In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Establishment Intellectuals

  • Introduction
  • Collections of Primary Materials
  • Online Resources
  • Translations
  • Reference Works
  • The History of Zhishifenzi
  • Establishment Intellectuals in Mao’s and Deng’s China

Chinese Studies Establishment Intellectuals
Timothy Cheek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0118


Establishment intellectuals describes intellectuals in the People’s Republic of China. The general Western meaning of an intellectual as independent of state or commercial interests applies most sensibly only to the Republican period (1912–1949), as earlier educated elites in China were shi (scholar-officials) in the Qing Dynasty, and the Party States of the mid-20th century (both Nationalist and Communist) sought to make intellectuals into members of state cadres. In contemporary China the establishment intellectuals’ role is now supplemented by their emerging roles as professionals offering public expert opinion and as citizen intellectuals speaking up on public affairs. However, the Chinese state under Xi Jinping shows renewed desire to manage intellectuals and public expression. Zhishifenzi 知识分子 was adopted in the 1920s as the Chinese equivalent for the European term intellectual or intelligentsia (particularly in its Russian usage), but in modern China the role of the educated elite has included a significant tie to public and state service. This became the only legitimate public role for intellectuals (beyond technical work as teachers or specialists) after 1949. To capture this conceptual and social meaning in English increasingly required scholars to qualify and redefine their use of the term “intellectual.” By the 1980s, the term “establishment intellectual” appeared in Western scholarship to flag this state orientation of Chinese intellectuals under Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In its most formal sense as defined by Hamrin and Cheek 1986 (cited under Establishment Intellectuals as a Category: Establishment of a Term) the term “establishment intellectuals” refers to leading figures who were both high-level intellectuals and high-level Party cadres. The term has continued to be used to reflect the focus on government service or at least working with the government that has characterized public activities of China’s writers and thinkers into the 21st century. Certainly dissident intellectuals were active in modern China (as they were in premodern China), but their activities were firmly curtailed by the Communist government. A minority of brave dissident intellectuals continues. In addition to these cross-cultural challenges to making sense of intellectual activity in modern China, the study of intellectuals is an inherently interdisciplinary topic engaging at minimum the perspectives of political science, philosophy, literary studies, and social history in order to discuss ideas and individuals, trends of thought and discourse, social and political institutions, as well as traditional historiographical questions of context and change over time. Thus several other topics in the Oxford Bibliographies will be of use to those interested in China’s establishment intellectuals: Modern Chinese Political Thought, The Chinese Communist Party to 1949, The Chinese Communist Party Since 1949, Journalism and the Press, Revolutionary Literature under Mao, Chinese Literature Post-Mao, and 1989 People’s Movement.

General Overviews

Studies of modern Chinese intellectuals generally cover the long 20th century—from late-Qing scholar-officials, to May Fourth intellectuals and liberals in the Republic, to intellectual cadres and dissidents under Mao, to intellectuals of various stripes in the post-Mao period and into the 21st century. Regardless of the terms used, most simply settle for “intellectuals” followed by a description of their concrete circumstances. Increasingly studies have wrestled with Chinese intellectuals’ focus on state service in the 20th century. In the 1980s the term “establishment intellectuals” was proposed to describe this distinctive orientation. Chinese surveys have likewise covered zhishifenzi more broadly but inevitably highlight establishment intellectuals, some drawing attention to tizhinei zhishifenzi 体制内知识分子 (intellectuals in the system or establishment).

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