NEXT, WE NEED SOME UNDERSTANDING of Chinese history. Going way back, Michael Schuman’s Confucius: And the World He Created (Basic, 2015) readably gives us basics on the Chinese sage who lived from 551 to 479 b.c. Princeton University Press published in 2018 a graphic novel of The Analects, which includes Confucian wisdom such as “If a gentleman is deferential and cautious, if he treats others with respect and propriety, then everyone will consider him his brother.” My bookcase also includes two similar Princeton graphic novels playfully illustrated by C.C. Tsai, Zhuangzi’s The Way of Nature and Sunzi’s The Art of War, which says, “A commander who has to win at any cost is likely to be cut down by the enemy.”
My only formal college course in Chinese history happened to be taught by Jonathan Spence, then an associate professor, now at age 83 one of the most distinguished Western historians of China. One of his books, God’s Chinese Son (Norton, 1996), is a gripping account of the mid-19th-century religious war triggered by supposed revelations given to a charismatic leader who mixed elements of Christian doctrine with ego-feeding power seeking. In the end, 20 million died. Spence has written many other good books, including The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin, 1985), an account of the 16th-century missionary’s China adventure.
The Chinese have good evidence of how Europe and the United States took advantage of them in the 19th century. The first chapter of James Bradley’s The China Mirage (Little, Brown, 2015) and the second chapter of Zheng Wang’s Never Forget National Humiliation (Columbia University Press, 2012) tell the sad story of how Europeans forced China to accept opium, with British ships bombarding China’s coast in what became known as the First Opium War. When Chinese officials pushed back in the 1850s, the Second Opium War made China’s humiliation complete.
Some Americans profited from that immoral pressure: Opium contributed mightily to the great fortunes of families with names like Delano, Russell, Cushing, Low, Forbes, and Green. But other Americans became missionaries, and many Chinese responded to Christ’s call. Carol Lee Hamrin and Stacey Bieler edited the three volumes of Salt and Light (Wipf and Stock, 2009-2011) that feature 27 chapter biographies of Chinese Christians who were doctors, teachers, editors, artists, financiers, ministers, social activists—even a general. When Hamrin and Bieler gave talks on the books in Beijing and Hong Kong, the first 10,000 copies in Chinese sold out.
Some intellectuals fought Western racism by developing their own. How China Sees the World by John Friend and Bradley Thayer (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) shows how some Chinese channeled Charles Darwin and argued racial groups were “either superior or inferior, modern or primitive, with the yellow and white races more advanced and civilized and the brown, black, and red much less so. … Within the Han-centric perspective, the Chinese are more cunning and virtuous than the rest. The United States, in contrast, is easily manipulated, although strong and violent just like an adolescent.”
Others in China used a different Western invention, Communism, to fight foreign intervention. The result was brutal. Sun Shuyun’s The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth (Doubleday, 2006) shows that the ruthlessness of Mao Zedong and other Communist leaders began early: As in the Soviet Union and Spain during the 1930s, Chinese revolutionaries were often more in danger when bucking the party line than when on the front lines.
Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (Bloomsbury, 2016) shows how Mao treated comrades Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and others the way Josef Stalin murderously treated Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and others. The Cultural Revolution followed the “Great Leap Forward” and preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre, but they were both displays of—to quote Dikötter’s last sentence—“brutal force and steely resolve, designed to send a signal that still pulsates to this day: do not query the monopoly of the one-party state.” (And within that, as Xi Jinping now shows, the one leader within the one-party state.)
James Palmer’s Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes (Basic, 2012) is a well-written history focused on 1976, the year Mao Zedong died after killing tens of millions and the Tangshin earthquake killed tens of thousands. Chai Ling’s A Heart for Freedom (Tyndale, 2011) explains how she became a student leader in the democracy movement that Communists brutally ended in Tiananmen Square. Chai went into hiding, escaped to the United States, earned a Harvard MBA, gave birth to three children—and became a Christian fighting for the victims of China’s one-child policy.