‘The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity’ by Wang Hui
The End of
China and the Limits
Verso: 272 pp., $26.95
In recent years, China has undergone a series of dramatic transformations. Some are so profound they’ve rendered obsolete the very terms once used to describe the country. Can we still refer to China’s cities as Third World, now that Shanghai has more skyscrapers than all of America’s West Coast cities combined? And can we call the country Communist when the party has capitalist members and a military wing that sometimes seems like a diversified corporation? (The fanciest Beijing hotel I’ve ever stayed in was owned by the Red Army.)
Of course, after reading about a film banned in Beijing or a dissident punished by the government, Americans with only a casual interest in China may conclude that where intellectual life is concerned, little seems to have changed. The reality, though, is much more complex. Yes, there are disturbing echoes of the past in recent events, such as the unjust 11-year sentence handed down against critic Liu Xiaobo, convicted on trumped-up charges of subversion. Still, an updating of assumptions is required.
In “The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity,” Wang Hui, one of China’s leading historians and most interesting and influential public intellectuals, shows us why. The topics he addresses in this collection of essays and interviews illustrate clearly that, although the country’s intellectual landscape has not changed as quickly as Shanghai’s cityscape, it has not remained static by any means.
One useful way to demonstrate the ground shifts in Chinese intellectual life is to note two things that would surprise a modern-day counterpart to Rip Van Winkle if he fell asleep in Mao’s China and woke up in 21st century Beijing. First, our imaginary time traveler would be taken aback, even shocked, to find bookstores selling Chinese translations of George Orwell’s dystopian novels and edgy works of homegrown fiction -- the stories of Zhu Wen, for example -- that cast a jaundiced and satirical eye at contemporary Chinese social trends. Second, he’d discover that Beijing’s institutions of higher learning, including Tsinghua University (the school known as “China’s MIT,” where Wang holds a prestigious post), often employ faculty members who received their graduate training abroad and then returned.
If he heard about Wang, our Rip van Winkle-like figure would likely be further flummoxed, since the author’s career defies easy categorization. Until recently the co-editor of one of China’s liveliest journals, “Dushu” (Reading), he is not a dissident in the classic Cold War sense, for he supports many policies of the current government. Neither, however, does Wang always color within the official lines. Throughout “The End of the Revolution,” he insists that the Reform era has had mixed results, bringing an increase in creature comforts but also triggering a worrying rise in social inequality. This position is out of step with the current celebratory orthodoxy.
Even more confounding, Wang -- although educated exclusively in China -- could easily find a good job at a university in the West, thanks to his distinguished record of publication and command of spoken English. He is a sought-after speaker at leading institutions and major international conferences, and yet he’s shown no interest in leaving China except to take up temporary fellowships. This flies in the face of the notion, so deeply ingrained in many Western minds, that such an intellectually curious and iconoclastic thinker could never feel satisfied with academic life in any communist state.
“The End of the Revolution” covers an enormous amount of ground, intellectually and conceptually, as Wang takes up many of the topics that figured prominently in the pages of “Dushu” during his tenure there. He dissects the differences between Chinese “Liberal,” “New Authoritarian,” and “New Left” stances, explaining his tendency to prefer the last. He ponders the ideas of everyone from Hannah Arendt to Karl Marx and considers their relevance to China’s current dilemmas. And he discusses the need to see the protests of 1989 as rooted in economic as well as political grievances. Characteristically, his treatment of that topic is partly daring, partly cautious: The subject is such a hot potato that many Chinese writers avoid it completely, but in dealing with it, Wang carefully steers clear of its most taboo aspect -- the massacre near Tiananmen Square.
“The End of the Revolution” does not offer any simple take-aways about China, except perhaps that new questions need to be asked. The big issue is no longer, Wang suggests, what it will take for the nation to stop lagging behind but rather what has been lost as the pursuit of equality via revolutionary means is abandoned in favor of a largely successful quest for modernization.
Such an insight alone makes the book worthy of attention -- especially because it also has the salutary effect of forcing us to cast aside our preconceptions about the straitjacketing of Chinese intellectual life.
Wasserstrom is a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author of the forthcoming “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.”