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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: A Bitter Revolution China’s Struggle with the Modern World by Rana Mitter

Title: A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World 
Author: Rana Mitter 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: October 19, 2010

In A Bitter Revolution, Rana Mitter looks into China’s past to explain how modern China developed. He chooses as his focus the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which he feels was a pinnacle moment during which Chinese students and intellectuals eager to modernize China looked outward to the West and beyond to applaud democracy and science while rejecting their own cultural past. Mitter’s argument is that the “ghost” of the May Fourth Movement lingered as an undertone to China’s bumpy road to modernization, and that ideas of the May Fourth Movement remained a constant, though their meanings transformed and differed in importance as various parties and people interpreted and used them (xi). Mitter looks away from the development of the Chinese Communist Party as the turning point toward modernity. Instead, he places the formation of the CCP as part of the May Fourth Movement’s legacy, though not its inevitable conclusion. Mitter focuses on what he considers the more formative years of the development of modernity in China: the 20s, 40s, 60s, and 80s. However, Mitter does not ignore the events that fall outside of those decades, briefly looking at events such as the war with Japan in the 30s and the Hundred Flowers Campaign of the late 50s. Mitter provides a narrative background of the events of May 4, 1919 in order to describe larger issues of the May Fourth Movement. Students and intellectuals were struggling to make sense of a modern world that subjected them to imperialism and unfair treaties. When the Versailles Treaty of World War I gave German land in China to the Japanese, many Chinese were enraged. They pinpointed that the source of their problems was a traditional Confucian culture that kept them from modernizing. 

Mitter approaches the exact date in which the ideas surrounding the May Fourth Movement took shape with caution, and rather than try to fix a date he chooses instead to insist that it was the “atmosphere and mood” that defined the era, not clearly defined dates (19). This complicates his argument because spirit and mood are hard to quantify and define with certainty. Mitter admits, “the May Fourth period did not spring up from nowhere” and enumerates previous reform and change (22). Yet this would suggest that the May Fourth Movement happened along a trajectory, albeit not a straight or stable one, and was therefore not as watershed as Mitter makes it out to be. Though it would ultimately be no less important, it would be less isolated as the starting point of modernity. Yet Mitter sufficiently illustrates how the May Fourth Movement developed out of its social and political context, and why it was such a powerful movement. Mitter addresses his geographical limitations in chapter two. The story he tells is largely one of urban youth and university intellectuals. The two primary cities of the May Fourth Movement were Beijing and Shanghai because they were where universities thrived, intellectuals flocked, and young people came in contact not only with the West, but also with the effects of imperialism and modernism. 

The atmosphere and mood that Mitter explores was therefore one of a very limited scope, encompassed by small groups of people who did not reflect wider ideas and standards within the whole of China. It must be noted that the largest portion of the Chinese population is unaccounted for. Mitter chooses four individuals to exemplify the "different facets of the era," and how the May Fourth Movement included "a wide variety of attitudes and ideas" that questioned Chinese culture, used mass media, and tried to reconcile nationalism with class and gender (54). His choice in selecting female writer Ding Ling is a contribution to the study of Chinese women and gender. There is one error in continuity found in Mitter's numbers. When discussing readership of Zou Taofen's newspaper, Life, he states the readership was at a record of 200,000 when Nationalists shut it down. Later, Mitter states the readership numbering 1.5 to 2 million (56-57, 63). Though he may be accounting for people who did not subscribe but read the magazine, he does not provide rationale for such a large difference in numbers. 

