A chequered past
Reviewed by Parshotam Mehra

China: A History
By John Keay.
Pages ix + 578. Price not mentioned.

NEXT to the US, if not already its equal, China dominates the world stage, as a super power, a virtual Colossus. Apart from its international status, nearer home we have to deal with this land and its people as our next-door neighbour. Over the centuries there has been between us a long and hoary tradition of cultural exchanges, of a mutual give and take. Sadly though, the past half a century or so has been witness to a difficult patch with an unsettled border being a far from happy augury. It should follow that a better and fuller understanding would be a tremendous gain. Here John Keay’s large and impressive tome, which surveys Chinese history all the way from Confucius to Mao, comes handy.

Among the earliest Chinese dynasties, the Han (210-141 BC) gave the country the "most impressive form of government" that had as yet been devised in the world: at once pervasive and intrusive, insistent on participation, not unresponsive, but oblivious of representation. In more recent times, the switchover from the Ming (1368-1644) to the Qing (1644-1912) foreshadowed the supersession of an eclectic society by one with a more rigid social and cultural conformity. Before long the Ming’s brief flirtation with the wider maritime world stood repudiated in favour of the Qing’s typically inner Asian obsession with territorial conquest. More, it marked the economy’s growing dependence on the exchange of silk and ceramic exports for bullion from Japan and the New World. By the late 18th century, China had conquered the sub-continental girth that it enjoys to this day.

Ring-fenced to the east and the south, China’s Communist rulers (1949) sought support from the north-west. Here Stalin (1879-1953) and the Soviet Union (1917-91), who had inspired, funded, armed and often directed their Chinese comrades all through World War II years (1939-45), proved only too willing to lend a hand. While this did nothing to advance Beijing’s claims to Taiwan or Hong Kong, it did facilitate the reintegration of regions once controlled by Russia, notably the north-east (formerly Manchuria) and the far west (now Xinjiang).

"Not changing with the times" was a flaw common to many of China’s dynastic founders. Mao (1893-1976) was exceptional in just two respects: he lasted longer than most, thereby multiplying his potential for mischief and he discovered a rationale for prolonging the mischief that masked his innate love of power. This lay in the chairman’s belief that constant turmoil and class struggle were essential to the integrity of the revolution, which would else be undermined by inertia, corruption and ideological backsliding. In 1966, Mao unleashed the pandemonium of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution whose mass radicalism propelled the party down the rightist path. As earlier with the "Hundred Flowers" episode (1956-7) activism was encouraged and then reined in. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the CR was the decision to open up with the US (February, 1972), which was to end China’s 23 years in "international quarantine".

The April 4-5 (1976) Qingming incident in Tiananmen Square was apparently a spontaneous demonstration of mass disapproval of official indifference towards the recent death of Premier Zhou Enlai. A year later, in 1977, Deng was reinstated in the Politburo. In 1978, he sidelined Hua Guofeng to launch the reform movement that would shape contemporary China. Here the creation of the first Special Economic Zone (1980) at Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, proved to be the launching pad for transforming China into the "workshop of the world". Fortunes were made and brazenly flaunted, earnings rose, as did the skyline. And so also labour exploitation, environmental pollution, land appropriation, nepotism, crime and a whole culture of corruption. "To get rich is no sin," argued Deng. Pauperism, he reasoned, tarnished socialism; prosperity vindicated it.

A word on the Tiananmen Square (1989) demonstration may be in order. Student mourners had poured in thousands in sympathy for the deceased Hua, censure of the regime, and demands for reform. Taking their cue from the May 4, 1919, protests and the Qingming incident, the Cultural Revolution had now finally borne fruit. The 1980s were also witness to unbounded production and surpluses in the Chinese economy. The "concept of all under heaven" expanded and integrated to an extent unforeseen hitherto. The Middle Kingdom was now closer to the middle, more pivotal and powerful than ever before in its history.

Author John Keay is a prolific writer with almost a score of titles to his credit, including three specifically India-centric: Into India, India Discovered and India: A History.