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By Anne Henochowicz

The last two years have seen much talk about the explosion of social media as a tool of real change, most notably during the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions were powered by Twitter and Facebook. Though these sites are blocked in China, Sina’s microblogging platform Weibo has also changed the political game in that country, forcing government accountability after last summer’s high-speed train crash in Wenzhou and contributing to the very public downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Weibo’s power may also lead to its demise. After rumors of a coup attempt spread recently, the comment function on posts was disabled from March 31 through April 3.

The rise of Weibo, concurrent with a tightening of restrictions on activists, has focused the world’s attention on Chinese social media. The cat-and-mouse game Chinese “netizens” play with the censors has made it onto the pages of the New York Times, The Economist, and the International Herald Tribune. What is so often missing, though, from the discussion of Internet freedom in China, as in the Middle East, is the role that “free world” business and politics plays in the mechanisms of censorship.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked is a synthesis of the global debate over Internet freedom. MacKinnon has extensive journalistic experience in China, but her book encompasses the breadth of Internet issues worldwide. The CNN Beijing bureau chief from 1998-2001, MacKinnon went on to become a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and later the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She is the co-founder of Global Voices, an international citizen journalist blog. She is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation and on the Global Network Initiative’s board of directors.

MacKinnon argues that Internet freedom depends on the “consent of the networked.” Like John Locke’s consent of the governed, the denizens of the Internet, its “netizens,” relinquish a certain amount of personal freedom in exchange for security. In the physical world, we accept that we need the police to protect us from harm. If the police are too weak, we don’t feel safe in public. But if the police have too much power, they bring a new kind of danger into our lives. Like real-world institutions, our virtual hegemons should guarantee our freedoms, not encroach on them.

The trouble with the Internet is that the kingdoms governing it—Facebook, Google, Yahoo—make their own rules. They are not accountable to netizens. They may apply their laws arbitrarily or change them without warning. Facebook, for example, has a loosely-enforced real-name policy. Zhao Jing, the Beijing blogger and journalist who goes by the pen name Michael Anti, found his Facebook account shuttered in 2011 for violation of the company’s real-name policy. But the same policy has not been applied to Beast, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dog.

Zuckerberg argues that netizens should have nothing to hide online. But control over how much personal information exists about us online is vital to our real-world safety, whether we inhabit democracies or authoritarian regimes. Under South Korea’s short-lived real-identification registration requirement, netizens’ identities on the blogging platform Daum, YouTube, and other sites were tied to real names, ID numbers, and addresses. This allowed for the 2009 arrest of Park Dae-sung for “spreading false information to harm the public interest,” even though he blogged under a pseudonym. The real-name regulations remained until July 2011, when the national ID numbers of of about 35 million people were stolen from a popular Korean Web portal.

China’s four biggest microblogging platforms, including Sina Weibo, are phasing in real-ID requirements as of March 16. Users can keep their unregistered accounts, but eventually will not be able to post without giving their real names and mobile phone numbers. This not only threatens Weibo’s freewheeling atmosphere, but also leaves users vulnerable to identity theft.

It is easy to pin all of the on blame the Chinese government. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google all had their time in China, before some “mass incident” or conflict between the company and the government threw it on the other side of the Great Firewall. But we should not forget that American Internet and technology companies have also played a role in online censorship. Perhaps the most egregious example is the case of journalist Shi Tao, arrested in 2004 after sending an email from his Yahoo account to the organization Democracy Forum about directives for reporters leading up to June 4. At the Beijing state security bureau’s request, Yahoo turned in all of Shi’s “login times, corresponding IP addresses, and relevant email content.” Shi is still serving his jail sentence.

In the wake of Shi’s conviction, Yahoo made significant changes to its corporate policy to keep similar human rights violations from happening again. MacKinnon is not anti-corporation or anti-regulation, and makes a point of talking about the efforts some governments and Internet companies have made to protect netizens. She also emphasizes the role netizens in the free world can play in promoting a global open Internet. While circumvention software to “climb the wall,” anonymizers, and other tools made in the Western world for people living with a less-than-free Internet have their place, we can do the most good for netizens worldwide by making Internet companies at home accountable to us.

American netizens rose to the task earlier this year in their petition against the House’s SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the Senate’s PIPA (Protect IP Act), bills which would punish Web platforms allowing copyrighted material to be shared and force Internet service providers and search engines to block access to “rogue websites.” On January 18, Wikipedia and other websites coordinated a blackout in protest. The blackouts, petitions, and rallies influenced the postponement of hearings on both bills.

