Re-Claiming the Chinese Revolution is a bold title. The article so entitled is Elizabeth J. Perry's closing argument to the scholarly community on her career. Dr. Perry used her professional standing to give Re-Claiming the highest possible profile. It is a work of personal importance to her and its words are carefully chosen, so let the analysis begin with the title.
To re-claim is first, to assert that one is the--or a--rightful owner of a thing, second, that someone not the rightful owner has appropriated it, and lastly, that one wants the thing back. Thus the personal is apparent in the title itself. The subject is bold also: the singular--"The Chinese Revolution,"--not a part of it.
Dr. Perry is professor of government at Harvard University and is immediate past-president of the Association for Asian Studies. She is near the close of a scholarly career begun forty years ago as an admirer of Marx, Mao, and, the People's Republic. In the beginning she thought she saw the future down the shining path and this is one source for the personal tone of Re-Claiming. It is part wistful coming-of-age memoir where intentions, friends, and battles waged and won are remembered fondly. Her life's work developed out of the Vietnam War protest movement:
"[M]any budding young Asianists...myself included, were generally united in the conviction that the war in Vietnam represented an epochal clash between a dynamic Asian revolutionary upsurge, stirred by the example of Mao's China, on the one hand, and a destructive American imperialism, bolstered by the work of some prominent members of the Asian studies establishment, on the other." (1148-49)
Tempered political discourse was not characteristic of the time and Dr. Perry retains the patois. In the event, many budding young Asianists, herself included, found themselves unable to attain full revolutionary bloom in the rocky soil that the future chose and now stand with heads withered, drooping, and looking back to the past.
That's what Dr. Perry does in Re-Claiming, she looks back to her past, and China's past. She sees them similarly, but her hindsight is no better than was her foresight. Here's what she sees: a Chinese revolution,
"Created by idealistic young intellectuals yearning to advance the cause of progressive social and political change, not so unlike many of us forty years ago..." (1155)
Here's what others see: "a cynical and sadistic enterprise from start to finish" (1158), "an ever-widening campaign of terror during which...people were tortured, maimed, driven mad, killed or committed suicide," driven on by Mao, "perhaps...vicariously reliving his glory days of mobilizing peasants in Hunan and Jiangxi." (1147-48)
The first quote is Dr. Perry's one-line book review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Chang and Halliday. This book is history's judgment on its subject and it drives former budding young Asianists mad. The second is a quote from Mao's Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. This book is history's judgment on its subject, the Cultural Revolution, and it tortures Dr. Perry (one-word book review: "grim") because the C.R. coincided with her own beginnings. These two books are part of the scholarly avalanche (1) under which Elizabeth Perry lies.
And the bodies, the weight of the bodies is part of the avalanche too. She says that she is aware:
"My purpose is certainly not to discount or downplay the brutality of China's revolution." (1149)
But it is her purpose and she does downplay it:
"But violence and bloodshed were only part of the Chinese revolutionary tradition. There was, I would like to suggest, another more positive side..." (1149)
She says she didn't know:
"After all, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, few among us appreciated the extent to which Mao's machinations were generating such extreme manifestations of oppression and alienation." (1149)
But even now, knowing, she euphemizes: "Generating extreme manifestations of oppression and alienation" means "killing thousands, millions."
Her purpose, she writes, is to offer,
"...a more inspiring interpretation of the Chinese revolution." (1150)
This other, sunny side is the "spiritual wealth" (1150) of Mao's revolutionary tradition . Dr. Perry begins in Anyuan, Jiangxi Province, 1922 . There, she writes, Mao and the other founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party organized a strike of illiterate coal miners. The communists laid the groundwork for the strike by opening schools where the miners and their children were taught to read and write. The strike was successful, non-violent, non-ideological, increased literacy and produced better working conditions and higher wages. Anyuan also left a legacy of goodwill toward the C.C.P.--a spiritual wealth-- that the party could mine for decades, goodwill that is present even today among miners , who look back with fondness at 1922, and with which they negatively contrast their current lives. (1150-1153)
Then from Anyuan 1922 Dr. Perry moves to, actually she stops with Anyuan 1922. A lot of history occurred in China between 1922 and 1976--the founding of the People's Republic, The Great Leap, The Cultural Revolution, various purges--Dr. Perry rests her case on Anyuan 1922.
