Twofish's Blog

January 1, 2007

Thoughts on Peter Perdue’s “China Marches West”

Filed under: academia, asian am, china, hayek, massachusetts institute of technology, taiwan — twofish @ 1:45 am

I had the pleasure of reading Peter Perdue’s book “China Marches West – The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia” this afternoon. One of the things that I found most useful about the book was the last chapter in which Perdue summarizes a lot of the recent scholarship in the Qing dynasty, and then tries to connect them with recent scholarship on nationalism. Perdue points out (correctly) that nationalist readings of history tend to have several characteristics, one of which is that they are telelogical, in that they imply that the present is the inevitable result of the past, and they imply the existence of “natural boundaries.” Unlike a series of what I call “China-debunking” literature, Perdue even-handed (and I think correctly) points out that these characteristics are common across all nationalisms.

Personally, I tend to agree that nationalist histories are “constructed products” and my own thinking on this is borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s work “Imagined Communities.” By “constructed” I don’t (and I don’t think either Anderson or Perdue) mean “fake.” But rather than a natural outcome of facts, to create a history and nationalistic narrative or national identity requires conscious effort.

I know, since I’ve had to create my own narrative.

One of the interesting connections was that one of the first classes I took at MIT was a seminar on the Asian-American identity given by Professor Perdue and Professor Sally Deutsch. Creating an identity has been a struggle for me, and it has also been increasingly important now that I have kids, and am trying to figure out what to teach them. National identity has touched every aspect of my life. It touches who I married, what I teach my kids, what jobs I take or don’t take, where I live, and every other decision I make. And the discovery that I made was that none of the “off the shelf” identities really worked for me. So it was a liberating discovery to learn that national boundaries, national histories, and national identities, were constructed. If the “off the shelf” identities don’t work, then I can create my own, and I have proceeded to do so out of Chinese nationalism, American nationalism, combining with the “nationalisms or sub-nationalisms” of Taiwan and Texas. I’ve come up with something that works……

As long as war doesn’t break out in the Taiwan straits….. Fortunately that is looking less likely, and one thing that I figured out a few years ago, was that if a war did break out in the Taiwan straits, my life would be in shambles, and so would the lives of the people around me even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes and ancestors that came from Ireland.

One thing that is very different in 2006 than in 1987 is how far progressed globalization has progressed. In 1987, I was a little embarassed to have as strong feelings for Chinese nationalism as I did. The dominant paradigm was the “melting pot” in which I and my kids would lose their Chinese characteristics and assimilate into the American mainstream much as the immigrants of Eastern Europe did. This made me uncomfortable because I felt as if I’d lose some precious if that happened, even if I was unable to articulate exactly what. At the same time, I had this deep fear that I’d be completely out of place in “China” and find it totally alien and different.

Those fears are still there, but globalization has lessened a lot of it. It is becoming more and more obvious that being able to more or less move between a Chinese and an American identity is not a handicap, but it is something in fact that multi-national corporations find desirable. There is still the fear of being seen as a “traitor” or a “foreigner” but that is increasingly being lessened by the fact that more and more of the world is becoming like me. A person with connections to various parts of the world, and has to figure out how to integrate these different parts of themselves.

And in this all, I find one commonality between Qing China and the United States which is very touching and gets back to MIT. Both societies faced the difficulty of trying to integrate people of very different languages and ethnicities into a functioning whole, and in both cases, part of the solution involved creating an academic system. In the case of Qing China, it was to use the system of Imperial examinations to create a shared sense of communal values. In the case of the United States, it was through the use of public schools and an excellent university system. In the case of Qing China, the value system that was promoted was one based on classical Confucian learning. In the case of the United States, the value system is a civic religion based on the Constitution and the values that underlie it. Ultimately, these two value systems are not in conflict (I would hope).

And looking at history, this correspondence is not accidental. My great-grandparents adopted the value system that was promoted by the Imperial examination system. Those values were transmitted to me, which is why I was attracted to something similar and feel such a strong attraction to academia and why I ended up at MIT.

But in trying to puzzle all of this out, I had to cross a lot of boundaries, which made me question the “naturalness” of the historical boundaries, and made me realize that they were as “constructed” as the national histories.

One final thing. One characteristic of national histories is their telelogical nature (which is known as the Whig view of history), every event is portrayed as being the inevitable set of events which leads up to the present. In giving up the sense of historical inevitablity, one gives up a lot of security, but one gains something far greater. Freedom and the scary realization that people’s decisions matter.

If the present is not the inevitable result of the past, then it follows that the future is not the inevitable result of the present. The world we see today is the result of people’s decisions and random events mixed together. If people had decided to do different things, the world would be different, but that means that the decisions we make today will influence the future. This puts an awesome and scary responsibility on us to make correct decisions.

And on what basis should those decisions be made???

One thing that I’ve learned in looking at history is that the decision about what flag you wave or what uniform you wear is largely out of your hands. I find myself a deep blue supporter of the Kuomintang because of who my parents where. There is some scope for choice, but that is limited.

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