Bringing Up the Red Guards

Bringing Up the Red Guards

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the old world upside down, smash it to pieces, pulverize it, create chaos and make a tremendous mess, the bigger mess the better!

Red Guard manifesto
Tsinghua University Middle School
Peking, June 24, 1966

Everyone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“P’an T’ien-shou is a counterrevolutionary painter—he paints such miserable birds”). Those interested in “violence” can easily find some “urgent appeal” describing “sanguinary atrocities” (always unverifiable) in one of the remoter provinces. Pessimists will find plenty of stern directives from the Army and the central authorities in the later stages of the revolution, denouncing the “evil wind of anarchism.”

My own favorite heads this review. The Red Guards of Tsinghua University, Peking, were referring in their usual allusive style to a poem by Mao written a few years before to denounce Khrushchev’s revisionism. “The Golden Monkey,” Mao had written, “wrathfully swung his massive cudgel, / And the jadelike firmament was cleared of dust.” Mao in his turn was referring to the famous Monkey of the early Chinese novel Hsi Yu Chi, whose magical arts included the ability to turn every hair of his head into a thousand weapon-brandishing mini-monkeys.

* * *

Mao as the Monkey King, launching his swarm of little devils upon the baffled Party bureaucracy, is an attractive image. (Arthur Waley in the Introduction to his classic translation of the Hsi Yu Chi1 describes Monkey as personifying “the restless instability of genius”—which is not a bad description for Mao either.) But one must add that Monkey’s exploits were not purposeless; he had been converted by the Great Buddha to the true faith and his actions were designed to promote it. This point not all of Mao’s little monkeys in the Cultural Revolution managed to grasp.

It is also the central point of Professor Solomon’s full-scale analysis of Mao’s contribution to Chinese political culture and of his efforts to make use of certain characteristics of this culture, and to weaken others, in order to promote revolutionary change. The “chaos” or luan which the Red Guards were determined to “create” was an integral part of Mao’s plans. It was Liu Sh’ao-chi who confessed that “I feared confusion [luan] and excessive democracy,” and it was Mao who told his puzzled colleagues on the Central Committee that “I firmly believe that a few months of luan will be mostly for the good.” But it was (at least it was supposed to be) a controlled form of chaos, with the clear objectives of ousting the “capitalist roaders” from power, of throwing a bucket of ice-cold water over the bureaucratic Party and its institutions, of rekindling a revolutionary flame among China’s youth. It was, as Solomon puts it, “purposeful luan“!

* * *

Some Western observers of the Chinese scene tend to shed tears over the decline of the Red Guards and the reassertion in 1968, with Mao’s express approval, of centralized authority, very largely dominated this time by the Army instead of the Party. The ultraleft in China seems to strike a sympathetic chord even among some people who have no time for student revolution at home. In an extreme form, some Trotskyites suggest that in a way Mao ended up by betraying the true Maoists. In much the same way, one may recall how some responsible Western commentators, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, suddenly discovered the virtues of totalitarian bureaucracy, and wrote sadly of the fate of Liu Sh’ao-chi and other Chinese leaders, now judged to be “pragmatic” and “rational,” as they succumbed to the “irrational” onslaught of the Red Guards.

One of Solomon’s incidental achievements in his book is to demonstrate the relationship, from the Maoist view-point, between the “ultra-left” adventurism of the Red Guards and the “right” opportunism of the Party revisionists. Both deviated, in different directions, from the path of continuous but controlled revolution—or luan—which Mao himself pursued. Indeed both characteristics could be found in the person of Liu Sh’ao-chi, a man who appears to have swung from left (during the Great Leap Forward) to right a decade later. For the same lack of consistency the Chinese had denounced Khrushchev in 1962 when he blundered into adventurism by putting missiles into Cuba, and then turned to opportunism by pulling them out.

* * *

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture is not just a book about the Cultural Revolution, though thematically and structurally that revolution illustrates Solomon’s elaborate analysis of the sources of Chinese political culture. Using an explicitly psychoanalytical perspective, he locates these sources in the “millennial” nature of Chinese society which, strongly influenced by Confucianism, stressed “social interdependence and personal dependence” while suppressing self-assertiveness and activism. To put it over-simply (how can one properly summarize 500 pages of complex argument?), it is this “dependency social orientation,” according to Solomon, that accounted for the inability of Chinese traditional culture to cope with the consequences of social change.

For the state of dependency in childhood, encouraged by child-rearing and education (which he analyzes in detail), led to a corresponding submissiveness to authority in adulthood. The child who sought to struggle against his state of filial dependence had no alternative but to take up what Mao (in discussing his relations with his own father) once described as an attitude of “open rebellion.” Chinese society, says Solomon, did not present the young with opportunities “for testing out in limited ways methods for mediated control of his urges toward aggression” (his emphasis).

