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Up Against the Great Wall

Returning to China this September, I happened to meet the translator Hsu Kai-yu in the San Francisco airport seeing off a delegation of Chinese authors who had been attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Professor Hsu introduced me to Xiao Jun, whose 1934 novel Village in August had so powerfully depicted the communist guerrillas’ resistance against the Japanese army in northeastern China. Xiao, a heavy-set man with expressionless eyes and white hair in a crew cut, looked exhausted after a whirlwind tour of the East Coast. Nevertheless, while we chatted, I saw through the veil of his fatigue flashes of the brash young dissident who had been “sent down” to perform heavy labor in the coal mines of southern Manchuria after so boldly criticizing the Chinese Communist Party in 1947.

Later, on the airplane, I reread Jonathan Spence’s brief description in The Gate of Heavenly Peace of Xiao Jun’s wartime attack on self-seeking communist cadres who, like runners in spiked shoes determined to come in first, “stamped on the faces” of their rivals in the race. It was not easy to recognize that angry young firebrand in the elderly man who slept in the seat just behind me. But then many of the characters in Spence’s enthralling book—as the numerous photographs make physically plain—have been deeply worn down by the erratic course of the last four decades of Chinese history. The Chinese revolution1 has taken a heavy toll from intellectuals, whose “willingness to make political commitment when such commitment was obviously dangerous” and whose “determination to hope even when hope seemed futile” are celebrated in The Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Spence’s conviction, like Dilthey’s, is that the lines of history converge in the lives of individuals; the form he favors is the biography.2 He has therefore chosen to write about three prominent intellectuals—the reformer Kang Youwei, the essayist Lu Xun, and the novelist Ding Ling—in the hope that a “description of their lives will serve to introduce the reader to the extraordinary sequence of events that are often loosely lumped together as constituting the ‘Chinese revolution.”’

Kang Youwei (1858-1927) first achieved national fame in April 1895, when he drafted a long memorial to the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875-1907), protesting the terms of the Japanese-imposed Treaty of Shimonoseki and proposing drastic political reforms. Some of the latter were hastily implemented during the abortive “Hundred Days of Reform” in 1898, but these were abrogated, and Kang Youwei was forced to flee abroad when conservatives took back control of the government from the twenty-seven-year-old monarch. In exile in British Columbia, Kang Youwei founded the Society to Protect the Emperor, which raised money in overseas Chinese communities around the world and incited a major uprising in China in 1900. In Singapore, Penang, and then Darjeeling, where he put the finishing touches on the brilliant and visionary Book of the Great Community, Kang competed for political influence with Sun Yat-sen, whose Revolutionary Alliance eventually won the support of most Chinese students and community leaders. Unable to reconcile his utopian plans for a global community with “the world of real politics,” Kang gradually lost touch with his increasingly nationalistic followers, who objected to his support of the Manchu emperor. By 1911, when anti-Manchu uprisings broke out in central China, the Revolutionary Alliance was able to take most of the credit for inspiring the revolution, and Sun Yatsen returned in triumph.

Kang Youwei feared that to carry through a democratic revolution was beyond China’s political capacity: it would be like asking a savage to fly an airplane. Dismayed by the slaughter3 , he joined an abortive effort in 1917 to restore the Qing emperor Puyi to the dragon throne; then—after seeking refuge in the American legation in Beijing—he retired to Shanghai with his five consorts, six daughters two sons, and forty servants. Living off the income from his estates and the proceeds of his calligraphy sales, Kang continued to dabble in politics, but his consuming passion was for science fiction. Kang even organized an Academy of Travel Through the Heavens, and dreamed of composing a Martian gazetteer while journeying through the void to “the abode of the blessed” in a celestial rocketship. On March 31, 1927, the politically disillusioned visionary died in the former German concession of Qingdao, his Manchu court robes laid out beside him.

The writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) was equally disappointed by the revolution of 1911, but not for the same reasons. To Lu Xun, “though outwardly all was changed, beneath the surface all went on as before.” The revolutionaries who had arrived wearing cotton clothes were within weeks dressed in the same furlined robes as the Qing magistrates before them. Lu Xun, who abandoned his medical studies after determining that the “sickness of the Chinese people” could not be cured by a physician, captured “the hollowness at the heart of the revolution” in a short story about a pitiable wretch called Ah Q. For Ah Q, despised as riffraff by his fellow villagers, the revolution was an opportunity to take revenge.

A group of revolutionaries would come, all wearing white helmets and white armour, carrying swords, steel maces, bombs, foreign guns, double-edged knives with sharp points and spears with hooks. They would come to the Tutelary God’s Temple and call out, “Ah Q! Come with us, come with us!” And then I would go with them. … Then all those villagers would be in a laughable plight, kneeling down and pleading, “Ah Q, spare our lives.” But who would listen to them!4

Even though Ah Q was rejected when he tried to join the revolutionaries, he became a scapegoat for them later on and was unjustly convicted of looting the home of one of the gentry. When he submitted mutely to a firing squad (before the revolution he would have had his head cut off), “most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera. They had followed him for nothing.”5

Nevertheless, Lu Xun still believed in the capacity of the Chinese to renew themselves. His famous story “Medicine” ends in a graveyard where a mother mourns over her dead son, who had been executed for being a revolutionary. Asking for a sign that her son has not died meaninglessly, she wills a crow, sitting on a leafless tree nearby, to fly over his grave. The bird does not stir. But then, as she walks dispiritedly away, the black bird suddenly spreads its wings and flies “like an arrow toward the far horizon.” Spence, who uses many of Lu Xun’s literary symbols in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, sees the crow’s flight toward some distant objective as an ambiguous augury of hope—an omen that was realized, shortly after “Medicine” was published, in the student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919, against Japanese imperialism.

