TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Facing the People

In this series of entries, Jacob Dreyer investigates the spatial forms of modernity in China, notably that of the Metropolis (e.g., Shanghai) and the Wasteland (e.g., Heilongjiang). In his last piece, he discussed the confrontation between Chinese intellectuals and the Heilongjiang landscape, notably in 1957, during the first great wave of internal exile. Here, he describes the confrontation between the intellectuals in this “wasteland” and the native inhabitants.

In China as in the Soviet Union, it seemed particularly cruel to “political” prisoners that thieves, rapists, and murderers should be placed higher in the camp hierarchy than they were.[1] From the perspective of the CCP, this often touched on the point of class origins, for of course the intellectual class often emerged from the urban bourgeoisie, whereas the common criminals come from the dodgy, poor neighborhoods or, in their rural equivalent, poor, burned-out villages. However, what the victorious revolutionaries sought to achieve was the laborious process of lifting the world off of its axle and inverting it, like a gigantic bureau drawer; of course all sorts of things fall out, and if they are delicate, shatter. The intellectual class was, and is, that class which had already begun lifting themselves out of the material world, on their own terms, with thought. For those authorities who wish to arrange a collective transfer of all resources and persons from the old world into a still unimaginable new one, this individualistic secession from the world is a most dangerous form of treason, in comparison to which the rapes, knifings, stolen bread, and liquor of the underclass are all too easy to forgive. For the latter are simply operating the system in their own disadvantaged way, with the same objectives, finally, as the capitalists and lords, whereas the thinkers seek to float away entirely. It is for this reason that in the camps, the political prisons were considered “external contradictions,” the criminals, “internal contradictions.”[2] The intellectuals existed outside of the reality of the system, a shared world of materiality and thought. Still confined to bodies, the intellectuals had attempted to think themselves into another world. Their bodies, continuing to anchor them to the world, were the altars on which their souls were pinned, these souls that would be re-educated in the ways of the world by criminals, wise in the ways of food, of sleeping, of protecting the self—in short, of all that category of knowledge called “practical.”[3]

The Chinese intellectual class has always been in dialogue with the state and the process of governmentality. The tradition of poetry was above all transmitted by the preparation for the examinations for government service; even the most eccentric and decadent of poets, such as Li Bai, were connected with this project. Not surprising, for the objective of poetry and administration dovetails; it is above all about understanding, delineating, subjecting the exterior world to human logics. The borders between poetry and administration quaver and shift. The same analytical skills, coupled with an exterior position of mastery, could write a poem about a landscape, or a prospectus on the possibility of constructing mines or modifying the local economy. Indeed, it is precisely this shift which took place in the biography of Mao Zedong, librarian and poet turned head revolutionary.

The intellectual task of Chinese modernity was not merely one of continuing the traditions, but of injecting new thoughts into an age-old structure, or possibly of destroying the old structure and salvaging certain of its components to be used in the creation of a new one. The intellectuals of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s dealt in the opposition between solidified forms of knowledge, coagulated from the records of experiences of past subjectivities (e.g., literature), and the need to juxtapose these forms of knowledge against new exteriors (e.g., Shanghai or Heilongjiang): bring the inside out, smashing through the membrane of known reality—the reality that we have already seen was described by Lu Xun as an “iron house.” Once outside of the confines of the quiet, dusty libraries and university quarters, tearooms and housing compounds, the intellectuals found themselves in a chaotic, violent realm, one previously only glimpsed through the window. Outside, they found terrified, mute natives, as well as the shocking sense that what they had taken to be universals of human life are not; nothing, except desire, is universal.[4] However, the mere record of the intellectual’s passage leaves, like spores or infecting agents, the vision of modernity, always an illusion, never a practically realizable universal collective.

Jiang Zemin, speaking on behalf of the CCP to a Hong Kong reporter about the question of Chinese democracy, used the popular slang term 很傻很天真, very stupid, very naïve. These words have basically always been the opinion of Chinese materialists vis-à-vis the intellectual class, and certainly, the situation that the intellectuals found themselves in after the revolution could only be excused as being the product of an almost suicidal naïveté, a failure to put the pieces together on an immense scale. The Dongbei (the Chinese term for the Northeast) that they discovered was not the emptiness that their Japanese antecedents had seen. Without the ideological structure of colonialism to aid them, the flickering shadows revealed themselves as people, people whose lifestyles were determined by materials lack. These communities, descended from starving emigrants, had experienced numerous social orders, a new lifeworld every decade; from a primordial North, to the Russian Harbin, to the Japanese modernism of Manchukuo, to civil war, and finally socialism. What remained stable throughout was materiality itself: the climate, the hunger, the brutality of life. This population had materialism bred into their bones, to which the intellectuals, with their situation throwing into relief the contrasts between the lives of the elite class and those of the common people, supplied the “dialectic” component.

It is for good reason that Dongbei is known throughout China as the homeland of mafias. This place, the gathering place of Manchurian shamans, was where human life was reduced to a spare and minimal palette of elements: as the intellectuals stepped off of the train platforms, they entered Dongbei as a human geography, a population whose need to consume outstripped the available resources. Criminality, a flashing knife in an alley bordered with oil-slick courtyards, decaying machine parts, slaughtered pigs, and a mingling smell of urine and liquor: as the former elite class made their way into the former cities of the Japanese utopian colony, already beginning to decay, what they encountered were the lives of the people, the perpetual outcasts of the world.[5] If the intellectuals were on the inside looking for a way out, the common people could only aspire to entrance. These bandits, both ideologically and as a specific population, had been subsumed themselves into the Party itself. They were descended from generations whose humanity had been denied, whose lot it was to be mere livestock. But those in Dongbei were often there because their ancestors had taken flight from China proper, enclosed by the Great Wall.[6] Let us recall once more that confronting a situation where common humanity was denied by law, Mao Zedong said: well, then we shall change the law.[7]

The party sought to end the criminalization of the human. The existing social structure in Dongbei, one of clans and patriarchal villages, took the form of bandits and mafias in urban or modern contexts. The warlord Zhang Zuolin was typical in this regard, developing from a malnourished village malcontent nicknamed “Pimple” into the most powerful warlord of Dongbei in the 1930s, the generation immediately prior to the revolution. Without education, from the poor villages, the Manchurian natives were not sufficiently house-trained for the new modernist interior, one that, whether capitalist or socialist, depended on technological applications and pedagogy to create a new consciousness, a new approach to the world. In the alienation of wide, cold boulevards, the clan structure transformed into a new form of patriarchal, materialist group identity. The transformation was perhaps not even that great. The demographic that joined mafias and that which joined the party, the lowest of the low, were the same. In eliminating these gangs and swallowing their members, the party took on some of their characteristics: anti-hierarchical collectives focused on material transformations, redistributions, with a tendency to earthy violence. Critical domestic commentators, who aspire to a more Western system, call the party one of “bandits,” or 土匪.It’s true, absolutely true: the communist revolution in China is a materialist attempt to give control of the Chinese soil to the common people. In China, what this meant was to vindicate bandits and to conduct land reforms on their behalf.[8] In the camps of 1957, bandits glowered darkly, gnawing bones and cursing. The urbanites passed by as quietly as they could, knowing that they were the outcasts of the new era, which, in its inversion of space, brought the outside in, and put the inside, out—a desire once cherished by the intellectuals, now horrifyingly come to life.

The courtyards echoed with Dongbei dialect, a distinct sound to any Chinese native, endlessly more gruff and unforgiving than Shanghai dialect’s dulcet tones, with an anti-establishment vocabulary of its own. This argot recalls nothing so much as Victor Hugo’s comment about the argot spoken by an equivalent French criminal class: “One perceives, without understanding it, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human accents, but more nearly resembling a howl than an articulate word.”[9] Indeed, the Dongbei argot is replete with terminology alluding in a direct way to political realities better ignored. In Dongbei dialect, the Mandarin word for “reality” alludes to the CCP, “a trick” refers to a solution.[10] The dialect of the underclass has no room for obfuscation, and sees the world as a corrupt chamber of sorrow. The intellectual classes, confronting the material conditions of the population of Dongbei, found a world that seemed to have no room for its inhabitants, who were marginalized, shunted aside, forced into crime and condemned to poverty. These conditions were the starting variables of the equation: a hungry, miserable population; large cities, created as utopian platforms for deceased warlords; and a great, frozen plain.


1. Wang Ning, The Great Northern Wasteland: Political Exiles in the People’s Republic of China, PhD thesis submitted to University of British Columbia, 2005, p. 161.

2. Ibid., p. 111.

3. “[Intellectuals] increasingly discovered that penal criminals—those who were sentenced for theft, robbery, rape, murder, etc.—were clever in dealing with hardship in the difficult years. Both Chen Fengxiao and Yin Jiliang recall that some warm-hearted penal prisoners advised them on how to deal with camp cadres and how to survive the camp” (ibid, p. 109).

4. Gang Yue, The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism and the Politics of Eating in Modern China (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999).

5. 林海雪原, a 1957 novel, reveals this world better than any other, despite being subsequently utilized for CCP propaganda efforts.

6. An academic history of the development of Mafias (in Chinese “Black Societies”) can be found here (in Chinese).

7. Mao Zedong, Collected Writings, vol. 3, Mao’s Road to Power, ed. Stuart Schramm (Armonk, NY, and London: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1992–2007), p. 296. An interesting discussion of the linkages between the CCP and bandits is here (in Chinese). This article begins to detail the interaction between the early CCP and bandit groups.

8. The Chinese idiom 占山为王, occupying a hill to become a king, is a fairly accurate descriptor of the CCP’s early reforms, such as the Jingangshan Land Reform, conducted in the Jiangxi Soviet in 1927.

9. Fittingly, Hugo claims that the corrupt era prior to the French Revolution had seen increasing confidence by the gangster class, which then was deflated by the revolution’s enshrinement by legal means of the goals of human equality that ostensibly lay at the bottom of the black pit of crime. One thinks of the parallels to the Chinese situation; immediately prior to the revolution, warlordism and banditry flourished, notably in the Dongbei ruled by Zhang Zuolin.

10. For an amateur glossary of the slang used by Dongbei mafiosos, see here (in Chinese).

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