View from the Wall

Beyond the Shadow of History


Chinese people have often said that China has a long and glorious history. Since the Xia dynasty, when handwriting was first introduced, there have been at least three thousand years of recorded history. As we Chinese look back on this heritage, we cannot help but feel very proud of it.

Indeed, in the perpetual flow of human history China has played a significant role on various occasions. During the Tang and Han dynasties 1,000 and 2,000 years ago respectively, China was the most dominant country in the East. Printing, gunpowder and the compass were invented in China and later exported via the Silk Road to Europe where they were widely used. The Chinese civilization also had a strong influence over Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other Asian nations. More importantly, beginning with the Han dynasty, Confucian thought established itself as the dominant philosophy and paradigm that shaped the foundation of Chinese politics and society for centuries to come.

During the Han dynasty, the centralization of Chinese feudal society achieved a high level. As the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties came and went, this feudal system matured. The unique characteristic of China’s economy during those days of feudalism was that of a self-enclosed and self-sufficient nation. Confucian philosophy provided the moral fabric that laid the foundation for this society and, with the standardization of the Chinese written language, it became the people’s religion. If the Western nations had not developed and risen above the rest of the world in recent centuries, China would probably have continued on her feudal path.

Nevertheless, a long history can become heavy baggage. An excessive centralized feudal system suppressed the vigor of Chinese society and China declined over the last three hundred years. At the same time, Western nations rose via the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Even Japan joined the Western world as a developed nation after the Meiji Restoration. Suddenly, China discovered that her once formidable empire was no longer. After the 19th century, Western nations, using their military might, forced China to open her doors. Her previous pride and glorious history were replaced by humiliation and pain. The once proud civilization had become history.

The people of China became angry and resentful toward the corruption and incompetence of the Qing dynasty then in power. Many intellectuals realized that something had to be done quickly before China began an even steeper plunge. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, the most influential of the reformers, attempted a top down political reform. They acquired Western science, technology and military equipment while still maintaining the old centralized feudal system in hopes of restoring China to her previous powerful status. The reform failed. Rather than saving the Qing dynasty, the reform movement of 1898 actually increased the resolve of the Chinese people to overthrow it.

For China, the first half of the 20th century was a bloody one. The Boxer Rebellion, the 1911 Revolution, the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists all occurred within this short span of history. By 1949, China’s violent revolutions finally came to an end. Under the Communist Party’s rule a series of political movements followed: the land reform, the Three Against and the Five Against campaigns, the Anti-Rightists campaign, the Great Leap Forward and, finally, the Cultural Revolution.

Then, at the end of the 70s, Deng Xiaoping began a new reform with joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) as one of its main goals. Today, more than 20 years of effort have finally paid off. At this time, when most of the world is in an economic slowdown, China is enjoying a steadily growing economy. China is re-emerging on the world’s center stage as a rising superpower. The sleeping giant has finally wakened.

Now people are asking what the difference is between today’s new China and the old China. What have the Chinese people learned from their own culture during this transition?

Desire for Dominance

In Chinese culture, “grandfather” is a symbol of power and authority; “grandchild,” on the other hand, is a symbol of weakness. “Grandfather” gives orders. He is the commander in chief. “Grandchild” is the one who follows orders. While China’s long and magnificent history often serves as a

stimulus to generations of Chinese who have a desire to relive the old dream—to return to the old days of glory of the Han and Tang dynasties—in reality, the past hundred years of China’s history have been full of pain and humiliation. This period of history reminds every Chinese person of what it is like to be the “grandchild.” However, having a strong nation and bringing honor to the ancestors should be the norm; the “grandfather” is what the Chinese should be. 

To be the “grandchild,” dictated to by other nations, is not normal and should only be temporary. Therefore, Chinese nationalism has been the over-arching spirit of every revolution. From the Sino-Japanese War to the Nationalist-Communist Civil War, the Communist Party has always used China’s restoration as a world power as their way to mobilize the masses for their cause. The “Revive China” slogan provides a good picture of how desperate and anxious China is to return to the old days of glory. With such a mentality, even the outcome of a soccer game, the launching of a missile or the competition to host the Olympic Games become a focal point for millions of Chinese. When success is achieved, the people shout for joy. When there is failure, the people mourn.

For this same reason, the Chinese envy the strength and riches of the United States on one hand, while on the other they view the U.S. as the primary obstacle keeping China from becoming strong. Therefore, many Chinese would love to see the U.S. decline. This explains why many Chinese were actually glad to see the September 11 attack on the U.S.

