Squaring the Chinese Circle

“China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”1 This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most people who have studied, read about, or traveled and lived in China. In the late sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Chinese dress, and shelved some of their basic beliefs; so did some missionaries in 1900. When Owen Lattimore was married in 1926 in Peking he and his wife posed for a photograph in Chinese costume; so did William Empson when he taught there in the 1930s.

How can the historian approach so old and vast a subject? In his introduction to Chinese Roundabout, the Yale historian Jonathan Spence remembers Toms, his father’s terrier, burrowing for rabbits, “his front paws drumming in a frenzy of exultation, the earth flying out in a cloud between his splayed hind legs…. The earth piles up, the dog barks on, the rain falls; and no rabbits ever appear.” For Spence, too, the historian-burrower, “the earth did pile up, and along with the books that I wrote over the last twenty-five years, I wrote a good many essays on China as well.” Spence suggests, giving himself less than his due, that “the long years of research and writing will be shown to have been fugitive or inadequate.” He compares his essays to a roundabout, or traffic circle, that “attempts to sort out, with some kind of logic, the conveyances converging on a given point from many directions.” For the most part, as we shall see, he brilliantly succeeds in doing so.

* * *

Quite different is the broad view presented in the magnificent Cambridge History of China. In their preface of 1978 to Volume Ten, the first to appear, the general editors, the late John King Fairbank of Harvard and Denis Twitchett of Princeton, wrote that from the beginning of this century other Cambridge histories have set the pattern for such surveys, and that theirs, originally planned for six volumes, but eventually reaching fifteen, provides a “substantial account of the history of China as a bench mark for the Western history-reading public.”2

Throughout much of his long career Fairbank himself, who died last September, held the view that China must be seen as a complex civilization very different from any other; he repeatedly warned Americans against attempting to impose their values on China, a culture which had assumed some of its most distinctive characteristics as early as 50,000 years ago.3 A billion Europeans in Europe and the Americas live in fifty or so sovereign states, Fairbank observed in Volume Fourteen, while the same number of Chinese live in one. This led him to conclude that “our terms nationalism and nation-state, when applied to China, can only mislead us…. It is a different animal. Its politics must be understood from within, genetically.”4 What we find in China, Fairbank said, is “cultural nationalism,”5 in which unity is enforced by ancient forms of authority, popular indoctrination, and a bureaucratic elite that is still evident today, “and still in need of analytic integration by the exploration of China’s sociopolitical institutions.”6

It is always interesting to see a discreetly expressed but obvious disagreement between editors of a book, in this case the fourteenth and fifteenth volumes, which deal with the years between 1966 and 1982, with occasional references to the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. In an epilogue to Volume Fifteen, Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard, a leading specialist on Party affairs during the late Fifties and early Sixties, subtly takes issue with the admiring view of China’s long cultural cohesion of his coeditor, Fairbank. In his essay “The Onus of Unity,” MacFarquhar gallantly refers to how, in Volume Fourteen, which he and Fairbank edited, “we” pointed out how different China is from the West, with its multifarious nationalities and traditions. The author of that essay was of course Fairbank, with whom (without mentioning his name) MacFarquhar now argues. “Implicit in most histories of China is acceptance of an indeed admiration for the unifying imperative of Chinese politics. Yet looked at from today’s perspective, after forty years of Communist rule, negative consequences of that historic Chinese achievement are beginning to emerge.”

* * *

In imperial times, MacFarquhar contends, while the central government made claims of absolute authority over its subjects, there were too few mandarins to enforce their authority over too many people. Great diversity of custom and a variety of economic activities could therefore prevail; but the resulting diversity and equilibrium were “destabilized by the Communists.” And the Communists’ great weapon of organization and their Promethean drive to change nature, MacFarquhar continues, which for some years were regarded with awe abroad and, as some of the contributors to this volume show, aroused patriotism at home, “were also weapons of destruction,” as in the case of the Great Leap Forward of the late Fifties, which caused the famine in which millions died. MacFarquhar concludes that “only in a state as united and controlled as China could so terrible a calamity have taken place nationwide.”

