- Reinventing Modern China: Imagination and Authenticity in Chinese Historical Writing by Huaiyin Li
Reading Huaiyin Li’s interesting and innovative book, Reinventing Modern China: Imagination and Authenticity in Chinese Historical Writing, caused me to recall my first visit with the famous Harvard-trained historian Zhou Yiliang. It was July 6, 1971, and I was on a day-long visit to Beijing University. Though Zhou’s father was a prominent capitalist before the revolution, Zhou joined the Communist Party in 1956. He was dying to serve the new revolutionary regime. But when his “ revisionist” sponsor, top culture czar Zhou Yang, fell from power in an initial phase of the Cultural Revolution, so too did Zhou Yiliang. When I met him a few years later in July 1971, he had just returned from [End Page 167] a multi-year term of “reeducation through labor” and was once again dying to serve the latest incarnation of Mao’s revolution. I took extensive notes on his detailed briefing on the unfolding of the Cultural Revolution at Beida, comments that focused on what Zhou clearly viewed as the righteous rebellion of militant Red Guards and the dastardly efforts of such arch counterrevolutionaries as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping to suppress the new revolutionary upsurge. His lively account was fascinating. During a break in the action, Zhou asked me about the topic of my doctoral dissertation-in-progress. “My goodness,” I thought, “he wants me to say a word about my own research. There’s no way he’ll miss its relevance!” So I told him I was working on a study of the revolutionary martyr Qu Qiubai, the top leader of the Communist Party for a time in the late 1920s, and (more famously) China’s leading Marxist literary critic in the early 1930s. But Zhou said absolutely nothing. He simply stared at me with a frozen face. I was so disappointed. Qu was executed by the Nationalists in 1935. But now, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, rampaging Red Guards regarded him as a detestable renegade. My topic was politically incorrect.
I saw Zhou Yiliang one more time. A few days later, on July 19, he was present (along with others) when I met Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People. During a four-hour discussion the Premier mentioned Zhou Yiliang by name and fondly noted that they shared the same surname. It appeared the two men were on good terms. Zhou Yiliang must have felt that his political situation was now secure. But there were two other fast-rising political leaders at that meeting: Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, later identified as members of the odious Gang of Four. They, too, had plans for Zhou Yiliang. By 1973 they had recruited him into the notorious Liangxiao writing group. Yet again, Zhou was dying to serve. Part of his job was to write historical essays that were intended as sharp attacks on Premier Zhou Enlai himself. Not surprisingly, after the Gang of Four fell in 1976, Zhou Yiliang was arrested and served two more years in prison, this time as an agent of the Jiang Qing clique of villainous, counterrevolutionary demons. Upon his release, he asserted that the Gang of Four had deceived him. Once more (and quite predictably) he was dying to serve. This time, the glorious cause was Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations project. Some observers insisted that people like historian Zhou Yiliang never had a choice: he had to search his soul each time and sincerely embrace [End Page 168] every new political vision that came along. Others were more skeptical: he had no principles, blew with the breeze, believed in nothing, and was a blatant opportunist—a sycophant. Above all, he was dying to serve political leaders who held power or were on the rise.
Why is this tale worth telling? Because the Zhou Yiliang story intersects in many revealing ways with the macro-analysis contained in Huaiyin Li’s exciting book, a must read for scholars...