Sun, Dec 07, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Book Review: Republican China rewritten

‘The Age of Openness’ is Frank Dicotter’s fresh perspective on an era more commonly portrayed as a catastrophic interlude in China’s history

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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For some time now the historian Frank Dikotter has been arguing that the Republican Period in China, far from being a bleak era characterized by weak governance, rampant warlords and foreign domination, was also, despite its real woes, a time of considerable promise and no small achievement. This of course is good news here in Taiwan, officially designated as being a continuation of the Republic of China founded on the fall of the emperors in 1912.

A major implication of what Dikotter argues is that the current push by Beijing to make China a globalized society is nothing new. Rather than breaking with a long tradition of being closed to the outside world, what the current leadership is actually doing is returning to the direction in which China was headed between 1912 and 1949, but which was abandoned when Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the Communists took over.

In fact there’s a lot of evidence that China had for centuries been remarkably open to the rest of the world, and the concept of a “closed” society was largely a fabrication of foreigners who wanted to prize it open still further, especially in the field of trade concessions.

Dikotter, though remaining Professor of the Modern History of China at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), is now based at the University of Hong Kong. His argument in favor of the Republican era as a time of increasing openness and internationalism, not to mention reform, has been mainly presented in two books, Crime, Punishment and the Prison in Modern China (2002) and Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China (2007).

The advantage of this new, shorter book, part of Hong Kong University Press’ Understanding China series, is that it pulls together his main conclusions and adds to them chapters on other aspects of Republican China, treated here by him for the first time. As a result, this book is a polemical overview of his essential position on the era, and as such attractive for those who might not have time to get to grips with his more detailed, specialist treatments.

Dikotter enters the fray with all guns blazing. What’s the point, he asks, of assembling more and more evidence supporting pre-existing assumptions? Far more useful is to go to the archives with an open mind and see what’s there, and what it tells us.

It could be argued, of course, that Dikotter too has an axe to grind — that saying that Republican China was full of promise, and this was all destroyed by the Communists, is as much a political platform as arguing the opposite, that China prior to 1949 was impoverished, corrupt and helpless and that the Communists saved the day. He’s at pains, though, to avoid this accusation, and often refers to the disasters that befell China during the period in question. “The point of this book,” he writes, “is not to provide exhaustive evidence for this view [i.e., that the Republican era was open, diverse and so on], but to avoid bland consensus, provoke critical thought and encourage readers to think creatively.”

The old view, then, was that China from 1912 to 1949 was autocratic, militarized, inward-looking and frequently starving. No, says Dikotter. Politically it was, for a time at least, more democratic than many comparable countries in Europe (and almost everywhere else in Asia), less militarized per head of the population than might be supposed, with considerable stability and continuity in local government even if the central government was weak, and with a remarkably international perspective.

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