Ep. 3: How China's Future Looked in the Past

China Books

Dec 5 2023 • 47 mins

Dreams of a better future have driven many a revolution, but not all have turned out the way the dreamers imagined.

China's early revolutionaries, a century ago, aimed to rid the country of what they saw as corrupt capitalism and the world of colonialism and imperialism. Instead, they said, socialism would bring a future of peace, prosperity, equality, and social justice.  Not all of that worked out.

One of the dreamers was Chen Hansheng, a prominent Western-educated  public intellectual who wrote, lectured, and taught in the United States while secretly working for the Soviet Comintern and Communist Party of China, who worked over time with Zhou Enlai and more briefly with Soviet spy Richard Sorge, and who was close friends Agnes Smedley, an American journalist who supported China's Communist revolution, and with Soong Ching-Ling, the widow of Sun Yat-Sen.

Chen's comprehensive surveys of rural regions of China in the 1930s painted a vivid picture of the realities on the ground for China's farmers and villagers, who China's Communist revolution ended up helping in some ways and hurting in others, particularly in the preventable Great Famine of the late '50s and early '60s, when as many as 50 million people starved to death.

Chen died in 2004 at age 107.  He lived through a century of epic change in China and in the world that brought some of what he wanted, but not in the way he expected, and a lot of disillusionment. In this  episode, Chen's biographer Stephen R. MacKinnon, lays it all out.


Stephen R. MacKinnon is an emeritus professor of 20th Century Chinese history and former director of the Center for Asian Studies at Arizona State University. He has lived and worked in the People’s Republic of China, and has focused on China in his work since the early 1960s. He has written dozens of articles and edited volumes, and is the author of five books on China, including Chen Hansheng: China’s Last Romantic Revolutionary (2023), Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China (2008), and Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical (1987).

The China Books podcast is hosted and produced by Mary Kay Magistad, a former award-winning China correspondent for NPR and PRI/BBC's The World, now a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This podcast is a companion of the China Books Review, which offers incisive essays, interviews, and reviews on all things China books-related. Co-publishers are Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and The Wire China, co-founded by David Barboza, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times China correspondent. The Review's editor is Alec Ash, who can be reached at editor@chinabooksreview.com.