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Joseph Esherick
China: From Sick Man of Asia to Emerging Superpower
MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013
China began the twentieth century as the “sick man of Asia,” weak and ill-governed, repeatedly defeated by the Western powers and Japan, fearing that like the Ottoman Empire it might be carved up and disappear from the historical stage. Now, China has the world’s most dynamic economy and displays a new confidence as an emerging global power. For decades, the study of modern China focused on explaining a series of revolutionary ruptures from the fall of the last empire in 1911 to Mao’s communist revolution, revolutions that were usually seen as stemming from the failure of the traditional Chinese state and society to adapt to the modern world. Thus revolutionary change was necessary for the modern nation-building project.

Now looking back from the twenty-first century, China no longer looks very revolutionary—nor does it appear to be a failure. How, then, are we to rethink modern Chinese history? Some would create a new historical narrative in which the Chinese revolution was one extended detour, a series of accidents and mistakes. The question I would pose is whether it is wise to ignore the Chinese revolution altogether. If not, how do we fit the revolution into a new narrative that sees more than just failure in the pre-revolutionary past, and more than just the rejection of revolution in the post-Mao present.

Joseph W. Esherick is emeritus professor of history and Hsiu Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Receiving his B.A. from Harvard (1964) and his Ph.D. from Berkeley (1971), he is author of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, Reform and Revolution in China: The 1911 Revolution in Hunan and Hubei, and most recently, Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History. He is also co-author of Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide, co-editor of Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History, and Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on the Making of the Modern World; and editor of Lost Chance in China and Remaking the Chinese City.