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Last Reviewed 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 485 words.)

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