Transnational China Project Curriculum Resource:
"Chinese Political Literature as
Comparative Social Science Teaching Material:
Issues and Obstacles"

Steven W. Lewis, Ph.D.
Senior Researcher, Baker Institute for Public Policy and
Lecturer, Department of Political Science
Rice University

Paper Prepared for the Workshop on
"Teaching Chinese Language, Literature and Culture,"
Asian Studies Program, Rice University
May 20, 2000

I. Introduction:

Literature and social science do work together. I have found that some short stories are very useful as texts in my comparative political science courses. In this paper I briefly and informally outline some of the issues and obstacles in using Chinese political literature in a comparative social science course on reforms in post-Mao China. I first describe the goals of my class, the motivations of the students and why I have chosen the readings I have used. I then describe how the readings were useful in achieving some of the goals and less helpful in others. I conclude by offering some solutions to the obstacles described.

II. Introduction to Course, Students and Materials

In this section I outline why I chose the various readings used in teaching my Political Science 353, "Political and Economic Reforms in Post-Mao China" seminar. I first describe my goals in designing the readings and discussion topics of the course, what I found to be the motivations and interests of the students who take the course, and then why I chose the particular readings I have used. As can be seen in the total set of readings -- see Appendix A for a copy of the most recent syllabus -- I designed the seminar both to be a vehicle for the study of general comparative political science and economic theories and as a means to explain China's political and economic reforms in the post-Mao era. I want students to be able to use China's case to better understand such broader social changes as democratization, marketization and economic development. This general comparative focus is particularly important at Rice because the size of the faculty limits the number of comparative courses available in the social sciences, and I want the students to be able to integrate and reinforce the knowledge acquired in my seminar with that from other political science, economics, anthropology and sociology courses.

To do this I assign some readings that are explicitly comparative -- particularly in the beginning and ending weeks of the seminar -- but I mainly advance the comparative approaches through lectures and class discussion. I begin the seminar with Przeworski and Teune's The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry, which neatly lays out the strengths and weaknesses of comparative social science methods. I then follow it with several weeks of China-oriented readings that challenge both comparative and traditional area studies approaches. I have found Andrew Nathan's article, "Is Chinese Culture Unique?" to be a very useful text for starting discussion on integrating both social scientific and more humanities-oriented methods into explanations using culture and society-specific values, beliefs, norms and conventions.

Nathan is also an effective tool to open up debate on the usefulness of literature and other forms of popular texts in social scientific analysis. Social science students in particular seem to discount the importance of literature, but after discussing how popular texts are historical documents that outline the debates over beliefs, values and norms at various periods, many come to regard them as useful. At this point in the seminar I usually warn the participants that if they think Chinese society and its culture is so unique that we cannot use our understanding of changes in other societies to understand China then they will not be satisfied with the seminar. I likewise warn them that if they think we cannot use studies of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing to understand social movements in the United States, or research on de-collectivization in Zhejiang to understand privatization in central planned economies, then they will also be unsatisfied. Very few students have a problem with this comparative focus. Many have stated in their written evaluations that they are pleasantly surprised that we spend so much time in class discussing other societies, although the readings are mainly on China's reforms.

As for the motivation of the seminar participants, for many it seems to be just another social science course that emphasizes comparative political science and economic approaches. But I suspect that a primary motivation for more than a few students, and a secondary motivation for many others, is to learn more about Chinese culture. I have taught the seminar some four times at Rice University, each time with between 15 and 20 student participants. Most are third- and fourth-year students. Often, about half of the students are political science and economics majors, with the rest split between the sciences and humanities. Many have already taken several political science courses, including comparative politics. Few have had courses in Chinese history or culture. Many of the Asian Studies majors at Rice have taken my course, although they rarely make up more than a quarter of the students in any seminar. And of the Asian studies students, many are taking courses in Chinese language. But very few have the ability to read primary source documents, newspapers or social science texts. Only a handful of students have cited Chinese language sources in their final research reports. Many of the Asian studies and other humanities majors state that they enjoy reading the political literature assigned for class discussion, as well as the many films and documentaries I recommend they view outside of class.

