What is the role of the intellectual? Is violence, not to mention radical change, necessary? Can there be a revolution without them? Realistic Revolution: Contesting Chinese History, Culture, and Politics after 1989 by Els van Dongen (Cambridge University Press, 2019) analyses a series of debates in the early 1990s between Chinese intellectuals as they discussed such questions. Grappling with China’s turbulent twentieth century, such intellectuals came to say goodbye to radicalism, and instead advocated for “realistic revolution” in the service of future modernization.
Using journal articles, official newspapers, monographs, and edited volumes, as well as interviews conducted with the main scholars involved in the debates, this book unpacks these complex—often convoluted yet always fascinating—debates effortlessly. Shedding light on the transnational nature of these debates and tracing intellectual exchanges and the evolution of concepts and ideas borrowed from other thinkers, van Dongen has created an intimate look at intellectual thought in early 1990s China. This book should interest those seeking to learn more about Chinese intellectual thought and this moment in global intellectual history, as well as those seeking a model for thinking beyond Eurocentric definitions and interpretations of concepts like ‘conservatism,’ ‘radicalism,’ and ‘modernity.’
Sarah Bramao-Ramos is a PhD candidate in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard. She works on Manchu language books and is interested in anything with a kesike.