What then of Deng Xiaoping, who MacFarquhar rightly observes did not share Mao’s taste for national luan, or chaos, or for mass adulation? Whereas Deng eliminated some of Mao’s ways of sustaining central rule, especially the insistence on the semidivine nature of the paramount ruler, he could not find new ways to contain regionalism and bitter factional divisions within the huge bureaucracy. These were feared also in Confucian times; this fear of disorder, MacFarquhar says, explains China’s “onus of unity.” He suggests that Europe’s inability to sustain such universalism after Roman times led to the pluralism which “liquidated a stifling uniformity.” Deng Xiaoping, like all Chinese rulers, finds this European pluralism disquieting (although like other Chinese nationalists since the mid-nineteenth century he admires Western technology and science, without understanding the conditions that brought them about) and prefers what he himself calls a “framework of nationwide unity of view, policies, planning, guidance and action.”

In one of his essays in Chinese Roundabout Jonathan Spence observes that the Chinese Communists, like earlier Chinese rulers from the mid-nineteenth century, have “veered from total rejection of the West to an uncritical acceptance of almost everything Western.” Thus Deng opened the door to the West but organized campaigns against what he called its “spiritual pollution” and in June 1989 had the young people who called for the introduction of Western standards in political life shot down in Peking. MacFarquhar, too, reminds us of the virtually ceaseless and corrosive campaigns against Western, allegedly “counter-revolutionary,” ideas, which began in the Fifties and culminated in Tiananmen Square. The “onus of unity” assumed by China’s leaders, he writes, “is increasingly an incubus for the Chinese people.”

* * *

Volume Fifteen of the Cambridge History runs to 1,108 closely packed pages of text, footnotes, bibliographical essays, bibliography, and an excellent index. It includes more than a dozen chapters, mainly by American contributors. Specialists will find much to learn from these essays, which include the latest Western and Japanese scholarship, and undergraduates and graduates will mine them for their term papers. Even in the supercharged world of Chinese research the volume should have a long life. (The tenth volume, on the nineteenth century, was published in 1978 and remains useful.) The prose is balanced, cool, and often arid. MacFarquhar’s contribution is an exception; he writes, for example, that many personal scores were viciously settled during the Cultural Revolution, “and for this, the Chinese people themselves must bear some accountability,” one of the central points in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.7

Some of the volume’s best insights are to be found in the footnotes: one of them, for instance, should diminish any reputation the Chinese-Belgian writer Han Suyin may still have as a reporter. In Richard Madsen’s superb chapter on the countryside he discusses the famine that took place between 1959 and 1961, which he describes as “one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century,” costing something like 25 million lives (although the journalist Liu Binyan told me in London that 50 million would be a more accurate estimate); Madsen observes that there are very few personal accounts of this catastrophe, which, had it occurred on such a scale elsewhere, would have produced vivid accounts by journalists and social scientists. But in 1980, according to Madsen’s footnote, Han Suyin, who never had difficulty seeing China’s leaders, and knew about the famine, admitted “lying through my teeth (with a smile) to the diplomats and the newsmen who probed…. All the more so when the wind howled like a wolf and winter fastened its iron will upon the land.”

Sometimes the volume contains surprises. Cyril Birch of Berkeley, who knows the literature of Communist China as well as anyone, admires some of the well-known authors of the Sixties and Seventies who were usually dismissed as hacks. Hao Jan, for instance, wrote so many stories during the Seventies that he was suspected of being an omnibus name for a group of Cultural Revolution enthusiasts. Birch says that Hao Jan was the pen name of Liang Chin-kuang, many of whose tales were lively, with finely controlled language and fascinating details and incidents. Birch also admires Mao as “a powerful poet” in the high classical style, who “with masterful irony…superimposes on these ancient allusions the achievements of today.” Birch, however, constantly reminds the reader how writers suffered under Mao, and in his conclusion he quotes a speech given to a writers congress in 1979 by the author Liu Hsin-wu, who asked his colleagues, “Why, in a socialist nation led by the Communist Party, does committing oneself to serving the people by promoting a rich, strong, literary and artistic enterprise require making mental preparations to lay down one’s life?”

