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China on the Verge

During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also a rigorously trained and didactic Confucian scholar who demanded that his students observe the highest standards of deportment. He lectured them on ethics for an hour every single school day. There was no question of his being in the stands with the fans, especially not in the long traditional scholar’s gown which he insisted on wearing for all university functions. Instead he had a telephone line installed, running from the soccer field to his presidential office. Kept informed of all goals scored by his own or the rival teams, he could cheer wildly or weep at the outcome in dignified seclusion. After the game was over he would emerge once more into the public eye, in order to praise or castigate his team.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 1930, a north China villager, with the chafed and roughened fingers of the peasants who had added rug making to their other agricultural labors, graduated from the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Peking Union Medical College. Sent to work in a north China rural community, where a smallpox epidemic was ravaging the local populace, he decided to carry out a vaccination campaign. The supplies that he had been so expertly trained to use were simply not available. Accordingly, to administer the vaccine he gave his health workers sewing machine needles, which they disinfected in wads of cotton soaked with Chinese brandy. By these means 21,605 local people were vaccinated and indubitably many lives were saved.

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The day-by-day business of what we often term “modernization” is inevitably full of paradoxes and adaptations such as these. They seem especially numerous in China, where the processes of economic growth and intellectual change were stymied or deflected by the warlordism, civil war, and foreign invasion that wracked the country from 1916 to 1949. They have been central, too, to the People’s Republic of China, in which extraordinarily diverse policies have veered from total rejection of the West to an uncritical acceptance of almost everything Western. Leaders such as Mao Zedong, the “Gang of Four,” and Deng Xiaoping have had little sense of how to proceed and how to channel these uncertain forces. The modernization of the Chinese army overlapped with the visionary and ultimately chaotic experimentation of the Great Leap Forward. President Nixon was invited to China when the xenophobic Cultural Revolution was still in full swing. Deng Xiaoping threw open his country to the West, and condoned or ordered both the campaigns against “Spiritual Pollution” and the mass killing of civilians seeking democratic change in Peking during 1989.

The crisis now facing the leaders of the People’s Republic has several overlapping components that appear to be intractable. Prominent among these are the problems of changing traditional rural patterns of life in ways that can benefit both the state and the local farmers; the attempts to organize urban workers so that they can live peaceably and work profitably in the impoverished cities; the need to encourage a modern managerial and entrepreneurial elite within a centrally controlled economy; the task of introducing China’s brightest students and intellectuals to the techniques and ideas of the West without turning them against their own government and society; and the need to check the violent antisocial impulses that threaten to tear apart local communities and seriously disrupt the economic and social life of the nation as a whole. It is a sign of the energy and verve of Chinese studies in the West at the moment that five impressive new books, each based on extensive research, illuminate these matters from the perspective of the 1920s and early 1930s. Such a long view gives us a sense of how others tried to deal with the problems that the Communist leaders are now confronting.

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The extent and complexity of non-Communist attempts at land reform in the 1920s and 1930s have been among the better kept secrets in the People’s Republic, where for obvious reasons the innovations and successes (as they were declared to be) of the land redistribution of the early 1950s were held up as the signal achievement of the Communist party itself. In fact, as Charles Hayford shows in his absorbing study of the liberal reformer James Yen, primary attempts at land reform began during the pre-Communist period of the Chinese Republic, and were based in many ways on theories of mass education and of urban uplift as these had been practiced for decades in the West, especially by groups such as the YMCA.

Yen was born in 1893 (the same year as Mao Zedong) to an educated family in northern Sichuan, and made his way through local schools which taught him the Chinese classics, to a modernizing missionary-run school in a nearby city, to a small college in Hong Kong, and thence to Yale, where he graduated in the class of 1918. Both in China and in Hong Kong James Yen’s world had already become one strongly influenced by Christianity and the strenuous religious image projected by the YMCA. “Confucius would have been a ‘Y’ man,” a Chinese of the time observed, and the idealistic Protestant students to whom Yen became closest at Yale reinforced this message, as did the members of the Huie family, whom James met in New York. The head of this clan, Huie Chin, was the minister of the Chinatown Presbyterian Church, who had married a red-haired Irishwoman from Brooklyn.

The careers of this couple’s nine children are neatly summarized in a couple of Hayford’s paragraphs. Six of the Huie children were girls, and all married activist Chinese students studying in America. James’s marriage (in 1921) to Alice Huie, a swimming champion and graduate of the Columbia Teachers’ College Physical Education Department, was long and happy, ending with her death in 1980. As Hayford observes, this remarkable family formed “an important intersection in a network of Christians which reached across the Pacific,” and was part of a chain that linked young Christian Chinese to many well-to-do young Americans, classmates or the friends of friends within their elite schools.