There is plenty of talk about what is censored online, but not nearly enough about how. To understand why online conversations evolve as they do in China—or Iran, or the US—we need to understand the mechanisms that support those conversations. And to make the Internet free for everyone, we need to start at home.

Anne Henochowicz is the translation coordinator for China Digital Times. She earned her masters in Chinese literature and folklore from The Ohio State University. She lives in Washington, D.C. You can reach her on Twitter @murasakint.

Vukovich, Daniel F. China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012. xviii, 185 pp. $130.00 (cloth).

By Fabio Lanza

This slim, sharply-argued volume should be a mandatory reading for all of us who work on post-1949 China. China and Orientalism is a refreshing and often eye-opening analysis on how knowledge of the object called “China” has been constructed in the West since the end of Maoism. That knowledge, as Vukovich cogently demonstrates, is fundamentally flawed.

Writing as a “barbarian” outside the disciplinary gates— i.e. a self-declared non-sinologist (pp. xii-xiii) —Vukovich argues that, since the late 1970s, Western knowledge production about the PRC has been dominated and defined by a new form of Orientalism. But while for Edward Said the East was the irreducible “other,” the location of the absolute difference, the new Sinological-Orientalism construes China as the place of “becoming sameness” (p. 2). By this he means that China remains the other—it is still not normal—but is now placed within a scale of hierarchical difference, one in which it is always in the process of becoming like the West: liberal, open, modern, and free. In Vukovich’s essential re-formulation, this China is always the realm of the “not yet” (p. 3). In this sense, Sinological-Orientalism, as embodied by the scholarship of the China studies field, continues on the well-worn path of Cold War discourse, which was in turn displacing and subsuming the language of colonialism. With this novel incarnation of Orientalism, the domination of modernization theory and anti-communism is even more total and unopposed, Vukovich argues, because the actual existence of Maoist China briefly allowed for the possibility of an alternative to this domination, and that possibility is now irreparably gone. Also gone, one may add, is the radical scholarship that China inspired in the West throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Without that counterpart, the dominance of the Sinological-Orientalist gaze is seemingly absolute and irrefutable.

Written with spunk and with attention to theoretical details, China and Orientalism relies on an impressive array of examples and Vukovich’s solid analysis. Vukovich is keen to show how the object “China” has not been produced only or specifically in the hallowed halls of Western academia; rather, the colonial discourse of Sinological-Orientalism is part of a larger knowledge/power articulation. In fact, one added bonus of the work is that it illustrates how this perception of China is manufactured through the repetition, across different fields, of the same colonial discourse. Vukovich moves with dexterity among literature, scholarship, film, and journalism, from Don DeLillo’s MAO II to the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, from Slavoj Žižek to the pages of the New York Times.

To take just one example, looking at the Tiananmen protests of 1989, Vukovich singles out how the event has been recoded in Western interpretations as the narrative of an always-emerging civil society. His criticism is particularly biting when he illustrates how the statements of the workers in the Square were twisted and re-interpreted because of their criticism of the socio-economic effects of the reforms and their overtly Maoist vocabulary. The latter can only be ignored or ascribed to nostalgia, so that the workers can be incorporated under the civil society model. No matter what they actually say or do, Vukovich argues, the people of China are perceived by foreign observers as ultimately wanting to become the same with the West—and thus they are always doomed to fail.

Vukovich’s examination of the recent outpouring of literature on the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famine is also particularly timely and subtle. By scrutinizing the claims and the narrative strategies of works such as Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, Vukovich invites us to look at the meaning of the very act of counting, behind the race towards generating the always-increasing death toll accounts. He suggests that the drive to produce knowledge on the Great Leap disproportionately in the form of numbers—rather than analyses of its economy and the causes for its failure, as Jack Gray and Carl Riskin have provided—might have a more profound significance, masked behind the professed anti-theoretical empiricism of this scholarship. By reducing the experiments of the Maoist period to a statistical set of “excess deaths,” it becomes much easier to dismiss collectivism or socialism in their entirety, and with that any residual challenge they may still pose today to the neoliberal model. Moreover, as Vukovich illustrates by referencing Bernard Cohn’s theory on British knowledge production in India, this “enumerative modality” is essentially colonial. It is also, and this is another crucial point of the book, essentially anti-political. A fundamental aspect of Sinological-Orientalism in all its manifestations is the denial of any political value to the Maoist and post-Maoist periods, as though politics ceased to exist in China after 1949, or could exist only as failed mimicry of the liberal West (as in 1989).

