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Squaring the Chinese Circle

Harry Harding, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, examines this violent and vengeful aspect of Mao, who, like many emperors, understood very little but could destroy a great deal. He grants that Mao had both charisma and faith in mass movements (which the emperors feared) and that he was able to organize the Party and State apparatus so as to deeply affect the lives of millions. One might add that his powers as poet and calligrapher were among the traditional characteristics of emperors, as were the Chairman’s hounding and killing writers and artists who angered him.

On the launching of the Cultural Revolution, Harding remarks that Mao’s

personal authority gave him enough power to unleash potent social forces, but not enough power to control them…. Because of Mao’s ability to move China, what was a tragedy for the man became simultaneously a tragedy for the nation.

In the Fifties, when Mao was a vigorous late-middle-aged leader, and not yet the drooling old man of his final phase, these same unchecked powers—in this case to enforce his unchallengeable primitive convictions about economics, of which he later conceded he knew next to nothing—led to the great hunger of 1959–1961. Harding quotes a former Red Guard who realized how poor peasants were only when he saw how meanly they lived and described how even those who had worked for the Party for decades preferred Liu Shaoch’i, Mao’s ex-number two and his chief victim, because he favored private plots. “In ten short days, my world outlook had been challenged by the reality of peasant life and attitudes.” This was the experience of millions of young Maoists from the cities who were “sent down” to the countryside to experience peasant life.

Such rural misery has been considerably alleviated since Mao’s time, according to the economist Dwight Perkins of Harvard. Indeed, Perkins writes that, except for two chaotic years, economic development during the Cultural Revolution was “quite rapid.” But the expansion, based on “Stalinist” economics, was of the wrong kind, for it made “profligate use of human and material resources.” Deng Xiaoping’s reforms then moved China in the direction emphasizing private ownership and the market that had been pioneered in Taiwan, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia. By the late 1980s, Perkins concludes, China “had taken several giant steps away from the rural peasant economy steeped in poverty that had existed for millennia and that was still in evidence in modified form in the early 1970s.”

Unlike Perkins, who concentrates on economic development, Roderick MacFarquhar discusses the wider implications of Deng’s reforms. The fundamental questions for China during the Cultural Revolution, he suggests, were: Who, after Mao, would lead China, according to what policies, and with which support: From the army or the Party? Nowadays, in the twilight of Deng’s rule, the same questions are being asked, and as MacFarquhar says of 1969, the solutions, or deals, are once again being settled “between small coteries of leaders, plotting in their residences, clashing at central meetings, with the liquidation of one clique or the other finally emerging as the only viable solution.” The Central Committee Congress to be held this autumn seems likely to determine the shape of China’s leadership for the next five years.

MacFarquhar is particularly astute—and here we return to China’s great difficulties in emerging as a modern state—in recognizing that the fraying of the Party’s authority during the Cultural Revolution led to doubts about its ideology. The return of the communes to the individual farming families from which they had been wrested in the mid-Fifties was one of the developments that encouraged Chinese outside the bureaucracy to begin to challenge traditional authoritarian rule. Democracy, for which many Chinese have been yearning in some form since at least 1911, confronted the Party, MacFarquhar says, in the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. “Neither Mao nor Teng,” MacFarquhar writes, “was able to square the Chinese circle, preserving unity while simultaneously permitting freedoms.”

In one of his essays in Chinese Roundabout, Jonathan Spence concentrates on the events of Tiananmen; he had already used its name in English, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, as the title for his book exploring revolutionary movements in China between 1895 and 1980. His essay (originally published in 1990) starts in 1420 and doesn’t reach 1989 until its final paragraph. It was the early Ming rulers, Spence writes, who constructed the first Tiananmen—the Gate of Heavenly Peace into the imperial quarter and the Forbidden City—from which imperial edicts were lowered to kneeling officials who then had them circulated to the whole country. (This was the very place, on the Golden Water Bridges at the base of the Gate, where the Armed Police beneath a huge portrait of Chairman Mao clubbed and shot demonstrators on the nights of June 3 and June 4, 1989.)

Tiananmen Square, the ninety-square-acre space just south of the Gate, is less than a hundred years old; there, on May 4, 1919, university students gathered to protest the sellout of China at the Versailles Conference, thus beginning the May 4th Movement to modernize the country. There, too, on March 18, 1926, troops fired into a crowd of students and workers protesting the warlord government’s yielding to Japanese demands. Fifty people were killed—the first Tiananmen massacre, Spence notes, about which the essayist Lu Xun wrote, “Lies written in ink can never disguise Facts written in blood. Blood debts must be repaid in kind; the longer the delay, the greater the interest.” Although Mao reestablished the square as an “official space” for huge, officially sponsored demonstrations of loyalty to him and to the Party, Peking citizens occupied it yet again in April 1976 to express their grief at the death of Premier Chou Enlai and their hatred of the Gang of Four. This gathering was broken up violently by the police. In April 1989, when demonstrators once more took over Tiananmen Square, Spence says,

[it] became the people’s space in a way it had never been before.