Yen returned to China via France, where he served with the YMCA among the more than one hundred thousand Chinese laborers who had been recruited by the British in World War I to help them with the digging of trenches, the unloading of transport ships, and the preparation of base areas behind the front lines. Hired as noncombatants, the Chinese at times got caught in the cross fire, and were occasionally deliberately attacked by German planes or artillery. But their main function was to release more British men for active service. Among these uneducated and homesick Chinese, Yen found a ready audience for his offers to write letters home, for the simple reading primers he distributed among them, and for the few social services the “Y” could provide; in return, he absorbed a knowledge of the poor people of China for which there had been little room in his own previous education. From France, Yen traveled back to the United States, taking an M.A. degree from Princeton in history and politics and meanwhile strengthening his many contacts and friendships in the US. After another stay in Sichuan, where he was an active leader of the mass literacy campaigns then underway, Yen was transferred to Peking where he had a similar part in the mass education movement there. By 1926, he was hard at work with rural reform in Ting-hsien county in North China.

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James Yen and the Chinese reformers who worked with him in the county were, in Hayford’s apt words, “Trans-Pacific Liberals,” but this did not mean they were “passive victims of foreign influence.” They were, rather, “active adapters and creative developers of cosmopolitan ideas.” In this they were not unlike the young Mao Zedong, and like Mao they “addressed the problem of how political power and China’s culture could be used to build a modern nation. Each combined respect for China’s traditions with a contempt for the educated elite who defined Chinese culture in selfish literary terms.” Endeavoring to deal with “factors as diverse as modern ideas of nationalistic patriotism, new techniques of popular mobilization, the germ theory of disease, and the spread of flush toilets,” their dedicated hard work and their pragmatism were intermingled with a “pastoral” conception of politics.

The attempts made at widespread change by these hard-working reformers—aided often by Western advisers, philanthropists, and co-workers, and by the new techniques of social analysis and planning offered by the developing field of sociology—were truly broad. Their efforts are described by Hayford, and they are instructive not only for their intrinsic interest, but also because they give one a sense of how daunting the task was, especially when one reflects that all this energy was concentrated on only a part of one county, as opposed to the nationwide attempts to be made by the Communists in the early 1950s. But many of the tasks and issues were the same, and have endured or re-emerged at the present day; breeding of better livestock strains, the development of an efficient rural water pumping system, the pooling of economic resources through cooperative associations, the building of an effective rural school system, the supervision of better cotton growing, development of commercial fruit farming, improvement of agricultural tools, increased availability of fertilizer, the curbing of insect-carried plant diseases, and the introduction of local health-care facilities.

When Yen’s imaginative friend H.Y. Yao traveled with his sewing machine needles and his Chinese brandy-soaked cotton wads to check the spread of smallpox, he did so as part of Yen’s program in Ting-hsien. Yao and his fellow health workers also led fly-killing campaigns, hygiene classes, and helped diminish the devastating extent of postnatal tetanus by teaching midwives not to smear the babies’ severed umbilical cords with mud. Under the guidance of another extraordinary figure, the Peking and Harvard-trained physician C.C. Ch’en, Ting-hsien reforms worked at a major plan to “deprofessionalize” the practice of Western medicine in China, by preventing the emergence of separate specialties of preventive and curative medicine. Instead they worked to make the most of the available health-care resources by developing a three-tiered system of healthcare delivery.

At the lowest level, they trained village health workers, chosen from among the local farmers, who were “fortified with brief training and armed with a simple first aid box.” The first aid boxes, made available to each village at a cost of $3, contained eye ointment and calomel, castor oil and aspirin, scissors, bandages, vaccination equipment, and disinfectant. Above these local health workers was a second tier of health stations in market towns, run by a doctor and a nurse, with lay helpers. Hospital beds were concentrated at the top tier, in district health centers, where other doctors were backed by dentists, pharmacists, laboratory assistants, and sanitation staff. Birth control, however, remained an intractable problem at all levels, and they reluctantly decided it would have to follow after basic changes in economic growth and education, instead of preceding and encouraging them.

