng (self-strengthening) and  2) Wei Yuan (wealth and power).  The question– the torturously burning mystery–  was how Feng and Wei Yuan could best be achieved.  The answer probably considered the correct one by the masses was that what was needed was a firmer conviction to the Old Ways.  But the leading Chinese thinkers called, instead, for reforms.

Unusual for national histories, the founding of modern China does not start with the winning of a great war for independence, but with the losing of a war– several of them actually.  As our authors state, “It may seem strange to Westerners, accustomed to the histories of modern nations beginning with moments of triumph” […] “to find Chinese beginning their modern journey by highlighting the shock of unexpected defeat.”  The first of these defeats was China’s loss of the First Opium War to the British.  This national shame was the slap in the face that begin to stir from slumber the sleeping Chinese giant.  It was a slow awakening, taking many decades, but awake the giant did.  And it is to commemorate this rude but necessary awakening that the Chinese actually have a National Humiliation Day.  The authors of Wealth And Power explain it like this… Many of the Chinese view their humiliating trials under Western/Japanese Imperialism as a “Mencian Trial.”  A Mencian Trial, our authors explain, is a period of suffering that men must pass through in order to achieve true greatness… “When heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinew and bones with toil.  It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty.  It confounds his undertakings.  By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.”  That is how many Chinese today view their time of writhing during the eighteen and nineteen hundreds.  In fact, at the very site where the Chinese were forced to sign the humiliating treaty ending the First Opium War, a structure called The Temple Of The Tranquil Sea, there is a plaque today which reads, “To feel shame is to approach courage.”

The book Wealth And Power tells the story of China’s subsequent fall and rise, and tells it succinctly and in very good prose.  I’ll be discussing the main characters and events of this time-of-turmoil in future posts, using Wealth And Power as our guide.  I hope you’ll keep reading…


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist  



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