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Squaring the Chinese Circle

The Cambridge History of China: Volume 15, The People’s Republic Part 2: Revolutions Within the Chinese Revolution 1966–1982

edited by Roderick MacFarquhar, edited by John K. Fairbank
Cambridge University Press, 1,108 pp., $120.00

China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”1 This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most people who have studied, read about, or traveled and lived in China. In the late sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Chinese dress, and shelved some of their basic beliefs; so did some missionaries in 1900. When Owen Lattimore was married in 1926 in Peking he and his wife posed for a photograph in Chinese costume; so did William Empson when he taught there in the 1930s.

How can the historian approach so old and vast a subject? In his introduction to Chinese Roundabout, the Yale historian Jonathan Spence remembers Toms, his father’s terrier, burrowing for rabbits, “his front paws drumming in a frenzy of exultation, the earth flying out in a cloud between his splayed hind legs…. The earth piles up, the dog barks on, the rain falls; and no rabbits ever appear.” For Spence, too, the historian-burrower, “the earth did pile up, and along with the books that I wrote over the last twenty-five years, I wrote a good many essays on China as well.” Spence suggests, giving himself less than his due, that “the long years of research and writing will be shown to have been fugitive or inadequate.” He compares his essays to a roundabout, or traffic circle, that “attempts to sort out, with some kind of logic, the conveyances converging on a given point from many directions.” For the most part, as we shall see, he brilliantly succeeds in doing so.

Quite different is the broad view presented in the magnificent Cambridge History of China. In their preface of 1978 to Volume Ten, the first to appear, the general editors, the late John King Fairbank of Harvard and Denis Twitchett of Princeton, wrote that from the beginning of this century other Cambridge histories have set the pattern for such surveys, and that theirs, originally planned for six volumes, but eventually reaching fifteen, provides a “substantial account of the history of China as a bench mark for the Western history-reading public.”2

Throughout much of his long career Fairbank himself, who died last September, held the view that China must be seen as a complex civilization very different from any other; he repeatedly warned Americans against attempting to impose their values on China, a culture which had assumed some of its most distinctive characteristics as early as 50,000 years ago.3 A billion Europeans in Europe and the Americas live in fifty or so sovereign states, Fairbank observed in Volume Fourteen, while the same number of Chinese live in one. This led him to conclude that “our terms nationalism and nation-state, when applied to China, can only mislead us…. It is a different animal. Its politics must be understood from within, genetically.”4 What we find in China, Fairbank said, is “cultural nationalism,” 5 in which unity is enforced by ancient forms of authority, popular indoctrination, and a bureaucratic elite that is still evident today, “and still in need of analytic integration by the exploration of China’s sociopolitical institutions.”6

It is always interesting to see a discreetly expressed but obvious disagreement between editors of a book, in this case the fourteenth and fifteenth volumes, which deal with the years between 1966 and 1982, with occasional references to the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989. In an epilogue to Volume Fifteen, Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard, a leading specialist on Party affairs during the late Fifties and early Sixties, subtly takes issue with the admiring view of China’s long cultural cohesion of his coeditor, Fairbank. In his essay “The Onus of Unity,” MacFarquhar gallantly refers to how, in Volume Fourteen, which he and Fairbank edited, “we” pointed out how different China is from the West, with its multifarious nationalities and traditions. The author of that essay was of course Fairbank, with whom (without mentioning his name) MacFarquhar now argues. “Implicit in most histories of China is acceptance of an indeed admiration for the unifying imperative of Chinese politics. Yet looked at from today’s perspective, after forty years of Communist rule, negative consequences of that historic Chinese achievement are beginning to emerge.”

In imperial times, MacFarquhar contends, while the central government made claims of absolute authority over its subjects, there were too few mandarins to enforce their authority over too many people. Great diversity of custom and a variety of economic activities could therefore prevail; but the resulting diversity and equilibrium were “destabilized by the Communists.” And the Communists’ great weapon of organization and their Promethean drive to change nature, MacFarquhar continues, which for some years were regarded with awe abroad and, as some of the contributors to this volume show, aroused patriotism at home, “were also weapons of destruction,” as in the case of the Great Leap Forward of the late Fifties, which caused the famine in which millions died. MacFarquhar concludes that “only in a state as united and controlled as China could so terrible a calamity have taken place nationwide.”

What then of Deng Xiaoping, who MacFarquhar rightly observes did not share Mao’s taste for national luan, or chaos, or for mass adulation? Whereas Deng eliminated some of Mao’s ways of sustaining central rule, especially the insistence on the semidivine nature of the paramount ruler, he could not find new ways to contain regionalism and bitter factional divisions within the huge bureaucracy. These were feared also in Confucian times; this fear of disorder, MacFarquhar says, explains China’s “onus of unity.” He suggests that Europe’s inability to sustain such universalism after Roman times led to the pluralism which “liquidated a stifling uniformity.” Deng Xiaoping, like all Chinese rulers, finds this European pluralism disquieting (although like other Chinese nationalists since the mid-nineteenth century he admires Western technology and science, without understanding the conditions that brought them about) and prefers what he himself calls a “framework of nationwide unity of view, policies, planning, guidance and action.”

