Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590
Chinese History and Cultural Upheaval
Spence's book traces the observations and experiences of various Chinese intellectuals as they lived through the tumultuous events of one century spanning from 1890 to 1990.
This period saw the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the end of the Chinese empire, which had been the primary organizing structure of Chinese politics and society for over one thousand years. Furthermore, the period roughly from 1927 to 1949 (that of the Chinese Civil War) saw the emergence of modern Chinese ideological radicalism and internecine warfare on a massive scale.
Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which occurred between 1966 and 76, saw the Chinese Communist Party engage in wide-scale social purging combined with the massive displacement of the youth population and the arbitrary imprisonment and execution of perceived enemies of Maoism.
In short, Spence argues, it was a century characterized by almost perpetual upheaval, one which made it nearly impossible for ordinary Chinese citizens to cultivate any sense of moral grounding or civic stability.
Loss of Stability, and the Restoration of Order and Meaning Through Writing
The theme of loss and the struggle to reclaim a sense of order and meaning thus permeate the narrative. In particular, Spence focuses on the writings of three intellectuals—Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, and Ding Ling—whose collective lifespan covered the century.
These writers, he argues, felt a sense of duty or believed that they had an obligation to "save" China—which they believed could be accomplished by infusing emotion and political arguments into their narratives. Kang Youwei, for example, exemplified the feelings of loss experienced by many Chinese citizens eloquently in his book, Book of the Great Community. In it, he argues that:
our whole world is nothing but a world of grief and misery, and its inhabitants are nothing but grieving and miserable people. The living beings on this earth are all destined for slaughter. The azure heaven and the great earth are no more than a great slaughter-yard, a great prison (ch. 2).
Here, Kang was specifically referencing a massacre of French troops he had witnessed as a child. The causes of such suffering were what Kang attributed to the "great boundaries" that human beings had erected between themselves. He argued that, if humanity could eventually overcome these boundaries, then it could enter the world of the "Great Community" and finally achieve peace.
Individualism and Liberation: The Act of Writing in the Social Matrix
Kang Youwei's publication is just one example of the feeling of loss that the Chinese shared during this period. However, Kang's work—as with the work of many other writers—was often used by political elites in order to create a particular historical narrative, one which would provide legitimacy for their own right to rule or ideological presuppositions. Mao Zedong was particularly noteworthy for using the ideas and works of great thinkers to justify his own interpretation of what a Communist society should look like and how China in general should be managed.
Therefore, a second theme that runs through the book is that of liberation. Spence uses the writings of these three thinkers to illustrate how the writers' aptitude for creativity often becomes imbedded in China's political and social matrix. The right to individualism was constantly being contested between free-thinking Chinese intellectuals and political leaders like Mao.
Spence argues that, by projecting their voice and arguing against mainstream public opinion, these writers created a space in which the nexus of social and political power in China could be challenged, thus opening the possibility for the emergence of a narrative of liberation.