Wealth and Power at Capital M

FuQiang 强: Wealth and Power. Together they are shorthand for a state with sufficient strength to repel enemies from without and of sufficient prosperity to provide a level of sustenance for those within.  

In his book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with Orville Schell, historian John Delury argues, “For Chinese reformers since the early nineteenth century, these two characters have repeatedly stood in for the profound desire among China’s cognoscenti to see their country restored to the kind of greatness their ancestors had once taken for granted. Above all, these patriotic Chinese yearned for their nation to be able to defend itself against foreign incursion.”

Wealth and Power was my favorite Chinese history book of last year and I even used it as a core text in my Modern Chinese History class this past fall. Not every chapter is a winner, but the decision to select key figures to represent their ‘age’ and then give each figure their own section makes the book an ideal choice for the upper-division undergraduate classroom.  Several choices are inspired, in particular Feng Guifen over the more obvious choices of Zeng Guofan or Li Hongzhang; Chen Duxiu rather than Lu Xun; and Zhu Rongji instead of Jiang Zemin in the post-Tiananmen era.

John Delury appeared today in Beijing as part of the Capital M Literary Festival.  Answering questions from moderator Ed Wong of the New York Times, Delury argued, as he does in the book, that ideology in China has for the most part become subservient to the quest for wealth and power, and that this wish to ‘return’ as the dominant regional power, something he argues  many Chinese see as the natural state of affairs in East Asia, is coming close to completion. In effect, the restoration has succeeded.

During the Q&A session, I asked about the role of modernity. While rejecting the hoary old trope of “Western Impact” and “Chinese Response” as the driving force of modernization in Chinese history, it can still be said that this search for wealth and power could be also described as a search for modernity, and in particular a modernity that is also fully, or mostly, a Chinese modernity. This is a common predicament for many countries in the developing world, particularly those once subjected to imperialist subjugation or oppression.

Imperialist countries use the lack of development as partial justification for actions which are inherently exploitive. Whether couched in a discourse of “uncivilized” or “backwards,” the implicit, and often explicit, narrative is that the colonized other lacks modernity and should welcome ‘modernizing forces’ regardless of the ancillary costs.

(Ironically, the Chinese government is repeating this pattern in its relationship with its own ‘colonized’ regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but that’s a subject for another post…)

The result is that reformers in subjugated societies begin their search for ‘modernity’ by internalizing the colonial critique of their own culture.

For example, foreign writers would castigate Chinese people for things like spitting on the ground or binding their women’s feet, calling these practices backward, barbaric customs which are unhygienic and antithetical to a modern society.  Chinese reformers seeking to modernize China then first looked to eradicate those practices seen (by foreigners) as ‘backwards’ or antithetical to modernization.

Regardless of whether or not the practices described should have been eradicated or not, the result was  the standard for a ‘modern’ society was ultimately  defined by foreigners/Westerners.  That which looked foreign/western was perceived to be modern, that which was traditionally Chinese was often rejected as backward or getting in the way of modernity.

In the case of foot binding or infanticide that probably was a good thing, but this way of thinking reached its catastrophic apogee during the Cultural Revolution when all that was old was targeted for destruction with devastating results for China’s cultural heritage.

Don’t worry, I phrased the question a good deal more succinctly this afternoon, asking how a quest for a particularly Chinese modernity fits with Delury’s thesis of wealth and power being the driving force of modern Chinese history.

Delury to some extent punted, but I suspect it’s because he was looking at ‘modern’ more as a periodization while I was thinking of modern as a particular, although often chimerical, condition of society.  Delury argues that the ‘modern’ in China has such negative connotations because of the association of the period with humiliation and catastrophe of the ‘modern period’ that Chinese are to some extent trying to move past modernity.

I would disagree, even allowing for periodization, if only because the idea of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’ is so central to not only official rhetoric on development but also in popular discourse.  Modern/urban/wealthy is good. Poor/traditional/rural not as much.

