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 leaders. Unable to reconcile his utopian plans for a global community with “the world of real politics,” Kang gradually lost touch with his increasingly nationalistic followers, who objected to his support of the Manchu emperor. By 1911, when anti-Manchu uprisings broke out in central China, the Revolutionary Alliance was able to take most of the credit for inspiring the revolution, and Sun Yatsen returned in triumph.

Kang Youwei feared that to carry through a democratic revolution was beyond China’s political capacity: it would be like asking a savage to fly an airplane. Dismayed by the slaughter3 , he joined an abortive effort in 1917 to restore the Qing emperor Puyi to the dragon throne; then—after seeking refuge in the American legation in Beijing—he retired to Shanghai with his five consorts, six daughters two sons, and forty servants. Living off the income from his estates and the proceeds of his calligraphy sales, Kang continued to dabble in politics, but his consuming passion was for science fiction. Kang even organized an Academy of Travel Through the Heavens, and dreamed of composing a Martian gazetteer while journeying through the void to “the abode of the blessed” in a celestial rocketship. On March 31, 1927, the politically disillusioned visionary died in the former German concession of Qingdao, his Manchu court robes laid out beside him.

The writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) was equally disappointed by the revolution of 1911, but not for the same reasons. To Lu Xun, “though outwardly all was changed, beneath the surface all went on as before.” The revolutionaries who had arrived wearing cotton clothes were within weeks dressed in the same furlined robes as the Qing magistrates before them. Lu Xun, who abandoned his medical studies after determining that the “sickness of the Chinese people” could not be cured by a physician, captured “the hollowness at the heart of the revolution” in a short story about a pitiable wretch called Ah Q. For Ah Q, despised as riffraff by his fellow villagers, the revolution was an opportunity to take revenge.


A group of revolutionaries would come, all wearing white helmets and white armour, carrying swords, steel maces, bombs, foreign guns, double-edged knives with sharp points and spears with hooks. They would come to the Tutelary God’s Temple and call out, “Ah Q! Come with us, come with us!” And then I would go with them. … Then all those villagers would be in a laughable plight, kneeling down and pleading, “Ah Q, spare our lives.” But who would listen to them!4

Even though Ah Q was rejected when he tried to join the revolutionaries, he became a scapegoat for them later on and was unjustly convicted of looting the home of one of the gentry. When he submitted mutely to a firing squad (before the revolution he would have had his head cut off), “most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera. They had followed him for nothing.”5

Nevertheless, Lu Xun still believed in the capacity of the Chinese to renew themselves. His famous story “Medicine” ends in a graveyard where a mother mourns over her dead son, who had been executed for being a revolutionary. Asking for a sign that her son has not died meaninglessly, she wills a crow, sitting on a leafless tree nearby, to fly over his grave. The bird does not stir. But then, as she walks dispiritedly away, the black bird suddenly spreads its wings and flies “like an arrow toward the far horizon.” Spence, who uses many of Lu Xun’s literary symbols in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, sees the crow’s flight toward some distant objective as an ambiguous augury of hope—an omen that was realized, shortly after “Medicine” was published, in the student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919, against Japanese imperialism.

The May Fourth Movement that followed these demonstrations was also a youthful rebellion against traditional culture, and it launched “a new epoch in China’s history, an epoch in which China’s indigenous cultural yearnings were combined with a new international political awareness and a new and wider social consciousness.” However, much of the intellectual optimism and youthful enthusiasm of the May Fourth Movement was dashed during the right-wing repression in 1926 and 1927, when Lu Xun left Beijing and moved south, finally settling in Shanghai. By then he had turned from writing fiction to composing incisive topical essays (zawen) which were published in popular magazines and newspapers. The satirical zawen were Lu Xun’s biting comments on the times, and they soon made him a leader of the left-wing literary movement then developing in the International Settlement.

Another leader of that movement was Qu Qiubai, who headed the Chinese Communist Party in 1927-1928. Spence uses Qu’s biography—including his period of Russian-language study in Beijing, and after that his stay as a journalist and political instructor in Moscow—to illuminate the early history of the CCP. Qu was executed by a Nationalist firing squad in June 1935, but before he died he helped to define the issues that dominated literary debates after 1928. It was Qu who pointed out that most May Fourth authors were writing in a supposedly “vernacular” Chinese that was actually impenetrable to most of the reading public. And although Qu was later disowned by the CCP, it was also he who introduced Soviet “socialist realism” to left-wing Chinese writers, emphasizing the importance of selecting literary topics that reflected the life of the masses.