There is still quite a disparity between China and many developed Western nations in areas such as economic development, science and technology and social development. This continues to be a source of psychological imbalance for many Chinese. It drives Chinese people to reflect on their own history while they work diligently to try to catch up with the West. The Chinese desire is that China once again be a dominant nation. Chinese Communists advocate, and market in party propaganda, nationalism—not Marxism or communism. This is a clever strategy they deploy by exploiting the desire of the Chinese people to be a dominant nation once again.

If China indeed is able to become an influential and powerful nation as a result of her economic development, then she needs to be not a “grandfather,” but a responsible, compassionate, righteous member of the world community. Unfortunately, what is still burning in the hearts of many Chinese is the spirit of nationalism. In many ways, this nationalism is similar to some extreme Islamic movements that destroy rationality and civility. If we Chinese do not see this clearly, then China will not be able to move beyond the shadow of her own history.

Seeking Values

The nucleus of Chinese culture is Confucianism. Ancient Chinese often exhibited characteristics such as gentleness, humility, diligence, courtesy and incorruptibleness that are traditional virtues in Chinese culture. Nevertheless, these virtues have been under attack—or eradicated—as China has gone through the storms of revolution over the past hundred years. Under communism, these virtues were replaced by the new “struggle” (Dou Zheng) philosophy by people who wanted to be “liberated.” Class struggle, ethnic struggle, philosophical struggle, political struggle, military struggle, civil struggle—regardless of style or substance, everything was decided by one of these “struggles.” Mao Zedong said, “Communist party philosophy is a philosophy of ‘struggles.’”

To struggle, you must have tools. The slogan “political power comes out of the barrel of a gun” became a great tool for the Communists. They believed in using violent revolution to acquire and maintain their own political power. Dictatorship through harsh repression was substituted for democracy and the rule of law. It was not until the late 20th century, when people realized all these struggles brought much harm to China, that the nation became desperate for an alternative. It was then she finally gave up class struggle and started economic reform.

More than 20 years have passed. As the rest of the world can see, China’s economic growth has been nothing less than phenomenal. At the same time, morality in China has declined. Corruption and crime fill the new China. In the absence of balance and accountability within the dictatorship, morality and virtue are merely empty slogans. Lying, cheating, and materialism fill the society. Traditional Chinese values are nowhere to be found.

It is quite obvious that Communism’s own morality and virtues have failed completely while it has successfully erased traditional morality and virtues. The moral crisis in China has been one of the hot topics since the early 80s—even in the media. Almost everyone understands that one cannot have material life without spiritual life. As the Chinese abandon their faith in Communism, they look back in history with the hope of rediscovering old-fashioned virtues. Recently, the government released Guidelines for Construction of Civility. By resurrecting the old morality and virtues, they hope it will somehow make up for the lack of morality and virtue in the new China.

How can China travel this road? The answer is simple: she can’t. Once traditional values were eradicated and communism abandoned, how can two systems that failed individually be combined and expected to now work together? The combination looks like a huge “chop suey.” Trying to knit together pieces of moral teachings and expecting them to actually fill the deepest needs of mankind is doomed from the beginning.

Many of China’s industries are going to be severely impacted by the WTO entry and many people will lose their jobs in the short term. Dissatisfaction, pressure and instability will become more severe and be further worsened by existing problems in the environment, resources, population and ethnic conflicts. Whether China will experience another uprising, or even a split, depends on the Chinese leaders’ abilities to deal with these problems. It depends on whether the traditional Chinese values are strong enough to hold the society together and on whether the Chinese are able to return to positive aspects of Confucian philosophy such as family values. It also depends on balanced views winning out over extremist views.

Using History to Shape the Future

Five thousand years of history cannot simply be denied; neither can the course of history easily be reversed. Past aspects of history cannot readily be evoked for use in the present: traditional values cannot be used to serve the purposes of communism. The only way to advance is to have an open mind and begin a dialogue that seeks a common ground between traditional values based on Confucian philosophy and values from other civilizations.

China’s long and unique history will impact the new China from the 21st century onward. At the same time, there is a commonality in civilizations of all cultures around the world. China can no longer afford to remain apart from other cultures; rather, she should work with them and strive to become a force for world peace. This fits well with both the will of God, who desires that all men live together in peace, and with the will of the Chinese people, who desire peace.

Translation is by Tian Hui.
Image credit: The Great Wall Cast a Shadow by Let Ideas Compete, on Flickr

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio