The Politics of Permission
The Politics of Permission: Sources and Interpretations In the Scholarship on the Early Years of the PRC
Brent Haas (2004)
What we know is based on the information available to us. This truism is especially applicable to the case of historical knowledge, being so attached to the availability of documentary evidence. Since the Communist takeover of mainland China, international politics have been played out on a mundane and quite unlikely stage: the library. Thus in order to assess the state of scholarship on the late 1940’s and early 1950’s transitional period, the most fundamental factor is sources.
Broadly speaking, scholarship on the transitional period has undergone three stages in the last half-century. As the Chinese Civil War crept towards its conclusion, a handful of Westerners were fortunate to record first-hand accounts of experiences living, traveling, researching, and “spying” in China. These sources are invaluable for their observations of the events in China, even though Cold War politics greatly colored their analysis. After the PRC entered the Korean War, Western scholars were barred from access to the mainland. This forced retreat to Hong Kong profoundly affected scholarship on the People’s Republic for the next four decades. This second, and longest, stage forced “China watchers” and scholars alike to rely upon official government publications and refugee interviews as the primary bodies of evidence. Only within the last decade have PRC authorities begun to relax their restrictions on Western academic access to Chinese archives, a fortuitous result of China’s policy of opening up to the outside world. Increasing, though selective and often arbitrary, access continues has opened new avenues of research while presenting novel problems of interpretation. Thus scholarship on the early years of the Communist era is itself in transition.
As the Nationalist regime lost control of the mainland to its Communist rivals, a handful of scholars were able to pen influential studies of conditions in China based on their personal experiences. The observations of Derk Bodde, Doak Barnett, Allyn and Adele Rickett, and C.K. Yang illuminated certain aspects of life in China during the end of the Civil War and the Communist takeover. A profound sense of uncertainty pervades their works and we see how deeply disconnected the corrupt and demoralized Nationalist government was from the people. As primary sources, they are limited by the experiences and methodologies of the writers – thus Derk Bodde’s sensitive and insightful observations of life in Beiping during 1948-1949 are naturally restricted by his geographic location; Barnett’s travel account, although it covers nearly all of Guomindang-held China, is severely hampered by his lack of citation of sources; the experiences of the Rickett’s, which so shocked Western contemporaries, suffers from their biases after “re-education.” Although C. K. Yang was able to conduct sociological research over several years’ time in a Guangdong village, PRC information control deprived him of his notes upon exiting China.
That anti-Communist rhetoric dominated the age in which these first-hand accounts were written is not only evident in the writings themselves, but also in academic and popular reactions to these works. Allyn Ricketts’ bewilderment at the reception he was given by fiercely dogmatic reporters in Hong Kong is a memorable if extreme case. The sensitivity to the common Beijinger which Bodde’s account exudes as well as his skepticism that the PRC was part of an international Communist conspiracy orchestrated from Moscow undoubtedly received criticism from anti-Communists. That reviewer Michael F. M. Lindsay felt compelled to defend Bodde as “a believer in the best standards of American democracy” (Pacific Affairs 24.2) attests to the political milieu of the time.
C.K. Yang’s studies of the family and village in the Chinese Revolution can serve as an effective illustration of the transition that took place in scholarship due to the implementation of PRC information controls. From 1948-1951, Yang and his team of student-sociologists conducted extensive field research in Nanjing village, a suburb of Guangzhou, allowing him to describe from a local perspective the changes during the fall of the Guomindang through the first stage of land reform. Yet upon expulsion from the mainland, the authorities confiscated his research notes, thus forcing him to write his study from memory two years later. The much weaker sections on national collectivization and the Chinese family were necessarily written using PRC laws, newspapers, and propaganda statements. The information lockdown was on.
From 1951 through the early 1980s, scholarship on the transitional period in the PRC made the best of the available sources. Largely limited to official publications and interviews with refugees in Hong Kong, observers of China struggled to understand events on the mainland. Lack of documentary sources left much room for scholars to speculate, drawing on possible past experience in the mainland (in Yang, Barnett, and Bodde’s cases), personal political leanings, and disciplinary biases. This difficult situation led Maurice Freedman in his review of Yang’s Chinese Village to exclaim that “China is almost author-proof” (British Journal of Sociology 11.2).
Reliance on official publications without corroborating evidence made it quite difficult to differentiate between the idealized situation presented in the press and the real situation within the PRC. Scholars were, therefore, left to analyze propaganda on its own terms, which is a ripe setting for applying one’s ideological views. John Lewis (JAS 24.4) called for careful analysis of the key concepts, functions, and problems of Chinese politics – a goal that could be accomplished through study of propaganda – yet that only represented the ideal without its necessary foil, the real. Therefore, translating the voice of the PRC was generally done within an overriding framework, consequently shaping the questions that were asked.