Just as, for the child, there was nothing between discipline and defiance, so in political terms there was no middle ground between acceptance of a hierarchically enforced “peaceableness” (ho-p’ing), and an attitude of total but purposeless rejection, or “disorder” (luan).

The dynastic cycle in imperial China, whereby long periods of “peace” imposed upon a passive peasant constituency by the state alternated with short periods of fierce but fragmentary “disorder,” could be said to illustrate the narrow range of choice available in traditional political culture. The tiger of rebellion could always be contained by the next dynastic succession. For centuries, writes Solomon, “a small but organized rural gentry and imperial bureaucracy had exercised effective control over the fragmented rural population. Mass hostility had to be organized and subject to political direction if revolutionary goals were to be attained.”

It was Mao’s genius (of which the Cultural Revolution is the latest example) to substitute controlled conflict, Solomon argues, rather than uncontrolled luan as the vehicle for revolutionary change in China. The source of political motivation was seen by Mao as “an emotional storm in which hatreds, resentments, and a sense of hopeless desperation broke through social restraints in an overwhelming surge.” But this surge had to be channeled, and the latent anger of the Chinese peasant had to be “directed outward through the force of ideology expressed in a political slogan.”

* * *

In the second half of this book, Solomon discusses the Chinese revolution and its consolidation after 1949, identifying some key features of Mao’s style in promoting “controlled conflict.” The anarchic tendencies of individual aggression were directed toward specific objectives: for example, “class struggle.” Personal ambition was subsumed in the collective—the “small group” which is characteristic of Chinese society today. Ideological study—the “Thought of Mao Tse-tung”—replaced the oppressive Confucian education by its emphasis on the “creative” application of thought to action.

Yet by the mid-1950s the revolution had become routinized. The need for social and economic reconstruction had driven the Party into what traditionally was its natural alliance with the bourgeoisie, the technicians, and intellectuals. To leaders like Liu Sh’ao-chi, the battle seemed to have been won; the “struggle between socialism and capitalism in our country has now been decided.” In the vital superstructure of art and culture, so Mao was later to remark, the stage was held by “emperors, kings, generals, ministers, talented young gentlemen, pretty ladies, and their maids and escorts.”

It was to clear the stage of bureaucrats, Soviet-trained technocrats, and opera singers that Mao inspired first the Hundred Flowers Movement, then the Great Leap Forward, and finally the Cultural Revolution, a revolution in which he took the art of controlled luan to its limits and perhaps a good deal further.

This is an impressive and startling book. It will have the same kind of impact as did, in its different way, Franz Schurmann’s Ideology and Organization in Communist China.2 The technique of “psychocultural” political analysis is not new to Solomon, and he acknowledges his debt to Lucian Pye among others,3 but what is new is the comprehensiveness and power of his argument. It is, first, an analysis of the traditional Chinese way of life, which explores basic attitudes toward consumption and excretion, education and discipline. Next, it deduces from these childhood experiences the existence of a strongly directed “oral” culture which dominates the political outlook of its adults. Finally, in a section which occupies almost half the book, Solomon applies his analysis to the course of China’s post-liberation politics itself, challenging in the process many accepted China-watching truths. The study is further supported by the results of Professor Solomon’s year-long intensive interviewing among main-land-born Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

* * *

Of course, the “psychocultural” approach is open to question, and even to parody. In spite of his carefully inserted caveats and disclaimers, Solomon lapses occasionally. “From a psychological perspective,” he writes, “there is no little irony in the fact that in contrast to the unfilial Mao, the great philosophers of China’s political tradition, Confucius and Mencius, were men who lost their fathers early in life.” But the real irony lies in the attribution of any significance at all to the family biographies of two semi-mythical sages who may not even have written the books to which their names are traditionally attached.

A much more serious criticism can be made of the way in which Solomon defines “China’s political tradition” (as in the quotation above). It is exclusively the Confucian “tradition,” “life pattern,” “scholarship,” and “political heritage” that are shown to exercise the dead weight of “dependency” on contemporary China. Moreover, this tradition is described in a somewhat cursory manner in view of its central importance to the author’s subsequent argument. The convenient quotations from Confucius (as well as some from Mencius) about “filial piety” or the “superior man” give the impression of having been taken almost at random from James Legge’s antique and often inaccurate translations. At one point (p. 89), Solomon reveals unwittingly that he has failed to grasp one of the more elementary hazards of the Legge translation. That worthy missionary, forever trying to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity, was accustomed to supply, in italics, liberal additions to the text to make the meaning fit the view he happened to favor. By noting that the “emphasis” (which it is not) was supplied by the “original source,” Solomon can only invite speculation about his own familiarity with the original texts and their interpretation.4

Indeed it is remarkable that Taoism and Buddhism, both strong cultural influences in China, are never once mentioned by Solomon. The influence of either may be hard to chart, partly because it was greater among the illiterate masses than among the literati for whom Confucian norms were passwords to social success. Yet for this very reason the strength or weakness of these very different philosophies, both of which took a much less authoritarian view of how society should be organized, is surely worth some attention.

