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A Mao for All Seasons

A Mao for All Seasons

iconDavid Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Mao Zedong, 1969

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 “psychohistorical” approach. He claims that the present confusion in China can best be understood within this “psychohistorical” framework, as coming from a desire to transcend death and achieve immortality for the Chinese Revolution. Mr. Lifton has recently completed a major work on Hiroshima, and his new book on China is only one of a series in which he is trying to explain human thoughts and actions in terms of man’s fear of death and his wish to achieve immortality, or a relationship with the past and future. In his view, man can attempt this biologically through having children, spiritually through a detachable soul, actively through outstanding individual achievements, or socially through intimate involvement in a great and undying cause.

One of the main elements in this view is the role of the death-defying leader. Mr. Lifton points out that in psychological studies the significance of a hero’s relationship with death has been strangely underestimated. He quite rightly suggests that this aspect is far more important than others, such as the Oedipus complex, which have previously received a great deal of attention. It is obvious that Mao Tse-tung is a hero of the classic type, like Guevara in the Sierra Maestra or Kennedy in his P. T. boat; but, on a far grander scale, Mao went through what Lifton calls his “road of trials” or “prolonged death encounter” in the Long March. Having faced death and conquered it, he came back with a message for his people.

According to Mr. Lifton, Mao’s survival where so many others died gives him an acute but double-edged feeling toward death. There is a sense of invulnerability but at the same time there is a heightened fear of death, which experience has shown to be immediate and arbitrary. However, while sharply aware of individual extinction, Mao clearly believes that those around him who have been killed, and these include two brothers, a sister, a wife, and a son, have all achieved a form of immortality by giving their lives to the revolutionary cause. Mao himself is aware that his deeds have put him on a plane with the great heroes of Chinese history, but he also wants what he thinks to be the more genuine immortality to be gained through involvement with an undying movement. Thus an important element of his and his comrades’ immortality depends on the continued success of the Chinese Revolution.

Mr. Lifton asserts that the activist response to the fear of death is not to prolong existing life but to try to achieve rebirth. In China he sees this response as “an all consuming death and rebirth.” In order that the Revolution should survive, Mao has called for the destruction of the social order which he and the Communist Party created, so that something new and vital can emerge. To be certain of vitality, the new movement had to be led by the pure untainted youth and to be integrally related to the masses, that is to say to the indestructible Chinese people. In Mao’s eyes, because imperialism is divorced from the people it is certain to perish, and the inevitability of its ultimate fall makes it a hollow paper tiger. On the other hand, only if the Revolution remains true to its principles and is sustained by firm links with the people as a whole can it be strong and live forever.

There is no doubt that Mr. Lifton is right to draw attention to Mao’s interest in, if not obsession with, death and immortality. The quotations in the book from Mao’s interview with Edgar Snow in January 1965 and from Mao’s poetry and prose are only a fraction of the vast amount of evidence pointing in this direction. The author is also right to emphasize the importance of the theme of “immortalizing death” in the approved literature of the Cultural Revolution. The story of the simple altruistic soldier, boundlessly loyal to Mao Tse-tung, who laid down his life for the people is an old one in communist China. However, since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution this genre, which started in the armed forces, has become almost the only form of creative writing. Encouragement not to fear death has a clear practical use in an army; however the widespread extension of these moral tales to the whole population can fairly be linked to Mao’s concerns with death and immortality.

* * *

If Mr. Lifton has developed real insights into the motives of Mao and of some of the veteran soldiers around him who joined in the launching of the Cultural Revolution, he has helped to tell only half the story. Whether or not the Cultural Revolution was started in response to popular pressures, it has certainly released great social forces which have taken important social actions, and these cannot be explained so easily by psychological analysis. No attempt is made to explain the author’s implied claim that the recent mass movements are an expression of a collective fear that the Revolution will die with Mao. Mr. Lifton’s main social explanation is to call the Cultural Revolution a “revolt of the patronized,” a reaction against, in his excruciating phrase, “counterfeit nurturance,” which appears to mean molly-coddling, or care that deprives its recipient of independence. Reaction to “counterfeit nurturance” seems to be linked to the general theme of immortality only tenuously by Mr. Lifton’s view that the achievement of independence from a parental type of authority can be seen as a form of birth, as the creation of a true vitality. While “revolt of the patronized” is a useful description of the students’ and other young people’s political and intellectual assault on the all-embracing power of the Communist Party, it seems forced and artificial to insert fears of death or the desire for immortality into the explanation of this wide social movement.

