A short review of the last 50 Years

First of all, let me give you a précis of the research in the past 50 years (from 1949 to 1999). In general, we divide these 50 years into 3 stages; the first stage is from the founding of People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 to the eve of the Cultural Revolution in 1966; the second stage is the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to1976, and the final stage runs from the end of Cultural Revolution until the end of the last century. There is a good summary of the state of research during these 50 years by a Chinese scholar, Lou Junxin in his article 50 Years Research on the French Revolution in China, published in 2003. (1)

Early studies in China were greatly influenced by the scholars of the Soviet Union, most of whose researches were made for purely political purposes, with an noticeable ideological bias, leading to them reaching extremist conclusions, based on preconceptions of the importance of the proletariat, with all other elements subjected to severe criticism and as a result their scholarship was both formalistic and dogmatic. Nevertheless there were a number of significant works published during this period which had an academic impact on Chinese scholars. (2)

Academic study in China almost completely disappeared during the 10-year Cultural Revolution from May 1966 to October 1976. The study of the French Revolution became a tool in the political struggle without any real academic value.

From the end of the Cultural Revolution to the end of the 20 century, Chinese academics began to free themselves from the influence of the extreme left and to move towards a more objective point of view. The first breakthrough is the study of the Thermidor reaction by historian Liu Zongxu from Beijing Normal University, who published an article entitled "On the nature of the Thermidor reaction" in Historical Research, which re-evaluated the reaction to Thermidor. Traditionally, Chinese scholars had held that the Thermidorean reaction was a counter-revolutionary coup-d'etat but Liu Zongxu refused to accept that, simply because the Thermidoreans were against the Jacobins, the Thermidorean reaction could therefore be considered a counter-revolutionary coup-d’etat.(3)

He postulated that, in the prevailing historical situation, the standard of measuring the revolution and the counter-revolution should be seen as that of opposition to the feudal system and support for the development of capitalism and that the Jacobin dictatorship, which could be accepted in the first stage of the Revolution, later extended beyond the scope of the bourgeois revolution, and since the Thermidorean reaction was to establish a capitalist state, therefore the nature of the Thermidor regime is bourgeois. By this analysis, Liu Zongxu altered completely the traditional view of the previous decades in China. In an article published in 2003, Lou Junxin stressed the importance of this analysis: "This article opened a new era and is a turning point to re-examine the French revolution. Since then, many historians began to extend their researches to many other aspects such as the partition of the French Revolution, the historical function of all the political party groupings, the evaluation of Robespierre, Danton and other historical characters. Many researchers put forward a new point of view and thus greatly deepen the studies in China.”(4)

In August 1979, the Chinese Society of French Historical Studies (CSFHS) was formed and an independent magazine, Letters of the French history, created, in which several articles about the French Revolution have since been published. In the third stage, a large number of books about the French Revolution were translated, and many well-known works of French historians can now be found in Chinese translation.(5)

There were also a few remarkable works published during this period, four of which deserve special mention. The first is the "Dictionary of the French Revolution" (Sun Yat-sen University Press, 1989.). Edited by Professor DuanMu Zheng and written by 20 major Chinese scholars it summarized the research of the previous 25 years.

The second book is "The 25 Years that Change the World History - New Researches of the French Revolution" (Hebei People's Publishing House, 1989). Under the editorship of Liu Zongxu (1933-2003) it covers a series of subjects including as the Ancien Régime, the Enlightenment, the principles of 1789, the Feuillants, the Girondins, the Jacobins, the Terror and many famous historical characters.

The third outstanding work is written by Professor Gao Yi: "French style: the Political Culture of Revolution" (Zhejiang People's Publishing House, 1991). Gao Yi is a professor at Beijing University and he studies the French Revolution from a different viewpoint. In his book, he used the “long time” method of the Annales School, as well as the history of mentalities and the New Cultural History to describe for the first time in China the political culture of the French Revolution and his work is both creative and pioneering.

The last book is “The French Revolution and Modernization in France: 1789-1803” (Chinese File Press, 1998). The author is Ma Shengxiang, a professor at Hebei Normal University. He started to study the Great Revolution in the process of modernization, and, for the first time in Chinese studies of the French Revolution, suggested that the French Revolution ended in 1803.

