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The Chinese Revolution - Variations on a Theme

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

The Inner History of the Chinese Revolution. By T’ang Loang-li. New .York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $5.00. The Spirit of the Chinese Revolution. By Arthur N. Holcombe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Tortured China. By Hallett Abend. New York: Ives Washburn. $3.00. China: The Collapse of a Civilisation. By Nathaniel Peffer. New York: The John, Day Company. $3.00.

That vast and as yet indeterminate convulsion which we call the Chinese Revolution can number among its effects a mighty outpouring of books. A few, a very few, possess the merits of careful and independent thought. But the great majority, even after discarding the posturings of the tourists, are tainted either with the scullery flavor of the pot-boiler or the flatulence of the public relations counsel. It is a matter of distinct relief, therefore, to encounter a group of four volumes on China which, differing materially in scope, content, and orientation, nevertheless possess a common denominator of courage, and seem to have been written in each instance because the several authors felt that they grasped something that should be expressed in black and white.

This fundamental courage does not by any means preclude partisanship or even deliberate bias. For example, T’ang Leang-li’s “The Inner History of the Chinese Revolution” is dedicated to the deification of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the establishment of Mr. Wang Ching-wei’s relationship to him in the dual role of Beloved Disciple and Saul of Tarsus. While avowedly prejudiced, there is something of value to be obtained here, even by the casual western reader. It is well to remember that the memory of the ardent and dictatorial little Cantonese physician has become a focus of veneration for a fifth of the human race, and, here is a solid and impressive reminder of this state of affairs. Mr. T’ang’s careful exposure of the tenuous threads of legalism connecting Dr. Sun with the Left wing of the Chinese Nationalist Party, a faction now out of power and led by, Wang Ching-wei, will seem somewhat overaccented to occidentals who view revolutions as destroyers, rather than as conservers of legality. That, however, is not the way in which the matter is regarded by the Chinese themselves. In consequence, Mr. T’ang’s book is a solid testimony to the esteem and confidence which are accorded Wang Ching-wei by large numbers of his countrymen. T’ang Leang-li’s own position as “Representative in Great Britain and Correspondent in Europe of the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang” serves to emphasize the solidarity in this respect of the Chinese dwelling beyond the seas.

Close students of men and events in China will look behind and beneath the book’s theme to appreciate its deeper values. In the first place, it contains a multitude of data concerning the leaders in, or associated with, the Kuomintang, that is to say the Nationalist Party. As his history is largely expressed in terms of personalities, Mr. T’ang makes available a mass of facts, many of them heretofore obscure, with reference to these men and women. His estimates of character are clean-cut, and on the whole dispassionate, whether of friend or foe. In carefully weighed analyses he makes a passionless record of. each individual’s shortcomings and accomplishments; and his own chronicle of events provides documentation in suppor* * his judgments.

His success with these vignettes of character even extends to China’s most imposing and most difficult figure, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. It is true that the exigencies of Mr. T’ang’s thesis require that the full-dress portrait should be in the traditional mould—a Confucian saint, a philosopher who saw clearly, stood firm, and turned his hand to statecraft only after his opinions on matters political, social, and economic had crystallized so definitely as to permit him to speak permanently ex cathedra. But in his running account Mr. T’ang discloses the real man, the embodiment and occasionally the sole vehicle of revolution. That, after all, is the true measure of Dr. Sun. Mr. T’ang preserves his leader’s essential revolutionary stature, even as he lets us see him lay everything but the revolution-in-being upon the altar of expediency.

Coupled with his portraits, Mr. T’ang gives us an extraordinarily circumstantial chronicle of events affecting the Kuomintang. It is largely a minute of meetings and discussions, with complete rolls of attendances and detailed accountings of agenda. There is little here that is secret, but much concerning which the primary documents are difficult of access. In this regard he has assembled data which, to be obtained elsewhere, would require exhaustive collation and evaluation of yellowed news dispatches. Throughout the whole book his accuracy as to places, dates, and rosters of attendance is amazing. The West is therefore in his debt for a valuable secondary source of current Chinese history.

