The Path of Chinese Modernity – Institutions and Themes

The history of modern China (which is, for the purposes at least of this piece, from the mid-Qing around 1750 CE down to today) is a divided one. Here, by `divided’ I mean one that is usually carved up into four broad phases. Qing ruled ended in 1911-12, which also brought to an end what most historians describe as `Imperial China’. From 1911 to 1949, there was the Republican Era. Then from 1949, after the People’s Republic of China was founded under the Communists, there was the Maoist era up to 1978 (just lasting two years after Mao Zedong’s death) and finally the `reform and opening up’ era. We live in that period to today.

German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn in `Making China Modern’, a recent account of the country’s history from what the book’s subtitle poetically describes as `The Great Qing to Xi Jinping’ gently contests this division. Firstly, he shows that there were continuities across these temporal divides. This contests the sort of value judgements one might be tempted to give to parts of this history in order to characterise them – ideas like the one that the Qing was an unmitigated disaster from the 1840s onwards after the First Opium War with the British, or that the Republican period was nothing but chaos and war. Muhlhahn’s corrective to this overneat narrative is to show that for former, there were plenty of successful reforms, and that these served as a basis for the changes that came after its demise, and for the latter it too saw periods of effectiveness and functionality, even though the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 brutally damaged and almost destroyed it.

More boldly, the book argues (right at the start, from the third of its 620 pages) that institutions are the key means to understand China’s modernity and rise. And the process by which these institutions were formed goes deep into the Qing era – this was not some innovation that the Communists in more recent times can take credit for.

On the surface, the argument about institutions mattering so much in this history seems a contentious one. A lot of the challenges that China in any of its modern guises has gone through have often been put down to precisely the opposite – lack of institutional structure. Administrations lacked fiscal and governance systems, because of the largely decentralised mode of rule under the remote imperial regime. At times in the 20th century, even under Mao, it seemed that China had no governance at all – in the Republican period’s early and later years, for instance, or the Cultural Revolution from 1966. But Muhlhahn makes a strong and persuasive case for how, if one looks hard, institutions were always there. They were there in the era of the imperial Qing examination system, which, in his view erroneously, was phased out as a so-called reform in the first decade of the twentieth century. They were also there in the creation of business networks, and trade protocols, when the Republicans were at their most competent. They were there during the time of militarisation under Mao (the military effectively ran the country in the late 1960s, though at Mao’s behest – he was, after all, a military leader before anything else). Most strikingly, they were there in the ever present bureaucracy, and the ethos supporting it, which managed to survive through the whole of this period, albeit taking various guises and sizes.

This focus on institutions does supply something that is all too often lacking in histories of modern China – and there have been many of them – and that is a thread of tangible continuity. Institutions, after all, can take many guises. The main thing is that they are social, and collaborative. And Chinese society, with its supposed emphasis on the collective, should be a benign environment for such entities, rather than a hostile one. As thought to prove this, we can see the Communist Party of China, as it has grown from 51 members in 1921 to over 90 million today, as some kind of culmination of this – the institution to end all others, with its own spaces, language, ethos, culture, even, somewhat counterintuitively, its own ethos.  As though to prove this,  it is Party sovereignty, rather than state sovereignty, we see exercised in Hong Kong today, and, more distressingly, party ethics in practice in the calculus being made in Xinjiang.

Muhlhahn’s book is written authoritatively, and, because of this clear focus on institutions, lucidly. His choice of key events and the way in which he weaves these into an holistic interpretative framework is inspirational. Often, in these larger scale histories, the most difficult choice is what to leave out. This book addresses that by showing right from the start that for all the differences of the various phases of modern Chinese history, the underpinning search for national regeneration and a security to preserve that,  most recently acquired through economic development, gives a thematic coherence that runs all the way through. That means that you don’t need to have to start telling a wholly new story after each regime change – you just have to slot the new era into the grand lines that the former one is going along, and see how far you can decipher and describe any new developments. From this viewpoint, stripped of their more ideologically loaded and committed language, the Marxists Leninists around current leader Xi Jinping are simply using a different dialect to speak the same nationalist language in.

This is a wise and measured book – one that, on page 571, contains perhaps one of the pithiest and best judged assessments of the country’s current global role and posture I have read:

               `There is a mismatch between [China’s] appearance and its real footprint. China became part of many international institutions, but often it was only loosely integrated. China often stood alone and didn’t fully succeed in winning over close allies. Even its closest relations with Russia and North Korea remained beset with distrust and rivalry beneath the surface. Its diplomacy also seemed hesitant and narrowly self-interested. China often made known what it opposed, but rarely what it actively supported. Concepts such as “peaceful rise” and “harmonious world” were not very persuasive and Beijing was unable to credibly explain its global ambitions. China’s growing power and regional relationships were often marked by widespread uncertainties and insecurities about the future.’

This was written before the pandemic, but from the vantage point of what has happened over the last year, has a prophetic quality. One might argue that Xi Jinping and his style of confident assertion and bearing are being deployed as a corrective to some of these issues. But a confident, dominant China, if and when it does come to pass, will not eradicate the complex issues of its place in the world; it will just raise different, perhaps even harder to answer ones.  One could do far worse than looking to this book to give at least some well judged and well delivered context of why China is where it is, and starting from that point, prepare for where it is most likely to end up.

China in the World: The Study of World History under the Qing, the Republicans, and the Communists

World History and National Identity in China

Where did this idea come of the introspective, largely self-absorbed Chinese world that used to be one of the popular explanations of why, in the 19th century, the country succumbed so badly to European semi-colonisation and exploitation? Xin Fan’s study, `World History and National Identity in China’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2021) gives more than enough evidence that there were figures from the start of the 20th century, when the Qing empire still (just about) existed that were part of a network domestically, and linked to ones internationally, thinking about world history, and what China’s place in that might be. For this influential group, there was nothing self-absorbed or inward looking.

This book, drawing on a huge range of disparate reference materials, in English, Chinese and other languages, lays out the careers of some of these figures, and restores them, at least in the English language, to a more appropriate profile than they have enjoyed in recent times. Chen Hengzhe is one of the most striking – China’s first female professor, educated in the US, and deeply involved in the debates about the teaching, reception and understanding of `world history’ in China through the Republican era (1912-1949).  Her creed was simply expressed: `to seek mutual understanding among humanity, and draw on the cultures of different countries as one common legacy’ (51). He Bingsong was another who had been educated in the US in the 1920s, teaching world history in his native Zhejiang and then Peking University after his return. So too did Lei Haizong, son of a priest ordained by a British missionary, who went to the University of Chicago and then returned to work at Tsinghua around the same time.