Reading Vukovich’s book leads me to wonder what a volume about knowledge production of the PRC within China would look like. Anecdotally, one could cite examples of the penetration and absorption of Sinological-Orientalist discourse in the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan; self-orientalizing is nothing new, and Vukovich hints at it in his critique of Chen Xiomei’s Occidentalism, but a more systematic analysis is needed. This obviously exceeds the scope of China and Orientalism, but I hope that Vukovich might take it up in a future project.

China and Orientalism is an essential contribution to our self-awareness as producers of knowledge and offers a welcome and indispensable criticism of the field. But Vukovich also provides examples throughout the volume of how a non-orientalist approach can be formulated, be it in the analysis of student protests or in film criticism, as in his appraisal of the movie Breaking With Old Ideas (Jue Lie). As for the prospects for a post-orientalist practice in the field of knowledge production, I tend to be more hopeful—or maybe I am simply more naïve: the very existence of a book such as China and Orientalism demonstrates the fact that there are scholars striving to construe, with the tools of theory and empirical research, a different approach to the study of China.

Fabio Lanza is Associate Professor of Modern Chinese History at The University of Arizona.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

An economy of “self-reliance”

“Self-reliance” was the slogan that guided China’s Cultural Revolution economy, reflecting both China’s isolation as a nation and Maoist desires to substitute abundant human labor for scarce capital as a strategy for economic development. China’s economy fared better than post-Mao reformers admitted, but it did not conform to typical developmental patterns; Chinese had low incomes but much higher literacy and life expectancy than such poverty usually suggests. China’s self-reliance joined an ideological Puritanism to restrict individual consumption for the sake of public investment. The Cultural Revolution initially disrupted the economy. But order returned to China’s cities after 1968, sending millions of Red Guards to work in the countryside, still home to 80 percent of the population. Although the economy grew significantly, the gap between city and countryside remained problematic. The Cultural Revolution was a last hurrah for distinctively Maoist economic initiatives. Yet Maoist investment in infrastructure and human capital provided an indispensible base for China’s subsequent economic opening to the outside world.

Poverty and economic growth
China was poor; the per capita income in 1978 was $859 in 2010 dollars. Yet it was relatively egalitarian. The revolution had diminished differences in wealth by eliminating the classes that lived most extravagantly. Rural landlords had been dispossessed through land reform. The extended lineage organizations that sustained their power were vastly weakened. Private capitalists lost control over their assets in a 1956 nationalization of property, although the state continued to pay off bonds issued in exchange.

The Cultural Revolution intensified the egalitarianism. Red Guards attacks on “bourgeois” life styles merely underscored existing state policies. Repeated restrictions upon small business created a profound shortage of consumer goods for everyone. In 1952 China had one restaurant for every 676 people; by 1978 there was only one for every 8,189. Ration coupons were needed to buy cotton cloth, grain, meat, fish, cooking oil, and eggs, frustrating some but discouraging hoarding and ensuring more equal access to scarce items. Bureaucratic rank replaced wealth in aiding access to goods and services. But except for the luxuries enjoyed by the very top leaders, the range of official privileges was restricted.

Manual work was celebrated in a land where gentlemen traditionally made a display of the exemption from physical labor by wearing long fingernails and long gowns. Maoists sought to soften China’s poverty through campaigns to “remember past bitterness,” in which older workers and peasants would meet to tell young audiences how they had suffered before 1949.

Should socialism be a framework for egalitarianism in consumption or should it be an engine for increasing production? It is difficult to be both at the same time. Socialist governments have labored to resolve or at least obscure this tension. Maoists, recognizing that China could still achieve only egalitarian poverty, elevated individual austerity and Spartan consumption into an ideal to free funds for greater public investment. The Cultural Revolutionaries often allocated these investments inefficiently; they presided over a planning regime that dismissed service sector needs, tolerated large regional gaps, and allowed only a slow rise in living standards.

Even so, the economy during the Cultural Revolution was not the disaster that is often described. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew nearly 6 percent annually, a slightly slower rate than during the earlier years of the People’s Republic but still a respectable performance. The figures appear low only by comparison to the post–Cultural Revolution boom economy. It is difficult to construe these figures as a catastrophe.