If I had a critique of Delury and Schells’ book, it would be this: While wealth and power are no doubt central to many Chinese understanding of China’s development, neither can be separated from an understanding of modernization that needs, if it is to be acceptable, to be somehow removed from foreign critiques of China and foreign standards/assumptions of what a modern China should look like.

Put another way: I argue the central thesis of modern Chinese history is the search for a nation/state that is powerful, wealthy, and united, and a society that is both fully modern and fully Chinese.  It is a difficult challenge, but I argue that since the Opium War almost every Chinese leader and intellectual has grappled with this very question. The answers about HOW to do this are often shockingly different.  Chiang Kai-shek’s answer to how to accomplish this task looks very different from those proposed by Feng Guifen or Mao Zedong, but the question remains constant.

Introducing modernity in to this equation helps to bring dissenting voices more fully into the conversation. Delury and Schell’s last chapter focuses on Liu Xiaobo and Delury argued that to some extent Liu represents an outlier, arguing that there were more important considerations (human rights, civil society) which trumped the search for wealth and power. Other, less incarcerated, writers have made similar points, decrying GDPism as trumping public health or civil liberties.

But although Liu Xiabo (or Xu Zhiyong or Wang Hui) might argue that GDPism/wealth/power is not a preeminent concern, all three are very much engaged in a search for a Chinese modernity.  In fact, one criticism of these intellectuals, particularly from the left, is that there view of modernity is a little too close to that prescribed by Western critics of the Chinese regime.

Whether one agrees with Liu Xiaobo’s vision of a Chinese society guided by constitutional reform or Xi Jinping’s vision of a country where everybody can achieve the “Chinese Dream,” the search for a Chinese modernity continues.


Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?


Cross-posted at Rectified.name

For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives.  There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.

Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”

For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon.  So what changed?

Well, the calendar for one.  On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China.  One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar.  Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born.  Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”

In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas.  Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year.  Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.

When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year.  Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.

During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches.  For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!

In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?”  The next year the fireworks returned.  In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution.  Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.

Stupid name or not, it is a special time.  Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year.  Then the whole family goes outside and to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.

I love it.  Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.

Envy and Antipathy: Chinese historical attitudes toward Japan

Yajun wrote a post yesterday talking about the complex feelings many Chinese have for Japan, and how a mixture of envy and empathy seem to be trumping old hatreds…for the time being at least.

It’s tempting to reduce the history of Japan/China relations to the horrific events of the Second World War, but the Sino-Japanese relationship goes back much further than that, and has long been characterized by a mixture of envy and antipathy.

Leaving aside the very earliest records of “Dwarf Pirates” and the occasional spat over Korea in centuries past, today’s attitudes have their roots in the tumultuous years at the end of the 19th century.  As China struggled with “Self Strengthening,” Japan roared ahead with a centralized program of modernization, industrialization, and reform.  So stunning was Japan’s success — and China’s apparent failure — that late into the 20th century it was still fashionable for scholars, both foreign and Chinese, to make direct comparisons between the two, forgetting that despite their proximity, Meiji Japan and Qing China were working with a very different set of geographic, political, economic, and strategic variables.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1895-1896 not only shocked China, it stunned the world and announced Japan’s arrival as a regional power.  Japan’s newly modernized armed forces decimated the fragmented Qing ‘navy,’ whose commanders bickered over strategic commitments while their sailors watched in dismay as shells supposedly filled with gunpowder failed to detonate when fired. (Many shells had their powder replaced by corrupt factory officials with sand, among other shenanigans.)  No other international conflict up to that point — not the Opium War nor even the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 — affected China more deeply.

By the turn of the 20th century, Japan had joined the European powers as Imperialist bullies of a dying empire.  Over half the troops in the 1900 Allied Relief Expedition against the Boxers were from Japan.  Boycotts of Japanese goods were a nascent form of ‘nationalist’ organizing among merchants in China.  Japan’s territorial ambitions —  supported by European and American powers — roused China’s youth to action in the May Fourth Era, and during the eponymous 1919 demonstrations against Japan’s seizure of Shandong province at the end of World War I, anti-Japanese anger became action. Demonstrators took to the streets to protest Japanese treachery, then turned on weak and traitorous Chinese politicians, crippling the government of Duan Qirui, and giving a new generation of radicals and reformists  their first heady taste of mass politics.

