Tag Archives: China

Meeting Chen Guangcheng

After posting several pieces about China, I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m reporting an experience from today that definitely counts as a highlight of my year. This morning I had the chance, along with ten other folks from my program, to sit down with Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy on 1 May 2012

If that name doesn’t immediately ring any bells, Chen is a Chinese human rights lawyer who is also blind. He repeatedly drew attention to abuses in contemporary China by suing governmental officials, demanding that they would abide by the guarantees in China’s constitution and written laws. He particularly pointed to the dreadful effects of China’s one-child policy, including the abortions performed on women against their will. For this, Chen was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest. Last year, he escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and asked for asylum. This generated an international incident, and Hillary Clinton was forced to dance around the issue until a way was found to get Chen out of the country. With certain wordings secured, Chen was able to come to the United States. (Here’s a NY Times piece on Chen from two days ago.)

Although he’s now living in New York City, he was down in Princeton for some meetings. To meet with him was most impressive. He should be recognized as a real hero–someone truly willing to speak truth to power and to do so by pointing to the law.

Chen speaks no English, so the entire conversation was mediated through a translator. Still, we had some fascinating exchanges.

I appreciated the moment when someone brought up how he’s referred to in China, and Chen observed that officially he has “gone abroad to study.”

Chen made much about the conflict between the Communist Party, which wants to be the only locus of identity and authority in China, and the desire for civil society. When I asked him to elaborate on this, he made the point that anything Westerners can do to encourage civil society in China will be helpful.

Of course, the very concept of a civil society apart from the power structure of the Party is a challenge to it. By contrast, the West has thrived by recognizing private realms as well as “public spheres” that are still non-governmental. On this point, I’d be happy to recommend Alexis De Tocqueville as a great theorist of the necessity of Voluntary Societies for the functioning of self-government.

Another interesting exchange came regarding the nature of law. To Chen, there is no rule of law in China. There is no independent judiciary: law is just an outgrowth of the Party. Where, then, might China develop such a concept? Chen observed that there still existed the memory of Daoist philosophy, which spoke of law as part of the “ordering of Heaven.” A colleague astutely pointed out that writers such as C.S. Lewis had connected the Dao to a larger concept of Natural Law. It strikes me that this would be an investigation worthy of a conference at some point.

Our time together ended too soon, but I have to say I was most impressed. I will follow Chen’s next contributions with great interest.

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chen_Guangcheng

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Reading Liao Yiwu

After my post last week about Jonathan Spence, I thought I would continue on the East Asian theme.

One of the best books about Modern China I’ve read in the past year has to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China.

God is Red Cover

Don’t let the title fool you–it is not meant to imply that Liao believes God supports the “Red” Communist Government. Rather, since Red is the Color of Life in Chinese Culture, it comes from the assertion within the book, by a Christian convert, that God is Life.

The book allows many Chinese Christians to speak for themselves and explain why they find Christianity compelling.

Liao came to this subject in an interesting way. He was originally a musician and a poet. In the wake of Tienanmen Square in 1989 he became a dissident. Being outside of official recognition pushed him into contact with common people from all walks of life. Liao would interview them and interject his own reflections. This method was first evident in his book The Corpse Walker. (If you want to think about “dirty jobs”–how about picking up a corpse and “walking” it back to its village?) In his wanderings, Liao discovered that Christians were some of the few people who 1) seemed to have hope in dire situations and 2) showed real concern for the poor and outcast. The best example of the second impulse comes from a doctor. Although well-trained, he practices his medicine among the Miao people, healing their bodies and supporting the indigenous church.

For this project, Liao decided to focus on Christians in contemporary China. He largely allows the Christians he meets to speak for themselves, so there are long passages of interview transcripts. These “unfiltered” reflections speak powerfully to the experience of Christians in China over the past century.

Four moments encapsulated both the pathos and triumph that has to be part of the story. First, Liao and a friend visit an overgrown graveyard down a side road. It turns out this was part of a European missionary complex in the first half of the twentieth century. The missionaries had been expelled and the compound torn down, but a few memories remained, and churches in the area could still trace their roots to those endeavors. Second, Liao visited a Catholic monastery compound. The only remaining nuns were very old, but they were determined to keep it operating until their deaths and perhaps to see it revitalized with a few younger novices. Third, Liao visited with a Christian family that had suffered under the Cultural Revolution. Family members had suffered physical and psychological torture, and they had lost all of their possessions. Still, they maintained their Christian confession intact. Even that great suffering could not trump their beliefs. Finally, Liao visited a House Church pastor who was under house arrest. He and his family recounted their deprivations, as well as their on-going games of cat and mouse with the authorities. Altogether, these pointed to the weight of official persecution that had occurred, yet how remarkably resilient these Christians were.