China’s Cultural Revolution growth rate stands up to comparison during the same period with two other poor Asian giants, India and Indonesia. All three nations faced similar problems and constraints in industrializing large agrarian societies. China grew somewhat less rapidly than Indonesia but about twice as fast as India. All three grew more slowly than Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These four smaller regions later became known as Asia’s “tigers” for their rapid growth (8–9 percent), following a formula that mixed foreign aid and investment with the export of consumer goods to wealthier nations. These small and briskly authoritarian states, with access to sea transport, integrated with ease into the growing international market for textiles, chemicals, and electronics for Western consumers.

The disorder of the Cultural Revolution’s first two years halted growth and even shrank the economy. As early as September 1966, top leaders tried to prevent rebel disruptions to the economy by demanding that everyone should “grasp revolution, promote production.” The dispersal of the Red Guards by 1968 was accompanied by the slogan “the working class must exercise leadership in everything,” when the restoration of Party authority led to two years of extraordinary growth. The remainder of the Cultural Revolution brought moderate, if uneven, increases, save for 1976, when political disruptions again contributed to a production decline.

The dichotomy of utopianism versus pragmatism may not be as absolute as some might have it. For all its egalitarian appearance, Cultural Revolutionary China retained a doggedly developmentalist agenda. Mao shared this agenda with his rival Liu Shaoqi and the policies of the Seventeen Years [1949-1966]. Similar developmentalism would be continued through Deng Xiaoping’s reform program. Despite differences in approach and emphasis, China’s leaders agreed that the state’s job was to make China rich and strong as quickly as possible.

* * *

Industrial investment
Self-reliance encouraged regional autonomy, in part to cut transport costs. Nonetheless significant improvements strengthened the transportation infrastructure. In 1968 the Yangzi River Bridge opened at Nanjing. Completing this unfinished Soviet-aid project made it possible for the first time for rail traffic to cross China’s great river in East China, thus ending the need to move trains onto ferries. Beijing’s first subway line was completed in 1969. Thousands of new bridges and roads improved rural movement of materials and goods.

Rural industry became a dynamic part of the industrial sector, with new commune-based enterprises producing goods such as chemical fertilizer, farm implements, irrigation equipment, cement, electric motors, and hydroelectric power. These received significant state investment and tax exemptions. The township and village enterprises critical to post–Cultural Revolution reforms grew out of these rural industries.

Self-reliance has its green aspects. Poverty discourages waste, and consumption of local goods cuts transport pollution. But the Cultural Revolution’s relentless developmental agenda was hard on the environment, as self-reliance also pushed every community to grow grain, even where this was environmentally unsound. “Grain as the key link” was bad for grasslands, and the aquifers of the North China plain were seriously stressed. Lakes shrank as farmland was extended. Against this trend, forestation increased biomass in the 1970s. And the level of environmental damage, harmful as it was, worsened quickly after the Cultural Revolution, as Chinese developmentalism shifted to a market paradigm of rapid growth.

Given Maoist resistance to consumer goods, industrial development stressed heavy over light industry, such as clothing. Growth was respectable, but investments were often inefficient. The so-called “Third Front,” a secret, military-led industrialization program to build new factories deep in China’s interior, was a prime example (the First and Second Fronts were coastal and central lines of military defense). Many factories were built in caves or hidden among the mountains of the southwest.

This hidden economic base against American or Soviet attack required huge amounts of capital, which might have been better spent in other regions, where construction was cheaper and local skills more abundant. But coastal investment was vulnerable to possible American bombing or attacks from the Guomindang in Taiwan. Maoists also wanted to reward still-poor old revolutionary base areas for their past services and to spread industrial skills more evenly across the nation. Lesser, but still significant, Third Front factories were built nearer the coast, in the underdeveloped mountains of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. These also produced armaments, steel, and chemicals.

This defensive, sometimes paranoid aspect pervaded Cultural Revolution economic policy. Self-reliance was inspired by realistic anxiety of foreign invasion. At one point, the Party enjoined citizens to “dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere.” The idea was to withstand Soviet attacks on China’s transport system. Inadvertent unearthing of previously unknown archaeological artifacts was the immediate result. Lin Biao’s demise and the decline of military power dampened support for the isolationist Third Front. China’s reconciliation with the United States eventually finished it off.

In 1971, the year Lin Biao died, China’s total foreign trade reached a low point of 5 percent of GDP, but foreign trade tripled by 1975. With the end of the Third Front, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, with the backing of Mao Zedong, initiated a great shift in economic policy, marked by a decision to import eleven large-scale fertilizer plants from the West. Zhou Enlai’s speech announcing the “Four Modernizations” was a late Cultural Revolution venture. The economic transition from Mao to Deng actually began during the Cultural Revolution, not after, and it was more also gradual than the total rejection of Maoism that we normally hear about.

