Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping
by Klaus Mühlhahn.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 736 pages, $40.

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

For decades, many Western China-watchers were convinced that, given time, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would “converge” with the West and join the ranks of the postwar liberal world order. It was on this assumption that the PRC—a communist dictatorship notorious for lethal crackdowns on dissidents and for the wholesale slaughter of resisters in Mongolia, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square, to name just a few cases—was welcomed into the ranks of globalism’s institutions.

In late 2001, for example, China joined the World Trade Organization. China had arrived. The convergence was nigh. Or not. The deal has not prevented firms entering the Chinese market from being required to divulge trade secrets to their PRC partners at staggering cost in intellectual property, and even though many Chinese corporations were actually state-owned enterprises (SOEs, now restructured under the rubric of SASAC, the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission) receiving direct and indirect government support that would have disqualified any other country from membership.

Still, the globalist soothsayers were undaunted. Just give the Chinese time, we were told again and again, and eventually they will come around. It is better to shepherd the PRC into a “peaceful rise,” we heard, than to needlessly antagonize a potential future business partner (and the biggest consumer market on the planet). The day was always just about to dawn when China would be tamed by globalism and would enter the world order on Western terms.

It is now apparent that that day is never going to come. And yet, while we are just beginning to understand the consequences of that failed exercise in wishful thinking, it must be admitted that not everything that came of the finger-crossing-and-breath-holding was bad. Many of the accommodations made for China were more intellectual than political or financial, for instance, and the space opened up for thinking about China in new ways has been, on the whole, beneficial. As the world leaned back and made room for the PRC’s predatory business practices, concomitant rapine of the natural world, and lingering The East Is Red political thuggism at home, the Western intellectual class—always the first to discover Other People’s Racism—saw a rich vein of Orientalism-flagging and dove in. The story of China was now to be told on its own terms, the thinking went, and not subjected to the “imperialist gaze” of the racist West. In order to understand a rising China, scholars repeated again and again, we have to let the Chinese speak for themselves.

If one can filter out the ideological catalysts, one can see that there has been much good that has come from this diversification of source material. Apart from those from missionary backgrounds or with otherwise serious language skills, such as Pearl Buck (1892–1973) and Gen. Joseph Stilwell (1883–1946), many of the Westerners who sojourned in China during the first half of the twentieth century were ignorant of China beyond what they could see—and tried to avoid—from their foreign enclaves in Hong Kong or Shanghai. When the Chinese civil war got tangled up in the Japanese advance into the continent in the 1930s, a wary West saw China as less an exotic oddity and more a possible battlefield in the world war redo that so many were worriedly anticipating. Later, after the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the retreat of the Nationalist government under the (nominally) Christian generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) to Taiwan in 1949, and the Communist Chinese bitter fighting with UN troops on the Korean Peninsula from 1950, many in the West began to see China as “lost” to communism, a communism that had to be “contained” at any price. When National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger arranged President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, it was, again, as part of a complex dance of Asian and Pacific Rim geopolitics, and not as a direct investigation of China itself. Nixon went to meet Mao in order to stymie the Soviets and find a way to slip out the backdoor from the war in Vietnam, not to study the intricacies of Chinese history and culture. It was not until much later—very recently, in fact—that scholars began to listen, as a disciplinary best practice, to the story that the Chinese people, singly and collectively, were all along trying tell about their own experiences.

Again, however, the West was caught unawares. We thought we were beginning a conversation with China, but we were, in fact, preparing to be put in our place after all those years of inattention. In this gimbaled world historical moment, when the rise of China is pivoting to domination—when China speaking for itself is giving way to China speaking over everyone else—veteran China researcher and professor of Chinese history and culture at the Free University of Berlin Klaus Mühlhahn releases, with perfect timing, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping. The fruit of a heroic sifting through reams of documents, Making China Modern is the attempt to see the long birth of the PRC present in the context of the Manchu, Nationalist, and Communist past. Framed by the new wisdom on China—namely, that China isn’t going to converge with the West but is going to seek a paradigm of its own choosing and design—Making China Modern appears just as the window on the Chinese Other is closing again.

