The Passions of Joseph Needham

The Passions of Joseph Needham

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally consistent. Most have just slogged away, with reasonable success, and treated the task as an intellectual challenge on a par with many others. But at pretty much any period, one can trace two other groupings whose views are far more extreme. One such group contained those who came to hate and despise the Chinese language; they found it unlearnable, and grew convinced that the whole language was some kind of plot to snare the unwary, and even to drive poor foreigners mad.

The other group was composed of those whose first encounter with Chinese writing filled them with excitement and joy, and as they started to write and learn the correct strokes that composed each character, their fascination grew ever stronger. Which grouping any given seeker after knowledge might fall into was partly a matter of inclination and partly chance. One’s first teacher could kindle a passion for the language that would never fade, or could drive one forever from the flowery paths of learning.

Simon Winchester leaves us in no doubt that Joseph Needham, the subject of his latest book, was one of those who fell in love with the Chinese language. It was this love for China and its culture that came to color his entire life, and led Needham to create his astonishing and enduring study, Science and Civilisation in China. It may not be exactly true that Needham “unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom,” as Winchester’s subtitle so boldly declares, but there is no doubt that Needham was indeed a true “eccentric” and that the story of his intellectual adventuring did indeed have “fantastic” elements.

The first thirty years or so of Needham’s story, as Winchester relates it, were on a fairly predictable trajectory of British success. Born in 1900 to flamboyantly unhappy parents, Joseph Needham found ways to get the most out of his physician father and his unusual circle of friends, and was introduced at the age of nine by a friend of his father to the world of surgical procedures, operations, and anesthesia. These experiences combined with fine and personally enlightening schooling at Oundle to send him winging his way to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where his love of scientific study was strengthened by brilliant and demanding teachers, who fostered his fascination with the emerging field of biochemistry. Needham was also a committed socialist, much drawn to radical Christianity, as well as an energetic hiker, a dedicated nudist, an accomplished linguist, and an impulsive womanizer.

At age twenty-four, Needham was awarded a fellowship at Caius, and married a talented biochemist, Dorothy Moyle. Five years older than Needham, Dorothy was a distinguished scholar in her own right, devoting a lifetime of study to the cells of animal muscles. She was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1948, seven years after her husband received the same honor. The couple never had children. Needham’s own first major book, a three-volume study in embryology, published in 1931, was widely known and admired. Everything seemed in place for him to lead an energized but predictable life as a politically radical Cambridge don.

Needham was involved in scores of civil-libertarian causes, and the list of those on the left who Winchester tells us “became [Needham’s] firm friends” is indeed an amazing roster, still powerful and poignant after sixty-five years:

E.M. Forster, Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Havelock Ellis, Dingle Foot, Victor Gollancz, A.P. Herbert, Julian Huxley, George Lansbury, Harold Laski, David Low, Kingsley Martin, A.A. Milne, J.B. Priestly, Hannen Swaffer (a former neighbor in south London), R.H. Tawney, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, and Amabel Williams-Ellis.

Yet at the same time Needham apparently found opportunity to flirt with, and pursue, other young women from the group of talented biochemical researchers whom Winchester rather mischievously calls a “biochemical seraglio.”

* * *

How much should we know or care about Joseph Needham’s private life? The answer would normally be “not very much,” but Winchester is convinced—and convincing—that from diaries and letters we can be definite that in the fall of 1937 Needham became very close to an unusually talented Chinese biochemist from Ginling College in Nanjing who had come to work with him and his wife Dorothy in their Cambridge laboratory. The name of this visitor was Lu Gwei-djen, and in February 1938 she and Needham became lovers in his Caius rooms. It was in this intimate context that Needham asked Lu to teach him Chinese, and she began to do so—on the spot. The two continued their passionate relationship—and Needham plunged into a tenacious learning frenzy with the Chinese language—until in the summer of 1939 Lu left Cambridge to accept a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley. The distance between the two mattered little, according to Winchester: “The affair continued, at long distance, its ardor undiminished, with just the logistics making matters a little more trying.”

Needham’s career as a biochemist continued to flourish, and so did his devotion to other pressing left-wing causes, including support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Needham also became a passionate critic of Japan’s invasion of China and a determined advocate of the need to help China’s scientists now that most of the major universities there had been forced to move to the impoverished Chinese hinterland, losing their laboratories, equipment, and libraries. In this period of debate and protest, Needham became known as one of the beleaguered Chinese scholars’ most articulate and determined advocates. After lengthy years of discussion in Whitehall and with the British Council and the Chinese embassy, in late 1942 Needham was finally named counselor at the British wartime embassy in Chongqing, where he arrived, after having flown across the Himalayas on the celebrated and dangerous “Hump” air route, in March 1943. It was there that he began his formal work for the modestly funded but grandly named Sino-British Science Cooperation Office.

It was on a number of trips on battered trucks deep into the rural vastness of Sichuan and Gansu that Needham began to sharpen his knowledge of the Chinese people and their language, and to get some deeper sense of how amazingly advanced and complex early Chinese scientific thinking and its practical applications had been. In the exiled university and research communities in the Chinese far west, he met a brilliant young Chinese history student named Wang Ling and a twenty-three-year-old technical school science teacher, “H.T.” Huang, who became Needham’s main guide and assistant on his China travels. Both of these scholars, many years later, were to play major parts in the compilation of the many volumes in Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, which became his great legacy. And working either alone or in close collaboration, the three men began to assemble the rich supplies of technical scientific data that would make the huge project possible.

Before leaving for China, Needham had been able to make a detour to New York, which gave him an opportunity to see Lu Gwei-djen again, since she had recently moved to Columbia University from Berkeley. While they were together in a Manhattan hotel room, Needham shared with her some ideas he was beginning to formulate on the nature of Chinese science, and on the lack of knowledge of China’s scientific sophistication that was prevalent both in China and in the West as a whole. And with that went a corollary question: If Chinese science had been so advanced, why had it failed so dismally to develop further in the later periods of its history? Before she left Nanjing, Lu Gwei-djen’s father, an apothecary, had often discussed this question with his daughter, and she in turn discussed it with Needham.

* * *

Thus on arrival in China in 1943, Needham was primed to explore the early texts as well as the tools and techniques of agriculture and handicrafts that he could observe all around him in the countryside—all of which, as he began to explore, seemed freighted with ingenuity from the past. Everywhere he went in western China, he bought books, which he shipped off to England by air whenever he had the chance—for books were cheap with so many scholars forced to flee their universities, and with the cost of food rising daily as inflation spiraled steadily upward in the areas of “Free China” where Needham was stationed. With the books went reams of his own notes, or suggestions for further work gleaned from Wang Ling or H.T. as they hunted the libraries on their own.

In all, between 1943 and his departure in 1946, Needham visited 296 Chinese colleges and research institutes. He was also able to assemble some rare items for the Chinese scholars and scientists in return, and to maintain cordial relations with the Chinese Communist diplomats—among them Zhou Enlai, who was stationed during this same period as liaison officer with the Nationalist government in Chongqing. Though there was no precise focus yet to Needham’s exploration and travels, a kind of pattern was beginning to emerge, one that immeasurably deepened his knowledge of Chinese culture and Chinese science in the distant past.

