Monday, October 22, 2007

China's 'what if?'

I watched the Painted Veil this evening having missed it at the cinema. It shows the age of its material with a pace that is on the slow side but if, like me, you have the attention span it is a rewarding film. Set in twenties China it describes a young English couple whose trainwreck of a marriage recovers in the face of the adversity of a cholera epidemic.

The landscapes are stunning and the entire film is shot and acted with reserved but effective emotion. The story follows a familiar arc but does so with care and dignity. This film is well worth watching on a quiet, unhurried, evening when you have time to savour the ambience.

The portrait of the early days of the Chinese Republic is only fleeting and you should not watch this film expecting to learn much (there are Chinese films which can do that if you do want a cinematic introduction to Chinese history) but I still found it fascinating.

I find almost any portrayal of China between Sun Yat-sen's founding of the Republic and the Communist takeover fascinating. China is so massive and so important that it is incredible to think back to when its fate really hung in the balance, when things could have been so radically different. My impression is that Chiang Kai Shek, while no liberal, had limits. It seems utterly incredible that he would have descended to the horrors of the great tyrants of the twentieth century as Mao did. If mainland China had made anywhere near the progress Taiwan has instead of falling into the madness of Maoism then we would be facing a very different world, millions of Chinese would not have died unnecessarily and the culture of an incredible nation would not have been ransacked.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the horrors of Maoism were the product of grand forces and a mighty collision between a fumbling modernity and ages old tradition. Certainly, there are few examples of the transition being made cleanly.

There are deep methodological questions underlying any attempt to answer China's great 'what if?' Tolstoy's War and Peace critique that we should look to underlying causes rather than the sparring of kings, chairmen or generalissimos cries out at anyone supposing that Mao or Chiang Kai Shek could have made such a massive difference to the progress of such a large portion of mankind.

Still, all of my experience of the place and people and the example of Taiwan and Japan suggest that there was no force compelling China to lapse to dictatorship. Could things have been different? Should we concede that the horrors of Maoism really were the result, in the end, of such relative trivialities as Stalin kidnapping Chiang Kai Shek's son and using that as leverage to defend Mao's vulnerable revolution?

1 comment:

Gracchi said...

Good article Matt and a thought provoking one- I often find that a very troubling question.