The Spirit of Chinese Politics

by Lucian Pye
MIT, 255 pp., $8.95

Mr. Pye is disarming and sensible in his description of his method. From the start he makes it clear that The Spirit of Chinese Politics is an “interpretive and largely speculative essay.” He refuses to cite specific examples to strengthen his case for fear that facts chosen as illustrations might give his arguments the false impression of being scientific or testable. This approach would be laudable in many areas of social science, but it is absolutely essential for any study of contemporary China about which information is so scattered and inconsequential. Caution of this sort is doubly important in the murky realms of “psycho-culture” in which Mr. Pye concentrates his investigations.

The author believes that knowledge of the “general” personality traits of the Chinese or any people can be helpful in understanding their history and politics. He sets out to discover this general personality and to use it as a tool to describe and explain China’s development over the last fifty years. For this period he places China in the category of a “transitional” nation, that is, one moving from tradition to modernity, from peasant to industrial society. He maintains that China should be judged according to the standards of “transition,” by the comparison of her successes and failures in “modernization” with those of other developing countries. All of these are attempting to mobilize their resources to industrialize. All have shortages of capital and skill, and according to Mr. Pye all have social, cultural, and psychological barriers to be overcome before progress can be achieved. The author criticizes specialists on China for their emphasis on the uniqueness of China and for their refusal to look at her in the wider perspective of transitional nations. But he himself comes to the conclusion that China is radically different from the other “transitional” countries, especially in the “psycho-cultural” sphere. In South Asia and by inference in Africa as well he sees the main problem as one of a “crisis of identity.” By this term, taken from Erikson, Mr. Pye appears to mean that individuals in these “transitional” societies, faced with modern culture and its values, while in many ways still belonging to the humiliated tradition are no longer sure of themselves or their environment. Thus they fail to create an ordered picture of their society or to find their own place in it. This he believes is one of the major reasons for their incapacity to form organizations based upon trust of the predictable behavior of others, which is in turn a great stumbling block to “modernization.”

The Chinese, on the other hand, are manifestly capable of organization, and the overwhelming grandeur of Chinese civilization makes it impossible for the Chinese to be unsure of their cultural identity, regardless of the extent to which industrialization forces radical changes. If China has no “crisis of identity” Mr. Pye believes that he has found an equally harmful “psycho-cultural” check to her “modernization.” This he calls the “crisis of authority.” He maintains that, in traditional China,…

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