First-Year Studies: Reform and Revolution: China’s 20th Century

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In 1900, China was a faltering empire, ruled by an autocratic foreign dynastic house and an entrenched bureaucracy of Confucian officials. Its sovereignty heavily battered and its territory compromised by foreign powers, it was commonly called “The Sick Man of Asia.” In 2000, China was a modern nation-state, ruled by an authoritarian party and an entrenched bureaucracy of technocrats and administrators. With a surging economy, swollen foreign reserves, dazzling modern cities, and a large and technologically advanced military, China is regularly predicted to be the next global superpower. Yet, the path between these two startlingly different points was anything but smooth. China’s 20th century was a tortuous one, full of tragedy, incredible hardships, wrenching setbacks, and disastrous disappointments. Policymakers, elites, and the common people oscillated between the poles of reform and revolution—bouts of wild radicalism alternated with more sober policies—as they pursued changes that they hoped would bring a better society and nation. This class examines some of the major events and personalities of this arduous century and its momentous political, social, and cultural changes. We will learn and apply skills of historical analysis to primary documents (in translation), some fiction, and film. Along the way, we will encounter a rich cast of characters, including Sun Yatsen (China’s “national father”), colorful warlords, corrupt bureaucrats, fervent intellectuals, protesting youths, heroic communist martyrs, the towering and enigmatic chairman Mao, long-suffering peasants, fanatical Red Guards, and prosperous businessmen. These men and women made and re-made modern China. This class is history and, thus, is not primarily concerned with contemporary China; but by the end of the year, students will be well-equipped with an understanding of China’s recent past, knowledge that will help immeasurably in making sense of today’s China as it becomes increasingly important in our globalized economy and society.