Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: 近代中國史綱(上) (A Short History of Modern China, Vol. 1)

I've finished Volume One (of two Volumes) of A Short History of Modern China by Kuo Ting-yee (it's written in Chinese and published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong 近代中國史綱(上)). This volume covers the time period from the 1830s up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, and it coincides with the period covered in Stephen R. Platt's new book Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age. Volume Two covers the timeframe between 1912 and 1949, which I will read at a later date. I thought it sensible to read a history book about Modern China written by an ethnic Chinese historian.

It was a difficult (painful) read for me (probably the same for any ethnic Chinese) because it was a blatant case of Western countries (Britain, France, Germany & to a lesser extent, the U.S.) plus Japan and Russia scheming to bully and split up China in the name of fostering trade. Of course a feckless, self-serving and rotten Qing court (with Empress Cixi and Yuan Shikai as the main culprits) not only didn't help matters but actually emboldened foreign countries’ covetous ambitions. Honestly speaking, the causes leading to the debacle of the Qing Dynasty were not spectacularly different from those that helped to wipe out Ming, or Yuan, or Song, or Tang or Han. It was always a matter of internal rot, corruption and internecine fights at the ruling classes’ level and their gross neglect of subjects’ grievances that initiated the process of rapid decay at the core. Unfortunately, it is also true that the lessons of history have never been well learned even with endless repetitions.

Having said that, I am of the view that neither should those foreign aggressors be let off the hook for their nefarious behavior and shameful actions that caused unspeakable sufferings to the common people of China. History and international relations are a complex chain of causes and effects. Learning and understanding world history is the first step towards understanding our present human condition. 

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