These figures matter, as Xin Fan argues through this monograph, because their work, by its very nature, raised important questions about the boundaries between China, with its often asserted unique intellectual heritage and culture, and the wider world. Some of their importance was in being part of a great wave to introduce new ideas and new understanding about the outside world into the country at a time when that external world was all too often imposing itself and figuring in people’s lives in increasingly disruptive ways. But they also, in contrasting ways, and using different starting points, did focus on how generic issues like nationalism, development and the concept of humanity itself, could be thought about, articulated, contest and be embraced within an environment which was undergoing profound change. This did not just mean through the dismantling of the Confucian tradition and its hold over the political and cultural elite which accelerated towards the end of the Qing, but also by China seeing itself as figuring in a process of world development, rather than being some great outcrop, isolated and adrift from everything else. In this era, as Xin succinctly states, `Chen, Lei and He [were] forerunners of world historical studies [where] all attempted to situate China’s past, present and future within a world-historical context in their scholarly works. They realised the value of non-Chinese history; they cared about what was being taught and understood as well as the value of carrying out research in world history’ (84).

The period after 1949, as with almost every other aspect of social and political life in the country, saw seismic change. The People’s Republic of China founded that year under the Communists presented many anomalies. One was this tension between subscribing to a universalist, non-China originated ideology (Marxism-Leninism) but in a way which stressed how this had been adapted and crafted to local particularities and in that process made markedly different. Such a mindset presented many challenges to intellectuals, making them rethink and reposition themselves so that they avoided violating the main, and increasingly large, number of intellectual rules the new regime was setting. This was reinforced by the fact that, as Xin states, Mao Zedong had `a negative view of Chinese intellectuals.’  More practically, those working in World History needed to adapt to the new education system the Communists constructed. Unlike in the past, those embarking on college studies were allocated subjects rather than freely choosing their own (a system that survived to the 1990s). History generally had to be researched within a Marxist framework, with its stipulations about historical determinism. Xin states that `from 1950 to 1978, the Chinese government sent 12,755 students abroad (100).’  8414 of these were to the Soviet Union. That meant that those in what could be broadly described at the humanities, or political science, ended up adopting a largely Soviet view of human development. It also meant that the kinds of primary source material in Latin, Greek, or other European languages apart from Russian that US educated scholars like the three mentioned above had been exposed to in an earlier age were regarded as unimportant and redundant. For contesting this, in the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957, Lei Haizong was criticised and eventually punished.

There were thornier arguments which continued across the Maoist period. One was about the status of slavery in ancient Chinese history – and the vastly contentious matter of how a concept like feudalism was meaningfully applied to China. This particular issue, along with that around the Asiatic Mode of Production and what it meant, addressed directly the ways in which it was permissible, within a Marxist framework, to allude to unique characteristics of Chinese development, but also exposed how easy it was, with the political winds changing, to find oneself adrift and vulnerable to attack. Throwing Maoism into the mix just thickened the plot, because that of course did create the paradoxical result of a bespoke version of a universal thought system. Xin records the fate of some of the better known World History specialists over this period, and how they survived, or, in some tragic instances, didn’t.

From 1978, the imprecation to `liberate thinking’ under the Deng leadership meant that a sort of renaissance occurred. In the unlikely place of Changchun, north east China, an Institute for the History of Ancient Civilisations was established. Its founder was Lin Zhichun, the doyen of World History studies in China. Over the rest of the decade and into the 1990s, this centre grew, hosting international visitors and creating a global network.  Alongside this, the World Academic Series in Chinese Translation started, in 1981. (By 2011, it had issued 500 translations).  Over a decade later, in the mid 1990s in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, where I was based for two years, I remember being impressed by the vast amount of Western material available in Chinese, of which this was a good example.  This was indeed, as Xin notes `an impressive achievement, especially if compared to Western scholars’ limited efforts to translate ancient Chinese classics’ (157).

All of this simply reinforces the idea that `opening up’ to the outside world, to use the language beloved of Chinese officials today,  far from having started in 1978 out of nowhere, was something created on the foundations of all the work of the many Chinese scholars detailed in this book from a much earlier period. China’s continuing commitment to `internationalisation’ even at a time, as today is, when its global role is so contested, should not therefore be a surprise. Going from this book, the anomaly would be a China that is an inward looking country. The default was always to be curious and engaged with the wider world, with the sole, but very significant change, that these days that engagement is practically so much easier.

The World Turned Upside Down; A Chinese View on the Cultural Revolution

Yang Jisheng’s decades working for Xinhua state news agency were followed by a second career as a newspaper editor, and then historian and writer. It is for the latter that he has become well known outside China. Some of this is due to the sterling work of his translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian who have, painstakingly and expertly, edited and then rendered into excellent English first his monumental `Tombstone’, and now `The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021).

`Tombstone’  (墓碑), published in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2010, was, in its original, almost 1200 pages long. A harrowing, data rich account of the great famines from the late 1950s into the early 1960s, it started off a passionate debate inside and outside China about just how many perished in this tragic period of modern Chinese history. Yang’s account was unflinching, almost overwhelming. The English translation brought out from this a more accessible narrative, but one no harder to fully digest in terms of the enormity of the human suffering it reported.

The Cultural Revolution (CR) poses different challenges. One is that in some ways the singular of the movement’s name needs to be made plural. As Yang himself acknowledges, the CR in 1967 and 1968 at its peak was a different kind of happening, and involved different actors, to that during the aftermath of the fall of Mao Zedong’s doomed chosen successor, Lin Biao, in 1971. The most violent period was during the rebellious group uprisings (more popularly known as Red Guards) in university campuses from May 1966 after the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the May 16th Circular, declared that everyone had to:

`hold high the great banner of the proletarian Cultural Revolution, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of those so-called ‘academic authorities’ who oppose the party and socialism, thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art, and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres.‘ (

Yang plots the impact of these, and other similar endorsements to engage in a new kind of revolution, in Beijing and across the rest of the country. The results were diverse, only united by their violence and tendency to produce high levels of disharmony.  In Shanghai, ironically the epicentre of radical leftism despite historically being the home of Chinese capitalism, different factions appeared, clashing against each other, in factories and work units from mid-1966. In Wuhan, even while Mao was resident there in July 1967, frenzied, impassioned competing groups almost invaded his compound. Even in the depths of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, in fact, particularly in a place with a complicated ethnic and class composition like this, the turbulence of the movement left deep marks. Yang’s account of the campaign to `dig out’ the Inner Mongolian People’s Party (内人党) leaves little to the imagination. In Siziwanqi area (四子王旗), a little north of the provincial capital of Hohhot:

`Bilig Tumen had each of his teeth pulled out with pliers and his tongue and nose cut off before he finally died. The Secretary of Naiyinebo commune in the Siziwang Banner, Aoribuzhamusu, and his wife were cut with razors after which salt was rubbed in their wounds and re-hot branding irons applied. After husband and wife were tortured to death, their five month old child died of starvation.’ (322)

Acts of barbarity like this are one of the reasons why this period remains so bewildering to this day. They are, alas, by no means isolated. In Guangxi, in the south west of the country, there were well documents occurrences of cannibalism. Tan Hecheng’s `The Killing Winds’, also superbly translated by Mosher and Guo records acts of similar violence in Hunan. How claims that an independence party active in the 1930s before the People’s Republic even existed led, in Inner Mongolia’s case, to the indescribably horrible demise of the two cadres of Mongolian ethnicity three decades later referred to in the quote from Yang above take some explaining. It is not surprising therefore that Yang only partially succeeds in this. He is in good company. Many other fine historians and analysts have also ended up metaphorically scratching their heads and simply sighing when looking at the carnival of violent action and rhetoric, mass campaigns and struggle sessions, and elite fellings that the CR ended up becoming.

