This Day in History

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By Christopher Rea

“Men of letters love it when someone dies, since it gives them a topic for a memorial essay… ‘Commemorating the First Anniversary of So-and-So’s Death’ and ‘A Tri-Centennial Elegy’ are equally good topics.” — Qian Zhongshu, Fortress Besieged

文人最喜歡有人死,可以有題目做哀悼的文章….“周年逝世紀念”和“三百年祭”,一樣的好題目。 —錢鍾書《圍城》

Headlines about China have been looking the same for some time now. “The China story” always seems to be political: labor riots and their suppression; sabre-rattling over Taiwan and cultural erasure in Tibet; catastrophic earthquakes and official ineptitude; internet censorship and jailed dissidents (the latest being Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo). Even ostensibly good news, such as the Chinese government’s investment in wind power, becomes yet another story about how China is going to eat our lunch.

These stories must be told, and the Chinese government’s feet must be held to the fire on many issues. Yet these stories collectively imply a “truth” about China that is equally misleading: namely that in China, politics is life.

This truism has become ingrained in Western views of Chinese culture. I was struck by this not long ago during a Canadian radio interview of the author Yu Hua when the host’s first question was whether or not Yu Hua was a “dissident.” A recent New Yorker article about China’s “most eminent writer” and former Minister of Culture, Wang Meng, set a similarly political agenda by asking whether Wang is a “reformer” or an “apologist” of the Communist Party. To be Chinese, as far as the West is concerned, seems to mean being for or against one’s government.

A more detached perspective is to be found in the writings of a man who might be called the best Chinese writer you’ve never heard of: Qian Zhongshu.

One hundred years ago today, Qian was born into a scholarly family in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. Tutored in the classics from a young age, he went on to become modern China’s “foremost man of letters,” in Ronald Egan’s words, accumulating encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese and Western literatures, and putting it to use in his scholarship and creative writing.

A graduate of Tsinghua University, Qian studied European literature at Oxford and the Sorbonne before returning with his family to China in 1938 after the outbreak of war with Japan.

While teaching at various universities in southwestern China and Shanghai during the war, Qian composed a collection of essays, Written in the Margins of Life (1941); a collection of short stories, Human, Beast, and Ghost (1946); and a novel, Fortress Besieged (serialized, 1946-1947), as well as occasional poems and reviews, and a major work of poetry criticism. In 1949 he was recruited to teach at his alma mater in Beijing, and he remained in China after the communist takeover, having turned down several job offers from abroad. In 1953, he transferred to a literary research institute based at Beijing University, which in 1977 became part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Qian Zhongshu’s fate in New China was, to a certain degree, similar to that of many Chinese intellectuals. He stopped creative writing, and his research was repeatedly interrupted by political campaigns. Unusually, due to his linguistic prowess, he was assigned to an elite group tasked with translating Mao’s poetry into English. He and his wife, the scholar-writer Yang Jiang, nevertheless suffered ideological criticism and, during the Cultural Revolution, were sent to rural Henan province for “re-education” and “reform” through agricultural labor. During the cultural thaw after Mao’s death, both resumed publishing and had their long-forgotten works “rediscovered” by the Chinese public.

This biography obscures the talent and self-possession that makes Qian’s literary and scholarly output during periods of war and political turmoil so remarkable. Widely read in modern and classical Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Latin, Qian pioneered a new model of comparative literature that drew out resonances in cross-cultural patterns of figurative language. In an early essay, for instance, he observes that just as the French word for “happiness” (bonheur) suggests that good (bon) things last no more than an hour (heur), so its Chinese equivalent kuaihuo implies that when one is happy one lives (huo) quickly (kuai). No mere purveyor of precious insights, Qian used such resonances as jumping off points for wide-ranging investigations of the human imagination.

These investigations are particularly striking for their urbane wit and Rabelaisian humor. In a language given to pithy idioms, Qian’s epigrams are in a league of their own. Hypocritical moralizing “is like doing business without capital—a veritable art.” Prejudice can be explained by the human heart’s anatomical position “not actually in the center, but to one side—and, most fashionably, slightly to the left.” Gravity accounts for why “lower-class people are so numerous and upper-class people so rare.” The English buzzwords a Shanghai businessman sprinkles in his Mandarin are like not gold teeth (which are functional as well as decorative), but rather “the bits of meat stuck between the teeth, which show that one has had a good meal but are otherwise useless.” All this from a writer who once dissuaded an over-eager fan by asking: “If you enjoyed eating an egg, would you bother seeking out the hen that laid it?”

