Pankaj Mishra | A Great Clamour
The 20th century was China’s century of turmoil. Its second decade marked the rapid ending of the Qing dynasty. Along with that came the end of certitudes that had held this vast and diverse country together. A republican interlude ensued; it did not last long as that idea had no cultural or political roots in Chinese history. Since 1949, the country has been ruled as a communist dictatorship. During this time, tens of millions of Chinese died due to the single biggest man-made famine in history. All because, the country’s strongman, Mao Zedong, wanted to retain a grip on power over a party that already had a vice-like grip over the country.
Conditions have changed dramatically since then. China today aspires to match the US militarily. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. And in spite of a global economic tailspin, the country remains a powerhouse.
Seldom has history produced such twists and turns in a single country and on such a scale. But then China is almost sui generis among nations. The American scholar Lucien Pye described it as a civilization pretending to be a nation. What is interesting about China is the immense ability of its leaders to carry out social experimentation on a grand scale and the utter submission of its populace to the ruthlessness of its rulers. What is it in the country’s culture that makes this possible? What explains the formidable durability of the Chinese state? What do people their experience daily? What makes them accept fate or rebel when they choose to?
You won’t find answers to these questions in A Great Clamour, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, at least in detail. It is hard to make out what the book is about: Chinese history? Travel? What China’s neighbours think of it? At once crammed and thin, the book tries to do too much in its 324 pages. One part is a plain description of the books Mishra has read: from Qian Zhongshu’s novel Fortress Besieged to recent analyses of the Cultural Revolution and the great famine of that time. Why would anyone want to read about these subjects second-hand or, more accurately, Mishra’s summary of these topics? If at all one is interested in contemporary Chinese dilemmas, Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition is a far better guide; and Roderick MacFarquhar’s magisterial The Origins of the Cultural Revolution as steady as any that can be found to understand the great tumult from 1956 to 1973.
The great weakness of the book, however, lies in the thinness of Mishra’s encounter with China. A trip to Shanghai turns into a description of the architectural confusion of that city and what it means—a standard Western trope about the confused ideas of the rest of the world trying to ape the West or the painful effort to catch up with it.
His encounters with Chinese intellectuals are perfunctory. His conversations with Wang Hui, the doyen of China’s New Left, do not reveal anything new: the confusion of an intellectual class that wants its country to modernize but without the dislocations being encountered by poor and disenfranchised citizens.
Each cycle of China’s effort to modernize—during late Qing times, the short-lived republic and the Communist present—has produced its own variant of an intellectual class. In each instance, this class has first raised questions and alternatives; after that it has either been beaten into submission or has readily acquiesced with the rulers of the country. Wang, for example, was a participant in the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989; today his ideas come perilously close to those of discredited leaders such as Bo Xilai who used Maoist slogans to hoodwink citizens in Chongqing while amassing a vast personal fortune. There is no exploration of the cultural roots of this combination of a subservient intellectual class and a ruthless ruling elite that has given China’s politics a durability for more than two millennia.
One suspects that language was a great barrier for Mishra. When he is in Tibet, he speaks with people who have acquired some English skills in India; it is a member of this group who takes him to his village, 60 miles from Lhasa. His chat with the Tibetan poetess Woeser is carried out with the help of an interpreter. A linguistic barrier is sufficient to kill any chance of a “thick description” emerging from a visit like the one Mishra had. Further, his criticism of countries like India and China embracing economic liberalism comes in the way of his appreciating Chinese realities. Together, the combination is fatal. Neither analysis nor travel writing, A Great Clamour does not live up to its promise.