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Book Review: Jonathan Fenby has ways of making China talk

The former ‘Observer’ editor’s history of modern China argues the country has much to be proud of but that its government must fess up for past mistakes

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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I met Jonathan Fenby in the 1990s when he was editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong (before that he had edited the Observer in London), and it would be hard to imagine a more urbane, genial and even-tempered man. Since then he’s written an adoring but also highly perceptive book on France, and many books about Chinese affairs, most notably a widely praised biography of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) — Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Llost (2003). Now he’s been entrusted by Penguin to write a history of modern China that’s certain to be widely consulted, and even read, by students and the general public alike.

It’s next to impossible for history to be written independently of a specific viewpoint. Just to consider two English examples, Gibbon wrote from the viewpoint of an Enlightenment skeptic who saw Rome’s imperial equanimity as undermined by Christian obscurantism, and hoped the

same wouldn’t happen to 18th-century Europe, while Macaulay saw 19th-century England as the product of an evolution from Tory self-interest to Whig sanity and the rule of parliament. An “impartial” record of events, arguably, simply can’t be written. So, what are the fundamental beliefs that underpin Fenby’s capacious and magisterial history of China over the last 158 years?

peace at a price

Essentially, there are two. The first is that China has always, from the First Emperor in 221 BC to today, been ruled by an exceptionally efficient, though sometimes very cruel, bureaucracy that imposed peace at the price of individual self-realization. This was backed by the threat of force, but in general a society that endured longer than any other on earth, and traditionally saw itself as beyond compare, flourished and prospered. But government of the people by the people was never up for discussion.

Secondly, while the Chinese have every reason to be proud of their heritage, they must at the same time come to terms with their history, in particular their recent history. Censuring the Japanese over the Nanjing Massacre, the author writes that his book “argues for a more honest Chinese grasp of its history,” and that in the case of Nanjing the same is true for Japan as well.

The seamless continuity of Chinese governance from Emperor to CCP Chairman and President isn’t a new insight, of course. But the call for a more honest account of the recent past does lead to some strong emphases. The event Fenby is at most pains to highlight is the Beijing Spring of 1989. Including the run-up and the aftermath, this is given four entire chapters (out of a total of 32). By comparison the famine of the early 1950s gets a mere four pages.

The feeling you get is that, though this book will undoubtedly not be distributed in a Chinese translation inside China at present, it is bound, given Penguin’s formidable marketing powers, to be read there, if only in copies imported in travelers’ backpacks. This doesn’t make it earth-shattering, but it will certainly give support to a process already well underway via the Internet.

Fenby has been accused of ignoring sources written in Chinese, and it’s true there isn’t a Chinese character anywhere in the text. But his reading is capacious nonetheless. He has special praise for Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) on the Cultural Revolution, and refers frequently to the famous memoirs of Mao’s doctor, The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui (李志綏) (1994). He is appropriately skeptical, though, when it comes to Jung Chang (張戎) and Jon Halliday’s controversial Mao, the Unknown Story of 2005 [reviewed in Taipei Times Jan. 8, 2006].

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