The high drama of two centuries of Chinese revolution
The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985, by John King Fairbank. New York: Harper & Row. 400 pp. $20.95. Only a naive graduate student or a self-described ``ex-professor who is not up for tenure, and who doesn't care about reputation,'' would have the confidence and the gumption to take on the Chinese Revolution from 1800 to 1985 as John King Fairbank has.Skip to next paragraph
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This work is clearly the triumphant culmination of nearly a lifetime devoted to East Asian studies -- and China in particular. It deserves the praise usually held for the best academic works -- comprehensive, profound, balanced, and provocative. Yet, clearly written, witty, and entertaining, this book is destined for an audience far beyond just the Asia specialists.
Whether looked at from a historical, political, sociological, personal, or partisan perspective, the story of the Chinese Revolution over the past two centuries remains one of high drama. Though Fairbank makes a strong argument for basing his analysis in history, his work is not weighed down by the ``dead hand of the past.'' It remains throughout a lively narrative that either implicitly or explicitly helps to illuminate what is happening in China, right down to the present. Like a good historian, Fairbank is not so transfixed by the continuities of the past that he is unable to recognize the significant departures.
Into his historical analysis Fairbank weaves many important political, cultural, and economic strands. He underscores from the outset that China has not only experienced a political, social, and economic revolution, but also ``a transformation of the entire culture.'' Fairbank shows how these revolutions did not always proceed at the same pace and, at times, undermined one another.
The connection between the revolution in Chinese politics and the revolution in Chinese culture over the past 200 years can best be described as a love/hate relationship in which neither partner has ever been free of the other. Fairbank shows how China's economic revolution has been intimately intertwined with politics and culture in this love/hate affair.
By doing so, he indirectly challenges the popular conceptions of China prevalent today. He faults the West for its fixation on Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms to the exclusion of looking at what reforms are and are not taking place in Chinese politics and culture today.
Fairbank is able to criticize the People's Republic without the bitterness and soul-searching of the disillusioned -- those who finally discover China is not the utopia they had hoped for. He criticizes the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership not for failing to live up to their own propaganda, but for allowing the revolution to continue until it began devouring the people they said they would save.
Fairbank's harshest remarks go to Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese Communist Party decided in 1981 that the final verdict on Mao was 70 percent good, 30 percent bad. I suspect Fairbank's ratio would go more against the Great Helmsman.