20th Century History of China

There is much of history that I do not know. In Canada, the history education is keyed towards the story of the civilizations that contributed to Canada – from the Fertile Crescent, Egyptian empire, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, a little bit about the Middle Ages, Christopher Columbus, the French Revolution, Napoleon, the British Empire, the US Revolution and Civil War, culminating in World Wars I and II. The history courses barely touched the post-war era.

The gaps in my knowledge include the history of Africa, South America and Asia. For example, my knowledge of Chinese history was only cursory: they invented gunpowder, there was a guy named Confucius, a bunch of dynasties, Genghis Khan, they built a wall to keep someone out, then Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square.

I had read a little bit about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they effected people in China. But I did not know why those events happened.

And I’ve read about what China is like today (the booming economy, the mass migration, etc) via the journalist James Fallows (The Atlantic), through TV and YouTube video clips, and by reading the book China Road by Rob Gifford.

None of that helped explain why there are major tensions between Mainland China and the island of Taiwan.

Therefore, I was very pleased to have bought and read “China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition” by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman. This book has filled in those huge gaping holes in my knowledge and understanding. And it has been full of real surprises, especially around the tumultuous events of the 20th Century in China.

I did not know about the conflicts between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao and the Kuomintang (GMD) under Chiang Kai-shek, how they had partly worked together to fight the Japanese invasion, then in the post-war years the CCP pushed the GMD out of mainland China. The GMD leaders fled to the island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa).

What surprised me the most was how cut-off mainland China was from the rest of the world. I was stunned to learn that until 1979, Taiwan was recognized as the sole legitimate government for all of China. Taiwan represented China at the United Nations Security Council until 1971. I had assumed that there had always been recognition of mainland China as a separate entity from Taiwan since their modern formation in the late 1940’s.

China was completely cut-off from the world for decades, similar to North Korea today. It was inwardly focused. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1961, China was even more alone.

I had known that Nixon’s 1972 trip to China was pivotal for opening up of China, but I never had the context to fully understand why. Now I can see how crucial that visit was.

The current status of Taiwan is also better understood with the new historical framework. Taiwan continues to be protected by the US. In the late 1940’s, the US protected and even sent troops to the island to defend it as part of the communism containment policy; this was only a few years into the Cold War. The US Seventh Fleet patrolled the East China Sea to bolster the defense of Taiwan from the communist mainland. At the same time, the US was involved in the Korean War, where General MacArthur specifically planned to invade China across the Yalu River before he was relieved of command. As with Germany and Japan, this fed the economic growth from being within the US sphere of influence.

The events in Tiananmen Square took place only 10 years after official recognition. It would be easy to guess that the older hardliners in the CCP were surprised by the reaction from the rest of the world for what it might have seen as a purely internal matter. Once it opened itself to the world, it also opened itself to critism of its human rights records, its pollution, and so forth. Like a company that just had an IPO, everything that was once private becomes very public. and open to criticism and condemnation.

Reading “China: A New History” has opened up more of history than any book I have read in the last two decades.

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