Near the end of the war, his wife Dorothy was permitted to come out to China and join him; and Lu Gwei-djen also came, for Needham had created a nonexistent job for her, as British Council “nutrition expert.” This left some of the senior British civil servants furious. One dramatic memo, sent back to the British Council in London and written by a brilliant colleague of Needham’s, the biophysicist and ethnomusicologist Laurence Picken, is quoted at some length by Winchester, and it opens a small window into Needham’s more private world. As Picken put it:

[Needham] has talked the Science Department into appointing a Chinese nutrition expert to the staff. God knows what she will do (she will be drawing a salary bigger than I or Sanders). But the real reason for the arrangement seems to be that she is one of his mistresses. You would scarcely credit it, but her personal file (on which are all papers relevant to her appointment) contains letters otherwise official from Needham to her with marginalia in JN’s dog Chinese such as Little Joseph Longs for Younger Sister’s Fragrant Body. Dophi [Needham’s wife] reads these letters but does not understand Chinese! Usually Joseph keeps these locked up, but it had to be consulted the other day in his absence.

Such a memo would have ruined most careers, but when Needham saw a copy, he responded with a blistering attack of his own in which he informed London that Picken was “disagreeable” and “inexplicable,” adding “the man’s going mad.” Needham could not resist the sly comment that the cause of Picken’s outburst was “possibly some disappointment in the affairs of the heart.”

* * *

Needham stayed in southwest China, busy with his research, into 1946, for there was so much to seek and to ponder. But when he and Lu received postings to the UNESCO offices in Paris, they both were ready to return to Europe. Perhaps typically, it was Needham who wearied of the bureaucratic procedures first, and after a few Paris months, he returned to his old rooms at Caius College, where he set about bringing order to his new library of rare texts and his vast amounts of scientific booty. He was immeasurably aided in this task by his academic colleagues’ agreement that he be spared all teaching duties, and need not even attend any future biochemistry department meetings. One of his first official acts in 1948 was to arrange a Trinity fellowship for Wang Ling, and have him come to Cambridge. Lu, however, stayed on at UNESCO, only returning to Cambridge in 1957. By then, the first volume of Science and Civilisation in China had been completed and published.

Winchester fills in the sequence of events that led to its publication with clarity and economy. In May 1948 Needham had arranged a one-volume contract with Cambridge University Press, which it accepted without demur, after only one week of consultation. At Caius College, he had managed to parlay his growing prominence as a biochemist and his renown as a China scholar—though not accepted by all—into an ideal work environment, and Winchester reproduces the first pages of the short document Needham sent the press, into which he had clearly condensed his previous decade of reading and traveling. His goal, he told the press, was to reach

all educated people, whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought, and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe.

This was followed by Needham’s brief “Statement of the Problem”:

What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought, and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical, and restricted to theories of the primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are:

(a) Geographical

(b) Hydrological

(c) Social

(d) Economic

Needham planned to develop each of these vast categories in turn.

Between the years 1946 and 1951, Needham and Wang Ling (with advice from Lu Gwei-djen in Paris, who read every draft chapter) kept up an incessant pattern of intense and disciplined work, often continuing late into the night. These work patterns left Wang Ling exhausted and often hungry, since Needham rarely took breaks for meals, not even in his own residential college dining hall. Winchester comments that Needham and Wang Ling “became fast friends, and remained inseparable for the rest of their lives,” though this may be too idealized a view of a more complex reality.1 But certainly the work continued at a furious pace that only the most dedicated scholars could have sustained. Winchester quotes a note written in this period by Needham, which captures both the depth of emotion and the technical finesse he brought to his task:

What a case of glittering treasures was opened up! My friends among the older generations of sinologists had thought that we should find nothing—but how wrong they were. One after another, extraordinary inventions and discoveries clearly appeared in Chinese literature, archaeological evidence or pictorial witness, often, indeed generally, long preceding the parallel, or adopted inventions and discoveries of Europe. Whether it was the array of binomial coefficients, or the standard method of interconversion of rotary and longitudinal motion, or the first of all clockwork escapements, or the ploughshare of malleable cast iron, or the beginning of geo-botany and soil science, or cutaneous-visceral reflexes, or the finding of smallpox inoculation—wherever one looked, there was “first” after “first.”