If Yang has one overarching argument in this book, it is that the Cultural Revolution in the end was a struggle against a bureaucratic tradition with deep links into Chinese culture, one that the great revolutionary Mao Zedong wanted to finally root out and eradicate. Yang sets out the core parts of this argument in his introduction and first chapter. `The Cultural Revolution was a massive movement,’ he states there, `that swept up the political underclass at the lover level and attacked the bureaucratic clique at the upper level.’ (xxiii).  He argues later that in the late 1950s `Mao broke with the Soviet system by transferring power downward from the central government ministries and departments, but the result was chaos. He attempted another power transfer during the Cultural Revolution, but this merely resulted in another cycle of what is known in Chinese politics as “death in centralisation, and chaos in release”.’ (xxv). In essence, it seems that this argument posits three players – the charismatic leader (Mao), the Party State and its bureaucracy and power elite, and the masses. Attempted alignment between the first and the third of these to supplant the second ended up with instead a chaotic situation where, finally and almost inevitably, the bureaucrats still came out winning.

One can make a lot of this argument. In some ways it might also be a barbed critique-cum-tribute to the endless resilience of the bureaucratic governance system in China, able to survive through history, and still maintain itself despite the onslaught Mao directed at it. Paradoxically, the Cultural Revolution activists themselves far from eschewing bureaucracy ended up creating their own unique version, with the Central Cultural Revolution Leading Group sitting atop a plethora of other groups, some of which (the Central Investigation Group for instance) undertook the main purges and attack campaigners against top level figures. Nor is Yang’s story one where there are any real heroes. The sainted Zhou Enlai comes across as the faithful implementer of Mao’s will, chairing the aforementioned Investigation Group as a kind of willing executioner. Deng Xiaoping was an enthusiastic purger of rightists in the 1950s, only denouncing himself and his former colleagues at the start of the Cultural Revolution, before disappearing to rustification and several years of silence. If there were any real victims, these were the `masses’, the underclass Yang referred to in his trinity of actors mentioned above, who were manipulated by campaigns and propaganda to undertake. Maybe though, this too is not truly reflecting of the uncomfortable truth that for many of these individual actors, while they can excuse themselves on the grounds of being lied to and used, some of the extreme acts they engaged in, and the fervour by which they did this, denotes something deeper about their commitment to the idealistic, but terrifying Utopian vision that the whole movement held before them rather than just brainwashed enforcement.

Much of Yang’s narrative as he goes through the landmarks of the `turbulent decade’ (one, he points out towards the end of the book, that actually lasted not ten, but eleven years if one counts to the end of the Gang of Four’s full downfall) does deal with specific named actors – figures like Peng Zhen, Wu Han, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and his family, and, of course, Jiang Qing. The latter, cast as some demon in the Chinese state propaganda after her husband Mao died in 1976, can be viewed in a different way in the recent BBC documentary `Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which has excellent footage of her time as an actress in Shanghai in the 1930s, and then during her peak as a demagogue and leftist during the CR years.  Unrepentant at her trial in 1981,  one that Yang himself acknowledges was a travesty of legal process, she was to die in May 1991, committing suicide with tights she had managed to secret in her cell and hang herself with. This happened during my first visit to China. I remember the news being carried, sotto voce, on pages of the international news, but being largely ignored in the country itself. Somewhat bafflingly, recent reports from China state that people have been allowed to visit and pay their respects at her tomb in the lead up to the centenary of the Party’s foundation in mid 2021.

I have often wondered, over the years, reading accounts like that by Yang, and others, what happened to some of the actors referred to as leaders of CR groups or campaigns at more local level. Nie Yuanzi, a firebrand at the Philosophy Department of Beijing University, who wrote Big Character Posters denouncing the university leadership, died at the grand old age of 98 in September 2019, striving to explain herself to the end. Song Binbin, whose pinning of a Red Guard armband during one of the vast rallies held in central Beijing on the arm of Mao Zedong became one of the iconic images of the era, migrated to the US in the early 2000s and then returned to China to work for a British company later in the decade. This was despite claims she had been involved in the beating to death of a school leader. But there are endless other names who simply disappear into silence after their brief appearance during the CR era, some of them named in this book. Many must have had to wrestle with the memories and trauma of the events they had taken part in for the rest of their lives. But to all intents and purposes, they are as good as voiceless now. One can only wonder about them.

Yang of course is both an historian, and a participant, and this tremendous book testifies to his ability simultaneously to be in the events he talks about, but also be able to observe them from outside. In a sense, he is a bit like the director, Hitchcock, who famously usually did cameos in his films. Yang appears briefly in his own account, during the hottest phase of the CR in 1966, and then in December 1978 towards the end of his book, looking at Wall Posters in Xidan, during the brief and ill-fated Democracy Wall Movement. Whether his overarching account of the CR being comprehensible as one which had bureaucratic power struggles at its heart, is another matter. In the conclusion of this book, he has figures for what he describes as the burgeoning of the Chinese bureaucracy over the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. Even so, at the end of this period its personnel numbered 12 million – 1 per cent of the Chinese population then. That number has not increased vastly today, if we are talking about only Civil Servants rather than those work in the State Owned Enterprise world. The mystery therefore only deepens as to exactly how best to explain the real drivers of the Cultural Revolution. But Yang’s attempt is a noble, and a powerful one.

Making Sense of China’s `Belt and Road’

One of the sure signs in recent years that people commenting or writing about China might have a clue what they were talking about was the great divide between those from 2015 who referred knowingly to China’s grand `Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and those who remained wedded to the term `One Belt One Road’ (OBOR)  which had been used, for a year or so, before then.  The former were clearly more up to date than the latter.

Eyck Freymann’s book rather bravely carries the old name (`One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World’. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2021). As a book clearly written by someone who has worked in depth on the BRI it would be a huge puzzle if they were not aware of the updated title. Freymann is very aware that this question might be raised, and deals with the issue of names right at the start of this interesting new work. His rationale for maintaining the old label is that in many ways it is the more accurate translation of the Chinese `一带一路‘ (yidai yilu). That is fair enough. Nevertheless, it is still a bold, confident move – to basically overrule the current main architects of an idea and decide to deploy one’s own language for it. Is there a hint of American hubris here?  (Freymann is American, though currently undertaking his doctoral degree at Oxford).  

These questions of why one party names something one way and one another are not ones I would have bothered pondering much about till recently. But the fierce contestation about everything related to China, from the name to use about the current COVID19 virus (which Trump called the `China virus), to whether Chinese investment should in fact be called loans, means that even the basic language one uses to talk about China in English is symptomatic of potential bias and preconceived ideas.  Suddenly, one is super-alert to the slightest clues that tell whether a person has some particular axe to grind. In fact, as proof that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Freymann’s book ends up being a nuanced, and well informed, argument that shows that the BRI (or OBOR, to use his language) is not some grand masterplan being imposed on the Asian region and the wider world by a control-obsessed Beijing. Yes, it has plenty of signs of partial design, and yes, China has been presented with lots of opportunities, many of which it has taken. But in the case studies that Freymann helpfully sets out – Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Greece  and Pakistan – he makes the situation he saw while travelling through these places clear enough: governments there have, for different reasons and in different ways, all taken the China chance for investment eagerly, and have all admitted that the majority of mistakes that subsequently occurred were more their fault than because of any dictatorial behaviour from Beijing.

