The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals

By Sebastian Veg

Reviewed by Els van Dongen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2019)

Sebastian Veg. Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. ix + 352 pgs. ISBN: 9780231191401 (hardcover); ISBN: 9780231549400 (e-book).

“Traditional Chinese scholar-officials are today known as intellectuals. This is however not merely a change in name—it is a change in essence. In fact, this change is the shift of intellectuals from the center to the margin.”[1] Thus stated the intellectual historian Yü Ying-shih in an article published in the Hong Kong-based journal Twenty-first Century (二十一世纪) in August 1991. According to Yü, along with the transformation of traditional scholars (士) into modern intellectuals (知识分子) following the abolition of the examination system in 1905 came a gradual political, social, and cultural “marginalization” (边缘化). Modern intellectuals became, echoing Karl Mannheim, “free-floating.” This marginalization continued unabated—even intensified—through the Mao era and beyond. With Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, 1992’s Fourteenth Party Congress, the commercialization of Chinese society, and the emergence of a new media landscape, traditional notions of Chinese scholars as moral saviors and members of a select club of luminaries have been even further transformed and/or subverted. As the philosopher Chen Lai 陈来 observed, in reform-era China, the public appeared to be more captivated by pop idol TV shows such as Super Girl (超级女声) than by the musings of intellectuals.[2] Concurrently, the repression of the Tiananmen demonstrations effectively ended the already shaky alliance between intellectuals and the state, leaving the “Enlightenment” ideals of the 1980s in tatters. Echoing Yü, we might say the early 1990s marked the double marginalization of traditional Chinese academic intellectuals by the state and the market. Hence, what did it mean to be a Chinese intellectual from the 1990s onwards? How did Chinese intellectuals perceive themselves and their relationship with the state and society? How did they adjust their approaches to changing realities?

These are some of the questions Sebastian Veg grapples with in his ambitious Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals. The book is a timely addition to the growing body of scholarship on intellectuals and intellectual discourse in contemporary China, including numerous English translations of their writings.[3] Distinct from previous accounts that have highlighted ideological divisions (such as that between liberals and the New Left), major debates, or the ideas of specific individuals, Veg focuses his analysis on controversies and, crossing disciplines, delves into networks and emerging “spaces” of interaction. By probing how the term “intellectual” has been negotiated and constructed in modern China, Minjian continues a line of scholarship that has brought to light the contingent nature of “intellectuals” and other social and political categories.[4] Like these works, Minjian takes inspiration from Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, but is more attentive to the topic of intellectual self-identification than to that of identification by the state and social actors. Drawing on Foucault, the book pinpoints the appearance of “specific intellectuals” in China in an atmosphere of professionalization, growing anti-elitism, and the pluralization of society. These “specific intellectuals” differ from both “universal intellectuals” and “experts” and base their activism on “precise study of specific social problems” (3). Moreover, they define their pursuits in relation to vulnerable or disenfranchised social groups and root their legitimacy in marginality. Lastly, they consider their endeavors as belonging neither to the state nor to the market. In brief, instead of “worrying about China,” as Gloria Davies has famously argued, or continuing the Confucian adage of being responsible for “all under Heaven,” these intellectuals are most concerned with day-to-day issues.[5]

The book describes this new type of “specific intellectuals” in China as minjian or “grassroots intellectuals.” Minjian 民间 (among the people) is notoriously hard to translate, but is often rendered as “unofficial” or “folk” (7). Elsewhere, the author alludes to discussions on minjian as a form of self-positioning opposed to “official” and “elite” stances in the field of contemporary Chinese poetry, as explored by Maghiel van Crevel (81).[6] In short, the author discerns three main traits of minjian intellectuals: they are “freelancers” who do not rely on the state for income; they have an “unofficial” status; and they align themselves with “nonelite or grassroots” groups in society (8). Veg deems these traits more useful than the unclear margin between being situated “inside” or “outside of” the system (12). Although narrower than minjian, “grassroots” is used as a translation because it encapsulates “the critique of elitism and fascination with official recognition by the state” inherent in the new model (8). Moreover, the book makes an argument about the larger implications of the rise of minjian intellectuals beyond academia. First, it maintains that the phenomenon indicates the replacement of ideological conflicts and class as a category of analysis with conflicts at the level of interests. Second, epistemologically and methodologically, it posits that these intellectuals call for “the need to individualize and pluralize the construction of knowledge”; taken further, it suggests that this is part of global attempts “to advance citizen knowledge” (253, 254).

