The Chinese Anarchist Movement
by R. Scalopino and G.T. Yu.
66 pg. at half-letter size, $4 at Expozine, read online here
I often like to read about things I don’t know anything about, for exactly that reason. In university, this logic lead to me taking a class in pre-colonial African history, because I looked at it in the course catalogue and thought, huh, I have no idea what-all happened in Africa before European colonization. After a very long semester, it turned out that most of what they did, as far as history knows, was move a lot of spices and ivory hither and yon. It was worth it, though, to learn about awesome things like the colonization of Madagascar by the Malagasy, who crossed the Indian Ocean from Borneo in outrigger canoes like a thousand years ago. Awesome!
So my point is, I generally feel like it’s worth it to me to put in a lot of effort slogging through a bunch of information that is totally unfamiliar and apparently irrelevant to me, because there will usually be some awesome Facts I can take away to bug/regale friends with later. A thing I used to not know anything about is anarchism in China. So I picked up this zine— which turns out to be a long essay from 1961— at Expozine. I was a little disappointed that it was fifty years old, since I was hoping it’d also have something to say about contemporary anarchists in China, who presumably exist and are interesting.
If you don’t have a sure footing in modern Chinese history and a grasp of classical anarchist theory, this one is hard going. No background is given on figures introduced, which made me wish for historical context on one hand, and a modicum of colour, a sense of the personality or habits or quirks of these individuals, on the other.
Interesting things are mentioned in passing then dropped. What of the Chinese students studying political theory in Paris under the “Diligent Work-Frugal Study” scholarships, living in tents in Parisian gardens? One or another of these highly literate kids must have written something about what that was like, and I would love to know. (Mao was to go study in France under this program, but only made it as far as the prep school in Peking.)
Your fun take-away fact about Chinese anarchism is that would-be universal language Esperanto played a big role in the movement. Anarchist thinkers felt that to support international solidarity and free exchange of information, anarchists worldwide should learn Esperanto, and many anarchist books and papers in China and around the world were published in the language. As a big fan of grandiose notions that ended up being more or less non-starters, I appreciate this.
I was curious about how the same political ideology can play out differently in various places given radically different historical and cultural contexts. I feel like you can hardly ever give too much credit to where people are coming from— as individuals and as members of societies— when you talk about what they’re doing. In that respect, I learned some interesting things from this zine.
For instance, anarchism in the West was often socially and politically based around and trade unions, but China did not have much of a union tradition. So the anarchists tried to work through the pre-existing secret societies. (Here is an awesome article about these from 1891, thanks internet!) As far as I can tell, these societies were sort of like the Freemasons, or the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans. Anarchists aimed to tap into the clubs’ opposition to the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, the final dynasty before China became a republic in 1911*.
Another interesting thing the authors mention is that the anarchists considered Chinese society a prime candidate for falling under the sway of anarchism due to the Taoist and Confucian legacy of “indifference and non-interference”: basically, that nobody expected the government to treat them as individuals or act on their behalf:
“The government had looked down on the people, treating them as plants and animals; and the people had viewed the government as repulsive and evil”.
Unencumbered by the Greek idea of government as a social contract people enter into freely, Chinese citizens should be more willing to reject the state altogether. That was the hope, anyways.
So I learned some things from this zine, and I learned the kind of things that help me appreciate zines: alternate histories, new ideologies, moments in other people’s lives you wouldn’t have imagined before, but now can.
- Lily Pepper
* This last part I learned from Wikipedia, since this zine doesn’t even give a guy a one-sentence summary of the Qing dynasty. It also assumes that the reader knows all about things like the well-field system, which is mentioned frequently and which turns out to be a specific set-up of agricultural serfdom.