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Professor Johannes M M Chan SC (Hon) 陳文敏


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Book Recommendation (by Professor Johannes M M Chan)

Jonathan D Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (USA: Penguin Books, 1982)

Contemporary history has never been a strong discipline in China. This is not because we do not have good historians. Rather, it is something deeply seated in our culture. The long history of China is full of suppression and torture of those who are prepared to testify to the truth of contemporaneity. "The pen of Spring and Autumn" is very often confined to the distant past. True is it that one can easily lose his objectivity in writing about contemporary history. Yet for a country that has gone through so much in the last 100 years, is it not sad that the accounts of most textbooks on contemporary history stop after the Second World War?

This is of course not to say that there is no book on events in China after 1949. Indeed, many exist, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. Yet most of them are either written with a particular political stance and a less than objective analysis, or infused with anger or frustration or political dogmatism. In recent years, our Government attempts to promote patriotism by asking our students to learn more about the history of contemporary China, but how can understanding even begin to start when there is a dearth of an objective account of the history in the past 100 years?

A leading professor at Yale University, Jonanthan Spence recounts the history of China between 1895 and 1980. Unlike many western historians or Chinese experts, his account is passionate but objective, distant and yet with a distinct understanding of Chinese culture. Instead of focusing on political figures and historical events, he traced the history of China in the last 100 years through the thoughts, words and life of a small number of Chinese intellects, particularly Kang Youwei, a nationalistic scholar brought up in traditional education at the end of the Qing Dynasty who believed in the reform of the declining empire, Lu Xun, who was angry with the Qing Dynasty and disappointed with the Nationalists, and Ding Ling, a sad but typical story of intellect succumbing to political reality. The lives of these three characters span the entire period of contemporary Chinese history. Around these three key figures are the stories of many well known intellects? the young Tan Sitong, the scholars Liang Qichao and Shen Congwen, the idealist Qiu Jin, the poets Wen Yiduo and Xu Zhimo, the Marxist Qu Qiubai, the satirical novelist Lao She, the educationist Cai Yuanpei, the protester Wei Jingsheng. Each lived their colourful life with courage and startling wisdom. Each of them has their own ideals, and pursued them in their own way. Each of their lives had its own shape and force, and each of them had to make difficult choices in life. Some decided to fight, others decided to compromise. Some retired to destiny, whilst others were determined to believe in a better tomorrow when hope seemed luxurious. Some chose to be a spectator, others decided to leave their allotted place in history and marched to the centre of the stage, sometimes not really out of their own choosing, but they rose to the challenges of their time even to the point of giving up their own lives. Their lives provide a powerful account of the turbulent era of modern China.

Interestingly, many major events in China in the last 100 years took place before the Gate of Heavenly Peace ? a remarkable place of paradoxes that is inseparable from the modern history of China. I was first attracted to this book by its Preface, and you can't stop reading it thereafter:

The Gate of Heavenly Peace guards the southern approach to the former imperial palace complex in Beijing. Until China's last dynasty fell in 1912, it was through this gate that the main axis of the Emperor's power was believed to run, as he sat in his throne hall, facing south, the force of his presence radiating out across the courtyards and ornamental rivers of the palace compound, passing through the gate, and so to the great reaches of countryside beyond. During the teens and twenties of this century the gate ceased to have either a clear defensive or a clear symbolic function, though it bore quiet witness to the new paradoxes that were beginning to dominate Chinese life: north of the gate the corrupt court of the abdicated Emperor lived on in twilight grandeur behind their walls, struggling to survive amidst turbulent warlord regimes; in front of the gate, using it as a marker and meeting place, political activists, students, and workers gathered in vocal demonstrations to protest the ineffectualness of their nominally republican regimes in the face of foreign imperialist aggression, only to be dispersed with clubs or with gunfire. (p 17)


Jeffrey Robertson, Justice Game (Vintage, 1998)

As a leading Queen's Counsel specialising in human rights and media law, Jeffrey described his own personal experience in some of the most controversial cases in the common law system.  These cases dealt with a wide range of subjects, from obscenity to official secrets to death penalty to privacy to homosexuality.  Instead of emphasizing his own role, he described these cases to show how the common law system works, or fails to work.  It is compassionately written, and Jeffrey demonstrated a strong conviction of the common law system - a conviction to sustain justice and the rule of law.  The book is infused with anger and frustration when the system does not work or when the Government tried to abuse the system, and at the same time with passion and belief in justice (which sometimes arrives 20 years in delay)!  This is a most enlightening book suitable for anyone who cares about justice.  Indeed, it was this book that inspired me to write the column on the Road to Justice in Ming Pao in 2000.

Johannes Chan

July 2003