The Gate of Heavenly Peace

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his history of China from 1895 through 1980, Jonathan Spence privileges the intellectuals who shaped the guiding philosophies as well as the counter-proposals that helped create the powerful modern nation. One of the earliest such figures, Kang Youwei, initially campaigned for reform on the part of the imperial Qing rulers, later led a failed uprising, and then returned to a conservative reformist path. Kang overcame early family difficulties and developed the drive and conviction to embark on the path of scholarly achievement, as well as devote himself to serving others. He established academies for young men to study, focusing on the Confucian tradition, and by the 1870s had written a related book. He was convinced that modern science drew from Chinese contributions, rather than being a foreign imposition. Kang’s

interpretation meant that the new institutional and scientific elements being introduced by the Western powers could be seen as having antecedents in the Chinese tradition, and thus need not be simply rejected out of hand in an attempt to preserve some original Chinese “purity.”

For women entering the new century, one of the most potent symbols of change was the end of the tradition of binding upper-class women’s feet. For the writer Ding Ling, this change was a significant difference between her mother and herself. Her mother had become educated in the late nineteenth century and even become a teacher, and she recounted the pain she suffered both from mobility with bound feet and from the pain of unbinding them. When her mother began school, she and the other young women who had gone to study in the city

struggled to stop the tears from flowing down their faces as they stood on their bound feet during the seemingly endless ceremonies. . . . A modernized educational curriculum presented these women with a dramatic challenge in that it offered gym classes to all students yet at the same time excused all with bound feet from attendance. . . . Ding Ling’s mother determined to attend the gym classes despite the mockery of many . . . schoolmates, removing the layers of cloth wrappings, taking the first anguished steps.

For the radical Qu Qubai, it was the Russian Revolution that provided the greatest hope for a new social and political model. He saw the Soviet experience as providing a ray of light that could illuminate the darkness into which China had sunk. He went to live in Moscow to see for himself what the revolution had accomplished. While he hoped to dispel the disturbing tales of starvation and other hardships, he found them all too true and reported on them in a 1921 book. As a member of China’s scholar class, he came to see their privileged access to, and restriction of others from gaining, knowledge as a primary means of social control; he spoke out against it. The class

had drawn its power from its spurious claims to control access to knowledge which in turn enabled it to “fleece” the ignorant peasantry; just so had foreign powers fleeced the indigenous Chinese capitalists. . . . Qu . . . [was] bereft of thoughts as to how to proceed, save to offer the slogan “Proletarianize the scholars!”

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