Skip to content

China Scholars’ Response to Vietnam

March 27, 2010

China Scholars’ Response to Vietnam

E. Elena Songster (2000)

Politically, we submit that Asian Scholars are, in fact, involved in politics, that we acknowledge this, and that we address ourselves to the issue of how we are going to be political. (Kagan 1968, 1)

The United States participation in the Vietnam War made Western scholarship on China conspicuously political. Scholarship, like science, carries with it the dangerously powerful aura of being an objective quest for the truth. To the extent that historical scholarship seeks to provide a greater understanding of events past, it does aim for both objectivity and truth. Yet, what it seeks to unveil about the past is integrally involved in the period in which that history is written. The scholar and her or his work create a bridge between two eras. China, in the minds of many, offered insight into the confusion of the Vietnam War because China was an Asian, peasant-based, communist country, and because it aspired to lead the rest of the “Third World” to achieve a communist revolution. The Vietnam War therefore raised the stakes of the implications attached to historical findings in scholarship on China. In light of this, Leigh Kagan’s assertion above called on scholars not only to be aware of the implications of their work, but to actively direct their work politically. Scholars responded from both sides of the fence. Some discovered that their work had been placed on the opposite side of the debates from where they thought they sat. The war in Vietnam required China scholars to reevaluate the political implications of the topics they chose to study as well as their approaches to them. China scholars found particular significance in the Cultural Revolution, distinctions between Chinese and Soviet communism, and the Communist Revolution of 1949. The concomitant rise of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China injected this domestic movement with international import. Maoism offered concerned scholars a means of countering the scare that the world was sinking under a sprawling monolithic communist entity. Finally, the success of the 1949 Communist Revolution became a reason for caution for some and for others it was a moment of hope. In this search for new insights into contemporary events in Vietnam, China scholars complimented this shift in topical focus with new methods of historical inquiry. Scholarship increasingly sought a bottom-up approach to meet the demands of radical scholarship that required a closer look at the people.

Vietnam’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

In Vietnam War era historical scholarship, the Cultural Revolution simultaneously became a reason for the United States to retreat from Vietnam and an example of fear inducing communist extremism that supported United States involvement in the war. The Cultural Revolution in China first appears as part of a scholarly work in Stuart Schram’s biography of Mao Zedong. Just months after the Cultural Revolution erupted in China, Schram incorporated it into his study of Mao’s political life. According to this early reading of the Cultural Revolution, Schram dismisses the popularized belief that the Cultural Revolution was a means of preparing for war with the United States (Schram 1968, 298). Benjamin Schwartz felt inclined to discredit this possibility again in his reading of the Cultural Revolution one year later. “In the sphere of world politics, Mao’s vision, in spite of its ‘radical nature,’ does not involve a more aggressive military posture” (Schwartz 1968, 227). The insistent objections that Schram and Schwartz raised against the fear that China was preparing for war with the United States reveals a rampant perception that China was integrally linked to the communist project in Vietnam. For other scholars such as Albert Feuerwerker, the 1966 upheaval accentuated the meaninglessness of Chinese communist historical scholarship by condemning all scholarship indefinitely (Feuerwerker 1968, vii). Ultimately, the Cultural Revolution demanded patience out of those Western observers who had not given up on China’s potential to eventually become a liberal democracy.

Schram uses the Cultural Revolution to condemn United States involvement in the Vietnam War. He does not confront the United States with either procommunist or isolationist views, but rather demands that the United States be self reflective about the way it appears to other nations and to engage with China. Mao had just proven his incredible ability to mobilize China’s vast masses through the Cultural Revolution. Schram’s call followed the liberal line that was popular among scholars of Chinese history in the United States before the Vietnam War. This line of thought did not see communism as China’s final historical stage, rather considered the modernizing process eventually to be the stronger historical force. Schram’s objections to the United States bombing of Vietnam were grounded in the hope that China could be persuaded to become a capitalist democracy if dealt with properly. He writes,

The continuance of this war on China’s doorstep can hardly be expected to encourage liberalism and tolerance in that country. Nor can the daily spectacle of a mighty industrial nation raining tons of bombs on a small Asiatic people be expected to attenuate Mao’s vision of the world today as primarily a struggle between the “revolutionary countryside” of Asia, Africa, and Latin America on the one side, and the “imperialist” cities of Europe and North America on the other. (Schram 1966, 323)