In this century, studies of the French Revolution in China have entered a new stage in which Chinese historians not only greatly broaden the field and deepen their researches but also pay more regard to the factual reality. Today China is undergoing a very rapid economic development and Chinese intellectuals have a more pressing need of valid guiding theories and concepts, within the framework of this economic prosperity, than ever before, and the French Revolution has, without question, become a treasure-house of ideas for them. Now, let’s take a look at what the Chinese historians are doing today.

The basic attitudes to the French Revolution in China

A very positive attitude to the French Revolution is a well-developed tradition for Chinese academics, formed mainly under the influence of the historical tradition of the progress advocated by the historians on the Left in France. Liu Zongxu has pointed out that the Revolution generated an anti-feudal spirit, as well as the ideas of democracy, freedom, equality and human rights, that all these basic values are not out of date today and that we should learn from them and develop them. According to him, “The human rights and the principle of the rule of law which are based on the freedom of the commodity economy are the most fundamental principles in the French Revolution. ... ... These principles not only belong to France but also to the world; it’s a very strong anti-feudal weapon and it is also an essential guiding principle for the management of all civilized countries. With the development of the civilization of the humankind, these principles are needed anywhere.” (6) Lou Junxin attached much importance to the French Revolution as a feasible “model”. He said, “Based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, the French Revolution provided a feasible model for all modern countries”.(7)

The increasingly profound studies of recent years, have given Chinese researchers a more comprehensive and objective view of the French Revolution. Gao Yi spoke at length of the idea that throughout the French Revolution one can see different sorts of problems, for example, in his "Culture of the French Revolution and the Establishment of Chinese Revolutionary Worship in the Early 20th Century", Gao Yi suggests that the biggest contribution of the French Revolution to the history of mankind is not only having created a practical model, but also having produced an unprecedented political culture, a political culture which still has a far-reaching influence all over the world.(8)

In another article, Gao Yi stressed that “the Revolution contributed unusually to the process of world political democratization. It’s an epoch-making milestone for the development of the world political history and it’s a symbol of the global trend of political democratization. The experience of the French Revolution, whether positive or negative, all is a great spiritual wealth to the political democratization for human being. Its great historical achievement is to promote the universal values of democracy and the lessons of the French Revolution highlight the importance of individual freedom”.(9)

Gao Yi also probed the special contribution of the French Revolution to world history by comparing it with the American Revolution and the English Revolution. All three revolutions are an experiment in creating modern democracy, but the difference between the French Revolution and that of the Anglo-Saxons is that the former stresses the value of equality, while the latter emphasizes that of liberty. Gao Yi pointed out the positive influence of the radical characteristics of the French Revolution, and at the same time exposed its drawbacks, which shows that a successful construction of modern democracy depends on the moderate coordination between two core values of the modern civilization, that is to say liberty and equality. (10)

As for the limitations of the French Revolution, Gao Yi thinks that this was neither “not thorough enough” as the traditional view held, nor “totally unnecessary” as some modern scholars say. The important thing is to coordinate the value of liberty and equality in a moderate way (Gao Yi, “From the French Revolution to a National Cultural Identity”, Teaching History, vol. 545, No. 4, 2008, p.10)

Although basically holding the same positive attitude with Professor Gao Yi, Huang Wansheng seems to go far further. Strictly speaking, Huang Wansheng is not a scholar of the French Revolution, but he drew considerable attention to this area in his preface entitled "Revolution is not Original Sin" to the Chinese translation of François Furet’s Penser la Revolution française (11); which was published in China in 2005. He declared: “I insist on keeping revolution as a necessary means for a society, it is a final choice to fight against the tyranny in any society and it’s also a possibility to change a society”. (12)

In comparison with the English Revolution and the French Revolution, he wrote: “Of course, English Revolution is very significant one for promoting the modern democracy, for example, the voter politics, the procedure politics and so on, these are the basic aspects of democracy. But it is different from the meaning of the French Revolution. The French Revolution made the democratic politics a very basic political doctrine and belief to the modern world. Without the fundamental characteristic of the power, the single procedure politics probably becomes the enemy of the democracy”.(13)

Some Chinese scholars have held a negative attitude to the French Revolution, including Zhu Xueqin who, in his book The End of the Ideal State of Morality, argues that Rousseau inherited the salvation tradition of the Middle Ages, and tried to pass down this theory to the modern world, and in this specific area he disagreed with the thinking of the Enlightenment, which is based on secular rational theory, while Rousseau’s moral ideal is to construct a moral community, a secular society, a political structure and the regulation of civilization.