Discussion of another cultural tradition is also absent—again one perhaps more popular outside the closed and small circle of the literati—a tradition according to which politics was not a set of filial relationships but a very serious game of stratagems and Machiavellian maneuvers. This almost “Western” view can be found in early semifictional histories of the Warring States period such as the Tso Chuan and the Chan Kuo Tse, in the vernacular art of the Sung storytellers, and in popular novels like the Shui Hu Chuan (“All Men are Brothers”), to mention only one example familiar in the West.

This tradition, it could be argued, composed just as real a world in imperial China as that of the Confucian scholar, even if it were recorded in the annals only when the peasants rose in rebellion. Moreover, it is to this tradition—one might almost call it a “counterculture” of peasant struggle against Confucian authority—that Mao has frequently referred in outlining his own stratagems for dealing with the enemy.

* * *

Solomon recognizes that a problem arises from broadly applying the Confucian tradition to all of Chinese society. The important question, he writes, is “whether the social attitudes and emotional concerns of China’s small stratum of literate elite, as expressed in the life style and ideology of the Confucian ‘great tradition,’ were shared by illiterate peasants enduring poverty and toil in the ‘little tradition’ of the villages.” To answer this question, he falls back on a working hypothesis that the attitudes combining both Confucian thought and the tendency toward dependence stem from a common source shared by the peasant as much as by the scholar. This is the “social logic of an agrarian society” in which the formal structure of Confucianism simply mirrors the inexorable necessity imposed on man by nature. “There is an almost contrived equivalence,” writes Solomon, “between the monotony and physical discipline of agricultural life and the mental repetitiveness and unquestioning acceptance of the teacher’s authority required to become literate in the Classics.”

Contrived by whom? one is tempted to ask. Solomon’s working hypothesis requires much more attention than he apparently gave it during his researches. It is a pity, he explains, that the people whom he personally interviewed in Taiwan and Hong Kong did not provide any direct evidence of the social attitudes of the Chinese peasant, but rather reflected those of the bourgeoisie. This, he explains, was because “our tools of analysis required minimal literacy and sufficient social poise to be able to respond to an interview situation.” To which one again is tempted to ask, Whose situation?

The “interview schedule” which is reproduced in an appendix was, inescapably, written by a middle-class social scientist for middle-class interviewees. Certainly, an illiterate peasant would have little expectation of becoming “mayor of this city” (Question 56) nor would he have “a high wall round [his] family house” (Question 24). And the pictures from the Thematic Apperception Test offered by Solomon to his subjects for comment and free association include only one rural scene—in which an educated young man surveys a classic Chinese landscape. Somewhere in the middle distance, beneath the cloud-capped peaks, a humble peasant hoes his row. But he is only part of the scenery.

This identification of the Confucian tradition with the Chinese peasant is crucial to Solomon’s argument. For it follows that Mao Tse-tung’s efforts to mobilize the Chinese peasantry must continually run foul of the dead weight of “dependency,” and indeed that it is doubtful whether Mao will ever succeed. Solomon writes, after 1949, “Mao and his colleagues found another series of struggles between their own revolutionary goals and the personal inclinations of the Chinese people”; the failure to resolve these struggles led to the supreme mobilizing effort of the Cultural Revolution. Yet the Cultural Revolution in turn demonstrated that China remains “largely a traditional peasant society.” The organization and ideology have changed, yet “the Confucian heritage endures in the personalities of the Chinese people.” The question is left nominally open whether Mao’s mechanism for “mobilizing a basically conservative and politically reticent peasantry” can be sustained in the future. But Solomon’s implied answer is a pessimistic one.

* * *

The question, “Who will win?” as Mao himself has said, is “still undecided.” But we are right to take into account the pace and progress of social revolution in China since 1949 as to some extent indicative of a much more positive attitude on the part of the Chinese peasantry toward making revolution than Solomon’s picture would suggest. Of course we know all about the persistence of feudal practices, the arranged marriages and clan rivalries denounced (and perhaps exaggerated) from time to time in the Chinese press. But are we to suppose that the Confucian tradition is as strong a generation after liberation as it was before, or that after a further generation of change—including changes in the child-rearing and educational habits regarded as so vital by Solomon—it will not be any weaker? Perhaps not every Chinese peasant has “stood up,” in the Maoist sense, but a tendency in that direction has surely been established.

Mao himself does not believe that the Chinese peasantry is “basically conservative and politically reticent,” although this is implied in this book in several passages. While recognizing that conservatism is part of the dialectic of rural society, he also insists that the new revolutionary forces in the countryside are at least of equal strength. Rural policy, for Mao, is essentially a question of how to win over the uncommitted majority who tend to waver between the pressures of activism and conservatism. As Mao told the Lushan Party Plenum in July, 1959, defending himself against criticism that the Great Leap Forward had gone too far,

At least 30 percent of the people are actively on our side; another 30 percent are pessimists and landlords, while the rest are middle-of-the-roaders. How many people are 30 percent? It’s 150 million people! They want to run communes and mess halls and do everything cooperatively. They are very enthusiastic and keen—how can you call them petty-bourgeois fanatics?

The effect of what by any reckoning must be a substantial minority of support for Mao’s new style against the traditional style Solomon never squarely faces. For him it is a struggle between Mao and the rest in which the forces of revolution are never analyzed separately from the Chairman’s individual contribution.

The source of Mao’s own revolutionary inclinations is traced by Solomon back to Mao’s childhood where he fell foul of his father and of the schooling system. Here we are asked to identify “the emotional origins of Mao’s willingness to challenge established political authority.” Mao’s account of his childhood certainly provides countless anecdotes that seem to cry out for the analyst, and Solomon is not the first writer to respond to the call. There was, for instance, that famous time when Mao, after a dispute with his father, threatened to jump into a pond unless the latter promised not to beat him. “Thus the war ended,” Mao told Edgar Snow, and “I learnt that when I defended my rights by open rebellion my father relented, but when I remained meek and submissive he only cursed and beat me the more.” This is an excellent couch-side confession, but it was not told under treatment on the couch, but with a degree of self-irony which makes it a doubtful source for serious analysis. It certainly does not explain a revolution.

* * *

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture is a considerable work of scholarship and argument. In one step it raises our naïve conceptions of Chinese political culture and the old sterile debate of “totalitarianism” vs. “participatory democracy” to an entirely new and more complex plane. What it tells us about the persistence of traditional attitudes among certain sections of society is important; its speculations about the effect of these attitudes on political life are controversial and challenging. But it must be emphasized that this book is only the first step in an argument. In spite of its air of consummate authority, it is not the last word, and to take it as such would do Professor Solomon a great disservice.

It would not usually be necessary to make this point about a book in the bitchy field of Sinology, in which the hatchets are always kept handy. But the fact is that the Solomon approach confers a kind of academic seal of respectability on many of our prejudices about Chinese society that may mute the valuable controversy which it should arouse. Nor does it look as if Solomon’s views are of merely academic interest. For we learn from his publisher’s blurb that he has “recently been appointed to the National Security Council as a staff assistant to Henry Kissinger.” Professor Solomon’s study of Mao and the Chinese revolution, we are assured, “will be one factor in the shaping of America’s evolving China policy.”

It is not only Solomon’s conception of the “traditional conservatism” of the Chinese peasantry that conforms to a popular Western stereotype, but also his conception of China as an “oral” culture, unable to channel its creative and innovative forces effectively, and limited to a sterile dialectic between “conformity” and “chaos.” What a satisfying contrast with our anal Western culture! The Chinese stuff their children with food and then (as Solomon carefully explains) let them shit where they like. We, on the other hand, train our children young, and teach them the values of “personal independence and self-reliance” at an early age. No wonder the Chinese never had a proper industrial revolution. What a funny sort of people they still are!

  1. Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-en, translated by Arthur Waley (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942), p. 10.
  2. University of California Press, 1966.
  3. The Spirit of Chinese Politics: A Psychocultural Study of the Authority Crisis in Political Development (MIT, 1968), which acknowledges a debt to Solomon.
  4. James Legge, trans., The Chinese Classics, Vol. 1 (Shanghai, 1935), pp. 384-5. The passage quoted by Solomon, to illustrate his argument that in the Confucian view “social order was a function of the discipline…of popular emotions,” is a particularly unfortunate choice. Legge himself comments on this passage that “it is difficult to translate the paragraph because it is difficult to understand it.”
John Gittings is a reporter on Chinese and international affairs. He is currently a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the associate editor of the...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture
by Richard Solomon
University of California, 604 pp

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This article was first published in the December 16, 1971 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...