This is an important message to hear.  Beijing is frequently associated with flattering levels of power and control. In the beginning of his study, Freymann does seem to hint, a little too easily, that Chinese statecraft today is derived from the tributary model of the past. Was there really a tributary model, uniform and distinctive, across the dynastic periods? If China was complex and multiple over this time, so was its mode of behaviour. There may have been times when particularly dynastic entities in the geography we now call the People’s Republic were economically and politically strong enough to enforce their fiat over smaller bordering entities. Some of these are today part of the sovereign territory of the PRC – think of Tibet, Xinjiang, or even Yunnan. But that tributary trope is clearly not a straightforward one. Today, China is very different, and it is doing something like the Belt and Road simply because of the somewhat unexciting reason that it can. It has the economic resources to do so.

After that, though, Freymann’s analysis is sound. The port of Piraeus in Greece is an excellent example – a place which when run under local management never functioned properly, but which was taken over by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) state conglomerate in the late 2000s when Athens was heading into a period of brutal economic pain (up to a quarter of people were unemployed as a result of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Eurozone crises which followed it.)  Political parties of the left which were fiercely critical of this, once they were elected to power in the mid 2010s immediately started to embrace it. Piraeus has become one of the most successful investments from the PRC in Europe, massively increasing throughput through the port, and creating badly needed jobs.  It has also posed tricky political issues, because it is indisputable that Greece, a member of the European Union (EU), has been amongst the most averse to seeing any motions tabled which criticise China by the EU.  The author makes this clear by saying that the main costs to the BRI are not so much debt diplomacy and the other mostly economic issues critics have pointed at, but simply political ones.  Here, far from setting out to pick political entities apart in the countries in which the Belt and Road has figured most heavily till now, the Chinese government’s volume in terms of potential investment has been more than enough to see people fall apart because of already extant tensions between each other, rather than because of any actively malign behaviour by Beijing.

But Beijing itself has also grown better at understanding the places where it works. In Tanzania, one figure interviewed for this book records how African leaders going to Washington get five minutes of the President’s time – if that. We all remember the very unflattering names that the previous occupant of the White House called some of these countries. But in Beijing, there is a closedown of the city centre, police cars surrounding the visiting dignitary in their limousines, and a general level of flattery which only the Chinese are able to do well these days.  That alone was able to overcome some of the wariness of the Tanzanian government in recent years towards embracing large scale Chinese investment.

Freymann nails the key issue towards the end of this book: `US policy has opened up strategic space for China to take on a more active role’ (194). It is an interesting question whether China would have come as far without the Trump withdrawal. Something in addition to this he does not make clear however is that in many ways China itself had little choice about coming up with an idea that answered what it was intending to do with its new geopolitical status. From the middle part of the last decade, these questions of what China wanted swirled around. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was uncommunicative and created an uneasy silence on this key question. Xi has been more forward, and at least given an answer. Not saying anything would have been far worse. It is hard to think of any idea China under its current political model would have devised that would have managed to appease those who look at its economic success and see nothing but threat and pain heading their way!

This is a good book for those who want to take their bearings on the Belt and Road. It has no heroes or villains, but a good overview of the benefits and downsides of the intiative as it unfolds. The account of Putin’s attitude to the idea is salutary for everyone else. Rhetorically, he has heaped praise on the idea. But in his actions he has done almost everything he can to thwart and stymie associated projects in the central Asian states which are regarded as Russia’s backyard. Perhaps that is the secret to the China policy quandary – say one thing, do another. The only downside with this is the slight issue of honesty – but that particular quality depends on a world where the divide between true and false is clarified by having access to clear facts. That is not the world we live in most of the time currently, nor the one the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is helping to reshape and recreate.

Anxious China

In the 2000s, during the era of great enrichment, the Chinese nationalist blogger Wang Xiaodong and a group of writers associated with him put together the book `Unhappy China’ (中国不高兴), a collection of complaints about the way the country was treated not just by the outside world, but by itself. One of the contributions referred bitterly to the milk powder scandal of the year before, wondering aloud how it was that its own rulers seemed incapable of stopping its people being poisoned by their own food.

Over a decade on, and it is hard to see anyone in Xi Jinping’s China being brave enough to issue an edict like this, even if it was clothed in the protective language of patriotism. Rules exist now to shush people away from anything that veers close to the space of politics.  Even so, it’s a moot point whether the country has got much happier even as it has burgeoned in power and outward confidence. It is this issue that US academic Li Zhang addresses in `Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy’ (University of California Press, 2020).

The inner lives of Chinese people remain one of the world’s great undiscovered areas. While physically the country has been accessible to travellers, visitors and experts from elsewhere for a number of decades, what to make of the world views, and inner aspirations and turmoils of a fifth of humanity is another matter. There have been some heroic and important attempts to conquer this territory. Arthur Kleinman, of Harvard, with collaborators has been working on mapping out `Deep China’ since the 1980s.  Jie Yang’s book on Mental Health in China managed to divide up what sometimes looks like an unmanageable behemoth into something a bit more approachable. Her work refers to the `empty heart disease’ (空心病) suffered by cadres in the Communist Party, and the `princess syndrome’ by young women burdened by ideals in China that end up leaving them forever frustrated.  In Chinese, the veteran economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼)has written about the issue of anxiety and status in post-reform China., addressing the key question of why as they grow richer, they get more miserable.

One of Li Zhang’s key points in her ethnographic study of the practice of psychotherapy in contemporary China is that indigenisation matters (she calls this by its Chinese term in her study, `bentuhua’ – 本土化). This is something that prevails whether it be in the field of economics, social organisation, or business.  China takes things from outside and then adapts and transforms them.  Interest in psychotherapy started after a conference held with Germany partners in Kunming, South West China in the late 1980s. It seemed a bold move then, to bring knowledge of a practice that was associated with western individuals and almost regarded as a spiritually corrupt bourgeois practice.

As capitalism, and consumerism, have seeped deeper into Chinese economic life (despite having little impact so far on politics) this attitude has changed.  In October 2016, the Chinese government issued `Happy China 2030: Blueprint’ (with a further document on public health supplementing this a year later, available at As Li says, `this is the first time that the health and well-being of the nation have been considered of paramount strategic importance and placed on the very top of the government’s agenda and long term planning’ (171). COVID19 has only reinforced this urgency.

The authorities are right to attend to this area. Fast paced changed, increased physical and social mobility, on top of a society that was already characterised by dense and complex human networks, have created something akin to a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. Urbanisation anywhere in the world has been associated with sharp increased in problems in this area. No society has experienced a vaster, faster shift of people into cities and towns than contemporary China. It is not surprising therefore that people are feeling disorientated. All of this is compounded by the social stigma that individuals suffering various forms of mental illness endure in the country. People may no longer be locked up in institutions little better than primitive prisons as they were in the recent past for suffering from schizophrenia or depression, but they often end up isolated and ostracised.

