Culture and Power in the Chinese Communist Revolution


A review of Reordering China: Culture and Power in the Chinese Communist Revolution, by Xiaohong Xu.

Bu Dahua, one of the students who led the Red Guards in Qinghua University’s High School, recalled in an interview an outing with some of his friends in spring 1966. He was distressed because they felt they had failed to move the revolution forward, at least for the time being: “I felt my body seemed to be possessed by many revolutionary souls: there were Zou Rong who euologized revolution; Chen Tianhua who didn’t hesitate to lay down his life for the revolution; Lu Xun who grasped ‘his pen as his sword’; Lenin when he studied in Kazan University; Mao Zedong who zealously expressed himself in Aiwan Paviolion; and even Russian Decemberists…Ideal, illusion, fantasy, and reverie were all swirling in my mind.” (p. 217) In that moment, the thought of this pantheon of revolutionary heroes motivated Bu, yet also caused despair. Mao was important, but so were many more heroes and heroines who collectively formed one impossible yet desirable model to be emulated. To understand Bu and his generation of Red Guard revolutionaries, this dissertation argues, one must re-examine the longue durée of the Chinese Communist Revolution. We need, in short, better theoretical frameworks. These should enable us to grasp “revolution” through the people and their organizational structures. For people, Xu contends, both “made revolution” and became part of a larger development called “revolution.”

“The specter of the revolution,” Xu writes, “is returning to haunt China.” (p. 238) When this dissertation was completed in 2013, global media were feverishly analyzing the transition to a new Politburo Standing Committee under Xi Jinping. Selected revivals of revolutionary practices such as the mass line have now, three years later, become a firm part of the way we see Xi; the man, the leader, and increasingly the contested icon. For this, and for many other reasons, Xu’s dissertation is a timely contribution to what we know and how we think about the Chinese Communist revolution. As a historical sociologist, Xu wears two hats. With his sociologist’s hat on, he offers a complex engagement with existing theoretical and methodological frameworks that all attempt to answer short but excruciatingly difficult questions: Why, how, and when do revolutions develop, succeed and/or fail? From Theda Skocpol’s 1979 classic work on France, Russia, and China to the extensive scholarship on social movement and charismatic authority, he confidently and critically draws on a wide range of theoretical literature to rethink China’s revolution and the role of the Communist idea therein. With his historian’s hat on, he delves into a substantial set of published and unpublished primary sources – from archival documents to memoirs, telegrams, newspapers, and interviews – to show how and why a diverse cast of historical agents created revolutionary change in certain moments, bit-by-bit. Stitching together both hats, this thesis makes for a compelling read.

The five chapters follow a thematic and roughly chronological order that begins with the early Communist Movement in the late 1910s and ends with the formation of the Red Guard movement in 1966. Chapter 1 opens with an introduction and a detailed analysis of the existing scholarly literature on revolutions and social movements globally. Xu argues that “revolutionaries like Mao did not ‘make’ the revolution… they ran into it, got involved in it and brought an order in and out of a social revolution.” (p. 8) Social movements, as a concept and historical phenomenon, are one of the crucial prisms through which Xu seeks to understand twentieth-century China. His attention to social movements explains his overall focus on protagonists, organizational structures, and agency, and his attempt to alleviate some of the “confusion over the notion of agency.” (p. 20) The dissertation therefore, “charts out how this dialectic of organizing and rupture came about, what social and cultural circumstances conditioned the rise of the revolutionary vanguard, how the vanguard theorized social contradictions and its own role in bringing about historical change, and what affected its success, routinization and further rupture.” (p. 9)

To do so, Xu’s more empirical chapters examine cultural repertoires, new ideas, practices, social networks, interactions, and ideological power. Chapter 2 investigates how students and intellectuals organized into the Chinese Communist Movement in the wake of May Fourth and specifically between 1920 and 1921. The first part is a cross-sectional analysis of 28 May Fourth organizations, some of which merged into the Chinese Communist Movement and some of which did not. The second part then compares the New Citizens Study Society and the Young China Association. Members of the New Citizens Study Society elected to join the Communist movement, while members of the Young China Association could not come to an agreement over the matter and eventually broke apart. Xu is looking to explain why some were more attracted to Bolshevism than others and it was those societies with a distinct component of self-cultivation that found important parallels and points of convergence between their own practices and the Bolshevik call for discipline and self-sacrifice.

