A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World
By Rana Mitter
Oxford University Press, 2004, 384 pp.
The Troublesome Legacy of Commissioner Lin: The Opium Trade and Opium Suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s
By Joyce A. Madancy
Harvard University Press, 2004, 448 pp.
These books focus on what might seem like narrow topics, but they contain more novel insights and findings than do most general histories of modern China, illustrating the complexity and intractability of the difficulties China has faced in its struggle with the modern world. Mitter begins with the founding of the May Fourth Movement during student demonstrations against the decision at Versailles to grant Germany's Chinese concessions to Japan. He then traces how May Fourth, with its idealization of democracy and science and its denunciation of Confucianism as the cause of China's backwardness, has surfaced in one way or another at every turn in modern Chinese history. In every fight over discarding old traditions and adopting modern advances, May Fourth has been central; even Mao's Cultural Revolution, with its call for a new Chinese culture, bears its mark.
Through a detailed case study of attempts to suppress opium use in Fujian Province, Madancy shows that, in the interactions of state and society during the late Qing and early republican years, even the most well intentioned policies could produce undesirable results. Time and again, national and local suppression only created new problems, and so there was a repeat of Commissioner Lin Zexu's effort to cut off the British trade in opium that triggered the Opium wars, which ended in China's humiliation.