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Review of the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography: Volume 3: Qing Dynasty through the People’s Republic of China (until 1979)

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Reviewed by David L. Kenley

In volume 3 of the Dictionary of Chinese Biography, Berkshire Publishing has provided a helpful and fascinating reference work that can be used by teachers in various classrooms. Covering the period from 1644 to 1979, the volume sheds valuable light on China’s modern era as seen through the lives of select individuals.

Kerry Brown, the editor-in-chief of the three-volume series, unapologetically argues for the value of biography in the study of history. “While historians subscribe less and less to the ‘great men and women’ trope of history,” Brown admits, “. . . it does help to put history within the finite boundaries of major political figures like kings and queens and their reigns. This provides an easy starting point for further exploration”.1 Indeed, a cursory look at publishing figures reveals that biography remains a popular and influential form of history writing, and Berkshire is capitalizing on this public interest. Besides, as Brown reminds us, biography has been a uniquely Chinese form of history writing since the time of Sima Qian in the first century BCE. For all these reasons, he contends, biography is an excellent medium for studying China’s past.

Like the previous two, volume 3 introduces the reader to some of the most fascinating figures of the modern era. It contains thirty-six biographies, averaging approximately 5,000 words each. They all follow a similar format, including a short bio-line and a summary of the entry, followed by an informative essay and a list of texts for fur- ther reading. The entries are written for a general audience and are appropriate for both secondary school students and college-level readers.

Volume 3 contains some ancillary items not found in the other two volumes. These include a pronunciation guide and pinyin/Wade-Giles conversion table; a list of prominent people beyond those in the dictionary; an index of kings, emperors, and rulers from throughout Chinese history; an index of geographical locations; a glossary; a timeline; and an index. Perhaps most helpful is the extensive bibliography containing other biographical resources and primary documents related to the dictionary’s entries.

The contributing authors in this volume come from a wide range of backgrounds, including some of the most well-respected senior scholars in the field. Most have academic appointments, while others are independent scholars. They include researchers from the United States, Europe, and China. Together, they provide a highly credible interpretation of China’s modern history.

Despite being written for a general readership, the entries represent the most recent scholarship. For example, Natascha Gentz provides an excellent historiography on public portrayals of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife and leader of the Cultural Revolution). “There are few neutral biographical sources about Jiang Qing,” she contends, “[and] most are either apologetic or condemnatory, containing judgments about her progressive and visionary spirit or her evil and selfish nature”.2 She then goes on to provide an incisive review of these sources. Other entries are quite revision- ist in their approach. Ezra F. Vogel, for instance, asserts that Deng Xiaoping—not Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, or Franklin D. Roosevelt—“had a greater long-term impact on world history than any other twentieth-century world leader”.3 There are numerous such entries that represent cutting-edge scholarship on the selected individuals.

As is the case in such a work, the process of selecting which individuals to include and which to exclude is somewhat arbitrary and inevitably leads to disagreement. Brown realizes this and in his introduction writes:

The selection of figures is highly subjective, no matter what the overt criterion. The main objective in the end is to have a broadly representative selection of figures from the main periods in Chinese history. One could have endless arguments on whom to include and whom to leave out. The best I can say here is that this is the beginning, and perhaps in future editions we can hope to amplify, add to, and improve on the contents. We have to start somewhere.4

The result is a dictionary containing primarily military and political figures. Of the thirty-six entries in volume 3, twenty-eight can be considered political or military leaders, with the remaining eight loosely categorized as public intellectuals. All but three of them are men. There are many familiar names, including Emperor Kangxi, Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen, and Mao Zedong. However, there are also a few names that will be unfamiliar to the general reader, such as railroad engineer Zhan Tianyou, poet Huang Zunxian, and party organizer Li Lisan. Though most (twenty-three) are twentieth-century figures, there is still a sizeable number (thirteen) from the Qing Era. In explaining his choice of subjects, Brown explains, “It was important to find figures who were significant during turning points in Chinese history”.5 It would be helpful for each author to directly address the significance of their subject for these so-called “turning points.”

Editor Kerry Brown further claims that “outsiders, those who came from what would be regarded as the margins of different versions or forms of Chinese society . . . were agents affect- ing radical and fundamental change”.6 However, none of the entries in volume 3 are of non-Chinese. As Brown explains, “We decided to limit these essays to individuals who were influential within China itself, and less in terms of China’s relationship with other parts of the world”.7 While it is necessary to make such decisions in determining entries, the dictionary could be enhanced by the inclusion of a small number of non-Chinese who had a profound effect on China’s turning points. Some possible individuals might include the influential missionary Hudson Taylor; Comintern Agent Mikhail Borodin; or even Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Anticipating such criticism, Berkshire Publishing Group intends to use the hardcopy dictionary as “the foundation of a full-scale database of Chinese biography that will provide essential information comparable to that found easily in English about Western individuals”.8 Presumably, this database will be far more extensive in cover- age, with additional elites and important, though often overlooked, individuals from beyond the political/military spectrum. The Berkshire website (www.berkshirepublishing.com) does not contain specific details on the development timeline for this database, but it will no doubt be an immensely beneficial accompaniment to the print dictionary. Until it is available, the appen- dices in volume 3 provide helpful references for those seeking additional information.

Teachers in a wide range of classrooms will find the dictionary immensely beneficial. Each volume and entry can be used independently or in conjunction with the others. The relatively short entries introduce the reader not only to the life of the selected figure, but also to the socio-political environment in which s/he lived. According to Brown, “This project . . . is produced on the premise that it is better to know something about [China’s] astonishing, inspiring history rather than veer away from it be- cause it is too intimidatingly large”.9 The entries in volume 3 go a long way in making China’s history understandable and interesting. After utilizing this dictionary, students will inevitably be drawn into further study of modern Chinese history. In the end, this is the hallmark of an excellent reference work.

NOTES                                                         

  1. Kerry Brown, introduction to the Berkshire Dictio- nary of Chinese Biography (DCB) Vol. 1 (Great Bar- rington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2014), xv.
  2. DCB, vol. 3, 1440.
  3. DCB, vol. 3, 1414.
  4. Brown, DCB, 1, xx.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Brown, DCB, 1, xxii.
  7. Brown, DCB, 1, xxix.
  8. Brown, DCB, 1, xxx.
  9. Brown, DCB, vol. 1, xvii.