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Peking Diary

January 29, 2010

Derk Bodde. Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950.

Dahpon D. Ho (2003)

If this remarkable diary is any indication of Bodde’s intellectual prowess, then few could have been more qualified for the honor of the first Fulbright Fellowship to China in August 1948. Bodde, a scholar of Chinese literature and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, embarked on this journey with his spouse and young son, full of hope that their year in Peking would see “changes of epoch-making importance not only for China but for the world” (p. xvii). That the year’s tumultuous events far exceeded his expectations is evident in his day-to-day notes on the civil war, the last months of Kuomintang occupation and the Communist takeover of Peking. Bodde’s riveting and perceptive account is a joy to read.

By Bodde’s admission, such a personal account is inherently open to the charge of inconsistency. Nevertheless, published here unchanged except for the addition of a few footnotes, this diary is a valuable historical document that preserves the excitement and foreboding of revolutionary changes afoot in 1948-1949. If it seems to alternate between exuberance and gloom, he writes, it is precisely because “history in the making is itself often inconsistent, and because it is almost impossible to watch a revolution from day to day without being seized by conflicting emotions” (p. xix).

Peking Diary puts a poignant human face on the disintegration of Nationalist rule in the once vibrant imperial capital of China. Though he often bemoans problems like price gouging and runaway inflation, Bodde goes beyond citing figures like daily grain prices and exchange rates. The entry on November 12, 1948 (“The Avalanche”), for instance, adeptly highlights the general breakdown of authority by describing the invasion of his courtyard home by cold, neglected and hungry student refugees. If Bodde’s account of the Communists seems highly positive, his favor stems not from support of Marxism as such but rather his dismay at the appalling corruption and mismanagement of the Nationalist regime. His reading of Chinese newspapers, conversations with a wide range of personal contacts and disaffected liberal intellectuals, and observations of daily life bring him to the conclusion that “irrespective of what happens to the Communists, one fact is certain, the Kuomintang is through” (p. 261). Bodde’s description of the “liberation” of Peking in January 1949 and the residents’ favorable (or at least acquiescent) reception of the new People’s Government provides a fascinating glimpse of the Communist victory from the ground level. Bodde is intimately concerned with Peking’s fate, and the narrative resounds with his reflections on the city he loves so well.

This book’s greatest strength is also its greatest limitation: Peking at the dawn of the Communist victory comes out in vibrant color, but the rest of China is mentioned only tangentially through newspaper reports. For a broader contemporary travelogue readers may wish to consult A. Doak Barnett’s China on the Eve of Communist Takeover (1963). Until Peking changes hands in January 1949, Bodde’s analysis of the Communists is hampered by the relative dearth of information that filters into the walled city. Nevertheless, his insights are stimulating and sometimes prophetic. He notes the Communist Party’s concessions to industrial and commercial interests as being “a far cry from actual communism” (p. 125) while also expressing his reservations about the budding police state and the oppressiveness of propaganda and thought reform. Bodde’s comparison between communism and religion is a thought provoking analogy that predates Robert Jay Lifton’s Revolutionary Immortality (1968) and other interpretations of the Communist Party’s religious zeal. Bodde ends with an apt prediction that the future evolution of communism in China would be different from that of Europe: according to one reviewer in 1951, this book is “a very effective refutation of much of the present right-wing propaganda about China” that tries to cast China as a puppet of Soviet communism (Michael F.M. Lindsay, Pacific Affairs 24.2).

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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