"Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China" Review

Updated on April 2, 2018
A rather cryptic cover
A rather cryptic cover

A Murder Mystery of a History Book

Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China by R. Keith Schoppa is not a primary source book. While this limits it in some ways and opens it to the inherent limitations of secondary sources - not admittedly, that Daughter of Han was lacking in layers of separations, given that it
was taken down by the writer and then translated into English, but it was still a primary source - it also provides compelling detail. Furthermore, the book is specifically written with historical analysis in mind. Thus, it is capable of offering a significant amount of important information to readers interested in the historical development of China, from varied perspectives. In doing so, it adopts a format which is not a traditional history book, but is instead more like a murder mystery : starting with a crime that killed the revolutionary Shen Dingyi, following his life, and attempting to discover who had committed it.

Writing History : Travails and Shortcomings

The origin of Blood Road as a secondary source gives rise to problems. A primary
source, while biased personally, is generally written within the thought-context of the writer. By contrast, a secondary source, by nature, invites a greater amount of bias. While the dangers of orientalism and the necessity to take into account the power of representation are by now well understood in the scholarly fields, it is inevitable that any secondary source will incorporate such aspects. Certain attitudes will be emphasized and the author’s historical commentary may be biased, even if it is done with the best of intentions. In the case of Blood Road, even if there was no demonstrated bias, many of the sources come from substantially later, themselves from second-hand sources. For example, most memory of Shen Dingyi’s initial work to help create the communist party comes from the 1950s, which naturally might make it quite inaccurate. 1 Of course, memoirs present the same problem, written at the end of the writer’s life, but the issue is still one which is apparent. In addition, certainly there will be translation errors involved in the production of the work using original Chinese sources, some of which will be culturally vital.

Schoppa is a historian, and writes for an Anglo-Saxon audience which is composed of other historians, in a context long after the events involved have transpired. In addition to the issues of past memory and accuracy, his positionality after the Revolution, seventy years removed from the fact, makes him vulnerable to bias, no matter how well-intentioned and informed he is, which is compounded by writing for an English speaking audience, who naturally will have certain perspectives reflected in the book. Finally, Schoppa starts out with an a presumed bias - affection towards Shen Dengyi - and an objective - to show how social networks influenced 1920s China - and this will color the entire book, being the perspective from which he applies the most focus.

This is not to undermine the book. As a secondary source, it presents a tremendous amount of history on China, particularly politically and ideologically - socially to a lesser extent. Utilizing factual information and primary statements by Shen Dingyi, the text provides an important insight into China during the period. It provides both information on a singular case study, as well as on the Chinese situation in general, and is probably as truthful and as accurate as it can be. But still, it will have biases, and it would probably be best to supplement the work with additional primary sources.

The Last Days of the Confucian Elite

While the book may be focused on political history, it does shed light on social history and social composition, such as documenting the high rate of Chinese female suicides circa 1920. 2 The link between wealth and scholarship - a strong one in a civilization where the scholar- gentry formed the ruling elite - is demonstrated by the Shen lineage, an impressively rich family, holding in the front of their House of Brightness and Prosperity a flag with the pennant of the civil service. 3 This serves to remind us that the Chinese upper class are part of the government, not an independent group. There is social stratification in China during the era of Shen Dingy, and there are elites, but thinking of these as a European style independent aristocracy is applying non-contextual world views. The Shen family has wealth, however it is their position within the Imperial bureaucracy, not their independent status, that makes them members of the Chinese ruling class. That Shen Dingyi passed the exams, when there was such a high failure rate also demonstrates the limitations of the meritocratic and egalitarian imperial examinations. Naturally, families who prepared their sons could expect a higher passing rate.

Examination halls like these, and not vast landholdings, were the basis of power of the Chinese aristocratic elite. Not a European based system of power.
Examination halls like these, and not vast landholdings, were the basis of power of the Chinese aristocratic elite. Not a European based system of power.

Shanghai of the Interwar: Pearls and Misery

The book vividly and explicitly demonstrates the social networks and relations that
formed - and presumably still form - a vital part of China. Even intensely ideological
transformations, such as Shen Dingy’s farmers associations, spread through social, economic, and labor networks, not through official conduits of information. 4 Communist power is solidified in Zhejiang province, temporarily at least in 1928, because of their strong and competitive network vis a vis Shen. 5 Still, Schoppa makes too strong a case for networks. Clearly, networks are important in revolutionary periods, and we should not merely examine ideological aspects,
but this is part and parcel of any revolution and I’m unconvinced that it is as neglected of a topic as Schoppa makes it out to be.

Given that Shen resides in Shanghai, naturally there is historical merit gleaned from the book's portrayal of his life there. The author depicts the upper class life of Shanghai, painting a picture of ease, happiness, luxury, sophistication, and wealth. Shanghai is clearly depicted as the Pearl of the Orient, a city of riches and prestige, while at the same time being an industrial city where workers live a grinding life of poverty. Still, this knowledge of the poor is limited in that Shen never attends these sections of the city, where he might be at greater risk, outside of the
French concession. He sees them as they commute through his section of the city, and feels for their plight, but he does not see the true nature of their existence.

