Homegrown Modernity

Restless Empire
China and the World Since 1750
Odd Arne Westad
Basic Books, $32, 528 pp.

Studies of China’s engagement with the outside world have been with us for well over a century. Those written in the West used to reflect an established orthodoxy, which held that reverence for the desiccated traditions of Confucianism kept China back from modernity, and that any change and progress must come from outside forces—meaning the West, and its surrogate, Japan. They were the activists, and China merely the passive recipient of their efforts.

Matters were never so simple, of course, and Odd Arne Westad’s survey of two and a half centuries expands those foreign influences to include not only Russia, but also Korea, Southeast Asia, and India, among others. His version is far more complex and interesting than a simple account of China’s adoption of Western ways in science, culture, or (either democratic or Marxist) politics. It includes the activities of Chinese themselves, such as those in the thriving overseas Chinese (huaqiao) commercial communities in Southeast Asia, whose establishment often followed the advance of Western imperialism. Since the 1870s, Chinese students abroad have played an important role in the transmission of knowledge (think of the Communist leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, for example). And if this transmission once seemed heavily one-way, it is no longer so, as the changes in global capitalism arising from China’s economic expansion have recently made evident (while also...

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About the Author

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, is a frequent contributor to Commonweal.