Without Maoist development, there would have been no Deng “miracle.” The Cultural Revolution foundations for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms included high literacy and good health, high-yield varieties of rice, and irrigation and transit projects built by all that Maoist labor. Industrial infrastructure may often have been created inefficiently, but it provided a heritage for subsequent growth. Deng inherited an economy free of debt to foreign countries. Maoist decentralization, plus the heavy blows of the Cultural Revolution against the bureaucracy, minimized the sort of economic entrenchment that blocked reforms in the Soviet Union.

Of course the post–Cultural Revolutionary reformers dealt with many inflexibilities as they privatized state firms, improved the supply of consumer goods, developed an aggressive foreign trade system, expanded the credit system, and moved beyond central planning. Maoist approaches reached a point of diminishing returns, in addition to their heavy political costs.

Asking whether the reforms really began in 1971 instead of 1978 is not a silly question. Deng Xiaoping insisted on the 1978 date, as he needed to make all of the Cultural Revolution decade look bad (including those policies that he implemented) in order to justify some of the nastiness that accompanied the turn to market reforms. Moreover, beyond China, neoliberalism has enjoyed a generation of ceaseless propaganda telling us that the market is the only way to organize human affairs. This obscures seeing that the trajectory of “post-Mao” reforms began in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

The four masterworks of the Ming dynasty

Depicting the Han dynasty’s fall and the rise of three warring kingdoms (early third century), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國志演義 enacts material from historical sources. (The term translated here as “romance,” yanyi 演義, literally means “elaboration of meaning.”) Beginning as a fourteenth-century manuscript, the novel, first published in 1522, was revised by generations of writer-editors and is most commonly read in Mao Zonggang’s 毛宗崗 (1632–1709) version with commentary (1679). The novel has inspired elaborate filmic adaptations, including CCTV’s 1994 blockbuster series of eighty-four, hourlong episodes. The television series was China’s most costly to date, featured a cast of 400,000 and drew a record audience of 1.2 billion viewers worldwide.

Mixing simple classical narration with more colloquial dialogue, the novel’s 120 chapters give it epic length and feel. By integrating so much popular history into one long saga, the novel reinforces the notion that history follows larger patterns. Individuals, the plot implies, exercise but limited power within the workings of history’s moral order, a perspective articulated in Mao Zonggang’s preface: “Under heaven, grand affairs long divided must be reunited, and those long united must divide.”

In dramatizing historical events, the novel nonetheless powerfully depicts the characters’ personal struggles, making its heroes oft invoked archetypes for commentary about intrigue, villainy, and politics. Against the moody, ruthless poet-ruler Cao Cao, king of Wei, the novel pits Liu Bei, king of Shu-Han, and his two sworn brothers, the courageous but conceited general Guan Yu and the imperious and short-tempered Zhang Fei. Their ill-fated dream of reunifying the empire gains strength when Liu recruits the Daoist sage Zhuge Liang. At the decisive Battle at Red Cliffs, Zhuge summons southeastern winds to fan fires that rout Cao Cao’s forces, a victory sealing the tripartition of the country.

Though the novel presents Liu as the rightful heir to restore a united Han empire, his personal loyalties make him vulnerable to headstrong decisions. And because Zhuge must bow to Liu’s choices, his resourcefulness has limited effect. For all his Confucian loyalty, Zhuge cannot dissuade Liu from pursuing personal revenge. And despite Zhuge’s scruples about commitment, after Liu’s blind vengeance results in his own death and the kingdom is clearly lost, Zhuge faithfully serves Liu’s feckless son.

The novel’s emphasis on moral retribution may reinforce beliefs in historical cycles, but the upshot is less clear. Does the novel suggest that though it may take centuries, cycles of union and disunion will ultimately restore virtuous rulers? Or might the novel’s portrayal of history’s cycles shed irony on ideals of dynastic order? As a famous line from the novel reminds us, “The pursuit of goals lies in humans, but accomplishment lies with heaven.”