Interwar Shanghai: "The Pearl of the Orient" for the wealthy, and yet also home to vast conglomerations of poor textile workers who lived in terrible conditions.
Interwar Shanghai: "The Pearl of the Orient" for the wealthy, and yet also home to vast conglomerations of poor textile workers who lived in terrible conditions.

Anarchy, Localism, and Exile

Because Blood Road is a historical biography concerning a noted political figure, it is vital to understand the political developments that took place there during the late Qing and the Republican era. In particular, it focuses on connections, the famous Chinese guanxi (although we shouldn’t unduly orientalize Chinese as being uniquely based on relations, in contrast to our “rational” and “institutional” society) extending this to cover the importance to ideology and social development, beyond just fighting in the corridors of power. Of course, the corridors of power receive plenty of focus, such as in the maneuverings in the provincial assemblies, and the
disputes between central government and the provinces. However, it also provides a complex historical narrative of the period, even if it comes via the author rather than the protagonist.

Centralized political authority is in abeyance during this period in China. Instead of going to the law, farmers in need of assistance in recovering debts go to Shen. 6 Even provincial authorities resultantly seem to be on the retreat. This is a notable difference from a Daughter of Han, when during this period we see, for one of the first times, the involvement of the state in helping her to secure her money. 7 Of course, the capability to keep peasant farmers in check by deployment of military troops never fades.

One important element of the work defines how the Chinese diaspora abroad provided both impetus to the home revolution as well as safehaven for failed revolutionaries. Shen Dingy flees to Japan, not once, but twice, 8 as well as going to Shanghai - an admittedly lesser trip, but still in de-facto French territory there 9 and safe from repression within China proper. This proves the ability of Chinese dissidents to seek refuge overseas, where they could continue their work
safe from the arms of the Qing government or dangerous domestic forces within the Republic.

Another aspect of the book deals with the attitudes of provincial areas towards central authority. It would be inaccurate to categorize this as nationalist or separatist, but during the 1910 period at least, there is a strong trend of provincialism vis-à- vis the central government. “The whole country’s, not only Zhejiang, affairs are the responsibility of the people of Zhejiang. Likewise the whole of China should bear some responsibility to the people of Zhejiang. If Zhejiangese are not self-governing, then one by one they will appoint outsides, and will those outsides not rule by pulling in more outsiders? 10 Understanding this enables a proper contextualization of core-periphery relations in China, seeing it not as separatist struggles from the central government but from local desires for self government.

Zhejiang Province's location in China.
Zhejiang Province's location in China.

The First United Front : The Nationalists and the Communists Join Hands

The author notes a vital development in China when the communists began to move away from the cities to rural mobilization. Education is naturally where this first begins, and the later communist focus on peasant education, for the peasants, in peasant styles, is shown as early as the early 1920s. 11 Thus, Blood Road makes a good historical work for examining the early development of the communists in the countryside. Some of this can be viewed as coming from
previous precedents. For example, the idea that farmers could become soldiers to defend against “interior threats”, while soldiers dealt with external threats, 12 is something that can be viewed as an extension of the practice of the utilization of provincial militia soldiers during the wars fought during the last half-century of the Qing dynasty, even if being used for different policy makers.
The early revolutionary appeal of the Guomindang, in alliance with the Communist Party,is usefully portrayed by the author, and can help a more vivid understanding of the cooperation between the two parties during this period. In conjunction, they both support “national revolution,” “establish union,” “down with the warlords,” “oppose imperialism,” “make the eight-hour day a reality,” “equal wages for men and women,” prohibit child labor,” “emphasize factory safety and sanitation,”and “propertyless classes unite.” 13 Distinctly, the joint harmony between the communists and the nationalists is displayed in the radical programs which they share. While most readers are probably aware of the First United Front, it still clearly displays The extent of cooperation between the two parties, even if the Guomindang leaders might not take the leader on town marches for fear of offending capitalists. 14 There was a latent distrust between the two, but in public at least, they were united - for a time. Inevitably, the unity breaks down. Even still, after this breakdown, a brief reconciliation during the Northern Expedition, and subsequent purge, the nationalist rhetoric still deploys many themes that could, out of context, otherwise be seen as communist; they castigate “local bullies and evil gentry” who were blocking the revolution, 15 something that would sound like a line directly from Mao. The differences between the communists and the nationalists are indeed, at times, not very large.

Although the United Front broke down by 1927, for several years the Chinese Nationalists and Communists worked together closely.
Although the United Front broke down by 1927, for several years the Chinese Nationalists and Communists worked together closely.

Editing History

Both the communists and the nationalists are willing to interpret history to suit their
objectives, of course. Mao claimed a thousand years of landlordism under the same system of oppression, with a real capitalist advance stopped by the Imperial dynasties, and that the institutions of the system were now to collapse in the proletariat revolution. Just so, Shen Dingyi claims that there has been no self-government in China throughout history due to repression by the Imperial dynasties, but now the system is breaking down. 16 Although there are certainly
differences in what is judged as in need of reform, the overall approach is remarkably similar.

