My Fascination With China
Author and journalist Jonathan Fenby explains what started him on an endless journey of exploration into China’s past.
Just before I left Hong Kong to return to London, came a suggestion that I might like to write a biography of the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek. A mad idea, I responded. I knew nothing about him. There must be scores of scholars better equipped than I to do such a book. But the idea germinated.
I went to the excellent library of Hong Kong’s China Club, and ensconced myself in the deep armchairs. I read up on Chiang and became steadily caught up in the extraordinary history of China between the fall of the empire in 1912 and the Communist victory of 1949 – and the figures who peopled the landscape. To begin with there were Chiang, the salt-seller’s son who rose from nothing to become China’s Generalissimo, and the Nationalist Father of the Republic and founder of the Kuomintang party (KMT) Sun Yat-sen, who relinquished power as soon as he had gained it and waged a series of quixotic attempts to get it back. Then there were the succession of extravagant warlords who divided the country between them from 1916 to 1927, the Communists under Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and others, the Japanese who took over Manchuria in 1931 and invaded the rest of China in 1937, the American Second World War adviser ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell and the generals who fought the civil war from 1945 to 1949.
Nor should we forget Chiang’s family-in-law, the Soong dynasty. This included three American-educated sisters – the glamorous Madame Chiang, her sister Qingling, a left-winger who eloped to marry Sun Yat-sen, and Ailing, the shrewd eldest sister who arranged her youngest sister’s marriage to the future Generalissimo and focused on making a fortune, including high-flying insider dealing; and the Soong men including the patriarch Charlie Soong who converted to Christianity and built a fortune on a Bible publishing business, his portly son T. V. Soong, who became prime minister, finance minister and a major businessman, reputed at one point to be the richest person on earth; and Ailing’s husband H.H. Kong, said to be a descendant of Confucius, who rotated with his brother-in-law in the top government posts and thought the answer to inflation was to print more money.
A visit with my wife to Chiang’s home village in Zhejiang province in eastern China clinched my infatuation with his story.
Zhejiang is one of the hottest spots in China’s booming growth, and the drive down from the port of Ningpo took us past a succession of towns dominated by factories that turn out everything from shirts and ties to playing cards – by the million. Then we came to Xikou, a charming, heavily restored village of white-painted buildings. Here, in 1887, in a modest house by the river where the locals set cormorants to catch fish, a band round their necks to prevent them from swallowing their catch, the man who would lead the KMT army out of the south to conquer most of China was born.
In the Chiang family’s ancestral hall were pictures of the Generalissimo and his clan. Up on the high ridge behind the village, through the tea plantations, was his second home, with sweeping views and a waterfall below. On the way up the slope was the temple where he kept as a prisoner a former Manchurian warlord who had kidnapped him in 1936 in a vain attempt to get the Nationalists to form an anti-Japanese alliance with the Communists. That night, back in a hotel in Shanghai, I began to write about Chiang.
Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost was published in 2003. Three years later I was asked to edit and contribute to The Seventy Marvels of China , which turned out to be a wonderful journey through China ancient and modern from the earliest bronze civilization and the development of silk to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and on to the booming Shanghai and Beijing of today. Two more books on China, to be published next year, have continued the authorial exploration I began seven years ago when – as a working journalist – I knew a fair amount about China today but little about its past. It has led down different paths and periods but has endlessly reinforced itself.
By this I mean that the past and closer history kept coming together. The ‘harmonious society’ currently preached by President Hu Jintao contains strong elements of Confucianism, as did Chiang Kai-shek’s philosophy, which has been described as ‘Confucian Fascism’. Mao Zedong admired the First Emperor, who imposed a harsh legalistic regime on the nascent power of China in the third century BC. And during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing identified herself with China’s only woman emperor, Wu Zetian, who reigned in the late seventh century ad. When Deng Xiaoping said the Chinese needed to get richer, he was echoing the prescription of a late nineteenth-century modernizer, Li Hongzhang.
The Seventy Wonders of China led me to explore China’s achievements, stretching back through the millennia, that have made it a unique civilization. This in turn has taken me further into the history of the country, so that I also have two more forthcoming books: Dragon Throne, on the imperial dynasties, and the Penguin History of Modern China, running up to the present day. Writing these showed me how some themes flow through thousands of years of the nation’s history, right from the First Emperor to the Communist Party Congress this autumn – notably a top-down system of authority, combined with the problem of asserting central control of such a huge and multi-faceted country.
From 1850 to the 1980s, China had the most protracted bad time of any nation on earth – civil wars, mass destruction, invasion, repression and huge natural disasters. Now, for all the shortcomings of the present regime, the world’s most heavily populated nation has entered a new phase in its existence. But, despite its modernity, it is a phase which cannot be disassociated from the past.
Editing an analytical service on present-day China as I now do, I find a knowledge of history essential in trying to understand what is going on in this country that manages to be both front-stage and opaque. As a saying attributed to Confucius has it, the person who does not understand the past cannot foresee the future. That has been the attraction of trying to join up the dots in the history of perhaps the world’s most interesting country, past and present.Seventy Wonders of China is published by Thames & Hudson, price £24.95. Dragon Throne (to be published by Quercus) and The Penguin History of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby are due out early next year. Jonathan Fenby is taking part in a panel discussion on ‘China and the World’, chaired by Jon Snow, at the British Museum on November 14th.
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