Following the explanation of these main concerns and concepts in the introduction, the first chapter critically examines the idea of “intellectuals” from theoretical, historical, and methodological angles. Overall, the chapter underlines the tension between “normative” definitions of intellectuals as moral critics and “sociological” definitions of intellectuals as experts. Thus, while research on Confucian literati or “scholar officials” has accentuated their moral conscience, studies of modern “intellectuals” have instead stressed their identification with the state, be it as “establishment intellectuals” during the Mao era or as “public intellectuals” under reform (34).[7] Some continued to work for the state as experts during the 1990s, whereas others turned to the market and media or championed disengaged “scholarship.” Methodologically, intellectual history approaches have singled out the relation between Chinese intellectuals, either as advisors or critics, and the state, whereas sociological methods have mainly seen Chinese intellectuals as part of a “social and bureaucratic elite” (44). Finally, scholars in cultural studies have contended that marketization and the embrace of consumer culture signified the end of intellectual elitism. Moving beyond all three interpretations, Veg aims to challenge elite understandings of intellectual work through Foucault’s concept of “specific knowledge” as social criticism (30).

Chapter 2 sketches the contours of minjian positioning through the lens of the writings of Wang Xiaobo 王小波 (1952-1997), the first “freelance writer” in reform-era China, and his novella The Golden Age (黄金时代) (52). Published in Hong Kong in 1992 and reprinted in Taiwan in the same year, the novella describes Wang’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, thereby “desacralizing and trivializing” the adversities of the rusticated youths (64). The chapter then concentrates on some essays in which Wang finds fault with Chinese intellectuals’ relation with the state and their sense of moral mission. Instead, Wang advocates an empirical research method and Weberian “value neutrality” or the separation of knowledge and morality (53). Veg also observes that Wang takes issue with utopia and Enlightenment reason—for him [Wang], as for other Chinese intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was based on a misperception of the Enlightenment.[8] A key text that features throughout the volume is Wang’s essay “The Silent Majority” (沉默的大多数, 1996), in which, drawing on Foucault’s views on power, Wang maintains that all members of Chinese society belong to “vulnerable groups” (弱势群体) (69).

The following chapters each revolve around a main controversy and move chronologically across the 1990s and the 2000s. Chapter 3 opens with the fortieth anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Movement in May 1997, the commemoration of which saw the start of a series of grassroots actions to revisit it from a non-elitist perspective. Among the minjian historians—that is, “unofficial” historians working (partially) “outside the system”—were academics such as Shen Zhihua 沈志华, Yang Kuisong 杨奎松, Gao Hua 高华, and Yang Jisheng 杨继绳, as well as “amateur” historians who resorted to oral history (90). In addition to the grassroots victims of the Anti-Rightist Movement, those of the Great Famine of 1959-1961 and of the Cultural Revolution similarly were the subject of rekindled attention in the form of memoirs, documentaries, articles, book projects, and films. Additionally, Veg notes, new documentation practices materialized, such as the Folk Memory Project (民间记忆计划) on the famine, a participatory project that involved data collection, the making of critical documentaries, and the reenactment of fieldwork experiences. Channels through which minjian historians exchanged ideas included “book-magazines,” as well as unofficial electronic journals (for example the journal Remembrance [记忆] on the Cultural Revolution), and websites (114, 115). Among the relevant channels for debate on the Cultural Revolution was Yanhuang chunqiu 炎黄春秋 (translated as Annals of the Yellow Emperor or China through the Ages), which was founded in 1991 but shut down in 2016.

Chapter 4 covers the upsurge of minjian intellectuals in relation to the growth of “independent cinema,” a term that denotes films outside of state studio production. The starting point is the First Independent Film Festival, held at the Beijing Film Academy in 2001. Zooming in on the self-perception of minjian intellectuals, the chapter examines, among others, filmmakers Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 and Wu Wenguang 吴文光. For Jia, who defines his work as “amateur” and minjian, “amateur” cinema belongs to a “third realm” between state and market and does not succumb to the demands of either (128). In addition, both Jia and Wu document the lives of ordinary individuals and reject the preoccupation with class representation and the sense of mission that characterized 1980s cinema. What’s more, Wu employs new practices such as xianchang 现场 (“liveness”) that combine reality and structured narratives with fiction and oral history and through which documentary making becomes a form of civic participation (133-134). State-sponsored film festivals were the first “spaces” of interaction for independent cinema’s minjian intellectuals, followed by film clubs and independent festivals in the 2000s, as well as artist villages inhabited by peasants, artists, and migrant workers from the 1980s onwards.