In short, this is Chinese Christianity at the ground level. The result is profound.

In the last chapter, though, Liao interviews a young, urban male convert. He seems more interested in Christianity because it’s popular than because of any specific doctrines. This may point to a challenge in the coming years. As the Church expands, how does it continue to engender commitment among growing numbers of converts? On the other hand, continued pressure from authorities (whether directed by Beijing or not) could continue to keep the movement constantly alert.

In the global expansion of Christianity (highlighted a decade ago by Philip Jenkins), the growth in China has to be given a very prominent place. Since solid statistics are impossible to achieve, the exact numbers aren’t currently possible. However, the magnitude is definitely huge. Even more remarkable, this growth has occurred as an indigenous movement. Western Missionaries have been gone for sixty years, but the Church has exploded. Further, the development of the Church in China will continue to be important for World Christianity. To that end, Liao’s book might be read profitably next to David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing.

Finally, let me say that I think this book would be great to teach. I can’t foresee an opportunity to teach it, but you can be sure that I’m looking for one.

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Reading Jonathan Spence

One of my goals during my sabbatical has been to attempt to read widely. In other words, I’m been trying to read beyond early American history to other historical fields and even–shockingly–outside of historical works. These explorations will provide plenty of grist for blog posts.

I thought I would start out this series with some reflections on Jonathan Spence’s work Treason by the Book.


Spence is the legendary Yale Historian of China, now emeritus. Over his career, he’s written widely on China. Most students agree that people should start with his Search for Modern China (now, I see, in its 3rd edition). He’s also written on the Chinese Revolution and produced a life of Mao.

But Spence also has a great gift for microhistory. In grad school I read his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book that caused me to be even more impressed with Ricci than I already was. That’s also apparent in his well-known Death of Woman Wang, as well as in my recent read, Treason by the Book.

In Treason, Spence takes a series of events built around a tendentious suggestion that a general and provincial governor overthrow the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng in the late 1720s. A treasonous letter prompted a manhunt which tracked down the instigator, a scholar by the name of Zeng Jing. While Zeng was in custody, the Emperor managed to convince him of the error of his ways. The Emperor then ordered documents related to the case, closing with Zeng’s complete recantation of his earlier views, published, distributed throughout China, and publicly read at regular intervals.

Spence uses this account to reflect on the nature of governance under the Manchus, the systems of scholars and ties between scholars and the bureaucracy, the political ideologies of Rule, and effects of gossip both in society and at court. So, this one event that never came close to threatening Imperial control could actually illuminate quite a bit about eighteenth-century China.

Let me reflect on the work as an early Americanist. First, as to method, I have to give a “thumbs up” to his use of microhistory. In this case, where Spence has plenty of documentation, it works quite well. I wonder if a parallel could be drawn to John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive, which reflects on events that took place only twenty-five years previous to those Spence describes–albeit on the other side of the globe.

Next, I wonder if some comparative reflections are in order. There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the Chinese Imperial order at this time and some Absolutist Monarchies in Europe. I was most impressed by how the Manchus, even though outsiders, had adopted Chinese political culture. For them, the idea of legitimacy was wrapped up with the notion of “the Approval of Heaven.” I realize there’s a great difference theologically, but it seems there’s at least a similarity with Louis XIV claiming a divine right to rule. Further, just as Louis had the bureaucracy to carry out his wishes, so the Emperor had an entire mechanism to spread his decrees to the furthest corners of Chinese rule. By contrast, I don’t think you can see that level of governance in most of European colonies in America, and definitely not in British North America. Of course, the Crown had governors in place, along with other officers, but that didn’t suggest a very significant reach. The Crown was too far away to project the level of control demonstrated in China.

All in all, then, Treason was definitely a good read.

So, for those with more reading in Chinese History than I–any comments on this book or Spence’s contribution generally?


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