Li Zhang brings a very personal touch to this account, by talking of her own battles against depression, particularly after the death of her mother who, she argues, clearly suffered from long term issues which, in a different context, would have been manageable by treatment and therapy. This is no naïve account however of how today suddenly treatments and approaches once unavailable in China are now there to be used by everyone. As she shows, the Communist Party in the end is all about control, and in its construction of a `loving, caring’ (guanai – 关爱) discourse, this too figures as a regime and set of discourses and practices that can be used to get people to behave in ways that favour the state. `In post-socialist China,’ she states, in a key sentence towards the end of the book, `it has become more apparent that psychological counsellors and other mental health workers are becoming a new form of authority’ (153). As Foucault pointed out, medical and psychological practices were, in the end, associated with forms of power, and it is these that the government has displayed interest in. Even so, `the therapeutic state’, she says a little later, `is not monolithic.’ It operates in this area much as it does in economics or administrative governance, often organically, allowing innovation and change, till solutions appear. And in 2017, in one fell swoop, the national accreditation process for counsellors was simply stopped, creating confusion, but not, Li argues, any restraint on the rich market for help that now exists in the country.

This is a timely and important study, rich in empirical observation, and conveyed in a human and accessible way. This is a hugely important issue, and one that will almost certainly prove a great point of convergence between China and the world outside. For all the differences, one thing is clear: in the age of raging against China as a predatory, threatening state posing multiple questions for the outside world, the simple fact is that people everywhere, inside and outside the PRC, are suffering from spiritual and mental health maladies. In this area, despite all the indigenisation, we are the same, and we can seek to work together better to sort out some common answers.

Uwe Johnson: The Enigma of Sheerness-on-Sea

The full new translation, highly acclaimed when it was issued, by American Damion Searls of German author Uwe Johnson’s monumental novel `Anniversaries’ was one of the most important literary events in 2018. A year later, as the world was buried in the pandemic crisis, author Nicholas Dames recognised the curiously calming and curative powers of the book under the lock-down his native New York was suffering at the time. New York, after all, was the place where Gesine Cresspahl, the key character in Johnson’s 1700 page novel, settled after her journey from war torn Germany. The story she told her daughter over the course of a single year from 1967 to 1968 had been described by one German critic in the early 1980s as a `letter to the Germany people’. But it was also a clinical and accurate description of New York, and heled Dames remember the landscape around him at a time when that was largely inaccessible.  

British academic Patrick Wright in his `The Sea View Has Me Again’ addresses the particular question of why it was that this hugely consequential European writer, one whose star has been strongly in the ascendant in recent years, and who, as Wright says several times in this 650 page study, was so relentlessly focussed on fact and objectivity, a powerful antidote to our `post trust’ `fake news’ world, spent his final decade in the small seaside town of Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

Born in what is now part of Poland, brought up in East Germany, an emigrant to West Germany when it was still relatively easy to make the transition, and then working in New York and Berlin, Sheerness was, to say the least, a curious choice for a writer called by Nobel Prize winner and compatriot Gunter Grass `the most important post-War writer in German.’ Wright supplies some speculative answers: the ways in which the sea vista Johnson could see from his house at 28 Marine Parade along the sea front in Kent reminded him of the same marine view he saw as a child growing up on the Baltic;  getting refuge too from the often claustrophobic, gossip ridden world of Berlin was another.  Johnson had become stuck on the fourth, and final, part of `Anniversaries.’ In 1974, when moving to the UK, he had acknowledged the attraction of being far away from distraction.  Here was a refuge he could come to with his wife and daughter and concentrate on writing.

Things inevitably didn’t go to plan. The information, somehow conveyed to him, that his wife had, very briefly, been in a relationship with a Czech musician over a decade before had a corrosive effect on their relations (she was to move out of the house leaving him alone in 1978) and on his own health and stability. Already a strong drinker, he became even more so, frequenting two of the public houses within walking distance of his house, and becoming famous there as `Charlie’ (`Uwe’ proved too hard for the English mono-lingual fellow patrons of the bars to say). There he sat, drank, and observed. Some of what he saw seeped into his work. He had plans to write a full book, `Island Stories’ after `Anniversaries’ was completed. But that never happened. What observations of his immediate environment he had were largely conveyed in letters back to his friends and circle in Germany.

Johnson was, at least from the account in this book, not an easy man to get to know. He was intensely private, and made it clear he wanted no biography of him in his own will. Wright’s book, therefore, despite containing a huge amount of material about his life, both before and after coming to Sheerness, is also deeply respectful. Curiously, it is the environment to which Johnson came rather than the man himself that is Wright’s main subject. Much of it is about the history of his final home – of the way in which Sheerness had grown from naval dockyards in the 17th century, of how it had developed into a resort of sorts in the 19th and 20th, of how it had figured in the Wars, and of the devastating impact of the closure of the British naval posts in the city in 1960. Wright has undertaken meticulous research, using local newspapers much in the same way that Johnson used copious references to the `New York Times’ in his own work. He himself too has a link with this place: he was a student at the University of Kent in the late 1960s, and then taught in Whitstable around the time that Johnson came to the county. There is the haunting possibility the two may even, unknowingly, have crossed paths. Wright knew of Johnson at that time through some of his earlier works newly translated into English. Even so, the secrecy with which the older author surrounded his life meant few penetrated it. Those who did make the trip to Sheerness were often baffled by the environment they found him in.

A lot of Wright’s writing is about the sea: about its meaning for Johnson, and about floods, about the ways in which somehow Sheerness is a survivor, its coastal front directly before Johnson’s old house now overshadowed by a huge concrete protective wall. The final part of the book is concerned with another survivor of sorts that intrigued Johnson – the wreck of the bomb laden Liberty Ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, downed in 1944, its masts still poking hauntingly out of the water, the subject of endless enquiries and attempts to resolve what to do about its potentially deadly sunken cargo. Ironically, a situation judged critical and in urgent need of redress in the 1950s remains, today, equally critical, equally in need of redress, and equally unsolved.

Johnson died in later February 1984. He was by that time so isolated that his body was not found until the early part of March, over a fortnight after he had collapsed while trying to open a third bottle of wine. The fellow patrons at one of his favoured pubs regarded Johnson benignly as a curious but game foreigner. But as Wright says, starkly, what they were really witnessing was one of the greatest authors of the era slowly, but thoroughly, destroying themselves. Johnson was only 49 when he died. His relentless cutting off of his wife (it is not clear, from this book, what contact he had with his daughter after their final estrangement in 1978) showed an almost callous streak. This is ironic in view of the sensitivity with which he wrote about the relationship between Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter.

This book is about many things: the rise of post-industrial society in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s; the ways that diverse memories and feelings can be melded into a narrative by an author to give them some kind of shape and explanatory power; the relationship between location and imagination. Finally it is testament to the ways in which writing offers a sort of salvation, even to the most blighted of souls. Johnson was, on the glimpses one gets of him here, not a person to get close to; but his writing offers everything he had. That can be easily opened and read today. Sheerness may have had an accidental place in global literature, but with this one writer, that place is becoming secure.

