Leftist Politics in Interwar China 1919-37


A review of The Politics of Everyday Life: Non-Party Leftists in Republican China, 1919-1937, by Zhu Qian.

In The Politics of Everyday Life, Zhu Qian aims to historicize leftist politics and journalism in China’s interwar period, challenges the continued primacy of the state and party apparatus in scholarly treatment of Republican society, and ascribes political and intellectual agency to the everyman and woman by identifying a dynamic Republican-era intellectual exchange between non-partisan leftist intellectuals and ordinary Chinese. The study centers both on a major journalistic project, entitled China’s One Day (Zhongguo de yi ri), which aimed to capture a moment in 1936 China through submissions of a broad range of personal, journalistic, and entertainment materials from across the country, and on influential leftist periodicals published in the two preceding decades, many of which remain underused by historians.

Chapter one introduces the non-partisan leftist community behind 1936’s One Day, which was organized by the Literary Society (Wenxue she) of prominent writers and edited by novelist Mao Dun. The 18-volume publication, which resulted from a lengthy editorial process whose careful methodology, Zhu details, has since been subjected in the historiography to “formalistic and retrospective interpretations,” as Zhu argues (p. 45). These interpretations cast a mammoth project aimed at freeze-framing a torrent of diverse and often contradictory social activity countrywide into either trauma literature on the eve of invasion in 1937 or into socialism realism anticipating revolution in 1949, respectively. (Equally problematic, Zhu writes, was the later scale-downed English version, which organized the material along Maoist classifications of authority. See Sherman Cochran, Andrew Hsieh and Janis Cochran, eds. and trans., One Day in China: May 21, 1936. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). Zhu shows how the project was in fact a “political manifesto” (p. 46) of the non-party left in 1936 Shanghai at a time when the leftist National Salvation Movement comprised a formidable third political force next to the CCP and GMD. By recognizing the creative promise of the conventionally dubbed “masses,” Zhu demonstrates how the way in which this monumental project was executed overturned conventional hierarchical relationships between elites and commoners and recognized the political potential for China’s ordinary citizenry to effect mass social transformation in favor of egalitarian and democratic values on the eve of total war.

Chapter two examines the meanings ascribed to everyday life by leftist activists and their goal of fostering “self-managed, spontaneous and productive subjects” (p. 10) through education, making each common man or woman into advocates for his or her own interests. The chapter focuses on Tao Xingzhi’s New Education Movement of 1919-1927, which distinguished itself from the education programs of the GMD and CCP, as well as the vernacular and rural reconstruction movements of liberal elites, by “relocating education into everyday life” (p. 105) and making sites of social and political learning out of the work place, Zhu writes. Valuing popular “wisdom and experience” (p. 122), the movement’s leaders sought, through education, the transformative potential of everyone rather than stopping at the merely pedantic or patronizing aims of overcoming ignorance or illiteracy. While building on Peter Zarrow and Arif Dirlik’s work on Chinese anarchism, Zhu is critical of locating Chinese radicalism purely in ideological traditions or borrowings, arguing that these previous treatments of Chinese leftism fail to bring in the immediate social-political context in which radicals were operating during the 1920-30s. Similarly, while constructing his educational experiments Tao did not merely apply the concepts of his Columbia Teachers College mentor, John Dewey, to Chinese soil but was very consciously reacting to the “current structural crises of [interwar] Chinese society” (p. 145).

Chapter three examines Zou Taofen’s Life (Shenghuo, 1926-36), one of numerous Republican-era periodicals carrying the term shenghuo in their title, many of whose editors saw journalism as the medium capturing lived social contradictions in real time and exploring possible pathways to solutions to those contradictions both domestically and globally through a “horizontal anti-exploitation global alliance of mass politics” (p. 187). In the eyes of Zou and other leftist activists, this alliance would grow organically out of the everyday experiences of the masses and would not suffer from the artificiality and arbitrariness of official top-down approaches to social change. While aiming to rescue Zou from his identification with the CCP, a party he never joined, Zhu is also critical of narratives of interwar China that viewed nationalism and political universalism as antithetical. Instead, building on the work of Rebecca Karl, the author sees an identification among non-partisan Chinese leftist nationalists with anti-colonial struggles around the world.

Chapter four examines May Fourth-era feminist journalist Shen Zijiu and the turn away from institutional and elite chaperoning of women’s liberation to a movement grounded in everyday mass politics. For Shen, a vocal critic of the 1930s New Life Movement, the notion of dushen (singleness) was not a moral or psychological phenomenon but a function of a particular form of capitalism in the interwar years, and the female social autonomy with which the period was associated came with the price of commodification and alienation. “Emancipation” would come through bringing female voices, particularly those of working women, into the political and intellectual fold as autonomous agents of social ferment through which ideals of equality might be acted out, but not merely as proletariat or nationalist subjects.

Chapter five returns to China’s One Day project by examining two submissions to the publication, that of a township clerk in rural Guangdong, and then a soldier in boot camp. By pulling detailed observations – or “particularity” – from historical moments, Zhu shows how the project set institutional developments in a theater of human agency and emotion, which were in turn negotiated within shifting political structures. Hence, as Zhu explains, “Non-partisan leftism is inscribed as the negation of the master narratives of the nation-state” (p. 248). As for nationalist or communist categories of analysis, these do not stand up to scrutiny when the immediate, lived social contradictions evident in viewing One Day are woven into historical accounts.

The Politics of Everyday Life: Non-Party Leftists in Republican China, 1919-1937 contributes to a broad range of current debates concerning a comparatively weak historiographical stretch of modern Chinese social history. Its critique of what Zhu calls a “reified concept of modernity” (p. 19), whose appeal, she writes, has mainly been as a way of drawing comparisons with the timeline of developments in Europe and the Americas, engages with works dealing with modernization theory more broadly and its applicability to the Chinese case. Its critique of the primacy of party politics in Chinese intellectual and political history and the exclusion of ordinary nonintellectuals from being political agents and conduits of political concepts and practice speaks to studies of citizenship and electoral politics under the republic and complicates works stressing China’s 1920s turn to a political field of dueling single-party Leninist regimes before Japanese invasion. Its exploration of the intersection of new institutional forms with practices at the local level sheds light on the development and nature of state-society relations in modern China, particularly in its vast rural regions. Its examination of how China and the Chinese nation were imagined spatially and socially, as well as the compatibility of nationalist and universalist ideals, speaks to debates on the development of nationalism in China and, in particular, the national consciousness of elite versus common Chinese before and during the second Sino-Japanese war. Students of feminist and media studies will also find Zhu’s study valuable, as well as those interested in the field of microhistory.

Pierre Fuller
Department of History
School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
University of Manchester

Primary Sources

Mao Dun, ed., Zhongguo de yi ri [China’s One Day] (1936)
Shanghai periodicals such as Shenghuo, Dazhong shenghuo and Funu yuandi, 1915-36
Taofen Quanji [Collected Works of Zou Taofen] vols. 1-3 (1991)
Mingguo congshu [Books of the Republican Era] vols. 1-5 (1991)

Dissertation Information

New York University. 2011. 319 pp. Primary Advisor: Rebecca E. Karl.

Image: Pang Yingqiao, Woodcut print, “Quanguo dashiji” [“The Big Events in the Country ”], Zhongguo de yi ri [China’s One Day] 1936, vol. 1, p. 1.

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