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Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China

March 19, 2010

R. Keith Schoppa. Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Jeremy Brown (2002)

For Schoppa, individuals and the contingencies of their everyday actions and choices, rather than grand ideas and dramatic events, determined the course of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s. Blood Road‘s narrative centers around Shen Dingyi, a Zhejiang native who was variously a writer, May Fourth leader, Communist Party founder, and instigator of peasant rent-resistance movements, but also a landlord, magistrate, provincial assemblyman and Guomindang leader complicit in the “White Terror” purges against Communists in 1927. Assassins gunned down Shen outside a bus station in 1928, and in seeking to solve the mystery of the murder, Schoppa’s compelling sleuthing portrays a dynamic world far too complex for rigid ideological constructs.

Shifting identities and interlinked social networks form the book’s conceptual base. Schoppa posits that networks of family members, friends, and organizational comrades were key to reaching one’s goals in 1920s China, and that each person’s identity was determined, for better or for worse, by the company he or she kept. Even as ideas evolved and allegiances shifted, perceptions based on past associations had a staying power that, in Shen’s case, proved to be fatal. This approach is a welcome alternative to the focus on hierarchical relationships that has long characterized analysis of Chinese society. In addition, Schoppa’s vivid portrayal of Shen’s changing roles in the revolution is a sharp rebuttal to historians who wait until the dust has settled and then bestow labels such as “reactionary” or “rightist” upon the actors. The reality, Schoppa suggests, was not so simple.

Another notable aspect of Schoppa’s approach is the importance he gives to the idea of “place.” The author’s microscopic history assesses the impact of three unique locales on Shen’s revolutionary path. From a rural Zhejiang village to the provincial capital to the cosmopolitan foreign concessions of Shanghai, the specificities of each area shaped identities and affected the revolution in different ways. Schoppa’s intensely local focus implicitly questions the practice of using China as a unit of analysis.

While Schoppa criticizes those who attach an identity to complex revolutionary players, the author himself cannot avoid defining Shen’s identity. Shen is complex and sometimes confused, but to this reviewer, Schoppa’s assessment of Shen as a misunderstood, mislabeled visionary is too kind. Schoppa characterizes Shen’s role in the White Terror purges as a “mistake,” and perhaps “harsh,” but defends Shen for favoring re-education over execution for purged leftists. Nonetheless, many were executed, and if networks and people are meant to be the foci of Schoppa’s work, what of the networks, families and individuals destroyed by the purges in which Shen chose to participate? At times, Shen comes across as an opportunistic politician – he turns on his own protégés and regularly appoints his relatives and cronies to committees, which leads one to wonder, when does networking end and nepotism begin?

To be fair, the extensive use of Shen’s remarkable poetry makes it difficult not to sympathize with such an obviously intelligent and angst-ridden man. Schoppa’s translations of Shen’s writings are a pleasure to read and add an element of literary analysis to the book’s socio-political history. Yet it is important to note that the contingencies and networks of Blood Road form a history of revolutionary elites. Farmers and workers come into play in the book, but only when led into action by elite, educated leaders such as Shen Dingyi. There is no question that the choices, actions, and even illnesses of people like Shen altered the course of the revolution. But are we to assume that Shen’s choices and illnesses are more important than those of a farmer in the Southern Sands? This reader would have appreciated more analysis on the question.

In spite of these concerns, the overwhelmingly positive response of reviewers to the book (Peter Seybolt in Journal of Asian Studies, May 97: 490-2; Edward McCord in China Quarterly, Mar 96: 228-30; and Marilyn A. Levine in American Historical Review, Feb 97: 152-3), is a testament to Blood Road‘s original approach and its importance in understanding the role of contingency and choice in early twentieth century China.

© Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.

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