Until June 4.

Spence’s essay is the work of a particularly skillful historian, sure of his sources, and expert in the languages necessary to use them. He tells us in the first sentence that the killings of 1989 occurred in the “most emotionally and historically charged urban space in China,” describes briefly what it looks like today, and then, like his father’s terrier, burrows away, in this case over 570 years into the past. Spence has a keen eye for detail—he refers to the tiny hole in the character for “Heaven” written over the gate, which was improbably ascribed by guides in the 1930s to an arrow fired into it in 1644 by the rebel general Li Zicheng when he briefly seized Peking from the last Ming emperor, thus opening the way for the Manchus.

Spence’s approach—introducing a large problem, setting the scene and its historical background, providing illustrative lustrative details, and a brief but convincing conclusion—can be seen in most of the essays in Chinese Round-about; some of the best ones first appeared in these pages, while he was also producing eight books, mostly on Ch’ing China. The collection includes studies of early Europeans in China or Chinese in Europe—Spence wants to know how the two great cultures met, interacted, and often misunderstood each other.

His essays also take up subjects such as food—Spence suggests that fear of famine underlies the Chinese fascination with eating, and his inventories of what was consumed respectively by the Manchu court and by the very poor do much to explain the ferocity of the Chinese revolution. In his essay on opium, Spence estimates that by the nineteenth century 15 million Chinese were addicted; the Ch’ing court, after years of moral objections and legal proscription, eventually taxed opium sales to pay for the Peking police, new patrol boats, and foreign loans. In another essay, Spence gives a very telling account of how Chinese intellectuals, in Confucian, Nationalist, and Communist times, have dealt with the demands of the State.

Spence writes affectionately about four Sinologists who have been important to his career: Arthur Wright, one of his principal teachers at Yale (whose wife, the historian Mary Wright, was another), where the British-born Spence took his doctorate; the English translator-poet Arthur Waley, with whom Spence once spent a memorable afternoon; Harvard’s John King Fairbank, whom Spence praises as the leading Chinese scholar of the last fifty years, and whose quirks he gently notes; and Fang Chao-ying, the supreme biographer of important Chinese and Manchus during the Ch’ing dynasty, with whom Spence spent a year in Australia learning how to read early Ch’ing documents. Fang was a meticulous scholar, and Spence tells us of a letter he received from Fang in which he said Spence’s recent research showed “much improvement.” He then had crossed out “much” and wrote “a good deal of.” Fang also told Spence that “scholarship without sincerity can be detected at once,” a comment on the sixteenth-century Jesuit Matteo Ricci (the subject of an essay in this collection as well as of one of Spence’s books), whose interest in their culture the Chinese recognized as genuine, and not as the guile of a missionary.

Spence himself believes that scholarship is fleeting and inadequate, and can contain “a kind of barely contained craziness….” This is probably why Arcadio Huang appealed to him. One of the first Chinese to come to Europe, Huang settled in Paris in 1702, where he spent the rest of his life until he died in 1716. He married a French woman and became the Chinese interpreter in the library of Louis XIV. Compiling a dictionary and other guides to the French monarchy’s Chinese collection was a daunting task, Spence observes, “given the absence of any systematic prior study of the Chinese language in Europe, and the absence of parallels between the syntaxes of the two cultures.” One of his French colleagues claimed that Huang could barely speak French and found French grammar incomprehensible, but another colleague in the royal library said of him,

I was touched by the gentleness, the modesty, but above all the more than stoic calmness of this young Chinese who found himself in a situation that would have seemed desperate to us Europeans. Four or five thousand leagues away from home, without wealth, special skills…[he] made me believe in what various accounts have said about the Chinese character.

Spence observes that “in a Western literature all too often replete with racist innuendos, this is one of the grandest and most affectionate exceptions.”

Spence’s appreciation for “craziness” is stirred by Huang’s. When he finally received a small stipend from his royal patron, Huang took to wearing a powdered wig, a cape, and carrying a tassled cane. He also refers to himself in his journal, variously, as “Mgr. le Duc du St. Houange,” “son Eminence Monseigneur le Cardinal de Fonchan Houange,” and to his French wife as “Son Altesse serenissime Houange.” When he suddenly died he had reached page 1,140 of his projected two-volume dictionary, which he intended to explain everything Chinese to the French. “He wrote one more character, quite neatly, and then just stopped.”

This is followed by Spence’s typically neat and unsentimental conclusion. Huang’s half-French, half-Chinese daughter, Marie-Claude, died soon after her father, who had hoped that she would carry out his dream of merging the two cultures. “The flicker of light, for this particular dream of a new era between China and the West, was out.”

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