From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party by Tony Saich. Published by Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 2021, 560 pages. ISBN-10: 0674988116, ISBN-13: 978-0674988118. Hardcover and Kindle versions available on Amazon.
When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party convenes next week, they will make history. Literally. The 6th Plenum of the Central Committee plans to adopt a resolution on CCP history, which will allow Xi Jinping to offer his officially sanctioned view of the past. This may not sound like much to foreign ears but think about this fact: only two other such resolutions have been adopted since the founding of the CCP. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are the only other leaders who could command enough control and support to issue their own interpretations on Party history. Next week Chairman Xi Jinping will become the third such leader, cementing his position at the core of the Party’s past, present, and future.
If the Party cares so much about the stories it tells about its own past to the people of China and the world, then it is also worthwhile to delve into that history from other perspectives. Enter Tony Saich’s book, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, a reflection on Party history from seeds planted in late imperial China to the present day. The book gives a broad overview of the main characters, movements, and ideologies that have shaped the CCP.
The first era focuses on the birth and unlikely growth of the Communist movement in China and essentially follows a decade-by-decade approach. Many books written about this period focus on Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalist Party, and how China was Chiang’s to lose. Saich provides a different angle by focusing on the inner workings, strategy, and personalities of the Chinese Communist Party. From Rebel to Ruler traces the genesis of the Party in its opening section through a series of critical relationships, including those between the CCP and the Soviet Union, and also between different elements within the CCP itself.
At the most embryonic stages of communist development in China, the critical relationship lay between leaders of a budding communist movement in China and agents dispatched by the Comintern1and the USSR. Through the actions of those advisors, Saich describes the pivotal role played by the international communist movement and the USSR in the CCP’s founding and initial strategic priorities. The USSR forced through the United Front policy that brought the Communists in league with the Nationalists. Mao Zedong made his political career by leaving urban communism and the working class behind for a time, contrary to communist orthodox practice set by the USSR, to focus his energies on the rural peasantry.
From Rebel to Ruler also highlights the relationships between different wings, cells, and leaders of the Party and how Mao Zedong eventually united (subjugated?) all these splinters under his own authority. Mao’s leading role was never a foregone conclusion. He faced significant resistance from other Party leaders, most notably Zhang Guotao and Wang Ming. If you find yourself reading those names and asking yourself, “who are those two people?” then this book will serve you well.
The bulk of From Rebel to Ruler focuses on New China after 1949. Unlike the first section, this New China era is divided according to periods of leadership and political movements. The political consolidations and ideologically inspired mass movements of the Mao era come first, followed by the ups and downs of the Reform and Opening period under three different leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemen, and Hu Jintao. The book finally lands on parsing the recent past and future of the period led by current chairman Xi Jinping, which Saich refers to as the China Dream period.
As the book progressed chronologically, around the mid-1980s, I was struck with a feeling that the book had become much better. I found myself understanding more of the terminology, more familiar with the names and places, more well versed in the discussion. Then it dawned on me, up until that point in Party history Marxist-Leninist ideology was the dominant force. Reform and Opening China, the China of my lived experience, is a China characterized by the familiar language of global capitalism. The old ideological terms and slogans of the early decades of the People’s Republic seemed to be viewed as a necessary but tangential part of life in China. This was especially true in my early years in China. I realized that what I thought to be a weakness of the book was actually my own lack of familiarity with the ideological language of the Party during those earlier periods in its history.
Language is both the strength and weakness of From Rebel to Ruler. Saich claims,
. . . the language of the CCP can appear harsh and archaic to the foreign ear, but use of the correct language is important for the Party to maintain control . . .” (p.11).
Admirably, he attempts to remain true to that language in his descriptions of Party history. Consequently, the first 245 pages of his book sound like they could have come from a CCP seminary graduate library (if the CCP had seminaries). As Saich argues, the purpose of ideology:
. . . was to give common purpose to action and to allow individuals to commit to the superior wisdom of party elite, whose role was to define the bigger trends in history that mere mortals could not divine by themselves. (p. 168)
The strength of this type of writing is that it presents the Party, in all its complexity, on its own terms. Saich is not simply offering commentary from an outside point of view, he is attempting to give readers the tools to access the CCP as they see themselves.
The inherent weakness of this type of writing is the burden it puts upon the lay reader. Even for someone familiar with the various political movements of China’s recent past, the language in From Rebel to Ruler can be dauntingly dense. The book can be challenging to read at times, but for those with the desire to know more it is also quite profitable.
In his conclusion, Tony Saich quotes Orwell on the importance of history: “‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’” (p. 438). Anyone interested in the broad sweep of Chinese politics and the future of what is to come in China would do well to look into China’s past. From Rebel to Ruler is a good place to start.
Our thanks to Harvard University Press for providing a copy of From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party for this review.
- Communist International, established in 1919 and dissolved in 1943, see “Third International,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Third-International (accessed November 1, 2021).
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.