* * *

This of course was true throughout Chinese history for intellectuals and mandarins who dared to confront the orthodoxy of the day. In his chapter on Mao, Stuart Schram, who on retiring from the London School of Oriental and African Studies is continuing at Harvard to study Mao, on whom he is the main Western authority, says that the Chairman recalled with enthusiasm some of his most autocratic predecessors, especially the Emperor Ch’in Shih-huang, the founder in the third century BC of the first dynasty, whom Mao praised for exterminating his critics and their families. Mao spoke proudly of having executed one hundred times as many “counter-revolutionary intellectuals” as his ancient predecessor, who had buried “only 460 Confucian scholars.” What preoccupied Mao in his old age, as it had his forebears, was the possibility of rebellion, which in his view could be contained only by chung, or “devotion to the Leader and his Thought.” Schram believes, however, that until his “last sad anti-climactic years” Mao emphasized “the human and moral dimension of politics.” He quotes in support of this view Mao’s “extravagantly optimistic” remarks in 1969 that the more backward economies progressed more rapidly than richer ones and that the social systems of Russia and China “are far more advanced than those of the West.” But after the Communist victory in 1949, when did the human and moral dimensions of Mao’s politics amount to more than exhortation? By 1969, seven years before his death, the lives of tens of millions of Chinese had been cut short as a result of twenty years of Mao’s policies since the Communist victory in 1949.

Harry Harding, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, examines this violent and vengeful aspect of Mao, who, like many emperors, understood very little but could destroy a great deal. He grants that Mao had both charisma and faith in mass movements (which the emperors feared) and that he was able to organize the Party and State apparatus so as to deeply affect the lives of millions. One might add that his powers as poet and calligrapher were among the traditional characteristics of emperors, as were the Chairman’s hounding and killing writers and artists who angered him.

On the launching of the Cultural Revolution, Harding remarks that Mao’s

personal authority gave him enough power to unleash potent social forces, but not enough power to control them…. Because of Mao’s ability to move China, what was a tragedy for the man became simultaneously a tragedy for the nation.

In the Fifties, when Mao was a vigorous late-middle-aged leader, and not yet the drooling old man of his final phase, these same unchecked powers—in this case to enforce his unchallengeable primitive convictions about economics, of which he later conceded he knew next to nothing—led to the great hunger of 1959–1961. Harding quotes a former Red Guard who realized how poor peasants were only when he saw how meanly they lived and described how even those who had worked for the Party for decades preferred Liu Shaoch’i, Mao’s ex-number two and his chief victim, because he favored private plots. “In ten short days, my world outlook had been challenged by the reality of peasant life and attitudes.” This was the experience of millions of young Maoists from the cities who were “sent down” to the countryside to experience peasant life.

Such rural misery has been considerably alleviated since Mao’s time, according to the economist Dwight Perkins of Harvard. Indeed, Perkins writes that, except for two chaotic years, economic development during the Cultural Revolution was “quite rapid.” But the expansion, based on “Stalinist” economics, was of the wrong kind, for it made “profligate use of human and material resources.” Deng Xiaoping’s reforms then moved China in the direction emphasizing private ownership and the market that had been pioneered in Taiwan, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia. By the late 1980s, Perkins concludes, China “had taken several giant steps away from the rural peasant economy steeped in poverty that had existed for millennia and that was still in evidence in modified form in the early 1970s.”

