The Cambridge History of China, Volume 14, The People's Republic

Published in History Today

The Cambridge History of China, Volume 14, The People's Republic. Part I: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965

Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank

Cambridge University Press, 1987 - xvii + 772pp

As befits its subject, this book starts off in majestic fashion. Fairbank's introductory chapter, a model of good prose, sets 1949 in the context of the previous four millenia of Chinese history, in particular the continuous striving for unity under succeeding dynasties. Mao Zedong is presented in a sense as the new emperor rising in the traditional manner as the man of ideas and of action, able to step above his advisers and warriors to impel his kingdom into the physical cohesion and economic rejuvenation it craves. Even modernisation cannot be regarded as a new phenomenon. Hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, China has replayed its destiny within its own frontiers many times over, in contrast to a Europe that has changed its role as often as it has spread itself outwards.

The task facing Mao was immense in a country that was divided and impoverished by decades of civil and foreign wars, that was in any case poor, and that had lost its way between its own decaying culture and the half-digested cultures of a variety of barbarians. But in the period down to 1957 which is covered in the first part of the book, he was remarkably successful. There were many reasons. One was the quality of his leadership ('a central factor', Frederick Teiwes calls it), his ability to secure the co-operation not only of his party colleagues but of a wide range of varied interests, his reputation as a leader and his experience of tackling economic and social problems on the road to power in Beijing. Another was the appropriateness of his policies for China's immediate needs and his steady willingness to adapt the Soviet model of socialism to local conditions, making use of the vestiges of capitalism as and when required and constantly drawing from the successful compromises of his Yen an period. There was also the undoubted fact that the country was anxious for political order and economic progress, no matter its colour.

In these first few years the Soviet contribution to Chinese development was considerable in terms of equipment and personnel; and there was much imitation of things Soviet from administration to education. But there was little actual economic assistance; and Stalin's inaction and Khrushchev's actions gave rise to increasing resentment. Only half-convinced of the relevance of the Soviet model and more and more sceptical about Khrushchev's orthodoxy, as well as determined to press on with the revolution in' China, Mao produced his own plan for the rapid transformation of Chinese society. The so-called Great Leap Forward got underway in 1957. Using mass tactics, the idea was to raise agricultural and industrial production at unheard-of speed, to reinvigorate the party and to impose new discipline on the people. The plan was flawed from the start by its over-ambitious targets, and it failed to convince many of Mao's colleagues. It was partly responsible for the desperate famine of 1959-61, though external factors were more responsible than this book apparently concedes. Mao had to accept a reduction in the size of the communes and a slowing-down in the planned growth-rate.

This did not mean that the dynasty had failed. By 1965 China was by and large back at the levels of production of 1957, and a foundation had been laid for gradual but impressive growth. On the other hand, Mao had faltered. His critics carried more weight than he did, and he began to fear both his own death and the likelihood of the reversal of the revolution that he had fought so hard to implant and expand. He was already in alliance with the self-seeking allies (including his second wife) who would shortly launch the near-suicidal Cultural Revolution. As Kenneth Lieberthal comments:

During 1958-65 the Chinese Communist movement lost some of its key political assets, both in terms of the organisational weapon it possessed in the Party and in terms of its reservoir of legitimacy among the population. These losses contributed to the deep divisions that led in turn to the Cultural Revolution.

Yet by 1965 much else had been achieved. China was accepted internationally as a power that had fought the USA to a standstill in the Korean War and had proved it was possible to break with the USSR. Internally it was adjusting to foreign ideas, taking some of the best from the West as well as tempering the worst of the Soviet. There might be nasty convulsions ahead, but leaders and policies were being forged for the time when the old man would die.

The present volume contains much of great interest and all well authenticated. The authors are properly cautious with what they cannot substantiate; they also provide excellent bibliographical essays. Their book therefore stands as a stimulus and guide to further research. Some illustrations and a few less acronyms might have been helpful; but the maps are useful. It is possibly too insular to regret that none of the authors of a Cambridge history are based in the United Kingdom, and only one seems to be British. However that is a commentary on the niggardly support for Chinese scholarship in one country. The volume remains a tribute to the abilities and dedication of its authors. In the first chapter, Fairbank refers to the phases of understanding of China, from the missionary through the diplomatic to the journalistic, and now to the social scientific. It can certainly be said that he has edited a fine piece of social science writing.