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China’s Quest for China : THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA<i> by Jonathan D. Spence (W.W. Norton: $29.95; 876 pp.,illustrated; 0-393-02708-2)</i>

<i> Ching, former China correspondent of The Wall Street Journal, is the author of "Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family" (William Morrow)</i>

In 1759, Li Syiyao, the viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi, submitted to the Qianlong emperor a draft of “Regulations for the Control of Foreigners.” In the memorial, the viceroy expressed amazement and horror at the fact that some foreigners had been able to learn to speak and write Chinese, while one of them could understand not just Mandarin but also the Cantonese dialect.

“How could these foreigners have learned Chinese if they had not been taught secretly by traitors?” he asked.

The viceroy continued: “It is my most humble opinion that when uncultured barbarians, who live far beyond the borders of China, come to our country to trade, they should establish no contact with the population, except for business purposes.”

The Chinese Empire in those days went to great lengths to keep even its language a secret from foreigners. When an English merchant, James Flint, presented a petition levying charges against the superintendent of customs, the emperor, after verifying the allegations, dismissed the official, sentenced Flint to three years of exile in Macao for having violated protocol, and had the Sichuanese who helped him prepare the Chinese-language petition publicly beheaded.

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This obsession with secrecy, this passion to prevent foreigners from finding out what China is really like, accounts to some extent for the myths and mystique surrounding China. Even Deng Xiaoping has said that one has to go back to the Ming Dynasty, to the time when the 15th-Century explorer Zheng He went on expeditions to the western oceans, to discover a time when China did not practice a closed-door policy.

Jonathan D. Spence in “The Search for Modern China” endeavors to facilitate an understanding of China. He says, quite rightly, that “in trying to understand China today we need to know about China in the past.” That is why Spence begins his narrative in the late 16th Century, when China was ruled by its last native dynasty on the eve of the Manchu conquest.

Interestingly, the Yale historian explains that his book is not about modern China. Rather, it is about a centuries-long effort to create such a country, one which “is both integrated and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity, yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas.”

By this definition, Spence says, China is not today and never has been a modern country.

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Certainly, China in the Qing Dynasty was far from being “fairly sure of its own identity, yet able to join others on equal terms.” As Spence points out, China did not even have a national flag in its 4,000 years of existence, until one was created in the 19th Century, when the country consciously began to acquire what it thought were the attributes of a modern nation.

As is to be expected, Spence finds numerous parallels in Chinese history. Thus he likens Gen. Claire Chennault’s World War II “Flying Tigers” to the foreign mercenary Ever-Victorious Army formed to fight the Taiping rebels; he sees similarities between Great Leap Forward rhetoric and the vision of Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping Heavenly King, and he compares the Shanghai Communique of 1972 with the Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689.

This does not mean, of course, that China is unchanging. During the Qing Dynasty, for example, China spurned British requests to develop trade. Spence quotes the Qianlong emperor’s message to George III of England:

“We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures. Therefore, O king, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire, we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.”

This disdain for trade has now been replaced by eagerness to earn foreign exchange. Recently, we saw China go to great lengths in its attempt to retain most-favored-nation trading status with the United States. In the weeks before Washington was to decide whether to renew China’s trading privileges, Beijing went so far as to lift martial law in Tibet and to release hundreds of political prisoners.

Spence has an eye for the telling detail, the little twists of fate that propel history forward. Thus he says that when two Soviet nuclear experts were withdrawn from China during the Sino-Soviet dispute, they tore to shreds all the documents they could not take with them. But the Chinese painstakingly reconstructed the shredded documents and “found in them crucial information on atomic implosion.”

This is by no means a book that can be read in one sitting. Some of Spence’s earlier books were page-turners: “The Death of Woman Wang” was as gripping as any thriller; “Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi” was poignant and stirred one’s deepest emotions.

But “The Search for Modern China” is the most ambitious work by the author thus far. It is encyclopedic in scope. It is crammed with facts, dates and names. Its 876 pages include 49 well placed maps and 49 well chosen tables, as well as dozens of illustrations in color and black-and-white. Its contents are to be sipped and savored, not swallowed in big gulps.

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Spence, the master historian, is on less sure ground when dealing with more recent events. Thus he has Chiang Ching-kuo becoming president of Taiwan in 1975, three years too early. He also displays an uncertain grasp of his facts regarding the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong.

But these petty details are almost not worth mentioning when one considers the scale of the task that he set himself. “The Search for Modern China” is a landmark in China scholarship. Spence’s talent as a raconteur and his immensely readable style enable him to succeed in making history interesting to the nonspecialist.

On the present succession crisis in China, Spence points out the eerie parallel between Deng Xiaoping’s behavior today and that of Mao Zedong in his last years, with each man anointing, then purging, one hand-picked successor after another. Even greater perspective is provided by his relating the present situation to that of the early Qing Dynasty, when the Emperor Kangxi was brought, as Spence put it, “to the edge of despair” by the succession question, not being able to decide which of his many sons to name as his heir.

The author provides a rare perspective on China’s centuries-old struggle to come to terms with the rest of the world.

He recalls that the reformers of 1898 had sought to resolve this tension by developing the concept of ti , or “essence,” and yong , or “practical use.” This formulation, Spence says, “affirmed that there was indeed a fundamental structure of Chinese moral and philosophical values that gave continuity and meaning to the civilization. Holding onto that belief, China could then afford to adopt quickly and dramatically all sorts of Western practices, and to hire Western advisers.”

Spence sees Deng and the other Chinese leaders today falling victim “to the nineteenth-century fallacy that China could join the modern world entirely on its own terms, sacrificing nothing of its prevailing ideological purity.”

He feels this effort is doomed to failure. “The task was even more hopeless in the late 1980s than it had been in the 1880s,” Spence concludes. “What was left of Chinese communist doctrine after the rejection of many of Mao’s ideas and the emergence of the enterprise system was a thinner gruel even than the overformalized Confucianism that had guided the reformers of the late Qing. The party elders flailing out at Zhao Ziyang and his noisy supporters were reacting in an oddly similar way to the empress dowager Cixi as she struck back at Emperor Guangxu for attempting his Hundred Days’ Reforms.”

As Spence and other students of history are well aware, circumstances in later years forced the empress dowager to implement even more radical reform measures than the ones that her nephew the emperor tried to put in place. But those came too late to save the dynasty.

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