The Dilemma of Chinese Nationalism


A review of Searching for the Self: Zhang Shizhao and Chinese Narratives (1903-1927), by YE BIN.

Where do nation, modernity, and tradition intersect?  This is the question that frames Ye Bin’s beautifully crafted dissertation about the “Chinese quest for a new political and ethical order” in the first decades of the twentieth century (p. 1).  Ye returns to what Benjamin Schwartz called “the ubiquitous dilemma of modern nationalism,” the tension between the drive to follow seemingly universal paths to progress and the desire to preserve national, cultural identity (p. 219).  Born in 1881 to a wealthy landowner on the outskirts of Changsha, Zhang Shizhao embodied the interplay of universalism and traditionalism as “an anti-traditionalist, pro-Western revolutionary,” who “became a steadfast defender of Chinese cultural traditions” (p. 3).

Searching for the Self argues that historians have focused on the intellectual productivity of the iconoclastic New Culture Movement and have failed to take seriously the equally constructive role of conservative counter-narratives.  Ye takes issue with the view, advanced most famously by Joseph Levenson, that the “romantic” and “emotional” attachments of traditionalists led them to cling to conventions they knew to be increasingly obsolete (p. 4).  In Zhang Shizhao’s philosophy, Ye finds a traditionalism that articulated a pragmatic program for reform, based in the notion of accumulated culture as a living and evolving source for truth, values, and positive change.

As Ye’s dissertation opens, we meet Zhang, the seven-year-old pupil of a harsh Confucian tutor.  We follow the young scholar through two failed attempts to pass the civil-service examination and into a cultural and intellectual world where students and their teachers looked to Chinese traditions for political, moral, and vocational wisdom.  As Ye demonstrates in his introduction, even as Zhang moved within that traditional world, many of the scholars he encountered already evinced a growing enthusiasm (and sometimes a preference) for Western knowledge.

In the first two chapters of the dissertation, Ye takes readers into the center of radical student politics, as the twenty-two-year-old Zhang Shizhao moved to Shanghai’s International Settlement in 1903 to take up the editorship Su Bao, the newspaper of the Patriotic Study Society.  Narratively, Ye develops the growing affinity between Zhang and other would-be insurgents (Zou Rong, Zhang Binglin, Sun Yat-sen, Chen Duxiu), tracing the early radicalization of an arrogant young revolutionary trying to come to terms with the meaning and significance of geming, or revolution.  Analytically, Ye provides a sensitive exegesis of Zhang’s intellectual growth.  In his earliest writings, Zhang “interpreted the crisis of China as a crisis of the traditional self” (p. 1). He characterized that ‘self’ as inherently “slavish,” and he drew on a virulently anti-traditional rhetoric to endorse violent revolution as a necessary “journey from slavery to citizenry” (p. 49).

The turning point for Zhang came as early as 1904 when, Ye argues, two events served as the first catalysts for a radical’s return to tradition: a botched assassination attempt humbled Zhang, and a trip to England strengthened his faith in Chinese culture.  As Chinese intellectuals debated the relative merits of Xixue (Western learning) and Zhongxue (Chinese learning), the concept of Guoxue (National learning) “provided a new narrative which made possible a reconciliation with certain aspects of tradition” and marked the emergence of Zhang’s critiques of “the myth of linear progress and universal civilization” (64).  At this stage, Ye shows, Zhang still found Western knowledge compatible with its Chinese counterpart, but he would not hold that position for long.

In chapters three, four, and five, Ye plots Zhang’s gradual disillusionment with Western models and his ultimate rejection of the universal in favor of the culturally specific.  Through a detailed examination of the factionalized political and intellectual debates that accompanied the establishment of the first Chinese Republic, Ye tracks Zhang’s vacillation between the radicals in the Revolutionary Alliance and the traditionalists in Yuan Shikai’s inner circle.  Readers watch the transformation as Zhang, initially an ardent advocate of representative government, became a firm believer in the need for China to develop political institutions “more in conformity” with “the character of our nation” (p. 184).  China’s problem, according to Zhang, was that Chinese reformers saw the West as an “an infallible guide” and Western culture as a reservoir of universal truth.  Arguing that institutions designed to suit the industrialized West could not address the needs of an agricultural China, Zhang advanced a new political system he called “professionalism.”  He theorized that Chinese society might be organized into relatively autonomous, occupation-based caucuses. Although “professionalism” resonated with many kinds of European socialism, Zhang lauded the system as organically Chinese, growing out of the indigenous guilds that had already demonstrated their political efficacy (p. 185).

By chapter six, Zhang Shizhao is nearly unrecognizable as the young radical who once attempted to assassinate the Empress Dowager.  When he was appointed minister of education in 1925, the staunch conservative advocated respect for Confucian ritual, railed against the iconoclasm of the New Culture movement, and squashed student activism.  Angry students ransacked Zhang’s house while their professors assassinated his character.  (Zhang retaliated by firing a vocal critic, Lu Xun, from the ministry.)  By 1925, isolated among literary elites, Zhang took his old pen name, qingtong (Green Phoenix Tree), and rendered it anew as gutong (Lonely Phoenix Tree).  As Ye convincingly shows, however, Zhang Shizhao was not as solitary as his modified pen name suggested.  His tenure as minister of education was brief, and “professionalism” never gained purchase, but conservatives across China “rallied under his banner” (p. 190).

Ye persuades readers that Zhang’s opposition to the New Culture Movement “represented a holistic cultural conservatism that has been ignored by students of modern Chinese intellectual history” (p. 189). Where other scholars have emphasized faith in progress as the common ground between iconoclasts and traditionalists, Ye shows that Zhang advanced a powerfully subversive critique that replaced the idea of linear movement with the notion of “circular evolution,” in which positive change occurred through the honing of traditional knowledge.

Where do nation, modernity, and tradition intersect?  As Ye demonstrates, these questions were not settled in the 1920s, and they continue to shape contemporary political debates about whether China can productively utilize, or be held accountable to, “Western standards of democracy, freedom, and human rights” (p. 1).  In addition to deconstructing truisms about the role of tradition vs. iconoclasm in the intellectual history of the Chinese revolution, Ye Bin’s forthcoming book will speak to questions of national identity, modernity, and the way the global exchange of ideas informs the most personal imaginings of the self.

Aminda M. Smith
Assistant Professor
Michigan State University

Primary Sources

Periodicals, especially Su Bao, Jia Yin
Collected Works
Unpublished writings in private collections
Memoirs, interviews, and wenshi ziliao

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley, 2009.  234 pp. Primary Advisor: Wen-hsin Yeh.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like