SINOGRAPH Whatever happened to the anti-heroes?
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Who made an imprint on the history of China in the past century?
Surely, there was Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) chief
whom the Americans loved to call generalissimo (super-general) in an ironic
Italianizing sobriquet. After him, there was the man who made China stand up
and then dropped it into its deepest political and social hell - Mao Zedong,
the great helmsman. Then came the one who, after so many twists and turns,
pushed China on the path of development - the grand reformer Deng Xiaoping.
They had many followers and enemies who also contributed greatly to China's
development. Yet, in such a turbulent century, one can hardly expect that only
those in the different political camps made a difference. In fact, there is a
whole crowd of very
important figures who now stand in the second line of the official history and
who had and still have great influence on Chinese development.
Take for instance the case of Li Zongwu, whose destructive prose revealed a
dark side of Chinese society, the one that despite the official probity hides
the fact that many people have a "lian hou xin hei" ("thick-skinned face
and black heart", ie, are shameless and harbor evil intentions). His work
influenced the bestselling Chinese author of the century, Jin Yong, and from
this came the whole tradition of kung fu fighters who have breached Hollywood,
the factory of Western imagination.
Yu Shicun, in his book Zhongguo Nan (2010, Jiuzhou Publishing House),
chooses 41 people to tell the other history of China. The title itself is a pun
as the ideogram "nan" (man/male) has the same pronunciation as the word
for "difficult", so the meaning of his title is either "Chinese Men" or "China
Yu shuns the main winning characters, the heroes of the history books. He
prefers the ones who stood on the side, who were defeated, and who represent
the deep undercurrents of Chinese society but who were beaten and mauled by the
main stream of history. So, Yu ignores Empress Ci Xi, who embodied the stubborn
resistance to modernization and change, and chooses to tell us about Guang Xu,
the emperor who tried to reform the empire but was toppled, imprisoned, and at
last poisoned by Ci Xi.
Yu equally ignores the epic founder of the Chinese Communist Party, the stern
Li Dazhao, and gives us instead the portrait of his tortured alter-ego Qu
Qiubai, the tragic communist intellectual who ended up facing a Nationalist
firing squad while his comrades were roaming the country in what later was
called the Long March. His ill fate didn't even finish with his death, as
during the Cultural Revolution, some 30 years after his demise, he was bitterly
criticized as a renegade by the Maoist Red Guards who then were in control of
China. He had to wait until 1980 to be officially rehabilitated, and today he
is held in very high regard by the party.
The hero of the revolutionary period, according to Yu Shicun, is the solitary
Zhang Xueliang, the paragon of a Chinese traditional gentleman, who captured
the generalissimo to force him into an alliance with the communists against the
invading Japanese. Still, after achieving his political goal, Zhang surrendered
himself to Chiang and spent the rest of his life practically under house
arrest, deprived of the power and the political honors he should have merited.
However, he did not suffer too much for it, and in fact, he lived to be 100
Yu's chosen poet of the last century is not the scholarly - yet dry and perhaps
subservient - Guo Moro, but the Westernized and possibly decadent Wen Yiduo,
who was assassinated in 1946 by Nationalist agents. He was the author of an
immensely influential collection of poetry, Dead Water, which inspired
the meng long (murky) poets who rekindled non-political poetry in China
in the 1980s.
These characters shine a different light on Chinese history. These are people
of flesh and blood who expose a deeper texture of Chinese society and the
culture that is behind the official discourse and also beside the accepted
Western perspective. Both the official and Western perspectives seem to look
for models exemplifying and simplifying China's past and its people, providing
easy rules to follow or by which to interpret China's future evolution.
Yu rather seems to tag on the Taoist love for the absconded and the non-obvious
- something that also some Western historians like Frederic Wakeman, Geremie
Barme and Jonathan Spence, author of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, have
The fact that Yu, himself a controversial writer in China, was published by the
very official Jiuzhou publishing company also indicates a change of direction
in China's cultural atmosphere. It seems to point at a more open climate for
debate within the country. In recent years, there have been nationalist,
arguably conservative, books like Zhongguo bu Gaoxing (China is Not
Happy) by Wang Xiaodong and Zhongguo Meng; China's Dream) by Liu Minfu,
but then there are also progressive and possibly liberal volumes like Zhongguo
Nan (Chinese Men) by Yu.
In Western terms, one could see the open growth of a "right" and "left",
although borders between them are still very hazy, confused, and blurred. It is
not clear what is right and what is left, and who is right or left in what. But
it is clear they are not on the same side of the barricade. They have divergent
cultural positions, which could in due time sprout into very different
Still one should make no mistake: they are almost all obsessed with their
country, China, the "Zhongguo" in the titles of their works. Perhaps the
Chinese people's worship of "China" is even greater than the traditional
Chinese worship of history. This latter topic is the object of the study of
Wang Kang, a writer born in 1949, to whom Yu dedicates his last chapter. China,
its destiny, and its future, like the boat carrying all the "China-men", seems
to be the real large backdrop of the century for all of the people who arguably
consider the rest of the world only as far as it deals with China.
The authors of this debate also share a common origin - almost a common
cultural DNA - as, for instance, both Wang Xiaodong and Yu Shicun were editors
of the once-influential journal Strategy and Management. Interestingly, the
journal was allegedly closed to assuage protests from Pyongyang over an essay
advocating Beijing's intervention in North Korea.