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How long was my century?

In 2002 I faced a dilemma relating to an editorial project that perhaps only another historian can appreciate. Scrambling to complete the Introduction to Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches, I had to figure out how long to say the eponymous period had lasted. I didn’t tell my students, members of my family, or any of my non-historian friends about my struggle with the question of the length of China’s twentieth century, as I knew if I did, most of them would have chuckled. “Jeff,” I imagined them saying, “math has never been your strong suit, but even you should be aware that the crucial thing about centuries is that, by definition, they are one hundred years long.”

Had I mentioned my dilemma to other card-carrying members of my peculiar tribe, Homo Historicus, though, they would have been more likely to nod their heads than raise their eyebrows or laugh. Specialists in British history routinely refer to a ‘Long Eighteenth Century’, framed in political terms by the events of 1688 at one end and the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century at the other. And in The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm makes a strong case for the idea that the world had a ‘Short Twentieth Century’, bracketed by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, and the cluster of upheavals that culminated in 1991 with that country’s implosion.

At first I found the notion of China having had a Short Twentieth Century appealing, due to a fascination with the centrality of the idea of Geming. This term, made up of two characters, can be literally translated as “stripping the mandate” (as in mandate to rule), but from the very early 1900s on has been treated as the standard equivalent for the word “revolutions” (in the plural, lower case) and also for “The Revolution” (decidedly singular and upper case). Many political theorists and actors have invested this compound with a special power and focusing on this term made a short twentieth century seem logical.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1924 in Canton by unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A Chinese twentieth century organized around revolutionary organizations, figures, and visions could be said to have begun in the second decade of the 1900s, with the mutinies and uprisings that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the wake of these insurrections, Sun Yat-sen took power on January 1, 1912, as China’s First President and the first Chinese head of state who was a self-proclaimed revolutionary. From that point on, nearly every top Chinese leader and contender for power, from the Nationalist Party head Chiang Kai-shek up to Mao Zedong would base his legitimacy on the idea that he was carrying forward the holy mission of the country’s Geming. Popular challenges to them, meanwhile, would be cast up to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, not as efforts to abandon or reject the revolutionary project but rather to get it back on track, to place it in the hands of leaders with a better claim to speak in its name.

Since the 4th June Massacre brought 1989’s mass movement to an end, though, critics of Chinese authoritarianism have begun to argue more regularly that an obsession with geming has contributed to the limitation of freedom in China. They have suggested that alternative visions of the future, which eschew the kind of “you are with us or against us” thinking that has so often fueled Chinese revolutionary struggles, are needed. The time had come, some argued, to say “geobie geming” (farewell to revolution), a phrase that became the title of a much discussed book by two important Chinese intellectuals, Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu. Another important text in this vein was That Holy Word ‘Revolution’, which imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo wrote in the early 1990s. Reflecting on the 1989 protests, which he had supported, he argued that veneration for the concept of Geming was something that had warped Chinese politics, even during that struggle, for it had become a political virus for which every citizen had become both a “victim and a carrier.”

As attractive as I found this idea of a short twentieth century, which focused on this theme of revolution and dovetailed nicely with Hobsbawm’s world history chronology, I ended up deciding that it wasn’t quite right. Searching for an alternative, I initially fixed on the idea of a Long Twentieth Century, lasting from Japan’s military victory over China in 1895 (an act signaling how far a once powerful nation had fallen) to the moment when I was writing early in the 2000s (when the Chinese state seemed headed toward superpower status).

In the end, though, I finally hit upon a kind of Goldilocks solution, neither too short nor too long, which would only seem novel and bold to a member of my guild. In China’s case, I wrote, the twentieth century had lasted exactly one hundred years and had started and ended right about when it should have (well, off by no more than a year or so), lasting from 1901 to 2001.

How did I justify the notion of a century-long century? One thing I stressed was the night and day contrast between China’s international position in two Septembers, those of 1901 and 2001. In the former month, the Boxer Crisis came to an end with the Qing being forced by foreign powers to sign a treaty with very disadvantageous terms. In the latter, George W. Bush sought Chinese support for the global “War on Terror” he had just proclaimed.

Featured image credit: Skyline – Hong Kong, China by Jim Trodel. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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