Rebecca KarlRebecca E. Karl is Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of “The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China,” “Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History” and “Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” This interview discusses her most recent publication, “China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History.”

Young China Watchers (YCW): You present as one of the main arguments of the book that “the modern” can be understood as the opportunity to re-narrate or reinterpret a personal and national past. Revolutions are both spurred by this desire to relitigate history and offer alternative explanations for the present. Are revolutions, then, always a rejection of the historicized past?

Rebecca Karl (RK): Always but in different ways. One of the things a revolutionary movement does successfully or unsuccessfully is to contest the legitimate reproducibility of a system. That includes the way in which history brought us to this present or this crisis or this moment. That’s why the past is so fought over by states, global institutions, individuals, and so on, because the past gives us a logic to our present. The past is a battleground no matter what, but whether it becomes a revolutionary battleground has more to do with narratives and texts, as well as material conditions.

YCW: Given its high cultural output, the May Fourth movement is often presented more as a cultural movement paired with a few key protests, rather than an era of political mobilization that was molded by art and intellectual debates. Your chapter on this issue seems to weave culture into the political and revolutionary elements of May Fourth instead of the other way around. Does this movement, with its wide range of criticism and cultural reinvention, represent the exception or the rule of Chinese revolutions?

RK: The May Fourth movement presents, for the first time in Chinese history, the modern impossibility of separating politics from culture. That doesn’t mean that all culture is political in the same way or that all politics is cultural in the same way; it just means that there is no longer a pretense to that separation.

Academic disciplines separate our areas of inquiry from one another (cultural/historical/economic/sociological). We all specialize in siloed forms of disciplinary inquiry, but the material reality is that these are not separable. One of the major contradictions of modernity is that we are made to see these things as separable even as we live them as inseparable.

The May Fourth movement is an irrevocable move into a different epistemology of the conditions of life. That’s why life itself, shenghuo, becomes such an important category. The best of the cultural output of May Fourth, like Ding Ling’s novella, “Shanghai, Spring 1930,” brings out very clearly how these divisions need to be thought and written through until you get to the other side. It’s not like culture exists, and then cultural output “reflects” it; the cultural workers at that time, whether they’re conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between, are writing into being what will have been the new culture once the revolutionary cultural norms have been realized. The prospective present, a future subjunctive, is one of the most important aspects of how the May Fourth moment weaves culture and revolutionary politics into the same historical frame. Of course that “will have been” never arrives, but that’s not the point — the May Fourth moment began to map out and think through what a prospective cultural future might look like.

“China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History”

China's Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History

YCW: In recent years, more historians have turned their attention to the Nanjing decade. Of the “competing revolutions” of this time, which do you think is most often overlooked?

RK: The new academic consensus is that the Nanjing decade (1927–1937) had been overlooked by an attention on Communist revolution and on the failures of the KMT regime and Chiang Kai-shek to capitalize on their — at least partial — reunification of the nation under one government in 1927. The new convention is to look at the fact that the Nanjing decade actually proliferated a number of modern institutions: banking, state institutions, consumer product institutions, anti-prostitution campaigns, whatever it is; that institutionally the Nanjing decade was far from a failure. In fact, it put into place what has been understood to be institutions of modern political life that persisted beyond the so-called failure of the government itself. What the new academic consensus has tried to do is rearticulate the State as a continuous institutional presence, regardless of what government actually inhabits that state.

So a lot of the effort has been to decenter the rupturing nature/claim of the Chinese Communist Revolution, to say that the Chinese Communist Revolution wasn’t as much of a break as it has previously been made out to be. I find this absolutely illogical. I don’t think that rupture ever means absolute rupture and continuity ever means absolute continuity. Decentering the revolution is an ideological repudiation that wants to argue that ideology was merely a thin disguise for the violent terror underneath. This is an academic ripple that from the 1970s has been used to recharacterize the French, Russian and American revolutions among others. That is why I made sure my book was about revolutions. Its extended argument is that revolutions are revolutionary and they spawn counter-revolutions which are revolutionary in a conservative sense.

