Book review: Origins of the chinese revolution, 1915-1949


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Book review
Origins of the chinese revolution, 1915-1949
Author: Lucien Bianco Muriel Bell (Translated from French to English)
1971 224 Pages $25.00
Paperback ISBN: 9780804708272

By Ankit Kumar        30 April 2023

About The Author
Lucien Bianco is a French historian and sinologist. He has an authoritative work on the
Chinese peasantry in the twentieth century. His first book, “Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949,” was published in 1971 and remains a seminal work in the field. Originally it was published in French in 1967 and later translated into English in 1971. In addition to his research, Bianco has also been involved in teaching and mentoring students, both in France and China. Later, his work has been translated into English and other languages.
His other important books are:
• “Peasants Without the Party: Grassroots Movements in Twentieth-Century China” (2001)
• “Stalin and Mao: A Comparison of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions” (2014)
Lucien Bianco is a highly respected scholar of Chinese peasant history, whose works have had a significant impact on the field. His seminal work “origins of the Chinese revolution” are characterized by meticulous research, careful analysis, and broad scope.

Although Lucien Bianco doesn’t categorize himself into major traditions of history or International relations. So Pigeonholing Bianco’s writings into a particular school of thought are difficult, as his work is characterized by a nuanced and multi-faceted approach to understanding Chinese history. But his writings suggest several key themes like social and economic factors in shaping Chinese history. He has written extensively on the role of peasants, and workers in Chinese Politics.

Overall, while it is difficult to pigeonhole Lucien Bianco’s writings into a single school of thought, his work is notable for its engagement with social and economic history, its emphasis on individual agency and experience, and its critical approach to ideology and power relations.

Assessment of the author
Bianco’s Origins of the Chinese Revolution is a seminal work to understand the Chinese peasant movement in the twentieth century. He tries to explain the Chinese society due to china’s social crises. The book talks about how China was in a really difficult situation, and how this led to a Revolution of people who wanted to change things. Bianco talks about how this movement started in the countryside and how Chinese leaders reacted to the growing rural crisis.

Bianco’s emphasis on social crisis presents not only a bold new interpretation but a powerful critique of the major approaches and assumptions of American scholarship, a critique all the more powerful because it is for the most part implicit. Before Bianco, almost all scholars ignore the relationship between rural discontent and the rise of the communist party.

Assessment of the book
Lucien Bianco’s Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949 is a comprehensive and classic book explaining the account of the factors that led to the Chinese Revolution. The central theme of the book is to establish the relationship between China’s social crisis and the revolutionary movement that happened. He was the kind of first sinologist who tried to find the reasons for the revolution in the collapsing Chinese social system. Before that many contemporary scholars had explained the Chinese revolution with the help of variables like the reaction of imperialism or Nationalism ignoring the social crisis which had been going on in the rural society of China.

He provides a detailed description of the social and economic conditions in China in the early 20th century, which were characterized by poverty, corruption, and inequality. He then examines the role of the Chinese intellectuals in shaping the political discourse in the country and their efforts to modernize china. He also explores the impact of the first world war and the subsequent May Fourth Movement on Chinese politics and society.
The May Fourth Movement was first and foremost an iconoclastic movement. They were faith in progress, democracy, and science, confidence in the limitless potential of human reason at the same time calling for the repudiation of their Confucianism, classical culture and traditional society. The Movement promoted ideas like science and democracy, which are indisputably rational. It was a sort of Chinese Enlightenment. But it is wrong to say this is a mass movement

Because only tiny educated intellectuals and that too from academics were the main forces behind this movement. The Chinese intelligentsia has roughly moved from the idea of the Celestial Empire to modern nationalism and then on to Marxism over the course of three generations, both in terms of experience and accomplishment. This Journey undoubtedly constitutes one of the most amazing intellectual achievements ever—an intellectual revolution in the strictest meaning of the word.

The author then delves into the political landscape of China in the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on the emergence of the CCP and its relationship with the Nationalist government. Bianco provides a detailed analysis of the political and ideological differences between the two parties, as well as the alliances and tensions that characterized their relationship. He argued that the nationalist regime was a failure because it had not done any reforms to the fundamental social problem. The Kuomintang Army were infested with corruption, laziness and inefficiency. At the same time, Mao with his extraordinary experiments started to work with Chinese peasants and re-distributed the lands and hence, he was able to mobilize the peasants across the country. The communists had tackled two problems which led to an increase in their cadre. Tackling the social crisis with land reforms and their emphasis on national resistance make them a worthy and stronger contender to rule the country.
The Chinese Revolution ended with a people’s war and a military conquest as its final act of armed conflict. The Communists’ trump card was mobilizing the masses, who initially rose up against a foreign invader and subsequently turned on their local foes. With the Second World War coming to a conclusion, they were in a strong position to use this tactic.

The book has some valid criticisms. Some scholars argue that the book overlooks the important role that urban workers and intellectuals played in the revolutionary movement because it focuses on the rural roots of the revolution.

Moreover, some critics believe that the book undervalues the role of political ideology and leadership in shaping the revolutionary movement due to its emphasis on the social crisis.
Another criticism that has been levelled at the book is its tendency to view the Chinese revolution primarily through the lens of Marxist theory, which some scholars argue leads to an oversimplified view of the complex factors that contributed to the revolution.
Overall, while Origins of the Chinese Revolution is a landmark work in the study of Chinese history, it is not without its limitations and criticisms. These critiques, however, should not detract from the book’s enduring importance and influence in the field.

My Opinion
As someone who has read Origins of the Chinese Revolution, I found the book to be an insightful and compelling analysis of China’s revolutionary history. Bianco’s emphasis on the rural roots of the revolution is particularly illuminating, and his exploration of the role of social crisis in driving revolutionary movements is thought-provoking.

That said, I do have some concerns about the book’s narrow focus on Marxist theory and the potential oversimplification of the complex factors that contributed to the revolution. Additionally, while Bianco’s research on Chinese rural society is impressive, there are times when the book’s reliance on social science methodology feels limiting and doesn’t fully capture the cultural and historical context of the revolutionary movement. It seems to me that Bianco is sympathetic to the CCP and a little bit biased against the Nationalist government. He could give them the benefit of doubt because the nationalist government did not get much time to govern china so it’s very difficult to assess their future trajectory.
Overall, however, Origins of the Chinese Revolution is an important and influential work that offers valuable insights into the complex history of modern China.

About the Author/Reviewer
Ankit Kumar is a first-year PhD student at the Centre for East Asian Studies under the Chinese studies program at JNU.
He has completed his master’s from JNU in Master of Arts (MA) in Politics with Specialisation in International Studies MA (PISM). He graduated in Political Science from St Xavier’s College Ranchi.
He has also got a JRF fellowship in Political Science from UGC, India.
He has also cleared the UGC NET exam (Assistant professor exam) in International studies.