- Deng: A Political Biography
Benjamin Yang's full-scale political biography of Deng Xiaoping is a tour de force. It would be a valuable addition to the library of any student of modern China and a useful reference for anyone interested in recent political history. Yang states that his aim is to shed "fresh light" on the subject of Deng Xiaoping and communist China, but that this is not an easy task. Also, according to the author, it is not easy for one to "read well" on this subject (p. 7). This statement, which combines truth with wit, is characteristic of Yang's spare but critical style.
Having arrived in the United States in 1981, Yang is among the earliest of those students from mainland China who came to study at American universities following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic. He deems himself among the "luckiest," since he was able to study at Harvard University with Benjamin Schwartz and Roderick MacFarquhar. He received his Ph.D from Harvard in 1986 and, at present, teaches international politics at the Chinese People's University in Beijing. He states that this biography is his "swan song" with regard to studying or writing on the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Yang's command of English and his writing style are impressive. This is especially noteworthy, since it is difficult to write this well in a language that is not one's mother tongue. One hopes that, in turning away from Party history, Yang will apply his analytic and writing skills to other subjects and so allow us to continue to benefit from his creative talents.
Yang has brought an intimate and extensive knowledge of Party history to this study and has obviously thought deeply about the Chinese political mind. With much justification, he rails against various flaws in Western scholarship on China. He also states clearly that, although he respects Deng Xiaoping, who was of his father's generation, he has not set out to please the Deng family or to echo the official Chinese government position. As a Chinese who not only knows his country's politics but has also spent considerable time among American scholars, he is well able to suggest improvements in the approaches of Western scholarship, while at the same time he himself uses research methods that are more dispassionate than what the Chinese government might prefer.
Yang's thesis is that Deng Xiaoping was an ordinary man with an extraordinary interest in politics and unusual political skills. His effectiveness and flexibility at home and abroad grew directly out of his political astuteness. Indeed, he had no other major skills and was not an ideologue. Yang has made massive use [End Page 559] of Chinese primary sources, and this is reflected in his documentation. He follows Deng's early childhood, his activities as a young revolutionary, and his rise to power against a backdrop of events in China in general and Party history in particular. He explores how Deng, who had become noted for his devotion to the ideas of Chairman Mao, emerged after Mao's demise as a pragmatic, nonideological modernizer. Indeed, one of his conclusions is that Deng will ultimately be remembered as the dominant Chinese ruler of the last quarter of the twentieth century—a period especially important for China's economic growth and modernization (p. 282).
As a scholarly work, the book's high point is Yang's analysis of the Guangxi period. Although important, Party history during the early thirties is difficult, sometimes obscure, and perhaps less colorful than during other periods. By bringing his great expertise to bear upon this era, Yang illuminates it so well that others may now feel less inclined to rush through it on their way to the more dramatic Long March. With regard to most of the decade of the thirties, Yang...