2008: The Populism of the Lower Social Strata and the Intellectuals 翻译摘要:底层与知识分子的民粹主义

The Populism of the Lower Social Strata and the Intellectuals

By Tang Xiaobing 唐小兵

南风窗 4/2008 issue


Tang Xiaobing  唐小兵 a scholar at Shanghai’s East China Normal University 

(http://college.usc.edu/faculty/faculty1008212.html ) in a recent issue of Nanfeng Chuan outlined the development of populism in China during the Twentieth Century.

[Translator’s note:I originally translated the term mincuizhuyi as national chauvinism, since populism does shade over into national chauvinism and it seemed to fit better there, rather than the conventional translation of mincuizhuyi as populism. Now I changed it because Tang Xiaobing, who knows English well, told me he prefers and meant populism. I am reminded of my old French professor who told us one day that translation is like imposing two screen with whole of different dimensions on each other. Nothing really quite matches. And of the French expression “traduire, c’est trahir” – to translate is to betray. End note]

Summary translation follows:

Chinese populism flows from two sources. The first came to China from Russia in the early 20th century from the writings of [Note: the 19th century utopian socialist and inspiration to Lenin] Nikolai Chernyshevsky and others who called on intellectuals to go out amongst the people for it is among them that all that is pure, noble and worthwhile is to be found. The other root of Chinese populism comes for the radically anti-traditional current in Chinese tradition “discard the sages and cast aside all wisdom” 绝圣去智慧

Populism has been extremely influential on Chinese society at all levels during the 20th century. Especially interesting is how populism got such a strong hold on Chinese intellectuals. We can divide this story into three parts.

First, there is radically anti-traditional May 4, 1919 movement that called for the wholesale importation of western ways. Slogans calling for Democracy and Science were common. While totaling rejecting the elite Chinese culture of the day, the May 4 movement looked for inspiration among the folk culture of the lower strata in Chinese society. In Shanghai, the Left Wing Writers’ Group, which was under the political and social influence of the Chinese Communist Party, in publications such as Shenbao, came a great wave of writings, calling for people to go down to live with the people and to become one with them all the way criticizing cultural elites for being very corrupt and being mere servants of the authoritarian rulers of traditional society. True goodness and truth was to be found among the oppressed and exploited people at the bottom of society.

Later, during the anti-rightist period [Note: Great Leap Forward of 1957 and later] , the movement to sent young educated people to the countryside, and the Cultural Revolution, this kind of populism reached a peak and many intellectuals were “brainwashed”, so there they would experience in the depths of their souls a revolution would break out as they renounced their previous system of thought and cultural values. At the time, China’s workers and peasants were regarded as the people who were the most moral and were the most able members of society. Intellectuals were likened to devils and snakes as the worst kind of political criminals.

From this we can see that after populism appeared amongst Chinese intellectuals, it has been used mostly as a means of political and cultural control.

Today, after there first two stages, we see populism appearing once again among Chinese intellectuals in China today. It most extreme expression is in accusations that China’s intellectual elites have been all deceived by the market and interest groups. Intellectuals who urge liberal economic reforms are particularly distrusted or even hated. People who think that way believe that only they themselves stand with the lower strata in society and represent their needs and interests.

For the past several years in periodicals such as Tianwa and Shanghai Wenxue (Shanghai Literature) intellectuals have been discussing the “lower strata” 底层and “lower strata literature” . In the controversies that break out, one side says that there is a pure, natural and diverse “voiceless lower strata” , they cannot be spoken for by intellectuals, since any intellectual trying to speaking for them is just a distortion and a selfish use of them. The other side seems to be deliberating just how to give the lower strata their own voice and some even seen themselves as the spokespersons for the lower strata. The problem of the lower strata is not simply an “academic problem” of how to describe them in literature or how the intellectuals can represent the lower strata in addressing issues of “virtue”. It is a matter of how intellectuals handle problems in the space between morals and politics.

