Fascism & Revolution in 1930s China


A review of Fascism, Cultural Revolution, and National Sovereignty in 1930s China, by MARGARET CLINTON.

Margaret Clinton provides in-depth analysis of Chinese fascism’s intellectual content through a study of articles published in fascist and other Chinese journals during the 1930s. Clinton sets out to demonstrate that even though Chinese fascism seems ill-defined and its goals self-contradictory, the fascist movement did have a clear-cut plan. The fascist thought of the Blueshirt, CC Clique, and Reorganization factions – which between them controlled many of the Nationalist regime’s civil, political, and military bodies during the Nanjing Decade – is the primary focus of Clinton’s work. A fundamental point she makes is “while disagreements between these factions have been amply documented, these men ultimately shared more in common ideologically with each other and with fascist movements elsewhere in the world than withother political movements in 1930s China” (pp. 16-17). Chinese fascism sought to reinvigorate the Chinese national spirit – which had made China so powerful in the past – by modernizing it to become compatible with twentieth-century realities, particularly capitalist industrialization. According to the fascist interpretation of China’s future prospects, only a wholesale cultural revolution could modernize the national spirit and make China’s military-industrial complex strong enough to resist imperialism.

Responding to works by Lloyd Eastman, Maria Hsia-chang, Chung Dooeum, Frederic Wakeman, William C. Kirby, Arif Dirlik and others, Clinton places Chinese fascism in an international, inter-war context and asserts the “measures that Chinese fascists proposed throughout the 1930s” were designed to avoid the “catastrophic development” that “China would be left to fend for itself when the next round of inter-imperialist rivalry erupted,” (p. 2).

Chapter 1 presents the Chinese fascist obsessions with “eradicating communism and overcoming all which “both embraced and repudiated ideas proposed” during the New Culture Movement (pp. 45-46, 47). Citing essays by GMD Shanghai Education Bureau chief Pan Gongzhan and Blueshirt Ru Chunpu, as well as Chen Lifu, He Zhonghan, Soong May-ling and others, Clinton shows the centrality of the fascists’ understanding of the word culture. She presents individual fascists’ divergent ideas of what is and is not an element of Chinese culture and their unified view that, “cultural vitality was synonymous with the capacity of the fittest to survive, and collectively resolve the means by which weaker nations could prevent their elimination by stronger nations,” (p. 72). Refusing to be confused by the seeming conflict between fascist rejection of “loving the ancients” and promotion of “restoration of [dynastic] glory” (p. 78), Clinton makes clear that there was no contradiction between these two positions. The fascists never asserted that a return to past methods would save China. Instead, they sought to infuse the strengths of China’s traditional culture with elements of the modern world. According to Clinton, the fascists’ “explicit purpose was to move beyond the Nationalists’ hitherto negative and destructive program of anti-communism and anti-imperialism, and to positively construct a uniquely particular, modern national culture capable of holding its own,” (p. 90).

Chapter 2 shifts the focus from China’s cultural weaknesses to other reasons a cultural revolution was seen as necessary. Through Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Chinese fascists recognized that the League of Nations was powerless and, when challenges arose, the League sided with metropole over colony. Intriguingly, Clinton demonstrates that Chinese fascists justified the Nationalists’ “‘internal pacification before foreign resistance’…policy,” with Ethiopia’s failed appeal to the League of Nations (p. 130). Had Ethiopia strengthened its patriotism ahead of Italy’s invasion, the Chinese fascists argued, the outcome may have been quite different. Such international conditions led Chinese fascists to conclude that fascist-style unity was essential for resisting the future Japanese invasion. Nanjing did not fail to recognize how great a threat Japan posed; on the contrary, the Japanese threat was so great that the only way forward was first to eradicate Chinese communism, the greatest obstacle to national unity.

Fascist determination to eliminate communism centered on the belief that it “was alien and unsuited to the Chinese context,” (p. 152) thus its existence was incompatible with renewing the Chinese national spirit. Chapter 3 establishes that after the communists fled southern China on the Long March, the Nationalists emphasized the degeneracy and filth of the Chinese soviets. Adhering to the unification through cultural revolution theme, Clinton asserts the Nationalists launched the New Life Movement in southern China specifically with the fascist goal of unity in mind. Reeducation of communist sympathizers through brazenly anti-communist propaganda demonstrated that the success of the New Life Movement lay not only in making former communists clean once again, but making them Chinese once again.

In Chapter 4, Clinton recognizes the general perception of the New Life Movement as “perplexing and misguided,” yet decides to focus instead on the “totalizing and revolutionary character of its aims,” (p. 199). Acknowledging but not echoing the oft-repeated criticisms of the movement, Clinton explains that “What appeared to be superficial aesthetic concerns, then, were instead very much about calling a disciplined workforce and a citizenry capable of organized military mobilization into being,” (p. 213).

Chapter 5 examines fascist efforts to use artistic forms of expression, including art, literature, film and news media, to reinvigorate Chinese culture. These media “were approached as instruments for bringing people into line, for forcing new ways of thinking and acting,” (p. 297). Clinton aptly points out that “Blueshirt and CC Clique activists were clearly speaking at the people that they claimed to be speaking for, imposing an unabashedly civilizing project upon ‘the masses,’” (p. 296). Statements such as this point to the contribution of Clinton’s work.

Throughout the dissertation, Clinton presents Chinese fascism as having an always-consistent agenda. Rejecting the way “Scholars continue to cast Nanjing’s simultaneous push for socio-economic modernization and for reviving dynastic values as evidencing confusion on the part of its leaders,” (p. 238), Clinton demonstrates that glorifying China’s pre-twentieth century culture while simultaneously insisting on the need for industrialization were not contradictory or mutually exclusive goals. At the same time, however, Clinton never loses sight of the fact that that although she has shed light on the clarity of fascist goals, Chinese fascism failed spectacularly in its efforts.

Primary Sources

1.  Hanxue zhoukan [Sweat and Blood Weekly], vols. 1-6 (1933-1937). Published in Shanghai by Sweat and Blood Bookstore (Hanxue Shudian).

2.  Qiantu [The Future], vols. 1-5 (1933-1937). Published in Shanghai by the Future Magazine Bureau (Qiantu zazhi she).

3.  Saodang Xunkan [Mopping Up Thrice Monthly], nos. 1-37 (1933-1934). Published in Nanchang, Jiangxi by the Nationalist Military Committee Political Training Bureau (Guomindang junshi weiyuanhui zhengzhi xunlianchu).

4.  Shehui xinwen [Society Mercury], vols. 1-13 (1933-1935). Published in Shanghai by the Guangming Bookstore (Guangming Shudian).

Dissertation Information

New York University, 2009. 344 pp. Advisor: Rebecca Karl

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