Building Heaven in China

Review of The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985 by John King Fairbank


Studying China is less about studying a country, and more about studying a civilization, with all the complexities hidden within a supposedly unified edifice. China has a long history of integrating state, society, and culture, under the emperor who was himself integral to the balance of the cosmic order. With such a rich history, why do popular conceptions of the modernization of China revolve solely around a clash of East and West, with the Middle Kingdom in a passive state of reaction?

John King Fairbank, one of the legends of Chinese scholarship, sought to rectify this methodological flaw in the way we approach Chinese history by writing an accessible 370-page book titled The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1895. In this (revisionistic?) history book, Fairbank describes both the technological and socio-cultural transformation that occurred as China struggled with modernity. But this is not a tale of European and American ingenuity confronting Chinese barbarity. No, this is an inner struggle as a civilization seeks to remake itself.

We learn of the Qing dynasty’s confrontation with European imperialism, masked in economic advancement. Yet the Qing were reluctant to change its economic model, not because it was stuck in mediocrity, but because its economy was so advanced and mature that it saw little need to change. Let’s jump ahead to Mao’s role in this Great Chinese Revolution. Fairbank argues that Chinese Communism might be a misnomer since Marxism is a Western product that has not fully taken root. Instead, what we see is a new dynastic regime that bears all the trappings of the ancient Chinese emperor. So we are left not with “state capitalism” or “state socialism,” but something sui generis.

The belief in “human educatability” was the driving force of the Great Chinese Revolution. And again, this came not from Western utopianism, whether anarchist or religious (think Reformation Munster), but from the fount of Chinese civilization: Confucius. The root of social decadence lies in poor education and training. From this proposition sprung the various intellectual reform movements that tried to remake China.

This is the essence of Mao’s optimism. With proper education, the masses can create heaven on earth. People are not inherently evil, just poorly taught. How else can we explain the collectivized countryside that left peasants to share everything, trusting in the absence of human greed? How else can we explain the presumed sanity of mob rule and anti-intellectualism?

The shift toward quantitative study in the social sciences is at risk of forgetting the importance of anthropology, that is, the study of the human self in all its complexity. Pure focus on numbers, statistics, and models can fall into the same trap as the Great Chinese Revolution. The human mind, heart, soul, and whatever component you want to add to the ontological person, are not (and never will be) the slaves of Kantian rationalism. Humanity defies Maoist utopianism while proving time and again the realism of the biblical worldview.

In both Western and Chinese conceptions of “revolution,” the perfectibility of people is a pillar of its logic. This is true for Confucianism as it is for Marxism, Tolstoyan agricultural reform, and Proudhonian anarchy.  It is cross-cultural—Chinese civilization didn’t need to learn it from the West. On the other hand, the Bible teaches the Christian not to trust the human heart for it is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9), let alone humanity in the broad sense. And time and again, God’s Word is proven true. Fairbank’s The Great Chinese Revolution is but one testament.

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