Ch'ing China

Prelude to Modern China


   In the strictest sense, modernity, as a cultural pattern in which the present is seen as discontinuous with the past, really doesn't begin until the twentieth century in China when the Confucians and imperial traditions were consciously thrown out in favor of Western social, political, and economic traditions. The prelude to modernity, however, really begins in the nineteenth century in the last hundred years or so of the Ch'ing dynasty.

   Throughout its history, China has always had a deep conservatism in regard to social, political, and economic change. Political and social innovations were always embedded within traditional patterns in order to legitimate their implementation. This strong conservative streak was amplified by the unique position that the Chinese saw their culture and country as occupying. For the Chinese, the imperial government was the most successful government in the world; because of its concern for the welfare of its citizens, no other government could approach it. Chinese culture itself was very old and very sophisticated; it had become the cultural model all throughout Asia, from Turkestan to Manchuria, from Korea to Japan, and all throughout Southeast Asia.

   The beginnings of modernity in China were precipitated by crisis; the only way to justify abandoning cultural and political conservatism was a crisis of such magnitude that no choice was left. This was the situation the Chinese faced at the close of the Opium War, when China came into conflict with England which, no better than drug dealers today, was making a fortune by pushing opium on the Chinese people. The Chinese defeat at the hands of the English brought panic to the imperial court. Anxious to avoid a future humiliation, the Chinese recognized that they needed technological and industrial parity with the West. These early initiatives, begun at mid-century, laid the groundwork for modern China.

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The Opium War


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97