But Rousseau’s ideal state of morality is somehow a kind of premature Deconstructionism, the deconstructionism in society and politics, so that, once it was put into practice, it would lead to a very different revolution from the American and English revolutions. It would extend the political revolution into a social revolution and finally result in a moral revolution. It could not stop the revolution, so it must be a continuous revolution and a kind of renewable revolution. As Robespierre put it the revolution is not only a civil war and an international war, but also a religious war. (14)

The author considers Rousseau to be a “socialized Stoa, plus a secularized Jesus”, who continued Plato’s idea of “goodness” and tried to establish an “ideal state of morality”. “Rousseau imagined “all the individuals transfer their personal right so as to form a power belonged to the people”. He refused the English experience; he believed an entire change without any reservation. ”(15)

In his article: “Modern Revolution and Legitimacy of Modern Politics: The Contested Arguments of Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt” Liu Qing maintains an indirectly negative attitude, contrasting Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt’s positions on the legitimacy of modern politics. In this article, the author argues that "by criticizing Machiavelli's theory, she (Hannah Arendt) attempted to oppose Schmitt's political idea. He tried to replace the old absolutism of theocracy or monarchy with a new absolutism of the people by a way of political theology, and, since this cannot provide a new solution to the modern legitimacy, he just tried to ‘escape from the difficulties.’ ”(16) The author commented on the two philosophers political thought: "Since the French Revolution in 1789, what Schmitt symbolized as " the people's democracy "countries was not successful, in reality, the most powerful and stable governments today are the free and democratic ones, while Schmitt criticized them as being full of inherent contradictions and vulnerability.”(17) From this comment, it is not difficult to observe the author’s indirectly negative attitude to the French Revolution.

Generally speaking, those Chinese scholars who hold a positive attitude to the French Revolution are influenced by the historians on the Left in the western countries especially in France, for example Albert Soboul, Michel Vovelle and others. On the other hand, those who hold a negative attitude are under the influence of historians on the Right such as François Furet and Keith Baker. Looking at the picture as a whole, the basic attitude generally accepted by Chinese scholars is the positive one.

On the debate between the Left and the Right in Western countries

Chinese historians always pay close attention to the new schools of thought and new methodologies created by western scholars. For example, Zhang Zhilian first introduced the Annales school into China and his student Gao Yi put into practice the method of “long time”, the history of mentalities and so on for the first time in China in his own researches. However the introduction of international academics into China was relatively slow.

Traditionally, Chinese researchers were interested in the progressive tradition created by Jean Jaures, Albert Mathiez, George Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, Michel Vovelle, etc., although they naturally also studied the work of François Furet, Mona Ozouf, Marcel Gauchet, Patrice Gueniffey and so on. This concern is partly caused by the debate of the Left and the Right, and several scholars wrote articles to introduce and comment on the debate between the Left and the Right (18).

Both Albert Soboul and François Furet were invited to China by the Chinese historians and Soboul’s lectures were published in a book titled The Selected Essays of Albert Soboul about the French Revolution (19). Colin Lucas’ paper “The Revisionist in English-speaking Countries and the French Revolution” was also very influential in China (20). Chinese historians followed the whole debate with great interest, including Alfred Cobban’s public address “The myth of the French Revolution”, (A Cobban: The Myth of the French Revolution, London, 1955.) and his later work entitled The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution in which he explained the so-called historical truth of the “feudalism”.

Alfred Cobban explained that feudalism as a system had withered away long before the Revolution abolished its last vestiges in the form of seigniorial rights. Furthermore, where Marxists saw a self-conscious, capitalist bourgeois class, Cobban demonstrated that it was merely a loose collection of disparate social groups, which did not include industrialists and businessmen but primarily consisted of officeholders and lawyers, although since he lacks specific evidence, his narration of the French Revolution is somehow more of a theoretical reasoning process. As well as Alfred Cobban, George V. Taylor was of some influence especially his articles entitled respectively Types of Capitalism in Eighteenth Century France and Non-Capitalism Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution as well as his analysis of capitalism and his proposition to explain the origin of the French Revolution from the political instead of the social aspect.