A second Ming masterpiece, Water Margin 水滸傳 (a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh, ca. 1550) portrays a gang of 108 hard-drinking, audacious bandits from the early twelfth century. The thirty-six main heroes come from all walks of life, driven to banditry by indignation over government corruption, vengeance, coercion by other outlaws, or in the case of the generous yet ruthless leader Song Jiang, a wife’s betrayal. Rich in realistic details of martial arts, claims of friendship, and appetites, the novel climaxes with a grand banquet when the band reaches the preordained number of 108 (including three women). In the name of righteousness, these loyal outlaws steal from the wealthy, defeat government troops, negotiate their own amnesty, and then defend the Song dynasty against rebels. But they show innocent children and women no mercy, and graphic descriptions of massacres, flaying, and cannibalism have led some scholars to decry the heroes’ sadism. Gang mentality rules, enforced by a harsh code based above all on revenge and misogyny. Hating women for their weakness and lust, the bandits view sexual abstinence as a sign of machismo, and the killing of women for adultery as a sign of brotherhood.

More thoroughly colloquial than Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin ’s heavy use of stock phrases and popular songs made the novel accessible to more readers, and raised the stakes for commentators seeking to control the novel’s social effects. Readers debate whether the novel celebrates peasant rebellion, or offers a cautionary fable about the sinister terror of gang mentality. (Since multiple authors and editors crafted the novel, it may not have a consistent ideology.) Even if they idolize the novel’s rebellious adventurers, it is hard for readers not to come away chastened by the destruction and chaos that ensue when vengeance is untempered by Confucian morals.

Such novels evolved through processes of accretion, and, as with the rewriting of poems, scholars often appropriated earlier versions for ideological purposes. To enhance both didactic and commercial value, major novels were typically published with “how to read” essays and interlinear, marginal, and chapter commentaries that tended to impose Confucian interpretations. (When necessary, inconsistencies would be explained as hints to read more carefully.) Highlighting natural patterns, ethical acts and consequences, and the workings of retribution, critics and editors also addressed Buddhist and Daoist themes, as well as strengths and weaknesses of structure, style, and pacing.

By treating fiction as serious literature worthy of exegesis, these commentaries radically expanded the scope of literary theory, previously devoted almost exclusively to poetry. Some editors also substantially altered their material, as Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 (1608–61) did in abridging a 120-chapter version of Water Margin to 70 chapters (1641). Divergent commentaries led to serious debates, as in the case of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Whereas some interpret the novel’s portrayal of bravery and loyalty as promoting these cherished Ming values, others see the characters’ fateful overconfidence as subtly critiquing Ming imperial propaganda.

Possibly the most retold East Asian classic, Journey to the West 西遊記 (1592) satirizes social ills through recrafting the tale of the historical monk Xuanzang’s (596–664) perilous pilgrimage to India. Developed out of the monk’s travelogue, biographies, prosimetric legends, and dramas, the hundred-chapter adventure novel (possibly by Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩, ca. 1500–82) is nonetheless more unified than earlier novels. Abandoned in infancy after a bandit abducts and rapes his widowed mother, the Xuanzang of the novel is plagued by fears and anxieties. But he ultimately triumphs, bringing back and translating three canons of Buddhist sutras (the “Three Baskets” of his other name, Tripitaka).

The picaresque novel endows the dutiful but apprehensive monk with four superhuman companions: a clever but impetuous monkey, a lustful pig, a “Sand Monk,” and a white horse. Most important is Monkey, whose full name means “the Monkey Awakened to Emptiness,” and whose early life opens the novel. Clever and resourceful, he is, like the human mind, wild and restless until controlled through Buddhist discipline. A popular hero later reincarnated in countless cartoons, films, television series, and video games, Monkey frequently rescues the group with his magical transforming rod. Yet his ill-focused energies risk everyone’s safety but for Xuanzang’s control.

Read as allegory, Xuanzang is a spiritual seeker, Monkey his heart-mind, the white horse his will, Pigsy his bodily desires, and Sand Monk his connection to the earth. The journey represents the cultivation of the heart-mind, and the novel’s perils and monsters stand for distortions that obscure the path to Enlightenment. Scholars debate the degree of irony in the novel’s presentation of spiritual quest. Is it an epic or a mock-epic? Does it champion Buddhist salvation or advocate for synthesizing Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist beliefs?

Numerous sequels and midquels added to the novel’s influence and fame. Like its parent novel, Supplement to Journey to the West 西遊補 (1641) offers a trenchant social satire combined with a masterful Buddhist allegory about the ways passions ( 情 qing ) can imprison the heart. Ensnarled by Mackerel ( 鯖 qing, a homophone for passion) in a series of hallucinations, Monkey broadens his perspective to see the nature of desire, its delusions, and his own conditioned tendencies. As he does, the point of view shifts from his perspective to more omniscient narration, just one of several consciously crafted literary techniques. Short by the standards of the time, this sixteen-chapter midquel features a Tower of Myriad Mirrors, a group of space-walkers chiseling a hole in the firmament, and other surreal elements that make the novel ripe for psychoanalytic readings as dreamwork on anxiety. Another supplement, the Later Journey to the West 後西遊記 (1715) tells of the heroes’ pilgrimage to a mountain with seventytwo pits of demons’ temptations, all ultimately related to the seven emotions and six desires. (Pigsy falls prey to flattery, and Monkey to ambition.)

