Interview with Timothy Cheek

An interview with Timothy Cheek, the guest editor of the May 2020 special issue of Twentieth-Century China entitled, “The Crucible of 1957: Place and Perspective in Mao’s Revolution.” Timothy Cheek is director of the Institute of Asian Research and professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and Department of History at the University of British Columbia. His research, teaching, and translating focus on the recent history of China, especially the Chinese Communist Party and intellectual debate in China. His most recent book is The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  Read the May 2020 special issue here

Before we start discussing this special issue, could you tell us a bit about your academic background and your current research projects?

I’m a “China-centered” historian who completed his PhD in 1986. Starting at the Australian National University in Canberra in the 1970s, I was trained in Chinese language, history, and culture. John Israel at the University of Virginia whipped me into shape for my MA and sent me off to Harvard to work with Philip Kuhn, who still scares me. All along I was trained to read lots of Chinese texts, think about them first and foremost in Chinese context, and then tell readers of English what I had found. I have held forth mostly on modern Chinese intellectuals, the Chinese Communist Party, and, unavoidably, Mao. In the past 20 years this model has changed fundamentally for me. Like many of my colleagues, I have moved from “working on China” to “working with Chinese colleagues” on questions of shared interest. Thus, my most recent projects have been collaborating with Chinese colleagues on “collaborative translating” (and training) that put Anglophone and Sinophone graduate students together to bring more of the excellent scholarship and public intellectual debate in China to English readers while building career-long connections between these young PRC Chinese and Western scholars. The most recent product has been Voices from the Chinese Century: Public Intellectual Debate in Contemporary China (Columbia University Press, 2020), which I edited with David Ownby and Joshua Fogel, my codirectors of the project “Reading and Writing The Chinese Dream.” This project has relied on constant consultations with colleagues in China from its start in 2014.

For those interested in more details, the secrets of The Intellectual in Modern Chinese History (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and my jokes, Carla Nappi interviewed me on her podcast on the New Books Network’s New Books in East Asian Studies.

How did you come to guest edit this issue of TCC?

I was mobilized by Yidi Wu. Modeling the fine entrepreneurial skills of her mentors in California, she talked me into helping her and her colleagues from a 2017 AAS-in-Asia panel session to build a special issue around their new papers on 1957. I had worked a bit with Yidi through her supervisor, Jeffery Wasserstrom, and on the 1943 project with Joe Esherick. This is an example of two important parts of our professional training: entrepreneurship and mentors beyond one’s formal degree program. It was true for me in the 1980s and it’s still key today. Young scholars need to step up and try stuff, but they can get support from established scholars beyond their university. Carol Hamrin—a student of Maurice Meisner’s and already working in Washington—was such a collaborating mentor for me, and we did our first book together, China’s Establishment Intellectuals (M.E. Sharpe, 1986), also a collective effort with a half-dozen colleagues. I met her, and others, at professional association meetings: that’s why associations like AAS, AHA, and the Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China are so important.

Existing histories of 1957 often focus on political histories of the campaigns or treat it as a lead-up to the Great Leap Forward. How does this special issue fit into or complicate the existing narrative?

Well, as I argue in the introduction, these papers usefully complicate the existing political narrative, deepen the social history, and extend the intellectual history. In short, the one-year focus draws our attention to historical experience and puts metanarratives and today’s concerns into the background. We’ll touch on those domains shortly, but for here one of the core questions that comes up for 1957 is Mao’s role in making the Hundred Flowers a formal rectification campaign, particularly his generous calls for frank criticism in February and March and his brutal repression of the same beginning in June. There have been two views in the literature: one, proposed by Mao himself (albeit, ex post facto) was “luring snakes out of their lair,” that it was a cynical trick to flush out opposition and kill it. The other view is that Mao miscalculated, that he genuinely welcomed what he expected would be limited criticism of his subordinates that would help strengthen the party by curbing bureaucratism but that he was embarrassed to be confronted with fundamental criticism of the party that extended to himself. I have long held to the second view, along with Roderick MacFarquhar, not least based on the translations we did of Mao’s unpublished talks from early 1957 in The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao (Harvard University Press, 1989). What the four articles in this special issue contribute is further support for this view, less by uncovering Mao’s secret thoughts (good luck with that) and more by showing that so many of the critics—and soon victims—were not disgruntled liberals or anti-Communists but rather perfectly loyal, indeed idealistic, party members. So, yes, Mao was covering his mistakes in the Anti-Rightist movement and these loyal critics’ lives were ruined to maintain his and the party’s “infallibility.”

