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Reviewed by:
  • Tianchao de bengkui: Yapian zhanzheng zai yanjiu
  • David Cheng Chang (bio)
Mao Haijian 茅海建. Tianchao de bengkui: Yapian zhanzheng zai yanjiu 天朝的崩溃: 鸦片战争再研究 (The collapse of the Celestial Empire: A reanalysis of the Opium War). Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2005. 600 pp. Paperback 32.00 RMB, isbn 7-108-02294-x.

Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) famously stated that "every true history is contemporary history," suggesting that the representation of history reflects the circumstances and attitudes of historians in their contemporary times.1 Chen Yinke (1890–1969), probably the most revered historian in twentieth-century China, advocated historical writing with "well-informed sympathy," that is, a thorough understanding of the historical context.2 These two seemingly contrasting dicta by Croce and Chen encapsulate the dilemma confronting every historian: Can a historical narrative be historical and contemporary at the same time? Mao Haijian's Tianchao de bengkui: Yapian zhanzheng zai yanjiu suggests an affirmative answer. While another leading Chinese historian, Luo Zhitian, sees the inherent conflict between the historical and the contemporary in Mao's book, this reviewer finds that Mao's contemporary concerns do not detract from his historical scholarship.3 In this weighty work of more than 400,000 Chinese characters, empirical contexualization with "well-informed sympathy" underpins Mao's arguments, which are of both historical and contemporary significance.

In unprecedented detail, Mao reconstructs the history of the First Opium War from 1839 to 1843. In his effort to "use ideas of their time to explain historical actors' thoughts and actions" (pp. 2–3), Mao begins the book by rehabilitating Qishan, who was vilified in both contemporary accounts and nationalist historiography as a "treacherous official" and "traitor." He also debunks the mythology of Lin Zexu as the polar opposite of Qishan, an official of complete probity, competence, and vision. Armed with a large amount of archival and documentary evidence, mostly from the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing, the author demonstrates the speciousness of the simplistic and moralistic model of "a two-line struggle between the patriotic line of Lin advocating resistance and the traitorous line of Qishan proposing capitulation" (p. 22). Contrary to the traditional view that sees the policy division along the fault line of ethnicity, Mao points out that once the war was under way, "in the war zones of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu," irrespective of ethnicity, "none of the officials with actual responsibility … still advocated 'jiao'" (剿, literally meaning suppression, but here denoting uncompromising resistance), a uniformity in striking contrast to the fact "none of the officials in nonwar zones suggested 'fu' (抚, appeasement)" (p. 424). Mao consistently makes a distinction between two types of judgment, moral and political (i.e., practical), and his [End Page 533] focus is on the latter. Eschewing self-righteous, moral judgment, Mao's "well-informed sympathy" enables him to appreciate the actual political predicaments historical actors were facing.

As a military historian by training, Mao's unrivaled expertise on the military aspect of the war shines throughout the book. In chapter 2, Mao analyzes the substantial gap between Chinese troops and the British, in terms of both technology and organization. Mao observes that the main function of the Qing army was for suppression of domestic unrest, not external warfare (p. 53). In striking resemblance to the Ming military described by Ray Huang, the Qing troop mobilization still relied on "a medieval financial system" supported by "donations" (juanshu 捐输), which often involved, in practice, coercion (p. 422).4 The most glaring deficiency was in technology. Chinese firearms were mostly imitations of Western imports in the Ming, lagging the British by more than two hundred years (p. 34).

A series of maps outlining each battle demonstrates the gap in military tactics and strategy, as the British executed the same battle plan in various landing operations, and the Qing army was repeatedly rendered defenseless, with the exception of the Zhenjiang battle (p. 443). Mao highlights the bitter irony of Emperor Daoguang inquiring about world geography after China's defeat, while a fine world atlas made by Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) was left collecting dust in a palace warehouse (p. 430). In sharp contrast to Mao's reasoning, looking at the same or similar evidence, including the...


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