Title

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 Communist party’s elite in 1966–1976 continued his egalitarian struggle against the landlord-scholar-official ruling class of old China. Ancestors shows us what Mao was fighting against. It even suggests why he lost. Its author, Frank Ching (Qin Jiacong), grew up in Hong Kong during the 1940s and 1950s; the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he was not only fluent in English and Chinese but had absorbed both cultures. Coming to the United States at age nineteen, he took a BA at Fordham and an MA from New York University, and on a Ford Foundation fellowship studied international reporting at Columbia. Soon he was working on the China desk at The New York Times. In 1979 he opened the Peking bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Even without knowing much about his scholar-official ancestors he had established his career as a scholar-reporter. His older sister Julia Ching is a professor at the University of Toronto.

Being at home in two cultures and becoming a naturalized American citizen made Frank Ching all the more a Chinese patriot. He began inquiries into his family’s origins. His twenty-eight chapters are guided by the latest (1929) edition of the Qin Family Genealogy in seventeen volumes.

* * *

Frank Ching begins in 1049 AD with the founder (Qin Guan) of the branch of the clan at Wuxi (Wusih), an ancient city in the rice-rich Yangtze delta inland from Shanghai and Suzhou (Soochow). From his nine-hundred-year genealogy he selects some twenty ancestors for study. From this personal perspective he describes both the major institutions of the old Chinese ruling class and the important events in which his ancestors participated. The reader is thus led entertainingly through a basic course in Chinese upper-class history. The founder of the clan, for example, a poet, was a friend of the important Song (Sung) dynasty poet Su Dongbo (Su Tung-po) and became involved in his vengeful struggle with the reformers of that time. We begin to learn the political intricacies of scholarly life and get an idea of the examination system through which talent qualified for official appointment. Qin Guan’s marriage takes us into the complexities of Chinese marriage customs. We follow the vicissitudes of his career, as he becomes locked in bureaucratic struggles and dependent on imperial favor. We see how the emperor governed in tandem with the landed gentry, who supplied his administrators, and how clan lineage was important because of its tradition of scholarship and success, inspiring talented young people to try for official careers. Like all lineages, the Qin clan has social and political, not genetic, importance.

Where Alex Haley’s Roots goes back six generations through oral history, Frank Ching goes back thirty-four generations through documentation and the artifacts of tombs and literature. A genetic analysis that begins by doubling the number of progenitors in each generation (2–4–8–16, etc.) winds up in Frank Ching’s generation, the thirty-fourth, with 18 billion progenitors (try it yourself). This of course is more Chinese and indeed more human beings than there ever were. The secret is that marriages were inevitably between people with common ancestors. Frank Ching’s mother and father, for example, came from a common ancestor some ten generations back. One implication genetically is that most Chinese today are descended from Qin Guan just as most Westerners descend from Charlemagne but can’t document it. Never mind. Ancestors when known can be an inspiration, especially when one properly reveres them and the tradition they maintained.

The Qin clan of Wuxi was in its heyday under the Ming and Ch’ing (1368–1644–1912). Among the top scholars (jinshi) at the capital examinations the Qin clan had two in the 1400s, three in the 1500s, nine in the 1600s, sixteen in the 1700s, but in the nineteenth century only two. The number of provincial graduates similarly rose and fell. As a result there were clan members at many levels and in many parts of the bureaucracy, often working closely with the emperor. Ancestors describes how both of the Manchu emperors who had sixty-year reigns (Kangxi and Qianlong) on their southern tours stayed as guests of the clan in its beautiful garden at Wuxi. Nothing better illustrates the umbilical dependence of the emperors in Peking on their supply of leading officials from the big landed gentry clans of the Lower Yangtze. More than one clan member served as the imperial diarist taking down the verbatim record of imperial audiences and Grand Council sessions.

* * *

Using evidence exhumed from the Peking Archives, family essays, and other hard-to-get sources, Ancestors offers an insider’s account of the late Ming struggle of scholars against the eunuchs and then of the conflict over succession among the sons of Kangxi in the early eighteenth century. In their official capacities, clan members were frequently judges applying the criminal law as well as examiners seeking talent and magistrates obliged to meet tax quotas. Some suppressed rebels. Frank Ching gives case histories in all these categories and he has much to say concerning piracy, on the Taiping rebels who devastated Wuxi, and on various measures of statecraft to try to keep the old system functioning. Meantime Qin family scholars provided a flow of writing, both official and in belles-lettres.

