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New Left Review 71, September-October 2011

mark elvin


There are many kinds of revolutions in human history: technological, demographic, economic, cultural, ideological, intellectual, political. [*] This paper was first published in Chinese as a contribution to a symposium organized by the Taipei-based journal Sixiang [Reflexion], no. 18, June 2011. They overlap, intertwine and weave in and out of each other. In the course of the last two centuries, Chinese life as experienced by both ordinary and extraordinary people has been through all of these, often more than once, in a fascinating—sometimes terrifying—kaleidoscopic variety. People can and do refer to ‘the’ Chinese revolutions of 1911 and 1949, meaning in the main particular sequences of twentieth-century military and political events, and this is acceptable as shorthand. But perhaps the most effective way to acquire a feeling for these life-changing processes as a whole is to begin, not with the political on its own, or political events over a relatively brief space of time, but with the deeper changes in the imagined but emotionally powerful stories in terms of which people understand their lives, as a long-term phenomenon. [1] As Sartre has written, ‘a man is always a teller of stories; he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, and he perceives all that happens to him through these stories. And he seeks to live his life as if he were telling a story.’ Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (1938), Paris 1958, p. 57.

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Mark Elvin, ‘China’s Multiple Revolutions’, NLR 71: £3

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