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…

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