This longstanding social structure had its strengths and its weaknesses. First of all, China’s clan-and-emperor condominium was held together by the secular faith of Confucianism. Frank Ching’s biographies of course stress the subjects’ virtues, especially loyalty to the ruler and the imperial benevolence in return. But filial piety was the dominant theme in most careers—as when active officials retired for a nominal twenty-seven months to mourn a parent. The most famous example was when the eventual conquerer of the Taiping rebels, Tseng Kuo-Fan, when his father died in February 1857, retired from active duty for fifteen months. While fighting to defend his Confucian faith he did not propose to contravene it. A filial son venerated his progenitors with the proper ritual observances. As a result there were probably more ancestral temples containing ancestors’ tablets in the old China than there were churches in Western countries. Frank Ching’s own pride in his ancestors is in a long tradition. Peripatetic Americans who barely know their great-grandfathers’ names may have trouble understanding this. It contributes to the greater sense of history and personal identity among the Chinese. The old China’s backward look kept your origins in view. Owing your life to ancestors, you bowed and burned incense before their tablets in the ancestral temple instead of going to church.

* * *

Ancestors leaves one with an overwhelming sense of the importance of connections (guanxi). A Qin clan member from Wuxi not only had famous forebears, he had hundreds of relatives and literally thousands of points of connection with other members of the ruling class, all of which helped his upward mobility. After all, the Hanlin Academy where many Qins functioned was the Ch’ing dynasty equivalent of the Harvard-Yale-Stanford law schools.

One thing should be borne in mind about a guanxi network. In it the exchange of gifts and other civilities were naturally accompanied by a flow of funds. On going to see a high official you paid his gateman or major-domo an appropriately high fee. Because of their prestige, scholar-officials had the best chance to make money. The superior man did favors for his relatives and other connections but often at a price. This is a part of the old China that is not yet well documented. Ancestors tells us little about money. In the Confucian belief system, the rhetoric of virtue would accompany what we nowadays call corruption. Yet greed was by no means the only motive; feelings of obligation and of shame also guided official conduct.

The scholar-official was also by training a man of aesthetic sensitivity. His calligraphy might properly sell in the market just as his poetry might go into anthologies. Aesthetic refinement, in short, was natural to the Confucian gentleman in a way that the more specialized leaders of Western states found generally incomprehensible or frivolous. Aesthetics inhered in one’s sense of order and helped set the educated ruling class apart from the masses.

Various weaknesses of the old Chinese ruling class are also suggested in Ancestors. The classical scholar-officials were generalists trained to propagate Confucianism and to handle people but not to be technical experts. They regarded mechanical gadgets as beneath them. For example, early in the nineteenth century Qin Ying served as vice-minister of punishments, of rites, of public works, and of war and also in the censorate, the granaries administration, the Grand Secretariat, and elsewhere. He was an all-purpose administrator trusted to keep the old order intact, not to prepare it for the Western invasion.

The old family system exalted men and shortchanged women—another of its inadequacies for modern times. An ambitious man would seek to have sons through his wife and one or more concubines in proportion as he could afford them. Their surnames were usually recorded, but otherwise the women remained generally uneducated and had their feet bound; they were considered mainly as receptacles in which the father’s offspring were given nine months’ prenatal nurture. Mothers received their due reverence but at the same time had to run the risk of producing only daughters.