The last of the four Ming-dynasty masterpieces, The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅 (literally Gold, Vase, Plum , 1618), notorious for its sexual passages, colorfully portrays a community obsessed with money, status, and sensual indulgence. One of the earliest novels of manners, its attention to social settings, roles, and expectations shows how class mores and conditioning determine individual feelings and behaviors. Within the novel’s hundred chapters, six wives compete for the attentions of the unscrupulous drug merchant and influence peddler Ximen Qing. The novel borrows its setting, Qing, his concubine Golden Lotus, and several other characters from an episode in Water Margin, but its parody frees the novel from the mythic frameworks that characterize that work, Three Kingdoms, and Journey. Now desire itself motivates the action. And though set in the twelfth century, the domestic drama is situated within an exhaustively detailed sixteenth-century milieu.

By delaying the bandit Wu Song’s revenge against his adulterous sister-in-law and her lover for murdering his elder brother, the novel allows Qing to sow the seeds of his own destruction. (Legend has it that a traditionalist author wrote the novel to pursue a vendetta against the corrupt son of the man who executed his father.) After Qing’s affair with his neighbor Ping’er (the Vase of the title) results in her husband’s death, Qing combines their properties to construct an ostentatious garden to showcase his wealth and station. Though Qing is himself functionally illiterate, his garden “study” has all the trappings of literati culture. Yet his indiscriminate display of overnumerous paintings betrays his poor taste, and the political machinations and debauchery that ensue there reveal his philistine pretensions. After Ping’er becomes Qing’s clear favorite, the resentful Lotus spies on them copulating in a garden pavilion and learns of Ping’er’s pregnancy. Later that day Qing uses Lotus’s footbindings to spread-eagle her in the garden’s notorious grape arbor, then inebriates and ravishes her, and the chastened Lotus returns to her room with just one of her slippers.

Though less focused on explicit sex than Li Yu’s 李漁 (1611–80) comic-erotic The Carnal Prayer Mat 肉蒲團 (1657), the novel’s graphic sadomasochistic passages explore lust’s power to corrupt, the insatiability of desire, and the pain of power exchanges. After the jealous Lotus causes the death of Ping’er’s son, and Ping’er dies of grief, Lotus uses aphrodisiacs from an Indian monk to lure Qing to die through sexual overexertion. “Be judicious in your use of these remedies,” the monk counsels Qing, but this caution only piques Qing’s licentiousness. After Qing’s excesses precipitate his death, his entourage of manipulative social climbers can do little but eulogize their departed patron, and his son by his principal wife, born at the moment of his death, becomes a monk.

For many commentators, these workings of retribution offer sustained lessons in Buddhist and Confucian ethics. For some, the novel’s juxtapositions of heterogeneous elements (earlier songs, Buddhist stories, dramas, and novels) result in ironic moral critique. Following the model of the Confucian Great Learning, Qing’s moral failings not only sow disorder in his household but also contribute to larger social decline and the dynasty’s political collapse. Commentators often attribute such a coherent design to a single author, although it might also result from plural authorship. And what may be ironic distance on the characters’ stereotypical worldviews might protest rather than uphold Confucian practices.

Though many modern leftist scholars claim that such vernacular works reflected the masses, most of the best fiction was literati fiction. From the seventeenth century on, novels tended to rewrite, parody, and subvert earlier works in a kind of literary game.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

Stewart, Roderick and Sharon. Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. xiii, 464 pp.

By David Webster

Millions of Chinese have memorized Mao Zedong’s 1939 lines “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” written soon after the Canadian surgeon’s death amidst the war against Japan. As a result, Bethune remains the best-known Canadian in China, still outstripping comedian Dashan (Mark Rowswell).1

“Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people,” Mao wrote, extolling Bethune’s “spirit of absolute selflessness.” If Bethune was pure selflessness and internationalist heroism after coming to China, it was only after arising phoenix-like from a selfish, dissolute life plagued by betrayal, self-aggrandizement, brushes with death and perhaps mental illness, according to the authors of a new biography.

