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China on the Verge

To the People: James Yen and Village China

by Charles W. Hayford
Columbia University Press, 304 pp., $35.00

Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s

by David Strand
University of California Press, 364 pp., $37.50

The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911–1937 l’homme

by Marie-Claire Bergère, translated by Janet Lloyd
Cambridge University Press/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de, 356 pp., $59.50

The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919–1937

by We-hsin Yeh
Council on East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 449 pp., $26.00

During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also a rigorously trained and didactic Confucian scholar who demanded that his students observe the highest standards of deportment. He lectured them on ethics for an hour every single school day. There was no question of his being in the stands with the fans, especially not in the long traditional scholar’s gown which he insisted on wearing for all university functions. Instead he had a telephone line installed, running from the soccer field to his presidential office. Kept informed of all goals scored by his own or the rival teams, he could cheer wildly or weep at the outcome in dignified seclusion. After the game was over he would emerge once more into the public eye, in order to praise or castigate his team.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 1930, a north China villager, with the chafed and roughened fingers of the peasants who had added rug making to their other agricultural labors, graduated from the Rockefeller Foundation—funded Peking Union Medical College. Sent to work in a north China rural community, where a smallpox epidemic was ravaging the local populace, he decided to carry out a vaccination campaign. The supplies that he had been so expertly trained to use were simply not available. Accordingly, to administer the vaccine he gave his health workers sewing machine needles, which they disinfected in wads of cotton soaked with Chinese brandy. By these means 21,605 local people were vaccinated and indubitably many lives were saved.

The day-by-day business of what we often term “modernization” is inevitably full of paradoxes and adaptations such as these. They seem especially numerous in China, where the processes of economic growth and intellectual change were stymied or deflected by the warlordism, civil war, and foreign invasion that wracked the country from 1916 to 1949. They have been central, too, to the People’s Republic of China, in which extraordinarily diverse policies have veered from total rejection of the West to an uncritical acceptance of almost everything Western. Leaders such as Mao Zedong, the “Gang of Four,” and Deng Xiaoping have had little sense of how to proceed and how to channel these uncertain forces. The modernization of the Chinese army overlapped with the visionary and ultimately chaotic experimentation of the Great Leap Forward. President Nixon was invited to China when the xenophobic Cultural Revolution was still in full swing. Deng Xiaoping threw open his country to the West, and condoned or ordered both the campaigns against “Spiritual Pollution” and the mass killing of civilians seeking democratic change in Peking during 1989.

The crisis now facing the leaders of the People’s Republic has several overlapping components that appear to be intractable. Prominent among these are the problems of changing traditional rural patterns of life in ways that can benefit both the state and the local farmers; the attempts to organize urban workers so that they can live peaceably and work profitably in the impoverished cities; the need to encourage a modern managerial and entrepreneurial elite within a centrally controlled economy; the task of introducing China’s brightest students and intellectuals to the techniques and ideas of the West without turning them against their own government and society; and the need to check the violent antisocial impulses that threaten to tear apart local communities and seriously disrupt the economic and social life of the nation as a whole. It is a sign of the energy and verve of Chinese studies in the West at the moment that five impressive new books, each based on extensive research, illuminate these matters from the perspective of the 1920s and early 1930s. Such a long view gives us a sense of how others tried to deal with the problems that the Communist leaders are now confronting.

The extent and complexity of non-Communist attempts at land reform in the 1920s and 1930s have been among the better kept secrets in the People’s Republic, where for obvious reasons the innovations and successes (as they were declared to be) of the land redistribution of the early 1950s were held up as the signal achievement of the Communist party itself. In fact, as Charles Hayford shows in his absorbing study of the liberal reformer James Yen, primary attempts at land reform began during the pre-Communist period of the Chinese Republic, and were based in many ways on theories of mass education and of urban uplift as these had been practiced for decades in the West, especially by groups such as the YMCA.

Yen was born in 1893 (the same year as Mao Zedong) to an educated family in northern Sichuan, and made his way through local schools which taught him the Chinese classics, to a modernizing missionary-run school in a nearby city, to a small college in Hong Kong, and thence to Yale, where he graduated in the class of 1918. Both in China and in Hong Kong James Yen’s world had already become one strongly influenced by Christianity and the strenuous religious image projected by the YMCA. “Confucius would have been a ‘Y’ man,” a Chinese of the time observed, and the idealistic Protestant students to whom Yen became closest at Yale reinforced this message, as did the members of the Huie family, whom James met in New York. The head of this clan, Huie Chin, was the minister of the Chinatown Presbyterian Church, who had married a red-haired Irishwoman from Brooklyn.