The May Fourth Movement that followed these demonstrations was also a youthful rebellion against traditional culture, and it launched “a new epoch in China’s history, an epoch in which China’s indigenous cultural yearnings were combined with a new international political awareness and a new and wider social consciousness.” However, much of the intellectual optimism and youthful enthusiasm of the May Fourth Movement was dashed during the right-wing repression in 1926 and 1927, when Lu Xun left Beijing and moved south, finally settling in Shanghai. By then he had turned from writing fiction to composing incisive topical essays (zawen) which were published in popular magazines and newspapers. The satirical zawen were Lu Xun’s biting comments on the times, and they soon made him a leader of the left-wing literary movement then developing in the International Settlement.

Another leader of that movement was Qu Qiubai, who headed the Chinese Communist Party in 1927-1928. Spence uses Qu’s biography—including his period of Russian-language study in Beijing, and after that his stay as a journalist and political instructor in Moscow—to illuminate the early history of the CCP. Qu was executed by a Nationalist firing squad in June 1935, but before he died he helped to define the issues that dominated literary debates after 1928. It was Qu who pointed out that most May Fourth authors were writing in a supposedly “vernacular” Chinese that was actually impenetrable to most of the reading public. And although Qu was later disowned by the CCP, it was also he who introduced Soviet “socialist realism” to left-wing Chinese writers, emphasizing the importance of selecting literary topics that reflected the life of the masses.

Lu Xun (whose own style was not especially pellucid) had no patience for fatuous leftists who composed “revolutionary poems” under the influence of “Shanghai film posters and advertisements of soya sauce”:

Oh, steam whistle!
Oh, Lenin!6

But he was even more intolerant of aesthetes who practiced art for art’s sake, like the members of the Crescent Moon Society who accepted the totalitarian controls of the Nationalist dictatorship, “skulking in the twilight of bourgeois culture.” Communist Party critics were harsher yet, threatening that the “wheel of history would drag the Crescent poets to their graves.”

The founder of the Crescent Moon Society was the poet Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), who “was one of those young men for whom everything seemed always to have gone right.” Son of a prosperous merchant, Xu attended St. John’s College in Shanghai and the Beijing National University law school before going to the United States to take an MA at Columbia University. From there he traveled on to London where he came to know H.G. Wells, Roger Fry, Arthur Waley, and Lowes Dickinson, who helped to get him admitted to King’s College.

Spence is at his best evoking the “true springtime” of Xu Zhimo in Cambridge, where his circle included E.M. Forster and I.A. Richards. By the time Xu returned to China in 1922, he was one of the country’s best-known young poets, and within two years he was appointed to the faculty of Beijing University. Qu Qiubai paid a call on Xu Zhimo at a garden party near Hangzhou’s West Lake at that time, and was struck by the “fantasy” world which Xu and his friends inhabited—a world “dominated by the sentimental works of Katherine Mansfield, their belief in the divine power of love, and the kind of fake bucolic philosophizing that was represented by their worship of [the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath] Tagore.”

Against the Shelley-like figure of Xu Zhimo, who died in an airplane accident in 1931, Spence poses the politically dedicated Hu Yepin (1905-1931), a former jeweler’s apprentice who had fled his native Fujian after, some said, stealing a gold bracelet and who became a radical journalist in Shanghai in the late Twenties. Joining the CCP in 1930, Hu was also a leading member of the League of Left-Wing Writers. On January 17, 1931, the Settlement police raided a clandestine meeting at the Eastern Hotel on Avenue Edward VII. Hu Yepin was among the thirty-six communists subsequently turned over to the Nationalists’ secret police, and one of the twenty-three taken out three weeks later and shot. Lu Xun wrote then:

  1. 1

    Spence, like his mentor, the late Mary Clabaugh Wright, views China as being in revolution, that is, engaged in a “process of violence and renewal” nearly spanning the last century.

  2. 2

    Spence’s first book was about an imperial household official in the early Qing, his second concerned foreign advisers in China, the third reconstructed the figure of the Kangxi emperor, and the fourth was based upon the short and tragic life of a peasant woman named Wang.

  3. 3

    Kang Youwei estimated that twenty million had died during the revolution. Though this number was wildly exaggerated, there was much “cumulative evidence of violence and death that had moved beyond any rational justification.” Spence cites the writer Shen Congwen, who recalled his boyhood in the Hunanese town of Fenghuang during the revolution of 1911: “The arcade was covered with heads, and more were hanging from the slats of the scaling ladders. … Why had they been beheaded? I was uncertain, and when I returned home, I asked my father. His answer was ‘Revolution,’ which was not a satisfactory answer at all.”

  4. 4

    Lu Xun, Selected Stories (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1978), p. 98.

  5. 5

    Lu Xun, Selected Stories, p. 112.

  6. 6

    I personally think,” Lu Xun wrote, “proletarians should be drawn realistically, just as they are—there is no need to make their fists bigger than their heads.”

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