To this list of Needham’s, Winchester adds scores of other examples drawn from Wang Ling, and from Needham’s own writings and research, which were filling in the outline of his new opus: the magnetized needle for direction finding, the breast-strap harness for horses, wrought iron, the chain drive for irrigation pumps, suspension bridges, the segmental arch bridge, the wheelbarrow, the fishing reel, the sternpost rudder, gimbals for use in rough seas, the umbrella, the kite, playing cards, porcelain, perfumed toilet paper, and scores more.

* * *

By 1950 Needham felt ready to pause in his reading and to embark on writing the first volume of his opus—the planned single volume had long since become seven, and was clearly going to be even more than that—when global politics forced their way into his protected college life in the form of the Korean War. In 1951, newspapers in the Soviet Union, which needed a propaganda breakthrough in its struggle with the United States in the court of world opinion, issued a broad series of charges that the United States, working within the structure of the United Nations, had been employing germ warfare in North Korea in the form of disseminating anthrax, cholera bacteria, and leprosy.

These charges were in turn elaborated on by Chinese reports early in 1952, which claimed that similar tactics were now being used in Manchuria—with the addition of some bizarre new techniques, such as disease-ridden voles dropped by US planes over Chinese territory. At the peak of the charges, the World Peace Council—Soviet-supported, and previously focused mainly on nuclear disarmament—meeting in Oslo, requested an “impartial and independent” commission to investigate the charges. In the spring of 1952 the Chinese delegate phoned Needham and asked him to join the international investigative group; Needham accepted at once, and was promptly named the leader of the fact-finders, with travel and expenses paid.

In June 1952, accordingly, Needham was back in the China that he had left in 1946—but now confronting the manipulative skills of the Communist regime. Winchester sensibly calls Needham’s decision to join the commission “the most terrible blunder” and he is surely correct in that judgment. Furthermore, Needham compounded the mistake by failing to do any serious investigation of the charges, and by putting his total faith in the panel of sixty Chinese scientists appointed to help the commission with its “fact-finding.” Many of the scientists were known to Needham, who had liked and trusted them back in the 1940s. He put “blind trust” in these men and women, Winchester comments, for twenty-three of them had American Ph.D.s and another dozen had studied in Britain. When these Chinese scientists issued their 665-page report in September 1952, charging the US with conducting bacteriological warfare, Needham endorsed their findings in the name of the commission, which he noted had moved in its investigations “from one logical step to another” even though it did so “reluctantly,” because it had not believed that the US armed forces could have used “such an inhuman technique.”2

Needham’s remarks were widely cited and he returned to London in late September to an onslaught from journalists, the British Foreign Office, and the fellows of Caius College. In the US, the reaction from the State Department and the academic world was predictably all the more hostile and Winchester comments that Needham “remained on the blacklist until well into the 1970s.” He also notes that despite his attempts to invoke the Freedom of Information Act in order to see Needham’s CIA file, it remains closed in the twenty-first century.

* * *

The negative impact on Needham’s reputation, especially in the United States, was certainly intense and enduring. The hostility was still obvious to Chinese studies graduate students in the 1960s, and Needham’s lapse of judgment and his naiveté were transferred in many minds to his research work. He remained ostracized even as scholars like Laurence Picken were welcomed to major American universities to pursue research into the musical renderings of the eighth-century Tang dynasty. Only in 1998 was it discovered by scholars doing research in Washington that the whole germ warfare scare had been carefully promoted and supervised by KGB agents.

