The Poet and the Historian: On Julian Gewirtz’s “Your Face My Flag” and “Never Turn Back”

By Sabina KnightAugust 21, 2023

The Poet and the Historian: On Julian Gewirtz’s “Your Face My Flag” and “Never Turn Back”

Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s by Julian Gewirtz
Your Face My Flag by Julian Gewirtz

“WHO TUTORED TIME in power’s paradigms?” asks the speaker in historian E. P. Thompson’s poem “Power and Names” (1986). Should it surprise us that the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) published poetry? Or that many of his poems drew on subjects from Chinese history such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (91 BCE)?

One way that poetry resists tyranny is by celebrating contingency. Historical narratives—particularly those in the service of politics—tend to erase contingency. If historical understanding depends on conceiving alternative outcomes, it makes sense that some of the best historians would also be poets.

Like Thompson—or Henry Adams or Robert Conquest—Julian Gewirtz is both a historian and a poet. He joins their ranks with 2022’s Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, his account of elite debates over China’s “reform and opening” in the 1980s and their subsequent erasure from official history. As much as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has suppressed this history, the decade’s back-and-forth struggles, Gewirtz posits, offer a “usable past” for current pursuits of democratic reforms. His persuasive evidence reminds us that China’s paths to reform could have led in other directions, and may still.

Formerly on Joe Biden’s National Security Council, Gewirtz is now deputy China coordinator at the State Department. Also a widely published poet, his achievements echo the polymath scholar-officials in the Chinese tradition, including major historian poets from Ban Gu (32–92 CE) through Ouyang Xiu (1007–72 CE) and beyond. With Never Turn Back, Gewirtz documents China’s paths not taken toward liberalization after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. By suppressing the alternatives considered during the 1980s, the CCP has erased those crossroads and made Xi Jinping’s bifurcation of economic development and political reforms look predetermined. Gewirtz excels not only in documenting that erasure but also at relating historical contingency to today’s realpolitik. In his debut poetry collection Your Face My Flag (2022), he gives voice to workers, dissidents, and lovers beset by contingencies that inhere even under authoritarian regimes.

Well-written and accessible to nonspecialist readers, Never Turn Back deserves to become the definitive history of the 1980s’ open-ended political exploration and its suppression. The book tells two stories divided by the brutal crackdown in Beijing following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989—the year Gewirtz was born. The first documents the fervent ideological debates of the 1980s surrounding economic development, the new technological revolution, and political reform. Gewirtz then recounts the unraveling of the reformist camp’s influence, their leaders’ fall during the protests in Tiananmen Square, and the CCP’s recasting of official history following the 1989 massacre. In what amounted to a “backward-looking indictment of China’s 1980s,” the new narrative enshrined the CCP as the sole legitimate leader of China’s inevitable rise as a global superpower.

To recover that erased history, Gewirtz credits Zhao Ziyang (1919–2005) as the unacknowledged engineer of China’s reforms. Although CCP propaganda later glorified Deng Xiaoping as “the chief architect of reform and opening,” Deng had left policymaking and its details throughout the 1980s to Hu Yaobang, the CCP’s general secretary from 1982 to 1987, and Zhao, who served as premier of the State Council from 1980 to 1987 and who followed Hu as general secretary from 1987 to 1989. To modernize the economy, Zhao recruited young advisers, many from the newly formed Institute for Chinese Economic System Reform. He also invited neoliberal economists Milton Friedman and James Tobin, as well as János Kornai, Ota Šik, and other experts on socialist economies and market transitions. Here Gewirtz offers a skillful reprise of his earlier book, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (2017).

Zhao also spearheaded China’s response to the “New Technological Revolution.” Zhao’s vision was inspired by American futurist Alvin Toffler’s theory of overlapping developmental waves from agricultural societies to the Industrial Revolution to high-tech power. Toffler’s The Third Wave (1980) had become a bestseller in China, and Zhao was quick to act amidst “Toffler fever” and the influence of John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (1982). In March 1986, Zhao spearheaded the 863 Program for high-tech investment and other bold policies to promote research and development, particularly China’s acquisition of information technology. The next year, he championed the coastal development strategy to import raw materials and foreign investment in order to exploit low-wage labor and fuel export-led growth.

As reformers sought to limit party interference in the economy, they even put on the table proposals for “separating the party and the government,” a stronger legislature, a more independent judiciary, “socialist democracy,” and protections for freedom of speech and debate. Support for reform spread when more than 200 million viewers watched the 1988 documentary River Elegy on China Central Television. The six-part series critiqued the “backwardness” of traditional Chinese civilization and endorsed Zhao’s coupling of political and economic reforms. “As of the spring of 1989,” Gewirtz writes, “the potential pathways for China’s modernization were numerous, open, and hotly contested.”

Zhao’s reform program was thwarted when economic setbacks collided with the CCP’s fears of political unrest. After a relaxation of price controls triggered runaway inflation, hardliners pursued stability through economic and political retrenchment. Hu Yaobang’s sudden death sparked mourning that escalated into drawn-out protests at Tiananmen Square. After workers joined the students, and the party prepared to impose martial law, Zhao implored the students to desist. That afternoon, Deng replaced Zhao with Jiang Zemin as general secretary. To reassert central control, the party mounted a rectification campaign and soon put Zhao under house arrest.

