China by the Book: Cold War, Hot Topics

AHA Session 108
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 3
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Charles Hayford, independent scholar

Session Abstract

This panel re-examines American Cold War books on the Chinese Revolution that are still debated and taught in the China field but have not been studied as part of American political discourse, in which China held a special place in both left and right-wing world-views. The audience of China specialists may know more about these books than their role in American discourse; Americanists may not understand how the books use or misuse the China material. After 1949, mainstream American pictures no longer fit the Red China in the news. Popular media presented China simply as a geo-political enemy and monolithic dictatorship, while Area Studies scholars wrote footnoted monographs explaining the historical roots of Maoism to each other. Our books addressed the public with dramatic arguments about the political and moral significance of revolution in China: Karl August Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (1958); Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961); Harold Isaacs, Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938; rev. 1961); and William Hinton, Fanshen: Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (1965).

These books have yet to receive skeptical re-evaluation from a post-Cold War “now we know” view. This panel moves to end that neglect. We explore how decades of political change in China and new thinking in the West have undercut or rehabilitated each book’s argument. We show how its reception on the left, as with Isaacs and Hinton, or right, as with Wittfogel, relates to Cold War narratives or to pre-1949 conceptions of China. Our papers point out skeptical questions about Hinton and Wittfogel but find Lifton and Isaacs still useful, though in new ways. More important than whether they are “right,” however, is that these books still stimulate interesting debate.

Our books all aimed for audiences outside the university or across disciplines; none are standard academic monographs; several were published only after rejections, but all were reviewed in middle-brow media then in scholarly journals, sold well, and are still in print. Our panel still asks what it specifically means to be a “Cold War” book. Is the category “Cold War” more than a necessary convenience? Isaacs and Wittfogel were started in the 1930s and published or revised later. All politically situated themselves in post-war America in different ways, but not all examine the America in which they wrote.

We compare how the books work as books: what rhetorical strategies are employed and to construct arguments with terms, metaphors, categories, and emplotment. Each writer had a distinct voice and different claim for authority: eye-witness, Marxist theory, social science, or Sinology. All were men -- white ones, at that -- and drew on youthful experience in China or Japan. Wittfogel, Isaacs, and Hinton drew on Marxist traditions, though for quite different purposes. “Modernization” and “Revolution” meant different things to each of them and could mean continuity with, rupture from or adaptation of “tradition.”

The panel has no formal commentator; each panelist will comment on the other papers.

See more of: AHA Sessions