For a brief moment, which Mühlhahn’s book may very well come to typify, it has been possible to think of China as a traveler along a Far Eastern sonderweg of modernization and development. But this exception is swift becoming the new rule. Soon, it may be impossible to think of the West except in terms of the new world order that the People’s Republic has willed into place. Making China Modern is a brilliant rediscovery—now, while there is still time—of a China that is neither rising nor being lost, but which exists now, and has in the past, on its own understanding. China has indeed stood up, as Mao asserted at the founding of the PRC in October of 1949, but not on a Western dais, rather on an inevitably Chinese one.

There are so many comprehensive histories of China that the writing of them has become cliched in many ways. Mühlhahn has striven, as he notes in the acknowledgements, to undertake the “Sisyphean labor” of relearning Chinese history from scratch—to “reconceptualize today’s world from a historical perspective.” One will duly find no clichés in Making China Modern. Because so much has changed in and around the PRC in recent years, with new scholarship pouring out of universities and think tanks worldwide and new baseline understandings rapidly emerging of what the PRC is and what it is trying to do, most of the works with which scholars a generation ago were most familiar are now obsolete. Mühlhahn has stepped into that breach and mastered, to the best of one man’s ability, a whole new mindset about a huge and historically kaleidoscopic country. Making China Modern is the fresh, new result.

Mühlhahn’s beautifully crafted prose moves in four acts: Part 1, “The Rise and Fall of Qing China,” Part 2, “Chinese Revolutions,” Part 3, “Remaking China,” and Part 4, “China Rising.” The reason for Mühlhahn’s scope is also, in my interpretation, the reason his book is uncliched: he is thinking about Chinese history in a new way. So, Mühlhahn presents, at the beginning of his story, a portrait of the High Qing (ca. 1683 to ca. 1800) under the ruling Manchus as a time of prosperity, stability, and regional great power status, and concludes with current Chinese president Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road revitalization of ancient maritime and overland trading routes, a “New Silk Road.” Xi, a throwback to old-style one-man rule who might henceforth best be referred to as the first Chinese emperor to wear a necktie, is putting into place a new array of institutions to capture and reanimate the glories of the past. With the fall of Hong Kong to communist depredations in 2020, all that remains for Xi is to overrun Taiwan—where Ming loyalist holdouts to the Qing surrendered in 1683, marking the beginning of the Qing golden age—and to chase the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet out of the western Pacific and cow Japan into ceding the Senkakus and the rest of Okinawa. Mühlhahn surely bookends his history with upswings to accentuate the table-turning underway in the Middle Kingdom even as we speak.

Most of us are used to thinking of China as a basket case, a perennially failed revolution scrambling to undo unforced errors and catch up with the rest of the world. The emerging reality is turning that notion on its head. It has been the past one hundred and seventy years that have been the anomaly, from the first Opium War (1839–1842) and the cession of Hong Kong (1842) through the Taiping (1850–1864) and Boxer (1899–1901) rebellions, the shattering of the post-Qing polity into warlord fiefs (beginning with the Xinhai Rebellion in 1911), seemingly endless domestic and foreign wars, and through the garish mass murder campaigns and chaos opera of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976). “Making China modern” has been a struggle to find China’s footing in a new world, but as Colossus of Rhodes bestriding it, not as laggard hurrying to remain relevant. Mühlhahn has captured the zeitgeist perfectly. China is no longer rising, it has arrived. In its own eyes, the nightmare of the nearly two centuries heretofore has not been nearly as Westerners have portrayed it—China now speaks for itself, and scholars such as Mühlhahn have made it their business to listen.

