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An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China by David Strand (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 73, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 171-177 | 10.1353/jas.2013.0001

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Few scholars' oeuvre has the high degree of coherence that David Strand's does. From Rickshaw Beijing, through his articles on the 1989 Tian'anmen protest movement, to the book reviewed here, Strand has explored dynamics of political action in twentieth-century China that continue to animate and inflect Chinese politics today. In particular, Strand has analyzed how Chinese political practice has been a medium of both authority and dissent, contributing to the formation of what could be called the "citizenship studies" subfield in the study of modern China. Further, he has tracked with great acuity the fluid interplay between culture and politics that modern China inherited from the late imperial past. Strand's latest book continues to explore these themes, with a particular focus on public speaking and its political implications.

An Unfinished Republic analyzes the political dynamics of the first decade and a half of the Chinese Republic, reconstructing how they established many of the parameters of Chinese republicanism. Strand is most concerned with the growth of popular participation in politics during this period and how speech making became a key feature of Chinese public life. Even as highly anticipated new political institutions failed, Chinese republicanism flourished in the form of new modes of popular discourse and civic action. In Strand's words, "Within a few years the Republic became entrenched, not so much as a set of national political institutions, but as a political way of life in which citizens confronted leaders and each other face-to-face in a stance familiar to republics worldwide. Political equality as a value and an everyday practice stood in stark contrast to the inequality and hierarchy that long formed the spine of China's social and cultural order" (p. 1).

Strand portrays these emergent political dynamics through thematic chapters that focus, in turn, on the scope of political inclusion, through women's efforts to gain full citizenship in the new polity (Chapter 1), on the development of new modes of public discourse (Chapter 2), and on the dynamics of citizenship (Chapter 4). This thematically driven discussion is complemented by Chapters 3, 5, and 6, which focus on three individuals—Tang Qunying, Lu Zhengxiang, and Sun Yat-sen—who, Strand convincingly argues, shaped the development of Chinese republicanism through their words and actions. The thematic chapters chart in more systematic terms the parameters of popular participation and the emergent structure of direct address between political leaders and the people. The biographical chapters illustrate the terms under which particular Chinese political actors could enter public life by using new patterns of public discourse, and they evaluate the impact of those figures' speech and actions on the dynamics of Chinese politics.

By focusing on political organizing and speech making in the first decade or so after the 1911 Revolution, Strand reveals the fluid and contingent nature of early Republican political action. Tang Qunying and other suffragettes were not immediately given speaking roles in the political system founded by the revolution they helped make. They first needed to take dramatic action—"slapping Song Jiaoren" (p. 13)—to claim any place in party politics and the polity. Lu Zhengxiang, as an elite diplomat with extensive experience in Europe, inherited key posts in Yuan Shikai's cabinets, but he badly flubbed a major speaking role before the Senate, in part because he misread the new political context and its requirements. In contrast, Sun Yat-sen, soon deprived by Yuan Shikai of a meaningful institutional base or audience as an official speaker during the early Republic, turned to address "the people" directly, whenever and wherever he could. In doing so, Sun fostered a form of Chinese populism on which Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, among others, would later build. By tracking the political action of these three figures and their contemporaries, Strand subtly illustrates how contingent acts of public address sedimented into a new culture of public discourse. Although different figures spoke in different ways, Chinese Republican politics as a whole came to be characterized by "getting up and giving a speech" (p. 63) and by the direct interaction between the leader and the people.

Strand emphasizes the democratizing and populist potential of these new patterns...



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