Modern Chinese History: What Every Student Needs to Know

By Austin Dean

That headline is a play on the title of the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, the second edition of which, published in 2013, was a collaboration between this blog’s co-editors, Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham. The book opens with an author’s note by the older of the two collaborators, Wasserstrom, in which he looks back to his undergraduate days in the late 1970s when he took his first class on Chinese history. He did so on a “whim,” he writes, at a time when it seemed “purely optional” to pay attention to China.

The country only made headlines occasionally in America back then. “What a difference thirty years can make,” the author’s note continues, “in the life of a country — and in the amount of global interest it generates.” These days, it is hard to escape stories about China. But even now, as Wasserstrom writes, quoting the historian and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash, “we readers in Western countries still get much less thorough coverage of China than we need.”

While Wasserstrom and I belong to different generations, my own experience is not that different from his. When I first signed up for a Chinese history course in my sophomore year of college early in this century, it was very much on whim. I did not know much about China, let alone about other countries in East Asia. But a lot of things can change in 10 years: Now I’m teaching East Asian history.

With Wasserstrom’s comments and my own experiences in mind, I was curious to find out what kind of background knowledge and opinions my own students brought with them as we began our course.

In my class on Modern East Asian History (China, Korea, and Japan), there is a near 50-50 split of domestic and international students — mainly from China, but with a handful from Canada, Russia, and Singapore. In the first week of classes this semester, I asked my students to name the most important thing a person should know about modern Chinese history, 1600 to the present. Of course, there were no right or wrong answers; they could identify a person, event, idea, belief, or anything else. They had to answer the same question for Korea and Japan, too, providing reasons for all their selections. (This activity is a little easier to do for the modern history course that I’m teaching. In the first week of a pre-modern history class, students don’t have much of an opinion on, say, the Korean peninsula before 1600.)

On the whole, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the range and quality of the responses, especially since it was due the first week of class and the activity was meant more as a survey than an assignment. None of the students resorted to the phrase that Wasserstrom thinks is all too common when discussing China — the country is “inscrutable.”

Most of the answers were notable for their presentness — almost all the responses named something in the 20th century; there was not much mention of anything before the middle of the 19th century, and no specific mention of the Qing dynasty. The most surprising answer was someone who argued it was most important to know about the Cairo Conference of 1942 because it shaped the post-World War II order in Asia. And, if you are wondering — yes, the student who wrote that is a history major.

Most students selected a person. One named Sun Yat-sen, a key political figure in the early 20th century, because “he was important in the revolution that ended imperial China and paved the way for the eventual creation of the People’s Republic of China.” Answers that focused on a person were generally split between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. One response argued that it was most important to know about Mao Zedong because “he played a major role in making China as powerful as it is today.” Others made essentially the same argument about Deng Xiaoping. A number of American students had not heard of Deng, and that’s fine; it is why they are taking the class. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Deng Xiaoping was in my freshman year of college, either.

Some responses were quite thematic. One student reflected that the most important thing to know about Chinese history is that “the Chinese have an incredible national pride in their rich history … they have a belief that they are the continuation of the great and powerful Chinese story written by no other hand than their own.” Another response argued that in order to understand Chinese culture, one had to comprehend that it is really a mix of three elements: “Marxism culture, western culture and Confucian culture.” On the whole, pretty profound stuff for the first week of an introductory history class.

At a geographic level, one student wrote that it was most important to recognize “China’s size and diversity” because that seems to be “the most overlooked aspect of China in the Western world.” As one of the Chinese students in the class pointed out, the observation is equally true for most Chinese views of the United States. When he told his family and friends that he was going to Ohio for university they were confused because they thought ”Ohio” was how you say “good morning” in Japanese (ohayo gozaimasu) — not the name of a place in the United States.

We will do this activity again in the last week of the class to see if — after the duration of the course — the students have changed their minds and have different answers to the question. Of course, by that time, I hope some content issues will be cleared up: students will know who Deng Xiaoping is and that writing that “the Great Leap Forward can essentially be credited for China’s powerful economic influence in the present day” isn’t exactly correct. But, for the first time around, their responses were quite insightful, especially since no one had read China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.