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Chinese History Through Literature
The country of China is one of the worlds oldest and for many centuries the country went heavily unchanged although the power moved from one familial dynasty to another. By 1919, the population of China was fundamentally fed up by the oppressive government and demanded reforms. The attempts made by the last emperor were too little too late and by October of that year, the rebellion of the masses led to the complete overthrow of the government. By the 1940s, this government too had failed to do right by the people and another rebellion, this one by Communists took control of China. Following the introduction of Communism and the overtaking of the government by Chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China became a nation controlled by a totalitarian government. Even in the modern time, the people of China are still heavily monitored and controlled by their government. By examining the works of people who actually lived in China during these times, the rest of the world can understand these people far more intimately than is possible by a strict historical examination of events.
Ancestral Leaves: a Family Journey through Chinese History
Joseph W. Esherick's book is a sweeping story about one Chinese family's experiences as they live through six centuries in China. The major events of Chinese history are told through the viewpoint of the members of this one family. Consequently the importance of the events is shown in how they have affected the lives of a single family unit. For the members of the Ye family, the revolution is not felt in terms of a large governmental overthrow, but in a more concentrated way. The Yes were witness to the end of dynastic rule, the Taiping Revolution, the 1919 Rebellion, and the rise of Communism. One of the things that the author focuses on is the way in which the new ideologies of the government would assume the population would embrace that perception. When a new regime took power, the people were to automatically become a part of that group's psychological and sociological perspective. Esherick writes of the Communists that "the peasants would not automatically support the national resistance" (193). This is in reference to anti-Japanese propaganda, but can be applied to the entirety of events. The greatest tool that the Communists had was the anger of the Chinese people before their revolution. Esherick further states:
Ye Duyi mentioned this trip to the countryside and recorded his erroneous reaction to the poverty of the countryside: "Is this what communism means? Their standard of living is not as high as mine. So that's all there is to communism? Of course, he quickly noted that this questioning only betrayed his self-centered bourgeois perspective. To correct this error, he promised to adopt the perspective of the 600 million Chinese people (261).
The Communists exploited this anger and used propaganda and promises to sway the populous. They also used intimidation, as expressed in this passage. Those who did not conform to the Chinese perspective were outcast and inherently wrong.
In 1949, the CCP were able to gain control of the country because the revolution of 1919 served to fracture the Chinese population, rather than unify them. Under the auspices of Communism, it was promised that a government of the people would necessitate cooperation and unification of the people. The propaganda of the Communists worked effectively and convinced the population of China that the Communist regime would be the dream of equality that had been promised under republicanism. The people became invested in their country in a way that had never occurred before. Originally, the CCP was working alongside the Kuomintang, another rebellious organization, and assisted that group when they gained power from the former government in a coup d'etat. However, that partnership was very short-lived. With a risk so great and capital punishment so prevalent, the only logical explanation for continued participation in the CCP is that the citizens of China truly and wholeheartedly believed in the ideology of that party and that death was a better option than existence under the current political regime.
The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man's Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942
In this text author Henrietta Harrison uses the voluminous diaries and journals of Liu Dapeng to describe how country life in China changed following the 1919 Revolution and the rise of Communism, which led to the subsequent denial of Confucian principles which had heretofore been the guiding principle of the country. Liu is born at a time when the population of China is changing drastically. As a young man, he was instructed to be loyal to the dynasty but the time he was an adult, the people who were in power held completely different perspectives. Following the revolution, the people had to completely change their ways of life or fear punishment and potentially death for not conforming to the new ideas. An example of this is given when Harrison writes:
In opposition to [the old regime] Western ideals of freedom and equality were taught in the new schools, from textbooks many of which were written by men who supported the idea of revolution. Indeed, ever since the first Western-style schools had been established, it had been said that their student would deny both father and Emperor (79).
The new ideas were not only a subversion of the government, but demanded a whole reevaluation of relationships and power dynamics in China, such as when a son demands to be equal to his father, something which would never happen in traditional times. Using Ye to tell the reader about this overhaul in tradition and expectation makes the confusion and frustration of the period more comprehendible to the reader.
Before the 1919 Revolution, China was divided into providences and there was a clear delineation between urban and rural sectors of the country. Each province was run by a magistrate and his staff who would be responsible for such duties and collecting taxes and prosecution of crime and judgment. Each village would also have some sort on informal system which would then report to the magistrates. The magistrates were highly corrupt mostly due to insufficient pay which led to villagers not trusting the official government. Therefore the villages learned over the centuries to be heavily self-reliant and to depend on their own systems in order to establish order and maintain it within their communities. Only when a situation was so great as to be beyond the control of the villagers were the official government agencies ever met with. Without constant interaction with the government, there is little likelihood of the necessary pressure which creates rebellion. When a government system tries to impose itself on a population who do not believe in its authority, then there is a rebellion and revolution as what occurred in 1919.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
The book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is different from a lot of the texts here discussed in that it deals only with pre-Communist China. Author Stephen R. Platt uses the Civil War that spread from Taiping to illustrate the many underlying problems in China which would one day lead to the overthrowing of the country in 1919 and then by Communists later on. Little attention has been given historically to these events because they have been viewed erroneously as just an unsuccessful civil war. Both sides tried to insist that they were acting in the best interest of the people but both were primarily concerned with their own interests and not what was best for the larger population. The incident in Taiping proved that the masses were dissatisfied with the current government and that their sheer numbers would be an important tool if any other group hoped to incite change in the country of China. Confucius taught that "Forgiven cannot govern the people; indulgence cannot order a family, and generosity cannot control an army" (Platt 121). It was a bloody, and ultimately unsuccessful, war which left many dead but served to show the power of the people.
Confucius was the leading philosopher of dynastic China and his teachings served as the basis for Chinese life. One of the tenets of Confucianism concerned the "Mandate of Heaven" wherein Confucius stated that a man had the right to rule China only for as long as he was a good leader. As soon as that man failed in his duty to the people, he no longer had any right to rule the people. Confucius stated that "He who succeeds is a king (even if a rebel); he who fails is an outlaw." This is the guiding principle which allowed for the rebellion of the people against the dynastic leaders of China. Since they were no longer performing their duties, such as failing to repair irrigation systems and heavily taxing the people, the population had every right to overthrow them and find…[continue]
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