China’s Conservative Revolution


A review of China’s Forgotten Revolution: Radical Conservatism in Action, 1927-1949, by Brian Kai Hin Tsui.

“Revolution” and “modernization” are two of the central loci of modern Chinese historiography. In both narratives, the ruling Nationalist Party during the Republican era is often portrayed as a hindrance due to its factional struggles, inability to enact reforms, and violent oppression of other political forces. Tsui refreshes this view by re-characterizing Nationalist endeavors as a state-led “conservative revolution.” He first makes it clear that strong factionalism does not prevent us from generalizing the nature of Nationalist programs. Tsui divides his examination of this “conservative revolution” and his dissertation into three parts: (1) “its conservative revolutionary ideology;” (2) its top-down social movements; and (3) the results of its outreach efforts both inside and outside China. Tsui’s research is a good contribution to understandings of the Nationalist Party history.

Part one, consisting of one chapter, distinctively explores the conceptualization of the Nationalist conservative state ideology. As regards Nationalist Party history, one important difficulty is how to understand its character, because it experienced serious conflicts among various political factions and multiple military cliques. In this chapter, Tsui tackles this difficulty by generalizing it as a “conservative revolution,” particularly after its military coup against the Communists. He focuses on the paradox posed by the leading Nationalist ideologues, such as Dai Jitao, Li Shizeng, and Hu Hanmin, who cherished the masses, but also distanced them from political movements. Faced with social and economic conflicts springing from capitalist globalization pushed by western imperialism, they found a total solution in Sun Yat-sen’s principle of the People’s Livelihood, while rejecting the Communist alternative of class-based politics. For this goal, they emphasized culturalist ethics for the Chinese, such as “filial piety” and “benevolence,” rather than their political awareness, to establish a conflict-free nation under the Nationalists’ vanguard leadership. Through this theory, Tsui suggests that the Nationalists also stood at the forefront of the global right.

Regarding actual practice, Tsui in part two, consisting of two chapters, examines Nationalist social movements for mass engagement through two lenses, that of the “Boy Scouts” movement from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, and the National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign during the Anti-Japanese war. He argues that the Nationalists understood the importance of the masses even after 1927, and attempted to discipline them to support the Party-State through everyday activities. In Chapter 2, Tsui observes that, different from the western liberal tradition, the Nationalists used the rhetoric of anti-imperialist nationalism against both the Communists and foreign invaders in the scouting movement. Therefore, starting in the 1920s they formulated the boy scouting programs to encourage physical training and spiritual cultivation around service and collaboration, and reorganized this movement into its own party structure during the Anti-Japanese War. Through these programs, the Nationalists hoped to cultivate youth submission to their authority as well as to form their own revolutionary vanguard. In Chapter 3, Tsui discusses implementation of the National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign as a means to forge a Nationalist hegemony over the people’s cultural, economic, and political life during the total war against Japan. For the Nationalists, this war was also an opportunity to eliminate political dissent. Therefore, through multiple ways, such as physical culture, hygiene practice, and consumption behaviors, the Nationalists attempted to mobilizes the masses in their daily behavior using models from Germany and Japan, but not the allies. For Tsui, both movements, namely the scouting movement and the National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign, were successful to some extent, but still had their limitations. Because the scouting movement targeted exclusively urban, middle-class youth, it was not able to incorporate the larger population of youth in rural regions. Furthermore, the Nationalists could not maintain organizational ties with the former participants of this movement after they graduated from their schools. Also, while the initiation of the Spiritualization Mobilization Campaign was welcomed generally, it was then often thwarted by Nationalist corruption.

Tsui also highlights the liberalist and Pan-Asianist dimensions of the Nationalists’ conservative revolution in the third part, also consisting of two chapters. Taking Zhu Guangqian as an example, Tsui in Chapter 4 argues that it was also possible for New Culture intellectuals to support Nationalist programs because liberalist intellectuals often shared Nationalist disdain for capitalist consumerism and communist radicalism. They saw the Nationalist Party as a useful agent for transforming the masses. Specifically in Zhu’s case, he could support Chiang Kaishek as a dictator in order to create the moral-cultural grounding for a political community of responsible citizens. (pp 205-206) Besides this liberalist support, Tsui, in Chapter 5, attends to the Nationalists’ efforts for international collaborations through their contact with the Indian National Congress. According to Tsui, it was the Pan-Asianist belief in a shared spiritual heritage, as opposed to industrial rationality, that allowed the two sides to hope for collaboration in each of their goals of realizing national independence. Nonetheless, as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent rise of the Cold War, they found themselves at odds, fighting against communism and colonialism, respectively. During these periods, the Nationalist’s enemies were Japanese imperialism first, and then communism. However, their counterparts in India under British colonial domination found no difference between the British and the Japanese during the Second World War, and often sympathized with independence movements led by the communists around the world during the Cold War. The two perspectives in the third part of Tsui’s dissertation provide an interesting frame of reference for the conservative revolution. However, Tsui indicates that liberalist support was not really consolidated, and the Nationalists’ efforts to collaborate with the Indian independence movement were also tenuous.

Tsui’s narrative is based on a deft combination of intellectual and socio-political history constructed trough scrupulous investigation of both published and unpublished archival materials, including periodicals, official documents, diplomatic records, and the writings and memoirs of relevant actors. From the perspective of intellectual history, he first characterizes the ideological tendencies of the Nationalist state, and then examines their real practices and effects. In doing so, Tsui demonstrates that ideological disagreements were some of the most important catalysts for real political action. This examination is successful in demonstrating the Nationalist Party’s specific directions of state construction and how it had attempted to promote them.

Nagatomi Hirayama
School of International Studies
University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China

Primary Sources
Academia Historica, Taipei.
Guangdong Provincial Archives, Guangzhou.
Kuomintang Party History Institute (Kuomintang Archives), Taipei.
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Archives (NMML), New Delhi.
Second Historical Archives of China, Nanjing.

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2013. 299 pp. Primary Adviser: Eugenia Lean.

Image: Scouts of China [Zhongguo tongzijun 中國童子軍], no. 18 (Apr. 1931), cover.

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