Xiaoyuan Liu is the David Dean Professor of East Asian Studies and a Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He specializes in China’s ethnic frontiers, and Chinese-American relations in the 20th century. Professor Liu has written four books: A Partnership for Disorder: China, the United States, and Their Policies for the Postwar Disposition of the Japanese Empire (1996), Frontier Passages: Ethnopolitics and the Rise of Chinese Communism (2004), Reins of Liberation: An Entangled History of Mongolian Independence, Chinese Territoriality, and Great Power Hegemony (2006), and Recast All Under Heaven: Revolution, War, Diplomacy and Frontier China in the 20th Century (2010).
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.
Pauline DiLorenzo (Virginia Review of Politics): Professor Liu, thank you so much for being here with me today. I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time. In the course you teach, “HIEA 3321: China in the Cold War,” you mentioned that you studied under China’s “Educational Revolution” and that under Mao “China did not provide room for individuals to think for themselves.” How did your education influence your academic thoughts and interests? What made you want to become a professor?
XL: Basically, I would say that I’m not an educated person. I did not have a regular educational experience. Certainly, I attended elementary school in China for six years, but after the first year of middle school, the Cultural Revolution started. During the Cultural Revolution, I went to the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, and I was was one of the so-called “sent-down” students. We were called, at the time, “intellectual youths,” although we were not really intellectuals, we had just received some elementary education. We were told by Chairman Mao to receive “re-education” from the laboring people, so I stayed in Inner Mongolia for almost 6 years. Then I went back to Beijing to go to college, still during the Cultural Revolution, no regular teaching or class time. Instead, we conducted “open door education” by going to the factories and [visiting] the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops. So basically, I did not learn anything aside from the party's political instructions, propaganda, and participating in party campaigns. Basically, we just followed the party line at the time.
The reason to come out to the United States to receive education was because I did not have an education. Once I graduated college, I wanted to return as a teacher, but [I did not have a] proper education. I did not think I could do the job, so [I took] an opportunity to enroll in a graduate program during Deng Xiaoping’s reform period. Chinese students were sent to western countries to receive education. I went to the University of Iowa, Iowa City, which was the first American city I ever went to, although I would not call it a city. I stayed there for eight years. I finished my doctoral degree, became a historian, and started my teaching career.
My research interest was Sino-American relations, which has something to do with my personal experience. I was Chinese, so in coming to this country it was logical for me, I think, to study historical relations between China and the United States. This was the topic of my first dissertation, Chinese-American relations in World War II. Then I shifted to China’s border land, which also had something to do with my personal experience, because when I was in Inner Mongolia, I experienced the Cultural Revolution there. I learned something about the difference between the Han Chinese and the Mongols, and how that relationship became problematic during the Cultural Revolution. There was a brutal campaign to persecute a great number of Inner Mongols, so I wanted to learn more about China’s inner-ethnic relations, and also those ethnic frontiers in China’s domestic and foreign affairs. So I started to write and do research on that.
PD: Would you say you wanted to become a professor because you did not learn enough from your education?
XL: This was not planned – I just wanted to have a regular education. After I graduated with a doctorate degree, it seemed to be sensible to try.
PD: You mentioned that the central theme in Mao’s reign was “continuous revolution.” Could you explain this?
XL: Revolutions in history tend to have a beginning and an end. Sometimes when a revolution achieved its initial goal, seizing power or overthrowing some regime or achieving certain socio-political goals, that would end. For Mao, when the Chinese Communist Party seized their power in China [in 1949], they just completed the first stage of the revolution, because Mao, like other communist party members in other places, had a so-called ideal to achieve communism throughout the world. Since China was a rather poor country, Mao wanted to start the revolution at home, and so he wanted to make China powerful first, to make China into a socialist society. That’s why he did a lot of social engineering and launched many consecutive political campaigns. He believed this revolution should continue until China reached a stage of communism, and to influence other countries, if possible. But whether or not it was just communist ideology driving him, this is also something debated among scholars. Whether Mao was Chinese, or he was a communist, or he was a Chinese communist, or a communist Chinese. Because we know the recent history, China was defeated in the Opium war, so all the nationalist leaders in 20th century China wanted to make China a great power again. Mao Zedong was one of those. So nationalism, communism, and China’s historical legacy – all these combined was the driving force behind it.
PD: My next question follows what you were talking about with the influence of other ideas into China. From your course, it seems that ethnocentrism is a key issue of debate under China’s communist revolution. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao saw China as the central world power. But the ideas of Lenin and Stalin from Russia influenced communism in China as well, and subsequently diminished ancient Chinese values. Would you say that Chinese culture was truly ethnocentric during this era?
XL: It’s difficult to say, because the Chinese Communist Party [CPC] started in the 1920s as a rather weak political force. At that time, Chinese Communist leaders had to rely on Soviet support. They followed direct instructions from Moscow in conducting their revolution, until Mao Zedong emerged as a top leader. The Soviet advice did not work. The Soviets wanted the CPC to have a revolution exactly, in the same way, as the Russian Bolsheviks’ “One Power” in Russia. But China was an agrarian society, more than Russia was, so Mao decided to choose Chinese peasants as a revolutionary force. So the CPC followed a different path to communism. After the CPC seized power, China did not have the material basics to develop modern industry. That’s why those very frenzied manners came up during the Great Leap Forward, irrational thinking. Those were not Soviet influences. Soviet leaders actually criticized Mao for doing that.