In one of his essays in Chinese Roundabout Jonathan Spence observes that the Chinese Communists, like earlier Chinese rulers from the mid-nineteenth century, have “veered from total rejection of the West to an uncritical acceptance of almost everything Western.” Thus Deng opened the door to the West but organized campaigns against what he called its “spiritual pollution” and in June 1989 had the young people who called for the introduction of Western standards in political life shot down in Peking. MacFarquhar, too, reminds us of the virtually ceaseless and corrosive campaigns against Western, allegedly “counter-revolutionary,” ideas, which began in the Fifties and culminated in Tiananmen Square. The “onus of unity” assumed by China’s leaders, he writes, “is increasingly an incubus for the Chinese people.”

Volume Fifteen of the Cambridge History runs to 1,108 closely packed pages of text, footnotes, bibliographical essays, bibliography, and an excellent index. It includes more than a dozen chapters, mainly by American contributors. Specialists will find much to learn from these essays, which include the latest Western and Japanese scholarship, and undergraduates and graduates will mine them for their term papers. Even in the supercharged world of Chinese research the volume should have a long life. (The tenth volume, on the nineteenth century, was published in 1978 and remains useful.) The prose is balanced, cool, and often arid. MacFarquhar’s contribution is an exception; he writes, for example, that many personal scores were viciously settled during the Cultural Revolution, “and for this, the Chinese people themselves must bear some accountability,” one of the central points in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.7

Some of the volume’s best insights are to be found in the footnotes: one of them, for instance, should diminish any reputation the Chinese-Belgian writer Han Suyin may still have as a reporter. In Richard Madsen’s superb chapter on the countryside he discusses the famine that took place between 1959 and 1961, which he describes as “one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century,” costing something like 25 million lives (although the journalist Liu Binyan told me in London that 50 million would be a more accurate estimate); Madsen observes that there are very few personal accounts of this catastrophe, which, had it occurred on such a scale elsewhere, would have produced vivid accounts by journalists and social scientists. But in 1980, according to Madsen’s footnote, Han Suyin, who never had difficulty seeing China’s leaders, and knew about the famine, admitted “lying through my teeth (with a smile) to the diplomats and the newsmen who probed…. All the more so when the wind howled like a wolf and winter fastened its iron will upon the land.”

Sometimes the volume contains surprises. Cyril Birch of Berkeley, who knows the literature of Communist China as well as anyone, admires some of the well-known authors of the Sixties and Seventies who were usually dismissed as hacks. Hao Jan, for instance, wrote so many stories during the Seventies that he was suspected of being an omnibus name for a group of Cultural Revolution enthusiasts. Birch says that Hao Jan was the pen name of Liang Chin-kuang, many of whose tales were lively, with finely controlled language and fascinating details and incidents. Birch also admires Mao as “a powerful poet” in the high classical style, who “with masterful irony…superimposes on these ancient allusions the achievements of today.” Birch, however, constantly reminds the reader how writers suffered under Mao, and in his conclusion he quotes a speech given to a writers congress in 1979 by the author Liu Hsin-wu, who asked his colleagues, “Why, in a socialist nation led by the Communist Party, does committing oneself to serving the people by promoting a rich, strong, literary and artistic enterprise require making mental preparations to lay down one’s life?”

This of course was true throughout Chinese history for intellectuals and mandarins who dared to confront the orthodoxy of the day. In his chapter on Mao, Stuart Schram, who on retiring from the London School of Oriental and African Studies is continuing at Harvard to study Mao, on whom he is the main Western authority, says that the Chairman recalled with enthusiasm some of his most autocratic predecessors, especially the Emperor Ch’in Shih-huang, the founder in the third century BC of the first dynasty, whom Mao praised for exterminating his critics and their families. Mao spoke proudly of having executed one hundred times as many “counter-revolutionary intellectuals” as his ancient predecessor, who had buried “only 460 Confucian scholars.” What preoccupied Mao in his old age, as it had his forebears, was the possibility of rebellion, which in his view could be contained only by chung, or “devotion to the Leader and his Thought.” Schram believes, however, that until his “last sad anti-climactic years” Mao emphasized “the human and moral dimension of politics.” He quotes in support of this view Mao’s “extravagantly optimistic” remarks in 1969 that the more backward economies progressed more rapidly than richer ones and that the social systems of Russia and China “are far more advanced than those of the West.” But after the Communist victory in 1949, when did the human and moral dimensions of Mao’s politics amount to more than exhortation? By 1969, seven years before his death, the lives of tens of millions of Chinese had been cut short as a result of twenty years of Mao’s policies since the Communist victory in 1949.

  1. 1

    Foreign Affairs, Fall 1990, p. 58.

  2. 2

    The Cambridge History of China, Vol: 10. Late Ch’ing 1800–1911, Part 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. v–vi.

  3. 3

    This was set out plainly by Fairbank in his posthumously published China: A New History (Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 29, 31.

  4. 4

    Fairbank in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, The People’s Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949–1965, edited by Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 14.

  5. 5

    The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, p. 15.

  6. 6

    The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14, p. 16.

  7. 7

    Simon and Schuster, 1991, reviewed in these pages, March 5, 1992.

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