* * *

Clan members of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries showed their versatility and their capacity to survive in rapidly changing times. For example, they purchased their degrees, as the aging Ch’ing dynasty began to sell them desperately for revenue, until the degree holders far outnumbered the posts available. Frank Ching’s father adjusted to the Republic by becoming a lawyer. How could one make more connections in modern Shanghai than as a smart Chinese lawyer? Indeed Frank Ching’s father was so successful that he became a close friend and “brother” of the famous Du Yuesheng (Tu Yueh-sheng), widely touted as the head of the Shanghai underworld. But while Sterling Seagrave’s gossipy The Soong Dynasty1 depicts “big-eared Tu” as a sort of Chinese Al Capone, battening on the contraband opium trade, I suggest he was more a combination of Capone and Mayor Daley. He was indeed a “philanthropist” who also helped Chiang Kai-shek kill Communists. But he can be understood best as part of a Shanghai scene in which the foreign-run Municipal Council left the biggest Chinese city with no government by Chinese so that underworld government naturally filled a vacuum. Perhaps Frank Ching would agree. At any rate his father was a proficient fixer who helped several causes before ending his days in semiretirement in Hong Kong.

Ancestors is one of the most interesting clan studies thus far. Its graphic picture of how the old ruling class functioned makes it of value to historians as well as to the general reader. In it merchants may be kin or allies, but the common people, farmers and artisans, for the most part are hardly visible; they are unchanging parts of the landscape. Ancestors also tells us something about Chinese pride. Frank Ching’s summary of the Kuomintang–Communist negotiations between 1946 and 1948 mentions nothing American, neither funds, arms, policies, generals, diplomats, nor anything else—a salubrious corrective to the sentiments of benevolence, hope, fear, dismay, and kibitzer-participation enjoyed by so many Americans at the time.

* * *

Half of Man Is Woman is a tragic love story set in a labor camp. The author, Zhang Xianliang, has been called the Chinese Kundera, and his autobiographical novel will surely be read around the world. It is the work of a scholar who was victimized in 1957 for his poetry critical of the regime and spent two decades as a laborer in northwest China. As each new movement came along to rectify individualistic thinking, extirpate the old ruling-class attitudes, or create the new Chinese proletarian man, Zhang was always on the list of targets. “Struggled” with by Party functionaries and castigated time after time, he withdrew into himself, completely isolated from all family and other connections. He lived for years in poverty, close to nature as a farmhand or shepherd, still stigmatized as an intellectual incapable of being remade.

Zhang was born in Nanking in 1936, got his high school (middle school) education early in the Communist period, and picked up a considerable acquaintance with world literature. In 1955, when he was nineteen, he was assigned as a teacher in the northwest; at twenty-one he was jailed for his wrong thoughts. Yet during his twenty years in the gulag at the lowest level, he could not shake off being an intellectual in a different class from the peasantry around him. By becoming a scholar he had inherited the sense of superior status and responsibility described in Ancestors. As we learned so soon after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the Cultural Revolution’s crusade of class struggle and egalitarianism to tear down China’s elitist social structure was a failure. Mao found that “proletarian intellectuals” could not be raised up overnight and “peasant scientists” could not modernize the country. Zhang Xianliang survived the chaos that Mao created, and today his autobiographical novel is widely read and appreciated in China. This translation seems very skillful.

The remarkable quality of this work lies in its blending of narrative and poetic fantasy, its lightness of touch. Every day as he appreciates the beauties of the fields and waterways, the sky and the mountains, Zhang in his reverie also sees himself as a conscious victim of fate among the less conscious victims around him who lack his perspective. For example, he and his team of workers sleep in a building where a beautiful young woman had hanged herself to avoid an odious marriage. One night when the team goes to a movie, Zhang stays home:

From a beam above, she came floating down…materialized into a beautiful girl…. With a voice as human as my own, she said “Tragic, oh so tragic….”

“Come,” I said to her, stretching out my hand. “Your life was tragic, mine is too. Let us two be together.”

“But you’re the one I’m talking about.” …Looking at the book spread out before me, she said, “You’re the one who is miserable…. Every evening I watch you wait for the others to go to sleep—then you get up to read. Why?”…

I caressed her hair. “It’s all society’s fault,” I began. “We still haven’t achieved a real equality of the sexes.”…

Softly, she began to sing…. A bed of golden lilies spread out before my eyes….

She calls her lover to come inside.
Eyebrow to eyebrow, eye to eye,
They speak their hearts with the dancing of eyelashes….

Then the men began to return.

Later Zhang reflects that at age thirty he had still never known a woman. “The fear and trembling of first love, the fragrance, the illusions of romance, where were they now?…Eradicated by lining up, yelling out a number, being counted, marching to work. Snuffed out by bitter struggle.” The physical needs of an animal were what remained.

