News from the Old Country

Jonathan Spence

  • Qian Mu and the World of Seven Mansions by Jerry Dennerline
    Yale, 192 pp, £18.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 300 04296 5

At once the simplest and the hardest question one can ask if one studies China is ‘What does it mean to be Chinese?’ The question has real immediacy as the multilayered Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, South-East Asia and Australia, Western Europe and the United States, try to make sense of what the Chinese Communist Government has just done to hundreds of its own young people.

Professor Dennerline offers one of the subtlest, most sensitive and closely-reasoned attempts to answer the question that I have ever seen. The fulcrum for his story is the Chinese historian and philosopher Qian Mu (formerly Romanised as Ch’ien Mu), who lived in China from his birth in 1895 until the Communist victory of 1949, subsequently settling first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan, where he still resides. Qian Mu grew up in a village in Jiangsu province – the ‘Seven Mansions’ of the book’s title – which was dominated literally, spiritually and economically by the Qian lineage, its remembered glories, its current wide interests in commerce, and the extent of its land-holdings and charitable estates. Intellectually, Qian was of an age group that ‘looked forward’, as Dennerline puts it, to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the end of the old autocracy. But the Revolution of 1911 and the Qing abdication of the following year brought not a new era of liberation for the Chinese but the horrors of warlordism, civil war and Japanese invasion.

Jerry Dennerline does not explore this general historical background in any detail; it is not important to his quest, which is to find out how Qian Mu came to believe what he believed, and how ‘in the worst of times’ Qian managed to hold onto his central values and to try and preserve and reinterpret them for future generations of Chinese. This book, then, is at once intellectual history, to be read with close attention to every nuance in the argument, and local community history rich in vivid detail. Jerry Dennerline’s previous work, a major study of the Chinese scholars’ reactions to the Qing conquest of the Ming in the 1640s in Jiangsu province just south of the Yangtze River, prepared him admirably for the task of reassessing the historical parallels and deep changes in rural Jiangsu two and a half centuries later.

Dennerline had two groups of interviews with Qian in Taiwan in 1983 and 1986, and also revisited Qian Mu’s home town in the People’s Republic, something Qian himself could not do. One of the many joys of this book is the sense it gives of the affection that developed between the ageing, blind Chinese scholar and his junior American interlocutor, probing always for meaning behind the generalisations, while sharing news from the old country with the exile. A moving example is Dennerline, groping to find some way of showing how bits of the old value system seem to have survived in the PRC, and telling Qian Mu about an encounter in Gansu province. There Dennerline met a woman worker, crippled since birth, who finally acquired dignity and a small regular income from a new job programme designed for the handicapped. When Dennerline asked her what she did with her new-found independence and cash she looked at him in genuine surprise. She had a family still living, she said, so of course she shared the money with them. ‘Conjuring up her image in his blindness,’ as Dennerline beautifully phrases it, ‘Qian Mu tapped the table to express his respect.’

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