Another general psychological explanation given by Mr. Lifton concerns what he reluctantly calls “psychism.” By this he means the attempt to face objective problems by taking psychological or social action rather than practical measures. For example, in the mid-Fifties, when agricultural production did not rise quickly enough to improve the standard of living of the fast-growing population and to provide a surplus for industrial investment, the reaction was not to set up specialized agricultural research institutes or to improve government efficiency in the distribution of fertilizers or better strains of rice. Instead the whole population was mobilized in the Great Leap Forward. Attempts were made to establish industries in the countryside without outside capital, and, in a mood of mass exaltation, communes were set up to provide the social framework for a new and better life.

Lifton’s notion of “psychism” reflects the analysis used by many sinologists when considering the Chinese slogan “both red and expert.” Chinese leaders frequently proclaim the need for men with both revolutionary consciousness and technical skill, but use of the slogan nearly always means that redness should be emphasized. This modern attitude corresponds to a major strand of Chinese tradition: the orthodox Confucian belief that if the Scholar official purifies himself and harmonizes social relations, other problems will sort themselves out.

In the modern world, with its superb technology and enormous wealth juxtaposed to its appalling suffering and poverty, this position does not seem altogether unreasonable. One may also raise doubts about the sinologists’ contrast between the hopelessly idealist red and the practical expert. Is there really such a thing as the completely detached and politically neutral expert? In economics and the social sciences, which are loaded with value judgments, the concept is clearly absurd. In the physical sciences the direction of much research and technology is closely controlled by political forces, and scientific successes and failures have obvious social consequences. Even the allegedly neutral idea of “letting” the experts “get on with the job” has the result of creating a privileged if not always powerful elite of technologists.

* * *

Nevertheless, there is still something to be said for Mr. Lifton’s use of the pejorative term “psychism,” at least in China with its desperate poverty and lack of technology. He refers specifically to Mao’s response to the failure or limited success of the Great Leap Forward, which he thinks was an attempt to increase revolutionary passion and self-sacrifice still further. Lifton sees the failure of the Great Leap as owing to technological and natural difficulties, and from the relative intractability of “human nature.” Thus the intensification of emotion or psychism of the Cultural Revolution has widened the gap between the objective situation and the thoughts and hopes of the revolutionaries. Mr. Lifton believes that this creates a vicious circle by which the further from reality the revolutionary picture of the world is, the more insistent its supporters have to be to cover the gap, and the more strident and extreme they are, the greater the chasm.

The author, who has written a detailed study of the generally effective methods used to achieve identification with the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s, believes that political conversions are now becoming increasingly superficial. He sees the rift between the new extreme beliefs as fundamental limits to the effectiveness of movements like the Cultural Revolution. He also suggests that people are simply growing tired of repeated and drawn-out periods of passion and confusion. Here I think he may be underestimating the importance of the fact that more than 40 percent of the Chinese population is under seventeen. Most of the Red Guards were under ten at the time of the Great Leap. Their political memories went back only to the early 1960s, when the Communist Party was in firm control and carrying out its “pragmatic” policies, while at the same time the values being taught were those of the Great Leap Forward. This discrepancy may well have something to do with the force of the Cultural Revolution as a social upheaval. All the same it would be absurd to deny that after three years of Cultural Revolution, many people, including many of its active participants, must be sick and tired of it.

One of the manifestations of the Cultural Revolution which fascinates Mr. Lifton is the apparent existence in China of groups of non-political and gentle “wanderers.” The evidence for these youthful groups seems slender and the idea somewhat dated now after the dwindling of the non-committed hippies as a social force in America. But Lifton suggests these “wanderers” may be part of the possible emergence of “protean” man all over the world. “Protean” man is a type he has investigated in other works. The term appears to apply both to the Japanese intellectuals who made drastic conversions from Marxism to imperialism and back again, and to Riesman’s “other directed man.” He is a man who makes radical changes and yet retains some form of identity. Mr. Lifton sees in “protean” man the hope for China. He believes that Chinese youth will be able to change their characters and move on from the disruptive interlude of the Cultural Revolution. They will then settle down to a calmer and less exciting form of progress, retaining at the same time many of the good facets of Maoism, such as participation in social and political life and the linking of practice and theory in education.