Unlike Perkins, who concentrates on economic development, Roderick MacFarquhar discusses the wider implications of Deng’s reforms. The fundamental questions for China during the Cultural Revolution, he suggests, were: Who, after Mao, would lead China, according to what policies, and with which support: From the army or the Party? Nowadays, in the twilight of Deng’s rule, the same questions are being asked, and as MacFarquhar says of 1969, the solutions, or deals, are once again being settled “between small coteries of leaders, plotting in their residences, clashing at central meetings, with the liquidation of one clique or the other finally emerging as the only viable solution.” The Central Committee Congress to be held this autumn seems likely to determine the shape of China’s leadership for the next five years.

MacFarquhar is particularly astute—and here we return to China’s great difficulties in emerging as a modern state—in recognizing that the fraying of the Party’s authority during the Cultural Revolution led to doubts about its ideology. The return of the communes to the individual farming families from which they had been wrested in the mid-Fifties was one of the developments that encouraged Chinese outside the bureaucracy to begin to challenge traditional authoritarian rule. Democracy, for which many Chinese have been yearning in some form since at least 1911, confronted the Party, MacFarquhar says, in the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. “Neither Mao nor Teng,” MacFarquhar writes, “was able to square the Chinese circle, preserving unity while simultaneously permitting freedoms.”

* * *

In one of his essays in Chinese Roundabout, Jonathan Spence concentrates on the events of Tiananmen; he had already used its name in English, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, as the title for his book exploring revolutionary movements in China between 1895 and 1980. His essay (originally published in 1990) starts in 1420 and doesn’t reach 1989 until its final paragraph. It was the early Ming rulers, Spence writes, who constructed the first Tiananmen—the Gate of Heavenly Peace into the imperial quarter and the Forbidden City—from which imperial edicts were lowered to kneeling officials who then had them circulated to the whole country. (This was the very place, on the Golden Water Bridges at the base of the Gate, where the Armed Police beneath a huge portrait of Chairman Mao clubbed and shot demonstrators on the nights of June 3 and June 4, 1989.)

Tiananmen Square, the ninety-square-acre space just south of the Gate, is less than a hundred years old; there, on May 4, 1919, university students gathered to protest the sellout of China at the Versailles Conference, thus beginning the May 4th Movement to modernize the country. There, too, on March 18, 1926, troops fired into a crowd of students and workers protesting the warlord government’s yielding to Japanese demands. Fifty people were killed—the first Tiananmen massacre, Spence notes, about which the essayist Lu Xun wrote, “Lies written in ink can never disguise Facts written in blood. Blood debts must be repaid in kind; the longer the delay, the greater the interest.” Although Mao reestablished the square as an “official space” for huge, officially sponsored demonstrations of loyalty to him and to the Party, Peking citizens occupied it yet again in April 1976 to express their grief at the death of Premier Chou Enlai and their hatred of the Gang of Four. This gathering was broken up violently by the police. In April 1989, when demonstrators once more took over Tiananmen Square, Spence says,

[it] became the people’s space in a way it had never been before.

Until June 4.

* * *

Spence’s essay is the work of a particularly skillful historian, sure of his sources, and expert in the languages necessary to use them. He tells us in the first sentence that the killings of 1989 occurred in the “most emotionally and historically charged urban space in China,” describes briefly what it looks like today, and then, like his father’s terrier, burrows away, in this case over 570 years into the past. Spence has a keen eye for detail—he refers to the tiny hole in the character for “Heaven” written over the gate, which was improbably ascribed by guides in the 1930s to an arrow fired into it in 1644 by the rebel general Li Zicheng when he briefly seized Peking from the last Ming emperor, thus opening the way for the Manchus.

Spence’s approach—introducing a large problem, setting the scene and its historical background, providing illustrative lustrative details, and a brief but convincing conclusion—can be seen in most of the essays in Chinese Roundabout; some of the best ones first appeared in these pages, while he was also producing eight books, mostly on Ch’ing China. The collection includes studies of early Europeans in China or Chinese in Europe—Spence wants to know how the two great cultures met, interacted, and often misunderstood each other.