How did these articles change your thinking about 1957 in the PRC?

This question also relates to political history. The contingency of political events becomes clear in these studies. Central directives interacted unpredictably with local realities and did so differently in different parts of China and in different institutional arenas. Mostly, I was astonished at the cases of loyal party members who spoke up at great personal risk. The CCP was not a monolithic ideological structure, even among loyal party members. Finally, the agency of individual actors becomes clear in these stories, as well as their talent, ability to “play the system,” and desire to do their work well even in the context of an increasingly frightening political campaign. As with the next two questions, we see here the diversity of political actors, and so these studies contribute to the diversification (duoyuanhua) of our understanding of Mao’s China.

How did exploring the many individual experiences in 1957 change your view of life in the early PRC?

This question relates to social history. These studies are particularly rich as social histories of intellectual engagement in politics under High Maoism. As such, they follow usefully on the recent trend in modern Chinese history studies on “grassroots” or everyday experience, particularly the wonderful collection edited by Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson, Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism (Harvard University Press, 2015). The intersection of individual histories and everyday life with a political crisis (Maoist campaign) are the meat of these studies, and again we see the diversity of experiences. Yet, we see the commonalities of power, language, and local politics. In many ways, the politics of the Anti-Rightist campaign was essentially local—driven by central fiat, but expressed and shaped by specific conditions. Nonetheless, at all levels it turns out the key political criterion for purging critics was less policy (left or right) and more loyalty—loyalty to whatever the party policy of the moment was and especially loyalty to your local leader. Both Yidi Wu’s and Wang Ning’s essays change how we see the social history of campaign life among students and urban professionals, especially the criteria (loyalty) for selecting victims reflected in Yidi’s case of university students and the horrid survival technique of “chain of prey” that Wang Ning documents.

You are an historian who has recently focused on intellectual history; did the research on 1957 change your view of Chinese intellectual history?

For intellectual history these studies also contribute to a diversification of the ideas, motivations, and experiences to be found among our subjects of study, intellectuals. Dayton Lekner’s provincial poets are neither metropolitan elites (like Ding Ling or Luo Longji) nor are they “grassroots” like the characters in Maoism at the Grassroots, but rather they are, as Dayton puts it, “grass tips” (local notables). Understanding the interaction of such regional intellectuals, as well as the professionals Stig Thøgersen covers in his essay, with central or national issues is key to building a more accurate narrative of the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns. Intellectual agency is at the fore among these local and less well-known figures. The political campaign thus appears as the unavoidable context in which they tried to work—so they adapted, interpreted, put forth their ideas, or prudently withdrew as contingent events developed. Here we see the building of what I think of as sociological Maoism or Living Maoism—the habits of mind that people adopted to survive and thus passed along to their students and children. Qian Liqun, the notable Peking University literary critic, has powerfully analyzed this as “Mao Zedong Culture” (in a thoughtful essay translated by Dayton Lekner and Song Hong in Voices from the Chinese Century).

How do you think this in-depth study of individual perspectives affects the field of modern Chinese history? And, more broadly, how does this study of 1957 in China fit into global history?

These studies usefully document the contingency of modern Chinese history and the comparability (as opposed to exceptionality) of Chinese experience. It is not only Xi Jinping and his orthodox CCP historians who strive to give a single, coherent, and emotionally satisfying narrative to modern Chinese history. All successful histories do; we love a story, and it wasn’t just Hayden White who noticed the human delight in a clear plotline. Part of these narratives is a sense of what led to what, what had to happen. Even for those of us who seek to “save history from the Nation” (pace Prasenjit Duara), it is hard to avoid looking forward, to avoid looking at the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaign as precursors to the Great Leap or the Cultural Revolution. But such future knowledge can distort our narrative of the historical experience then. This is why the one-year focus can be helpful, as Esherick and Combs showed in their collection of studies, 1943: China at the Crossroads (Cornell University Press, 2015). The second contribution of these studies to general historical studies is their comparability. That’s why we went with the “crucible” metaphor explicitly related to Arthur Miller’s American play. These studies are richly detailed and offer plenty of material that can be compared with other political panics in other times and places.

After this issue, are there any other pivotal years in PRC history that you may be interested in studying?

Oh, that’s a question for our colleagues in the HSTCC and the PRC History Group PRC History Group. There are many candidates, and, in spirit, almost any year can serve—that’s why I invoked Ray Huang’s classic 1587: A Year of No Significance (Yale University Press, 1981) in our introduction. It is the lens focusing on one year that is the important historiographical tool. Naturally, there are years that stand out. I am sure that colleagues working on the late Mao period would prioritize maybe 1974 or 1981 over 1978 as pivotal or significant years in the emergence of reform and opening. Likewise, I think 1992 (especially events around and contingent to Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” that reaffirmed reform after the Tiananmen debacle) is key and not fully studied. Finally, despite our fixation on Xi Jinping, it is clear that most of the moving parts of “his” policies to reassert party dominance in the life of China date to 2011 under Hu Jintao. Other one-year studies on these, or suitable “insignificant years,” could open up our understanding of these important changes.

What historiography shaped your view of 1957? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

Three historiographies: First, Chinese scholarly production over the past 20 years, starting at least with Gao Hua’s How the Red Sun Rose (on the origins of Mao’s Yan’an rectification), which was published in Chinese in 2000 but is now available in a fine English translation (Chinese University Press, 2018). Specialists know their most notable colleagues. For me it is Xu Jilin on intellectual history and Yang Kuisong, Wang Qisheng, Han Gang, and a host of younger truly academic historians of the CCP or dangdai shi. Happily, a number of articles and books by these scholars have been translated into English.

 Second, enduring scholarship that is still worth engaging (as opposed to “following” or “rejecting”). That is, studies from the 1950s to the 1970s. For me, it is still worth wrestling with, for example, Joseph Levenson’s concern to make sense of tradition and change, to assess the meanings of tianxia and guojia, as well as his methodological cosmopolitanism that assumes ideas from European thought (present but especially past) can be put into conversation with ideas expressed by Chinese thinkers of different times in Confucian China and Its Modern Fate (3 vols., 1958-1968). Any scholar interested in understanding politics under Mao is foolish to miss out on the insights and challenges of Franz Schurmann’s Ideology and Organization in Communist China (1966) and Frederick Teiwes’ Politics and Purges in China (original edition, M.E. Sharpe, 1979; but the 1993 2nd edition is more readily available). And when it comes to 1957, for me it has always been Merle Goldman and Mark Selden. Merle’s Literary Dissent in Communist China (Harvard University Press, 1967) introduced me to the Hundred Flowers and alerted us all to the dictatorial repression of the CCP. Mark’s The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (Harvard University Press, 1971) introduced me to the party’s campaign politics and pictured the ideals and achievements of Chinese Marxism when other Chinese leaders were failing. The Janus-face image of the party that they left me with both lured me into the career I have followed and left me with an enduring problematique that I have yet to resolve.

Third, the new studies by younger scholars, including the authors in this special issue. They all have other studies now, coming out soon. This generation has collectively brought social history into political and intellectual history and made Chinese experience more comparable with other histories. Likewise, Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson’s work stands as an example of a large cohort—Aminda Smith, Sigrid Schmalzer, Jennifer Altehenger, and many more—whose work is particularly relevant to making sense of 1957.