Dreaming Chinese Style

Scholar of ancient China Robert Ford Campany makes clear in the introduction to his monograph, `The Chinese Dreamscape: 300 BCE-800 CE’ (Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University Press 2020) that any historian will attest that everyone, everywhere, dreams. Recorded history, and for that matter the speculation about much visual art on cave walls in Europe from millennia ago, is full of the testimony to this. His mission in this brief, but fascinating overview, is to explore the trickier question of what sort of meaning people from the Qin to the Tang dynasty, a period covering over 1500 years, imputed to the things they saw when they fell asleep – and, equally importantly, what relationship they had to waking reality.

One of the clear conclusions he comes to is that much of the documentary evidence (and here, ancient China is rich in recorded material – way more than Europe, for instance) shows that Chinese people over this period did feel that what they saw in dreams had meaning, and that in particular it portended something. This was not about them being important in revealing the dispositions of an individual, but about offering insights into a different world, one with its own objectivity, which related directly to our own waking one. The key was how to accurately interpret what these dreams said about that world, or worlds, and about this link with ours. Dreams, as he writes `do mean things’ (72). The question is what, and how.

In imperial China, a huge amount of thinking clearly went into both the different kinds of meaning that could be attributed to dreams, and the sort of messages they had for those dreaming. Wang Fu (王符)in the Han, 2nd Century CE, produced one of the most comprehensive treatises covering the first issue above. His `Discourse of a Recluse’ (潜夫论) talks of literal dreams, indirect ones, ones prompted by longing, or by physical sensations, illness, or people’s temperaments. Other theories around the same time associated oneiric activity with levels of `qi’ in the body. For others, there was a direct link with spirits from another world. From the period of the Zhou, people existed who were credited with having particular abilities to read and interpret dream meaning – diviners as it were. Manuals came into existence with listings of phenomenon that might be seen in dreams along with their possible meaning – Wang Fu, mentioned above, made the logical enough argument that monsters and strange beasts implied impending trouble, and dancing or people acting something more positive and joyous. `Seeing in Dreams’ (梦见)necessitated a particular kind of hermeneutics and a skilled interpretation – something the `New Collections of the Duke of Zhou’s Book for Interpreting Dreams’ ( 新集周公解梦书)attempts to comprehensively list. In this book, dreaming of ascending to the sky meant one will have a noble child. Seeing a clear sky meant experiencing joy. Most auspicious of all was dreaming of the sun and moon disappearing (83). Campany lists some of the most well known of the diviners – from Suo Din (索紞) from Dunhuang, active around 300, CE to Zhou Xuan (周宣)active a half a century earlier whose success at being able to foretell future happenings from dreams is recorded in the `Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’

Over this period, Chinese also put great effort in trying to work out the narratives structure of dreams. For the latter era, Buddhist meanings were often found, usually reflecting on someone’s karma. What is striking, as the book explains in its concluding chapters, is the absence of the one thing that in modern times has become most associated with dream meaning – links to the instinctive sexual life of individuals and the most intimate areas of their inner lives. The dream descriptions in this book present those dreaming as almost like detached observers witnessing an alternative world, not one with lesser reality than that which they lived in. This world had enough substantiality to sometimes result in physical things being able to transfer from one to the other. It also had its own objectivity and logic: `Dreams were not taken to be expressions of latent fears or wishes of dreamers, but rather as indices of the direction of events’ (121).

Cover: The Chinese Dreamscape, 300 BCE–800 CE in HARDCOVER

This is not a subject that many have written about – nor one that immediately suggests the range and depth of material that the author has succeeded in finding. That Campany has been able to describe consistent patterns of interpretation and approach across such an extended period is as much as tribute to his own scholarship as it is to the remarkable extent of classical Chinese texts that still exist today – some of which have only been recently discovered in sites like Dunhuang. The most famous of ancient Chinese dreams are recorded here – Zhuang Zhou dreaming of a butterfly and, after awakening, then wondering if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a person. But there is also the equally haunting other Daoist story of the carpenter and the tree, who in their dream encounter discuss the use of uselessness – and of how the carpenter had spared the old tree because he was looking for better, stronger ones to fell. Dreams in east and west, past and present, have always maintained this endlessly tantalizing possibility of either meaning a great deal – or meaning nothing at all. In the puzzlement dreams produce, at least, we are all on common ground.

Spying with Chinese Characteristics – `Chinese Communist Espionage: A Primer’, by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil

Mattis book

Peter Mattis and Mathew Brazil, one an analyst and one a former official and now an historian and consultant, are right in their introduction to this new book. Espionage from, by, and on China is necessarily a somewhat opaque world. Little has been written about it. Richard Deacon wrote one work which came out as far back as 1974. Since then, there have been others. But unsurprisingly, in a political culture that privileges controlling knowledge about even some of what one might consider its more open operations, China has proved increasingly effective at guarding the gates of the ultimate inner citadel – that of using unorthodox means, through human and signals intelligence – to work out what others are up to – the enemies outside, and within: espionage.

In a time of increasingly frenetic language and claims about the country and its government, `Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer(Naval Institute Press, 2019) offers some much needed calmness and reflection. All countries spy – or at least should do! There is nothing intrinsically evil about this. Ironically, as the two authors make clear, while the era of the Internet has offered some excellent opportunities for the country’s Ministry of State Security, it seems that the Marxist Leninist ideological framework within which everything needs to be interpreted and evaluated internally, rather than what they describe as `the empirical, positivist tradition that permeates Western intelligence’ (22) remains the most significant weakness. Were the Chinese institutionally to use a more flexible framework, then it’s an interesting question of whether they would become even more effective. It’s clear, though, that as the various case studies in the authors’ fourth chapter about economic espionage show, in terms of intellectual property theft they have proved pretty efficient. This too, however, is a competitive field. As with other areas of policy, when it comes to helping China and Chinese make money, the Marxism Leninism gets toned down by a much deeper pragmatism. In other areas, its operations no not so demonstrably successful. But then, to thicken the plot, the sign of a truly successful undercover operation is that no one ever knows it happened – or at least till long after!

At a time in which, in the US, Australia, and indeed in Europe, an almost McCarthy era hysteria is appearing about what Chinese agents and institutions are up to, this book offers an important ingredient of caution and focus. It locates Chinese modern intelligence in the historical narrative of the revolutionary party during its years from 1927 under attack and underground. The case of Gu Shunzhang comes up many times. The chief intelligence operator alongside Zhou Enlai from 1929, his detention (bizarrely while masquerading as a magician while returning from an undercover operation in Wuhan) in 1931 by the KMT resulted in his making the choice to defect. The alternative was to die under torture. His treachery resulted in a devastating onslaught on his former fellow Communist activists. Only luck and the tip off from someone else meant that some of the Communists, including Zhou, escaped. Gu nearly finished the Party. If he had, the history of the country may have been very different. As it was, it just about survived. But this moment of almost existential threat, on top of the 1927 Chiang Kai-shek inspired April purge, left deep marks on the Party, and on Mao, its ascending leader. For Zhou, it was almost as though his failure to see the potential for weakness in his colleague was something that was laid on him for the rest of his life. It was one of the things that Mao `had on him’ and which were deployed over the decades ahead – even when he stood beside the Chairman from 1949 as his key right hand man when they were in power.