As always, political trends greatly influenced scholarship on the transitional period. Much American work sought to understand how the Communists succeeded in their bid for power (how the democratic West “lost” China), the nature of the relationship between the PRC and the Soviet Union, and how to make sense of the Korean War. A prime example of an attempt to answer the last question is Allen Whiting’s China Crosses the Yalu published in 1960. His surprisingly even-handed speculations on the PRC leadership’s rationale for entering the war lie sandwiched between generalizations in the introduction and conclusion aimed at “understanding one’s enemy.” Sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and based solely on official press reports, Whiting’s study represents the symbiosis of politics and scholarship during this era – applying preconceptions to insufficient data.
Academia’s strong tilt to the left during the late 1960s offered a new ideological lens for interpreting the CCP victory and consolidation. Instead of viewing the PRC in terms of the Cold War ideological “battle” against Communism, the American experience in Vietnam offered a new framework. Thus some young academics, confident that radical, qualitative social change was in fact possible and hoping for justice for all Chinese in the new system, assumed a direct link between CCP theory and practice.
There were skeptics, however, who recognized and acknowledged Maoist ideology yet doubted that it could actually penetrate the grass-roots of Chinese society. They therefore stressed continuities to the past instead of celebrating radical social change. While still suffering from many of the same restrictions on access to sources, Lieberthal painted a complex and impartial assessment of Communist economic policies in Tianjin. His source base drew heavily from national and local media, and U.S. government translations, yet he presents a level of critical analysis which is generally lacking in other studies based on media reports. Perhaps his counter-balance came in the form of case studies of two companies in Tianjin based on extensive interviews with an employee of each company. A major conclusion of his study is that the Chinese media often exaggerated the success of mass campaigns in changing pre-existing economic patterns. Furthermore, to the extent these campaigns were indeed successful, Lieberthal strongly argued that CCP organization was a major factor. Here is a CCP intimately connected to “traditional” Tianjin, negotiating and cooperating with the old guard in order to consolidate until strong enough to enforce its own agenda. In this instance, the author’s skepticism makes for a nuanced study, a major step in towards differentiating between propaganda and reality.
By sheer size, geographic, linguistic, and ethnic diversity, and decades of political division, transition-era China defies sweeping generalizations and even analysis of the nation as a cohesive unit. Despite this and other barriers to effective scholarship, much progress was nevertheless made during the decades of restriction. C.K. Yang’s field work in Guangdong was a problematic yet ground-breaking first step towards understanding China through individual case studies. His Nanjing was representative of suburban villages in South China, and he rightfully called for further case studies of China’s divergent parts in order to piece together a picture of the “whole.” While Solinger’s (1977) obstructive methodology and uncritical analysis of official press reports are problematic, she effectively described the regionalism in China which impeded the integration of the PRC as a whole and the government’s creative use of regional governments. Kenneth Lieberthal’s 1980 study of Communist ideology and organization in transition-era Tianjin followed in the footsteps of several important studies on individual Chinese cities. Furthermore, a few Westerners began to trickle into China during the early 1970s, resulting in better knowledge of reality during the Cultural Revolution as well as illuminating if limited studies, such as Nebioli’s The People’s Comic Book. Thus the “pieces” were beginning to fit together.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s physical access to China drastically increased, followed more slowly by an ability to view published and archival primary sources relating to the transitional period. The resulting scholarship has been quite fruitful and sometimes subversive, leading to reassessments of many earlier views of this period. In light of new sources, the Civil War period, effects of Communist policy on the dynamics of peasant families, and China’s role in the Cold War have all undergone revisionist scrutiny. Despite our increasing access to archival and collections of primary documents, many obstacles still remain. Historical hindsight has made the current generation more than aware of the drastic consequences of Maoist policies in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Yet we cannot project later failures back onto the situation during the transitional period. While scholarly subjectivity will always remain, an increase of data at least restricts the room for speculation.
If ever a study suffered from too much new information, it is Suzanne Pepper’s Civil War in China. Pepper utilized a huge body of Chinese language sources, although it is notable that her main evidence still remains periodical publications. Nevertheless, this work was the first to attempt to deal with the Civil War period from the perspectives of both the vanquished GMD and the victorious CCP. She systematically analyzes the shortcomings of the GMD from economic and intellectual viewpoints, notably charting the intelligentsia’s growing dissatisfaction with the government. Where the GMD failed, Pepper also stresses how the Communists were able to succeed, thereby painting a more complete picture of the Civil War. Many of the observations which caused Bodde to look hopefully upon the CCP takeover in Beijing are confirmed and documented in this work. Her treatment of Communist land reform in the “liberated” areas, furthermore, adds another geographic dimension to our understanding of the relative conservatism of CCP policy in the transitional period. When the peasantry reacted unfavorably to early land reform efforts, Party leadership adjusted accordingly, reversing earlier radical policies.