Populism is well represented on the internet. The “people” has become a sensitive word that cannot be criticized, because the people are the one repository of moral goodness that has been harmed by the interests pushing reforms. Whenever there is a conflict between the rich and the poor, no matter who is in the right, the students and other people on the web in their vast majority stand on the side of the weaker one. They are very critical of intellectuals who want to look at an issue dispassionately. Writings by economist Mao Yushi “Speaking for the Wealthy, Handling Affairs for the Poor” “ 为富人说话,为穷人办事” and scholar Xu Jilin’s reflection on graduate student education “Why are graduate school entrance examinations just like university entrance examinations?” and the overreaction to the foolish Elegant Club Woman Affair 雅阁女事件 [Note: In mid 2006 a self styled “Elegant club woman” declared that anyone who makes less than RMB 3000 per month is lower strata set off a firestorm of millions of angry responses] are vigorously attacked online. Elite intellectuals are dismissed as mere servants to interest groups and are challenged at all turns about their morals and actions, while the oppressed and insulted are considered the seed bearers for a moral renaissance.

There are social reasons behind the attractiveness of populism to intellectuals today. Perhaps considering the social sources of populism and can gives us methods for dealing with this populism rationally. The most fundamental social reason for the rise of populism is the growing gap between rich and poor in Chinese society today. There an increasing feeling of a divide and of enmity between people on the two sides of the divide. People of the properties strata are seen as using illegal means such as relying on power to harvest economic rents or special deals between officials and businesspeople to capture resources that originally belonged to all the people. Hating the rich has become a common attitude in society. The people at the grassroots or the lower strata are characterized as “living cleanly in this world.” Intellectuals with this social background are affected by it in subtle ways.

Moreover, ever since the 1990s, universities and scientific institutions rapidly institutionalizes in step with the rapid expansion of the market economy society. Commercialization and commercial pressures have come too to the academies have faced more pressure for evaluations, organization of projects, and society became more and more elitist. At the same time the gap between society and the intellectuals grew with migrant workers, laid off workers and villagers are locked outside the ivory tower of academia. Among some intellectuals there is a feeling of distancing and unease since they believe that intellectuals living up to Chinese tradition cannot allow themselves to be “a group set apart”, giving up the duty of human concern for real people. Meanwhile from academe itself come report after report of corruption, academic work becomes more routinized by administration and bureaucracy, resulting in feelings of alienation and identity crisis for some intellectuals. As a result some intellectuals feel they want to leave their own intellectual circles and become very passionate about the masses of the workers and the peasants.

A large proportion of intellectuals with chauvinist tendencies come from grassroots backgrounds and faced themselves frustrations as a member of the lower strata and so have come to feel great sympathy for them. When they enter academia, they find that the intellectual elites are completely different from what they had expected. They see scheming interest groups in academia and so their punctured illusions are transformed to hate. These memories of past wounds and sadness can breed a raging, idealist passion and imbue their speech with a sanctimonious quality.

In these days when the ills of the political cultures have not been remedied, when the rights of citizens are not “realized in practice”, and civil society has not become rock solid, when what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” spreads far and widemany intellectuals put their trust in the small, isolated communities like rural villages. They idealize the beauty and excellent characters of the lower strata without any reserve. They despise the rational thinking of the intellectual strata of society. They can only entertain fantasies about intellectuals who search for a new national path.

But in actual fact,  scholars with real ties to the masses such as Yu Jianrong 于建嵘 [Note: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar] has done field studies of the peasant rights protection movement in Hunan Province, the environmental protection movement that stopped the PX project in Xiamen, and demonstrations in Shanghai against the high speed maglev train, demonstrate the non-oppositional nature of relations between intellectuals and the masses (including the lower strata) demonstrate both the possibility and practice of cooperation between the masses and the intellectuals. Zou Dang 邹谠, the late distinguished scholar of Chinese 20th century political culture at the University of Chicago, who is of Chinese descent, said something that everyone concerned about the trend towards populism should consider: “Extreme idealism and extreme cynicism are the same: they take no responsibility for anything or anyone other than themselves. Extreme idealists take responsibility only for their own ideals, extreme cynics only take responsibility for their own narrow interests.”



作者:唐小兵 来源:《南风窗》杂志 日期:2008-02-07



作者:唐小兵 来源:《南风窗》杂志





















About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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One Response to 2008: The Populism of the Lower Social Strata and the Intellectuals 翻译摘要:底层与知识分子的民粹主义

  1. auroramin says:

    By the way,很好奇,如果现在老外的语言功底都好成这样,(包括我认识的)为什么仍钟情于“大山,大川,大人,大牛,大伟, etc.”这类恶俗到底的中文名?难不成是拿自己黑色幽默?
    @_@ 如果是,老外的恶搞境界不仅非一般的高,而且还是international的 -_-!!!


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