Chapter three attempts to describe what life was like for the youth of the New Culture and the May Fourth Movement. For the Chinese of this era, foreign imports abounded, youth no longer deferred to the wisdom of the elderly, women were more independent and involved in the workforce, free love reigned, print disseminated ideas, people sought business ventures through which to "save China," science and technology were considered a way forward, and individualism was prized (70). It was a time of new culture and opportunity without the restrictions of Confucian values. It would be an overly optimistic picture had Mitter left it at that, but he shows that many Chinese struggled to define their new boundaries. Zou Taofen had a popular advice column in Life, which betrayed the level of anxiety youth felt in their search for new identities. In trying to explain what the spirit of the times entailed, Mitter makes more than one comparison to the American 60s (99, 105). While it is a good comparison to make to understand the essential spirit of new freedoms and ideas, the cultural values implied are not so easily transferred. The era died, according to Mitter, for two reasons: the Japanese invasion and world depression (99-100). The spirit of the May Fourth Movement would not return fully until the 80s, detouring during Communist era. Chapter four delves into the more political aspects of the May Fourth Movement, what people thought about new political realities, and how people saw themselves globally. Mitter attempts to address the unique and complex arrangement of Chinese politics to make a few important points. First, the Nationalists should not be secondary to the Communists, and both used rhetoric of the May Fourth Movement in their ideologies. Second, party and political identification was weak among the mass population, even among the May Fourth Movement. Third, while Communists saw themselves as the inevitable end of the May Fourth Movement, China could have taken numerous paths toward modernity. Fourth, that the Chinese modified outside models from the West, Eastern Europe, and other countries like India and Turkey. Fifth, that Confucianism did not end because of the May Fourth Movement, and continued afterward (103-108, 114, 129). 

Mitter also answers the question of why China and Japan developed so differently. Mitter cites many differences: the Japanese wanted to overcome the West while China did not, Japan retained a hint of mysticism and a respect for their past while China focused on nationalism and modernity, and Japan was less influenced by the West while China had many years of direct influence through imperialism (120-122). However, what Mitter does not explain is why things that should have seemingly stunted Japan actually assisted it, while China, which by all rights should have modernized first under their strict tenants to do so, did not. Mitter takes a dark turn in chapter five, giving quick histories of China throughout the 30s during the invasion of Japan. Due to the immediacy of crisis, people could not afford to think of issues of free thought and love, and sidelined May Fourth ideology. Out of necessity, China began to turn inward and lose the cosmopolitanism that punctuated the May Fourth Movement. Pluralism and the open forum for debate vanished. It was also during this time that the Nationalists and Communists battled with the Communists the final victors (155-157, 184). Mitter rewrites the traditional interpretation of the Nationalists by insisting that they were more than a mere dark blotch in Chinese history, but rather they were thrust into a time of chaos with little resources and organization. Their undoing was not an inevitable failure on their part, but rather it was logical given the circumstances. With Mao in power, Mitter moves on to issues surrounding Mao and the Chinese Communist Party both in internal and external policy. Not only did Mao institute his disastrous Hundred Flowers and Great Leap Forward, but Communist China came to power just as the Cold War sparked international tension and forced Mao to insulate China from the outside. Self-sufficiency was vital and Mao saw weakness in lingering elements of the past, which he attempted to stamp out with his Cultural Revolution (190-198). Mitter gives an accurate sense of the chaos and fervor of the time, and of Mao's unique personality. Mitter also fuses together Mao's seemingly opposed vision of China to May Fourth beliefs, though they are hard to reconcile in his argument when Mitter himself says that the Communist era was absent May Fourth ideals (198). 