Here, Schram has tried to give his readers a view of the world from Mao’s perspective in order to demonstrate how the United States involvement the Vietnam War, although begun by a liberal administration, was actually counter to the liberal cause. He takes his point a step further a few lines later: “Above all, the situation in Vietnam contributes to the survival of Mao’s guerrilla myth according to which the only valid and genuinely revolutionary answer to any problem whatsoever lies in armed struggle” (Schram 1966, 324). According to Schram, the bombing of Vietnam must be stopped because it is simply stooping to Mao’s level of militarism. The only way to teach progressive peace in Schram’s view was to disengage from armed combat and focus on development. By focusing his conclusion on the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War, Schram transformed his portrait of Mao into a timely protest against the Vietnam War. Schwartz did not share the liberal hopes that Schram expressed for Mao’s China. Ever measured in his assertions, especially in the context of the Cultural Revolution. Schwartz’s insight into the ideological foundations of each of these regimes gave him a to see limitations in realm of possible outcomes. He therefore maintained the prediction, particularly significant for the time, that “The China of the future may be radically different from the United States and the Soviet Union,” (Schwartz 1968, 227).

John K. Fairbank shared Schram’s sentiments against the bombing of Vietnam. In his review of Schram’s biography of Mao, however, Fairbank expressed his anti-war sentiments in such a way that they more resembled the extreme position that Schram had argued against in his book. Fairbank opened his review of Schram’s biography by expressing concern that the United States involvement in Vietnam would likely incite an attack from China. “Mao Tse-tung’s taking such extreme action [as joining Vietnam in war against the United States], increasing our Vietnam problem about forty times over, would undoubtedly disappoint and even actually dismay, many of us, but it would not be out of keeping with the military romanticism and belief in continual struggle that have contributed so much to his historic success” (Fairbank, 1967, 1). Fairbank never stated that his opening remarks represented Schram’s view, but by framing his position on the war in this way at the top of a favorable review, Fairbank benefitted from the support of Schram’s book in his presentation. Schram, however, had explicitly said that China had exercised “extreme prudence over involvement in the Vietnam War” because China actually feared an attack from the United States (Schram 1966, 298). It is most likely that Fairbank’s statement genuinely reflects his reading of Schram who was actually politically in line with Fairbank’s general opinion that the United States should get out of Vietnam. Fairbank’s enthusiasm for this perspective, however, pushed his assessment of the Cultural Revolution further than Schram had intended with his book. The difference in their expressed opinions is more of scale than substance. The significance of this exchange is more to show how scholarship and even book reviews of this period became so explicitly politicized with the involvement of the United States in the war in Southeast Asia.

Fairbank and Schram thus led the cause that became the founding purpose of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, namely, be political. Fairbank was among the early supporters for the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars as revealed in Mark Selden’s first issue correspondence, “I have taken the liberty of requesting that Professors Fairbank and Murphey, who have indicated strong interest in these questions [researching the fundamental issues concerning the Asian studies profession…and its relationship, actual and ideal, to American foreign policy] to investigate possible avenues for organizing and financing this project” (Selden 1968, 14-15). In spite of the fact that Fairbank openly opposed the war from the outset, and greatly supported the formation of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, his work became unacceptable to the political left at the time. His sentiments for a good China, and thus a good Asia, involved United States advising and democratic capitalism. Fairbank, probably particularly to his own surprise, later fell under attack in this very journal for his acquiescence to establishment politics. His scholarship was linked with the China Watchers. James Peck painted the views held by the profession of China Watching as pleading for “‘tolerance’ and ‘patience’ towards the People’s Republic as she gradually learns, aided by a flexible American containment policy, to ‘adjust’ to the ‘international community of nations’ and the ‘rationalizing’ qualities implicit in the ‘modernization’ process” (Peck 1969, 59). According to the image that Peck paints of these China Watchers, their sentiments can be found in both the works of Schram and Fairbank. This perspective places the later work on the Cultural Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar, an active China Watcher, into the liberal camp of Vietnam War era scholarship. MacFarquhar’s study, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, identifies the era preceding the United States bombing of Vietnam as the origin of the Cultural Revolution. By stretching his inquiry back to this earlier period, MacFarquhar detaches Vietnam from any causal relationship with the Cultural Revolution. However, beneath all of the, almost excruciating, detail, MacFarquhar affirms Schram’s basic thesis that the Cultural Revolution ultimately resulted from Mao;s need to die great. While divorcing himself from overt politics on the matter, his focus on the mystery of the Cultural Revolution remains within the boundaries of the liberal need to unravel the chaos in order to bring sense to China.

