15 March 2010

Book Review: Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate

Andrew S. Erickson, review of Charles Horner, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009), Naval War College Review, 63.2 (Spring 2010): 145-47.

This book connects China’s past, present, and future and places them in a larger, evolving context. Horner’s work is nothing short of a tour de force of world intellectual history as projected and contested on the canvas that is China. Eloquent and engaging, it is pointed without being overly judgmental, incorporating an absorbing literature review that is surprisingly cogent, considering the sheer amount of information conveyed.

Horner takes a bold and transparent approach: his “hypothetical history of the future” analyzes the past in the context of contemporary politics and debates, as post-1978 market reforms have opened up intellectual discourse. He explores longtime Chinese bureaucratic practices of devising norms and lessons from history, offering examples from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Strategic debate in the Qing dynasty regarding the value of China’s western territories reveals enduring tensions in its strategic orientation between continental and maritime frontiers and between factions advocating their respective emphases. Horner tackles the enduring puzzle of why China’s leaders failed to anticipate maritime threats from Western powers and finds that the Qing government devoted insufficient attention to diplomacy and intelligence abroad and failed to consult knowledgeable overseas Chinese. Then, as now, there is widespread determination to make China a prosperous great power but uncertainty regarding how to do so. …