Dissent Within the Great Wall

IN the wake of the stunning events that began in the spring of 1989 in China, and which continue in the former Soviet Union, China's frozen silence is troubling. Within China, all movement toward political change seems to have stopped.

Two new books explore the nature of dissent in recent Chinese history and assert that dissenting ideas - and voices - have never been lacking in China, even in the face of fierce oppression.

Anne F. Thurston's A Chinese Odyssey: The Life and Times of a Chinese Dissident (Charles Scribner's Sons, 440 pp., $24.95), and New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (Times Books, 515 pp., $30) edited by Geremie Barme and Linda Jaivin, offer some reflection on the roots and implications of the often dangerous search for democracy and modernization that has occupied China's history throughout this century. The 1989 "Beijing Spring" was only the most recent stage and the best known outside China.

As these books reveal, this search frequently has led the Chinese people into conflict with their society and government. The achievements of "A Chinese Odyssey" are mixed; the success of "New Ghosts, Old Dreams" is stunning.

Thurston is the author of "Enemies of the People," an impressive oral history of the Cultural Revolution in which she showed a distinct gift for being able to reveal underlying social patterns through the individual stories she records. This gift is given somewhat less scope in "A Chinese Odyssey," in which she recounts a single story, that of activist Ni Yuxian, who left China in 1986.

While not involved directly in the most recent protests, Ni is a controversial figure whose dissident attitude and activities from a young age reveal a startling picture of dissatisfaction with the post-1949 China almost since the day of its inception. This would seem to dispute the Communist Party's claim to have improved the lives and won the hearts of most Chinese, at least within the first 15 years after the revolution of 1949.

Ni was born in a village outside Shanghai to a family of impoverished former rural gentry. According to his account, the revolution brought this area no benefits, and his father was attacked during the antirightist campaign, which left the family permanently branded as politically suspect. His childhood and youth were marked by public executions and the widespread starvation during the Great Leap Forward; Ni reacted to the cruel and often shockingly senseless policies of the government with a rebellious candor that resulted in his being labeled early on as a troublemaker and, later, as a counterrevolutionary.

Thurston's portrait of a staunch nonconformist and cleareyed observer of the government's various campaigns is impressive (Ni paid for his refusal to accept in silence any official lies by his marginalization, a brutal imprisonment, and then exile).

Yet for those who know the paradoxes of Chinese history and the contradictory emotions of many Chinese toward the achievements of their government, it is not clear that Ni is representative of a large number of dissatisfied people rather than being one of a handful of unusually well-read and independent-minded Chinese.

More troubling is the handling of Ni's controversial activities in exile and his reputation in the overseas Chinese community. Ni has been accused by prominent Chinese scholars of mishandling funds for an organization he founded to promote democracy in China, among other disreputable practices, and Thurston herself points out that his political philosophy and highhanded behavior often contradict his claim to be simply a fighter for justice and democracy.

Thurston covers the period of Ni's exile and involvement in the overseas democracy movement in very cursory fashion; her account of his life in China is tinged with a reverence that prevents the reader from considering the possibility that Ni's perceptions may be highly idiosyncratic or even not entirely accurate.

A large number of Chinese concede that their lives improved materially in the decade after the revolution, and this needs to be noted for the general reader. But despite these problems and a stilted style (the book reads oddly, as though it were translated literally from a foreign language), Thurston gives a gripping and informative portrait of a bold, unconventional man caught up in the calamities of recent Chinese history.

"New Ghosts, Old Dreams" is a treasure-trove for anyone interested in modern China. Although its length (497 pages) may discourage some nonspecialists from reading it cover to cover, even dipping into it yields riches. A companion to Barms earlier work "Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience," the book is a collection of dissident writings representing many genres and writers from the 1920s to the present, with the bulk representing the last five years.

Included in this anthology are excerpts from poems, popular songs, essays, stories, and the TV documentary "River Elegy," whose iconoclastic approach to Chinese history drew the wrath of authorities and played a role in the popular discontent and tortured self-examination that led up to the tragedy at Tiananmen Square.

Many voices are heard here, from those of the sharp-tongued reformers of the 1920s, to those representing the official position on the 1989 crackdown, to that of the Dalai Lama. The variety of viewpoints expressed should silence the assertions that Chinese intellectuals are passive, uncommitted, or complacent about their country, people, and heritage; it reveals a rich polyphony behind the monotone of official Chinese discourse.

The translations (even those of strikingly idiomatic works) are uniformly of high quality and the thematic organization is excellent. The only drawback, a confusing insertion of supplementary materials into the main texts, is so minor that it hardly detracts from this moving, valuable, and timely collection. Elizabeth A. Cole taught English in China from 1981 to 1983. She is an intern at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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