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Russia and the Roots of the Chinese Revolution

January 29, 2010

Don C. Price. Russia and the Roots of the Chinese Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Chris Hess (2000)

In this important work Price traces Russia’s revolutionary influence on China, focusing on the formative years between 1896 to 1911. In seeking to address the complex questions regarding the formation of revolutionary thought and consciousness in the Chinese intellectual landscape at this time, Price finds that the nature of Russia’s impact on this process reveals several important themes in Chinese intellectual history. At this time revolution meant primarily the overthrow of the Ch’ing dynasty. By looking at how various reformers and revolutionaries, from Yen Fu and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao to more radical revolutionaries like T’ang Tseng-pi, reacted to events in Russia during this period, Price concludes that two distinct world views emerged among Chinese intellectuals at this time (p.213). Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, for example, developed a world view which led him to emphasize a nationalism that elevated the interests of China above other concerns. Thus Liang did not favor revolution if it threatened the stability of the nation (p.129). Liang finds the Russian revolutionaries use of terror (assassination in particular) a more pragmatic tactic than a destabilizing revolution (p.133).

The other view which Price sees developing at this time, “promised the early attainment of a universal moral order of liberty and equality brought for the first time within man’s reach by the spread of enlightenment and the blood of martyrs” (p.213). Price argues that this universalist perspective most accurately reflected the Chinese revolutionary movement, and Russia provided a model that encouraged this outlook (p.214). Russia’s revolutionaries, for example, fought autocracy as did Chinese radicals, who were drawn to the “moral drama between good and evil men” (p.209). In developing this argument, Price deals with a wide range of themes, from how Chinese intellectuals dealt with Russian imperialism, to the romantic images of “ideal nihilists” circulating in popular modern fiction.

In his discussion of Russian imperialism and its impact on Chinese nationalism, Price illuminates its unique aspects and pays particular attention to the various ways in which Chinese intellectuals perceived it at the time. These varied responses reflect the different world views he traces throughout the book. For those radicals who viewed the world in a social Darwinian sense Russian imperialism was brutal and threatening (p.171). Yet Russia was a model for many of these early revolutionaries, and it was a country not fully “Europeanized.” This led some to look more closely at the nature of Russian imperialism. Price finds that men like Hu Han-min, who wrote for the radical magazine The People did not see the world as a hostile environment, rather they stressed China’s own weaknesses, and placed their hopes on the efficacy of international law in an environment they perceived as favorable to the principles of national independence (p.183, 192).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is Price’s use of sources, in particular the new media forms emerging in China at this time such as popular novels as well as growing numbers of progressive and revolutionary magazines and newspapers published in places like Shanghai. In a chapter entitled “The Revolutionary Vocation” Price’s focus on this literature allows him to argue that perhaps the most important contribution of the Russian revolutionaries was to provide a model with both existential and pragmatic qualities for Chinese radicals (p.193). Here Price delves into popular fiction and finds a large number of stories involving romantic action and self sacrifice involving Russian revolutionaries (p.195). Journals and magazines began to publish articles focusing on the qualities of these revolutionaries, and Price finds an influential model emerging that stressed both the use of violent tactics and personal commitment and self-sacrifice to a moral struggle (p.209). Thus Price finds that many of the qualities discussed by Mary Rankin in her study of early Chinese revolutionaries for example, were heavily influenced by this Russian model and propagated through the new media forms he is examining.

Contemporary reviewers praised this work for offering insights into this overlooked strand of universalism that Price sees as a crucial component in the thought of the early revolutionaries (Wong, Pacific Affairs, 49.1:127-129). Price concludes that nationalism was not the whole story and argues “the Russian revolutionary impact on China before 1911 confirms the presence of this universalist strain at a time when nationalism seemed to be the most exclusive focus of revolutionary passions” (p.220). Others praised his use of the kinds of source materials mentioned above (Lang, Journal of Asian Studies, 35.2:319-320). Wong however, does offer a bit of criticism, and finds that Price’s narrow focus on Chinese radicals obscures other impacts of the Russian model. In particularly Wong find that the Constitutionalist movement drew inspiration from Russia’s adoption of Constitutionalism following their defeat by the Japanese in 1905 (Wong, p.129).

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