The careers of this couple’s nine children are neatly summarized in a couple of Hayford’s paragraphs. Six of the Huie children were girls, and all married activist Chinese students studying in America. James’s marriage (in 1921) to Alice Huie, a swimming champion and graduate of the Columbia Teachers’ College Physical Education Department, was long and happy, ending with her death in 1980. As Hayford observes, this remarkable family formed “an important intersection in a network of Christians which reached across the Pacific,” and was part of a chain that linked young Christian Chinese to many well-to-do young Americans, classmates or the friends of friends within their elite schools.

Yen returned to China via France, where he served with the YMCA among the more than one hundred thousand Chinese laborers who had been recruited by the British in World War I to help them with the digging of trenches, the unloading of transport ships, and the preparation of base areas behind the front lines. Hired as noncombatants, the Chinese at times got caught in the cross fire, and were occasionally deliberately attacked by German planes or artillery. But their main function was to release more British men for active service. Among these uneducated and homesick Chinese, Yen found a ready audience for his offers to write letters home, for the simple reading primers he distributed among them, and for the few social services the “Y” could provide; in return, he absorbed a knowledge of the poor people of China for which there had been little room in his own previous education. From France, Yen traveled back to the United States, taking an M.A. degree from Princeton in history and politics and meanwhile strengthening his many contacts and friendships in the US. After another stay in Sichuan, where he was an active leader of the mass literacy campaigns then underway, Yen was transferred to Peking where he had a similar part in the mass education movement there. By 1926, he was hard at work with rural reform in Tinghsien county in North China.

James Yen and the Chinese reformers who worked with him in the county were, in Hayford’s apt words, “Trans-Pacific Liberals,” but this did not mean they were “passive victims of foreign influence.” They were, rather, “active adapters and creative developers of cosmopolitan ideas.” In this they were not unlike the young Mao Zedong, and like Mao they “addressed the problem of how political power and China’s culture could be used to build a modern nation. Each combined respect for China’s traditions with a contempt for the educated elite who defined Chinese culture in selfish literary terms.” Endeavoring to deal with “factors as diverse as modern ideas of nationalistic patriotism, new techniques of popular mobilization, the germ theory of disease, and the spread of flush toilets,” their dedicated hard work and their pragmatism were intermingled with a “pastoral” conception of politics.

The attempts made at widespread change by these hard-working reformers—aided often by Western advisers, philanthropists, and co-workers, and by the new techniques of social analysis and planning offered by the developing field of sociology—were truly broad. Their efforts are described by Hayford, and they are instructive not only for their intrinsic interest, but also because they give one a sense of how daunting the task was, especially when one reflects that all this energy was concentrated on only a part of one county, as opposed to the nationwide attempts to be made by the Communists in the early 1950s. But many of the tasks and issues were the same, and have endured or re-emerged at the present day; breeding of better livestock strains, the development of an efficient rural water pumping system, the pooling of economic resources through cooperative associations, the building of an effective rural school system, the supervision of better cotton growing, development of commercial fruit farming, improvement of agricultural tools, increased availability of fertilizer, the curbing of insect-carried plant diseases, and the introduction of local health-care facilities.

When Yen’s imaginative friend H.Y. Yao traveled with his sewingmachine needles and his Chinese brandy-soaked cotton wads to check the spread of smallpox, he did so as part of Yen’s program in Ting-hsien. Yao and his fellow health workers also led fly-killing campaigns, hygiene classes, and helped diminish the devastating extent of postnatal tetanus by teaching midwives not to smear the babies’ severed umbilical cords with mud. Under the guidance of another extraordinary figure, the Peking and Harvard-trained physician C.C. Ch’en, Ting-hsien reforms worked at a major plan to “deprofessionalize” the practice of Western medicine in China, by preventing the emergence of separate specialties of preventive and curative medicine. Instead they worked to make the most of the available health-care resources by developing a three-tiered system of healthcare delivery.

At the lowest level, they trained village health workers, chosen from among the local farmers, who were “fortified with brief training and armed with a simple first aid box.” The first aid boxes, made available to each village at a cost of $3, contained eye ointment and calomel, castor oil and aspirin, scissors, bandages, vaccination equipment, and disinfectant. Above these local health workers was a second tier of health stations in market towns, run by a doctor and a nurse, with lay helpers. Hospital beds were concentrated at the top tier, in district health centers, where other doctors were backed by dentists, pharmacists, laboratory assistants, and sanitation staff. Birth control, however, remained an intractable problem at all levels, and they reluctantly decided it would have to follow after basic changes in economic growth and education, instead of preceding and encouraging them.

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