Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Maoist Until They Crippled His Son : DENG XIAOPING by Uli Franz, translated by Tim Artin (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 322 pp.)

November 06, 1988|Orville Schell | Schell is the author of, among other works, "Discos and Democracy" (Pantheon), a study of contemporary China. and

Since classical times the Chinese have had an almost obsessive relationship with their history. When things went awry, rather than looking forward to the future and change, they tended to look backward toward the past hoping to right the situation through study of the Golden Age of the early Zhou Dynasty, which they viewed as the model of societal perfection.

In fact, one of the most important responsibilities of government was the maintenance of the official dynastic historical records (among which the biographies of great thinkers and statesmen of the past were prominent), which dictated whether a specific biography would be included, rewritten or dropped. History may have been revered, but as the intellectual property of the state, it was revered selectively, and the task of selection was entrusted to the legions of imperial compilers who, under the threat of banishment and even death, were charged with making history conform to didactic imperial purposes.

However, there grew up beyond their control another historical tradition of a more popular nature, which included what came to be know as waishi and waizhuan, "outside" or "unofficial" histories and biographies which, being more popular in nature, used unverified and undocumented sources.

Contemporary Chinese communists have been every bit as custodial as their earlier Confucian forefathers about their party's history, and particularly mindful of the powerful role that biography can play in political life. Moreover, they have evinced no more inclination to open up archives to independent historical research than the emperors of old. This has left historians, and particularly biographers who want to go beyond published documents, very much on the outs, forced to write modern waizhuan and waishi from whatever scattered and often unreliable alternative sources they can get their hands on. While such "outside" historians have the virtue of being free of state control, by being denied access to key figures and their papers, they face a daunting task that all too often dooms their work to being less than convincing.

Uli Franz is the first Westerner to really take on the subject of China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. He tells us in his foreword that "by now, the world public has a right to find out more about Deng's career than his Party has let us know." Few could cavil with this statement. But such pronouncements do not help a biographer overcome a Communist Party's reluctance to make crucial sources available. Franz tries to make a virtue out of this predicament, but his efforts are less than convincing. "Anyone wishing to do research in China has to choose between two extremes," he tells us. "Either he seeks the green light from the very very top, in which case archives and mouths open as though by magic, or he pursues 'history from below,' as inconspicuously as possible. I chose the latter path. I descended to the 'grass roots.' "

The problem with Franz's book is that he did not in fact have a choice. He was forced to turn to the "grass roots" and to the tradition of the waizhuan because the "very very top" was not about to place the delicate task of party hagiography into the hands of a West German who, after arriving in Beijing as a self-confessed Maoist, soon turned into a born-again laissez-faire capitalist. What became ironic about his efforts was that although the author and his subject were both in China, Franz's search for documentation evidently ended up being most fruitful in Taiwan, Hong Kong and France, where Deng had spent six years in the early '20s working and organizing, and, incidentally, cultivating an abiding taste for croissants. Particularly in writing about Deng's early years one feels Franz's frustration. Although he uncovers many new French records about where Deng lived and worked, they are by and large of a rather dull and untelling nature.

One can't fault Franz for being unable to break through the gag order that the Chinese Communist Party uses to shield its leaders from public scrutiny. Franz was eager, and no doubt if there was material in the commonwealth to be had he would have found it. But, with Deng, he was up against more than his own enthusiasm and energy; he was someone locked outside trying to describe what it was like inside. With few other sources to rely on, he was left to try and leaven his loaf with all too many speculative refrains such as: "Memories of his previous fall must have welled up in him," so that like many other biographical efforts on other Communist Party leaders such as Mao Zedong and his wife, Jiang Qing, there is finally a patchy thinness to his results.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|