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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

Jonathan Spence’s study of China’s recent history emphasizes the role of intellectuals in shaping the philosophies and ideologies that guided the nation from its imperial past, beginning in the 1890s, to its Communist present. Emphasizing primary documents, Spence uses the writings of essayists, poets, playwrights, and story-tellers to show diverse attitudes toward the important historical events that shaped China. This approach both helps the reader understand the diverse individuals’s personal contributions and the effects that broader experiences had on them. Along with his emphasis on Mao Ze Dong and other radical intellectuals, Spence presents the views of royalists—including monarchs—and republicans, including Empress Dowager Cixi, Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek.

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Three key figures are at the center of Spence’s analysis: Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, and Ding Ling. Kang Youwei led the reform movement in the final years of the Qing Dynasty. Although he held radical opinions about necessary changes to the Confucian order, Kang Youwei finally advocated a utopian social vision. Lu Xun, a popular writer who spoke against social injustice, became a leader in the League of Left-Wing Writers. Rather than a revolutionary, however, he espoused independent views and continued to encourage heightened social consciousness. Another writer, Ding Ling, was an outspoken feminist. Her revolutionary ideas about female emancipation placed her in the vanguard of social change; she grew frustrated with the limited changes that Communist rule achieved in that regard.

Spence weaves together more than 40 other individuals’s stories as he traces the social and political upheaval of the 20th century. Locating intellectual history as a driving force for social change, Spence also looks at the big picture, placing China’s internal struggles in the regional and global scheme. Significant events and ideas of the period covered include the decline of the Qing Dynasty, Yuan Shikai’s failed republic, the ensuing chaotic years of warlord rule, and Sun Yat-sen’s contributions to Chinese nationalism. As Chiang Kai-shek achieved success, closely followed by Japanese aggression, Spence shows the tremendous impact of the Guomindang versus Communist Civil War. Understanding all of these, Spence insists, are necessary for comprehension of the Communists’s victories, later political dominance, infighting, and contemporary legacy.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

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...

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