The reconsideration of the Nanjing decade has absolutely complicated the revolutionary narrative in ways that are important and interesting. A lot of this rethinking wants to argue that the KMT modernization path — with a little less corruption, violence and everything that actually characterized it — would have been a better path for China than the Maoist path. According to this telling, whatever Chiang’s defects as a personal leader, his version of capitalist modernization — where the goal is not equality or revolutionary redress of injustice, but merely the accumulation of wealth and power — would have been a better bet than Mao’s socialist modernization. The current Chinese leadership under Xi is closer to Chiang Kai-shek than to Mao, which makes it particularly attractive to re-study the Nanjing decade these days. I find that ideological re-articulation counterfactual and anti-historical.

From my perspective, capitalism came and reconfigured Chinese socio-economic, political and cultural life throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Capitalism, no matter where it goes, has to attach itself and its social relations locally. What Marx got wrong was that capitalism was going to sweep away all extant relations in its own image; that’s not what happened and isn’t what’s happening today. It has been to lock into place and use local exploitative relations in order to further the particular modes of accumulation and profit through which capitalism reproduces itself.

“The current Chinese leadership under Xi is closer to Chiang Kai-shek than to Mao, which makes it particularly attractive to re-study the Nanjing decade these days.”

YCW: Based on your telling, correcting socialist historical interpretation was central to launching the Cultural Revolution (CR). The correct historicization of the CR has also been a key party priority since it ended. While all the revolutions you trace are deeply embedded in historically established trends and threads of restoration/vengeance, what is it about the CR that makes it especially rooted in historical narrative?

RK: At the time, the Cultural Revolution was explicitly launched as a problem of how to narrate the past in the present. It became a revolutionary issue because it was a question of how to think class in historical as well as contemporary terms. The repudiation of the CR has been the repudiation not of the problem of the past in the present, but of the centrality that class struggle took in the posing of the problem.

To Mao, the problems the CR was supposed to solve were centered around party bureaucracy. If the Communist Party was a revolutionary party, it shouldn’t be contributing to the elaboration of class differentiation, and yet the party itself was a principle of class differentiation: It had grown so it was imposing itself on society rather than emerging organically from society. One does not have to paint him as a saint to see that Mao was deeply troubled by the problem of bureaucratic seizure of power and the way the Party dominated over society rather than coming from society. He had no real solution to this other than to continuously mobilize people against it.

The elaboration of class distinctions became such an enormous question in the CR and was “resolved,” as it were, by the hideous bloodline theory that immutably fixed your individual class designation through generations to your past. That bloodline theory was the end of any real dynamism in any kind of understanding of class or the relationships of what class really is, historically or in the present. This is why class gets absolutely discarded in the post-Cultural Revolutionary period; it became so tainted by the bloodline theory.

The CR has to be considered a major failure not because it was a ten-year catastrophe, though of course it was devastating for a lot of people, but because its own contradictions became impossible to square. People cannot be asked to be mobilized repeatedly and live mobilization as a way of life for years on end. It’s exhausting. The original logic behind launching it was coherent — let’s bombard the headquarters of the party and take the party privilege out of it. Revolutions have to fall on at least semi-receptive ears. Mao’s call to revolution in the CR clearly fell on tens of millions of receptive ears to begin with, so that it was a possible summoning.

YCW: Has China always been “modern”?

RK: The modern condition was foisted upon the Chinese people through imperialism and capitalism. This forces a rethinking of China’s past that joins it to a larger, more global present. And it’s not a choice; it’s a necessity.

We have to think our way through the other side of the 19th and 20th centuries, because those answers are no longer adequate to the problems of our 21st century. We’re stuck using 19th and 20th century solutions to try to solve 21st century problems. The old issues of nationalism, racism and capitalist accumulation have not been resolved — a lot has just been enhanced. While all solutions have to be local, they have to be global simultaneously.

Today, people are saying the pandemic is a revolutionary moment; that it could be progressive or totally fascist. Whether it is or not, the pandemic is an “autopsy of capitalism” and various forces are working to make it their revolutionary or counter-revolutionary moment. Everything is now laid bare. This is a global moment unified through a logic that operates the world over, even though it operates very differently in each locality.


  1. The End of Concern: Maoist China, Activism, and Asian Studies,” by Fabio Lanza
  2. Afterlives of Chinese Communism,” edited by Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere
  3. After the Post-Cold War: the Future of Chinese History,” by Dai Jinhua

— By Johanna Costigan

Voices on China – Rebecca E. Karl, Professor of History at New York University
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