Where T’ang Leang-li is subjective and personalized, Dr. Arthur N. Holcombe, Professor of Government at Harvard, is objectivity itself. “The Spirit of the Chinese Revolution” is instinct with industry, impartiality, and scholarship. A reprint of six lectures, its form is necessarily conventionalized, and the writer is forced to carve his subject matter to suit his speaking time. Dr. Holcombe is a specialist and necessarily approaches China through his specialty. The net result isii Satisfying statement of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s political ideology, with glances at its economic and social implications. The book is rounded out with riders on the effects of Christianity, Bolshevism, and Militarism on the Chinese Revolution, and manages to give a comprehensive, if scattered, account of the events that have gone to make it up. Dispassionate, candid, and by no means relapsing into Spenglerianism, Dr. Holcombe recognizes that, so far as the Chinese Revolution is concerned, events bulk larger than personalities. He concludes on a note that embraces both reality and optimism: “It is enough to know that his [Dr. Sun’s] plans, though incomplete and in part badly formulated, contain a great deal that is fundamentally sound and of excellent repute, and that his general system of political thought compares favorably with that of the great revolutionary leaders of modern times. Indeed it may, be doubted whether any great revolutionary movement has been provided with a more serviceable philosophy.” But while postulating the essential fitness of Dr. Sun’s system, Dr. Holcombe cherishes no illusions that more than a beginning has been made in its application.

Where Dr. Holcombe sees room for tempered hope, Hal-lett Abend in “Tortured China” can perceive only despair. Mr. Abend is correspondent in China for the New York Times, and his efforts to send out the truth as he has seen it have embroiled him with officials and censorships on numerous occasions. He has produced a reporter’s book, a series of accurate and intrinsically interesting “stories,” with just enough historical background provided to connect them and to give them weight. He holds that China is in a state of collapse, that the Chinese Revolution is a seething cauldron of personal wars, and as such possesses neither motivation nor direction. He maintains that China has more than failed to remedy her own ills, that she is powerless to extract herself from her misery. For her own good and the good of the world he advocates the restoration of order by foreign intervention, nor does he shrink from the realization that such intervention must imply the sanction of armed force. If Mr. Abend were to stop here, we would be confronted merely with a weaker edition of the charming classic of intransigence, “What’s Wrong with China?”, lacking Mr. Rodney Gilbert’s depths of perception and his evaluations of Chinese character. But even as he writes so surely, Mr. Abend records the beginnings of doubt. He sees the Machine and the age that machinery has spawned beginning their inexorable onslaught on China, with all their implications of change. He discounts them, but he is too honest to close his eyes on them and pass them by.

If one were to integrate Mr. T’ang’s historical background, Dr. Holcombe’s scholarship and appreciation of the philosophy of government, Mr. Abend’s realism and modernity, if one were to add to these a first-rate understanding of modern sociological and economic doctrine, coupled with a capacity for long and unhurried brooding over forces that move with glacial slowness and inevitability, one would arrive at a very fair characterization of Nathaniel Peffer. All of these are embodied in his latest book, “China: The Collapse of a Civilization.” Closely thought and closely written, it is wholly admirable. With an innate love of the texture and content of the original Chinese culture, he appreciates but does not minimize the classic fatality of its collapse. His view of the present day chaos in China agrees in its essentials with that of Mr. Abend, insofar as both emphasize its bleakness and sterility. His field of vision is too broad, his perspectives too deep, for him to attach transcendental importance to the survival or decadence of existing governmental forms or of political systems. He foresees that the machine age, which contributed so powerfully to bring China to her present pass, must smite the country as an energizing force and in the course of decades, or perhaps centuries, evolve—Something. It is these simple data that he tests and retests for truth until the reader cannot but recognize them as true.

Mr. Peffer’s exposition of essentials is so sure and overwhelming as to make criticism of details gratuitous. Yet two points stand out as worthy of mention. First of all, his orientation is as of the year 1930. Cursory perusal, particularly of the chapter headed: “China Today: Vacuum,” could lead to the belief that he considers the present as an important epoch in China’s upheaval. Actually he maintains nothing of the sort. He is preeminently a Galilean and his device is eppur si muove. He senses infallibly that the events of the present spring from the womb of the past, and that the present is gravid with portents of the future. Again, he writes from the viewpoint of “our” generation, with its bland implications of liberality, enlightenment, and infallibility. This is a legitimate attitude, but it is difficult to appraise accurately by its lights the men and beliefs that had their being on the other side of the World War’s chasm. In consequence some of Mr. Peffer’s judgments on Chinese and foreigners alike are sharper and more ill-favored than they appeared in simpler, and perhaps more tolerant, times. Here, too, his justification is apparent. What he has undertaken is comparable to one of the old, interminable Chinese scroll paintings of imperial progresses. He is dealing with moving events and fluid situations. To achieve coherence he must use a canvas that is integral and colors that do not run.

All of which is by the way. The fact remains that, while many can find truth in China, they are few indeed who can place it on paper so that it still rings true. Mr. Peffer unquestionably belongs to this latter elite. When, in years to come, people desire to know how matters stood in China in the year of grace 1930 (and it is entirely likely that very few will possess either the desire or the impulsion) it is to him that they will turn.


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