The usual gestalt of the Chinese story is in place in Making China Modern, of course. Mühlhahn has not reinvented Chinese history, only rediscovered it. But the story has been so pruned of tropes and rooted in such a rich soil of documentary evidence, much of it in Chinese and also in German, in addition to the plethora of English-language scholarship Mühlhahn cites, that we feel we are in an entirely different world. There is much about Mao and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), for example, and also much about Chiang, Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang (1901–2001), revolutionary and visionary Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), and the big-chord moments of the drama such as the Long March (1934–1935), the founding of Manchukuo by Japan (1932), and the CIA-facilitated fugue of the Dalai Lama and his supporters to India in 1959. But there is so much fine-grainedness in Mühlhahn’s institutional history mode of scholarship that I blushed at several places, seeing that what I had long thought I understood about a particular aspect of Chinese history had been partly a tissue of unfounded assumptions.

One very good example of Mühlhahn’s mastery is in his presentation of the economic history of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the pandemonium of the warlord and civil war period, and then the PRC. Given the disasters of the famines that ensued in the wake of Mao’s push for right-now industrialization and collectivization during the Great Leap Forward, for instance, it is easy to focus on the trainwreck of a planned economy and to let the foolishness of communism narrate the period of mass death among the Chinese peasantry in the late 1950s.

In his “Planning the Economy” section, however, Mühlhahn contextualizes the Communist Party’s takeover of the agricultural, industrial, commercial, and financial sectors of the Chinese economy within the complex milieu of Sino-Soviet relations. Chinese leaders were largely in favor of emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, for example, but were also wary, especially after Stalin’s death, of dealing with any more Soviet advisors and aware that what worked in Russia would not necessarily work as an untempered transplant in the PRC. The Soviets—and the Americans—were rapidly developing industrial capability and extending their already-impressive military prowess, and Chinese economists and policymakers knew that the agriculture-extractive model from the First Five-Year Plan (1953–1957, announced partially retroactively in 1955) had built-in limits. “Once all the resources that could be reallocated to industry [from agriculture] had been reallocated,” Mühlhahn writes,

few economic gains were left to be made. At that point, the growth of the Chinese command economy stalled, with lack of innovation and poor economic incentives preventing any further progress. Once CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leaders recognized these constraints and limits, toward the end of the 1950s, the idea of a big leap held more appeal.

The Great Leap Forward was mad daydreaming by a power-addled dictator, to be sure, but it was not just that. Mühlhahn carefully retraces the steps of the past and reminds us, point for point, what informed decisions that in retrospect often seem terribly ill-advised. Behind the Mao propaganda and cult-of-personality curtain, in other words, there were less giddy minds at work, and the story of China is not all Sturm und Drang, but plenty of back and forth, too. Mühlhahn’s gift as an historian is to seek the shadows and not be distracted by the klieg lighting—which, in the case of Mao and his sycophants, has blinded so many other researchers before. There are many more actors than the usual handful mentioned in history books—Mühlhahn has very skillfully brought the whole cast into the narration.

Part of letting China tell its own story is giving a hearing to the PRC’s explanations for truly distasteful episodes, such as Tiananmen (June 1989) and the decade-long dunce-cap-and-struggle-session St. Vitus Dance known as the Cultural Revolution. Mühlhahn brings in the arguments and shows how assigning blame solely to Mao, or anyone or anything else, does not do justice to the complexity of events on the ground. But Mühlhahn also usually keeps sight of the moral dimensions of his subject. The standout chapter, “Overthrowing Everything: 1961–1976,” presents the turmoil of the Maoist hooligan years as a big-picture negotiation between the Party (which Mühlhahn reminds us is hardly just one man) and Chinese society as a whole, with various groups and individuals responding to successes and setbacks for the agendas in a panoply of ways. In the end, Mühlhahn is not fooled by any special pleading by the communists, then or now: “The turmoil in Chinese society caused by the Cultural Revolution was, above all, a dragged-out succession crisis at the top that saw intense jockeying in the leadership.” There were other factors, to be sure, such as “weak institutions, the overwhelming authority of an incumbent who wanted to make his own pick, and ambitious contenders coveting the top job.” But the bottom line is that, “While Liu Shaoqi [(1898–1969)] and many of the older leaders were removed from the equation [during and by the societal chaos], the succession issue was settled only with Mao’s death.”