Peck’s assessment placed the view held by the China Watchers to the Right of period politics and created a break in the politicization of scholarship in the China field. In response to Kagan’s call to reassess the politics of their scholarship, liberals became imperialists, guilty of scholarly “bombing” that subordinated China to the West. Fairbank and others discovered that their opposition to United States involvement in Vietnam was misguided in the eyes of the up-coming scholars who protested the ultimately “imperialistic” aim that was embedded in the liberal anti-war sentiment. In the view of the radicalized scholars, the “China’s Response to the West” paradigm, which Fairbank coined, “colonized” China by forcing it into a historically reactive role (Peck 1969, 59), or more blatantly painted the impact of imperialism in China’s history as positive (Esherick 1972, 9-16).

Condemning the “China’s Response to the West” paradigm becomes tricky when the historian actually wants to hold the Western Imperialists accountable for the difficulties that China, and by implication Vietnam, has endured. Edward Friedman’s Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars article on the Cultural Revolution illustrates this struggle. In his call for something other than a reading of xenophobia into China’s actions during the Cultural Revolution, China is placed by this radicalized revisionist perspective as responding to the suffering that the West inflicted. “The need here is not to catalogue the alleged anti-foreign acts of the Chinese in 1967, but to note that they were almost always in response to direct insults to the Chinese people and their proud living heritage, Mao the man who led them to stand up” (Friedman 1970, 60). Frederic Wakeman’s 1966 account of the impact of the Opium War also required a “China’s response to the West” framework. Wakeman by no means fails to demonstrate the complexity of Chinese agency, and peasant agency at that. His book, however, broadly describes mass discontent that can be traced back solely to the devastation of the British victory over China during the Opium War. This historiographical struggle applied to a wide range of historical topics and genre. Although scholars criticized its assumptions, they could not completely dismiss it. Impact and response perspectives were particularly relevant to discussion surrounding Western involvement in Vietnam. Debate over this issue resurfaced in such other popular Vietnam War era topics as the Sino-Soviet split and the Communist Revolution.

The Sino-Soviet Divide Disconnects Vietnam

Scholars sought insight into the world arena of communism during the Vietnam War era by analyzing the differences between Soviet and Chinese communism. Benjamin Schwartz in his Communism and China, Ideology in Flux and Stuart Schram in his biography of Mao, Mao Tse-tung, closely examine the differences between Soviet communism and Chinese communism. Schwartz actually began this project much earlier in his 1951 biography of Mao, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. The topic had earlier political significance during the rage of McCarthyism and involvement in the Korean War. Schwartz’s views did not go through a radical shift while the international backdrop changed behind his ideological musings. The political significance of his articulate thoughts, however, shifted dramatically with the onset of the Vietnam War.

During the fifties, Benjamin Schwartz made a radical splash in academic circles by making claims that China’s communism diverged from the path that the Soviet Union had laid. During that time, McCarthyism had attempted to contain scholarship on communism in accordance with United States communist containment policy.

The new orthodoxy demanded that American officialdom, for safety’s sake, should be pro-Nationalist, believe that Chinese Communism was Moscow’s Marxism-Leninism and that the two Communist states were inseparable, and hold that where the French might have failed, the United States could and should have victory. Summed up, a new creed, best described as a simplistic anti-Communism aiming at the military containment of China, began to govern the field of American foreign policy. (Clubb 1969, 23)

Schwartz, a scholar before anything else, scrutinized the two manifestations of Marxist thinking and determined them to be ideologically distinct. In his effort to understand and explain the way communism had developed in China, he refuted this creed and the misleading rhetoric of the Red Scare that painted a broad red stripe across the Soviet Union and China as a unified entity.