Lu Xun (whose own style was not especially pellucid) had no patience for fatuous leftists who composed “revolutionary poems” under the influence of “Shanghai film posters and advertisements of soya sauce”:

Oh, steam whistle!
Oh, Lenin!6

But he was even more intolerant of aesthetes who practiced art for art’s sake, like the members of the Crescent Moon Society who accepted the totalitarian controls of the Nationalist dictatorship, “skulking in the twilight of bourgeois culture.” Communist Party critics were harsher yet, threatening that the “wheel of history would drag the Crescent poets to their graves.”

The founder of the Crescent Moon Society was the poet Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), who “was one of those young men for whom everything seemed always to have gone right.” Son of a prosperous merchant, Xu attended St. John’s College in Shanghai and the Beijing National University law school before going to the United States to take an MA at Columbia University. From there he traveled on to London where he came to know H.G. Wells, Roger Fry, Arthur Waley, and Lowes Dickinson, who helped to get him admitted to King’s College.


Spence is at his best evoking the “true springtime” of Xu Zhimo in Cambridge, where his circle included E.M. Forster and I.A. Richards. By the time Xu returned to China in 1922, he was one of the country’s best-known young poets, and within two years he was appointed to the faculty of Beijing University. Qu Qiubai paid a call on Xu Zhimo at a garden party near Hangzhou’s West Lake at that time, and was struck by the “fantasy” world which Xu and his friends inhabited—a world “dominated by the sentimental works of Katherine Mansfield, their belief in the divine power of love, and the kind of fake bucolic philosophizing that was represented by their worship of [the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath] Tagore.”

Against the Shelley-like figure of Xu Zhimo, who died in an airplane accident in 1931, Spence poses the politically dedicated Hu Yepin (1905-1931), a former jeweler’s apprentice who had fled his native Fujian after, some said, stealing a gold bracelet and who became a radical journalist in Shanghai in the late Twenties. Joining the CCP in 1930, Hu was also a leading member of the League of Left-Wing Writers. On January 17, 1931, the Settlement police raided a clandestine meeting at the Eastern Hotel on Avenue Edward VII. Hu Yepin was among the thirty-six communists subsequently turned over to the Nationalists’ secret police, and one of the twenty-three taken out three weeks later and shot. Lu Xun wrote then:

During the last thirty years with my own eyes I have seen the blood of so many young people mounting up that now I am submerged and cannot breathe. All I can do is take up my pen and write a few articles, as if to make a hole in the clotted blood through which I can draw a few more wretched breaths. What sort of world is this? The night is so long, the way so long, that I had better forget or else remain silent.

Even though Lu Xun is frequently praised for “standing under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party,” he never joined the CCP. Indeed, during his last two years, Lu Xun fought bitterly with the communist cadre in charge of cultural affairs, Zhou Yang, over the Party’s decision to emphasize national defense and the necessity to form a united front against the Japanese, instead of class conflict and the left-wing struggle against the Nationalists. In the spring of 1936 the CCP dissolved the League of Left-Wing Writers and ordered that cultural workers thereafter unite under the slogan “Literature for National Defense.” When Lu Xun and Hu Feng angrily suggested instead the slogan “Mass Literature of National Revolutionary War,” Zhou Yang referred darkly to “the nation’s traitors” and reiterated the need for “national defense literature.” Lu Xun retaliated by attacking the narrow-spirited sectarianism of those who would plant “their teeth in my flesh”; and just before his death six months later of consumption, he wrote that he would never forgive “a single one” of his “great many enemies.” Today, Zhou Yang is the First Vice-Chairman of the Commemorative Committee for the Centenary of Lu Xun’s Birth.