Neil Diamant’s access to local government archives at the municipal, district and county level in Beijing, Shanghai, and Yunnan province allowed for a bold reinterpretation of the 1950 Marriage Law, which had previously only been treated from the ideological perspective in Yang’s study of the family. From divorce cases, Women’s Federation documents, and labor union reports, a picture of relatively free peasant sexual culture emerges, replete with female agency and even manipulation of the divorce law for personal benefit. Such unedited sources allow scholars to clearly differentiate between idealized social interaction and reality. Yet it is not a panacea for all that ailed scholarship in the previous decades. Indeed just how representative divorce cases are for the institution of the family as a whole is questionable, since it is likely the vast majority of Chinese peasants did not actually take their cases to court.
Chen Jian’s study of Maoist ideology and practice in Cold War diplomacy benefited from similar access to Chinese archival sources, including published collections of Party documents, and the papers, diaries, and memoirs of CCP leaders. While Chen acknowledged that published documentary collections were often selected by the PRC government for release with ulterior motives, they nevertheless enrich our understanding of the processes of government in China. He admirably cross-referenced these documents whenever possible, a practice which all historians of contemporary China should follow. His focus on international relations did facilitate this process by providing the documents of other governments as a ready comparison to Chinese sources. This problem is more significant, however, when researching domestic topics. As the first hand accounts discussed above aptly illustrate, impartial observers of the period in question are few and far between. Chen does offer the possibility of a solution by pointing out that provincial and local archives frequently hold copies of central directives, which although intended for internal circulation, have possibly escaped the editorial scrutiny of the published documentary collections.
Before the discussion moves to an appraisal of the state of the field, my own politics and perceptions deserve some scrutiny. The genesis of this paper began with a nagging skepticism which recurred whenever I traced a statement about the situation in China to its citation, only to find an official government publication, like the Renmin Ribao for instance, as its source. Present in China for the media assault on Falungong in 1999 and a government cover-up of SARS during 2003, I have seen the efficiency of state controls on media at the turn of the century. With no internet chat rooms, how much more effective would it have been in the early 1950s? Yet my reaction felt to be more than scholarly skepticism. Much like Doak Barnett in Hong Kong, straining his analytical eye across the border into the mainland, my political persuasion and experiences in China were shaping my reaction. While certainly not a “Cold Warrior,” my Western, liberal tendencies combined with personal experiences of PRC information control colored the way in which I interpreted the documents. If that is my “framework,” this paper is an attempt at measured deconstruction.
As a native Chinese who benefited from training in both the PRC and United States, Chen Jian represents a new trend in the scholarship of Chinese history. Although his American citizenship certainly contributes to his political views (clearly illustrated in the Epilogue to Mao’s China and the Cold War), he is nevertheless able to combine the scholarly analysis of an outsider with insights and experience of the insider. Furthermore, the current laudable emphasis on graduate programs whose students represent both sides of the Pacific Ocean promises that Chen Jian will not be the last scholar to operate with equal comfort in Chinese and Western academic circles.
Thus new resources and perspectives are allowing scholars not only to find novel research topics, but also revisit old questions with fresh insight and information. As trans-Pacific academic interaction increases, scholars from both sides will be able to offer critical analysis of the theoretical frameworks prevalent in each setting yet often invisible to those trained within them. The more time passes, issues in the transitional period should become less sensitive, hopefully resulting in new sources coming to light. Although political circumstances are bound to change in the future, and will most likely affect academia, time is on the historian’s side. Thus it seems we can look forward to a “continuous revolution” in scholarship on the 1950s.
Derk Bodde. Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950.
Allyn and Adele Rickett. Prisoners of Liberation. New York: Cameron Associates, 1957.
C. K. Yang. Chinese Communist Society: The Family and the Village. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1959.
Allen S. Whiting. China Crosses the Yalu: the Decision to Enter the Korean War. New York: MacMillan, 1960.
A. Doak Barnett. China on the Eve of Communist Takeover. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.
—-. Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-55. New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.
Gino Nebioli. The People’s Comic Book (Originally I Fumetti de Mao). Translated from Chinese by Endymion Wilkinson. Compiled with Jean Chesneaux and Umberto Eco. New York Anchor Press, 1973.
Dorothy J. Solinger. Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954: A Case Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Kenneth G. Lieberthal. Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, 1942-1952. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.
Suzanne Pepper. Civil War in China: the Political Struggle, 1945-1949. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
Neil J. Diamant. Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Chen Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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