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China in Revolution

January 29, 2010

Mary Clabaugh Wright, ed. China in Revolution: The First Phase 1900-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

This conference volume was prepared in response to a collective realization by historians of China that there was more happening in the first decade of the twentieth century than they had previously been aware of. In her introduction Mary Wright, abandoning her earlier commitment to Confucianism as the essential core of China, has moved from despair at the tragic inflexibility of the Confucian tradition to optimism at the possibilities of revolution. She draws upon the conclusions of the volume’s constituent papers to build an argument about the nature of the first stage of revolutionary activity in China. While continuing to stress the importance of nationalism and social change, Wright cast doubt upon both the GMD-associated view that the 1911 revolution was a powerful upsurge of anti-Manchu nationalism and the CCP-associated conception of it as a bourgeois revolution that failed. The nationalism that emerged around 1900, she argues, was more anti-imperialist than anti-Manchu, and the social change that culminated in revolution was supported not only or even particularly significantly by the bourgeoisie but by members of all the established classes as well as a number of social groups (youth, women, the new military, overseas Chinese, the working class) that gained new prominence at this time.

Wright emphasizes the extent to which later developments in the Chinese revolution were rooted in (though not determined by) the experiences of this initial period. Women and educated youth retained their prominence. The failure of leadership in 1911 (which she attributes to the time pressures imposed by the threat of foreign imperialist partition) impressed the need for strong leaders upon later generations of revolutionaries. And, in common with Levenson, Schwartz, Schram, Meisner, Lifton, and Hinton, Wright notes in the Chinese revolution a confidence in the power of the human will to transcend and transform social experience. She calls this “a kind of ‘great leap’ psychology . . . a conviction that by superhuman effort of an indoctrinated elite, China could bypass the usual stages and achieve its own kind of good society through sheer application of human energy and willpower” (p. 62).

The eleven papers making up the body of the book do not form an entirely coherent whole, but their cumulative impact is to strongly reinforce the logic of the title’s demarcation of the first phase of the revolution as 1900 to 1913. 1911 was particularly remarkable for the numbers of reformers who found themselves carrying out the revolution and revolutionaries who found themselves irrelevant, but this merely illuminates the extent to which the search for means of change beginning around 1900 was a single integrated and continuous process. A theme unifying several of these papers (Chang, Fincher, Hatano; Ichiko dissents) is that of provincialism as transitional, both institutionally through assemblies and conceptually through the formation of abstract border-defined loyalties, to nationalism.

Contemporary reviewers (Jean Chesneaux, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29 No. 2 (Feb. 1970), 432-433, Claude Buss, The American Historical Review, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Feb. 1970), 900-902) greeted this volume with enthusiasm as a substantial effort to understand the forces at work during an important period that had previously been neglected, and as a contribution to a growing body of work that treated Chinese history as a subject with its own internal logic, rather than as a series of inexplicable if peripheral and less than seriously debilitating impacts on the West.

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