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China: How Much Dissent?

Dissent in Early Modern China: Ju-lin Wai-Shih and Ch’ing Social Criticism

by Paul S. Ropp
University of Michigan Press, 356 pp., $24.00

China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent

by Merle Goldman
Harvard University Press, 276 pp., $22.00

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 into hating Qu Yuan and rejected his advice. Driven into exile in southern Chu (south of the Yangtze, in the general area now known as Hunan province), Qu led a wandering life as a poet and visionary, remaining loyal in memory to the ruler who had ousted him. When his ruler was killed and the Chu capital destroyed by northern enemies, Qu committed suicide.

Over the centuries that followed this despairing act, Qu’s death took on a symbolic force: Qu Yuan came to stand not just for a type of political behavior, but for a force within nature, for myths of water and fertility, for the transplanting of the young rice shoots in the flooded paddy-fields; his image was inextricably associated with the swift “dragon boats” that river dwellers raced against each other at the summer solstice, and with the wild orchid—tender, fragrant, fiery—that bloomed in the humid south.

Of the historical Qu Yuan we know very little but it has been Laurence Schneider’s marvelous idea to take the Qu Yuan story and see how the layers of myth enfolded him, how later Chinese historians, literary critics, and politicians interpreted him, and how all this accumulated lore illuminates the vexed questions of loyalty and dissent across time.

Schneider finds that the record—as we might expect—has been a mixed and ambiguous one, for Qu Yuan was one of those figures who show “how we can profitably characterize a culture by its chief dilemmas.” In the strong, centralized Chinese state that emerged only fifty years after Qu’s death his political stance was the basis for arguments concerning the role of the individual will in politics, and the various acts that a “loyal” subject who objected to a ruler’s behavior might be justified in taking. His poetry, which had always contained something “flamboyantly self-righteous and self-pitying,” in Schneider’s phrase, was searched for insights into the human predicament of self-enforced isolation. And in the slow accretion of the subsequent myths, elements of time, geographical space, and “madness” each played their part: the “madness” of Qu Yuan, to Schneider, being at once the “tactical madness” of the man who seeks release from official responsibility and the “mad ardor” of the philosopher-poet seeking inspiration from the visions that fill his own mind.

With Qu Yuan as his focus, Schneider is able to give us a guided tour of the attitudes of the literati, not just of “orthodox” scholar bureaucrats, but of those who themselves lived on the edge of danger and innovation. Across the centuries, Chinese scholars argued the merits of Qu’s suicide as gesture: should one serve at risk of death rather than resign? Was the recluse the mirror-image of the activist-bureaucrat, or something less? Bi Gan in the Shang Dynasty, after all, had protested “loyally” only to be disemboweled and pickled by his exasperated monarch; yet, as others noted, “to speak, knowing [one’s words] will not be put to use, is stupid.”

Over time, these assessments changed. By the twelfth century Qu Yuan had become, to many, a model for “spiritual authenticity and independence” rather than for political integrity; by the seventeenth, his obstinacy and isolation had drawn new scrutiny, his “madness” was seen in terms of the response to invading Manchus who might have been resisted in the south; in the republic of the early twentieth century, intellectuals without confidence in their own position saw in Qu a hero and a victim who offered them a “license for change”; by the late 1920s Qu was presented as having shown a revolutionary spirit in marshaling the common people to oppose their tyrants, a leader of an “Athenian” Chu that stood in opposition to a materialistic, more “Spartan” Zhou. By World War Two Qu had become an independent and radical fighter from a servile, not an aristocratic, background, a Promethean man of the masses.

Schneider ends this saga in the People’s Republic of China with Mao (a newer, bolder, madman of Chu) making Qu a “mere conduit of collective, popular sentiments,” building memorials at the “exact spot” where Qu plunged into the billows, praising Qu’s retreat from court to countryside as a creative advance parallel to the “back to the countryside” movement, and naming him as China’s historical entry to the 1953 World Peace Congress. (Other countries entered Rabelais, Copernicus, and José Martí.)

In an admirable conclusion to this rich study, Schneider describes Qu as having served a need in China, not just in modern times for those who “mediate reason with passion,” but across time as a mediator between two types of dissent, types often starkly categorized as those of the recluse or the exuberant inebriate; Schneider sees him, too, as a mediator between social classes, and even between states in his earlier role as diplomat and negotiator. At his most potent Qu stood for individuality without anarchism, for dissent without nihilism. The issue has not been so much that each age in China tried to concoct its own version of Qu Yuan, says Schneider, “but rather that each age has the problem of how to relate its educated elite to political power, to ultimate values, to art, and to literature.”

At few stages in China’s history was that relationship between educated elite and the holders of imperial power more delicate than during the eighteenth century, when the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty exerted a rigorous control over the institutions of the state, and claimed to pass direct judgment in the world of political theory through their espousal of the ideologically “correct” schools of state neo-Confucianism.1 This is the period that Paul Ropp analyzes in Dissent in Early Modern China, a useful study with some valuable insights that focuses on the mid-eighteenth-century novel by Wu Jingzi, which is usually translated as The Scholars. Ropp’s title is perhaps a little too dramatic, for as he says in his own preface his subject is really “a rather modest exploration of social criticism in the intellectual history of late Ming and early Ch’ing [i.e., Qing] China,” and he is somewhat stretched to show why the 1740s should be seen as “early modern” rather than as, say, “late imperial” or “mid-Qing.” But through his historical analysis Ropp performs the helpful function of placing his picture of dissent within a clearly delineated pattern of the prevailing orthodoxies, so that we can assess for ourselves those elements of Wu Jingzi’s thought that seem truly to merit the term of “dissent.”