His essays also take up subjects such as food—Spence suggests that fear of famine underlies the Chinese fascination with eating, and his inventories of what was consumed respectively by the Manchu court and by the very poor do much to explain the ferocity of the Chinese revolution. In his essay on opium, Spence estimates that by the nineteenth century 15 million Chinese were addicted; the Ch’ing court, after years of moral objections and legal proscription, eventually taxed opium sales to pay for the Peking police, new patrol boats, and foreign loans. In another essay, Spence gives a very telling account of how Chinese intellectuals, in Confucian, Nationalist, and Communist times, have dealt with the demands of the State.

* * *

Spence writes affectionately about four Sinologists who have been important to his career: Arthur Wright, one of his principal teachers at Yale (whose wife, the historian Mary Wright, was another), where the British-born Spence took his doctorate; the English translator-poet Arthur Waley, with whom Spence once spent a memorable afternoon; Harvard’s John King Fairbank, whom Spence praises as the leading Chinese scholar of the last fifty years, and whose quirks he gently notes; and Fang Chao-ying, the supreme biographer of important Chinese and Manchus during the Ch’ing dynasty, with whom Spence spent a year in Australia learning how to read early Ch’ing documents. Fang was a meticulous scholar, and Spence tells us of a letter he received from Fang in which he said Spence’s recent research showed “much improvement.” He then had crossed out “much” and wrote “a good deal of.” Fang also told Spence that “scholarship without sincerity can be detected at once,” a comment on the sixteenth-century Jesuit Matteo Ricci (the subject of an essay in this collection as well as of one of Spence’s books), whose interest in their culture the Chinese recognized as genuine, and not as the guile of a missionary.

Spence himself believes that scholarship is fleeting and inadequate, and can contain “a kind of barely contained craziness….” This is probably why Arcadio Huang appealed to him. One of the first Chinese to come to Europe, Huang settled in Paris in 1702, where he spent the rest of his life until he died in 1716. He married a French woman and became the Chinese interpreter in the library of Louis XIV. Compiling a dictionary and other guides to the French monarchy’s Chinese collection was a daunting task, Spence observes, “given the absence of any systematic prior study of the Chinese language in Europe, and the absence of parallels between the syntaxes of the two cultures.” One of his French colleagues claimed that Huang could barely speak French and found French grammar incomprehensible, but another colleague in the royal library said of him,

I was touched by the gentleness, the modesty, but above all the more than stoic calmness of this young Chinese who found himself in a situation that would have seemed desperate to us Europeans. Four or five thousand leagues away from home, without wealth, special skills…[he] made me believe in what various accounts have said about the Chinese character.

Spence observes that “in a Western literature all too often replete with racist innuendos, this is one of the grandest and most affectionate exceptions.”

Spence’s appreciation for “craziness” is stirred by Huang’s. When he finally received a small stipend from his royal patron, Huang took to wearing a powdered wig, a cape, and carrying a tassled cane. He also refers to himself in his journal, variously, as “Mgr. le Duc du St. Houange,” “son Eminence Monseigneur le Cardinal de Fonchan Houange,” and to his French wife as “Son Altesse serenissime Houange.” When he suddenly died he had reached page 1,140 of his projected two-volume dictionary, which he intended to explain everything Chinese to the French. “He wrote one more character, quite neatly, and then just stopped.”

This is followed by Spence’s typically neat and unsentimental conclusion. Huang’s half-French, half-Chinese daughter, Marie-Claude, died soon after her father, who had hoped that she would carry out his dream of merging the two cultures. “The flicker of light, for this particular dream of a new era between China and the West, was out.”

  1. Foreign Affairs, Fall 1990, p. 58.
  2. The Cambridge History of China, Vol: 10. Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. v–vi.
  3. This was set out plainly by Fairbank in his posthumously published China: A New History (Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 29, 31.
  4. Fairbank in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949–1965, edited by Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 14.
  5. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, p. 15.
  6. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, p. 16.
  7. Simon and Schuster, 1991, reviewed in these pages, March 5, 1992.