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Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement and Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution

Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement
by George Black and Robin Munro. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 90 pp. $24.95 cloth.

Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution
by Arif Dirlik. Berkeley: University of California Press. 326 pp. $16.95.
The Chinese anarchist is an individual confronted by a very special set of historical and philosophical circumstances, conditions nearly opposite those of the Western activist. The realities of being Chinese are such that no one escapes the virtue/vice of the extraordinary cohesiveness of the twin Confucian and Taoist tradition; the power of its combined social vision of utter "belongingness" is the foundation from which every revolutionary, artist, student, mountain recluse, or general sorehead in Chinese life must think and act.

It is often stated by Chinese scholars (political or otherwise) that loneliness and alienation are simply impossibilities for the intellectual/artist/revolutionary in traditional China, because the very act of thinking, being, or breathing is "communal participation," and any social vision can never be that of an adversary but will always be to create a fiduciary community. Thus, a decision in favor of anarchism as a "Way" is to express, in a most complete manner, one's integration in the trinity of heaven, earth and man; to be is to join in the ritualization of life, to show privileged access to the holistic vision of Chineseness. This is as true today as it was in the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, as true in Chairman Mao's anti-Confucian attacks in the Cultural Revolution, because even these were presented in the mode of Confucian morality and even the posters and displays of the mass demonstrations of the 1960s took the form of Taoist talismans.

This condition shines forth from two new volumes on 20th century Chinese revolutionaries, Black and Munro's Black Hands in Beijing and Dirlik's Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. The three young activists whose lives are described in the former volume and the many radicals who form the cast of Dr. Dirlik's closely detailed study are almost to an individual persons devoted to a traditional Chinese vision of the ideal society that Confucius and Mencius wrote about some 2,500 years ago. It perhaps should not be this way, but Chinese society seems to take any single influence and shape it to be a purely nativist experience. (What about the fate of Marxism if considered from this view? Does it mean that it was destined to fail because it could not be made sufficiently Chinese?)

The first study, one of the most helpful works in explaining the events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, takes three quite different young men through the process of emerging from ordinary lives to be among those individuals most hated and feared by the Communist government. Chen Ziming was a science student who appeared in the first democracy movement of 1976. Wang Juntao was a strapping, ebullient youth whose influence was felt through the most recent Tiananmen movement, and Han Dongfang was the government's worst nightmare: a railroad worker from a poor peasant family who could grab a megaphone and speak with such logic, clarity, and fearlessness that the walls of the Forbidden City began to shake.

These three were the evil "black hands" behind the student revolt, according to the CP hierarchy. These were the three enemies of society that dared to call for independent trade unions, free elections, an end to censorship and the secret police, and an end to single-party rule and centralized government. Each received a heavy prison sentence and only Han has been released to date (because the authorities were worried this wildly popular figure would die in their care, once he had been purposely infected with tuberculosis).

Though so different in personality and circumstance, the "black hands" share a number of traits: a courage undiluted by self-interest, a sense of moral purpose right out of the pages of Confucius's Analects, and a faith in the plain rightness of the desires of China's people, the naturalness of "jen" or human-heartedness. Their story reads like a thriller.

Arif Dirlik, a professor of history at Duke University, approaches China's continuing revolution with a study of a similar but much earlier group of Chinese radical revolutionaries, the scholars and political organizers who created the impressive anarchist movement in China between 1905 and 1930. The chapters of this book have been appearing in scholarly journals for some fifteen years, and it is satisfying to finally see a full compilation of Dirlik's labors. These show Chinese anarchism to be not simply part of the mainstream of early 20th century Chinese politics but the dominant source of revolutionary thinking in this century into the early 1930s. This is a remarkable story and one we are only just beginning to learn about.

In 1989 we were able to read Peter Zarrow's Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture (Columbia University Press). In 1990, in China, the historian Lu Zhe of Nanjing University published a major history of Chinese anarchism; and now we hear gossip that many scholarly papers are being produced on the subject by Chinese scholars and that the American historians Edward Krebs, Marilyn Levine, and Diana Scherer are preparing studies for publication. Dr. Dirlik informs us that his volume is only a preliminary one, "an attempt to lay the groundwork for further study."

The general reader may find Dirlik difficult reading. While I found him frequently brilliant in his flashes and summations, his Anarchism is not so much a historical narrative as a history of ideas. His chief purpose in this study is to remind us that a major problem for the anarchist movement is marginalization and that this prevents us from fully embracing the useful responsibility of living out the ideas of radical democracy. Whatever the contributions of the anarchists to the Chinese revolution of 1911-1949 — and Dirlik would argue that these were many and of the greatest importance — no one can argue that they were sufficient to halt the brutal sweep of Communist power once real organization began with the forming of the May Fourth movement in 1919. I think Dirlik would agree, however, that the Chinese have a good opportunity to rediscover their anarchist past as they search through the fragments of a failed socialism; the record of the societies, intellectual study groups, scores of revolutionary journals, and utopian projects may still shape action for the future.

Most readers will find Zarrow's book of several years back (see Social Anarchism 17, 1992) a better work for general information and the actual story of who did what when. As for the working of China's radicalism today, readers are urged to read the report by Black and Munro; it so clearly shows that no matter the brutality of totalitarian rule, the holders of power can do nothing to prevent the birth and growth of the "black hands" for truth and justice that come forth from every generation.