In Qian’s fiction, such witticisms punctuate longer explorations of the human comedy. Fortress Besieged, one of modern China’s greatest novels, tells the story of a young man who, after several years of bumming around Europe, returns to China with a bogus, mail-order degree purchased from an Irishman. Back home, Fang Hongjian becomes entangled with two women, while trying to ward off conflicting demands from his elders, but he ends up alienating all of them and seeking refuge as a teacher at a no-name university deep in China’s interior provinces.

At this point, Qian’s satire of urban pseudo-intellectuals switches to picaresque adventure. Unlike much wartime fiction, however, our hero’s flight from Shanghai is motivated by a romance gone bad rather than the Japanese military threat. As with his later marriage to a colleague, Fang’s story is propelled not by the grand events of history but the petty cowardice of an intelligent and witty man who always ends up outwitting himself. Back in Shanghai, the newlyweds’ marriage quickly deteriorates and Fang ends up back where he started, bruised and alone. As a symbol of humans’ perpetual dissatisfaction with their lot, Fang’s fate strikes a deeper chord than the playful French proverb that likens marriage to “a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in; and those who are inside want to get out.”

While many of his fellow writers were penning anti-Japanese allegories, then, Qian, writing in occupied Shanghai, was depicting modern life as a comedy verging on the theater of the absurd. This detachment served Qian well through the indignities and deprecations of the Mao years. Countless Chinese writers kept their heads down and mouths shut in order to survive; only one completed a massive, multi-volume reappraisal of the Chinese literary canon, which the author self-deprecatingly titled Limited Views (1979-1980).

Indeed, if there is one recurring theme in Qian Zhongshu’s life’s work it is breadth of vision. In an early essay he likened near-sighted critics to flies buzzing from one pinch of garbage to the next, ironically praising them for their ability to find, like Blake, “a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower.” Qian himself treated life like “one big book” and claimed to be content with merely jotting down “piecemeal, spontaneous impressions” in its margins. In fact, the panoramic vision we find in Qian’s “jottings” marks him as one of the twentieth-century’s great literary cosmopolitans. If he remains little known in the West, it is mostly because he wrote in Chinese.

Qian’s writings thus pose a challenge not just to overpoliticized views of China, but to the presumption that to be cosmopolitan is to play on the West’s terms. Living under three governments (Nationalist, Japanese, and Communist), Qian’s most “political” act was to establish his own autonomous republic of letters. Worldly and multilingual, he chose to live in China and write in Chinese. This is not to romanticize Qian as an “apolitical” author or, conversely, a patriot. The point is rather that he sustained an extraordinary degree of creative independence from his immediate circumstances. In Qian’s works, then, we find one “China” that rarely makes headlines.

Christopher Rea is assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia and the editor of Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu, which will be published by Columbia University Press in December. He is also the organizer of the workshop “Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang: A Centennial Perspective,” which will be held at UBC on December 10-12, 2010.

For more on Fortress Besieged, see Xia Shi’s essay, “From an Elite Novel to a Popular Metaphor.”

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By Jeff Wasserstrom

Americans associate bottom-up challenges to Deng Xiaoping with images of the massive 1989 protests. But those demonstrations were not the first acts of dissent Deng had to deal with by any means. More than a decade earlier, right after his Reform era began, came the “Democracy Wall Movement”—named for a Beijing area where critics started putting up posters (some of which warned of Deng becoming a dictator) in 1978. The term “democracy wall” had been used for comparable spaces back in the 1940s (when Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarianism was being attacked) and again during 1957’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign. The 1957 precedent is particularly relevant because Deng responded to criticism in the late 1970s much as Mao Zedong had some twenty years earlier, first welcoming it as a healthy form of expression, then cracking down.

The Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-79 was not a single, coherent, organized struggle with a clear agenda but rather a constellation of activities by groups inspired by varied ideas. When remembered in the West, it tends to be simplified: treated as a liberal democratic project, even though the language of many posters was infused with Marxist concepts and ideals. There is more to keep in mind about Democracy Wall than the name of the unusually liberal Wei Jingsheng, who gained fame through crafting a powerful manifesto, “The Fifth Modernization,” which said Deng’s call for “Four Modernizations” (of agriculture, industry, education, science and technology, and education) left something out: democracy.

Today, however, focusing on Wei makes sense, since his famous poster went up exactly 30 years ago. Interestingly, Wei didn’t present democracy (the “fifth modernization”) as an abstract good but as a pragmatic necessity. Without it, he wrote, great obstacles would block China’s material development. The fact that this year’s first protests were the anti-Maglev “strolls” underlines the gulf separating 1978 from 2008. 

