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The Spirit of Chinese Politics

by Lucian Pye
MIT, 255 pp., $8.95

Mr. Pye is disarming and sensible in his description of his method. From the start he makes it clear that The Spirit of Chinese Politics is an “interpretive and largely speculative essay.” He refuses to cite specific examples to strengthen his case for fear that facts chosen as illustrations might give his arguments the false impression of being scientific or testable. This approach would be laudable in many areas of social science, but it is absolutely essential for any study of contemporary China about which information is so scattered and inconsequential. Caution of this sort is doubly important in the murky realms of “psycho-culture” in which Mr. Pye concentrates his investigations.

The author believes that knowledge of the “general” personality traits of the Chinese or any people can be helpful in understanding their history and politics. He sets out to discover this general personality and to use it as a tool to describe and explain China’s development over the last fifty years. For this period he places China in the category of a “transitional” nation, that is, one moving from tradition to modernity, from peasant to industrial society. He maintains that China should be judged according to the standards of “transition,” by the comparison of her successes and failures in “modernization” with those of other developing countries. All of these are attempting to mobilize their resources to industrialize. All have shortages of capital and skill, and according to Mr. Pye all have social, cultural, and psychological barriers to be overcome before progress can be achieved. The author criticizes specialists on China for their emphasis on the uniqueness of China and for their refusal to look at her in the wider perspective of transitional nations. But he himself comes to the conclusion that China is radically different from the other “transitional” countries, especially in the “psycho-cultural” sphere. In South Asia and by inference in Africa as well he sees the main problem as one of a “crisis of identity.” By this term, taken from Erikson, Mr. Pye appears to mean that individuals in these “transitional” societies, faced with modern culture and its values, while in many ways still belonging to the humiliated tradition are no longer sure of themselves or their environment. Thus they fail to create an ordered picture of their society or to find their own place in it. This he believes is one of the major reasons for their incapacity to form organizations based upon trust of the predictable behavior of others, which is in turn a great stumbling block to “modernization.”

The Chinese, on the other hand, are manifestly capable of organization, and the overwhelming grandeur of Chinese civilization makes it impossible for the Chinese to be unsure of their cultural identity, regardless of the extent to which industrialization forces radical changes. If China has no “crisis of identity” Mr. Pye believes that he has found an equally harmful “psycho-cultural” check to her “modernization.” This he calls the “crisis of authority.” He maintains that, in traditional China, both the government reliance on the family or clan to control the population and the Confucian ethos of filial piety gave paternal authority a unique power. Children were brought up in total awe of their distant and powerful fathers. Furthermore intensive early training taught them that rebellion and independence did not pay and that the only real rewards came from subordination. Thus, during their childhood, the years in which they formed their basic social attitudes, they came to feel the need for an omnipotent authority. In imperial China the childhood pattern was repeated for the adult in society at large. Above the father was the distant and regal magistrate, and beyond him there was the son of heaven, the Emperor. However, after the imperial order crumbled under Western impact, the new leaders of the Warlord and Republican periods, faced with the problems of “transition,” failed to fill their demanding patriarchal roles, because they lacked the power and the moral justification, that is to say the authority, to do so. Because of this, the Chinese have refused to accept their leaders, while at the same time they have demanded more authority and discipline from them. This, the author believes, is the “crisis of authority,” which has been an extremely important factor in preventing the rational organization and development of China.

NATURALLY the hypothesis has many ramifications. Mr. Pye maintains that because the most important aspect of Chinese child-rearing is the repression of aggression—as opposed to the Western repression of sex—the failure of political authority has released a flood of this latent hostility. Mass anger has been used by both the Nationalists and the Communists to galvanize the population against outsiders. In other transitional nations, particularly in those that have suffered from colonial rule, feelings of aggression have been harnessed in order to assert national manliness and identity. According to Mr. Pye the Chinese mobilization of “hate”—indignation would be a more accurate and less loaded word—has had a different purpose. In this case it has been an attempt to give a mass confirmation to the people of the wickedness of the foreign powers and of China’s superior moral position.

