Thursday, July 2, 2009

Guobin Yang

Guobin Yang is an associate professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is coeditor, with Ching Kwan Lee, of Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China.

His new book is The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I usually read books somewhat related to what I am writing (but not too closely related). Casual reading is too much of a luxury. This summer, I am working on my book manuscript about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. So I thought I'd catch up with some reading about the global 1960s.

I have just read Kristen Ross's book May '68 and Its Afterlives (2002). The book shows that in the decades after 1968, mainstream social science has constructed a mellow and tame image of the May Movement as a student movement about lifestyles and cultural identity. Ross argues that this image distorted historical reality, contending that the May Movement was a violent, not tame, revolutionary movement about social equality rooted in the fundamental crises of capitalist society and involving broad cross-sections of French society, notably workers, but also farmers, as well as students.

I have always been struck by the numerous parallels in the social activism of the 1960s in Western societies and in China. It is sobering to realize that the mainstream image of the 1960s movements in the West is mellow and quiescent, whereas that of the Red Guard movement and the Cultural Revolution in China is just the opposite -- violent, bloody, and cruel. The unstated commonality between these two images is that neither has anything to do with revolutionary transformation. Ross's book shows how this image is false.

Another book related to violence (and the global 1960s) I have just read is J. Glenn Gray's The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (1959). This is a true classic and sparkles with insights. I came across this title when I was reading Hannah Arendt's little book On Violence (which again has a lot to do with the 1960s). Gray was a philosopher. He received his notice to be inducted into the Army on May 8, 1941 in the same mail that brought him his Ph.D. degree from Columbia University. Written with deep pathos, the book is a philosophical meditation on war, death, love, enemy, and guilt based on his own war experiences and diaries. The entire book is highly relevant to the violent realities of our contemporary world, but the most striking chapter for me is the one on "Images of the Enemy." One basic point Gray makes is that violence is often supported by an abstract image of the enemy, because such an image promotes abstract hatred. The book is full of quotable gems. Here is one: "The abstractness of the term [the enemy] promotes in this emotion-drenched atmosphere of war the growth of abstract hatred. I think it is abstract hatred and not the greater savagery of contemporary man that is responsible for much of the blood lust and cruelty of recent wars." (p. 134)

Where does abstract hatred come from? It "arises from concentrating on one trait of a person or group while disregarding other features, not to speak of the larger context in which all the traits coexist and modify each other."(p. 134). Gray also makes the poignant point that soldiers at the battlefront may have a more concrete, and therefore more human, image of the enemy than civilians back at home. He writes: "A civilian far removed from the battle area is nearly certain to be more bloodthirsty than the front-line soldier whose hatred has to be more responsible, meaning that he has to respond to it, to answer it with action. Many a combat soldier in World War II was appalled to receive letters from his girl friend or wife, safe at home, demanding to know how many of the enemy he had personally accounted for and often requesting the death of several more as a personal favor for her!" (p. 135)
Watch a video of Guobing Yang discussing The Power of the Internet in China, and read more about the book at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue