Creating the Intellectual:
Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification

By Eddy U

Reviewed by Sebastian Veg
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Eddy U, Creating the Intellectual: Chinese Communism and the Rise of a Classification Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. xix + 226 pgs. ISBN: 9780520303690 (paper).

Eddy U has been studying intellectuals in the communist and PRC context for a number of years, and it is very pleasing to see many of the strands he has previously explored collected and reorganized into a new monograph. Creating the Intellectual is devoted not so much to the people usually called “intellectuals” in various contexts as to the category of zhishifenzi (知识分子), which U argues is mutually constitutive with Chinese communism. Rather than examining a pre-existing group, the book investigates how Chinese communism instituted a top-down reordering of people into class subjects based on Marxist ideology, and how this reordering defined the party’s governing practice. U adopts a theoretical approach that he terms “institutional-constructivist” (4), in which he examines how the category of zhishifenzi was constructed both through institutions of classification and registration that “objectified” intellectuals, and through the representations that made the category visible and meaningful in social interactions. In his argument, classification is a tool of domination, but also the result of ongoing negotiations within society. From an early date, the party felt a need to harness expertise and at the same time to contain the political threat posed by the holders of that expertise. For this reason, it became expedient for the party to define communism against the ideas and lifestyles of intellectuals. This in turn stimulated an oppositional identity among intellectuals, and the imaginary enemy became real, in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The book begins by retracing the origins of the term zhishifenzi, which, for a time, was in competition with the earlier denomination zhishi jieji (知识阶级) or “knowledge class,” a “reverse loan word” borrowed “back” from the Japanese neologism (chishiki kaikyû) of the Meiji era, widely used in China circa 1919. U argues that May Fourth and communist intellectuals successfully stigmatized the “knowledge class” as lacking courage and integrity, in a process he compares to the emergence of the French word intellectuels during the Dreyfus affair: “For May Fourth activists, the intellectual not only objectively existed—it was an objectionable population” (29). Although May Fourth activists were eager to reclaim a role as “awakened” (觉悟), self-reformed activists, according to U, this transformation took place by differentiating themselves as revolutionaries from the intellectuals. In a 1923 article, Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 presented Lenin’s perspective, in which intellectuals have no independent existence as a class, but should be considered part of the petty bourgeoisie. For this reason, the term zhishi jieji was rejected by Chinese communists and replaced with zhishifenzi, which, according to U, immediately also took on a negative coloration. The negative valuation was further strengthened after the KMT’s violent crackdown on the CCP in 1927—for which “intellectual” party leaders like Chen Duxiu took the blame—and during the subsequent “ruralization” of the CCP.

The next stage in the mutual constitution of intellectuals and the Chinese communist movement took place in Yan’an during the wartime years. Again, the party was confronted with the need and wish to attract young, educated urban elites, and Mao established institutes (the Lu Xun Academy of Arts being the most famous) to train them as “revolutionary intellectuals.” The training culminated in a full-fledged rectification campaign in 1941-42, which ostensibly targeted “so-called Russian Returned Students,” but more broadly sought to reform the trainees and establish their status as “usable but unreliable subjects” (55). This provoked a variety of counter-strategies of self-fashioning among the targets, either by self-consecration as proletarian revolutionaries (Yang Shangkun 杨尚昆, Kang Sheng 康生, Zhu De 朱德), by deflection of the intellectual marker (drawing attention to one’s humble background) or by a self-image makeover (like the literary critic Cheng Fangwu 成仿吾 who took to wearing worn-out clothes and maintaining unkempt hair).

The two core chapters of the book (4 and 5) deal with the registration and classification campaigns that took place after the establishment of the PRC. Drawing on rich archival sources from Shanghai, U describes the registration of “unemployed intellectuals” (失业知识分子) that began in late 1951 and the reorganization and rectification of the Shanghai Education Bureau in the Thought Reform campaigns of 1952 and 1953. After a State Council instruction (January 1951) provided a definition of unemployed intellectuals (graduates from at least senior high school; those with academic knowledge and prestige; p. 75), Shanghai adapted the criteria (lowering the first to junior high school), in the hope of absorbing the unemployed population resulting from the shutdown of the entertainment industries. Two registration drives saw a combined 40,000 unemployed intellectuals sign up, which was less than the authorities had hoped for; in addition, it revealed problematic political backgrounds among many registrants, so that only one third of them eventually found work. In this sense the registration is described as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the state obtained a group of qualified, but politically unreliable people—exactly its definition of zhishifenzi. U concludes that the registration drive “objectified otherwise perfectly ordinary people into intellectuals” and intensified “mass surveillance, ideological reeducation and workplace management” (91). A similar dynamic drove the subsequent rectification campaign in the Education Bureau. U describes two main techniques of rectification: “textual corroboration,” in which discursive (political) categories serve as a basis for reorganizing society (e.g., a loyal party member is labelled an “absentee landlord” and exiled, then executed), and “everyday signification,” which included forms of ostracism of ordinary faculty by cadres and the mitigation strategies (confessions, counter-attacks) used by teachers against stigmatization. As U concludes, the classification campaigns and the techniques associated with them were responsible for “producing” urban intellectuals, just as land reform produced landlords.

The two following chapters (6 and 7) deal with the appropriation of the zhishifenzi category by the groups designated and stigmatized by the state, and their attempt to reassert agency over the definition of the category. Eddy U makes the illuminating suggestion that the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957 can be revisited as an “open struggle” (an allusion to Mao’s description of it as an open conspiracy or yangmou 阳谋) to redefine the intellectual as well as Chinese communism. Scientists, writers, and professionals tried to reconstruct their social identity to improve their status and influence. U distinguishes between three models, put forward respectively by older scholars, students, and the state. Older scholars referred to the literati (shidafu 士大夫) tradition to call for more competence and involvement of intellectuals to save communism from ruin. They saw themselves as experts and professional workers who could work as partners with the CCP. Students supported building a modern, socialist China, but challenged Mao’s leadership and the CCP style of rule. Some presented themselves as authoritative interpreters of Marxist thought (Tan Tianrong 谭天荣) and attacked the leadership with its own concepts (revisionism, dogmatism, idealism). Others demanded competitive elections, citing the Yugoslav model. Together, they defined their role as placing critical reason above political and class hierarchy. Finally, the regime promoted the notion of training “red and expert” intellectuals from the working class. These three strands capture the Confucian, May Fourth, and Yan’an traditions, showing that alternative models continued to exist within Chinese society after 1949. Chapter 7 further describes how the portrayal of intellectuals continued to be at the center of struggles around the correct political line during the Great Leap Forward (when it proved useful for the party to turn disparagement of intellectuals into popular entertainment), and afterwards (when the film Early Spring in February [早春二月] presented a more positive image, only to be labelled a poisonous weed by culture tsar Zhou Yang 周扬). In conclusion, U again highlights his constructivist approach, both in the Chinese context and in general: “Under Chinese communism or, for that matter, in any historical context, the intellectual has no ontological existence prior to being defined by the political or academic elites” (161). The CCP constructed an elaborate system of classification (an “apparatus” in Foucault’s terms) that turned a variety of people into intellectuals, but to do so it did not rely on any specific feature possessed by those people (164).

Overall, this is an illuminating approach, which shifts the study of intellectuals from the study of a social group to the construction of the concept itself, in a stimulating reversal of perspective. While Vera Schwarcz’s The Chinese Enlightenment also adopts an implicitly constructivist approach, it does not question the concept as radically as Eddy U does. The archival material and the empirical details of the rectification process in Shanghai are also very rich and contribute to a growing body of studies on the post-1949 processes of classification and reorganization of society.[1] Finally, the new reading of the Anti-Rightist movement as a struggle to re-appropriate the category and articulate alternative roles for intellectuals in the PRC is also a welcome addition to rethinking 1957.

From a historian’s perspective, a few points merit further discussion. First, the view of the May Fourth mainstream is at times somewhat teleological. Marxism certainly played a role in the later stages of the New Culture movement, but it is hardly the case that intellectuals and, in particular, their role as holders of knowledge, were universally stigmatized in the name of Marxist ideas. Communist activists were admittedly eager to conflate the zhishi jieji with the Confucian gentry and vilify its members as lacking courage and integrity, but as described by Vera Schwarcz, zhishifenzi was not immediately or exclusively a negative category; rather, it was seen as an opportunity by some activists to forge a new positive identity as intellectuals.[2]

More broadly, knowledge itself also had positive connotations in May Fourth times; it was only in Mao’s early essays that it came to be criticized as a form of class oppression. Shakhar Rahav’s work has shown how the dissemination of knowledge by intellectuals via the new lecture societies, for example, was an inseparable part of the May Fourth project.[3] This raises a further question about the constructivist approach. Of course, it is true that a category like “intellectual” does not have a pre-established meaning outside a given historical context; however, historical contexts are not discrete and disconnected. Pre-1911 understandings of shidafu continued to influence post-1919 understandings of zhishi jieji, just as pre-1949 understandings of zhishi jieji influenced the 1957 scholars and students. In particular, the association between intellectuals and knowledge, or the broad social understanding of intellectuals as holders of legitimate knowledge could be further explored, not in an essentialist manner, but by recognizing the layered quality of historical time. The constructivist approach helps provide a better understanding the CCP’s project, but it does not exhaust the social meanings associated with the concept.

Relatedly, the analogy with the Dreyfus affair is somewhat unpersuasive. It is true that intellectuels came to be constructed as a social category through the controversies that took place in the French press at the time. However, in the French case, intellectuels was first used by (antisemitic) opponents of the progressive writers and academics defending Captain Dreyfus to stigmatize them, but then reclaimed as a positive category by the latter, and has retained this generally positive meaning over the last century. In the Chinese case, by contrast, it was the progressive writers and students themselves who attacked zhishi jieji (sometimes as a form of self-criticism) and gave it its negative tonality.

A final question concerns Eddy U’s argument that the category of zhishifenzi occupied a central position in the Marxist and CCP construction of social reality, even as he acknowledges the ambiguity of its definition and the Party’s flexible and adaptive application of the concept. Although this point is not in dispute, it might be interesting to look more closely at the Party-state’s own administrative and onomastic practices in registering and labelling its population. U points out that the drive to register unemployed intellectuals was the first time that people in Shanghai were forced to register their “family background” (jiating chushen 家庭出身) and “individual status” (benren chengfen 本人成分) [U mixes up the two markers, which he renders as “family status” (jiating chengfen) and “individual background” (benren chushen), p. 76 and in the glossary]. It would be useful to know more about how widely zhishifenzi was actually used by the PRC administration. According to easily available schedules of denominations, the category of “intellectual” does not feature prominently in the nomenclature.[4] So, although the category of intellectual plays an undeniable role in the CCP’s reorganization of society, it does not occupy as clear a position as “landlord.” This echoes some of the unique difficulties raised by the category, which CCP theorists undoubtedly tried to harness to their own theoretical and political ends, but which also remained an object of dispute and social contention, in 1957 and until the present day.

Sebastian Veg


[1]  Jeremy Brown, “Moving Targets. Changing Class Labels in Rural Hebei and Henan 1960-1979” in Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson, eds., Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015): 51-76; Yang Kuisong, “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries,” The China Quarterly 193 (March 2008): 102-121.

[2] The Chinese Enlightenment, p. 188-190.

[3] Shakhar Rahav, “A May Fourth ‘Peach Blossom Garden’: The Number One Work-Study Mutual Aid corps in Beijing,” Twentieth Century China 33.1 (Nov 2007): 81-103; Shakhar Rahav, The Rise of Political Intellectuals in Modern China: May Fourth Societies and the Roots of Mass-Party Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] For example, it does not appear in the table of historical class descriptors provided by David Goodman, in Class in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Polity, 2014): 14-15, nor in a 1963 archival document available on the Maoist Legacy Database. See: Mache She, “Wulei fenzi he fuza chengfen tongji jibaobiao” 五类分子和复杂成分统计季报表 (Quarterly reporting form for numbers of five elements and problematic class status people),