China Studies Dissertation Reviews: Tie Xiao's In the Name of the Masses
A review of In the Name of the Masses: Conceptualizations and Representations of the Crowd in Early Twentieth-Century China, by Tie Xiao.
In Western media and scholarship, Chinese crowds are often schizophrenically portrayed as either terrifying or emancipatory – from the manic frenzy of the Red Guards to the student fighters for democracy at Tian’anmen, from angry mobs destroying Japanese goods to heroic Hong Kong citizens defying Mainland “brainwashing,” the massive, nameless Chinese crowd looms large in the global imagination as a specter embodying the ambivalence at the heart of modern political democracy. While the “people” constitutes the source from which political sovereignty derives, it also harbors fears of irrational mob rule, the steamrolling of the individual, and the claustrophobia of the collective. Tie Xiao’s dissertation admirably charts the development of notions of the crowd in early twentieth-century intellectual discourse and aesthetic production. As he convincingly demonstrates, Chinese thinkers, while acknowledging the need for a political and social order that would be democratic in the broad sense, were also troubled by the antimony between terror and liberation that also lurked in the collective’s bosom. Moreover, the early twentieth-century Chinese engagement with the “crowd” took part in the processes of what Lydia Liu has termed “translated modernity” – the Chinese interest in crowds paralleled European interest in crowd psychology, as well as global aesthetic trends in representing the “masses” in both literature and visual art.