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Had all these interconnected experiments and initiatives been able to spread peacefully and effectively, China’s modern history would certainly have been vastly different. But they did not spread, and Hayford tells us cogently and carefully why they did not: there were problems of ideology, of national versus local politics, of nationalist impulses versus Christian ones. The government officials who took an interest in reforms wanted to impose them from the top downward. There were too few trained people to provide leadership in the villages. Foreign funding often went to inept government agencies rather than to local reformers; there was a shortage of money and a shortage of will. Banditry, world depression, local corruption, Japanese aggression, all undermined the hopeful initiatives, which collapsed altogether during World War II. After the war, despite much good will, energetic fund raising, and the emergence of promising new groups like the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, little could be done to check the Nationalist collapse.

As the Communists consolidated their hold over China in 1949, James Yen, his wife, and their two daughters left for an apartment he had maintained on West End Avenue in New York. After a time in the US, James Yen worked in the Philippines for the rest of his long life. But all three of his sons insisted on staying in China to help build the new society. The three young men made an agreement with their sisters: after one year in the People’s Republic they would send a snapshot to New York. If the three brothers were shown as seated, all was well. If one or the other were standing, they were in trouble, and the sisters should not try to return. The snapshot arrived as promised: it showed all three brothers standing. The youngest of the three subsequently committed suicide.

Even though reforms like those attempted by James Yen and his associates in Ting-hsien brought a measure of heightened local prosperity along with better health standards, they could never begin to solve the huge problems of rural poverty; and throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was always a steady migration away from the north China countryside, either to southern Manchuria or other regions where seasonal farm labor was needed, or else into the larger cities where jobs might be available in transport industries, in factories, or in construction. For those who were truly desperate, one line of work was almost always available, that of the rickshaw coolie. Slotted between the long protruding shafts of the rickshaw, his passenger seated comfortably behind in a padded seat slung between the rickshaw’s two rubber tires, the rickshaw puller represented human labor in one of its lowest and most apparently debased forms: desperately dodging cars and mule carts, his legs pumping down the road through dust or mud, his breath rasping in his throat and his heart pounding.

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Yet though he was often perceived as the prototype of the desperate country hick adrift in the big city, the rickshaw puller also became, as David Strand shows in Rickshaw Beijing, the model of the street-smart operator. Though often desperately poor, the rickshaw pullers had their own culture and their own style of life. Able either to use the newly paved roads of China’s modernizing cities, or to slip down narrow alleyways where no car or cart could penetrate, they learned swiftly to hunt out customers, to bargain, to exploit the interlocking worlds of the streets, the restaurants, the theaters, and the brothels. They became, in Strand’s words, the performers of “social dramas” and the partners in a “politics of the streets,” with their own camaraderie and their own cult of insolence.

Perhaps more than any other city dwellers, they learned to explore the new phenomenon of “public space” that had entered into Chinese urban life along with the twentieth century, a space somewhere between the previously exclusive zones of private life and official administration. In a world in which all sorts of new regularities were demanded, in which streetcars had to proceed on fixed tracks, passengers had to pay their fares, automobiles had to stick to one side of the paved roads, trains had to follow schedules, tariffs of charges had to be adhered to, the rickshaw puller had his own flexible sphere in which he was free to bargain, work his own hours, and break any rules as long as the police weren’t watching him. (Some police, indeed, whose salaries were also desperately low, and often in arrears as various Peking governments succumbed to fresh warlord conquests, moonlighted as rickshaw pullers themselves.)

In Rickshaw Beijing David Strand takes us into a part of urban China in the 1920s that we have not seen before, and provides an admirable addition to the studies of the urban work force in such cities as Shanghai and Tianjin that have recently appeared. But because Strand deals with workers in such a volatile line of work, in which injury or even death were commonplace, upward social mobility was almost impossible, and hostile confrontations with police were constant, he comes close to showing us the city as potential anarchy. He describes for us a limbo or nether world that in the 1920s, as today, the Chinese urban administration watched over with constant anxiety—a world largely unregulated, untraceable, with its own rules and codes and networks that had little to do with those of the state.

In the 1920s, Strand shows, rickshaw pullers were a constantly visible part of Peking’s population of 1,100,000. There were about 60,000 pullers, who represented almost one-sixth of the city’s working males between the ages of sixteen and fifty. (Occasionally women disguised themselves as men to get work as rickshaw pullers, and sometimes two or even three children squeezed between the shafts to try and perform the work of one adult.) They were tied in an intimate economic and social relationship to the garage owners who rented out the rickshaws to them by the day, and who sometimes offered shelter overnight in the garages, or provided emergency food and drink. More importantly, the pullers had relations with other members of the working class that make it hard to fit them into conventional economic categories. Certainly “worker solidarity” was far from their thoughts, either with other laborers or even with their fellow pullers, who were often their rivals. Their enemies included mule-cart drivers, automobile chauffeurs, and increasingly during the Twenties the drivers and conductors of the new city streetcar and bus services. More than a few workers died in the clashes between the rickshaw pullers and their competitors.