When war broke out in the 1930s, popular fury against Japanese aggression (and toward a KMT government seemingly unwilling or unable to stop the encroachment) reached such an extent that Zhang Xueliang (whose father had been assassinated by the Japanese eight years earlier) orchestrated the 1936 kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek.  While in captivity, Chiang was forced to accept  Zhou Enlai’s “Godfather” offer for the KMT to join the CCP and fight the Japanese.

Nevertheless, within a year Japanese imperial troops had conquered most of North and East China. As Yajun noted, the atrocities of this period are well-remembered in China through textbooks, the media, museums, patriotic education monuments, television, and movies.

But what is striking to me is how despite all of the conflict several generations of Chinese students and activists studied in Japan, and many more held up Japan as model by which to judge China’s present and plan her future.

The signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (ending the Sino-Japanese War) incited young scholars already gathered in Beijing for the triennial Imperial Exams to present a petition to the emperor calling for reforms.  The main drafter of this petition, Kang Youwei, would later serve the court for 100 Days in 1898, urging the young Guangxu Emperor to model himself and his reforms, in part, after the Meiji Emperor.

In 1906, Japan emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, the first time in modern history an East Asian nation had defeated a European nation on the battlefield, and young Chinese began to see in Japan the possibilities that China too could someday successfully stand up to the Western powers.

The list of students who studied in Japan in the early 20th century reads like a who’s who of Modern Chinese history: Lu Xun, Chiang Kai-shek, Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, Zhou Enlai, Qiu Jin, and Song Jiaoren, among many others.  Japan provided a convenient haven for those who had run afoul of Qing authorities, and benefited from being close, cheaper than studying in Europe or North America, and offering a more familiar dietary, linguistic, and cultural environment.  The large number of Chinese students and exiled radicals in Japan attracted organizers seeking to rally impressionable young Chinese to their cause.  The Tongmenghui 同盟会, the precursor of the KMT, was founded by Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren in Tokyo in 1905, even as Kang Youwei was urging his fellow Chinese in Japan to eschew revolution and support his vision of a reformed constitutional monarchy.

The exacting and disciplined Japanese military culture left a profound mark on many young men, most famously Chiang Kai-shek, who in later years may have surrounded himself with people so corrupt they had to screw their pants on every morning, but who lived his own life as an exercise in warrior asceticism.

Even the language of modernity in China owes a great debt to Japanese.  Faced with the challenge of translating new ideas using old characters, neologisms like democracy 民主主义 and revolution 革命 appeared first in Japanese before being re-imported to China.  Ancient terms (such as 卫生 “preserving life”) were imbued with new modern meanings (“hygiene”).

As I read and hear Chinese reactions to the tragic events in Japan, I am reminded of this complex legacy.  Some people wish to donate money and supplies to help in the relief effort, others wonder why “poor Chinese” need to help rich Japan.  There are those comments, linked to in Yajun’s post, expressing a mixture of admiration and wonder at the “disciplined” nature of Japanese society, and not so subtly pointing out how China (once again) “fails” to measure up to Japan according to ever shifting standards of modernity and development.  And of course, there are the shrill voices of bleating nationalist sheep taking perverse pleasure in Japanese suffering.  (Though lest China be singled out in this regard, it’s wise to recall that “Pearl Harbor” was a trending topic on Twitter over the weekend.)

As Yajun wrote, it is a complicated relationship, and one I believe can’t be simply reduced to the historical memories of World War II.  Hopefully, something good can emerge from this horrific tragedy, and empathy will replace antipathy as the dominant chord in relations between these two great countries.

Another CIA/NSC Archive Film: “China: The Roots of Madness” (1967)

Another classic attempt to “explain and understand” China from the CIA/NSC archives, this one is like some sort of unholy mash-up of John King Fairbank, Max Weber, Henry Luce, Edward Said, and the KMT propaganda department…but there is some useful archival footage as well as interviews with seminal American “China watchers” such as Theodore White and Pearl Buck.  Huge h/t to my fellow historian G.T.

