Courtesy Reuters

The People's Middle Kingdom

"Communist China"-how far Communist? How far Chinese? And what is the difference anyway? How are we to evaluate the impact that decades of war and violence and revolutionary zeal have had upon the China of today? Do Peking's leaders use the terminology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism but express sentiments inherited from the Middle Kingdom? Are they unconsciously in the grip of their past, even when most explicitly condemning it? Certainly there is a resonance between China today and earlier periods. But how great is the actual continuity?

American expectations of Chinese behavior have groped along two lines-the approach by way of Moscow, the Soviet example, and the approach by way of history, Chinese tradition. The two overlap considerably, but both are faulted by discontinuity. China today is not just another Russia. It is very different indeed. Nor is the People's Republic just another imperial dynasty. Times have changed.

History can only help to synthesize these two approaches and suggest the degree of overlap. Chinese traditions, the Soviet example and the accidental conjunctions of events can all be given meaning in a chronological perspective. But history is invoked by all parties-by our Marxist adversaries, so addicted to their "world history," and by our own policy-makers, particularly when we have to be aggressive. Even the stoutest pragmatists can hardly leave it alone. Yet it is an art, not a science, a game any number can play except historians, who feel too ignorant to play with self-confidence.

The first difficulty for all China-pundits is the very high level of generality at which the game is played. Surely "Chinese history" offers "lessons" as diverse as the experience of a quarter of mankind during 3,000 years. But we are all entangled in the old Chinese custom of viewing the Chinese realm, t'ien-hsia or "all under Heaven," as a unit of discourse. We still characterize dynastic periods-Han, T'ang, Sung, Ming, Ch'ing, etc.-as homogeneous slices of experience even when each lasted two or three hundred years. It is like

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue