MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Brian Tsui’s review of Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politcs after 1989, by Els van Dongen. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/tsui/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.
Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese
History, Culture, and Politics after 1989
By Els van Dongen
Reviewed by Brian Tsui
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2020)
At a recent conference on Maoist China I attended, a historian gave, in proxy, a presentation on the People’s Commune experiment. The scholar, who was with the school of Marxism at a prestigious Beijing-based university, cited Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper as his inspirations. I was bemused, to put it mildly. “What does a scholar attracted to the doyens of Cold War liberalism,” I almost thought aloud, “have to do with Marxism?” Had I read Els van Dongen’s Realistic Revolution then, I might have been able to put my unease in better perspective.
Writing on the recent past is a risky business for historians. In the case of China, the Maoist era is now a burgeoning field. Yet, the same cannot be said of the decades after Mao Zedong’s death. The dust, it seems, has yet to settle. Van Dongen’s choice of topic and period is a bold one. She focuses on the period from 1989 to 1993, arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the People’s Republic from Mao’s death up to the current epidemic and all-out competition with the United States. Confronted with the onslaught of the Tian’anmen crackdown, the Soviet bloc’s dramatic demise, and the marketization of society, Chinese intellectuals in the immediate post-Tian’anmen era were forced to adjust their priorities and commitments. The “high culture fever,” as Jing Wang puts it, of the 1980s gave way to a much more sober and somber but no less complicated intellectual culture. This complex development is the subject of van Dongen’s study. Many of the figures van Dongen discusses are not only alive, but are still highly influential in their fields. Van Dongen’s training in Europe and current position in Singapore, both removed from China and the United States, have given her a unique outsider vantage point from which to scrutinize transpacific events. Continue reading