Not that the CCP were any patsies. Their response was to find Gu’s wife, and murder her, and ten of his family members – executions ordered by Zhou. After 1943 and the Salvation Campaign, those that worked in the world of espionage had to be wary of the very paranoia that the Party was asking them to service didn’t come to devour them in its turn. Pan Hannian  (潘汉年) and his unplanned meeting with the collaborator Wang Jingwei in 1943 during the war, something he fatally didn’t tell his superiors about, meant that despite the effectiveness of the work he was leading into infiltrating the KMT, when he confessed his error twelve years later, his report, when submitted to Mao, got the chillingly brief `此人从此不可信用” – ‘this man can never be trusted’ – inscribed on it. That was as good as s death sentence. Pan spent the rest of his life till 1977 in jail.

This book is full of excellent and useful detail, and presented in a way that avoids getting lurid or sensationalist. It is slightly impeded by the fact that from the second chapter it is largely an alphabetical listing of figures, sometimes institutions and companies, and then entries on their role, history, etc. This means that the narrative structure after the first introductory chapter disappears, and it becomes more akin to a reference book. Of course, as the title says, this is a primer – but it is a pity that there wasn’t an attempt to do thematic chapters with more of an attempt to interlink, and analytically describe the various different figures and the events they were involved in in a more organic way. At the very least that would have avoided some of the repetition that inevitably results from choosing the current format.

On top of this, the final chapter, at a mere ten pages, about current Chinese espionage, is disappointing. This was the opportunity to perhaps offer some more concrete information for people travelling to China today – things that are widely and publicly known now. The use, for instance, of clean laptops and mobiles, or the fact that, as the recent case of Dickson Yeo of Singapore made clear, Linked In has often been used as a way for people to be sounded out before being recruited. Nor does it go into more detail, of which there is plenty, about cases like that of the British aide caught in a blackmail case during a visit by Gordon Brown to Shanghai in 2008. Maybe that is for another fuller account the authors might be working on. Forewarned is forearmed, up to a point. And so this book fulfils at least part – and an important part – of helping to create a more informed awareness and debate about an important area. One thing is for sure. While it might not be the world’s oldest profession, spying must have been closely in second place. And in a world of dwindling certainties, this shadowy area is not likely to disappear. This book helps to manage the risk, even if that risk will never disappear.

Why Reading Leibniz on China Matters Now

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is one of the great figures of European intellectual history. His contribution to knowledge ran from mathematics, to calculus, to natural science, and philosophy. For a person associated with the invention of the calculator, the impact of his own work was incalculable. It matters therefore that he wrote often, and at length, about China. This is all the more remarkable because of the very limited contact between the Qing China that existed at the time he lived (with pleasing neatness he was born almost at the dawn of the Qing’s foundation, which had been from 1642 to 1644) and the dearth of material that had been translated from Chinese into European languages. The great bridge over which knowledge of this remote civilisation passed to Leibniz was the work of the Jesuit missionaries, among whom Matteo Ricci from a century before was one of the most eminent. The later figures of Nicholas Longobardi and Antoine de Sainte-Marie, in their zealous mission to disprove fundamental tenets of Confucianism and the Chinese world view they had been exposed to during their time in the Qing empire had also, to some extent, offered translations of key passages from the great Confucian texts – the `Analects’, `The Great Learning’ and the `Five Classics’. In these Leibniz learned of the strange parallels between the hexagram system in the ancient work of divination, the `I Ching’ (`yijing’, 易经) and the binary number system he himself had devised.

The Jesuits had mostly approached engagement with China as part of a mission to convert the Chinese. Matteo Ricci’s work was pervaded by the task of finding parallels between the Chinese world view and Christian Catholic faith. Along the way, he developed that bifurcated, complex view that anyone dealing with the reality of the Chinese world, its cultures, societies, histories and philosophies would recognise even down to today. Half deeply impressed, admiring and embracing of Confucianism, he maintained a strong antagonism towards Buddhism. His Jesuit successors to some extent solved this tension by taking sides: they created a position of moral ascendancy, where the Chinese world and mindset were presented as challenges, problems, that somehow offered themselves to vast projects of reformation and conversion.

Leibniz matters, and matters massively, if for no other reason that the declaration he makes in his `Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese’ from towards the end of his life (the book was issued in the year of his death, 1716).  Here he writes:

`I said at the outset that I did not want to examine to what extent the manner of worship of the Chinese could be condemned or justified, and that I only wanted to investigate their doctrines.’ (Leibniz, `Writings on China’, trans and edited by Daniel J Cook and Henry Rosemont Jr, Open Court, LaSalle and Illinois, 1994, 123).

These words should be put in gold on the doors of any institute or entity, and be adopted as a universal creed, by anyone dealing with contemporary China. They were stated by one of the great enlightenment figures, in the full spirit of enlightenment values – commitment to intellectual openness, dispassionate enquiry, and a belief that, in the words of the modern philosopher Thomas Nagel, there is `a truth that is independent of our beliefs’ (Nagel, `The View from Nowhere’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986, 186). This is as true about China as about any other subject or issue: there is, despite the froth and chaos of contemporary debate a `truth independent of our beliefs.’ The Leibniz attitude is the most likely way to find that.

Through his enquiry into the ideas and philosophy of China that Leibniz engaged with, in this and other works produced earlier in his career, he stood aside from the clear aim of the Jesuits whose works he was mining for material in not being motivated by a desire to make some massive evaluative point in favour of Christianity and its universal applicability. Not that this did not sometimes figure in his work. But more often it is frequently disrupted by problems, dis-junctures, and puzzles – moments when he is brought up short by appreciation of the the richness and validity of what he is finding the Chinese words he is examining, albeit at second or third hand. His long discussion of the notion of `Li’ 理 – something he equates to the concept of God, and which figures on the Warring States philosophers as a principle underlying everything, and in which everything unfolds and makes sense – is symptomatic of this. While Leibniz’s reference point is Judaic-Christian monotheism, he also unpacks the ways in which he finds the Chinese notion similar, and dissimilar, with the latter being particularly important. Leibniz certainly allows, and accepts, the dissimilarity, without wanting to embark on some grand campaign of intellectual and cultural assimilation. There are further discussions of the ideas of the `taiji’ 太极 – supreme of ultimate), the `dao’ 道 – (path or way) and the principles of `yin’ and `yang’ (阴阳). Leibniz may not have had access to much of the great corpus of Chinese classical thinking, but even in the slender amount he did find, he managed to discover a lot.

Leibniz is a great model and inspiration today on many levels. Firstly, he engaged with ideas from the largely unknown and unexplored traditions of the Chinese world with a genuine openness and curiosity. Despite this openness, his work bears no trace of fear or defensiveness. His world view was one of deep confidence and intellectual integrity – he attempted to see the Chinese world view accurately, and on its own terms. He made no shallow moral judgements, nor imposed any easy normative frameworks where his intellectual location was somehow presented as superior to what he was examining. He was open minded enough to place his own work, particularly binary numbers, against what he found in the Chinese corpus and see parallels and commonalities there, things that indicated a deeper, shared, human root. Leibniz was, after all, a great humanist.