The so-called Sun Zhigang 孙志刚 affair—the sudden death of a worker without a valid residency permit in the clinic of a Guangzhou Custody and Repatriation Center in 2003—forms the beginning of Chapter 5. The chapter covers the affair in relation to the appearance of the “rights protection” (维权) movement, which was characterized by “concrete action” and “a nonconfrontational stance” (168). Here, “concrete” stands for, among others, actions with regard to housing evictions, land expropriations, Internet censorship, corruption, and pollution. The grassroots intellectuals in this chapter are scholars, lawyers, and NGO activists who turned toward specific problems and relied on specialist knowledge. The social organization Citizen Alliance 公盟 constitutes an example of a new minjian think tank that proposed change within the system by granting legal assistance to petitioners. Additionally, it advocated for the protection of the rights of vulnerable segments of society such as migrant workers and ethnic minorities. The chapter then follows sociologist, lawyer, and activist Yu Jianrong 于建嵘, whose 2004 report on the petitioning system (unsuccessfully) advocated for its reform. 2008—the year of demonstrations in Tibet, the Beijing Olympics, and the Sichuan earthquake—is evaluated as a turning point because it witnessed a crackdown on citizen activism. What is more, it was the year that Liu Xiaobo 刘小波, Zhang Zuhua 张祖桦, and other liberals advocated reform through Charter 08, which from a minjian perspective did not sufficiently consider social justice. In response, Citizen Alliance (then Gongmin 公民) put forward an online campaign in 2010 that propelled the so-called New Citizen Movement, which was suppressed from 2013 on.

The appearance of minjian journalists and bloggers amidst the new commercial media and the Internet is the theme of the final chapter, which opens with the Tibet uprising and the Olympic torch relay in 2008. For Veg, the advent of commercial media should not be reductively characterized as leading to minjian intellectuals selling out to the market; such a view overlooks “the journalistic ethos” involved (210). Southern Weekly (南方周末), a spin off from the official Southern Daily (南方日报), serves as an example of a new kind of investigative journalism and is considered to be “the first minjian newspaper” (211). The bounds of this transformation are nevertheless noted in the coverage of continued government control of these and other new media, such as the Internet, microblogs, and the platforms Netease, Sohu, and Tencent. The chapter then brings up the formation of “a new kind of pan-Chinese textual ecosystem” across mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere, as exemplified by the online platform Consensus Net (共识网), which was established in 2009 but closed down in 2016 (219, 220). The two most prominent minjian bloggers discussed are artist-activist Ai Weiwei 艾未未 and race car driver and enfant terrible Han Han 韩寒. Ai considers the plight of migrant workers and earthquake victims, whereas Han is fiercely anti-elitist and anti-government but paradoxically belittles the public as well. An example of novel “spaces” of interaction other than online spaces is One-Way Street (单向街), a combination of a library, independent bookstore, cultural salon, and journal published in book form. Veg reminds readers that these new spaces are bound up with the conflicting agendas of entering the mainstream, kowtowing to intellectual elitism, and upholding intellectual independence (240).

Minjian maintains a masterful balancing act between meticulous empirical research and relevant broader theoretical and methodological concerns. Its empirical strengths include its exploration of how a plethora of Chinese intellectuals across disciplines employ the term minjian to denote their engagement and methods, while recognizing ambiguities and limits. Moreover, this case-based approach avoids preconceived categorizations and neat discursive divisions. In this light, the structure of the book itself mirrors the agenda and methodology of the minjian intellectuals. Second, it pays careful consideration to the Chinese context and the intellectual strategies and mechanisms that have emerged from the local economic, social, and political conditions of contemporary China. In a recent study on digital activism in China, Jing Wang has called the latter “nonconfrontational activism,” which involves skillful navigation and the bending of rules rather than direct confrontation.[9] Similarly, Veg reveals the intricate navigation processes negotiated by Chinese grassroots activists who seek change from within the system rather than through direct opposition.

Veg’s careful attention to detail does not distract from his underlying methodological and theoretical preoccupations. Methodologically, the book foregrounds “multidimensional networks and activities” (23). The fluid “spaces” of these networks and activities described in each of the chapters surpass the “traditional” networks and institutions in existing scholarship on knowledge production in that they are comprised of physical and digital spaces, as well as activities, events, and novel types of publications.[10] Moreover, the cross-disciplinarity allows for a combination of “spaces” that would otherwise not be considered together. Theoretically, the author combines insights from both Francophone and Anglophone scholarship on intellectuals to address far-reaching queries on the role of intellectuals and the nature of contemporary knowledge production.

