While contemporary Chinese readers, Wang Chaohua observes in her introduction to this selection of essays,
have access in their native language to large areas of Western literature and philosophy, political and economic thought, to classical texts and contemporary ideas of the world . . . this process of cultural familiarization has been one-sided. Neither the length and depth of traditional Chinese civilization, nor the importance of China in the modern history of the world, are reflected in a comparable range of Western translations of Chinese thought and culture.
Her aim in this volume ‘is to help in a modest way to correct this imbalance, by presenting the diversity of outlook among contemporary Chinese thinkers directly’.
Few would dispute Wang’s observation, although what she has to say, and the manner in which it is said, bears further reflection; I will return to it below. The undertaking itself is to be commended without reservation. One China, Many Paths joins a growing list of publications seeking to acquaint English-speaking readers with developments in the prc through the works of Chinese intellectuals themselves. Whereas most previous volumes have concentrated on culture and cultural analysis, however, Wang’s collection stands out for its focus on issues of democracy and social justice, as seen by a varied and distinguished group of Chinese thinkers. It is an important contribution, both in introducing public intellectuals quite well-known in Chinese circles to the Anglophone world and in making available a body of writings on issues of utmost concern to critics of the developmentalist path on which the Chinese Communist Party has launched the country.
These concerns no doubt relate to Wang’s own experience. Born in Beijing she is, like many of the writers in this volume, a graduate of 1989, but one who had been formed politically and intellectually during the more radical days of the Cultural Revolution. She became a leader of the student movement in Tiananmen Square, confronting Premier Li Peng on national television. After the military crackdown of June 4th she was one of the two women on the most-wanted list broadcast by the government in the drag-net that followed. After eight months in hiding she reached America, where she is now an essayist and student of Chinese literature at ucla. Most of her contributors are also among the older alumnae of 1989, born in the 1950s; their differences have been magnified significantly since then with the rapid changes in Chinese society—most importantly, the dizzying incorporation into global capitalism following Deng Xiaoping’s famous imperial tour of the South in 1992, and the structural transformations it has wrought both at home and in the prc’s relationship to the world at large.
Following a suggestion by Wang Hui—the best known of these intellectuals in North America and Europe, whose interview leads the volume—Wang establishes a loose parallel between the 1980s and 1990s, and the two decades that followed the May Fourth Movement of 1919: in each case, a decade of euphoria and intellectual excitement is succeeded by one of intellectual sobriety, introspection and complexity, with the passage between them marked by a traumatic event—the Guomindang suppression of the revolutionary movement in 1927, and the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. She is aware nevertheless of the limits of such analogies—which, as so often, may say more about the self-image of those making them than about the historical realities of changing intellectual moods, or the relationship of one period to the other. For all the euphoric embrace of new cultural currents from abroad (the so-called ‘culture fever’), the 1980s were infused by the deep anxieties created by post-revolutionary uncertainties that were sustained—as they still are, if to a lesser extent—by bouts of repression or relaxation from above. June 1989 was a surprise only to those who had come to believe in their own illusions about Deng’s reforms. In fact, the issues of culture and society that exercised intellectuals in the 1980s had more in common with the debates on modernity in the 1930s.
On the other hand, the greater complexity of intellectual and cultural exploration in the 1990s has been accompanied by serious doubts about the value of such activity, in a society which—at least in major centres like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou—has come to assume all the trappings of advanced consumerism, albeit surrounded by intensifying poverty and inequality. Intellectuals have recovered from the severe marginalization and impoverishment they experienced in the first half of the 1990s. But like their peers elsewhere, they now face the twin challenges of their own class devaluation and the commodification of intellectual life. Wang is correct to point to the two trends that have set the context for these exchanges since the turn of the century: the emergence of a transborder ‘Chinese space of discussion’, which calls into question the actual relationship of intellectuals to the society they write about; and the growing professionalization of university life which, within the context of cultural commodification, raises serious questions about the possibility of critical work. What makes these issues more urgent is that the same trends have also opened discussions in the prc to fleeting fashions from abroad.