We need the spirit or Leibniz today. That is why reading the work of someone who had never set foot in the country from over three hundred years ago is still important and refreshing. Somehow, between that time and the present, the constant desire to either save or damn China entered into the equation. We seem to be living deep in that stage. The German philosopher shows that there is a way between these two extremes. And it serves us all to find that one quick, and start to truly live up to the values that he was such a significant figure in creating, rather than simply degrading and betraying them through fear, division and blame.


Forbidden Memories of Tibet in the Cultural Revolution

Tibet Book Tsering Woeser

The Cultural Revolution has been, and continues to be, intensely studied outside China. Within the country, particularly in recent decades, things are more sensitive. But even if repressed, it is still part of the life stories of most people over the age of 65 – which means a good number of the political elite running the country today. We know much about how the events from 1966 unfolded in urban centres like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou through the excellent work of, amongst others, Andrew Walder. Song Yongyi runs a tremendous internet resource on the era with thousands of documents ( Even in more remote parts of the country, we have some good material, much of it from Chinese writers themselves who were witnesses originally and then went on to study it. The remarkable `The Killing Wind’ by Tan Hecheng about the horrifying events in Daoxian, Hunan province in 1967 springs to mind here.

On the three main so-called autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, the situation is somewhat patchier. The first region has been addressed most fully by the work of Qi Zhi, (啓之,内蒙文革实录,Hong Kong, 2010). The second and third however are areas where much is suspected, and little really known.

One of the many remarkable things about Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser’s book, `Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution’, now handsomely translated into English by Susan T Chen and furnished with an excellent introduction by Robert Barnett (Potomac Books, Nebraska 2020- ) is the ways in which, through the collection of her father’s photographs from the period, we see the act of revolution as it was undertaken at this time. Mao Zedong was right: revolution was not a dinner party. This book shows people in the midst of violence, verbal and physical. They are depicted being struggled against, forced to bow their heads while being marched through streets with the various paraphernalia of the era hung around their necks and bodies, and in some cases taken from trials to execution. Not a dinner party indeed!

Those who have been to Lhasa, where most of these images were shot, will be familiar with some of the locations. The area in front of the revered Jokhang Temple, for instance, or the square underneath the Potala Palace. They are places of largely placid sightseeing and tourism today, though heavily securitised. Tsering Woeser’s father was an official photographer for the People’s Liberation Army in the 1960s, meaning that he was allowed access to the events which unfolded from August 1966 when the Cultural Revolution hit China’s provinces after being announced in May in Beijing. He did this work for the following two years, before being relocated with his family to neighbouring Sichuan province. The fact that his daughter was able to keep his collection of negatives, and that she is also in a position to supply such detailed notes and explanations, means that there is nothing remotely like this archive for the other autonomous regions.

The act of revolution in this period involved the singling out of specific individuals who were associated with the `Three Great Masters’ of the old Tibetan society – members of the former government, monasteries and aristocratic classes. The campaign to eliminate the claimed influence of these was folded into the national `Smash the Four Olds’ that was waged elsewhere in Mao’s China.  The ways in which the national and local dynamics related to each other, particularly in how actions like Struggle Sessions and political campaigns to `root out’ evil influences, were adapted to local circumstances, is captured both in the images, with their haunting power, and the texts. They are only moments in a dynamic process, frozen for one moment, but this does not detract from their great symbolic power. Around them, we can construct a little of what this whole experience of revolution at this time and its aftermath must have been like. We can also understand the traces it leaves to this day.

It would be easy to start imposing strong moral parameters to this story to make sense of it – the victimised Tibetans and the evil Han colonisers is one that springs to mind. But this book is a corrective to this. As Barnett explains in the introduce, and as Woeser and the photos reinforces, the vast majority of those persecuting, not just those being persecuted, were Tibetans. Many of the activists were classified as `emancipated serfs.’ Some came from the underclass – beggars, thieves, those on the fringes of the traditional society that had prevailed in the region till the fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959. The question of motivations is not an easy one to unpick. For some, as elsewhere in China, it was a case of settling scores with people they felt had done them done. For others, it was more about keeping themselves safe in an era when everyone was under suspicion. Even the most powerful Communist Party appointed leader of the region in 1966, Zhang Guohua, and his deputy Ren Rong, ended up getting consumed by the events, removed to elsewhere or side-lined. In the aftermath, yesterday’s victims, sometimes, became the new masters, co-opted by the Party State in the reform era after 1978 to be members of the notional governance structure of Tibet as it emerged from the trauma of this time. In most of the images, at least from the era of its greatest intensity over 1966 to 1967, the thing that is striking is the ways that people of Han ethnicity – either as soldiers, or party members – when they are visible at all, are more often than not on the edges, and figure as onlookers. Only once or twice do they seem to take an active, leading role.

One of the most powerful and important aspects of this book, which was originally issued in Taipei, Taiwan in Chinese in 2006, is the ways in which it expels anonymity. Often, except for absolutely key figures, images from the Cultural Revolution elsewhere in the country have people in them who carry no names, and about which nothing seems to be known. Who were they, what had they done before getting involved, why were they there, and, most importantly, what happened to them afterwards? The work of Li Zhengsheng, who only recently died in the US, typifies this. While the publication of his collection of images from the north east of China at the same time as Woeser’s sometimes indicate who the figure is being struggled against or attacked, for those engaged in doing this there is largely silence. Woeser’s approach to her father’s work is different. She conveys a vast amount of information about even figures that are in the background of some of the photos. She is able to track what happened to them – how some of them spent much of the rest of their lives reverting to Tibetan religious practices in an act of repentance, and how others remained unapologetic, and even enjoyed success. For some, the updates fade away, with only `they died sometime in the 1990s’ finishing off the descriptions of them. But all of this does help give depth and human context to scenes which can all too often seem distant because of their almost nightmarish quality.

In the end, though, dwelling on the stories that we see through the book of those who took the brunt of this cataclysmic event – Ba Jin called it a `spiritual holocaust’ – is where the real comprehension of what it might mean, and how it should be remembered and understood today happens. Images of the figure of Shatraba Decho with a huge paper notice stuck to her front in Tibetan denouncing her crimes for instance. Or the horrible fate of Tsadi Tseten Dorje whose aristocratic background meant he was singled out for particularly nasty treatment, with a concoction of barley and thorns forced down his throat at one meeting, and a dunce’s cap placed on his head. Maybe of all the images, that of the bewildered expression of the elderly Pelshi Po-la, standing being humiliated in public, looking straight at the camera, is the most haunting (117). These four images raise the kind of questions about complicity, accountability, the role of an observer like the photographer, and in what ways their act of recording is crucially necessary, but also profoundly painful. It might be my own over-delicate liberal sentiments, from another place, and another time over fifty years in the future, but there is a sense in which his look captures the sense of shame, incomprehension, and accusation not just for those actively persecuting him that day, but we, as readers, sitting comfortably observing decades later. The Cultural Revolution was China’s; the human tragedy of it however, as this book so forcefully shows, relates to us all.