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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Review: 'Revolution and the People in Russia and China' by S.A. Smith

Throughout the narrative of the 20th century, the histories of Russia and China are intertwined. Bolshevik support (both ideological and financial) was crucial in getting revolutionary movements in the Middle Kingdom up and running, and the USSR played no small part in bringing the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949. Since that point, the People's Republic has gone through phases of co-operation and division with its Communist neighbour, and in the future it looks likely that Russia will now come to depend more and more on the PRC, rather than the other way around.

With the above in mind, the decision by Steve Smith in 2008 to publish a study comparing the origins of the Communist revolutions in both nations was a decidedly logical one. In his 'Revolution and the People in Russia and China', Smith analyses particular aspects of the respective movements, including (amongst other things) their relationship to city workers and their affect on traditional gender identities. Taking into account recent scholarship, he poses a challenge to previous conclusions. An excellent example of this is Smith's discussion concerning the extent to which the CCP's ultimate success in China was dependent on its work with the peasantry. While not denying that the Party benefited from the links it forged with the countryside, he is also at pains to stress the role of workers in places like Shanghai in bringing the Communists to power. Those who subscribe to the notion that the Chinese Revolution was essentially a peasant-based rebellion are urged to reconsider their view.

There is an argument for saying that Smith's work could be more comparative rather than simply juxtaposing information about Russia and China together. However, the reader is hard-pressed to miss the main strands of the book, and the similarities (and indeed the differences) between the Bolshevik and the Chinese Revolutions still come across in a clear fashion.

Also of particular value in 'Revolution and the People in Russia and China' is the author's contribution to the field of gender studies in modern Chinese history, an area that has only recently started to develop. In a small section on the People's Republic itself, Smith details the Cultural Revolution's assault on gender stereotypes still present in Chinese society in the 1960s, especially through the glorification of strong and manly female figures in propaganda posters. While this might seem like a straightforward enough point, analysis such as this provides another angle through which to view one of the most complicated decades in the entire history of 20th century China.

As Sino-Gist is a site dedicated to China, this review has focused on this aspect of the volume. However, Smith should be congratulated for coming up with a work that will equally interest those concerned with Chinese or Russian history, as well as students of various thematic schools of historical study. Certainly, it is a great addition to a Sinologist's bookshelf.

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