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Reviewed by:
  • Wu Han, Historian: Son of China’s Times by Mary G. Mazur
  • Denise Y. Ho (bio)
Mary G. Mazur. Wu Han, Historian: Son of China’s Times. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. 543 pp. Hardcover $110.00, ISBN 978-0-7391-2456-7.

Many a lecture on China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) will start with Wu Han. Indeed, the tale of Beijing’s vice mayor, whose historical play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office was interpreted as a veiled criticism of Mao, is central to the story of the Cultural Revolution’s beginnings. The campaign against Wu Han (1909–1969) is included in the first pages of MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’s recent survey, and the attacks on Wu Han are among the first selections in Schoenhals’s documentary reader.1 Because of the prominence of this incident, many myths have arisen about the historical Wu Han. Mary Mazur’s biography of Wu Han seeks to understand the man behind the myths, recreating his life story in a richly detailed intellectual history.

As Mazur explains in her introduction, Wu Han’s life is of interest to historians not simply for the episode during the Cultural Revolution; his biography reflects the changing role of the intellectual in twentieth-century China, an issue that remains relevant in China in our own times. Mazur’s introduction also presents the many myths—held both in China and the West—about Wu Han. The first contemporary myth about Wu Han was that he was a “poisonous weed,” a myth created by Mao, publicized by Yao Wenyuan, and persistent until the late 1990s in [End Page 375] China. The second myth was that of a heroic liberal intellectual, created by 1960s and 1970s Western scholars and political commentators who saw Wu as a canary in a coal mine. The third, not limited by geography, portrayed Wu Han in his post-1949 politics as an intellectual sellout. The final version of the myth is Wu Han as rehabilitated by the post-Mao state, a Party loyalist consumed by the tragedy of the ten years of turmoil (pp. 5–8). By outlining these myths, Mazur draws attention to the biographer’s responsibility to the historic figure.

The greatest strength of this study is the amount of careful research devoted to both textual sources and oral history interviews. Mazur, an independent scholar, began her work for the biography in the early 1980s, shortly after Wu Han was rehabilitated. This allowed her access to members of Wu Han’s family, his colleagues, and his students. Over the years, she conducted more than 120 interviews with over eighty individuals and visited the sites where he lived and worked; the result is a meticulously documented narrative. Mazur is to be commended for the ways in which her research allowed her to reconstruct details and to support her arguments. She recreates conversations, intellectual exchanges, and human emotions; she is often able to include both letters and interviews with their writers, and in the absence of lecture texts, she retrieves speeches from student lecture notes. In one particularly skillful example, Mazur uses an interview relating a 1955 outing to the Ming tombs to reconstruct an encounter with Wu’s student and Liu Shaoqi. The details of this story allow her to deduce that Liu had read Wu Han’s 1955 edition of his Zhu Yuanzhang biography and that Wu Han, in turn, knew of Mao’s disapproval (p. 417). The historian will appreciate that the biography is filled with such marvelous examples, all carefully and consistently cited.

Wu Han, Historian begins with his life as a young student in central Zhejiang province, follows him through his studies in Shanghai and at Qinghua in Beijing, chronicles his development as an historian in Beijing circles and then in wartime Yunnan, and charts his political development from activism in the Democratic League to his untimely demise in the Cultural Revolution. The biography should be taken as a whole, but several important contributions to our understanding of the twentieth century should be highlighted: the development of historical studies in the Republican era, the political experience of intellectuals in wartime, and—through the story of Wu Han’s...


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pp. 375-380
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