About half of those taking the seminar state that their primary interest is to fulfill a course distribution requirement, either as a comparative political science course or as an Asian Studies course. Many of the remainder state that they are taking the class out of personal interest. Among the Asian and Asian-American students, who often make up half of the seminar, personal interest seems to be the most common motivation. As one Chinese-American student put it, "I got tired of my grandfather criticizing me for not knowing enough about Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiaoping." Many others state that they are pursuing a professional degree in law or medicine, but that they would like to better understand Chinese society because they have parents and other family members who live or do business there.

The Chinese political literature in my seminar thus serves both institutional and personal pedagogical interests. I assign a few short stories because I think they are valuable historical documents that provide popular perspectives on the debates and conflicts that have emerged in China over time. They are also fun departures from the dry social science texts. Seminar participants also seem to come to regard them as useful historical documents for comparative analysis, but many of them, I suspect, read them as part of a personal effort to better understand Chinese culture.

Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q:

I chose Lu Xun's classic critique of traditional Chinese society's struggle to survive as an introduction to nationalism and state building in the 20th Century. Through the extremely provincial views of Ah Q and the other villagers we can see the enormous obstacles that constrained China's revolutionaries as they sought to unify China through nationalism and end centuries of colonialism. At the same time we can see how the traditional organizations and institutions of Chinese society - of family, religion, education, commerce and even village norms of justice - were able to successfully resist the armies and political parties of "revolution".

Liu Binyan's "The Fifth Man in the Overcoat":

I chose Liu Binyan's short story as an introduction to the Anti-Rightist Campaign and how it continued, at the individual and danwei level, into the Cultural Revolution and beyond. Through Jin Daqing's struggle to rehabilitate himself and others in his work unit -- after surviving 22 years of "labor reform" in China's gulags (how he inherited the overcoat of the story's title) - we can see the injustice of the political campaigns. We can also see how one's "political status" controlled one's life and career through the danwei, and how individual cadres could use political campaigns for personal gain and vendettas.

Liu Binyan's "Sound is Better than Silence":

I chose this Liu Binyan short story as an introduction to the disastrous Great Leap Forward and how central state building and economic development are often built at the expense of agrarian populations. The story of the upright and conscientious brigade chief, Zhou Jiajie, and his struggle to avoid personal persecution for his opposition to collectivization - through pretending to be struck mute - illustrates how land reform and the establishment of producer cooperatives in the early 1950s made it possible for higher state leaders to force the establishment of communes in the Great Leap Forward. It illustrates the organizational incentives that lead local cadres to participate in campaigns that are seemingly perverse and yet rational in the context of a central planned economy's development drive. These include competing with each other to "ratchet" up ever-higher production amounts and also to become "model" work units through costly Potemkin-Village style production displays for higher-level leaders on inspection tour.

Liu Binyan's "People or Monsters":

I chose this Liu Binyan short story as an introduction to how the micro-level and local-level institutions of China's planned economy weathered the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Liu uncovers the true story of Wang Shouxin, a corrupt party secretary from a county coal company in Heilongjiang who took advantage of the chaos in Beijing to amass a fortune and a network of influence that spanned counties and provinces. The story nicely illustrates how guanxi operates in local government circles during a period of unofficial de-collectivization (and even privatization). It also indirectly supports current research that shows how the Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) that have transformed China's rural population into an industrial working class in the 1980s and 1990s had their beginning in the decentralization of economic authority during the Cultural Revolution. See Appendix B for a study guide to the many characters of this story.

Bei Dao's "Thirteen Happiness Lane":

I chose Bei Dao's short story to accompany discussions of how the cellular nature of China's danwei or work units and the pervasiveness of intelligence gathering by state agents in urban areas presented enormous obstacles to mobilization by potential dissidents even after the fall of the Gang of Four. Bei Dao's story illustrates the means of state control in telling the story of a conscientious reporter merely seeking to find out what happened to a small child who chased his kite over a wall in a Bejing hutong.

Liu Xinwu's "Black Walls":

I chose Liu Xinwu's short story to help in discussing how individuals and families reacted to the gradual loss of state control at the local level in China's urban areas that followed the Cultural Revolution. A man decides to paint the walls of his room black, leading to disagreement among generations of neighbors on how to deal with such idiosyncratic and visibly "bourgeois liberal" behavior. Older generations find it hard to accept the end of class struggle -- and the diminished role of security organs and neighborhood committees in implementing mass-initiated campaigns -- while younger generations cannot understand what seems to be a big fuss over mere interior decoration.