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The Communist party tried early on to organize the rickshaw pullers, but even if one could persuade them not to abruptly leave talks about the union in order to pick up a fare down the street, it was hard to convince them of the benefits of union organization. Rickshaw pullers tended to be loners, and instead of improving their lot, a strike was more likely to force potential customers on to other forms of public transport. Nor would a rickshaw strike have the immediate consequences of a strike by the other desperately poor denizens of Peking—night-soil collectors, for instance, could have an immediate impact by ceasing their rounds, as could water carriers; coffin makers would quickly have an impact too, especially in hot weather, as could shoemakers and tent sewers, at least when a military campaign was underway.

Nevertheless, in times of national humiliation rickshaw pullers might refuse to pull Japanese or British customers. When interviewed by inquisitive students they could present articulate views of what “revolution” meant in their eyes, and by the late 1920s many thousands of the pullers had begun to seek union protection. When goaded beyond their limits they could flare into sudden and alarming violence.

One such episode took place on October 22, 1929, when for a long night the rickshaw pullers virtually controlled the city. The story of how they came to do so is complex, involving tensions with a militant streetcar union, arguments among leaders of the fledgling rickshaw union, and anger caused by college students, who hired rickshaws to pull them long distances back to campus and then ran inside to sanctuary without paying, leaving the gate keepers to beat up the pullers when they tried to invade the campus. The members of “aristocratic” unions such as the telephone and postal workers, and those in the electric power companies, were often unsympathetic to the rickshaw pullers and increased their sense of isolation. The rickshaw pullers started to order passengers out of the streetcars in the afternoon of October 22; soon they were smashing the passenger shelters, breaking streetcar windows, and cutting power lines. Then they started to derail streetcars, and to block the streets, until the services were brought to a complete halt. The police carefully stayed away, as the pullers wrecked or destroyed sixty out of the ninety streetcars then operating.

Late at night army units moved in, firing blank rounds and laying about them with rifle butts; only then did the pullers slowly retire from the fray. Many of those returning to the original flash point of the riot found that their rickshaws had been stolen while they were away. No one was killed, but two hundred pullers were arrested; four of the leaders were subsequently shot by firing squad, and thirty-five were jailed. As Strand rightly says, this was the largest outbreak of unauthorized urban violence in Peking between the Boxer Rising of 1900 and the Tiananmen incidents of 1976 and 1989. The warlord troops and police of the chaotic 1920s can be seen to have exercised a discipline and restraint that eluded their latter-day successors, the rulers of the People’s Republic.

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Such parallels are worth making, and reflecting on, if we are to try to make sense of the People’s Republic and come to a realistic assessment of its successes and failures. Marie-Claire Bergère is especially candid about the need to reconsider the previously accepted Marxist categories in the field of modern Chinese history if we are to understand it. As she notes in her introduction to The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, her book originated as a dissertation for the Doctorat d’Etat in France. Conceived along Marxist lines with the help of Marxist academic advisers, it was to be part of a three-part investigation of the basic class categories of the Chinese state: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the peasantry. The Chinese bourgeoisie itself, following received Marxist wisdom, was divided into three distinct groups:

The “comprador bourgeoisie” under foreign influence, the “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” linked to a reactionary political apparatus and, finally, the “national bourgeoisie,” the only group that had worked for the progress and modernization of the country.

Only years after she had finished her research for her thesis, and the world and China had changed, did Ms. Bergère come back to the topic. Why, she asked herself, did Deng Xiaoping, in opening China to the West, seem to be relying on so many children of the old bourgeoisie, descendants of millionaires like the Rongs, once known as the “Rockefellers of China”? Where had these people really come from, she wondered, and what had their history been like? A completely revised version of her book was published in France in 1986 and has now been excellently translated by Janet Lloyd. It appears in the series on capitalism as a world system under the direction of a group at the Fernand Braudel Center at the State University of New York in Binghamton, and at the Maison des Sciences de l’homme in Paris.

