Zhang Lifan 章立凡 is a writer and historian of Republican China (1912-1949), with a special interest in the warlord politics of the Beiyang government (1916-1927). He has also written on issues concerning civil society and on modern intellectual history in China.
In 2000, Zhang resigned from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), where he had been involved in the drafting of the multi-volume official History of Republican China 中华民国史. Severing ties with the establishment seems to have emboldened Zhang to write on topics regarded as politically taboo. He is widely praised as an independent thinker and has attracting a large following on the Chinese Internet. His writings also appear in mainstream magazines and newspapers. The influential political magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu 炎黄春秋, which enjoys the patronage of retired pro-reform senior Party officials, has published many of his personal essays and his biographical accounts of prominent Chinese intellectuals. Zhang has a particular interest in individuals who rose to fame in the Republican years and who, in 1949, chose to remain in what would become the People’s Republic rather than to follow the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan.
The youngest son of Zhang Naiqi 章乃器, a social activist once lauded by the Party for his anti-Nationalist stance before falling out of favor during the Anti-Rightist purge of the 1950s, Zhang has first-hand knowledge of the lives of prominent individuals who were persecuted along with his father. His memoirs often present new information on these individuals, all of whom had influence in cultural circles or in politics before their downfall under Mao (see, for example, 黄梅戏著名演员严凤英文革惨死记). Zhang’s own father died as a prisoner in a hospital basement in 1977.
One of Zhang’s most widely circulated works is a biography of Kang Tongbi 康同璧 (1897-1969, see 章立凡忆’文革’中的康同璧母女：乱世逸民), the daughter of Kang Youwei (康有为, 1858-1927), the renowned advocate of constitutional monarchy in late-Qing China. During the Cultural Revolution, Kang Tongbi, then the widow of a diplomat who had formerly served the Nationalist government, lived a protected and isolated life. Zhang presents a moving portrait of Kang as the descendant of a revered figure for whom Mao professed admiration, who witnessed in her final years the horrors of China’s descent into anarchic violence.
Zhang Lifan is also active in promoting political reforms in China. In 2008, he was a signatory of the Charter 08 manifesto for democracy and on 25 December 2012 his name appeared on a petition (signed by seventy-one scholars) posted online, urging the new Party leadership under Xi Jinping to undertake political reforms and highlighting the crucial need to separate the Party from the government.
A prolific online commentator, Zhang often posts scathing remarks on social issues. In one post, he dismissed China’s education system as incompatible with modern citizenship and declared it incapable of nurturing independent thinkers (see 中国的教育培养不出公民). In another, he poked fun at the ‘Fifty-cent Gang’ 五毛党 (online commentators paid by the state to post pro-government remarks) using a photo-shopped image of China’s national flag where he replaced each of its five gold stars with the character ‘毛’ (meaning ‘ten cents’). The five mao 毛, or ‘fifty cents’, represents the fee per comment that these propagandists are rumored to be paid (see 章立凡肆意篡改国旗门). Since ‘Fifty-cent Gang’ is regularly used to deride anyone who volunteers a pro-government remark, Zhang’s microblog promptly attracted a deluge of hostile comments. He was called a traitor for defiling the national flag.