Other scholars had a hard time making sense of Needham’s charges. One response came from Bertrand Russell, himself a pacifist and passionate believer in nuclear disarmament, who had lived and taught in China during the early 1920s. As Russell wrote in 1969 in his Autobiography:

At the time of the Korean War I had been unable to believe in the allegations brought by Professor Joseph Needham and others charging the Americans with having used that war as a proving ground for new biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

But with the example of the Vietnam War now available to all, wrote Russell, “I owe Professor Needham and others my sincere apologies for thinking these charges too extreme.”3

A contrasting interpretation was provided by John King Fairbank, who in the post–World War II years had been building Harvard into a global center for East Asian studies. Fairbank’s ongoing unease with Needham was still strong in 1982, when he published his memoir Chinabound. Fairbank recalled that back in 1955 he had been criticized by Needham for “underplaying the evil influence of imperialism” despite the “exciting discussions” the two men had had in Chongqing on Chinese science and technology, while they were working as opposite numbers in their respective embassies. Now, after Needham had “certified that Americans had used germ warfare in Korea,” Fairbank asked himself if Needham was becoming “more egregiously ideological” than his “massive contributions” to Science and Civilisation in China had originally suggested. “I wondered,” Fairbank wrote,

if an omnicompetent scientist, versed in the “laws” governing so many fields, was unable to confront the social scene without a similar recourse to “laws,” in fact to the “science of society,” which Marxism claimed to be. If so, it was a challenge to the rest of us to explain China’s history in our multidisciplinary manner.4

The British were, on the whole, forgiving of Needham’s political lapse, though it took some time. Nervously, Needham had retreated to rural France with Dorothy during the publication week for volume one of Science and Civilisation in China in 1954. He need not have worried. His book got some magnificent reviews—Winchester quotes Arnold Toynbee, Arthur Hummel, and even the once embittered Laurence Picken, who called the work “prodigious” and “perhaps the greatest single act of historical synthesis and intercultural communication ever attempted by one man.” All of the first printing of five thousand copies sold out, and the second volume, appearing in 1956, was also well received. The massive volume three, with its overwhelming amount of detailed analytical scholarship on mathematics and astronomy, was equally welcomed.

In the fall of 1957 Lu Gwei-djen moved from her UNESCO post in Paris to Cambridge, taking a house just a hundred yards from the Needhams. In 1959, his college elected him to the honorific post of president of the fellows, and in 1965, by a decisive vote of the fellows, he was elected to the presidency of the college, at which post he served for eleven years, until 1976. During the same period he visited China several times as a member of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, and also weathered the days of student rebellion in his college.

Needham traveled widely, collecting numerous honorary degrees, and was once again granted visas to visit the United States. Fund-raising for what had now become a huge project was a constant stress, and had it not been for the new Robinson College at Cambridge granting him the space and buildings for a Needham Research Center, the project might have collapsed altogether. But his books and papers were moved there safely, and a new generation of younger scholars became eager to take over individual volumes when Needham chose to let them do so.

* * *

Over the years, ever since I was a graduate student, I have tried to keep up with the lengthy series of volumes that made up Joseph Needham’s awesome opus, Science and Civilisation in China. Checking my shelves, I find that I now have fifteen volumes, occupying twenty-nine linear inches of shelf space. The volumes are all published by Cambridge University Press, span the years from 1954 to 1988, and their title pages show that they appeared with amazing regularity, with a new volume coming out every two to three years. In accord with Needhams’s original outline the volumes are grouped into five broad disciplinary categories: Introductory, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. After 1988, around the time Needham agreed that the torch must pass to other authors, my own purchases apparently ceased—but the library catalog listings tell me that at least nine more volumes have appeared since then, listed under the names of other scholars in the field who had taken on individual volumes as Needham’s strength faltered in his late eighties.

Glancing at the title pages more closely, we can see that the first six volumes, which appeared between 1954 and 1971, were all co-credited to Needham and Wang Ling. The series of volumes appearing in the 1970s and in the 1980s were coauthored by Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, joined at times by a third scholar, Ho Peng-yoke. One particular volume, 5:7, on the subcategory of “Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic,” included under the broad rubric of “Chemistry and Chemical Technology,” was coauthored by all four of the principal scholars working together: Needham, Wang, Lu, and Ho.

