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  • The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History by Timothy Cheek
  • Vera Schwarcz
The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History by Timothy Cheek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xxiv + 370. $105.00 cloth, $32.99 paper, $26.00 e-book.

The reason I have suffered in silence and lived on in disgrace, refusing to retreat even when mired in filth, was that I would have hated not to fully express what I held in my heart.

Sima Qian 司馬遷, “Letter to Ren An”1

The rancor in the heart of Chinese intellectuals has been brewing for many centuries. From the painful castration suffered by historian Sima Qian in 98 bce to the imprisonment of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 in December 2009, there stretches a direct lineage of both suffering and the conscious defense of historical truths obscured by the state.2 Timothy Cheek’s innovative study illuminates aspects of the last century of this lineage as well as the enduring impact of these intellectuals’ concern for the well-being of the people—even when avenues for the expression of this concern have been choked off by political authorities.

In Chinese, zhishifenzi 知識分子 (lit. knowledgeable elements, particles, or fragments) connotes partiality and a sense of reduced significance from the traditional praise embedded in the Confucian expression wenren 文人. This older term once referred to a person of culture and civilization broadly conceived. Cheek’s more contemporary term for “intellectual” (closer in meaning to “intelligentsia” in the [End Page 561] Soviet context) came into use during the late 1920s, after decades of borrowing from Japanese terminologies for Marxist class analysis.3

In the introduction of this book, the social calling of zhishifenzi is linked to the traditional mission of scholar-officials as “defenders of truth” (p. 234). This public mission stands in sharp contrast to the internal qualms, aspirations, and grief that are expressed in Sima Qian’s letter to Ren An. Sima’s sorrowful interiority continues to color the writings of men and women who have not found a meaningful echo for their ideals in what Timothy Cheek rightfully calls China’s “directed public sphere” (p. 9).

Drawing upon a wide range of research about the evolution of the intelligentsia both by Chinese and Western scholars, Cheek’s book aims to document the enduring ideological commitments of six different generations who sought to answer the classical question: Wei gong ruhe 為公如何?—“How best to serve the public good?” (p. 1). Once the focus landed firmly upon “public good,” China’s educated elites could not but bend to the winds of social change again and again, even though this compromise came at the cost of individual conscience.

Long before Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, with its brutal attack on zhishifenzi as the “stinking ninth” (labeled thus since they were deemed to be the worst category of public enemies, more pernicious than the first eight groups of traitors, landlords, Guomindang 國民黨 agents, and the like), intellectuals themselves struggled to express their loyalty to the people and to the Party despite the small still voice of doubt within. A similar inclination to serve a larger purpose at the cost of conscience is the subject of Julian Benda’s pathbreaking work, La trahison des clercs.4 Published in 1927, this work was an early warning about the temptations besetting the Marxist intellectuals of Europe to give up their sacred vocation as “scribes” who had previously defended the autonomy of the written word.

Once swept up in the thrill and urgency of social revolution, intellectuals in China (as in Europe) could not but betray what they held most dear. During decade after decade of moral compromise, they continued to cling to three enduring ideas that carry through Cheek’s analysis: [End Page 562] the people, democracy, and the importance of being or remaining “Chinese.” Each of the six generations discussed in this work is situated in its own historical context, which generated quite specific ideological demands that zhishifenzi were forced to meet—even as they imagined themselves as cocreators of the nation’s destiny, along with political authorities far more powerful than their fragile written words.

From the reform movement of the 1890s through the rejuvenation...


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