The Gate of Heavenly Peace

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

When the history of modern China is seen through the eyes of its leading protagonists, the account often succumbs to social science formalism at the expense of humanistic perspectives. In The Gate of Heavenly Peace, however, Jonathan D. Spence has offered a refreshing view of China’s recent history by letting China’s intellectuals tell their own story, often in poetic expression, through their recorded responses to China’s revolutions of the twentieth century. The experiences of essayists, poets, playwrights, philosophers, and story-tellers—all participants in the turbulent events that jolted their dreams and aspirations—are woven together with the skill of a master craftsman.

The vignettes of historical episodes that serve as background to human responses are familiar to experienced readers of Chinese history, but the author’s primary contribution in this book is the measurement of the effect such events had on the thinkers and writers whose lives became entangled with them. Although the author focuses on China’s radical-minded intellectuals, other familiar figures enter the stage as well, such as the Empress Dowager Cixi, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and many of their associates.

From the intellectual community, Spence chose three figures to span the period of revolutionary change from 1895 to the present. They are Kang Youwei, leader of the reform movement in the final years of the Qing Dynasty whose radical views about change in the Confucian order were ultimately superseded by his advocacy of a utopian society; Lu Xun, whose popular stories, critical of social injustice, led him to leadership among the League of Left-Wing Writers, but whose independent mind led him to concentrate on raising the level of social consciousness among the Chinese people rather than becoming a revolutionary participant; and Ding Ling, effective writer and feminist whose revolutionary ideas on the emancipation of women in Chinese society often took precedence over her periodic disillusionment with the failings of the Communist system.

The personal lives of Kang, Lu, and Ding are skillfully woven by Spence into the fabric of Chinese history. They, and forty-odd additional figures, move among historic events, sometimes attempting to escape from them, sometimes caught in their web, sometimes confronting the events with a youthful, revolutionary determination to change the course of history. While concentrating on the world of ideas, Spence reminds the reader of the chaotic decline of the Qing Dynasty, the failing effort to establish a republic under the imperial-minded Yuan Shikai, the disruptive years of the warlord era and Sun Yat-sen’s effort to rekindle China’s latent nationalism, Chiang Kai-shek’s successful conclusion of the Northern Expedition, the Japanese aggression, Civil War between the Guomindang and Communist forces, and finally the political twists of Communist leadership. Throughout the maze of events, Spence does not lose his characters. The reader knows where they are and what they are doing until either their death or their latest known activity at the time of his writing.

More than most accounts of twentieth century China, Spence’s approach through the lives and responses of leading writers conveys the emotional impact of the century on the Chinese people and promotes an appreciation for the diversity of their responses. Among the reformers, radicals, and social critics, there was a great variety, although views in opposition to Guomindang authority were automatically dubbed “Communist.” Men such as Zhang Junmai, for example, questioned the Marxist attempt to define man’s life in “scientific” terms which could not account for that which is subjective, intuitive, and unique in human experience. Such ideas brought on prolonged and vituperative debates among intellectuals of different philosophical orientations. Moreover, when forty-seven students were mercilessly gunned down at the Gate of Heavenly Peace on March 18, 1926, the action was justified on the grounds that the students were “Communist-inspired,” but none of the...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, November 22, 1981, p. 5.

Booklist. LXXVII, July 15, 1981, p. 1432.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, November 9, 1981, p. B1.

Library Journal. CVI, September 15, 1981, p. 1732.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, October 14, 1981, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 18, 1981, p. 7.

Newsweek. XCVIII, November 9, 1981, p. 105.

Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 73.