In these dozens of deeply researched volumes, Needham and his collaborators did manage to cover the range of scientific inventions they had outlined to Cambridge University Press. But there was one topic—the reason for the sudden ending of China’s great scientific burst of energy from the early sixteenth century onward—that Needham never did answer. Winchester discusses the variations of this “Needham question” at some length, but he confesses that Needham never really provided a satisfactory answer, apart from the thin statement that China “basically, stopped trying,” or loved comfort too greatly, or had too powerful a state, or lacked mercantile tie-ins, or that “the energy began to ebb away and die.”

* * *

Human frailty finally took its toll on the innermost circle. Dorothy Needham, haunted for several years by Alzheimer’s disease, died in December 1987, at ninety-two. Needham was then eighty-seven, and just under two years later, in September 1989, he and Lu Gwei-djen were married in Caius College chapel. They were able to have just over two years together, before Lu had a bad fall and died of bronchial pneumonia she contracted in the hospital. (Back in 1954 the first volume of Needham’s vast project had been, perhaps startlingly for the times, dedicated to her father, though without stating their relationship: “To Lu Shih-Kuo, Merchant-Apothecary in the City of Nanking, this volume is respectfully and affectionately dedicated.”)

Needham, at the time of Lu Gweidjen’s death, was ill with Parkinson’s, but he continued to work in the study at Robinson College, until his death at ninety-four in 1995. By an engaging coincidence, the twelfth issue of the scholarly journal Chinese Science carried both Needham’s personal greetings to the journal’s founder, Nathan Sivin, as well as a brief obituary of Needham by Francesca Bray, the first younger scholar he had asked to write one of the volumes—the one on agriculture—for the great series. As Bray wrote, concisely and elegantly:

Needham’s erudition in both Eastern and Western culture is so irrepressible that many of us trying to read a volume seriously end up fluttering intoxicated from footnote to footnote, from philosophy to window-lattices, from alchemy to embroidered slippers.5

The story of Joseph Needham, Dorothy Moyle, and Lu Gwei-djen is a beguiling one, and the composition of Science and Civilisation in China is absorbing in both its broad outlines and its myriad details. It was a bold idea of Simon Winchester’s to try to tell the two stories, one intimate and the other intricate, to a wide general audience, and I was initially skeptical that the attempt could succeed. But I feel that he has pulled it off, and drawn the reader into several disparate worlds at once. Sometimes, I feel, all three of the leading protagonists resist Winchester’s attempts at interpretation, but he cannot be blamed for that. After all, across countless ages, people have marveled at love’s strange chemistry and feel at home with the idea. But here Winchester had to face a different kind of challenge: How can we describe the biochemistry of love?

  1. As a graduate student visiting the Australian National University in Canberra during 1962 and 1963, to work with the great China scholar Fang Chao-ying, I was often included in discussions among the Chinese scholars about the hardships Wang Ling had gone through during his nine years of work with Joseph Needham. For more details, see Ho Peng-yoke, Reminiscences of a Roving Scholar: Science, Humanities and Joseph Needham (in Chinese) (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2006), pp. 50–51.
  2. For a careful analysis of the germ warfare charges and Needham’s role, see Ruth Rogaski, “Nature, Annihilation, and Modernity: China’s Korean War Germ-Warfare Experience Reconsidered,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 381–415.
  3. Bertrand Russell, Autobiography (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 243.
  4. John King Fairbank, Chinabound: A Fifty Year Memoir (Harper and Row), 1982), p. 373.
  5. Chinese Science, No. 12 (1995), pp. 5 and 164–165.
Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
by Simon Winchester
Harper, 316 pp.

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This article was first published in the August 14, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old, studied economics, and then worked for environmental and public health non-governmental organizations. A practicing Buddhist, Hu spent three and a half...

The Smooth Path to Pearl Harbor


1.In mid-February, as part of the plans for his official visit to Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked to visit one of Berlin’s best-known sites: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The request was declined when it became clear that Xi wanted to...