* * *

The Cultural Revolution is such an intricate and emotionally suggestive social movement that there is grist in it for almost everyone’s mill. While Mr. Lifton came to it with preoccupations on death and immortality and with an interest in “protean man,” Alberto Moravia looked at it in a mood of total disgust with consumer society and hatred for manipulative authority. Yet both men have found interesting things to say about the Cultural Revolution, Western Society, and themselves. They could scarcely be more different. Lifton the professional takes considerable trouble on points of detail and has meticulous footnotes, unintentionally giving a tone of scientific certainty to a subject in which nearly everything is speculative. In the few areas where there are known facts, Mr. Moravia the amateur is almost always wrong. His mistakes are not limited to such minutiae as his reference to “1957 that year of years” when he means 1958, or his statement that the wall or poster newspaper “is one of the great novelties introduced by the Cultural Revolution,” when they have in fact become increasingly common over the last seventy years. His misconceptions also concern some of the bases of his main argument that inadvertently or by design Chinese Society today is beautiful and good because of its poverty and chastity:

The peasants never knew the pleasures of sex. Now all of urban China is permeated by a peasant antisexual prudishness.

If Mr. Moravia had read some of the few intimate descriptions of peasant life in China he would know how ludicrous this sounds. For instance, in the village described by William Hinton in his classic Fanshen, the chief effect of the strict Confucian codes of propriety and marriage was to create a dense and widespread network of sexual liaisons. In China, as everywhere else in the world, sex is often the poor man’s only pleasure. The chastity and prudishness in China today seem to come from other sources. There is a tradition of propriety in public but, even more important, young people, particularly virgins, take moral maxims seriously, sublimating sex and giving everything to the great cause.

The paradox of The Red Book and the Great Wall is the discrepancy between the inaccuracy of its information and the brilliance and sensitivity of its general conception. It seems that the further Mr. Moravia is from China the better the perspective he has of it. There is little new in his descriptions of Chinese life, and most of his reported conversations are predictable. However, back in Italy and thinking about the direction taken by Western civilization, which he believes is turning men into well-fed and well-cared-for pigs only interested in consumption and excretion, Mr. Moravia turned his attention to the Cultural Revolution and immediately grasped some of the essential themes that have eluded most other observers. He sees that, far from wanting to increase despotic power, Mao and the Cultural Revolutionaries have tried to attack the Chinese counterpart of the Soviet system of bureaucratic hierarchy and material progress directed from above. He quite rightly thinks that it is immensely significant that party and government officials were not purged by a Stalinist secret police, but were bullied and hounded by masses of young and inexperienced Red Guards. Very much like Mr. Lifton, he believes that Mao was trying to revitalize the Revolution by reestablishing his links with the young and the people as a whole.

Mr. Moravia may be wrong about sex, but he speculates interestingly on the rural puritanism of the Cultural Revolution and the social roots of the hatred of finery and ostentation. However, as well as being fascinated by the traditional social causes for the attacks on culture, he is also concerned with the underlying ideology. He sees that Mao has broken away from the simple economic determinism of Marxism and he writes interestingly on Mao’s perception of the overriding importance of culture. In the 1950s the Chinese Communist Party, like the Russians, thought that after the establishment of a socialist economy the old culture was bound to wither away. Mao now believes that a pre-revolutionary cultural superstructure can overthrow a socialist economic base. This is the ideological reason why his previous tolerance of Western or traditional Chinese art, literature, and music has been changed to total condemnation.

Moravia also perceives the Chinese stress on will power as opposed to the Soviet emphasis on objective conditions. He makes the further point that class is no longer a question of one’s economic background, but is a moral category. That is to say, anyone, regardless of his past, who sincerely wants to be a revolutionary and thinks and acts in a proletarian way, is a member of the proletariat. Conversely, anyone who thinks of personal gain and behaves in a selfish way becomes bourgeois, whatever his own or his family’s occupation. The idea that, as the Communist Party was by definition the essence of the proletariat, it could remain proletarian without close contact with the urban workers, is an old one. In China, moreover, where the Communist Party was largely made up of intellectuals and peasants leading a movement consisting almost entirely of peasants, party spokesmen were forced to admit this even in the 1930s. The possibility that the proletarian essence could be divorced from the Communist Party and become completely free floating came much later.