Of course, Chinese scholars also paid attention to Francois Furet’s attempt to replace Marxist interpretations in his argument that instead of the class conflict or materialistic forces it was the intellectual forces that were dominant during the French Revolution. In America, Keith Baker took the same position as Furet and according to Baker, the revolutionaries embraced the language of will in the summer of 1789 and it was the "language of will" which promised rights to the largest majority of the people while the "language of justice" or "language of equality" could shape some political values. It was not the political and social factors to promote the revolution and finally reached to the stage of the terror, the real factor was the embrace of the three political discourses of will, justice and equality that drove the revolution to that unfortunate result.

Chinese scholars thought that one of the most important flaws for the historians of the Right is “to take the intellectual thought as the sole and original dynamics for the origin and development of the French Revolution, while they ignored the social and economic factors behind the intellectual one. Furthermore, they put too much emphasis on the unity of the political culture under the old regime and neglected the existence of the difference of classes and Class Consciousness”. (21)

However, their researches have a great influence on Chinese scholars. Some of them tried to research the intellectual factors during the French Revolution. For example, Zhu Xueqin published his book The End of the Ideal State of Morality in 1994 (22). In 2005, the Chinese version of François Furet’s Penser la Revolution française was published in China.

As far as historians of the Left are concerned, Gao Yi has recently introduced to Chinese readers, Jean-Clément Martin’s: Violence et Révolution; essai sur la naissance d’un mythe national. (23) Gao Yi praises Martin’s analysis of the function of violence during the French Revolution but he raised two doubts about the author’s explanation: “Firstly, with such a historical event as the French Revolution, is it possible to study it in a pure “Non- ideologization” way? Secondly, could we really keep the researches of the Revolution scientific by examining only the “historical facts” and ignoring totally the ideological factor or just taking it as the minor one?” (24) In fact, Gao Yi’s position on Jean-Clément Martin’s new book highlights an intellectual confusion among Chinese scholars; on the one hand, they appreciate the attempt to get rid of the ideological constraints, but, on the other hand, they instinctively doubt this approach, asking themselves how far can one go in researching the French Revolution without the ideological factor, and where would one finish? This confusion only indicates a vague and slightly pessimistic future.

Besides the above, the Chinese researchers have probed some other domains around the French Revolution, For example, there are studies of the history of constitutionalism in France (25), on public opinion before the French Revolution (26), and on some basic concepts such as democracy, equality, liberty, and citizenship (27).

Just now I said that the French Revolution is like a treasure-house for the Chinese intellectuals, they all rush into this “treasure-house” and search for what they need, but they only discover reality. They can’t make themselves new robes; all they can do is add a patch of coloured soft silk.

Ce texte a été présenté le 1er octobre 2008 dans le cadre du séminaire de Michel Biard (Université de Rouen). Nous remercions chaleureusement Jonathan Smyth (Royal Holloway, University of London) qui l'a relu et corrigé.


(1) Lou Junxin, “50 Years Research on the French Revolution in China”, Historical Research, 2003 No. 5.

(2) Wang Rongtang, The French Bourgeois Revolution in the Eighteenth Century , Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1955; Cao Shaolian, The French Bourgeois Revolution, Hubei People’s Publishing House, 1956; Liu Zongxu, The French Bourgeois Revolution, The Commercial Press, 1956.

(3) Liu Zongxu , "On the Nature of The Thermidor Reaction", Historical Research, 1979, No. 7.

(4) Lou Junxin, “50 Years Research on the French Revolution in China”, Historical Research, 2003 No. 5, p. 183.

(5) Albert Soboul, Ma Shengli (trans.), La Revolution Francaise, Chinese Social Science Publishing House, 1989; Georges Lefebvre, Gu liang (trans. ), The French Revolution, The Commercial Press, 1989; Jean Jaures, Chen Zuomin (trans.), The History of the Socialism of the French Revolution, The Commercial Press, 1989; Regine Pernoud, Kang Xinwen(trans.), The French Bourgeois Revolution, Shanghai Translation Press, 1991; Michel Winock, Hou Guixin(trans.) , 1789, l'annee sans Pareille, World Knowledge Publishing House, 1989; Antoine Barnave, Wang Lingyu(trans.), The French Revolution, Shanghai East of China University Publishing House, 1989.