Chapter six continues with Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and the Cold War. Both the May Fourth Movement and the Cultural Revolution wanted to stamp out the influence of China's cultural past and exalt youth, but the Cultural Revolution saw this to fruition through violence. Mitter feels it was a "disorientation" of May Fourth. Mao’s policies were also, in part, influenced by the Cold War and the "either/or" dynamic of it. Mao thought in black and white because the world was thrust into two opposing camps (200-201, 217, 229-230, 237, 240). Mitter contributes to the overall historiography of China with his analysis of the language of violence, and how the Communist era was a time in which language held great power over a person's fate and livelihood (208-209). The analysis of the youth who made up the Red Guard is also an interesting piece of psychoanalytical history. It illustrates the extents that people went in order to avoid the negative effects of being labeled a term that had a negative connotation. Mitter also presents Mao as the Chinese counterpart to the Soviet "machine man" who identified technological power with virility. This is also a good illustration of the complexity of the Chinese psychology of power because Mao rejected the help of Soviets, though technological advance could not have happened without Soviet support (237). Mitter then takes the reader forward in time to the 80s and the so-called New Era, when the true spirit of the May Fourth Movement was revitalized. After the death of Mao, China began to look outward again, and the West had a notable influence on culture, which made the New Era mirror that of the New Culture generation, anxieties included. Those involved in the movement made an explicit link between their movement and the past by stating that it was their mission to continue the spirit of May Fourth. Mitter notes that one of the major differences between the two was that the New Era did not feel it had to "save China" because warlords and imperialism no longer existed (245, 248-254, 259, 275). However, there is a lot to be said about post-Communist and post-xenophobic recovery, and the extent people felt the past was going to hurt progress and necessitate a "saving." Mitter chooses media to express the Chinese mindset of the time, using the book The Ugly Chinaman and a documentary Heshang. The Ugly Chinaman placed blame for Chinese troubles on something negative passed down through culture that stunted development, which mirrored the May Fourth rejection of the past. Heshang, highly controversial, expressed through nature scenes a conclusion that China needed to abandon its "yellow" past for the "blue" West (263-265). 

Mitter's final chapter focuses on events post-Tian'anmen Square. It was not long after the bloody end of the 1989 showdown that Communism throughout Europe began to collapse. China decided to "reinvent itself as a developing state," and rapidly modernize in response to a bid for the Olympic games (287, 290-291). China began to embrace its past again, which the May Fourth and New Era had rejected as destructive, making them more like Japan during its years of development. People increasingly began to support the government, and the government, while still careful to monitor certain behavior, allowed people more freedom to create and be their own definition of patriotic. Many began to see the government as too complacent rather than too repressive. Mitter states that China's uniqueness may be in that it avoided options that seemed too risky in a time of crisis, such as democracy, yet undertook large-scale technological projects such as the Three Gorges Dam despite the protest of outside powers (299, 303, 308-310). In this way, the spirit of science from the May Fourth Movement, also part of Mao's projects, survived on as official practice. According to Mitter, the most important legacy of May Fourth was that it showed China that it could survive with a variety of opinions and possibilities (313). 

Mitter aptly surmises that China is still at a point of transition and still struggling with many of the issues of modernity and globalization. China is not exceptional in that it is a product of its own past, but China's struggle with modernity is more contemporary than in other parts of the world. Bitter Revolution is by no means a comprehensive history of modern China. However, the events and people Mitter chooses to expound upon are so thoroughly explained that no reader will be left with gaps. One need not be a scholar of Chinese history to understand Mitter's arguments because he formulates them with great detail. He further assists his readers through a short chronology and pronunciation guide, though the chronology misses many key events that Mitter himself discusses. A glossary of concepts, people, and groups would have been useful to the novice of Chinese history. Mitter's lack of a proper bibliography, as well as his narrative style, point to Bitter Revolution being more of a popular history, though it is not without scholarly merit. He is careful to cite his sources through endnotes, though it is notable that the majority of his sources are secondary. Nevertheless, Mitter does use primary sources such as newspapers, pamphlets, novels, and firsthand accounts. Mitter unfortunately succumbs to Western-centric interpretations, though he balances them out with internal Chinese matters so that he does not excessively overstate the impact of the West. Nevertheless, he does not use enough caution when he makes statements like, "the most violent challenge to Confucian values... was the introduction of two western systems of thought... capitalist modernity and Christianity (17)." Fortunately, Mitter does not rely solely on the Western impact interpretation, noting the variety of influences on China from within and outside, giving a balanced and global assessment. Overall, Mitter successfully traces May Fourth thought throughout Chinese history, pinpointing its changes and deviations, in a book useful to scholars and students.

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