Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Brokers of Legitimacy: Intellectuals and Politics in Early Republican China

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Brokers of Legitimacy: Intellectuals and Politics in Early Republican China

Article excerpt

This article discusses the role of intellectuals in Chinese politics in the twentieth century. I will argue that intellectuals, particularly what I call political intellectuals, emerged as a category of identity in the early years of the Republic of China between 1912 and 1927. I will then try to argue that political intellectuals positioned themselves as brokers of political legitimacy. Political intellectuals thereby formed a part of a rapidly evolving political culture at that time, one which saw the emergence of mass politics based on political parties.

The historiography of twentieth-century China tends to depict intellectuals after the 1910s as wholly different from earlier intellectuals. Standard textbook accounts rarely mention intellectuals before the 1910s - with a few outstanding exceptions such as Kang Youwei ..., Liang Qichao ..., or Zhang Binglin ...

Yet after the 1910s the term "intellectuals" surfaces increasingly, and the historiography describes a greater number of people than ever as intellectuals who intervene in culture and politics. One might argue that the main thing that changed was not the position of educated elites in politics but rather their role in writing history and that after 1920 they dominated much of the history writing, depicting therefore their own social group as crucial to the events of the time.1 Others might argue that this is merely a matter of terminology.2

While there is much to support these views, they do not preclude an actual change in the role of intellectuals in society. I therefore propose that not only the historiography changed after 1919 but also that educated elites did indeed carve a new role for themselves in a political culture that they helped remold.

My question then can be formulated as follows: what is it that changed in the role Chinese intellectuals played after 1920?

I will open with a few remarks on the term "intellectual." Then, I will sketch the role of educated elites, or intellectuals, in the imperial period, the role before the changes took place in the waning years of the Qing and the early Republic. I will then argue that in the late 1910s and early 1920s the role of intellectuals changed as they became what I call "brokers of political legitimacy."


The term "intellectual" was coined at the turn of the twentieth century by nationalist French thinkers as a pejorative term for supporters of the alleged traitor Alfred Dreyfus.3 These thinkers appropriated the term, and it became their identifier. The term has come to denote social groups and individuals usually based upon their education and occupations that have to do with abstract thinking. As its history shows us, the term itself originated in a context of political strife and, perhaps for this reason, the term often retains its association with politics and with political dissent.

The classical formulation of the intellectual as political dissenter was outlined by Julien Benda in La Trahison des Clercs, who accused intellectuals of not living up to an ideal of resistance. For some, the term "intellectual" has come to imply conscientious dissent- speaking truth to power-in the name of higher ideals.4 We might question whether a term that originated in such a specific context is universally applicable and whether it accurately describes different societies.

For the purposes of this essay suffice it to say that much of the scholarship that discusses intellectuals, in any case, does assume that the term is universally applicable.5 Indeed, the idea or trope of the loyal intellectual scholar official remonstrating against political power in the name of higher ideal existed in China as well.

Intellectuals in Imperial China

In order to understand the position of educated elites in Chinese society in the late imperial period, we must take into account two factors. The first has to do with the institutional setting within which intellectual elites operated. …

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