There’s certainly a connecting thread tying Wei’s poster of thirty years ago to middle-class demonstrations like the Shanghai ones that started brewing eleven months back: a desire for more transparent and responsive government officials.  But to worry about the damaging impact of a form of state-of-the-art technology is very different from talking about a lack of democracy holding back China’s material progress.
Few Westerners will take note that this week it is time to celebrate Chinese revolutions. October 1 will be the 59th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (celebrated as National Day). Ten days later, on October 10, Taiwan celebrates its National Day (also known as Double Ten Day, and on its 97th go-round). On the mainland, Double Tens is used as an opportunity to commemorate the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, though not the Republic that followed it. Of course, which one you celebrate depends on location and political leaning, but either way early October is clearly a time for revolutions.

Even so, these aren’t the Chinese revolutions that matter in the West. Never mind that the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 is China’s Boston Tea Party, nor that 1949 marked the beginning of the greatest increases in rural stability in modern Chinese history (not to overlook the violence of the Mao Era, but in the spirit of early October, we’ll focus on triumphal history for the moment). The Chinese revolution that Westerners want to talk about is a failed one—the 1989 student uprising.

Chinese are understandably exasperated with the continued Western fixation on the traumatic Cultural Revolution, as well as, when it comes to anniversaries, the June 4th one linked to 1989. June 4th in particular looms so large in the American imagination partly due to the way the appearance on Tiananmen Square of a Statue of Liberty-like icon links up with our age-old desire to see a democracy like ours spring up in the Middle Kingdom. While many Chinese old enough to remember the uprisings acknowledge that it was a deplorable situation, few wish Wuer Kaixi and the other student leaders had managed to wrest control from the CCP leadership. In fact, the Pew Global Attitudes Project released survey results this summer that show that Chinese are overwhelming satisfied with China’s current direction—to the tune of 86 percent (the highest of any of the 24 countries surveyed, and markedly above the 23 percent of Americans who felt similarly about the U.S.). Cynics will say that we can’t trust a survey from a “closed society,” but even accounting for some give in the numbers, many Chinese clearly feel happy about the direction of their nation. Why do these numbers matter in a discussion of the student protests? Because they tell us why 1989 matters.

The student-led protests were in part a broad-minded demonstration of democratic ideals (though other aspirations and grievances than those symbolized by the Goddess of Democracy were in play as well), and this is certainly how they are remembered in the West, with the crackdown seen as symbolizing authoritarian insensitivity at its worst. In China, however, the protests of 1989 are more important as a marker of shifting expectations of the Chinese government. The context that precipitated the demonstrations was pocketbook practicality: in the first decade following Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping economic reforms (begun in late 1978), the government began to dismantle its social safety net and one of the first bits to go was guaranteed jobs for university graduates. Coupled with inflation and unpleasant living conditions on university campuses, the calls for increased political participation that had been in the air for almost a decade took on new life.

Following the movement’s violent end, there were more practical decisions to be made. Rather than a telegenic and abrupt government overthrow, which might have established a new National Day in June, the Chinese people chose the go-slow approach of increasing wealth (though not for everyone at the same time) and slowly expanding civil rights (though not without periodic retrenchments from time to time). As we have seen this year, in everything from Wen Jiabao’s post-earthquake hand-holding tour to calls for increased domestic regulation of Chinese food products to the emergence of a new kind of passive protest called “the stroll,” that wealth is slowly but surely translating into increased interest in making government more accountable to the people. There are enormous concerns, both internationally and domestically, with human rights infringements and attempts by the Chinese government to control and manage information, as there should be. However, increasingly it seems, even to some of us who express outrage at specific abusive practices and endemic corruption, that the choice of stability was a prescient one, and one that could lead to a steady expansion of civil rights without the devastating violence of a revolution.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

In the wake of World War I, a spirit of international cooperation emerged. Its manifestations, such as the founding of the League of Nations, confirmed the late-nineteenth century notion that participation in the global community required national identity (in place of the local identities that historians have shown were most important in empires; rarely did regular people identify themselves as imperial subjects but rather by village or region). Educated elites in China expressed devotion to this new internationalism by reiterating to their countrymen the importance of awareness of international events, as well as by domesticating international holidays such as Arbor Day. In this clever turn, Chinese, as others did around the world, seized the themes and celebrations of nascent globalism and used them to show that their citizens, too, were national subjects aware of their civic duties and national identities, not just provincial rubes who cared little for the events beyond their own villages.

These “international” holidays took local meanings and bore the weight of local politics. Borne out of socialist and labor movements in the United States, International Women’s Day (celebrated on March 8) is one of these events, though its path into China was less League of Nations and more Lenin: the first celebrations of International Women’s Day in China were sponsored by the CCP, after Lenin established it as an official Communist holiday in 1922. In the mid-1940s, both the GMD and the CCP sponsored their own Women’s Day celebrations; at the GMD event, speakers emphasized the need for women to effect change through traditional roles, while the CCP speaker advocated active participation by women on behalf of democracy and liberation. Only a few years earlier, in 1942, Ding Ling published her famous essay, “Thoughts on March 8,” which called out Communist leaders for focusing criticism on women rather than the social context that determined their choices.

Though largely adopted to the official calendar only in currently or formerly socialist countries, IWD also remains an integral celebration of the international calendar (for more, for instance, on the celebration in Russia, see Choi Chatterjee’s Celebrating Women). The United Nations and NGOs use the day to raise awareness about issues facing women around the world from HIV/AIDS to violence against women. This video posted by Sexy Beijing last year explores some of the meanings of Women’s Day in China.

The first celebration of Arbor Day in China actually occurred a few years earlier, in 1914, under the rule of Yuan Shikai. At the urging of American protestant missionary-turned-agricultural reformer Joseph Bailie, the day was scheduled on Qing Ming, to combat Bailie’s observations that Chinese were denuding trees on the way to their ancestor’s graves in order to, per tradition, stick willow branches into the grave mounds. For more, see Randall Stross, The Stubborn Earth (1986), pp. 82-83. Arbor Day is now celebrated in China on March 12, to commemorate the death of Sun Yat-sen.
Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11.1 (Spring 1985): 163-171, p. 170.
See Jeff Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China (1991), p. 250-253.

By Kate Merkel-Hess

On January 25, 1938, The New York Times ran a single piece about the on-going occupation of the Guomindang capital, Nanjing, by Japanese troops. Hallett Abend wrote for the Times:

“Stripping away all the Japanese excuses about military necessity…the stark fact remains that the conditions in Nanking one month and ten days after the victorious Japanese Army crashed the gates of China’s former capital are so lawless and so scandalous that Japanese authorities continue to refuse permission to any foreigners except diplomatic officials to visit the city…Again on Jan. 7 Japanese authorities apologetically admitted to the writer that conditions in Nanking were still deplorable but gave assurances that the division of troops then out of hand and daily criminally assaulting hundreds of women and very young girls would be removed from Nanking within two or three days.”

More than a month into the “Nanjing Massacre,” in which Japanese troops entered the city and, in search of fleeing Chinese troops, killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, the Times piece was part of a steady stream of reports to the U.S. via AP, Reuters, and various other news bureaus. Topics ranged from what might be considered, in the context of broader events, rather innocuous—like the Times report on January 23 that the American ambassador to Japan had lodged a formal complaint about looting of American property by Japanese troops—to first-hand accounts of violence that are heart-wrenching even seventy years later. Even so, the coverage of the Nanjing events in the American media was remarkably stark and prescient in its read of what the massacre augured for Sino-Japanese relations in the coming years.

Commemorations of the massacre have taken place already in China this year, though they have been remarkably low-key given that this winter marks the 70th anniversary of the massacre. As in past years, Japanese officials have protested those commemorations—this year focusing on the renovated massacre museum in Nanjing—with particular objection (again, a redux of earlier years) to the Chinese victim count of 300,000, which Japan views as an overestimate. (For an investigation of how the massacre has been remembered in both countries, interested readers might look at The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, edited by Josh Fogel.) But both the objections from Japan and the nationalist rhetoric from China have been at a lower level than in previous years; in China commemorations of the massacre were dampened by the government, preventing nationalistic fervor from reaching the peaks it did three years ago when there were widespread anti-Japan protests focused on Japan’s continuing struggles over accurately representing wartime atrocities in school textbooks.

The continued debates over how and when to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre point to its incredible power—right from the beginning—to focus larger political struggles, in great part because evidence of the massacre emerged from a new, evocative, popular media environment. As is frequently noted in American narratives of the massacre, from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking a decade ago to the American-made documentary out last year (“Nanking”; rights in China have been sold to CCTV), it wasn’t just newspaper reporters who were recording the events. The most stunning accounts of the massacre are the photographs and film footage taken by regular people who were in Nanjing, from the 16mm footage shot by American missionary John Magee to the celebratory or mocking photos taken by invading Japanese soldiers themselves. It is in part this evidence of atrocity—caught on tape because the timing of the Nanjing events coincided with the popularization of cameras and the emergence of film technology—that has made this particular event a flashpoint for Japanese-Chinese relations.

Hallett Abend. “Reign of Disorder Goes On in Nanking; Suggests a Mutiny: Lawlessness at Nanking.” The New York Times (Jan. 25, 1938): 1. Those with Jstor access can read a review of Abend’s autobiographical My Time in China.