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The Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution

March 19, 2010
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Ci Jiwei. The Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: From Utopianism to Hedonism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Brent Haas (2006)

In a comparative philosophical view, Jiwei Ci traces the logical and historical movement of the Chinese revolution from Maoist utopianism to reform-era hedonism. In so doing, Ci argues against the common conception of the Maoist project as ascetic utopianism. Instead, he sees sublimated hedonism as an integral part of utopianism, and through ideological bankruptcy caused by the irreconcilable separation between reality and meaning creates nihilism, in turn leading to full-scale hedonism (1, 3, 5). Under this universalizing framework, Ci presents the materialist roots of Maoism- his “detour on the road to capitalism,” reframes the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution as struggles against “the routinization or depersonalization of charisma,” and even reinterprets the Democracy movement and recent anti-corruption agitation as inherently hedonistic (they are illegally enjoying the material benefits we want and deserve).

Much like Chen Jian’s revision of Mao’s role in the Cold War and Jung Chang’s provocative if problematic biography of Mao Zedong, Ci enjoys the authorial position of “insider” as he seeks the roots of China’s “spiritual crisis” that “existed in potentia in utopianism, came to a head in nihilism, and continues barely disguised in hedonism” (19, 22-23). Ci presents a fascinating logical discussion of the ti/yong duality in the late-Qing attempts to modernize technologically while maintaining cultural purity, and thus, centrality. Calling ti/yong the development of a peripheral mentality, or “thwarted ethnocentricity,” Ci finds continuities to the adoption of Marxism, which turned former shame at being the modern West’s periphery into a moralistic pride under Marxism (35, 39). And meshing with Chen Jian’s, as well as Chang and Halliday’s, presentation of Mao’s obsession with world dominance, Ci details how Mao Zedong Thought was presented as universally applicable to peasant revolutions worldwide (43).

In many ways, speed is at the heart of Ci Jiwei’s thesis on utopianism to hedonism. In typically-dialectical style, speed figures in Ci’s analysis in seemingly paradoxical ways. Mao’s repeated calls for ascetic denial of material enjoyment was superficial postponements of a future state of utopian fulfillment; yet, especially in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, it was presented as the fastest way to realize that future utopia. It thus follows that the exaggerated claims of quick success in order to justify further denial and sacrifice led to disillusionment, nihilism, and a hedonism that focuses exclusively on material enjoyment in the here and now.

Indeed, if one takes into account the diversity modern China studies that deal with speed, the argument can be made that speed itself was a defining feature of Maoist ideology and practice. Intellectuals and state-builders in John Fitzgerald’s Awakening China struggled with how to modernize as quickly as possible; Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden’s two volumes on Wugong village repeatedly stress the forced “speed” of collectivization and de-collectivization, and the results on lived experience; Suzanne Pepper’s (1978) treatment of the Civil War illustrated the CCP’s successful flexibility in slowing down the radical reforms under the Land Equalization Policy in 1947 and 1948; and Chang and Halliday’s Mao would stop at nothing to push revolutionary change to a speed that suited his whims.

As can be seen, one of the most successful traits of Ci’s philosophically-informed study of the Chinese Revolution is its high level of abstraction that allows for dialogue with many studies that appear unrelated. Ci’s presentation of disillusionment leading to nihilism, then, can be viewed as the abstracted, theoretical counterpoint to the physical and spiritual exhaustion that Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden found in their decades-long study of Wugong village. Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution is thus a must-read for any student of modern and contemporary Chinese history, for Ci Jiwei’s powerful analysis can present food for thought on any number of topics in the field. Maurice Meisner’s out-of-print theoretical volume, Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism, would make a good foil on the issue of materialist and utopian trends in the Chinese Revolution.

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