Drop by Drop

"Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!" China Encounters the West

by Orville Schell
Pantheon Books, 178 pp., $8.95

Orville Schell’s deft reporting catches a Chinese yearning for American things and ways that many Americans will encounter in times to come. It is an aspect of Chinese life, however, that needs to be kept in a well-informed perspective, lest we mistake it for a wave of the future.

China’s speed of change puts a premium on the observer’s mental agility and historical memory. Thus the pragmatism espoused by Deng Xiaoping in recent years harks back not to Mao but to the two-year visit of John Dewey to lecture in China in 1919-1921 and to the reformist approach (“bit by bit, drop by drop”) then espoused by the Hu Shih wing of the May 4 movement. Hu Shih, Dewey’s student, translated for him and inveighed against ideological “isms” and the violent means they sanctioned. The Marxist-Leninist Ch’en Tu-hsiu wing of the May 4 movement did not succeed in founding the Chinese Communist Party until June 1921, just as Dewey was returning to America. By the 1940s violent revolution of course seemed essential to inaugurate the new order, but when Mao called for it again in his Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s things went too far. The reaction against it now in favor of gradual pragmatic reform happily puts China in better tune with the United States. The problems of modern growth that have us by the throat are threatening to strangle China too. We exchange delegations to consult about it. Consultation is possible because, at least so far as US-Chinese relations are concerned, neither the Chinese nor the Americans suffer at the moment from the fevers of ideological righteousness that have so fitfully accompanied our modernizations.

Fifteen years ago in 1966 we Americans were on our last ideological binge, typically as far off as possible in Vietnam, while the Chinese were having theirs more cheaply at home in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. These two fevers burned simultaneously (and damn near wrecked us both) for most of a decade, 1965-1973 for our crusade in Vietnam, 1966-1976 for Mao’s crusade in China. Were they connected? Undoubtedly.

Note first the intellectual limitations of our patriotic leaders on both sides. After the bitter and open Sino-Soviet split of 1960, American leaders who still believed in 1965 that the Soviets and Chinese were a monolithic juggernaut needed a mental examination. They can be forgiven for not knowing the record of Vietnam’s ancient hostility to Chinese control since none of us had ever heard of Vietnam until World War II. After the example of Japan’s, Russia’s, and even Korea’s modernization by foreign borrowing, Chinese leaders who proudly believed China could meet its modern problems in an antiforeign, anti-intellectual isolation, by rapidly reinventing the wheel and the steam engine while changing class structure through repeating Mao’s thoughts, also deserved to be tested for their grasp of reality. Mao had found his greatest conviction of reality, of course, in the hillside cavehouses of Yenan.

These intellectual limitations had greater effect because the leaders on both sides were…

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