The third major character of The Gate of Heavenly Peace was thirty-one years old when Lu Xun died. Ding Ling, the celebrated novelist, was the daughter of a feminist who had unbound her own feet, left home at the age of thirty to attend normal school, and had run a primary school in Hunan when Ding Ling was a girl. Ding Ling herself refused to accept an arranged marriage, and along with Yang Kaihui—who later married Mao Zedong—enrolled in what had been an all-male school in Changsha. After graduation, Ding Ling went on to Shanghai University, and then to Beijing, where she audited some of Lu Xun’s classes. By the time she returned to Shanghai in the late Twenties she was living with the future communist martyr Hu Yepin, and her bohemian style of life had taken on, for many at the time, a risqué and even reprehensible air. The heroines who made her famous in the short stories that bear their names—“Meng Ke,” “Diary of Miss Sophie”—helped perpetuate this morally ambiguous aura that has always surrounded Ding Ling.7

After Hu Yepin’s execution in 1931, Ding Ling entrusted their baby to her mother in Hunan and plunged into propaganda work for the League of Left-Wing Writers. Soon, she had started a major novel (Mother), and was living with a translator named Feng Da. On May 14, 1933, while she and Feng were entertaining two communist friends, police broke into her apartment. One friend tried to escape by the balcony and fell to his death. The others were arrested and entered the kind of secret-police limbo we associate today with Argentina. Ding Ling completely disappeared from view. At the time, many thought she was dead. Later, when it was learned that she had been held under a relatively benign house arrest, joined by her mother, and had given birth to a second child, some scurrilously claimed that she had gone over to the Nationalists. In truth, she was secretly in touch with the communists, who in 1936 smuggled her out of Shanghai to their liberated base in northwest China. By the time full-scale war broke out with Japan the following year, she was serving as the head of the Northwest Battleground Service Corps in Yanan.

During the next five years Ding Ling grew somewhat critical of Yanan communism. It was not a total disenchantment, by any means; her misgivings were always marked by ambivalence. Nevertheless, she openly called for the revival of Lu Xun’s caustic form of zawen (“a weapon that we should never lay down”) to expose incompetence and indifference in the base area, and harshly criticized the Party’s double standard toward women. Others, including Xiao Jun, joined her in attacking CCP weaknesses.

Most damaging was a critique by Wang Shiwei in the form of an essay called “Wild Lily” which scored the complacency and lack of commitment of the Yan’an cadres. On May 23, 1942, Chairman Mao coldly responded. If intellectuals did not want to become “the kind of useless writer or artist that Lu Xun in his will earnestly instructed his son never to become,” declared Mao, then they must “definitely destroy feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalist, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent, pessimist, and other kinds of creativity that are alien to the popular masses and the proletariat.” Shortly afterward, Wang Shiwei was denounced as a Trotskyist. Ding Ling joined in the attack against him, which led to his execution by the Party, but she was unable to save herself. Publicly criticized in turn, she was obliged to recant, and in 1946 she went down to the countryside to participate in land reform along the Sanggan River in Hebei.

Ding Ling was completely rehabilitated by 1948, when she published The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River. Late that year she was a delegate to the Second Democratic Women’s Federation in Budapest, and afterward played an important part in the Party’s cultural affairs. Her prominence coincided with the struggle against “counterrevolutionaries” during the Korean War, into which even the most neutral were drawn, as a memoir by the novelist Lao She (1899-1966) reveals:

Men and women, old and young, one after another came on the platform to make accusation. When a speech reached its climax of feeling many in the audience would shout, “Beat them!” I myself, like the intelligentsia sitting by me, yelled out involuntarily, “Beat them! Why don’t we give them a beating?” As police restrained those who went forward to strike the bullies, my own voice mingled with the voices of hundreds roaring, “They’ve asked for it! Beat them!” And this roar changed me into a different man!8

The 1950-1951 campaign against counterrevolutionaries led to the deaths of about one million people. Many others were psychologically destroyed, like the novelist Shen Congwen, who was also attacked by Ding Ling though they had been close friends for many years.9