Within the context of the Vietnam War, Schwartz continued to trace developments in the ideological foundations of the relationship between these two countries. The Vietnam War and the liberal manifestation of the Communist scare, placed Schwartz’s scholarship between a heated debate over the political fate of Asia. His collected essays, reprinted in 1968 demanded that people holding the extreme views of the Right and the Left be rethink the foundations on which their perceptions were based. After conducting a close analysis of the ideological debates between the two communist powers Schwartz concluded that China and the Soviet Union were in the midst of a struggle which Schwartz termed a “hegemonistic conflict” (Schwartz 1968, 199). Schwartz maintained that any rising communist governments had no true ideological leader (Schwartz 1968, 199). Not only did this stand debunk the scare of the spread of a monolithic communism all over the world, but it detached the situation in Vietnam from any “higher” ideological authority. Schwartz’s analysis probably satisfied no one because he simultaneously discredited the opposing images of the Vietnam War: a dangerous threat of communist sprawl on the one hand, and a prime example of a people rising out of poverty through heroic struggle on the other. He warned the democracy crusaders, “that it is mistaken and dangerous to base American policy on the expectation that the whole third world is about to behave in a manner corresponding to Peking’s optimum hopes for the future” (Schwartz 1968, 202). At the same time he warned the idealistic long-haired youth that the “‘revisionism” which revives the view that the American social structure is inherently imperialistic while Communist social structure is “‘inherently’ nonimperialistic” should be reevaluated without the assumptions that “any ‘social system’ as such is inherently one or the other” (Schwartz 1968, 28).

Stuart Schram’s work echoes Schwartz’s emphasis on the Sino-Soviet ideological divide. However, Schram is not so quick to dismiss Vietnam from the Sino-Soviet squabble. Politics, rather than ideological inquiry, drove Schram’s investment in the discrepancy between Chinese and Soviet communism. As noted above regarding the issue of the Cultural Revolution, Schram’s investment is adamantly anti-militaristic. Schram, however, took Mao’s political orations more seriously than did Schwartz. Under Schwartz’s analysis, China made its succession to the throne of ideological authority over world communism ideologically impossible. Mao’s proclamations about being the leader of the third world were, in Schwartz’s eyes, moot. Schram, on the other hand, saw China’s self-proclaimed position as the leader of “Third World” communist revolutions as politically significant.

In his [Mao’s] eyes China’s internal evolution has now taken on decisive international importance. For to the extent that he sees China as the only genuinely socialist great power–the Soviet Union having definitively taken the road of revisionism and the restoration of capitalism–the ideological purity and firmness of will of the Chinese revolutionaries is henceforth the principal guarantee of ultimate victory on a world scale. (Schram 1966, 298)

This quote reveals the most significant difference between the seemingly similar emphasis that Schwartz and Schram placed on specific characteristics that distinguish Mao’s voluntaristic, peasant-based communism, or Maoism, from the Soviet model. Schram assigned international import to Mao’s self-proclaimed role as leader of the developing nations. Schwartz, however, dismissed China’s claim to be the world mentor of communism, following the Sino-Soviet divide, as an ideological impossibility. Both of these scholars disapproved of United States involvement in Vietnam, but for opposite reasons. Schwartz disagreed with United States policy because in his view Vietnam was necessarily a situation completely independent of other communist struggles. For Schram, the ideological schism between the China and the Soviet Union made Maoist communism even more critical to the situation in Vietnam. Precisely because of what he saw as the relevant developments in China after the Sino-Soviet split, Schram advocated that the United States attempt a non-militaristic means by which to engage with China.

Mao’s Model Revolution

The main question that followed the evaluation of China’s position as the ideological leader of the communist world focused on what lessons can be learned from China’s successful revolution. The Vietnam War brought obvious relevance to this question which in turn added meaning to old studies of the 1949 Communist Revolution and inspired a reassessment of earlier conclusions. Two basic explanations for the remarkable success of communists, who lacked foreign monetary and military support, rose out of early American scholarship on China: Chalmers Johnson’s thesis that the Japanese troops inspired peasant support, and William Hinton’s account of a positive peasant response to genuine change that the communists had effected in the daily lives of the peasants through land reform.

