Why China?

I think the title of this piece itself up quite nicely! This is Mr. Wingrove’s answer to that question, five years into the publication of the original series. I think his points are even more valid now than then.

This is, as of now, the last entry that I have to add to The Vault.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to dig up some more in the future to add to the mix, but for the time being, this is it, folks!

Full text of Why China? after the break…


Why China?
by David Wingrove

How far back does an interest go? And at what stage does a fascination with something become an obsession? These are two questions I’ve had to ask myself now that THE MIDDLE KINGDOM is edging out into the light of publication. In part I can answer the first quite easily: my fascination with China goes back to my last two years at school and to a project I did on China and the Opium Wars. It was supposed to be a small thing, lasting only a term, but the subject engrossed me and I found myself spending much of my spare time reading everything I could find on the Western Powers’ opening up of China. But the interest in China was there long before that. I recall a youthful fascination with the alienness of the Chinese Mandarins I saw portrayed in the Rupert The Bear cartoon stories I read – a fascination that ran alongside my unwholesome delight in the troublesome wood elves that lived in their underground caverns beneath the dark pine woods. The antithesis of the two – both of them strange, yet both wholly different – seemed to express something quite profound to my younger self, and still does. Two sides of my – of our – nature were portrayed in that antithesis. The light and the dark. It was to be years, however, before I discovered Taoism and “The Balance” and began to glimpse – albeit darkly at first – the shape of a fiction that could embrace the two.

Of the “real”, contemporary China, the China that, even as I was reading about it in the first two years of the seventies, was undergoing vast social changes, I knew very little for a long time. My teenage self held very strong views about Mao and what he had done for China – views that my reading on the 19th Century Western Powers and their corrupt and cynical altitudes towards China merely served to confirm. Mao had rescued China from long centuries of enslavement. He had given the common people of China a real say in their own lives for the first time ever. I applauded him without reservation. Only later did I find out, like many others in the West, what had really happened between 1966 and 1972 in the “Cultural Revolution”. Even now, when most commentators in both China and the West condemn Mao almost out of hand, I still believe that Mao was this century’s greatest man – for all the tragic and quite horrifying excesses of his final years. For a long time I was under the sway of his personality not, I hasten to say, for his Marxism, which is and always was wholly alien to my frame of mind, but for the incisiveness of his thinking: for that quality in him that allowed him to see and then act upon simple truths about his people and his country. In seeing only the bad of his later years we are in danger of neglecting the greater good he did for China, without which the current opening-up of China by Deng Xiao Ping would have been quite impossible.

Much of this is to say that I have always – at least, in my adult years – had a feeling for the potential greatness of China, but at some indefinable point the course of my thinking changed quite radically. Having submerged myself in the history of the West’s conquest of China it seemed quite natural to undertake an imaginative inversion of that situation. What if China hadn’t stagnated? What if they, at some stage, had conquered us? Perhaps before we had gotten into our industrial stride?

What if?

I toyed with the idea for a long time. An idea which – so it seemed – no one had ever contemplated as fiction before. What prevented the world’s potentially greatest nation, China, from becoming its greatest nation in actuality? What would they have to do to become great again?

The idea sank down into my subconscious where some part of me continued to mull it over while I got on with other, more urgent things. But China remained constantly just over the horizon of my imagination out of sight but never quite out of mind. Then, when the idea for a novel occured to me that needed a future worldstate, I found myself dredging up from the darkness of my undermind my long-held conception that the Chinese would some day rule the world.

Even then – at that stage – it was a purely hypothetical belief. Yet even as I was sketching out my fictional future world, the real world was beginning to catch up with my conception of its future shape. Deng Xiao Ping was busy making reforms – was negotiating with Margaret Thatcher to take back Hong Kong – and the face of Chung Kuo, the ancient Middle Kingdom, was changing almost faster than reports of those changes could be got back to the West. Gone suddenly were the bleak uniforms, the little red books, the endless posters of Mao, and in their place were transistor radios, Japanese cars, western dance music and Kentucky Chicken emporia. Suddenly China was the place to go, the place to talk about.

What I had so long imagined was suddenly – too suddenly for some commentators – happening.

On February 22nd, 1988, Newsweek, the international news magazine, had a special issue on the decline of America and the rise of the Eastern nations. Headed “The Pacific Century”, it forecast a future world dominated by the Orient. This was no Yellow Peril scaremongering, however, but a recognition of economic fact. And whilst Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were the nations it focused upon mainly, there was a noticeable – and quite remarkable – interest in China’s future role. In a telling paragraph I found my long-held secret belief suddenly expressed in print:

The only other Asian country that could one day surpass Japan is China. Few political analysts doubt that if it stays on its present course of economic liberalization – admittedly a big if – it could emerge as the Pacific’s dominant nation late in the 21st century, just as it was during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). ‘If we project beyond a decade or two, it is a country to reckon with,’ says Assistant Foreign Minister Park Soo Gil of South Korea. Surprisingly, 42 per cent of Americans surveyed in NEWSWEEK’S Poll shared that view. But China must remain open to Western and Japanese technology to emerge as a leader. It has everything to lose from a return to insularity.

The “unthinkable” was suddenly a matter for open discussion. In 1997 Hong Kong was due to be handed back to the Chinese, and with it the world’s fourth biggest financial market, the Hang Seng Index. In a matter of a few years China had shifted into an entirely new phase. The speed of that transformation came as a shock to some, but no one who has studied the history of China ought to be surprised. They are the nation who built the Great Wall, who were the first to build a vast road and canal sytem (which still exists and functions), and who set up a civil service and an education system more than a thousand years before we did so in the West. The list of their inventions – many of them made thousands of years before we rediscovered them in the West – is long and comprehensive. Why, then, should we be surprised if they harness their talents once more and, like the Japanese before them, come to dominate the World’s economy?

Why China? Five years ago, when I began this project, I’d have given some other, more defensive answer. These days I have only to point to what’s happening and ask: “Why not?”

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