As she reconsidered her original work Ms. Bergère concluded that the Marxist categories of comprador, bureaucratic, and nationalistic bourgeoisie had no historical basis. The Chinese bourgeoisie had emerged from a changing imperial Chinese society in which the state, although it could not control economic organizations and growth, initially “did manage to control the social transformations connected with that growth.” Despite these restrictions, a “cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial China” emerged as the Western powers enforced the newly devised “treaty port” system of fixed tariffs, foreign residence and investment, and missionary activity, both on China’s coast and along the major inland waterways.

The Qing state tried to persuade overseas Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in their homeland; in doing so, they contributed to the growth of a new urban, commercial intelligentsia. But such investment and the accompanying growth depended to a considerable extent on foreign firms and employees. The more Ms. Bergère looked into the subject, the more the idea of a “nationalist” bourgeoisie faded away. She found “that, strictly speaking, there were no Chinese businesses independent of the foreigners in the treaty ports in the early years of the twentieth century.” The more telling distinction to be made was “between the relative economic and cultural alienation [from other Chinese traders and investors] of the modernised urban elite groups and their more or less unanimous nationalistic aspirations.”

Furthermore, the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911–1912 was not, in any sense, a “bourgeois revolution,” as Marxist interpretation insisted. True, “an urban elite connected with modern business,” participated in the overthrow, but the basic work of ending the imperial system came from “high-ranking officials, landowners, military officers and the heads of secret societies and armed bands.” This was of crucial importance to later twentieth-century China, since the apparent acceptance of aspects of democracy, constitutionalism, and nationalism by such powerful groups did not alter their underlying social conservatism. “Freedom” in China continued to be “not defined so much in terms of the individual but rather in opposition to the authoritiarianism of central government. So it is not surprising if the local elite groups regarded the establishment of their own power as a triumph for democracy.”

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The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie is an important book, but the dates in its subtitle—1911–1937—are misleading. This subtitle suggests that the Chinese bourgeoisie was somehow flourishing until the onslaught of the full Japanese invasion of China after 1937. This, in turn, implies that the decade of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule from Nanking, between 1927 and 1937, was a prosperous period for the Chinese bourgeoisie, which implies in turn that Chiang Kai-shek’s downfall was somehow a tragedy for the flourishing bourgeoisie. In fact, Ms. Bergère’s book shows that this “Golden Age” lasted until 1927, not 1937. Only an epilogue of twenty-five pages, coming at the end of 270 pages of text, deals with the 1927–1937 period, and that epilogue shows that Chiang helped to end the growth of the bourgeoisie by reasserting bureaucratic state control over their activities. This reimposition of state power, Ms. Bergère states, was more important to the fate of the bourgeoisie than even the Communist victory of 1949. Why then is there a fairly consistent view in the West, and inside China, that Chiang Kai-shek heavily favored the bourgeoisie and encouraged their growth? There were indeed, as Ms. Bergère cites, some valid ambiguities, and some real difficulties in determining what the dominant social forces were under the Nanking regime:

But the misunderstandings also seem to have been deliberately fostered by the Chinese themselves—by communist theorists anxious to make developments in China conform with Marxist schematas, who have sought to establish the existence of a bourgeois phase, never mind whether it was comprador, bureaucratic or feudal, and above all by the government of Chiang Kai-shek, which was skilled at presenting the image of itself that most favoured its interests, the image most likely to win sympathy and financial aid from the West. Just as Mao Zedong’s China was able to dangle before the eyes of the leftists and radicals of a Western world in a state of crisis the image of a society still pure, frugal and fraternal, Chiang Kai-shek’s China tried to convince and win over the democrats of Europe and America by exaggerating its bourgeois character. In both cases, the success achieved by these manipulations gives some idea of the degree of our own ignorance as far as China is concerned.

The true Golden Age of the Chinese bourgeoisie, in Ms. Bergère’s view, was between 1910 and 1920, when the collapse of the old Qing state, the weakness of the ensuing republican leadership, and the enforced removal of the Western imperialist powers from China following World War I, led to a period of “spontaneous capitalism” and “import substitution.” Foreign businessmen were called away to active duty; the prices of materials like tungsten increased more than threefold; shipping costs to London from Shanghai went up twenty-five times, and weak local and national bureaucracies were unable to collect taxes. As a result, China’s industrial growth rate between 1912 and 1920 averaged 13.8 percent. Ms. Bergère gives rich and lengthy accounts of various groups of Chinese entrepreneurs during this time, concentrating on mechanical engineers and on cotton-mill owners. She concludes that, in line with her earlier analysis of the “revolution” of 1911–1912, the apparent “modernity” of this bourgeoisie was

not based on a break with tradition but on its ability to make tradition serve new objectives. It was Chinese urban society itself that rose to the challenge of modernization and it did so according to its own terms….