Tiananmen: How Wrong We Were


Twenty-five years ago to the day I write this, I watched and listened as thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square dared to condemn their leaders. Some shouted “Premier Li Peng resign.” Even braver ones cried “Down with Deng Xiaoping and the Communist...

China: Detained to Death


On May 3, fifteen Beijing citizens—scholars, journalists, and rights lawyers—gathered informally at the home of Professor Hao Jian of the Beijing Film Academy to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the 1989 June Fourth massacre in Beijing. Two days later, five of the...

The China Challenge


In 1890, an undistinguished U.S. Navy captain published a book that would influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases...

Solving China’s Schools: An Interview with Jiang Xueqin


In December, China stunned the world when the most widely used international education assessment revealed that Shanghai’s schools now outperform those of any other country—not only in math and science but also in reading. Some education experts have attributed these results...

Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong


Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies,...

Paddling to Peking


For Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, 1971 was the best of years and the worst of years. He revealed his opening to China, but he connived at genocide in East Pakistan. Fortunately for him, the world marveled at the one, but was largely ignorant of the other.The two events were...

The Brave Catholics of China


Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year...

China’s Way to Happiness


Richard Madsen is one of the modern-day founders of the study of Chinese religion. A professor at the University of California San Diego, the seventy-three-year-old’s works include Morality and Power in a Chinese Village, China and the American Dream, and China’s Catholics:...

China: Reeducation Through Horror


Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s...

China: Five Pounds of Facts


No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History...

The Surprising Empress


In the mid-1950s, when I was a graduate student of Chinese history, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was invariably condemned as a reactionary hate figure; Mao Zedong was admired. In the textbooks of that time, leading American scholars characterized Cixi as cruel,...

Dreams of a Different China


Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a...

How to Deal with the Chinese Police


A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more...

Unhinged in China


In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a...

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”


The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low....

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?


“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to...

Old Dreams for a New China


Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to...

China: When the Cats Rule


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


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


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


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

Chen Guangcheng in New York


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

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


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

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


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

Dancing in Empty Beijing


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

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


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

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


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

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


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

Who Was Mao Zedong?


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

An Honest Writer Survives in China


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

China’s Lost Decade


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

News from the Dalai Lama


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

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


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

The People’s Republic of Rumor


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

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


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

China: Politics as Warfare


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

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


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

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


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

Debacle in Beijing


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

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


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

A Master in the Shadows


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

China’s Falling Star


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

The Chinese Are Coming!


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

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


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

The New York Review of Books China Archive

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

China Gets Religion!


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

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


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

The High Price of the New Beijing


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

The Past and the Future


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

Kissinger and China


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

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


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

Quality of Life: India vs. China


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

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


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

China: From Famine to Oslo


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

How Reds Smashed Reds


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

The Question of Pearl Buck


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

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


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

The Message from the Glaciers


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

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


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

Specters of a Chinese Master


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

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


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

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


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

Casting a Lifeline


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

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


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

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


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

Mission to Mao


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

China’s Great Terror


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

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


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

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


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

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


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

A Little Leap Forward


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



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

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


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

Found Horizon


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

East Is West


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

Divine Killer


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

China in Cyberspace


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

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


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

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


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

Selling Out Hong Kong


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

Holding Out in Hong Kong


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

China: The Defining Moment


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

The Beginning of the End


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

In China’s Gulag


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

Unmasking the Monster


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

History on the Wing


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

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


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

The Last Days of Hong Kong


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

Keeping the Faith


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

Stories from the Ice Age


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

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


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

The End of the Chinese Revolution


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

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


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

Roots of Revolution


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

Passing the Baton in Beijing


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

Our Mission in China


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

China: How Much Dissent?


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

Sitting on Top of the World


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

Rules of the Game


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

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


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

Still Mysterious


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

A Mao for All Seasons


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

The Great Wall


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

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


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