* * *

Camp life and labor change with the seasons. During forty intensive days and nights the team works hard to weed and preserve their five hundred “acres” of rice. (Shouldn’t this unit be the Chinese mou, not acres?) New recruits come streaming in, victims of the Cultural Revolution. The team watches the main brigade marching by. These black-clad figures do not look physically ill, but each face is marked with desolation. Each has a “lifetime claim to a crippled mind.” Watching, Zhang realizes the function of the marching column: “Once you had been swallowed up by its ranks, ‘you’ were gone.”

Making his rounds to check the irrigation channels one day, beyond a wall of high reeds he hears singing in a women’s work team. Then it moves away. But within the reeds he hears a sound of splashing like a wild duck, a great delicacy to cook and eat. Stalking it through the reeds of the irrigation ditch, suddenly he is transfixed—a completely naked woman is taking a bath. “With cupped hands she teased the water up over her body, splashing her neck, her shoulders, her waist, her hips, her stomach. Her body was lithe and firm.” Eventually she turns and sees him. “She didn’t let out a sound, nor did she move to cover herself…she had to decide what she was going to do.” Zhang feels an impulse to spring forward but then a great fear seizes him. He turns and flees.

Eight years pass before they meet again, but she remains imprinted on his mind. Unexpectedly she reappears, assigned to help him build a sheep pen. He finds she has been twice married and twice divorced. The old woman she lives with serves as matchmaker. They find they can make a home in two old storerooms, using old boards to make a table and a shelf. The neighbors celebrate their “wedding,” but when they are left alone, after so many years of idealizing “Woman,” he is baffled at how to proceed, even with her help. He is impotent.

Crushed with shame and humiliation he says, “Maybe I am just too excited.” But things don’t improve. They start quarreling and sleeping apart.

Riding out one day on his old piebald horse, trying to understand himself, Zhang suddenly hears the horse talking to him:

You and I have the same problems…. I was cruelly castrated by human beings when I was younger…. When you were doing hard labor in the camps and reciting Quotations…you became mentally traumatized…. Like me, your life is not in your own hands…. Others order you about, beat you, control you, ride you. Ha, ha! We really are a pair…an emasculated man and a castrated horse!

Later on the camp has an emergency—a flash flood and a leaking dike. Only Zhang, the educated man, knows how to swim. When he dives down and plugs the leak, he is momentarily a hero. He comes home, frozen stiff; his wife rubs him to restore circulation. “She patted my cheek. ‘Oh, feel that! Your face is still freezing cold, come, put it between my breasts.’ ” Suddenly, he is no longer impotent, no longer half a man.

Recovery of his manhood starts him thinking again about China’s problems. He starts writing a journal of his thoughts. The woman is outraged. The next thought campaign will pounce upon his writings, condemn him again, break up their home. She tries to destroy the journal.

He realizes that in any new campaign she will be forced to testify against him. So far has Maoist patriotism asserted the priority of the Party and nation over the old Confucian family loyalties. Married love and revolution are incompatible.

He has to choose. The traditional ideal asserts itself. Being educated, he must try to serve the state and put society in order. It is the spring of 1976. Chou En-lai has died, his protégé Deng Xiaoping has reappeared, Peking is in a ferment. Zhang decides to abscond and make his way back to the city. His wife gives him part of her savings. They go to bed for the last time. “Take me,” she says, “so you’ll never forget me.”

A woman is the most lovable thing on earth,
But there is something that is more important.
Women will never possess the men they have created.

The reader is left with the feeling that Zhang did make it back into the political ferment. In September Mao will die and soon his minions will be thrown out. Eventually Deng Xiaoping’s reforms will get started.

Criticized by some reviewers in China as vulgar, Half of Man Is Woman is far from the current American level of explicitness, but it has set a new standard of sexual realism in China. The author has contributed to China’s “new day.” China is now going through one of its great periods of reconstruction, most of it quite beyond our ken. Both books, for all their differences, suggest the strength of the scholar-official tradition. Today family loyalties, scholarship, and the examination system are back in vogue, contributing their strengths and weaknesses to a new order.


  1. Harper and Row, 1985.