This initial “golden” period was followed by what Ms. Bergère calls the “bid for liberalism” on the part of bourgeois business leaders between 1920 and 1923, the occasion for this initiative being the instabilities caused by the emerging warlord regimes. The threat of the warlords’ instability prompted the bourgeoisie to try to establish new organizations that would defend their newly won local liberties—but this did not mean they were seeking to defend individual liberties. Their attempts to establish some kind of “provincial federation” were merely designed to end the long-standing and vicious cycle by which free enterprise had been accompanied by civil disorder, and political order accompanied by economic exploitation.

The growth of merchant militias, chambers of commerce, and other industrialists’ and producers’ associations were a part of this process, which attained a peak of sorts in June 1923, when the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce set up a seventy-member “Committee of People’s Government” and declared the city’s “independence.” The committee collapsed by August in the face of military and foreign pressures, and no little public ridicule. During the next four years, between 1923 and 1927, the bourgeoisie in Canton and Shanghai tried to adjust to the new centralizing politics of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, a politics that included the mounting of the Northern Expedition to bring about national reunification, and the suppression of the radical peasant and workers’ movements, along with the attempted annihilation of Chiang’s erstwhile ally, the Communist party. In yielding up its bases of economic power to Chiang Kai-shek, Ms. Bergère concludes, the bourgeoisie was not “betraying the proletariat.” It was merely betraying itself. “By abdicating its political autonomy, the bourgeoisie laid itself at the mercy of the State power that it had itself helped to restore.”

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Ms. Bergère mentions in passing the close interconnections between the newly prospering capitalists and the Chinese “modernist avant-garde,” connections that

were developed on a family and friendly level, were manifest in the diverse careers pursued by the various members of a single family, sometimes within a single lifetime, and were an integral part of the structure of Chinese society.

As an example, Ms. Bergère cites the Zhang family of central China, where one brother became China’s most powerful banker, one a leading philosopher, and their sister the wife of China’s best known romantic poet. But as Wen-hsin Yeh shows in her new study, The Alienated Academy, this “modernist avantgarde” was itself far from united and far from happy. One of the most important and original contributions of her richly documented study is that it shows the deep intellectual and social divisions that lay at the heart of China’s emerging university world. Especially valuable are Ms. Yeh’s analyses of the deeply conservative thinking of many leaders of the public universities, in contrast to those at the smaller private universities that were often dominated by progressive “May Fourth Movement” figures, who in different ways had set their sights on the twin goals of “Science and Democracy” proclaimed by the movement’s leaders in 1919.

A good example of university conservatism can be found in the thinking of Tang Weizhi, the president of Communications University (formerly Nanyang School of Technology), whose passionate but private involvement in his school’s soccer matches we noted above. President Tang, born in 1865, was a former scholar of the Qing dynasty’s prestigious Hanlin Academy for Advanced Confucian Studies, and a leading interpreter of the Book of Changes. He believed that his school (over which he presided from 1907 to 1921) should not only teach modern engineering at the highest levels, but should also support traditional Chinese cultural values. Students had to pass a series of rigorous examinations based on the lengthy daily lectures he gave on ethics; waivers of tuition within the university were granted solely on the basis of performance in these exams. While other schools might celebrate commencement with a performance of a play of Shakespeare to prove their cosmopolitanism, President Tang celebrated Confucius’ birthday instead, with all his faculty and students taking part in a full and formal ceremony. He also insisted on holding an examination in Chinese for the entire school on the anniversary of the old Confucian state examinations (which had been abolished in 1905). Tang himself acted as the proctor on this occasion. Dismayed by radical currents that reached into even his school by 1920, Tang resigned his presidency in order to found an Institute for the Study of National Learning; here he continued to instill purist Confucian principles into a new student generation during the entire Nanking decade.

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The values expressed by President Tang in no way vanished with his resignation. Indeed, as Ms. Yeh shows in detail, a kind of neo-Confucian revivalism, often linked to classical phonology, gained ground in the later Twenties and Thirties. Such studies in universities “provided the foundation of a highly historicist culturalism that rejected foreign elements both on grounds of systemic incompatibility and of adulterated genealogy.” Administrators even more purist than President Tang posed linguistic examination questions that could only be carefully answered by wordplay that subtly denigrated leading May Fourth intellectuals like Hu Shi. Trendiness or unpopularity was not the issue here, purity was. “As elitist scholiasts,” writes Ms. Yeh, “the classicists felt no compulsion to enlarge their academic constituency.”

The “alienation” that Ms. Yeh ascribes in her title to Chinese academic life derived in part from frustrating and formula-ridden experiences like these, but also from the impracticality of many of the more “modern” schools, where the English language was considered more important than Chinese, radical politics were the order of the day, and yet no clear-cut system for getting students jobs in the upper economic echelons of society had been established. As many as 15 percent of new college graduates could not find work, and the proportion was much higher in the humanities. Either warlord troops or, after 1929, the Guomindang Nationalist Party often brutally intruded in university life. In some of the more elite private universities there was a general hedonism, a pursuit of romantic love and of social conformity to a supposedly chic code of Western behavior. In one of the many fascinating pictures in Ms. Yeh’s study, we see a 1931 cartoon of a young naked Chinese university student with bobbed hair, wearing only black high-heeled shoes, reclining with her bottom in an oversize cocktail glass, while she plays on the saxophone. Even in the private schools, continual tuition hikes and special charges for every conceivable cause—library use, late arrival on campus, make-up examinations, building construction, “damage deposits,” lab equipment, musical instruments, sports, medical care—gave the university a mercenary aura and undermined student morale.

In the public universities most students were poor, and food and living conditions were atrocious. Regular complaints and protests only brought more state harassment. Students had to wear standard uniforms, follow Guomindang party rules on campus, attend compulsory courses on the infallibility of Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People,” sing national songs, and undergo compulsory training for military or nursing service. Though this was still far from the political domination over the universities during the People’s Republic, Ms. Yeh reminds us that in the Nanking decade, “what the appearance of conformity and rituals of compliance on college campuses reflected was a profound penetration of state power into university administration and student life.” These changes affected private and public schools alike, apart from a few missionary schools run by stubborn foreigners who successfully managed to avoid being browbeaten.

* * *

By the late 1930s, Ms. Yeh shows, the academy had become impoverished and humiliated, with little chance left of exerting influence on the nation’s life. Nevertheless, some intellectuals and teachers refused to give up. Near the end of her study, Ms. Yeh quotes at length from Zhu Guangqian—the leading Chinese scholar of aesthetic theory during the 1920s and early 1930s—who sought the path to a new constructive regeneration of the Chinese spirit. He wanted to broaden the idea of self-cultivation within society—through developing the “inner landscape” of every citizen—though this demanded that the Chinese in turn would be able “to nurture enough sensitivity and to exercise sufficient self-discipline to participate in the community of aesthetic insight.” The great strength of Confucius, wrote Zhu, had been his “unyielding resolve to pursue his moral vision despite a sense of futility.” More quietly pessimistic, but still hopeful that some form of meaningful action could be found, was Hu Shi, the veteran of the early May Fourth Movement battles over the place of a “new culture” and of “Science and Democracy” in China. Ms. Yeh quotes Hu Shi at his most moving, in a passage written in 1930, suitably enough in the introduction to a book on human rights:

A parrot used to rest on the top of Mt. Jituo. One day the mountain caught fire. The parrot, seeing the fire at a distance, dipped its feathers in the ocean, flew over the mountain, and sprinkled drops of water into the fire. The deity said to the parrot: “your attempt is admirable. But how much difference can you possibly make?” The parrot replied: “This mountain once gave me a spot to rest. I cannot bear it being reduced to ashes.”

The metaphor of the reduction of the mountain to ashes suggests, with a terrifying precision, the state of a China in which all social and political controls have finally eroded, and where only untamed violence rages. It was this specter that Communist leaders invoked in 1989 when denouncing the democracy movement and defining the protests as inchoate and rebellious actions led by hoodlums (even though the original demands of the students had in fact been to meet with their government’s leaders and their most radical demand was for more freedom to publish). The Guomindang in the 1930s had repeatedly invoked similar fears in its attempts to rally the nation behind its attempts to eradicate Communists, just as the Qing dynasty had previously invoked similar arguments to warn its people against the nascent revolutionary and republican movement led by Sun Yat-sen.

