There are many kinds of revolutions in human history: technological, demographic, economic, cultural, ideological, intellectual, political.footnote 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.footnote1

The number of ‘stories’ in which the Chinese have been, so to speak, ‘living’ in modern timesbelieving and then disbelieving, preaching and then jettisoning themhas been remarkable. Just to illustrate, not one but two very different, elaborately articulated and government-sponsored systems of sacred-text-based, quasi-religious belief have been in effect abandoned by the Chinese in the course of four or five generations: the first was scriptural Confucianism, which ceased reproducing itself around the beginning of the twentieth century, when the imperial civil-service examinations were abolished; the second was the intellectually degraded but emotionally powerful simplification of Marxism by Mao and his think-tank of ideologues—Chen Boda, Ai Siqiwhich did not really survive the end of the Cultural Revolution in the later 1970s. And this is not to mention such short-lived florescences as the faith the Taiping rebels borrowed from the missionaries in the 1850s and early 1860s: ‘Christianity with Chinese characteristics’, as it might be described, and including toward its end a modernization programme. Or the well-intentioned but intellectually unconvincing attempt at a cult of Sun Yat-sen’s thought (Sanminzhuyi) in Taiwan a century later. The period also saw parallel national-historical developments: the decline of China, as one of the four great Eurasian empires during the eighteenth century;footnote2 and then its mid-nineteenth-century humiliation by Western military forces—though not, as is sometimes implied by loose statements about ‘imperialism’, its general conquest, excluding limited foreign occupations of relatively small areas; there was never a foreign Viceroy in Nanjing, in contrast with the one in New Delhi under the British, and I doubt if there ever could have been. Decline has been followed in its turn by China’s recent resurgence to be at least a potential future superpower.

This epoch was also the beginning of the gradual but extensive—and still continuing—transfer of most of the West’s advanced technological skills into Chinese hands, starting seriously in the 1860s in Shanghai with ships and machinery.footnote3 The chemical fertilizers invented in Germany, following the discoveries of Justus von Liebig (1803–73), were the single most important aspect of this transfer, without which it would have become impossible for China to feed its swelling population of the later twentieth century. It also saw the arrival of modern science, the key transformative factor in the modern world, which had been missing in China before this time—apart from one or two isolated successes, and the marginal though analytically demanding field of reconstructing the ancient and medieval pronunciations of the Chinese language.footnote4 All of these phenomena were interwoven with politics, to varying degrees; but probably the only indispensable political aspect was the opening of the door to trade and diplomacy with the western world, in the 1840s and 1850s, by the two conventionally but inadequately labelled ‘Opium Wars’.footnote5

Some years ago, in Changing Stories in the Chinese World, I tried to show, mainly through extracts from five novels directly or indirectly about Chinese society in their period, and some Qing-dynasty poems on everyday life, how dramatically the Chinese experience of living and of understanding the world and its history, had changed since the 1820s.footnote6 Let us begin by sketching the socio-political world that we are considering through a summary of what this survey shows. The story is an intricate one.

The first novel is The Destinies of the Flowers in the Mirror (Jinghua yuan), by Li Ruzhen. Written in the years before 1828, it is a Chinese Gulliver’s Travels, full of subtle humour, mocking—with a serious didactic intent beneath the laughter—the many pompous pretensions and foolish beliefs of Qing society, not to mention the self-satisfied inadequacies of too much of its scholarship. It also champions the case for women—and even, at times, the young and the non-Chinese—to be taken as seriously and treated as respectfully as men. At a deeper level it is a richly self-contradictory mix of unflinching belief in both the moral and ritual proprieties of Confucianismnotably, filial obedience and the self-denial of faithful widowsand the Buddhist-Daoist karmic justice of the unending reincarnation of human, animal and even spirit selves. Deeper still, Li Ruzhen holds that there is a predetermined web of causation that is forever largely unknowable to mortals, but ‘the roots determine the blossoms, just as the magnet is drawn toward the iron’.footnote7 The novel has a knowledgeable fascination with technology, including accurate clocks (useful, among other things, for measuring the speed of sound), imagined flying machines, and the details of the engineering needed for the hydraulic control of waterways. It is also haunted by a sense of the gap between the ideal and the actual. China is seen as undoubtedly ‘the root of all other countries’, but unfortunately a flawed one that needs improvement.footnote8 The universe is run by a celestial bureaucracy of lesser gods and spirits under the Lord on High (shangdi), but one as much riven with vicious personal rivalries and imperfections as its human counterpart on earth. But, crucially, China was believed to be at the heart of all that mattered, whether in human history or human ideas—a belief that was to be largely in ruins a hundred years later. The loss of this comforting delusion created an agonizing nostalgia for a past which was indeed great—but not uniquely great—that has not, even today, been completely laid to rest.

