A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World

A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World

Synopsis

China today is poised to play a key role on the world stage, but in the early twentieth century the situation was very different. In this powerful new look at modern China, Rana Mitter goes back to a pivotal moment in Chinese history to uncover the origins of the painful transition from pre-modern to modern world.
Mitter identifies May 4, 1919, as the defining moment of China's twentieth-century history. On that day, outrage over the Paris peace conference triggered a vast student protest that led in turn to "the May Fourth Movement." Just seven years before, the 2,000-year-old imperial system had collapsed. Now a new group of urban, modernizing thinkers began to reject Confucianism and traditional culture in general as hindrances in the fight against imperialism, warlordism, and the oppression of women and the poor. Forward-looking, individualistic, embracing youth, this "New Culture movement" made a lasting impact on the critical decades that followed: the 1940s, with the war against Japan and the civil war between the Nationalist Party and the Communists; the 1960s, with the bizarre, seemingly anarchic world of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution; and the 1980s, with the rise of a semi-market economy against the backdrop of continued single-party rule and growing inequality. Throughout each of these dramatically different eras, the May 4 themes persisted, from the insanity of the Cultural Revolution to the recent romance with space-age technology.
China, Mitter concludes, still seems to be in search of a new narrative about what the country is, and what it should become. And May 4 remains a touchstone in that search.

Excerpt

Chairman Mao, more than a quarter-century after his death, probably remains the one Chinese name generally well known in the west. From there onwards, the map has a lot of blank spaces. Despite this, I felt it was possible, and worthwhile, to try to write a book explaining how and why so much of contemporary Chinese politics and culture is heavily shaped by what happened in the early twentieth century. This book would not be a survey obliged to deal with every single aspect of modern Chinese history (and end up very long as a result), nor would it be a piece of very specialized scholarship, of the type essential to those working in the academic field but often inaccessible to those outside it. I hoped it would be possible to integrate the political, cultural, and social history of China, and give some idea of how the places where people lived, loved, and worked affected how they thought and behaved. I also felt it important to showcase some of the new directions taken by writing on Chinese history, politics, and literature in the last few decades, particularly as China itself has become much more accessible to researchers.

I hope that this book will act as a useful interpretation of modern Chinese history and politics, and show how the two are linked. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that one cannot fully understand what is going on in China today if one does not understand what happened there in the past. Anyone who reads a newspaper will see that Chinese politicians are acutely conscious of their own history. The Communist leadership greeted the return of Hong Kong in 1997 as the ending of 150 years of imperialist aggression in China; the 1989 Tian'anmen Square demonstrators compared themselves with students who had protested in that same spot 70 years previously. This book starts with . . .

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