The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China by Mark Selden rose directly out of concern over the situation in Vietnam. As one of the founders of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, Selden was an activist for politicized scholarship. In this study he sought to find a means for “people [to] break the shackles of oppression, poverty, and fear,” and to answer “how they can translate their hopes and dreams into dynamic action to expand human freedom and possibility” (Selden 1971, vii).

Selden’s reevaluation of earlier scholarship and his own investigation of new sources on the communist stronghold of Yan’an, where the Communist Party regathered its strength, led him to conclusions that exulted the Communist Party’s role in early twentieth century China. His conclusions supported Hinton’s claim that real change was effected in China’s countryside. Through his research, he found evidence to contest Johnson’s assertion that the Japanese invasion inspired the necessary support for the revolution. According to Selden, the “Yenan Way” was the “discovery of concrete methods for linking popular participation in the guerrilla struggle with a wide ranging community attack on rural problems” (Selden 1971, 276). Selden saw these methods as transportable to such places as Vietnam. His own work on Vietnamese society “The National Liberation Front and the Transformation of Vietnamese Society” in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (October 1969), already demonstrated the applicability and efficacy of land reform in peasant communities in Vietnam.

Selden’s account of the communist program rejected Schwartz’s assessment that Maoist communism cannot be transported to a new situation. It denied Schram’s assertion that a more liberal reality can eventually replace Maoist communism. Rather than getting involved in ideological debates, Selden used this book to focus on the people of the period under study and simultaneously address the issues of his own time. His book thus demonstrates a second shift in Vietnam War era scholarship on Chinese history. Benjamin Schwartz and Stuart Schram initiate the first shift in the historical scholarship on China by, not only recognizing the political relevance of their work, but using their work to directly respond to the politics of the war. This second shift, represented in Selden’s book, responded to the wave of scholastic criticism that preceded it by pushing scholarship, its methodology, and its content to a form that actually grew out of the political context of the Vietnam War. This second shift demonstrated a new approach to the process of historical work on China as well as a new perception of its meaning.

Concluding the Classics with Radical Scholarship

The Yenan Way successfully escaped the paradigms that had been labeled imperialist, and pursued the history of the people. In these ways, Selden fulfilled Jean Chesneaux’s demands for a new radical scholar, who, by Chesneaux’s standards, needed “to work out an alternative image” (Chesneaux 1969, 33). Chesneaux outlined more specific requirements of such a scholar:

It goes without saying that radical scholarship involves being radical in one’s politics, especially when one’s field is directly related to present-day politics, as are China or Vietnam. It means disassociating one’s research from the academic-military-industrial complex – as it were – from the China-watchers, from the political scientists, who treat the Chinese people and the Vietnamese, I shouldn’t say as cannon fodder, but as computer fodder (Chesneaux 1969, 33).

Chesneaux advocated a shift in the field of Chinese scholarship according to the above criteria. He praised Fanshen by William Hinton for its focus on the people and pushed Ralph Crozier to extend beyond the limitations of dated intellectual history, which had been the dominant historical genre of Chinese history with few exceptions. “As long as intellectual history is limited to the intellectual community alone, to individual thinking as an isolated phenomenon, to controversy among literary journals or intellectual circles in the university, then I must say I’m positively in disagreement with it” (Chesneaux 1969, 34). He also tackled the other classic genre of historical writing on China, diplomatic history, again calling for more historical actors in the stories that constitute history. Chesneaux wanted to create “mass line” scholarship. Selden answered his call. In 1971, still a few years before Americans troops began withdrawing from Vietnam, Selden’s book marked a shift that pulled more radicalized commentary out of the peripheral journals and placed it into the main publishing presses. At this historical juncture in the writing of Chinese history, the impassioned pens of the next generation of scholars began to challenge the dominance of their mentors’ ideas and methods. This new generation began writing for a new politically charged era. Vietnam challenged the foundational assumptions of the classic works on Chinese history and dictated the relevance of particular historical issues in contemporary research. The war transformed historical work on China into political treatises and demanded that Chinese historians become activist writers.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: