China on the Verge

To the People: James Yen and Village China

by Charles W. Hayford
Columbia University Press, 304 pp., $35.00

Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s

by David Strand
University of California Press, 364 pp., $37.50

The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911–1937 l'homme

by Marie-Claire Bergère, translated by Janet Lloyd
Cambridge University Press/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de, 356 pp., $59.50

The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919–1937

by We-hsin Yeh
Council on East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 449 pp., $26.00

During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also a rigorously trained and didactic Confucian scholar who demanded that his students observe the highest standards of deportment. He lectured them on ethics for an hour every single school day. There was no question of his being in the stands with the fans, especially not in the long traditional scholar’s gown which he insisted on wearing for all university functions. Instead he had a telephone line installed, running from the soccer field to his presidential office. Kept informed of all goals scored by his own or the rival teams, he could cheer wildly or weep at the outcome in dignified seclusion. After the game was over he would emerge once more into the public eye, in order to praise or castigate his team.

Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 1930, a north China villager, with the chafed and roughened fingers of the peasants who had added rug making to their other agricultural labors, graduated from the Rockefeller Foundation—funded Peking Union Medical College. Sent to work in a north China rural community, where a smallpox epidemic was ravaging the local populace, he decided to carry out a vaccination campaign. The supplies that he had been so expertly trained to use were simply not available. Accordingly, to administer the vaccine he gave his health workers sewing machine needles, which they disinfected in wads of cotton soaked with Chinese brandy. By these means 21,605 local people were vaccinated and indubitably many lives were saved.

The day-by-day business of what we often term “modernization” is inevitably full of paradoxes and adaptations such as these. They seem especially numerous in China, where the processes of economic growth and intellectual change were stymied or deflected by the warlordism, civil war, and foreign invasion that wracked the country from 1916 to 1949. They have been central, too, to the People’s Republic of China, in which extraordinarily diverse policies have veered from total rejection of the West to an uncritical acceptance of almost everything Western. Leaders such as Mao Zedong, the “Gang of Four,” and Deng Xiaoping have had little sense of how to proceed and how to channel these uncertain forces. The modernization of the Chinese army overlapped with the visionary and ultimately chaotic experimentation of the Great Leap Forward. President Nixon was invited to China when the xenophobic Cultural Revolution was still in full swing. Deng Xiaoping threw open his country to the West, and condoned or ordered both the campaigns against “Spiritual Pollution” and the mass killing of civilians seeking democratic change in Peking during 1989.

The crisis now facing the leaders of the People’s Republic has several overlapping components that appear to be intractable. Prominent among these are the problems of changing traditional rural patterns of life in ways that can benefit both…

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