(6) Liu Zongxu, The Reason of Human and the Spirit of the Law, Chinese Social Sciences Publishing House, 2003, p. 157.

(7) Lou Junxin, “50 Years Research on the French Revolution in China”, Historical Research, 2003 No. 5, p. 187.

(8) Gao Yi, "Culture of the French Revolution and the Establishment of Chinese Revolutionary Worship in the Early 20th Century", in Chen Chongwu(ed.), The Collected Essays on French History, East China Normal University publishing house, 1984, p. 81.

(9) Gao Yi, “The Position of The French Revolution in Modern Political Democratization Movement", World History, No. 2, 2003.

(10) Gao Yi, “Study of the Cultural Characteristic of the French Nationality from the French Revolution”, History Teaching, Vol. 545, No.4, 2008. p. 5.

(11) François Furet, Meng Ming (trans.), Penser la Revolution française, SanLian publishing house, 2005.

(12) Huang Wansheng, “Revolution is not Original Sin”, preface in François Furet, Meng Ming (trans.), Penser la Revolution française, SanLian publishing house, 2005.

(13) Huang Wansheng, “Revolution is not Original Sin”, preface in François Furet, Meng Ming (trans.), Penser la Revolution française, SanLian publishing house, 2005.

(14) Zhu Xueqin, The End of the Ideal State of Morality, Sanlian publishing house(Shanghai),1994.

(15) Vuitton, Book review: The End of the Ideal State of Morality, http://www.fatianxia.com/review

(16) Liu Qing, Modern Revolution and Legitimacy of Modern Politics : The Contested Arguments of Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt, Academic Monthly, vol. 38, No. 9, September, 2006. p. 30.

(17) Liu Qing, Modern Revolution and Legitimacy of Modern Politics : The Contested Arguments of Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt, Academic Monthly, vol. 38, No. 9, September, 2006. p. 33.

(18) Gao Yi: "On the Significance and Method of the Researches of Political Culture of the French Revolution", in Liu Zongxu (ed.) Essays for celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Sanlian Publishing House, 1990; Gao Yi, "Class, Group, Liberalism and others: an interview of Professor Patrice Higonnet", Historiography Quarterly, No. 3, 1999; Hong Qingming, "Studies on the Origin of the French Revolution of Revisionist School", Historiography Quarterly, No, 1, 2002; Gu hang, “A Review of François Furet’s Historical Studies of the French Revolution”, Historiography Quarterly, No. 2, 1999.

(19) Albert Soboul, The collected Essays of A Soboul about the French Revolution, Shanghai East China University Publishing House, 1984.

(20) Colin Lucas, “The Revisionist in English-speaking Countries and the French Revolution”, in Liu Zongxu (ed.) Essays for celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Sanlian publishing house, 1990.

(21) Hong Qingming, "Studies on the Origin of the French Revolution of Revisionist School", Historiography Quarterly, No, 1, 2002. p. 97.

(22) Zhu Xueqin, The End of the Ideal State of Morality, Sanlian publishing house(Shanghai),1994.

(23) Jean-Clément Martin, Violence et Révolution; essai sur la naissance d’un mythe national, Paris, Seuil, 2006.

(24) Gao Yi, “To Introduce a Non- ideologization History of the French Revolution”, Southern Weekly, 20-07-2006.

(25) Cheng Hua, “Social Structure Analysis of French Constitutional Way”, Wuhan University Journal ( Philosophy & Social Sciences), Vol . 59. No. 6, Nov. 2006. 837-841; Gao Jingzhu, “Between Democracy and constitutionalism: Analyzing the Power Theory of Benjamin Constant”, Journal of Qinghai Normal University (Philosophy and Social Sciences), Vol, 124, No.5, 2007; Shi Tongbiao, “Analyzing the Lessons from the constitutional Construction in French Revolution”, Journal of Renmin University of China, No. 2, 2004.

(26) Hong Qingming, “Religious Controversy and Political Changes in France in the 18th Century”, Journal of Shanghai Normal University, Vol . 37 , No. 2, Mar., 2008.

(27) Ni Yuzhen, “Tocqueville’s Unique Interpretation of Democracy: Democracy as ‘état social’”, Social Studies, No.3, 2008; Li Ming, “The Dispute Between the Idealism and Empiricism of the Thought of Equality in France”, Journal of administrative college of Yun’nan, No.2, 2008.