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  • Red Genesis: The Hunan First Normal School and the Creation of Chinese Communism, 1903–1921 by Liyan Liu
  • Xiansheng Tian
Liu, Liyan. Red Genesis: The Hunan First Normal School and the Creation of Chinese Communism, 1903–1921. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.

There are numerous biographies of Chinese Communist Mao Zedong. At least three of them, by Jonathan Spence, Timothy Cheek, and Shaun Breslin, are conveniently located on my office bookshelf. It is not difficult for anyone interested in China to find more information about Mao and his comrades in virtually any library or via the Internet. Liyan Liu’s work, however, is more than a biography. It provides an in-depth analysis of the origin of the Chinese communist movement. Through the author’s painstaking research of archival documents, memoirs, newspapers, and other primary sources, the book answers several questions that have puzzled even the experienced China scholars. Where did the first generation of communists, such as Mao and his like-minded colleagues, get their ideas that would change China’s fate? What propelled this group of young men and women to become determined communist fighters? Significantly, one could ask if there are any similarities between these young, ideologically-driven Chinese students of the early twentieth century and the revolutionary young people or radical extremists in developing countries in the contemporary world.

Liu, an Associate Professor of History at Georgetown [End Page 224] College, successfully demonstrates that an obscure provincial teachers’college, Hunan Frist Normal School, one of the many reformist schools in early twentieth-century China, was the indispensable birth place of ideas that would end up transforming China during the subsequent decades. A unique faculty body, led by reform-minded principals, developed a brand new curriculum combining traditional Chinese thinking and Western ideas. Conditioned by such an intriguing hybrid curriculum, a large group of students metamorphosed from rural boys into young men with radical thoughts.

The author convincingly argues that the Chinese experience in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paved the way for the school to become a hotbed of revolutionaries for both its teachers and students. The humiliating defeats at the hands of western powers since the Opium War, numerous unequal treaties forced upon China by the imperialist west, and the repeated failures at modernization reforms because of the conservatives’ resistance convinced many educated Chinese that the only way was to reform and modernize. However, the very barrier to such reforms was the Qing government itself. Unfortunately for the Chinese, even the 1911 Republican Revolution failed to save the country since the new presidency was seized from the democratic-minded Sun Yat-sen by Yuan Shi-kai, who attempted to restore imperial rule. Yuan’s death in 1916 marked China’s drastic descent into rampant warlordism as well as the distinct possibility of its full partition by western powers. For many progressive Chinese, such as the teachers at Hunan First Normal, China’s salvation lay in a reformed education as a mean of transforming their students into “agents of social and political changes” (p. 48). [End Page 225]

The teachers at Hunan First Normal School succeeded. Through their new curriculum, the faculty at the Hunan First Normal School brought to their students intellectual transformation, “transmitting new ideas and political movements” and “formed the essential interfaces through which these ideas and energies” became “operationalized” and later, translated into concrete revolutionary action (p. 142). Through their own student organization, Xinmin Xuehui [New People’s Association], their work-study programs in France, as well as their participation in the 1919 May 4 Movement, Mao Zedong and Cai Hesen, among many other students at Hunan First Normal, would rise up later as the most prominent Chinese communist leaders in the twentieth century. The author’s careful examination of these students’ thoughts and actions at the school and their eventual ideological transformation convincingly demonstrates why and how these young students would turn themselves into the pioneering group of Chinese Marxists, the founders and theorists of the Chinese Communist Party who firmly believed that China’s salvation could only be found in communist revolution.

Liu aptly points out that the western ideas introduced to these young...


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