Wang Meng's "The Stubborn Porridge":

I chose Wang Meng's short story to help in discussing changes in popular views of materialism, fairness and justice in the context of reforms China's central planned economy. Wang's controversial story of how the different generations in one family cannot agree on what to eat for breakfast during the reform era - Western breakfast or traditional porridge? - neatly and amusingly illustrates the diverging views on the fairness of Post-Mao reforms. At another level, the story outlines the motivations of different generations of Chinese elites juggling political and economic reforms within a Party leadership system still dominated by a patriarch.

I have used Lu Xun all four times I have taught the seminar, and Liu Binyan's three pieces in all but the most recent seminar (a last-minute change when I found out that there were not enough copies available). I have used Bei Dao and Liu Xinwu twice, and Wang Meng only once (as a suggested reading). For reasons I will discuss below, I found these latter three texts to be less useful and felt I had to drop them in order to lighten the reading load.

III. Usefulness of materials in teaching comparative political science: Topics and Reactions

Overall, I have found Chinese political literature to be very useful for some of the goals of my seminar on political and economics reforms, but not very useful for others. The stories outlined in the previous section have been helpful in illustrating the role individuals play in such social movements as revolution and class conflict, but less helpful in explaining the collective development of Communist Party institutions and the state organizations of a central planned economy. They can illustrate the role of individual values and beliefs, and such informal institutions as norms and conventions - guanxi, political rhetoric and symbols - and the influence of these on the development of Party and state organizations, but by their nature they tend to over-emphasize the abilities of the individual. This is not very surprising, since stories about the intricacies of the nomenklatura system, or the complex inner workings of economic planning bureaucracies would hardly make for interesting, popular reading (not even among political scientists and economists). Unfortunately, the day-to-day workings of such state organizations are powerful constraints on individuals, even if they do not make for lively literature. Finally, these stories are very helpful in describing China's experiences, but because they are directed at Chinese readers they tend to over-emphasize the uniqueness of Chinese society. This makes it hard to use them to reinforce the comparative focus of the seminar.

The readings by Lu Xun, Liu Xinwu, Bei Dao and Wang Meng have been particularly useful for discussing individual attitudes, perceptions and beliefs at different points in modern Chinese history. Students seem to truly understand some of the sources of Chinese nationalism after they've seen - through Ah Q's eyes - what a lack of it caused in the early parts of the 20th Century. They also have a better understanding for what it must be like to live in a totalitarian society - particularly during the Cultural Revolution - after "living" with the urban residents in the stories by Liu Xinwu and Bei Dao. Finally, although it is a metaphor for factional politics among China's ruling elites, the family's reaction to reforms in the Post-Mao era in Wang Meng's story helps students understand how such reforms can produce great differences in views across the generations.

One problem I've encountered with using these readings is that their style can interfere with the goal of using them as documents that reveal such underlying popular values, perceptions and beliefs. The Lu Xun short story seems to strike a nice balance between a writing style that is politically motivating - especially the sarcasm - and yet not so stylized that the characters seem unrealistic or non-representative of the Chinese people. Few people may think there are many Ah Qs in Chinese society, even during the early part of the 20th Century, but everybody will realize that there is a little bit of Ah Q in everybody, Chinese or non-Chinese. The short stories by Bei Dao and Liu Xinwu seem to have characters that are particularly "stylized," perhaps because the authors are trying to make a very serious point in such a short space. There's little space to create characters that are sufficiently complex such that the non-Chinese reader can sympathize or relate to them. Wang Meng's short story has the space, but the characters here - in true Wang Meng storytelling fashion - are caught up in a logic of interaction that is both serious and very amusing. Its wit is dry and sardonic - characteristically "Beijing"-style - and thus very entertaining to read, but the non-Chinese reader probably finds it hard to relate to characters caught up in such a web of contradictions. For these reasons, and because student comments have led me to try to cut down on the amount of readings, I have stopped using the Liu Xinwu, Bei Dao and Wang Meng readings in recent class sessions.