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The fear of the social chaos that lay below the surface of apparent order was not an idle one either in the late nineteenth century or the late 1920s, as is amply demonstrated in Phil Billingsley’s harrowing study, Bandits in Republican China, a carefully documented guidebook to a hellish world, complete with an astoundingly erudite and bone-chilling eight-page appendix containing a “Selected List of Bandit Slang.” “Plucking flowers” was the term for kidnapping women and children. “Wrapping the tablet” meant eliminating a rival gang. Bullets were called “white rice.” “Fire carriers” were those who led night attacks. “Eaters of two dumplings” were the scavenging gangs who picked up the leavings that the main bandit force happened to leave behind. “Wearing colors” or being “gaily dressed” was to be wounded; to “hang up a sheep” was to capture a middling wealthy man, a rich one was a “fat duck.” To get “an earthly ticket” was to capture a woman (a “twofive” was a virgin woman captive). To “release” a captive meant to kill him, to “burn the ticket” meant to kill or maim a captive with fire, whereas “clipping the ticket” meant cutting off an ear or a finger. “Having fun” was to fight, “slapping bean curd” to beat someone on the buttocks.

Like Charles Hayford and Marie-Claire Bergère, Phil Billingsley worked for almost two decades to refine his subject and prepare his research for publication. In many ways his topic is the most elusive of all, but it is one that we need to know about if we are to understand the growing pains of modern China. Billingsley is not sentimental about the bandit forces he analyzes, nor does he overestimate their leaders’ goals and intelligence. But he does show convincingly how they sprang from the social dislocation of the times, how they flourished in regions where state supervision was extremely weak. He is also well informed on how the Communist party sought either to co-opt or to recruit the bandit gangs into their own program of social revolution, and how—whether one is talking of Communists or Nationalists—“the state’s implicit acceptance of the transformation of bandit gangs into armed protection groups, like the routinization of the Mafia in Al Capone’s Chicago, was the most obvious example of the consequence of the ‘overworld’ and the ‘underworld’ in China.”

In his analysis of what he calls “fierce democracy,” moreover, Billingsley gives an absorbing account of how gangs were created and organized in Republican China. Qualities of natural leadership, the ability to command respect and to act as “surrogate family,” courage and intelligence, local ties, physical strength, cunning, sometimes even youth, when combined with extraordinary quick wits—any or all of these factors could push a man (and occasionally a woman) to the top of a gang, which could in turn number anywhere from tens to thousands of followers. Once formed, the bandit gang had a fairly rigid hierarchy which echoed the obedience and loyalty structures of the family and of the state. Nevertheless, Billingsley writes, the “appointment of new leaders was essentially democratic, based upon achievement and acknowledged ability.” On one occasion, at least, the leadership of a gang was offered to a captured American doctor, H.J. Howard, whose height of six-feet plus, membership in the Freemasons, training as a doctor, knowledge of Chinese, and fearlessness at the moment of capture, all led his captors to elect him as their chief. He did not accept.

* * *

The Western world got an awestruck view of this bandit universe—and Billingsley some of his best sources—when in May 1923 an unusually daring gang in Shandong province hijacked the entire Tianjin to Pukou passenger express train, kidnapping over three hundred passengers for ransom, including thirty Westerners, several of them Americans. (The incident later became the inspiration for the film Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich.) Most of the captives were released for a ransom sum of $85,000—the money, ironically, being supplied by a confidant of Chiang Kai-shek, who also happened to be one of Shanghai’s leading racketeers in the gambling, prostitution, and heroin trades. Most of the bandits were then incorporated into regular army units as they had requested, and their leaders received commissions.

In one of the most vivid of the many incidents recorded by Billingsley, in November 1911 three young anti-Qing revolutionaries set off into the mountains of Western Henan province to try to recruit the members of a particularly notorious bandit gang to their revolutionary cause. Having studied up on the gang’s “dark language” (i.e., private slang) and been received into the bandits’ base camp, the young men lectured the bandits on their revolutionary goals. They were given a feast of duck, chicken, pork, and mutton, washed down with abundant liquor. One of the young revolutionaries, named Wu, ritually prostrated himself before an elderly woman named Guan, mother of a bandit murdered the summer before, and indicated his desire “to join the revolution together with you, overthrow the corrupt officials and local tyrants, and carry out the Way on behalf of Heaven.” The following day all met before the same old lady and signed an oath of brotherhood sealing the oath by pouring a freshly killed cock’s blood into a bowl of wine, from which they all drank. As Billingsley observes, at the end of this remarkable meeting, “when the ceremony was over, Old Mother Guan presented Wu with the Browning pistol that her son had treasured when he was alive.”

The cock’s blood and the Browning pistol draw us back full circle to the soccer stadium and the Confucian gown, to the Chinese brandy swabs and the smallpox vaccine. Each of these five books reminds us of the traditional elements lying at the heart of the new, and of the paradoxes that have lain together side by side during China’s long struggle to achieve a modern transformation.