The Gate of Heavenly Peace

by Jonathan D. Spence
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Last Updated 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 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 leaders were Communists. Oppression was commonplace on both sides of the political spectrum. Ding Ling, whose Communist companion, Hu Yepin, had been executed by the Guomindang, was herself sentenced to work in the countryside for two years in 1957 for allegedly having betrayed her Communist comrades to the Guomindang from 1933 to 1936, and she was similarly humiliated for espousing independent views during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969).

Despite the nationalistic and revolutionary fervor of China’s intellectuals, the optimism that drove them forward was frequently tempered by a pall of sadness and depression—a climate graphically depicted by the author. The problems facing China were enormous: political instability, economic deprivation, and social upheaval, simultaneously occurring to create a bleak picture of hopelessness resulting in resignation, capitulation, or suicide. It was this despair, however, that stimulated the determined intellectuals to persist in creating a better and stronger China. To his credit, Spence makes clear by his portrayal of Chinese intellectuals that they were not merely aesthetes, possessed by esoteric concerns, but were extremely courageous and persistent in adversity.

Strengthening Spence’s position that Chinese intellectuals were dynamic and independent is the limited and sometimes hostile response given to renowned foreign thinkers visiting China. Although Bertrand Russell had his admirers in China, his talk of the slow evolutionary process for socialism met with impatience. With the vehicles of communication, such as the press and the educational system, controlled by capitalists, Mao Zedong believed there was no time for gradualism. George Bernard Shaw, known for his candor, disturbed some Chinese intellectuals with his refusal to pander to their views. Least welcome was Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel Laureate in literature and famed internationalist. His pan-Asian views did not sit well with China’s nationalistic youth, disturbed by internal militarism and foreign imperialism; and they found his preaching about “oriental civilization” personally distasteful and ideologically contrary to China’s needs. China’s modern youth, while not unified on their ideological course, instinctively knew what must determine their own destiny.

The selection of Ding Ling as part of Spence’s trinity was an excellent choice to illustrate the crosscurrents and broad dimensions of China’s revolutionary movements. The origins of the call for women’s rights, as Spence indicates, can be traced to the late nineteenth century. Protests against injustices toward Chinese women were heard at the beginning of the twentieth century from Qiu Jin, whose impetuosity led her to seek broader revolutionary change, resulting eventually in her execution. Although most Chinese women continued in a traditional path, a small number received higher education in China and in France and contributed their voices to the May Fourth Movement (1919); and essays analyzing the patterns of women’s dependence in Chinese society began to appear in the New Youth, a radical, intellectual journal of the World War I era. The imprint of women’s activism on the revolutionary movement was deepened further, Spence argues, when Mao Zedong refused an arranged marriage and selected for his first wife Yang Kaihui, an activist and friend of Ding Ling.

The author’s balanced approach to the plight of China’s intellectuals brings out the irony in their efforts to express divergent views freely and independent of repressive threats. Some had given their lives to enhance a democratic spirit. Under Mao, however, literature and art were to serve the masses—the proletariat, not the petty bourgeoisie. Writers and artists were to learn from the workers, peasants, and soldiers, popularizing their achievements. Nothing should be written that could be construed to be alien to the masses; otherwise it was considered “bourgeois individualism” and detrimental to the preeminence of the proletariat class. The seriousness of this restriction on intellectual expression was most evident in the “Hundred Flowers” campaign of 1957 when Mao confidently encouraged public criticism only to be rebuffed by its unexpected ferocity. To counter such extreme views, he then was compelled to initiate an “antirightist” campaign which again stifled free expression.

This process in which a marginal degree of freedom is allowed, resulting in an embarrassing level of public criticism, requiring a reimposition of repression, occurred again in 1978 and 1979. Responding to the liberalization of Deng Xiaoping, young intellectuals of this period began to express themselves more freely in essays and poems and formed study societies and magazines to express their newfound freedom. Spence finds an intriguing similarity between these activities and those that took place among students in the May Fourth period, and even among students in Shanghai and Japan during the late Qing Dynasty. Moreover, the enthusiasm and optimism exhibited in the earlier periods were also characteristic of the democracy movement in the late 1970’s. Among the various theses that can be identified in Spence’s complex account, one of the most significant is the continuity of ideas, aspirations, activities, and determination between the reformers of the 1890’s and the new dissidents so vocal in Beijing (Peking) in 1978 and 1979.

The brief revival of democracy under Communism had its heroes. Most notable was Wei Jingsheng, a twenty-nine-year-old electrician employed in the Beijing Zoological Gardens and a former Red Guard member in the Cultural Revolution, whose agitation brought on his arrest in May, 1979, followed by his trial and fifteen-year prison sentence. The “Democracy Wall” on Xidan Street in Beijing upon which Wei and his supporters placed “big character posters” was scraped clean and is no longer available for public expression. It was officially claimed that the privilege had been abused by “ultra-individualists.” Despite this restriction on free speech, repression has been tempered by the lack of total constraints on intellectuals and their work. Moreover, China’s youth is currently encouraged to seek higher education in modern, Western subjects (albeit, principally in scientific and technical fields) both in China and in non-Communist, Western countries, providing an exposure to the forbidden fruit of free inquiry. In addition, it must be noted that the renegade Ding Ling was set free again from her last incarceration in December, 1979. How long it will be before China’s intellectuals will again raise demands for unrestricted freedom of expression cannot be determined; and the author, a historian, does not attempt to predict the future. Spence realizes that the history of modern China’s intellectuals is incomplete, and he wisely leaves his story with a question in the reader’s mind rather than a conclusion.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

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