* * *

As is so often the case in the study of contemporary China, one of the first scholars to grasp this new and significant point was Benjamin Schwartz. Far too many books and articles have been written on modern China. If only other writers had thought as much about it as Mr. Schwartz has done and had published as little, we would understand considerably more today. Mr. Schwartz’s articles on contemporary China are worth more than many people’s books, and it is extremely useful to have most of them collected in one volume. Reading the pieces in Communism in China: Ideology in Flux in chronological order, one has a fascinating view of the growth over the years of Mr. Schwartz’s many themes and interests. Perhaps the most important of these is what he calls the “disintegration of Marxism,” in which their appreciation of the realities of the Chinese situation has forced Mao and his colleagues further and further away from orthodox Marxism and Leninism. There can be no doubt about this general thesis. In his descriptions of the shifting Chinese lines, or the role of the Communist Party, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the form of the world revolution and other fundamentals, the author demolishes the notion that they are any more orthodox or dogmatic than the Russians.

To my mind the word “disintegration” has rather stronger connotations of collapse and destruction than Mr. Schwartz appears to imply in his descriptions of it. In some ways local and temporal adaptation may be a more fitting term. On the other hand, the concept of “disintegration,” in the sense of breaking connections, allowed the author to predict polycentrism in the socialist camp and conflicts between communist states long before other observers did. He was also able to foretell the extent to which communist leaders would be able to make drastic political and ideological innovations. The most remarkable example of his foresight was his writing in 1957:

However Mao is…. not only the leader of the Communist Party but also the leader of the people. By identifying himself occasionally with the “people” rather than the party, he can, as it were, criticize the party from without.

It is obvious that looked at today the Hundred Flowers Movement to which he was referring was in fact principally an attack by Mao on the Communist Party; he was not letting off steam to avoid an explosion, nor setting a trap for dissidents, as most contemporary observers believed. However, at the time the idea that the leader of a Communist state could attack its Communist Party was unthinkable. Nowadays, in Cuba, Yugoslavia, and most strikingly in the Cultural Revolution, this has become a common occurrence.

Though many of these articles were written several years ago, they are still remarkably relevant today. Many writers on Asia would be ashamed to publish their collected works; Joseph Alsop is only an extreme case. Mr. Schwartz’s success lies of course in his method, which is to pay attention to what the Chinese say, not in order to extract clues to fit one’s own theories, but to try to comprehend how they themselves see things. In almost every article there are attacks on observers of China who believe that they are being “objective” and “scientific” about other men who cannot understand their own thoughts and actions, let alone the rest of the world. In this group of scholars, Schwartz writes,

One proves one’s profundity by discounting the conscious behavior of others. The explanation of their behavior must be sought in forces operating behind their backs, as these forces are defined by the social sciences (the American social sciences) cultural anthropology, depth psychology, “political culture” and so on.

Mr. Schwartz would not deny that interesting results can be gained from these “profound” studies of modern China: All he asks is that one should see two major limitations in this kind of approach; first it should be realized that conscious ideas can influence behavior, secondly that no one is detached from the world, and the observer, like everyone else, is to a large extent the prisoner of his own background and environment. It is sad that he and, for that matter, Mr. Lifton too should have to waste their time combating absurd pseudo-scientific but influential ideas—for example, that it is impossible to combine communism and nationalism, that China is responsible for the success of the Vietnamese Revolution, or that the Cultural Revolution is merely a power struggle. But many of Mr. Schwartz’s shafts are aimed at more respectable theories, for example, that communism forms an unpleasant but almost inevitable stage of economic development or that a social system can be “inherently” aggressive or pacific regardless of its national circumstances. Both of these are discussed and dismissed intelligently.

It is paradoxical that although the author displays much sympathy for and understanding of China, and is skeptical of the olympian observer, he himself remains curiously detached. When Moravia discusses what he sees to be the issues of the Cultural Revolution, he clearly believes that they are relevant to him: What is being said and done in China matters directly to him in Italy. For Mr. Schwartz, China is a fascinating, even moving country, but it remains essentially a distant one.

