Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
Jonathan Spence takes the name for his book from the phrase used to describe the approach to the former imperial capital in China. “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” was a place where kings, members of the royal court, and intellectuals would pass in the days of the Qing Empire. It was from its doors which the power of the emperor was said to radiate and where important decisions were made regarding the political and social future of the Chinese empire. This passageway lost much of its symbolic significance after the Chinese Revolution, throwing the entire future of Chinese political and intellectual life into question.
Spence’s book investigates the consequences of the revolutionary period by examining the lives of three intellectuals who lived through it: Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, and Ding Ling. The lives of these people spanned the entire 100-year period of what historians loosely refer to as the Chinese Revolution, from 1890 to 1990. Each of these people left behind a literary record of their experiences during the revolutionary period: the upheavals, changes in political leadership, shifting social statuses, and the rearticulation of cultural legacies. Spence argues that by considering their unique emotional and intellectual interpretation of these events, the historian can better define the nature of the times in which they lived. These writers were not the political figureheads that most people associate with the Chinese revolutionary period; they did not have the fame or influence of a Chiang Kaishek, Zhou Enlai, or Mao Zedong. However, it is precisely their ordinariness that opens a new field of investigation to the historian concerning how the disturbances of China’s many internal conflicts over this century were understood and rationalized at the ground level.
Kang Youwei lived from 1858 to 1927, and he witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of European and Japanese penetration in Chinese territory. Spence pays particular attention to Youwei’s comments on the reform period, when China began to look to the West for new and innovative examples of how to better organize its political structure and engage in constitutional reform. Lu Xun was born in 1881 and died in 1936, placing her directly in the middle of the confrontation between Chiang Kaishek’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang, and the Chinese Communist Party. Ding Ling, who lived from 1905 to 1986, bore witness to the rise of Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, and the emergence of China as a major ideological contributor to the Cold War. Spence uses the writings of these three people in order to paint a comprehensive portrait of Chinese society as it was experienced by everyday people. He analyzes the expectations each of these thinking men and women had for the future, their emotional investment in attaining social stability and putting an end to civil unrest and warfare, and their ultimate disappointment with the whole project. Distressed, these people nevertheless struggled on and tried to build a meaningful life within a country that was socially fractured.