Wu Jingzi, the intelligent and debauched son of a wealthy family in central China (who was unable to pass the higher levels of state examinations necessary for state service), compared himself at one stage to Qu Yuan “wandering in the south,” a perhaps unwitting displacement of the Qu Yuan image from the realm of courageous principle to the realm of mere worldly failure; but Wu was to transcend that failure by the imagination and scope of the satirical novel into which he poured the last ten years of his life. Ropp gives focus to the huge, picaresque panorama of The Scholars by concentrating on three areas of Wu’s disagreement with the dominant values of the status quo—namely on his contempt for the corruption and sterility of the state examination system, on his sympathy for the fate of Qing women committed to lives of illiteracy and exploitation, and on his sardonic rejection of the supernatural and superstitious beliefs so common at the time. As Ropp correctly says, all these things had been condemned by other Chinese before Wu, but what was new to the eighteenth century was the “scope, intensity, frequency and form of social criticism,” which constituted “a new stage in Chinese intellectual history.” One might argue over the specificity of such a phrase as “new stage,” but Ropp summarizes his argument forcefully:

Wu pictured a society whose leaders were not active agents of social progress in the sense of working to improve the general welfare, but rather they were occupied primarily in perpetuating their own existence. They used the commonly held ideals of society less to improve upon reality than to justify it. In his portrayal of the wide gap between ideals and behavior, Wu in effect pictured a civilization on the verge of a profound crisis—a crisis which became clear to most people only 150 years after his death. If Wu’s perception of crisis was in large part inspired by the personal crises of his own youth, his work was no less perceptive or prophetic on that account.

Wu Jingzi certainly does not cut a heroic figure, nor does Ropp try to make him one. Wu’s personal protest indeed may have been most clearly expressed, apart from his novel, through alcoholism: he ate little, claiming poverty, yet in the cultured cosmopolis of Nanjing he drank largely at his own and friends’ homes, and at least one of those friends remembered Wu’s declining to join in a sociable poetry-writing contest because his mind was working “so slowly”; Wu himself died suddenly in 1754, at the age of fifty-three, in the middle of a liquid supper.

By and large, Wu’s was a passive protest, safely outside the political arena, with no positive vision of a new society to be pursued: he was led to write his novel out of a “loss of allegiance to the elite Confucian culture,” says Ropp, and if Wu viewed his failure with any clarity it was as “absurdity” rather than as “fate.” This did not mean that he was not capable of imagining a final or more noble withdrawal, merely that he had no honorable status from which to descend with any fanfare.

As Ropp well points out, the novel’s prologue introduces a true, heroic recluse, the peasant painter Wang Mian, who flees the emperor’s express command to serve, and retreats to be a hermit in the woods; and the novel ends with four decent, hard-working artisans leading the life of dignified attention to morality that the alleged “elite” of Confucian scholars have now abandoned. If presenting such characters in a novel is “dissent” on Wu’s part, and it seems that a legitimate case can be made that it is, it is dissent as “secession,” not action, the complaint of a man who has noted, and been deflated by, the realization that in mid-Qing society “the only men in a position to effect changes would be those who had long since been given an enormous stake in the status quo.”

By the late nineteenth century that official resistance to change was finally destroyed by foreign imperialism and domestic rebellion; vigorous and witty attacks on bureaucratic behavior and styles in the late Qing far exceeded anything that Wu Jingzi had contemplated, and were replaced in turn by the temporary abandonment of all restraints in the Teens and early Twenties of this century.2 Then, with no focus of authority, dissent became both more extreme and more diffused, a deadly matter of political expression against warlords, corrupt republican politicians, the Guomindang machine, or Japanese occupiers.3 Only when the Communist Party reconsolidated state power in 1949, and brought into office a new generation with an enormous stake in the new communist status quo, did familiar tensions reassert themselves, and the search for meaningful channels of dissent resume some parallels to the past.

  1. 1

    The intense levels of personal and intellectual crisis that were triggered by the Manchu invasion of China in the 1640s have been analyzed by Jerry Dennerline with rare subtlety in his new book The Chia-ting Loyalists: Confucian Leadership and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century China (Yale University Press, 1981).

  2. 2

    An important contribution to our understanding of the late Qing intellectual world is the collection of essays edited by Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová, The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century (University of Toronto Press, 1980). For the developments since Wu Jingzi’s time in social criticism see especially the essay by Donald Holoch, “A Novel of Setting: The Bureaucrats.”

  3. 3

    The hitherto completely unstudied area of Chinese literary activity under the Japanese occupation has now been made accessible in an excellent work by Edward M. Gunn, Unwelcome Muse, Chinese Literature in Shanghai and Peking, 1937-1945 (Columbia University Press, 1980).

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