Mr. Pye believes that the “crisis of authority” is made worse by a profound gap between childhood and adult life in contemporary China. He maintains that the nuclear family is peculiarly impervious to social change, even when that change is of the most drastic kind. Thus while political and social life are transformed, he suggests that parents go on bringing up children in the only way they know how, the traditional way. From this he deduces that in China today children grow up expecting an order and an all-embracing authority which they cannot find in outside society. This gap between expectation and reality greatly intensifies the crisis. Therefore even the Communists, with considerably more power and legitimacy than their immediate predecessors had, have failed to satisfy the almost impossibly exacting standards of authority expected of them. This, he maintains, has prevented the rational relationship between rulers and ruled which is necessary if China is to “modernize,” or even if she is to maintain stable government.

At first sight the author’s hypothesis—which has been greatly oversimplified in this summary—might seem not only plausible but of explanatory value. There is no doubt that the study of an individual’s childhood can be extremely helpful in explaining his adult behavior and attitudes. Unfortunately it is less easy to explain the behavior of societies in the same way. In the first place, what does one mean by a “general pattern” of upbringing? In the case of China there is nowhere near sufficient empirical evidence on traditional methods of child-training, let alone on any of the modifications of the tradition that have almost certainly—pace Mr. Pye—taken place during the last twenty years. Thus, even if there is a “general pattern” in China, we have had no verifiable method for discovering it. Mr. Pye does not hide the fact that his picture of the general scheme has been abstracted from his own experience and intuition. This abstraction is seen as the template for another, the author’s, abstraction of the Chinese national psychology or character. He explicitly denies that the values and sentiments he ascribes to the Chinese as a people are held by all Chinese or even by a significant proportion of them. Nevertheless he maintains that this national character is a useful concept because it can be employed to help one’s understanding of Chinese politics and development.

If we accept for the moment that there is such a thing as national character, there is no doubt that it is related to the national pattern of child-rearing. The German national characteristics of subordination and capacity for organization are clearly connected in some way to the stern German father and the rigid structure of the ideal or “general” German household. Equally the chaos of the Black American family in general may have something to do with the difficulties involved in forming an effective political resistance. In traditional China the revered father and the hierarchical family must have borne some relation to the Emperor and the imperial order. However these relationships do not prove that the political world is always a projection or magnification of the family. One might just as convincingly argue that the household is a replica in miniature of the outside world. If emperors were frequently called the fathers of their people, fathers were equally often known as rulers of the home.

If national patterns of child-rearing, national character, and their interrelationship—that is to say the elements of “psycho-culture”—are useful abstractions, I would suggest that their helpfulness is only on the most general plane. In fact the use of national character to explain or predict how a group or individual would react to specific circumstances is quite rightly a standard joke: “An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman….” It contains a grain of truth but misses the point. It would seem that “psycho-culture” as a whole suffers from a similar imprecision.

AS AN INTELLIGENT observer, Mr. Pye sees the human mind as being both complicated and contradictory. The latter aspect is especially important if only because actions and emotions that need repression must be strong initially or build up strength through the repression. The key word in The Spirit of Chinese Politics is “ambivalence.” The Chinese are described as ambivalent about authority, aggression, the outside world, themselves, and many other things. In this way the author explains the seeming inconsistency in Chinese acceptance of and resistance to authority, in the passivity and violence of their words and actions, in their scorn for the modern world and their imitation of it, and in their confidence and disappointment in themselves. According to. Mr. Pye, Chinese can be at either pole or anywhere along the scale of authoritarianism, violence, xenophobia, nationalism, and so on. With its many ramifications and refinements, Mr. Pye’s scheme could fit almost anything that has happened in modern China, but, with equal comfort, it could include a great deal else. For instance, the Cultural Revolution with its attack on the Communist Party could be seen as a vindication of his explanation of the ambivalent Chinese attitude toward authority. On the other hand, a continuation or intensification of Communist Control would have given his ideas similar confirmation. Mr. Pye’s hypotheses can explain almost every possibility; hence they are of almost no use whatever.

In the chapter of the book on the Great Leap Forward in which the author tests psycho-culture as an analytical tool, nothing is found to conflict with his hypotheses. It is surprising, however, how little “psycho-culture” the chapter contains. On the reasons behind the establishment of the Communes, for example, the only psychological insights offered are that the Chinese have a very strong faith in the power of human will and in the effectiveness of organization per se to overcome difficult objective conditions. Even though these perceptions contain a considerable amount of truth, they are not new, and their derivation from the “general pattern” of Chinese upbringing is attenuated to say the least. The only way in which one can begin to grasp such extraordinarily elusive phenomena is through the study of Chinese history, culture, and society as a whole. In fact, although he sets out to use psycho-culture to describe the Great Leap Forward, nearly all of Mr. Pye’s chapter on the events of 1958 is straightforward narrative history. In other words while there is nothing to prevent one from using the concept of psycho-culture as an analytical tool, in the example chosen by Mr. Pye, events can be explained more simply and effectively by history, economics, sociology, and politics. What is more, these conventional means also suffice to explain the book’s over-all theme, “China’s failure to modernize.”