Roderick and Sharon Stewart trace Bethune’s life from his youth in the small towns of Upper Canada to his death in the Shanxi-Hebei border area, the result of infection incurred while operating on a People’s Liberation Army fighter. The figure that emerges is heroic only in the sense that he finally found “my mission in life” (p. 294) once he arrived in China in 1938 to work as a battlefield surgeon.

Roderick Stewart’s interest in Bethune runs back to the 1960s, and he has published three previous biographies on aspects of Bethune’s life. This book, co-authored with his wife Sharon Stewart, draws on additional research in China, Canada, and Spain. With documentary sources drawn from almost a hundred different archives, it is unlikely to be surpassed in depth of research or attention to Bethune’s psyche.

His life, the Stewarts argue, “exhibits recurrent cycles of achievement and self-destruction—the pattern of the phoenix.” Brought up by a Protestant minister, his faith turned from religion to communism, and he was “driven throughout his life to act as a saviour” (p. 375). This did not prevent a history of bullying of comrades, his off-and-on wife, and periodic alcoholism.

The young Bethune was conservative and loyal to the British Empire. Family tradition has him the eighth man in Toronto to volunteer to fight in the First World War. At the same time, he rebelled against the strict Christian moral code of his parents, insisting on drinking liquor on his visits home—though he agreed to take his drinks into the bathroom to avoid corrupting others.

Bethune trained to become a surgeon. The poverty of many of his patients led him towards the political left—first to the social-democratic League for Social Reconstruction, Canada’s answer to the British Fabian Society (this partly out of attraction to the wife of one of the League’s founders, social activist Marian Dale Scott). After visiting the Soviet Union, he became a secret member of the Canadian Communist Party. Secrecy, the party hoped, would make him a more credible activist during the campaign to raise funds for Republican Spain as it fought fascist forces in the 1930s.

Bethune chafed under these restrictions and under party discipline, and sought adventure and service in the Spanish Civil War, the international left’s great cause of the 1930s. There, he created a mobile blood transfusion unit designed to operate near the battlefield, but was removed from his post by the Canadian Communist Party over his heavy drinking, womanizing and misuse of donations for such purposes as buying himself monogrammed shirts in Paris. The Spanish authorities refused to permit him re-entry into the country, though this was kept quiet because of his value as a passionate speaker and fundraiser in Canada. The Bethune who left Spain, never to be permitted back, was a flawed hero at best.

More importantly, he was a man desperately in search of a mission, a cause where he could serve communism and his own thirst for adventure. The desire to aid Communist China, besieged by imperial Japan, combined with “the opiate of action” (p. 268) to draw Bethune across the Pacific. Phoenix tells the story of Bethune in China in five detailed chapters. Bethune was able to convince the US and Canadian Communist Parties to jointly sponsor a small medical mission of himself and two others—neither of whom he could get along with for long. One called him “nothing but a bloody missionary” (p. 264) while a missionary doctor who worked side by side on surgeries with Bethune commented: “The Angel Gabriel couldn’t get along with Norman Bethune. He’s a horrible man” (p. 295).

Meeting Mao, Zhu De, and other lions of Chinese communism left Bethune inspired by their ascetic and whole-hearted commitment to the cause (and flattered when Mao remarked that he resembled Lenin). On the other hand, he saw desperate medical conditions, to which he reacted with “his usual combination of compassion and rage” (p. 287). Shouting at local people was the first reaction; working to build more effective and sanitary treatment his second. Bethune embraced the life of a local partisan, refusing extra rations and giving much of his food to others, sacrificing personal comforts of any sort, and over-working himself in ways that risked his health. He created medical mobile units able to operate with great effectiveness close to combat, and this added to his growing legend.

It was entirely characteristic, then, that Bethune died because his finger became infected during an operation in which he used no gloves, and that he continued to operate even knowing his hand was infected. His legend was such, the Stewarts argue, that no one dared stop him and save his life by amputating. A New Zealand journalist perhaps summed it up best: “he wanted to be a hero or a martyr of the Revolution, at any cost” (p. 258). In his China work in 1939-39 and in his death, perhaps, Bethune earned both.

1. In 2011, 68% of Chinese surveyed knew Bethune, while 29% knew Dashan and others trailed far behind. Yuchao Zhu, “Making Sense of Canada’s Public Image in China,” paper presented at conference on “Canada-China Relations: past, present and future,” University of Regina, October 2011.

David Webster is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Asian Studies at the University of Regina.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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