Chapter 3 fast-forwards to the early 1940s and the period of the frail second United Front. Here, Xu is interested in the role of “ideology and strategy in the formation of Maoism” as a coherent program. More specifically, the chapter proposes a “more interactional model, where actors – revolutionaries, in this case – also respond to structural circumstances by retooling their strategies of action, drawing both from their ideological resources and other cultural idioms.” (p. 95) Mao and his comrades, Xu argues, devised a strategy of “achieving unity through opposition” in the months before and after the Wannan Incident of 1941. This allowed them at the same time to strengthen the vanguard role of the Communist Party and to expand organizationally in ways that required flexibility and adaptability.

The idea of “New Democracy” clearly shifts to the analytical foreground and it is taken up in Chapter 4, though now Xu moves our attention away from Party leadership strategies in the midst of war and towards the YMCA. As the “biggest social service organization during this period,” the YMCA provided an organizational structure, a space of civil society and social networks, and a source of individual identification. More simply, the chapter asks how civic organizations experienced “this radical change from revolutionary crisis to the establishment of cultural hegemony by the revolutionary vanguard?” (p. 147) Without effective democratic institutions, this chapter argues, even a vibrant civil society will no longer function as social capital. Rather, it will become a source of “social representation” for a regime that “claims democratic legitimacy based on civil society organizations and their reconfigured relations with each other in lieu of democratic institutions.” (pp. 149-150) In the specific case of the YMCA, then, this transition happened with formation of the All-China Youth Federation under the umbrella of New Democracy.

Finally, Chapter 5 gives a twist to one of the classic questions of sociology: charisma and charismatic authority. Perhaps it is not surprising that the chapter’s main focus is on the Red Guards and the Red Guard Movement. More surprisingly and refreshingly, however, the chapter shows little interest for the Mao Cult. Mao and his cult of personality feature, of course. But the Mao Cult is but part of the much larger pantheon of revolutionary heroes and heroines with which this review opened and which shaped the experiences of a generation of Chinese citizens, the Mao Era’s baby boomers, born just as the People’s Republic had been founded and educated during the prime of early socialist construction. Xu here analyzes not the causes of revolution, but the causes that de-stabilize revolutions, and asks why this generation in particular was so receptive to Mao’s attempt to mobilize them. Moving away from the “elite conflict theory” (p. 183), Xu identifies mnemonic education and exemplary education as crucial factors. It was supposed to help create “docile tools” of socialist construction. Yet learning of so many individuals who created revolutions spurred many among this baby boomer generation to imitate and seek a revolutionary identity of their own. Charisma could not be routinized.

How we make sense of revolutions in general, and China’s revolution in particular, has been among the hotly debated questions across and among disciplines. In his theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich study, Xu has found new angles that will fascinate those who wish to learn more about China’s revolution in a domestic and comparative perspective. And it has much to offer to those, if they exist, who thought there was little life left in the study of the grand socialist revolutions. If the study of revolutions is an evergreen, then Xu has proven how much can be gained from a judiciously administered trim.

Jennifer Altehenger
Department of History
King’s College London

Primary Sources
Kuomintang Central Archives, Taipei.
Voluntary Societies during the May Fourth Period [五四时期的社团] Beijing: Sanlian chubanshe.
Source Materials of the New Citizen Study Society [新民学会资料] Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.
China’s Youth Publishing House, ed. Learn From Heroes [向英雄学习] Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian chubanshe, 1953.
CCP Central Archives, ed. NFA Incident: Collected Materials [皖南事变:资料选辑] Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dang’an chubanshe, 1982.
Anhui Province Cultural Relics Bureau, ed. Collected Materials about the Wannan Incident [皖南事变资料选] Hefei: Anhui renmin chubanshe, 1981.

Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2013. 234 pp. Primary Advisor: Julia P. Adams and Philip S. Gorski.

Image: Rectification Notes by Wang Zhenbang. Archives on Chinese Communism, The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, Taipei, Taiwan.

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