It is a tendentious argument made desperate because of the personal stake. If her description of Anyuan 1922 is accurate Dr. Perry has shown only that even a muddy river can have snow at its source. She turns the Marxist maxim, "The end justifies the means," onto its head. Her argument is "The means justify the ends," that the millions of missing spirits cannot overshadow the "spiritual wealth" of the "idealistic young intellectuals, not unlike ourselves" who founded the C.C.P. She abuses the language in making her tendentious argument. In some places she writes of the "tradition" of the Chinese Revolution but a tradition is a "continuing pattern of behavior." Anyuan 1922 does not establish a tradition. Behavior without a continuing pattern is aberration.
Re-Claiming is a brief work (sixteen pages) but though the path travelled is short, Dr. Perry cannot keep it straight. She stumbles with the first step. The opening sentence is,
Revolution is unpopular among politicians and scholars today (1147)
However it is with scholars, surely revolution has never been popular with politicians, the incumbents it thrills to overthrow.
The first two pages are a defense of Revolution, Revolution the genus, not the Chinese variable. Revolution, Chinese revolution, The Cultural Revolution, the path turns this way and that. Mao's biography is mentioned in one sentence. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals history of the Cultural Revolution in the very next. Both are on the first page of the article, in the middle of the two-page argument in support of Revolution which starts with a sentence bemoaning the coolness of the political classes to the guillotine, which is mentioned in two sentences on the French Revolution which is coupled with two more on the Russian. Margaret Thatcher gets thrown in too.
It is jarring these days to read the Manichean language of the Marxist dialectic: "Dynamic revolutionary upsurge," "destructive American imperialism," and "establishment" sound lifted from a parody rather than a current scholarly article, as does the tortured reasoning. In cautioning scholars against connecting the dots--against the "path dependence--of the Red Terror of 1927 Hunan and Jiangxi and the Red Terror of the 1967 (2) Red Guards, Dr. Perry writes this:
"To be sure, student Red Guards who placed dunce caps on their victims in the Cultural Revolution and paraded them through the streets of Beijing and Shanghai were imitating behavior that Mao had described in his 1927 Hunan report." (1158)
Dr. Perry then attaches a footnote which reads:
"As Mao had written approvingly in 1927, "At the slightest provocation [the peasants] make arrests, crown the arrested with tall paper hats, and parade them through the villages...Doing whatever they like and turning everything upside down, they have created a kind of terror in the countryside."
She then writes the following:
"But such connections do not establish any predictable or preordained route that the Chinese Revolution was destined to travel."
Actually, that is exactly what that connection establishes.
Dr. Perry delivered Re-Claiming to a captive audience of members of the Association for Asian Studies in her "Presidential Address" (fittingly, she is now past-president). The article is also the lead in A.A.S.'s "The Journal of Asian Studies" (3) and is atop the back cover index. She wanted Re-Claiming to reach the widest possible audience.
I am Benjamin Harris, and I have done my part.
1. See e.g., Youqin Wang, Chinese Holocaust Memorial, Memorial for Victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/ywang/history/; Jaspar Becker, Hungry Ghosts, Mao's Secret Famine (1998); Li Shi-Zui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1996); Nien Chang, Life and Death in Shanghai (1988).
2. The Red Terror of the Cultural Revolution was in 1966, not 1967.
3. Volume 67, number 4, November 2008. The cover contains a reproduction of a typical Cultural Revolution propaganda painting, March to victory with Chairman Mao's line on revolutionary culture, 1968.