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Dynastic Interregnum

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 10 months ago

Looking for China's "Glue:" Chinese Fighting Japanese and Chinese:



The period that begins in 1912 with the fall of the last Qing emperor, Pu-Yi (later to become a Japanese puppet ruler in the occupied region of Manchuria), and ends in 1949 with the triumph of the Communists (led by Mao Zedong and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP) over the Nationalists (led by Jiang Jieshi, better known as Chiang Kaishek, and the Nationalist Party, the Guomindang, or GMD) has been called "Republican China." But the appellation is accurate only in theory.


In practice, whatever ideas of Western republicanism did exist were severely hampered in practice, first by a period of regional warlordism lasting until 1927, second by an all out war against Japanese imperialists and colonialists, third by an ongoing and divisive rivalry for power and control of China between the Nationalists and the Communists (despite a so-called United Front of the two parties), a conflict that ended in a full-scale civil war after 1945, and fourth by the reassertion in 1927 of bureaucratic autocracy (without monarchy) masquerading (at least in some Western eyes) as some form of democratic political culture under the auspices of Jiang Kaishek.


Chinese individualism and liberalism, of course, must be seen in Chinese historical and cultural perspective. The individual's self-cultivation and improvement would always make the collective or the state stronger. In a sense, people [were] born for the state, not the state for the people.* While there might be a parliament and a constitution, the concept of rights did not include the limiting of the power of the ruler, in this case Jiang Kaishek. Thus, it might be more appropriate to the call the period, politically at least, as an interregnum between dynasties.*


On the other hand, from a social and economic as well as an intellectual, cultural perspective, significant changes did occur during this time, especially in the first generation after Pu Yi's departure. Western ideas such as science and democracy and socialism and communism (the latter two having been generated particularly by the success of the Bolshevik (Marxist-Leninist) Revolution in Russia in 1917) began to appeal especially to newly educated Chinese intellectuals who, like the writer Lu Xun, were concerned about China's fate. The old order, buttressed by Confucian ideology, was being challenged, as expressed in a "New Culture" movement in 1916, and exemplified by literary works, such as Lu Xun's story, "Kong Yiji," written in the vernacular language as opposed to the inaccessible (save for the "old" educated folks) classical Chinese. Now the young could read about and become part of a growing Chinese spirit, even if writers were not totally sure of what direction that might lead.


The brilliant writer Lu Xun (1881-1936)



In addition, Japanese encroachments on Chinese soil (the Japanese were "awarded" German controlled areas of China, notably Shandong province as a result of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I) and humiliation of Chinese people continued unabated. Patriotic students, including Deng Yingchao, the future wife of Communist Party activist Zhou Enlai, from thirteen Beijing universities, later joined by teachers and workers, protested these actions in what became known as the May 4th Movement of 1919 (its legacy continued throughout the 20th century; perhaps the 1989 Tiananmen protests are best known).


A photo of the protests during the May 4th Movement of 1919



(In 1931 Japan under false pretenses, would invade and occupy Manchuria, and in 1937 launch a full attack on China, engaging in unspeakable acts of brutality over the next 8 years.)  So much for Woodrow Wilson's self-determination of all peoples concept!) And, as is evident from Jung Chang's memoir, Wild Swans, life under the Japanese in occupied Manchuria was a terrorizing experience.


During this period the Chinese began to embrace Western capitialism and a market economy began to emerge. China (like the U.S. and Japan) benefitted from the impact of World War I on Europe's economy and coastal cities like Shanghai and Canton (today's Guangzhou) grew along with emergence of Westernized urban elites. The Nationalist government did indeed succeed at modernizing many elements of China's financial structure even as tensions between worker unions and employers erupted.


Industrialization brought about a middle class but also divided the country between the city and the countryside, where most of China lived. Modernization tended to escape the peasantry who remained steeped in traditions, ("eating bitterness," for example), unaffected (by their illiteracy) by new Western ideas about science and democracy. Population growth (by 1930 there were 500 million in China), a world wide depression, warlords, landlord exploitation, and tepid gains from government support all contributed to a lower, rural standard of living.


The bifurcation between urban and rural, more "modern" and more "traditional," Westernized and not, was played out in the intense rivalry between Nationalists and Communists. At times they were a "united front" to create a better, unified China and to defeat the Japanese, but as Jiang Kaishek once observed in 1941, "The Japanese are a disease of the skin, and the Communists are a disease of the heart." Fourteen years earlier in 1927, Jiang's GMD (Guomindang or Nationalist Party) nearly succeeded in eliminating the Communists entirely in a bloody purge in Shanghai. 


In essence there was always a two front war going on until the atomic bomb insured Japan's surrender. For Jiang, eliminating the Communists would save China's soul. But Mao knew that by fighting the Japanese, he would win local support and come out looking like the true nationalist. In a sense Japan's presence allowed Mao to succeed, but not before he and his fellow Communists were almost wiped out. They were able to escape by dint of an astounding 6,000 mile "Long March" in 1934-35.


A peasant himself, Mao presciently understood that by necessity in China the peasantry (at least those below the very rich peasantry) would have to provide the vanguard for a Chinese Communist revolution. Industrial capitalism was not yet developed enough such that the proletariat (working class) would rise up and overthrow their masters as Marxist-Leninist theory dictated. Mao was quite adept at looking at China's practical realities and making Marxian theory fit them. Thus the exploiters were much more so the landlords than the factory owners. In that sense, Mao (or Maoism) provided a bridge between Marx and Lenin and all the 3rd world socialist revolutions that would take place in the age of anti-colonial movements for national independence in Asia and Africa especially.


In the final analysis, there were many reasons for the Nationalists demise after WWII, inflation being very high among them, but Mao's guerilla war tactics (see Sun Zi, The Art of War) and Jiang's military tactical incompetence paved the way for the victory of the CCP and the painful departure of the GMD to Taiwan in 1949. The five year civil war, of course, often ruthlessly buffeted the lives of ordinary Chinese, like Jung Chang and her extended family in Manchuria, or the family portrayed in Zhang Yimou's provocative film, To Live, caught in the vicissitudes of historical events seemingly beyond their control. In the end the Nationalists simply lost the support of the people with the exception of more Westernized, urban elites. Fed up herself with the corruption demonstrated and injustices perpetrated by the Nationalists in Manchuria, Jung Chang's mother in Wild Swans looked for change in her life and decided to join the Communists. She, like many others, would soon learn how complicated and challenging it could be to be a good Communist.


*(Fairbank & Goldman, 259 and 255)





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