This was something of an elitist vision. Almost none of the common people could speak for themselves directly in our historical sources. But there were many poets—some of them of modest origins, though, through their sophisticated literacy, real or virtual members of the ‘gentry’ class—who were acutely aware of the injustices and suffering that poisoned the lives of the poor and the powerless. In Our Dynasty’s Warning Bell of Poesy (Guochao shiduo) of 1859, Zhang Yingchang compiled an anthology of two thousand or so of their often startlingly poignant poems.footnote9 The themes covered include droughts, famines, flooding and drowning by high tides and swollen rivers; taxes, conscription, the exactions of local bullies and money-lenders; not to mention landlords demanding rent, backed by threats of local government force, as well as the sale of children and their parents’ suicides due to poverty. They told of the back-breaking toil of women, both in textile manufacture and farming—for female work of this latter sort was becoming common in Qing times, in areas under the greatest demographic pressure of a denser population—and of the savage psychological mistreatment by some mothers-in-law of their daughters-in-law. In contrast, but with strong ideological implications, they also depicted the joys of devoted and uncomplaining married women, who rose above their difficulties to become loved and esteemed matriarchs at the end of their lives. These themes are accompanied by a miscellany of other topics: the pampered but submissive existence of girls raised and trained from birth to be sold as expensive secondary wives to the well-to-do; the precarious existence of travelling entertainers, tea-pickers, coal-miners and charcoal-burners, servants, soldiers and prisoners; and, most numerous of all, the seasonal labours and dreams, bitterness, frustrations and transient happinesses of farmers and their wives and children. These paintings in words form an unrolling scroll of otherwise unseen lives, with few if any parallels in other literatures. A warm and sympathetic human feeling runs through most of the poems, alongside open or implied condemnation for those exploiting others,footnote10 yet there is no awareness that a social, political or ideological system might be at least in part to blame for people’s sufferings. Understanding that this was perhaps, even probably, the case had potentially revolutionary implications; but it was a change of perspective that began to occur in China only toward the end of the nineteenth century, mainly as the result of Western influences and, to some extent, of Western example.

By the start of the 1920s, however, there erupted what can only be called ‘a crisis of absurdity’ in the more developed parts of Chinese society. Timms, in his book on the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus at about the same time, has pointed to ‘the contradictions between a given social structure and the forms of consciousness in which it [is] apprehended’ as the mechanism which produces a sense that life is absurd.footnote11 This is not a trivial matter. To feel that one’s existence is absurd is a dangerous emotion. It is one that probably contributed, through the need for its denial and suppression, to the rise of National Socialism in Vienna, and then Germany. Such a sense of absurdity is probably a symptom of a transitional phase in the breakdown of an old pattern of meanings, whose inappropriateness is becoming ever more apparent, even though it retains a grip on people’s minds. A comparable form of mental self-torture, though of course in a Chinese cultural mode, spread through educated China during the early Republic; it was one of the psychological causes that drove a number of often brilliant and idealistic activists and intellectuals to form the early Chinese Communist Party. There was an aching need for an understanding of what was going on, in the midst of confusion and humiliation; a hunger for certainty, for mastery and for hope; in the end, whatever the cost.