- An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China by David Strand
The early Republican period, from the Double Ten revolution to the eve of the Nanjing decade, is canonically viewed as a long series of political failures: from the demoralizing spectacle of a corrupt and inefficient parliament to the assassination of Song Jiaoren, from Yuan Shikai’s attempt at imperial restoration to the descent into warlordism. It is difficult to think of the Republican experiment from 1912 to 1927 as nothing more than a painful process toward political awareness. Eventually, this process led to the building of a more centralized and autocratic form of statehood under a Leninist party—first the Guomindang (GMD), then the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). References to that period, by contemporaries and historians alike, usually take a lamentable tone for lost opportunities in terms of democracy, equality, state, and a republic that failed. [End Page 203]
In his beautiful An Unfinished Republic, David Strand successfully challenges this established view and shows how, despite the fledging forms statehood and government took before 1927, the Republic of China existed. It existed, Strand argues, “not so much as a set of national political institutions,” but as a “political way of life” (p. 2), a series of acts, gestures, fashion statements, and attitudes that, despite the quasi-collapse of the Republic as a state body, colored and informed the everyday life of people, thus marking them, in daily practice, Republican citizens. In this sense, it was not that important that the republican senate was ineffectual, divided and impotent. Crucial was the fact that the kind of public discussion and animated debate that took place in that largely dysfunctional body mirrored what was happening at every level of educated society—in student dorms, public parks, and native-place associations. Republicanism, in short, existed as practice, and specifically, Strand tells us, as rhetorical practice. The “social technology of citizenship” of the Republic was built primarily on the act of making a speech and defending an argument in public, thus entering into a dialogue with an assembled group, an audience. Furthermore, the necessary precondition for that rhetorical act was the recognition that everybody in the audience shared with the speaker and with each other an equal right to some form of common citizenship. The many characters, often vividly drawn, in Strand’s book are almost always depicted in the act of “getting up on the stage and giving a speech” (dengtai yanshuo), an act that could make or break them as public figures but one that also and always presupposed the “political equality idealized by modern citizenship” (p. 6).
In this sense—and here lies a second, subtler part of Strand’s argument—the Republic not only existed but also endured. It endured in the absorption of that repertoire of Republican citizenship under the Leninist forms of the party-state, Nationalist or Communist, when meeting and speech became often comically formalized and regimented, as in the “kaihui regime” of the CCP. However, it also endured precisely because that repertoire was always potentially open to being used for reversal and transformation, because the “common ground of citizenship” (p. 6) persisted, albeit dormant, in the Leninist state, ready to be awakened when citizens repossessed the weapons of debate and dialogue—as they did, for example in 1956, 1966, and 1989. The stubborn return of spontaneous dissent and spontaneous public participation in the decades after 1949 is, in Strand’s analysis, a sign of the continuity of the legacy of Republicanism. One of the most enjoyable and interesting aspects of An Unfinished Republic is precisely the connections Strand draws—always in passing but throughout the volume—between aspects of republican life in the 1910s and 1920s and events of much later periods in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The volume is organized with three loosely biographical chapters, interspersed with two more directly analytical ones. The first chapter, “Slapping Song Jiaoren,” works...