Though it may sound dauntingly erudite, the book is in fact very suitable for classroom use. This reviewer used sections of it in a course on modern Chinese intellectual history to bring the grassroots intellectuals into dialogue with their elitist and state-serving predecessors and what Timothy Cheek has called the latter’s “enduring ideas” of “the people,” “Chinese,” and “democracy.”[11]

Perhaps one constraint of the book is that it centers on developments in mainland China at a time when the category of the “Chinese” intellectual is becoming more nebulous in a context of increasing intellectual exchange, globalization, and the Internet. Veg justifies his focus on PRC-located intellectuals by pointing out that it is hard for overseas Chinese intellectuals to “engage (mainly) with the public sphere within China” (23). But at the same time, the author notes that minjian intellectuals have employed a “two-version” strategy: they write uncensored articles online and outside the mainland press while writing self-censored articles for mainland Chinese audiences (243). This may leave some readers wondering how such bifurcation and transnational interaction contribute to minjian positioning. Given the dazzling array of intellectuals and literature covered in the book, this is more of an observation and a point for additional exploration rather than a criticism or an outline of a book that the author could have written.

Instead, it seems more fitting to turn to two puzzling tensions that loom underneath the surface. First, at the heart of the book lies the quest of contemporary intellectuals to legitimize themselves as a “silent majority.” But how successful have they been? As the author, mentioning Bourdieu, himself notes, intellectuals have an “ambiguous relationship” with the “dominated” majority since they belong to the “dominant class[es]” (15). Besides, the frictions between “grassroots loyalties” and “residual elitism” continue to haunt the image and reputation of the intellectual (246). To what extent are grassroots intellectuals willing to admit the conflicts inherent in minjian self-positioning as distinct from “elite” and “official”? This is briefly touched upon in chapter 6, which addresses Han Han’s peculiar embrace of both minjian and elitist elements (234). Similarly, how do other intellectuals who continue to defend the public intellectual (such as the well-known Shanghai-based historian Xu Jilin 许纪霖) understand this grassroots activism? What is their take on “citizen knowledge”? Lastly, what do the disenfranchised groups make of grassroots intellectuals? Are all members of the “silent majority” equally eager to endorse the minjian intellectuals as spokespersons/representatives and to leave class distinctions behind?

Second, what ultimately is the contribution and legacy of minjian as a model, given that pluralization has been accompanied by mounting state repression? For example, the weiquan lawyers were confined by the system because they could only advocate change based on “individual ethics and civic virtue” (201). The author acknowledges that minjian activism might have reached the limits of the possible given the growing reach of the surveillance state, but he also contends that it “may represent a deeper long-term challenge to elite authority” (203, 254). Only time will tell whether the minjian model is adequately novel and agile to transform a system from within or whether it will be but a temporary spark consumed by the familiar flames of continuity.

Els van Dongen
Nanyang Technological University


[1] Yü Ying-shih 余英时, “Zhongguo zhishi fenzi de bianyuanhua” 中国知识分子的边缘化 (The marginalization of Chinese intellectuals), Ershiyi shiji 6 (Aug. 1991), 15-25. Reference from 15.

[2] Interview with Chen Lai, Beijing, August 10, 2005.

[3] Some well-known examples are Gloria Davies, Worrying about China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Joseph Fewsmith, China since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Merle Goldman, Timothy Cheek, and Carol Lee Hamrin, eds. China’s Intellectuals and the State: In Search of a New Relationship (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1987); and Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). For scholarship on Chinese intellectuals, see also Timothy Cheek, The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). For English translations of recent writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, see the Reading the China Dream website (readingthechinadream.com). See also Timothy Cheek, David Ownby, and Joshua A. Fogel, eds., Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectual Debate from Contemporary China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). For translations from the earlier reform period, see for example Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) and Wang Chaohua, ed., One China, Many Paths (London: Verso, 2003).

[4] See Eddy U, Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019). See also Fabio Lanza, Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[5] See Davies, Worrying about China.

[6] See Maghiel Van Crevel, Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem, and Money (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[7] On the concept of “establishment intellectuals,” see Carol Lee Hamrin and Timothy Cheek, eds., China’s Establishment Intellectuals (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1986).

[8] For 1990s’ debates on the Cultural Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, see Els van Dongen, Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politics after 1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[9] Jing Wang, The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[10] For different approaches, see for example Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge? (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016).

[11] Cheek, The  Intellectual in Modern Chinese History, 12.