Study the past if you would divine the future

“To analyze China’s future,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently opined, “we need to better understand China’s extraordinary history, including its long evolution of reform and foreign engagement. That is a complex task.”

Rudd should know. The Australian Prime Minister majored in Mandarin and Chinese history at university, and his country with its geographic proximity and rich resources has much to gain, and perhaps much to lose, from China.

An enormous volume has been written about China’s rise. Walk into any bookstore and shelves are groaning under the weight of titles like China Shakes the World, The Chinese Century, The New Asian Hemisphere, China Rising, China Wakes, and more. Yet none of these books puts China’s current reform movement and modernization in historical context. The foundation for China’s rise was laid not in 1978 by Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, but more like in 1878 by a small cadre of Qing officials.

What can the late Qing Dynasty teach us about contemporary China? “Chinese leaders began the adoption of Western arms and machines,” writes historian John Fairbank about the Qing Dynasty, “only to find themselves sucked into an inexorable process in which one borrowing led to another, from machinery to technology, from science to all learning, from acceptance of new ideas to change of institutions, eventually from constitutional reform to republican revolution.”

Could the Communist Party truly open China to the outside world yet keep Western ideas such as democracy and freedom at bay, as Qing officials mistakenly believed a century ago? Could the very reforms meant to strengthen the Party’s grip on power be their undoing?

History, carefully studied, does have much to teach us. Nobody knows this better than the Chinese. Their scholars, writes historian Margaret MacMillan in The Uses and Abuses of History, frame history not as a linear process but in terms of “dynastic cycles,” where dynasties come and go “in an unending repetition, following the unchanging pattern of birth, maturity, and death, all under the aegis of heaven.”

In 1906, a Russian spy Gustaf Mannerheim set out on a secret mission to chronicle the modernization of the Chinese Empire. Following in his footsteps across the Silk Road, I discovered both eerie similarities and seismic differences between the Middle Kingdoms of today and a century ago. In The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds, I offer insights into China’s past that, I believe, raise troubling questions about its future. “Study the past if you would divine the future,” to quote a popular Confucius aphorism.

As current events in the Far East unfold, I will use this blog to draw lessons from the past to help understand contemporary China and its future. While history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it can certainly teach us humility and raise thought-provoking questions.