* * *

In reprinting his articles, Mr. Schwartz has added new footnotes. Many of these are interesting but one still feels uncomfortable in not being able to distinguish between the contemporary observations in the old notes and the hindsight of the new ones. Edgar Snow has gone still further. He has revised the text of Red Star over China. This book, first published in 1937, is a description of the Chinese Communists in their stronghold in North West China, and it includes Mao’s only autobiography. It is based on the author’s visit to the area in the previous year. Not only is it a classic of the Chinese Revolution, but it became a social force in itself. Thousands of Chinese students formed their first picture of the communist movement from it. I read it myself at the age of twelve and it started me on Chinese studies. Thus I am horrified at the idea of tampering with it. When the new text is compared with the old one the alterations seem minor but worrying. For instance, where the original has:

Do not suppose first of all, that Mao Tse-tung could be the “savior” of China. Nonsense. There will never be any one “savior” of China. Yet undeniably you feel a certain force of destiny about him…. You feel that whatever extraordinary there is in this man grows out of the uncanny degree to which he synthesizes the urgent demands of millions of Chinese.

The beginning of this passage has been tightened or changed to read:

There never would be any one savior of China yet undeniably one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao.

The first is far-sighted enough: why change it? In other sections, such as the biography of Chou En-lai, a vast amount of fascinating new material, much of it collected by Snow, has been inserted. It would have seemed much better to have left the text untouched and to have included it in the biographical notes at the end of the book. These notes are detailed and important, and on their own make the new edition well worth buying.

Mr. Snow’s alterations are, of course, slight compared to those in the works of Mao Tse-tung himself. Most of the pieces published in Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Tse-tung have been changed considerably since they were originally written or spoken. However, it is extremely important for us to know their present form, the form in which they are helping to shape China today. Although the selection was completed before the beginning of the new movement, the writings contained in it are those most studied in the Cultural Revolution. It includes “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” and several other important pieces produced since 1948 which have not been in any previous Chinese collection. The snippets that make up the “little red book” tend to create the impression in the West that Mao is a Chinese Samuel Smiles, well-intentioned but platitudinous. The “Readings,” although abbreviated, convey some idea of the intelligence and breadth of probably the greatest man in the Twentieth Century.

Topics: 
Martin Bernal was born in London in 1937. He studied at Kings College in Cambridge, and in 1959 attended Peking University. After taking his degree he did graduate work at Cambridge, the University...
Reviewed in This Article

Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
by Robert Jay Lifton
Random House, 178 pp.

The Red Book and The Great Wall
by Alberto Moravia
Farrar, Straus Giroux, 170 pp.

Communism and China: Ideology in Flux
by Benjamin Schwartz
Harvard, 242 pp.

Red Star Over China (revised edition)
by Edgar Snow
Grove Press, 576 pp.

Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tse-tung
Printed by Foreign Languages Press, Peking
China Books and Periodicals, 406 pp.

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This article was first published in the January 16, 1969 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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China: When the Cats Rule

IAN JOHNSON

In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right

IAN BURUMA

1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens

PERRY LINK

Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China

IAN JOHNSON

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

JEROME A. COHEN & IRA BELKIN

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’

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN JOHNSON

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?

PERRY LINK

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

IAN JOHNSON

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?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

“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

PERRY LINK

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

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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?

IAN JOHNSON

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)

PERRY LINK

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

IAN JOHNSON

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...

PERRY LINK

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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!

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

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

SIMON LEYS

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...

China Gets Religion!

IAN JOHNSON

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

FANG LIZHI

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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’?

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

AMARTYA SEN

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

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

PERRY LINK

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

IAN JOHNSON

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

FRANCINE PROSE

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

PANKAJ MISHRA

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

PANKAJ MISHRA

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

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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...

PU ZHIQIANG

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)

PERRY LINK

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...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

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...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

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—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

“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

IAN BURUMA

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

ORVILLE SCHELL

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

IAN BURUMA

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

IAN BURUMA

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

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

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

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

IAN BURUMA

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...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

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

JONATHAN MIRSKY

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

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

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

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

NATHAN GARDELS

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...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

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

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

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...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

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....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

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...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

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...