In other words, an entire society was driven into madness for a decade because a handful of people in power could not agree on who should wield what authority and when. The Red Guards who kicked in the teeth of their former schoolteachers and betrayed their own parents to win points with the green-jacketed woke mob had their own consciences to contend with, but, for the historian, the responsibility for orchestrating the terror goes all the way to the top. That is an important moral distinction to make, and Mühlhahn deftly sorts the variables into a clear assay of historical complicity.

Elsewhere, however, Mühlhahn’s moral calculus occasionally runs algorithms rather than equations, blurring the placement of responsibility beyond what even the most careful scholarship warrants. For example, in assessing blame for the famines that took tens of millions (there is no agreement on exactly how many) lives, Mühlhahn wants to be clear that Mao did not intend to kill people by starving them to death, as did Stalin in the Holodomor. The Chinese famines are morally different from the Holocaust as well, Mühlhahn asserts, because of the differences in intent, the Germans fully meaning to perform mass murder but Mao aiming for development rather than starvation. Cold comfort, that. And it also misses the point of what communism is. For the sake of the Party, regardless of the country, any number of people may be killed. Dialectical materialism posits no soul and so no afterlife, so, logically, what difference does it make how many peasants wither away into an early grave? And as Rod Dreher reminds us about the Soviet experience in his new book Live Not By Lies, communism is, at heart, a lie. The moral compunctions of communists are washed out by their devotion to forcing the lie whatever the cost.

Even more narrowly, and dispensing with the argument from ideology, one can counter that Mao should have known that the unbelievable reports coming in from the countryside of bumper crops smashing all records were just that: unbelievable. There were tales of crops coming up so thick and hale that people were able to walk across the tips of the head-high stalks as though they formed a carpet underneath. Nonsense. A responsible leader would have made sure that his ego was not causing distortions in the informational supply chain such as these, ginned up by underlings eager to please a fickle tyrant. Mao’s dictatorialism produced subordinate lies in service of the big lie, and as a result—although Mao might not have drawn up the specific blueprint for such a thing—untold horrors ensued across a third of the Eurasian continent. Mühlhahn himself allows that “The Great Leap Forward intended to make the family obsolete as a unit of production, as a home, and as a ceremonial unit, and to replace it with large, modern, militarized, and disciplined formations of labor.” Half a moment’s reflection would reveal that such a project would require violence on an unprecedented scale. Mao went ahead with the plan anyway. The man thus stands so close to the subsequent mass human extinctions in the countryside that it is impossible, for me at least, to insert a wedge and make a morally compelling distinction between the two.

Making China Modern was released in 2019, before the Wuhan coronavirus laid waste the world. Recent reports indicate that, while economies East and West have been ravaged by the efforts of governments to keep populations safe, the People’s Republic of China—unburdened, as all communist states are, by compunctions about human life—has emerged from the pandemic it spawned poised to overtake the United States’ economy even earlier than projected before the annus horribilis of 2020. Documents that have emerged in recent weeks, especially a damning scoop in the February, 2021 issue of the Japanese newsmagazine Seiron, prove that the Chinese Communist Party leadership knew that a deadly and highly infectious novel coronavirus had been unleashed in Wuhan, but engaged in a cover-up instead of alerting the world. Later, the CCP manipulated its henchmen in the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and other organizations under heavy CCP influence to deflect attention from the now-undeniable responsibility of the CCP for the pandemic. Letting China tell its own story on its own terms, we have learned, is not solely an academic exercise.

It is in this sense that I say that the window for a book like Making China Modern is rapidly closing, if not sealed off already. The world after 2020 will likely be China’s more than anyone else’s. The great convergence anticipated by the West has ended in reversal. China has not only become modern, it has co-opted modernity, and henceforth it shall surely be Beijing, and not any Western capital, that sets the terms of any historical or economic debate. As a precious historiographical artifact in its own right, then, and for the masterly historical research that its author, Klaus Mühlhahn, has performed, Making China Modern is a must-read. It is too late to deflect China’s rise. Thanks to Klaus Mühlhahn, however, it is not too late to understand it.  

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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