Book reviews: Wealth and Power by Schell and Delury

Share this article
Have your say


Wealth and Power By Orville Schell and John Delury

Little, Brown, 496pp, £14.99

After that, China was dismembered, first by the European powers, then, more devastatingly, by Japan. Chinese troops expelled the Japanese, and the country was reunified more than 60 years ago. But it is determined to keep the memory of the abuses it suffered from fading into history.

Shame often acts as a depressant. But through the 11 biographical sketches in their book, Schell and Delury argue that for generations of influential Chinese, shame has been a stimulant. The evidence is not hard to find. The inaugural exhibition at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, splashily reopened in 2011, treated the Opium War as the founding event of modern China, telling a Disneyesque version of how the Communist Party restored the country’s greatness. At the museum of the Temple of Tranquil Seas in Nanjing, the site of the signing of one of the most unequal of China’s treaties with foreign powers, is inscribed this phrase: “To feel shame is to approach courage.” Humiliation has been a staple of Communist Party propaganda.

Schell and Delury acknowledge the cynicism behind the party’s use of shame as a nationalist rallying cry. But their book makes the case that such feelings represent a deep strain in the Chinese psyche, which the country’s current leaders have inherited as part of their cultural DNA. To love China means to share a passionate commitment to overcoming the loss of face suffered in the 19th century, to ensure that the defeats of the past will never be suffered again.

From the Empress Dowager Cixi to Deng Xiaoping, the book argues, China’s rulers were united in the national quest to avenge humiliation. They all felt shame, and used it as the path to wealth and power.

The reformers of the early 19th century were the first to declare that China was “big and weak,” and though the statement was true, at the time it bordered on heresy. The solution the early reformers proposed was “to self-strengthen”, which would be achieved by adopting selective Western technologies and methods. By the turn of the 20th century, prescriptions from scholars and advisers grew bolder. Liang Qichao, who founded the Sense of Shame Study Society, felt Chinese culture bred timidity. He wanted to destroy China’s Confucian “core” and rebuild the country from scratch with imported Western ideas.

Provocatively, Schell and Delury argue that Liang’s ideas of “creative destruction” led, in a more or less straight line, to Mao Zedong. The mass killings of class enemies, the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward, the catastrophic Cultural Revolution should all be viewed, they suggest, less through the prism of radical Marxism than as an attempt to exorcise Confucian passivity. Mao especially wanted to eliminate the traditional ideal of “harmony” and replace it with a mandate to pursue “permanent revolution,” an inversion of Chinese cultural traditions he believed essential to unleashing the country’s productive forces.

Deng’s pursuit of market-oriented reforms, they argue, might well have met far more resistance if Mao had not bequeathed him a blank slate – that is, a ruling party exhausted by bloody campaigns and a people purged of their ancient notions of order. Deng’s tactics may have been the polar opposite of Mao’s, but their goals, realised partly under Deng and rather spectacularly by his successors, were precisely the same.

Despite the book’s sib-title – “China’s Long March to the 21st Century – this is not a definitive guide to China’s rise. Schell and Delury devote only a few pages to economics, the core of most other big works on China’s emergence as a great power. But their examination of how an unusual trait in Chinese culture worked its way through politics and intellectual life is a fascinating attempt to reconcile China’s current success with its past suffering. It also sets the stage for perhaps the biggest challenge facing China today, since it cannot go on fighting its vanquished ghosts forever.