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Book Review


Frank Dikötter, The Age of Openness: China Before Mao. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. 131. $24.95.


     The liveliest field of research in Chinese history for the past two decades has been Republican China, the period sandwiched between the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. The increased scholarly focus on the early twentieth century was in great part because the dominant themes of this period—urbanization (particularly of Shanghai), greater economic and political engagement with the international community, and active intellectuals debates over everything from Confucianism to the role of the modern woman, to name a few—resonated with a late twentieth century China that was, once again, opening to the world.

     In his succinct The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, Frank Dikötter sets out to reclaim what he calls China's "golden age of engagement with the world." To do so, he showcases the vibrant scholarly research on the Republican period, mobilizing it to combat the period's typical presentation as China's several-decade slide into warlordism and state disintegration. In this, Dikötter is successful; there is much recent laudable work that illustrates precisely this theme and he draws on it generously.

     Dikötter's text, as the title implies, is built around the theme of "openness," divided into topical chapters on governance, international connections, intellectual inquiry, and economy. In each case, Dikötter pushes at the crux of his argument—that Republican China was a period of continuity and growth, not chaos and collapse, and that its innovations laid a basis for economic expansion and political stability. Dikötter crafts the text's narrative around showing that those Republican innovations were, contrary to the popular understanding of China as "closed" during this period, critically reliant on engagement with the outside world. This engagement was not simply at an elite level, either. Dikötter describes how both elite and peasant worlds were changed by the new internationalism, and how all classes of Chinese abroad brought home with them new ideas and goods, such as the "foreign houses" migrants built in Guangdong villages upon their return (36). At the same time, as will surprise few readers, the increased presence of foreigners in Chinese cities like Shanghai played an important role in fueling this increased cosmopolitanism, whether it was bankers on the Bund or missionaries in the interior.

     This careful accounting of internationalism in the early twentieth century bolsters Dikötter's discussion in the conclusion of the Mao years as "an aberration rather than the gravity point" for modern China (100). This is a conclusion that historians are increasingly comfortable with. Recent rhetoric from the People's Republic, like the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony's celebration of "5,000 years" of Chinese history, without a single mention of Mao, underscore the receding legacy of the Communist Revolution in the popular imagination in China and abroad. This recognition is reflected in recent scholarship that does not see 1949 as an irrevocable break with the past but instead demonstrates continuities across the '49 divide. Dikötter points to these continuities—and particularly those between Republican and contemporary Chin—as evidence of the many ways that the Republican period set the foundation for the issues and structures that define modern China.

     The Age of Openness is essentially an extended meditation on how to reframe the popular (read: textbook) telling of the history of Republican China, based on the extensive body of recent scholarship on the period. Dikötter advocates a history that moves beyond the bookends of the period—the student-led May Fourth Movement as the genesis (and limit) of intellectual and social openness and warlordism as the defining political structure. Instead, he encourages readers to see that, in the case of May Fourth, the movement was but one manifestation of cultural and social remaking—and that the field must look beyond youth and the cities as points of origins for those reforms. There is, as Dikötter points out, a growing body of work that examines topics like education in rural China and religious conversion in the hinterlands, but there is room for much more.

     In regard to warlordism, Dikötter reflects several decades of calls (though they have yet to result in significant scholarship on the topic) for greater understanding of warlordism as, instead, regionalism. This strain of thinking asserts that we should take China's strong tradition of federalism as a serious historical alternative to state centralism. There is broad recognition among Chinese historians that the warlords were not the thuggish despots that their title implies; some were, indeed, local kingpins, but others were rational leaders interested in strengthening civil governance structures. Presenting them as a band of thugs serves (as it did in the 1920s and 1930s) to legitimize the process of state centralization that opposed the local and regional interests warlords and their supporters sometimes championed. Here, too, as Dikötter points out, there is space for serious further consideration, but a strong beginning would be to shift the teaching of this subject away from an emphasis on the irrationality and chaos of the warlord period (without diminishing, of course, the violent, unsettling ramifications it had for many Chinese).

     Those preparing lectures on early twentieth century China at the high school or undergraduate level will find The Age of Openness a quick and accessible resource to familiarize themselves with recent scholarship on this period, and graduate students preparing for exams in Asian or world history who would like a quick overview of the scholarship on Republican China will also find the text useful. However, as Dikötter points out in the book's first few pages, we still lack a history textbook that takes into account the new research he recounts here. This text is too historiographically focused to meet those needs either, but it does point the way toward a fuller narrative of Republican China.

Kate Merkel-Hess is a Mellon/ACLS Recent Doctoral Recipient Fellow at the University of California, Irvine and a historian of modern China. She is the co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and her writing has also appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Current History, and History Compass, among other publications. She can be reached at



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