Other readings may be less entertaining, but more helpful in revealing the norms and conventions of Chinese society and life in a socialist central planned economy: the informal political, economic and social institutions. Lu Xun's story is certainly entertaining as it relates - almost as a case study for Fei Xiaotong's arguments on the traditional institutions of Chinese society - the importance of guanxi connections, familial ties and local conventions on justice and law. But I cannot seem to find an equivalent for the Socialist period that is both informative and entertaining. I have used Liu Binyan's three short stories to illustrate the importance of these traditional institutions and how they influence political campaigns and work within the socialist work unit, the danwei. Liu's "reportage" or more journalistic style of writing is very useful for revealing the "facts" of the case studies he presents, but they make for fairly dry reading. And in the case of "People or Monsters" the facts demand that an accurate telling of the story of Wang Shouxin and her network of corruption in a Heilongjiang county will involve the roles of many characters. In fact, I have had to create a list of characters that students can use as a reading guide (See Appendix B).

Class discussions show that many of the students learn a lot from these readings, but I have found it takes a lot of extra time in class to provide sufficient background knowledge to support the amount of detail in Liu's readings, and also some time to "motivate" the students to read what are fairly dry readings. His stories are particularly rich in revealing the importance of network ties among people of different ranks and roles in government and danwei, and also in showing the rhetorical or strategic value of symbols and language in political campaigns. But these require a lot of extra time to explain the ranks, roles and language of these particular campaigns. So far I have found the trade-off useful, and I have tried to use the Liu readings in every class. Most students seem to learn a lot from them, and do not seem to mind the dry writing style.

IV. Conclusions: Obstacles and Solutions

Through my own teaching experiences I have identified several problems in using Chinese political literature in a comparative social science seminar on reforms in the Post-Mao era.

First, the literature readings by their own constitution tend to support social scientific theories and explanations that emphasize the importance of individual values, beliefs and perceptions and discount the persistent constraints imposed by state institutions and organizations. There seems to be no way around this dilemma except to look for readings which are both interesting to read - as case studies told from the perspective of individuals - and informative in that they also describe the importance of the Party, the state, the danwei, etc. Lu Xun strikes a nice balance and is useful for understanding the history of state development and nationalism. Liu Binyan does so for the Socialist period, but his readings are sometimes difficult to use because they are so dry. Both nicely show the intersection of informal and formal institutions, and also the importance of individual values and beliefs.

Second, it seems to be hard to find literature readings in which the style of story telling does not interfere with their use as historical documents that show the importance of individual values and beliefs. The stories of Liu Xinwu, Bei Dao and Wang Meng are entertaining and informative, but it is hard for students to accept that these very stylized characters are representative of the Chinese people in general. The solution here, again, is perhaps to keep searching for readings that are able to strike a better balance between entertainment and education.

Finally, the Chinese political literature readings do not directly support the goal of helping students understand changes in societies in general - or even in post-socialist central planned economies -- because they are written for a Chinese audience. This is reinforced by the fact that many of the students, I suspect, are most interested in using the readings to better understand Chinese culture. The result is that they help students understand the case of China, but not social change in general. One solution would be to use short stories from other societies. Readings from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union could help show the similarities in life in central planned economies, and literature from SE Asia, Africa or Latin America could help show the similarities in life in developing economies. I'm very much interested in looking for readings that can be helpful in this, but my own limited knowledge of literature is a serious obstacle.

In conclusion, there are indeed significant obstacles in using Chinese political literature in a comparative social science course on reforms in the Post-Mao era, but I believe these problems might be overcome with help from experts on Chinese literature, and comparative literature, who can suggest stories that better suit the goals of the seminar and the interest and motivations of the students.


Bei, Dao, (1988), "Thirteen Happiness Lane," in Geremie Barme and John Minford, ed., Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, New York: Noonday Press; pp. 2-16.

Liu, Binyan, (1983), "People or Monsters?" in Binyan Liu (ed. by Perry Link), People or Monsters? And Other Stories and Reportage from China after Mao, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press; pp. 11-68.

----- (1983), "The Fifth Man in the Overcoat," in Binyan Liu (ed. by Perry Link), People or Monsters? And Other Stories and Reportage from China after Mao, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press; pp. 79-97.

----- (1983), "Sound is Better than Silence," in Binyan Liu (ed. by Perry Link), People or Monsters? And Other Stories and Reportage from China after Mao, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press; pp. 98-137.

Liu, Xinwu, (1988), "Black Walls," in Geremie Barme and John Minford, ed., Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, New York: Noonday Press; pp. 19-28.

