Chat with Chinese Author Xiao Jiansheng

Paul Denlinger interviews Xiao Jiansheng, author of Chinese Revisited, which was banned from distribution in the mainland but was published by New Century Media in Hong Kong:

How did you come to your thesis about Chinese history? And how did you decide to write a book about it?

I grew up during the Cultural Revolution, so I missed university. In the eighties, I began to question the concept of class struggle, and the Marxist division of society into capitalists and the proletariat. So I decided to start reading as much as I could on the subject. Since I did not go to university, I was free to read whatever I wanted, and I focused on the push for constitutional government in the early 20th century, especially during the Republican period. I wanted to understand why these multiple efforts at reform failed. I did this study in my free time, and since I was poor, like many Chinese at the time, I would go to bookstores, and hand-copy what many of the books’ authors wrote in my own notes.

In most Chinese histories, China is portrayed as being torn apart and weak when it is divided into competing states, and only strong when it was unified under one emperor, such as Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to unify China. As much as I could, I went to primary sources so that I could understand the true original conditions at the time. Gradually, a new picture emerged: the period when China was divided into competing states such as the Spring and Autumn period, the Warring States period, and the Southern and Northern Dynasties period were all periods of unprecedented growth in the arts, history, culture and commerce for the Chinese. There were many competing religions and philosophies which vied for influence in the court and throughout the country. Some emperors were intellectuals, historians, artists and even monks. When it came to the rights of Chinese as individuals, they enjoyed more prosperity and rights during these periods. In contrast, when China was unified under one dynasty, as first happened under the emperor Qin Shihuang of the Qin dynasty, the power of the emperor and dynasty knew virtually no limits, and the rights of the people suffered. This was because unlike in the west, there was no true feudalism in China, where the power of the kings was checked by the landed gentry and the church. All power and property was directly held by the emperor, and his influence was exercised throughout China by the bureaucracy.

As I learned more, I decided to write a book about my views starting in the eighties. It would be fair to say that this book was twenty years in the making. My questions about the official views of history deepened, and I wanted to understand why China, and Chinese society, developed the way it did. I questioned the division of the world’s ideologies into capitalism and socialsm; since capital is money, why should there be an -ism to it?

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