In this work the author does not go into the details of the concept of modernization. And in view of the difficulties involved in the creation of a catch-all in which to fit the development and present social structures of such diverse countries as England, Germany, the US, the USSR, and Japan, he is probably very wise. Be that as it may, to explain why China has so far failed to become as rich and industrially as powerful as these nations it is unnecessary to postulate an “authority crisis.” Given her geographical, historical, cultural, economic, social, and political circumstances, the remarkable thing is not how little but how far China has progressed since 1949. This, incidentally, is brought out very well by Jack Gray and Patrick Cavendish in their excellent description of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Communism in Crisis* which gives rightful prominence to the Movement’s historical and cultural background.

If “psycho-culture” is often redundant as an analytical tool, there is no doubt that many of the ideas Mr. Pye has assembled under its rubric have some validity. Therefore since any contribution toward understanding something as mysterious as modern China is useful, this new work should be welcome. Unfortunately, however, the book’s merits are very much outweighed by the hostile attitude underlying it. Some of the author’s scorn for modern China itself—presumably in order to avoid the label of cold warrior he nearly always lumps Nationalists and Communists together—seems to come from his own predisposition. However, much of it comes from the “psycho-cultural” approach itself and it is of course no coincidence that the author chose it. Any psychological study almost inevitably states or implies that there are abnormalities in its subject. In The Spirit of Chinese Politics The statement is quite clear. Its subtitle A Psychocultural Study of the Authority Crisis in Political Development makes it explicit that, by analogy at least, the author believes that China is suffering from a neurosis if not a deeper mental illness. Hence his frequent use of such adjectives as “exaggerated” or “inordinate” to define certain Chinese characteristics.

IF CHINA is thought abnormal the book also contains the strong implication that there is such a thing as normality in a nation. This ties in with the author’s other scheme of “transition” and “modernization.” Throughout the work there is the pervading sense that “modernized” states in general and the United States in particular provide standards of rational and adult behavior. At one point they are actually called the “mature powers.” The Chinese on the other hand are frequently described as “child-like” or “naive.” From the easy way in which Mr. Pye jumps from the personal to the national level, it is quite clear that he sees strong analogies between “transition” and adolescence and between “modernization” and coming of age. Thus for him China is a teen-ager not suffering from the usual psychological problems that afflict other transitional countries—crisis of identity, for example—but mixed up all the same.

The analogy must give considerable comfort to American policy-makers. They no longer need to see China as a powerful Communist demon, but simply as a rather disturbed kid who should be helped to grow up. The analogy also suggests that while China is adolescent and irrational, America is adult and responsible. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Pye that the acquisition of wealth and power does not necessarily increase a nation’s rationality and moderation. In fact it is far more plausible to argue the opposite case: that the richer and more powerful a nation is the more irresponsible and dangerous it becomes. Mr. Pye also seems to be unaware that rich countries may themselves be “transitional” or in need of radical change. The author’s inability to judge rich and poor states by the same criteria is demonstrated by the fact that he is apparently unaware of the danger that to outsiders many of the statements he makes about Chinese irrationality seem far more applicable to the United States.

The Chinese system still stead-fastly depends for integration upon an overweening sense of righteousness.

This basic posture—proclaiming success when engaged in cautious retreat—characterises much of the recent history of Chinese Communism. The realities of the system cease to be congruent with its idealised versions, but the party officially ignores this lack of congruence.

Even more striking is Mr. Pye’s statement:

From time to time individuals from the educated class have gained access to the hard-core political realm; but since the terms of admission have always involved the sacrifice of their moral principles and their rationalistic outlook, the anti-intellectualism of the politicians has not been diluted.

It would seem that some of the psycho-cultural difficulties attributed in this book to the peculiar Chinese mode of bringing up children are shared by peoples of very different cultures. Perhaps even a nation like the United States could be suffering from a “Crisis of Authority.”

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    Praeger, 256 pp., $6.00

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