The Crowd in Early Twentieth-Century China

A review of In the Name of the Masses: Conceptualizations and Representations of the Crowd in Early Twentieth-Century China, by Tie Xiao.

In Western media and scholarship, Chinese crowds are often schizophrenically portrayed as either terrifying or emancipatory – from the manic frenzy of the Red Guards to the student fighters for democracy at Tian’anmen, from angry mobs destroying Japanese goods to heroic Hong Kong citizens defying Mainland “brainwashing,” the massive, nameless Chinese crowd looms large in the global imagination as a specter embodying the ambivalence at the heart of modern political democracy. While the “people” constitutes the source from which political sovereignty derives, it also harbors fears of irrational mob rule, the steamrolling of the individual, and the claustrophobia of the collective. Tie Xiao’s dissertation admirably charts the development of notions of the crowd in early twentieth-century intellectual discourse and aesthetic production. As he convincingly demonstrates, Chinese thinkers, while acknowledging the need for a political and social order that would be democratic in the broad sense, were also troubled by the antimony between terror and liberation that also lurked in the collective’s bosom. Moreover, the early twentieth-century Chinese engagement with the “crowd” took part in the processes of what Lydia Liu has termed “translated modernity” – the Chinese interest in crowds paralleled European interest in crowd psychology, as well as global aesthetic trends in representing the “masses” in both literature and visual art.

The Introduction traces the genealogy of the crowd in late-Qing China. Xiao examines late-Qing attempts to conceive of the masses as a social and political category, and charts different lexical terms used to denote the crowd that finally culminated in the modern usage qunzhong. Of particular interest is the late-Qing term renwei qun, which Xiao brilliantly translates as “contrived aggregation” – the stiltedness of this locution reveals the extent to which the crowd and its imputed meaning as bearing the source of mass political sovereignty was still very much an idea in the process of formation and crystallization.

Chapter 1 examines qunzhong in Republican China and begins with a discussion of Chinese psychologist Gao Juefu’s study of crowd psychology. Gao and other Chinese psychologists drew much from the work of French psychologist Gustave LeBon, a pioneer in the study of crowds. His La psychologie des foules (1895) attempted to posit the mind of the crowd as inherently different from that of the individual, and uniquely susceptible to suggestion, irrational emotion, and dictatorial control. As such, authorities needed to be uniquely vigilant to the dangers of the crowd. Political thinkers from across the spectrum such as the Marxists Chen Duxiu and Qu Qiubai, and the Nationalist Zhang Jiuru, all echoed these negative appraisals of the crowd, and saw the crowd as a potentially “monstrous” entity that needed to be disciplined and/or controlled. Xiao also includes a succinct overview of Lu Xun’s well-noted suspicion of the unruly masses.

Chapter 2 analyzes the work of anarchist thinker Zhu Qianzhi (1899-1972) as a counterweight to the overwhelmingly negative May 4th assessments of the crowd. Zhu, inspired in part by the vitalist theories of Henri Bergson, upheld the crowd as distilling the pure emotion of revolutionary practice itself, unencumbered by an intellectual rationality that Zhu condemned for contrivance and inauthenticity. For Zhu, the basis of political action was not deliberative ratiocination, but the irrational, yet pure and unmediated, emotive bonds between people. Zhu thus helped to inaugurate a line of romantic populism that would find its culmination in the revolutionary praxis of the Communists.

Chapter 3 examines the formation of the crowd as literary trope. Xiao reminds us that by the late 1920s left-wing writers were already finding a literature premised on the inner life of the individual deficient, and inspired by proletarian and populist literary movements in the West and Japan, sought to create new models of literature that focused on the collective. Xiao focuses primarily on Ye Shengtao’s (1894-1988) 1928 novel Schoolmaster Ni Huanzhi, a story of a teacher roused into mass political action. While Ye’s novel models the narrative description and celebration of the masses, it also points out the “Janus-faced” nature of the crowd, its tendency towards irrational violence, its susceptibility to Machiavellian control, as well as the moral exhaustion for those individuals who seek to meld with the multitude. Surveying a number of significant stories from the period, he also pays attention to the overlooked Liu Yimeng (1905-1931), whose fiction also tracks the complications of mass political action and its degeneration into indiscriminate violence.

Chapter 4 explores a different realm of aesthetic endeavor, in this case the woodblock print movement of the 1930s. Xiao quotes Xiaobing Tang’s statement that the woodblock movement in essence attempted “to reorganize the contemporary visual order and consciousness by bringing back what had been excluded and erased” (quoted in p. 177). As such, Xiao examines how such visual production made “the crowd” visible to social consciousness. This striving for mass visual representation found inspiration in Western modernism, in particular the work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz. Xiao thus demonstrates the global circularity of visual tropes that aided Chinese artists in aesthetically signifying the crowd. In examining heroic images of mass agitation, Xiao, inspired by the work of scholar Ann Anagnost, usefully illuminates the “proleptic” logic that motivates such images (211) – in creating a representation of the heroic masses, such art not only symbolically posited the existence of such masses prior to their real actualization, but also magically called the referent of such representation into being.

The dissertation ends with a Coda, which examines the concept of wuwo (absence of self) as a politico-aesthetic ideal. Xiao examines how poet Guo Moruo’s (1892-1978) 1936 poem “Mn” celebrated such selflessness and how the disappearance of the individual facilitated the formation of the collective. Xiao’s discussion of Guo is a springboard for reflecting on the discursive rhetoric of the “people,” and following Louis Althusser, explores how ideology thus “hails” the collective into being.  He ends with some reflections on the legacies of crowd discourse in the PRC, and points out that the Communist regime actively appealed to populist emotion; this appeal accounted for the CCP’s political success, but also set the stage for the instances of indiscriminate terror and violence about which May 4th writers had presciently been warning.

Xiao’s dissertation is a compelling, exciting, and imminently readable study that skillfully makes use of its diverse sources. Xiao throughout points out how the problem of the “crowd” is in great part the question of the possibility of its representation. Moreover, the question of the crowd’s conditions of representation, in my opinion, also problematizes the notion not only of the “individual,” but also reveals how models of “mind” are also subject to similar considerations of figuration. If the Freudian model of mind already presupposes separate levels of consciousness and the unconscious, then it would seem that all of us individually carry a crowd within our skulls. The antinomies of the crowd, then, should bear close relation to the antinomies of the individual as well.

Roy Chan
Assistant Professor
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
The College of William and Mary
rchan@wm.edu

Primary Sources

Writings by Qu Qiubai, Gao Juefu, Chen Duxiu, Hu Hanmin, Zhang Jiuru, Zhu Qianzhi, etc.
Fiction and poetry by Ye Shengtao, Ding Ling, Liu Yimeng, Guo Moruo and others.
Artwork by Jiang Feng, Wen Tao, Luo Qingzhen, etc.

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2011. 295 pp. Primary Advisor: Paola Iovene.

1 comment

Leave Comment
  1. Pingback: Dissertation Reviews: The Crowd in Early Twentieth-Century China | Notes on the Mosquito

Leave a Reply