Ding Ling, for her part, was given the task of organizing the Central Literary Institute to train young writers, and in 1951 won a Stalin prize for The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River. Yet her own fall was soon to come. In 1955, after Lu Xun’s old friend Hu Feng was accused of being a Nationalist spy, Ding Ling began her own self-criticisms, which were not accepted. A special team was appointed to examine her case. In 1956, after Zhou Yang personally attacked her for being “anti-Party,” she did win some support by writing a voluminous confession. But when the period of “One Hundred Flowers Blooming and One Hundred Schools of Thought Contending” passed, and the anti-rightist campaign was launched by Chairman Mao in June 1957, Ding Ling was accused of trying to seize illicit leadership of literary circles. During twenty-seven successive criticism meetings she was charged with “one-bookism,” writing pornography, and being a Nationalist agent. In September, refusing to admit her guilt, Ding Ling was expelled from the Writer’s Union and the Party, and sent to a farm on the Sungari River in the far northeast to reform herself through labor. For the next seven years she raised chickens.

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the famine of 1960-1961, the Party loosened its ideological controls once more. One sign of this was the reappearance of Lao She’s controversial play Teahouse, which, in Spence’s view, implicitly criticized the ruling regime:

The villain of the piece was government—cruel, insensitive, inept, and omnipresent government—and if there was a logical historical progression among the acts, from Qing to warlords to Guomindang, it took little imagination to see the Communist cadres as another possible focus for the same critiques.

By autumn, 1966, however, all such dramas were banned, and Lao She fell victim to the Cultural Revolution. Now sixty-seven and ill with bronchitis, he was forced to attend countless “study sessions,” while middle-school Red Guards abused him for being a criminal and counterrevolutionary. On August 23 he underwent chaojia: his house was ransacked and his books and manuscripts were confiscated. The following day Lao She was badly beaten, and that night his corpse was found floating in a lake in a Beijing park. The body was immediately cremated.

Like many “rightists” already sent down, Ding Ling escaped the worst of the beatings, but she suffered the torture of forced isolation. Transferred farther north toward the Russian frontier, she was made to do heavy labor for six more years before being brought back to Beijing in April 1970, to be confined in a maximum security cell. Denied pen and paper, she dutifully read Mao’s selected works one year, Marx and Lenin’s the next, and Engels’s and Stalin’s the third. Altogether, she spent five years in complete isolation, and then four more in the Shanxi countryside where she still bore the label “counterrevolutionary.” Finally, in February 1979, she was brought back to Beijing again. This time, she was fully cleared of the charges made against her twenty-two years earlier, and at age seventy-four she was free again.

But the freedom granted Ding Ling and other rehabilitated intellectuals had limits. Just as she was being exonerated and as Teahouse was playing on the Beijing stage once more, the dissident Wei Jingsheng (who called for the Fifth Modernization, “democracy”) was being sentenced to a long prison term. The prosecutor said at his trial:

Freedom of speech of the individual citizen must be based on the four basic principles of insisting on the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought. The citizen has only the freedom to support these principles and not the freedom to oppose them.

And while Ding Ling spoke candidly of her persecution before the National Writers and Artists Congress in November 1979 another dissident, a woman, Fu Yuehua, was in jail and about to be put on trial herself. Under these conditions could “One Hundred Flowers” bloom for very long? The regime obviously wanted to attract the support of intellectuals by righting the wrongs done to well-known figures like Ding Ling and by encouraging “One Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend.”10 Yet the moment criticism by intellectuals began to exceed the bounds of polite conformity, thin-skinned official intolerance revived. By the spring of 1981, certain Party and People’s Liberation Army authorities were even openly criticizing one of their own scriptwriters, Bai Hua, for producing a movie scenario that portrays an artist persecuted to death as one who “loved the motherland but was not loved in return.”

The Gate of Heavenly Peace brilliantly conveys, through the skillful arabesques of its characters’ intertwined lives, the confused combination of hope and despair, commitment and futility, that paradoxically characterizes the intellectual history of the Chinese communist revolution. If the book has one failing, then it is the occasionally narrow perspective imposed upon modern Chinese history by the author’s choice of characters. Most of them are figures whose biographies or works are partially available in English translations. They have been translated because they are significant writers, but that does not necessarily make them important historical actors.

The history we see through them, therefore, is primarily that of the politically marginal intelligentsia. Consequently, we learn virtually nothing of the conservative government reform movement of the early 1900s, of the Yuan Shikai presidency after the revolution of 1911, of the Guomindang regime in the 1920s, or of the communist movement in the Soviet areas during the 1930s. Spence has a genius for summarizing complex historical developments—the strategy of World War II, the communist land reform movement, the Great Leap Forward—in single bold paragraphs that are both pithy and perceptive, and demonstrate a keen command of the latest research. His book still lacks depth of field; near and far, so to speak, cannot always be kept in focus together. It is as though the author cannot find a significant middle ground between detailed biographies close-up and the vast square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the background. Spence’s Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) is an omnibus symbol: sometimes it seems to stand for the “implacable state,” more often for revolution itself.

You Gate of Heavenly Peace, sol- emn and majestic,
You’ve lived through hundreds of war storms,
Embodying the seven hundred mil- lion people’s triumphant joy;
On the eastern land, you stand,
   straight and proud.

But as the latter, Tiananmen only abstractly embodies those faceless 700 million who collectively made the revolution which, until recently, the huge visage of Mao Zedong over the gate itself dominated in person alone. Where in all that space—the largest square in the world—is there a place for individuals to stand apart on their own?

Facing Mao’s portrait, which still hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is the shrine to revolutionary martyrs. Five years ago, on April 5, the shrine was made an altar to Zhou Enlai’s memory, and two million people filled the square.

We meet in silence, eyes spilling tears;
We open our lips, but utter no sound.
Our millions are one vast sorrowing heart,
Willing to die a hundred deaths to spare this one.11

Today, while the communists appeal to the Nationalists on Taiwan to “cooperate for a third time” and “return to the motherland,” a portrait of Sun Yatsen stands in front of the shrine. Behind, dwarfing both, rests the mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

On this September 25, the day after I returned to Beijing, a meeting was held on the west side of Tiananmen in the Great Hall of the People to celebrate the centennial of Lu Xun’s birth. Six thousand people attended the commemoration. Behind us, along the balcony, were emblazoned Mao Zedong’s words:

Lu Xun is the commanding general of China’s cultural revolution. Not only is he a great writer, he is also a great thinker and great revolutionary. Lu Xun’s course is precisely the course of the Chinese people’s new culture.

Over the stage, where Mao’s picture used to be, hung a huge portrait of Lu Xun. On the platform, under the picture, sat several hundred dignitaries led by Zhou Enlai’s widow, Deng Yingchao. It had earlier been announced that Zhou Yang, Lu Xun’s former adversary, would deliver the encomium.12 To our surprise, Chinese Communist Party chairman Hu Yaobang spoke first. This was Hu’s first public speech since being elected chairman.

Hu Yaobang’s strong, even strident, speech called for a measure of criticism and self-criticism to be applied to literary and artistic circles. Deploring recent literary and artistic trends which were “unhealthy, negative, and harmful to the people,” Chairman Hu accused certain “comrades in literary and artistic circles” of paying insufficient attention to the Party’s previous suggestions on this matter.

In order to promote the healthy development of literature and art, it is absolutely necessary to launch correct criticism and self-criticism…. Although some comrades and friends recognize the importance of criticizing literature and art, they are still excessively worried and anxious, always feeling nervous that the flourishing and prosperous state to which literature and art have just been restored will be reversed. These comrades and friends are not looking at the question in its entirety, and miss two points. First, they are missing dialectics. If we allow weeds and flowers to grow together, without the requisite struggle, then our literature and art are bound to be in a state of chaos. Second, they have not fully realized that our Party has already correctly summed up both the positive and negative experience in the work of developing criticism of art and literature. Therefore, from start to finish, we will fully note—and are capable of eliminating—obstructions of any sort whatsoever.13

Criticism and self-criticism were a valuable legacy of the Party’s past, Chairman Hu continued, and the Party must therefore not hesitate to use such a “treasured” weapon—in Lu Xun’s words—“to root up the weeds and water the flowers.”

Once more the wheel of history has been invoked—the juggernaut of dialectical necessity set in motion—in order to justify the leviathan’s implacable, self-preserving duties. Yet we know, and Jonathan Spence makes us realize all the more, that the individual alone is powerless to survive “in a disintegrating or murderous world.” Can a middle ground be found in good faith somewhere between the self and society? Lu Xun ends his most poignant story, “My Old Home,” with these words: “I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”14

This Issue

February 18, 1982