It’s mixed: Chinese nationalism, communist influence, and this historical drive to become powerful again. Although on the one hand, the CPC denounced so-called “feudal Chinese society” in the past. But the Chinese civilization continuity was not really interrupted by the Mao years. Though, [there was] very radical revolution during the Cultural Revolution, denouncing the “Four Olds.” Mao, himself, behaved like an emperor, the Chinese way. It’s very complex, we can not really say that China became completely convergent with Western ideology, communism, or marxism; or that China stayed in its ancient past. I would say that Chinese culture renewed several times. Continuity and departure.
PD: Now I’d like to shift to a slightly more controversial issue in US history, but also a very important one in the Cold War. Understanding the Vietnam War as an indirect conflict between the US and China, do you think that US intervention was justified? How do you see this conflict as progressing the Cold War?
XL: Well, this is still in debate among scholars, because this is really a “what if” question. What if the United States did not step into the Korean War? What if the United States stepped into the Chinese Civil War? And what if the United States did not step into the Vietnam War? I think American policymakers, in the initial years of the Cold War, exaggerated the communist threat. Because, at the time, American policymakers’ understanding of communism closely related to their understanding of Soviet threat. They tended to believe that Chinese communists, Vietnamese communists, and Korean communists were just policy instruments of Moscow. So they did not see the national development in these East Asian countries. Vietnam and Korea were former colonies so they had a national agenda for national independence. China was a so-called “semi-colonial” country under the treaty system. The Chinese people and Chinese political activists also had their national agenda, which did not necessarily follow Moscow’s political agenda, in competition with the United States. But American policymakers regarded these national developments as international developments. Although certainly, there were international backgrounds.
So I would not say that the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and the Koreans wanted to become involved in the Cold War. It was the Russians and the Americans who became involved in regional Asian developments. So in that sense, that was a mistake. And eventually, in terms of the cost – the human cost and the financial cost – America did not really achieve the goal to prevent [all of] Vietnam from becoming a communist country. We know in 1975, North Vietnam broke through the demilitarized zone and unified Vietnam. But there are also scholars arguing that without American intervention, communism would have expanded into a much larger part – but this is a “what if.” We cannot really prove that. In my opinion, that was a mistake. American policymakers need to consider regional conditions and different cultures in their own terms. But certainly this is the same thing for every country’s policymakers, they tend to consider international situations from their own point of view.
PD: As China has risen to a position as one of the world’s greatest powers, how should that change the way we understand China’s history throughout the 20th century?
XL: When we learn something from history, we tend to be limited by our own time, our perspective, the timespan we are using. Before China’s rise, even during the Deng years, China was making efforts to become rich again. Many people in the West did not predict that China would rise very soon. They would say “China has a long way to go.” But China seemed able to accomplish this rise in a rather brief time period. So now, people began to ask different questions about how to see China’s behavior and how to understand China’s past. I tend to believe that we need to use a much longer timespan to understand China as a historical phenomenon or as a cultural phenomenon. China in history, rose and fell many times, unlike any other great power in history. China was the only one that had many life cycles. Consider great powers, like Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Russia, and the United States. They became powerful and then fell. One life cycle. But China has a few thousand years of history, in which it rose and fell many times. If we use this cyclical view of history, which many historians disagree with – they tend to use a linear view to see progress, as history would not return to the original point. But when we see Chinese history, we should regard today’s situation as another cycle. The 20th century became this rise and fall, one phase of this cycle. I think the main question is the direction. When we say that China became unified, China became powerful, China became rich – these are some hard standards. There are some soft standards. How will China influence the world? How will China’s people view themselves as a member of the world? These are more difficult things.
PD: What has been the most surprising thing about academic and cultural environment of UVA?
XL: I have been in this country for over 30 years and I have taught in several universities, including private and state universities. I guess this would be my last station, although I tend to regard myself as an “academic nomad.” I moved around, I learned something from the Mongolian people.
PD: I’m guessing that UVA doesn’t want you to leave.
XL: Well, we’ll wait and see. Of course, it’s harder for me to move around now. When I came here, I really enjoyed the environment, the department, the university, the students. I have a favorable opinion about all of these, especially the students. UVA is a state university, but students here are much better than other state universities – very serious and diligent and interested in studying. Many of them really know what you want in life. Not like other places. What is surprising to me is this is a southern state right?
XL: I did not expect to encounter or to be at a place with this racial conflict. Well this year – it’s a big surprise. And also, because I am teaching graduate students, we try to recruit students of different colors, backgrounds, and orientations. I don’t know whether or not this is justified for some students to have opinions about this place. They feel this is not the most open or diverse place. Personally, when I was teaching in Iowa, one of the doctorate students interviewed me, because he was working on Chinese students’ experience in the United States. I got this question: “Whether or not I felt racial discrimination?” as someone from China and a different color. I never encountered that, maybe because I stayed at university. After I came here, this happened so soon. My friends in China and back in Iowa became very concerned about whether I was physically safe. I do not feel threatened, but this kind of atmosphere and this kind of hatred still exists in a place like this. Also, universities seem to be in debate about their own legacies – how to treat its historical legacy. This is something I did not expect.
PD: I’m sure that you are particularly interested in the legacy of a university, because you are a history professor.
XL: Both China and the United States have a rather complex past. How do we deal with the past? Can we use today’s standards to judge a historical time? That’s a question that historians need to answer and also, ordinary citizens.
PD: I think that’s a perfect question to leave the readers with. Thank you so much, Professor Liu, for this interview. I really appreciate you taking the time.