The book is very useful concerning ideological developments in Revolutionary China. Although this information is doubtless replicated elsewhere, it still provides for an interesting look into how urban space was viewed in the early Chinese Republic. In place of the former military barracks at Hangzhou, modern, open and spacious European-style architecture was built, including new infrastructure like public athletic fields, public education facilities, and public gardens. 17 It is ironic that this change, de-emphasizing the status of the military publically, happened at the same time that the military discovered an unprecedented amount of political power. However, it still shows the vision of the Republic, built on an educated, fit, powerful, and populist society, as compared to Qing structures which, at least from the republican view, hold segregated ethnic groups with a select minority ruling over an alienated majority. It also reflects a new construction of power as displayed by the State; from the highly visible state power of a military encampment there emerges the distributed power of the state in the form of the restructuring of the urban spaces of a city, public education and the sculpting of the body of the new citizen, and the propagation of public health and hygiene through gardens. This power might not be as visible, but it is all the more pervasive and potent.

Yuan Shikai : an example of military men becoming involved in politics, much to the chagrin of all.
Yuan Shikai : an example of military men becoming involved in politics, much to the chagrin of all.

A 5,000 Year Old Civilization Faces Modernity

Naturally, stemming from this time of immense change, there are new and profound ideological developments which occurred , in tune with the general ferment of ideas present in the period of the late Qing and early Republic. One of these is a focus on individualism, which is promoted by Shen Dingyi. "Each person must depend on himself in looking for the right road. Each person must walk forward by himself. He can’t live on the other people's backs with his eyes closed, ears plugged, and be carried forwards." 18 This does replace traditional Chinese perspectives on relationships between people forming a vital part of humanity, but it does place a significant, even primary, relationship upon the individual, and their capacity and necessity for driving change. Feminism, individualism, and communism abound, showing their popularity among Chinese intellectuals of the period. There is also an increasing sign of disillusionment with parties that maintain the parliamentary and constitutionalist methods of the 1910s; instead, a growing focus manifests itself upon disciplined, ideologically driven, and exclusionary models. 19

As throughout Chinese history, there continues to be a focus on the individuals who make up the system, rather than the system itself. Of course, the early Republic was focused on legalistic matters and proper process, at least by its civilian elites, 20 but at the same time the continued focus upon human relationships, personal transformation, and responsibility shines through. 21 Shen emphasizes the importance of the individual politicians and military for reform, or exclusion. "The military men when they succeeded in reform were instantly turned into men needing to be reformed! The revolutionary of politicians is always opportunistic. Their greedy eyes always stare at future power and benefits. . . . Since these politicians are swayed by considerations of gain or loss, they stand between reformers and those to be reformed. Now that we exclude both military men and politicians from our reform cause, the success of our reform depends on the power of the common people." Thus, despite the focus that Shen pledges - and is honestly loyal and devoted to - for the subject of legalism, he still displays the traditional Confucian focus on men, rather than just institutions. In this way, despite its formal rejection, Confucian ideology continues to illustrate actions taken in the Republic.

Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China provides a great deal of information on the events which occurred during a tumultuous period in the world and in China in particular. This is a tremendously complicated period of upheaval and crisis, one that makes it hard to cover with due brevity, one that involved constantly shifting alliances, ideologies, and social conditions, and one that transformed the history of China. Blood Road does an admirable job of exploring this complex era, even if it is always limited by being a secondary source, showing with clarity the murky waters of the time that ultimately resulted in the murder of Shen Dingyi. It makes for a fascinating and intriguing book, one that despite being a secondary source contains elements of a novel in its bibliographic approach, which illuminates the time. For those interested in Chinese history in the interwar, the Chinese revolution, Chinese nationalism, political ideology in the early 20th century in China, and even the travails of life and social events in China in this period to some extent, this book would be a welcome read.


1 R. Keith Schoppa, Blood Road The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China (Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1995), 82.

2 Schoppa, Blood Road, 69.
3 Ibid. 20.

4 Schoppa Blood Road, 109.
5 Ibid.188.

6 Ibid.101.
7 Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1945), 227.
8 Schoppa, Blood Road, 20, 22.
9 Ibid. 50.

10 Ibid. 44.
11 Ibid. 100.
12 Ibid. 137.

13 Ibid.139.
14 Ibid.141.
15 Ibid. 207.
16 Ibid.214.

17 Ibid. 32.
18 Ibid. 47.

19 Ibid.133.
20 Ibid. 35.
21 Charles A. Desnoyers, Patterns of Modern Chinese History (New York, Oxford University Press, 2017), 43.
22 R. Keith Schoppa, Blood Road The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China (Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1995), 49.


Charles A. Desnoyers Patterns of Modern Chinese History (New York, Oxford University Press,
Ida Pruitt, A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman
(Stanford:Stanford University Press, 1945).

R. Keith Schoppa, Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China (Berkeley,
Berkeley University Press, 1995).

5 stars for Blood Road

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