Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Qings

History is a pet subject of mine, and non more so than about the country of my origin - China. No, I wasn't born there because my parents/grandparents migrated to Singapore in the middle of the last century. And I haven't really found out from either of these 2 parties why exactly they quit China. Perhaps it had something to do with the chaotic situation in China that characterized, so I am given the impression from popular history, much of the the latter part of the Qing dynasty into the Nationalist period after the fall of the Empire. This book doesn't cover all the ground I am interested in, but it does give me a sense of how China 'progressed' towards revolution and thus the birth of modern China.

Mr William Rowe has written a scholarly yet highly readable account of the Qing Empire, from the fall of the Ming dynasty to the 'golden era' of the Qings under its 3 most illustrious and effective Emperors, Qianlong, Yongzhen and Kangxi. Rowe writes extensively about Chinese society under these emperors - the imperial examination system inherited from the previous dynasty and its effect on social stratification, politics, customs and practices. Rowe also covers the period of the 19th century on the arrival and intrusion of the Europeans and Japanese people onto China's soil and highlighting the opening of trade with the 'outside world'. An unfortunate by-product of an otherwise beneficial trade relation resulted in the Opium Wars, and the Taiping rebellion owed its origins to people who embraced, though later, distorted the Christian religion that was brought to its shores by western foreigners such the British and the French. A heart-wrenching (from a Chinese perspective) account of how these foreigners, including Japan, 'bullied' China into ceding precious land and monetary reparations highlighted the overall weakness of the Qing emperors in the latter part of the 19th century.

I am no historian, and I do not know if Mr Rowe's account is revisionist or otherwise. He does cite accounts from earlier sources to evaluate what happened and how, with the hindsight of a 21st century knowledge, long held beliefs about Chinese history during the Qing period could be mistaken. For example, he shows that China expanded its territories significantly under the Qing empire, subjugating much of the foreign tribes and nationalities in North-eastern China (for which China is now paying a price), its annexation of the island of Taiwan, and its tributary control over the Korean Peninsula. Mr Rowe also makes that point that the Qing emperors largely devolved the governance of its far-flung domain to appointed governor-generals working with a hierarchy of local literati-gentry-merchants over the span of its history. This perhaps made its dynastic rule much more manageable from the center. And he does make the point the were it not for the Empress Dowager Cixi and her group of followers, China would have been more unstable in the twilight of its empire.

Finally, Rowe discussed the role of the various people who contributed, either more or less, to the brewing revolutions that eventually toppled the Qing empire in 1911. He quite frankly portrays Sun Yat Sen as a bungling revolutionary and, at best, a representative, though largely symbolic  figure, in the overall toppling of the Qing empire and the establishment of the Nationalist government. He makes the point, more than once, that Sun was faraway in Denver, USA, when the revolution in Wuchang succeeded.

This is an absorbing account and will no doubt engage even the non-historian.