It’s not “Who do you love?” that matters, but “What do you fear the most?”

In class two weeks ago we were watching the documentary series China From the Inside when one of my students asked, with some reason, that if there was so much hardship and discontent why does the CCP enjoy such broad support?

It was a good question, and like all good questions it depends on whom you ask and how you phrase the question.   A middle-class manager in a multi-national company in Beijing is likely to have a more favorable view of current policies than, say, a farmer living next door to a factory that blatantly ignores environmental regulations while making the products sold by the middle-class manager in Beijing.

This stands to reason.  But I think on a more fundamental level there is something which brings the farmer and the yuppie together: the question of what do you fear the most?

In Western Europe and North American our dystopian nightmares, those of science fiction and political thrillers, as well as in our history books, involve tyrants who acquired too much power and used that power to brutalize people. Hitler. Stalin. Darth Vader.  (Even) Mao.   The United States was founded on a profound paranoia over anything that has a whiff of “tyranny” about it.  And in the past few months we have  reaped what we have sown with legions of deranged birthers and the “There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” club arguing that providing sensible health care to uninsured Americans is just a slippery slope toward Chairman Obama renaming the country “The People’s Republic of Acorn.”

But when I’m asked by Chinese friends about the images on CNN of mass demonstrations with people screaming talking points spoon fed to them by pundits and the Republican Party, I’m inclined to sigh and suggest that this is an acceptable price to pay for free speech.  It’s the same sigh I make when I need to explain the United States high crime rate (the price we pay for innocent until proven guilty) or rampant poverty and homelessness in US cities (An unfortunate by-product of a free market system).

And so  I try to remind my students that the question to “What do you fear most?” looks very different from the Chinese historical experience, especially that of the last 140 years or so.

From the Chinese perspective, in particular as written in the history textbooks used in PRC schools today, the greatest horrors have not come at the hands of the all-powerful state, but in times when the state was too weak to defend itself and the people.  Think of the depredations of the European imperialist powers in the 19th century at the expense of a rapidly weakening Qing Empire. Or the starvation and disasters of the warlord period in the early 20th century, when China was for all intents and purposes Afghanistan on steroids and the ‘central government’ consisted of a parade of military leaders in control of the 10 square blocks around the “Presidential Palace” in Beijing.  Even under a period of relative prosperity in the 1930s, Chiang Kai-shek’s control never extended much past a few central provinces in the Yangzi region.  Locked in struggle with the CCP, the Nanjing government lacked the political will or wherewithal to build a new society or improve the lives of China’s rural population, and soon that gargantuan task took a back seat to mere survival as the forces of both the KMT and the CCP were overrun by the Japanese onslaught.

Even if we look at the latter half of the 20th century, a period not covered quite so thoroughly in the PRC school curriculum, the personal experience of so many Chinese during the Cultural Revolution serves as fresh reminder as to what happens when the central government abandons order and stability in the name of “idealism.”

Whether you personally agree with this interpretation or not, the salient point is that many Chinese see their history through the lens of chaos/order with the forces of the latter fighting a constant battle against the former.

The arrest of dissidents? Censorship of the press? Corruption in the provinces? Environmental degradation? Few people in China are unaware of these problems, but for many the solutions (liberalizing the political process, loosening state controls on information, strengthening the ability of non-governmental groups to take political action) appear to lead to a slippery slope by which China would fracture and the horrific disasters of the past revisited in the present.  As with homelessness or a high crime rate in the US, these problems are seen by many Chinese as unfortunate by-products of a system which keeps that which they fear most at bay.

Viewed from the outside, American anxieties of “socialist” health care plans and Chinese fears of “chaotic” free speech can seem illogical and paranoid.  But that’s the funny thing about History.  History, at root, is about memory, and how things are remembered, especially traumatic events, is not always a ‘logical’ process, but one in which emotions such as fear (and hope) come into play as well.