Lu, Hsun, (1990), The True Story of Ah Q, (1921), Boston: Cheng & Tsui.

Wang, Meng, (1994), "The Stubborn Porridge," in Meng Wang, The Stubborn Porridge and Other Stories, New York: George Braziller; pp. 8-38.

Appendix A

Syllabus of Rice University's Political Science 353 Seminar, "Political and Economic Reforms in Post-Mao China"

For text of syllabus see:

Appendix B

Study Guide for Liu Binyan's "People or Monsters?"
by Steven W. Lewis

Background on Characters:

Bai Kun: Party branch secretary of the Bin County Coal Company prior to Wang Shouxin's arrival: replaced by Zhou Lu.

Commissar Yang: Bin County party secretary who replaced Tian Fengshan in 1966; head of the "rebels" in early period of the GPCR; cruel and corrupt; personally put Wang Shouxin in power within county party organs; in 1970 bumped up to become head of the Heilongjiang provincial security organs.

Gu Zhou: Leader of the work team dispatched by the Bin County party committee to investigate Wang Shouxin's corruption in 1978 as part of the Double Strike Campaign.

Liu Changchun: Planner and accountant for the Bin County Coal Company; ardent opponent of Wang Shouxin who helped lead investigation to bring her down after GPCR; leader during early stages of the Red Rebel Corps in the coal company, organized to fight leftists, but jailed as counter-revolutionary.

Liu Zhen: First post-GPCR party secretary for Bin County; honorable but ineffective; replaced Zhang Xiangling in 1976; himself replaced by Secretary Guan in 1978.

Liu Zhimin: Wang Shouxin's eldest son; corrupt vice-director of the Xinli Commune.

Ma Zhanqing: Corrupt director of White Rock Enterprises, a company set up by Wang Shouxin in 1970 and the place where her illicit funds and accounts were kept.

Qu Zhaoguo: Wang Shouxin's driver, her agent for delivering bribes to officials.

Secretary Guan: Second Post-GPCR party secretary for Bin County; honorable but ineffective; replaced by Liu Zhen.

Shi Huailing: A worker in the pharmaceutical company who helped bring about an investigation of Wang Shouxin's corruption and corruption in his own factory.

Sun Xiyin: Corrupt accountant for Bin County Coal Company who helped Wang Shouxin hide her wealth.

Teng Zhixin: Manager of the Bin County Coal Company prior to Wang Shouxin's arrival.

Tian Fengshan: Bin County party secretary from 1964 until start of the GPCR; replaced incompetent secretaries who had contributed to famine after the Great Leap Forward; honorable party member; replaced during struggle with leftist "rebels" in 1966.

Wang Shouxin: Manager and party secretary of Bin County Coal Company; member of the county Cultural Revolution Committee, party committee and head of the "Smash -the-Black-Next Combat Force"; the center of the network of corruption outlined in the story.

Wei Gao: Corrupt member of the Bin County party committee from 1972 to 1976; head of the county finance and trade affairs and Wang Shouxin's superior.

Wen Feng: Director of the "United Program to Defend Mao Zedong Thought" and supporter of Wang Shouxin and Commissar Yang; county party committee member.

Yang Qing: Assistant director of the Bin County Disciplinary Inspection Committee; helped hide Wang Shouxin's crimes by conspiring with her to thwart investigations.

Zhang Xiangling: Elderly revolutionary cadre and Bin County party secretary appointed to replace Commissar Yang; ineffective leader because Yang still controlled local party leadership; replaced by Liu Zhen in 1976.

Zhao Yu: Head of the party organization in the Bin County commerce bureau and one of Wang Shouxin's bosses; put in position by Commissar Yang.

Zhou Lu: Former driver and new party branch secretary at Bin County Coal Company; corrupt supporter of Wang Shouxin; bring in by joining Wang Shouxin's "Smash-the-Black-Next Combat Force"; replaced by Wang Shouxin after she took over, but still one of her henchmen.


1. How did Wang Shouxin come to power and establish this huge network of corruption? What does this say about economic efficiency in central planned economies and political justice in one-party states? What does it say about central and local government relations in China during the 1970s?

2. How was Wang Shouxin brought down? What does this say about justice in the period after the GPCR? What does it say about the nature of Communist Party leadership in this era?