Once Zhao was purged, the propaganda apparatus issued explicit instructions to erase his name, image, and words. Biographies were destroyed or halted; his photograph was removed from reprints. Only his misdeeds could be included. The party also escalated attacks on “historical nihilism”—any critical portrayal of CCP history—and underscored the CCP’s role as “the great socialist survivor in a capitalist world.” The new narrative became even more crucial later that year with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and Romania’s Christmas Revolution. Although China hands have known of the debates he describes, Gewirtz provides meticulous documentation and context: “What is new is that rather than inferring it from the outside in, we can use documentary sources to see this erasure and distortion happening from the inside out.”

Never Turn Back also offers a cautionary lesson: what a regime suppresses in its official histories nonetheless may continue to reverberate. Against what he calls the CCP’s “new fable about the end of history,” Gewirtz ends by affirming that “history continues”: it is up to us to keep alive the knowledge that, “[j]ust as greater openness can be found in China’s past, it might well be found again in China’s future.” Some may question Gewirtz’s optimism about China’s ultimate turn to more liberal policies. Yet might the CCP’s increasingly authoritarian repression of dissent testify to the power of the reverberations Gewirtz hears? Within the government, rumblings may be quiet, but loud echoes include legal challenges to the arrests of lawyers and journalists, the defiant commemorations of the Tiananmen massacre each year on June 4, Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement and 2019 protests, and the White Paper Revolution of 2022.


Alongside Gewirtz’s influence as a scholar and a government leader, he has, through poetry, found a voice and a medium to reach multiple audiences. His poems have appeared in major venues such as The Nation and The New Republic, and one could interpret many of them as opinion pieces in free verse.

Gewirtz’s debut book of poetry, Your Face My Flag, collects poems on Chinese dissidents, despotic overreach, hopeless laborers, and homoerotic desire. For 18 of the poems, Gewirtz offers endnotes to clarify allusions that range from works on Chinese history to William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Willem de Kooning, and Fiona Apple. Many draw on his knowledge of contemporary China, while others address social justice in other contexts. Difficult to read aloud, the poems push back against expectations of sonority or rhythm. These formal effects—intentional or not—accentuate the poems’ treatments of their fraught subjects.

In “After the One-Day Trial, January 2014.” Gewirtz draws on civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong’s testimony in a poem that also evokes homoeroticism with lines like “You’re my brother now” and “You’re sitting on my twin bed”:

Two deer rumor in the sumac,
you know what to do.

Their bodies fling up,
you know what to do.

My want not odorless—my want a
sticky fistful of red grain—

Here, or in the line “Your face my flag, your face at half-mast,” whom might the speaker be addressing? The reader? The lawyer? A paramour? Is the face-made-a-flag the reference for the poem’s four repetitions of “To use a man for his shadow / is to make a thing of him”?

“To X (Written on This Device You Made)” dramatizes the death by suicide of Xu Lizhi, a factory worker and poet making iPhones at Foxconn’s sprawling Shenzhen complex. The voice shifts between an iPhone, an omniscient narrator, media reports, lines from Xu’s poems, one or more fellow workers, and the worker himself as he imagines recording a distress signal to send abroad to the iPhone’s purchaser. The poem conveys the de facto slavery of the migrant workers, “triple-bunked twelve to a room fences ten feet / tall on the roofs.” The fences deter suicides the workers contemplate: “halfway through the sixteen-hour shift you recall / a corner of roof where one’s torn be quick—” “[T]en more nets go up” repeats twice, with a third “ten more / and grates on every window.” One section poignantly suggests that Xu Lizhi might have survived had he moved from the assembly line to the jobs he sought as a librarian or in a bookstore. Here the poem draws on lines from “The Poet Who Died for Your Phone,” Emily Rauhala’s superb 2015 article in Time.

When a delegation visits the factory, “the city government seeds the clouds to cause rain it rains it clears the smog it leaves behind blue skies.” Does this rain presage the workers who fall from the sky? Weather modification reappears in another long poem, “Own Weather.” This poem’s epitaph quotes a 1996 US Air Force report proposing it should “own the weather” for aerospace dominance. As the speaker reads about cloud-seeding and “selective precipitation modification,” the poem undercuts the conceit of dominating nature: “All is falsehood / Except that infinite sky.” How might controlling the weather relate to a government’s other campaigns? Or to its control of history?

In Your Face My Flag and elsewhere, when Gewirtz ranges beyond his China expertise, his poems retain their rich allusions and concern for the powerless. A 2016 poem published by Lambda Literary (the well-respected LGBTQ+ advocacy organization) evokes the rape of Danaë by Zeus. Gewirtz recasts the poem’s final six lines in an otherwise different poem in Your Face My Flag. Although one parses the lines quite differently in the two poems, the latter’s telling title “from A Short History of the West” would befit the earlier poem as well.

What underlies Gewirtz’s broad vision and imagination? Gewirtz the historian sees large without losing sight of turning points that could have turned otherwise. Gewirtz the poet sees small, limning his subjects’ constraints without sacrificing their freedom. As the historian searches for coherence, the poet weaves possible futures. The poet may be the better historian. The grace of the historian poet is to caution us that neither individual nor communal history is foreordained.


Sabina Knight is the author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012) and The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (2006). She teaches Chinese and world literatures at Smith College.

LARB Contributor

Sabina Knight is the author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012) and The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (2006). She teaches Chinese and world literatures at Smith College.


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