Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility — Part I

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After the Future in China
Xu Zhangrun’s Triptych for Today

 

The Pirouette of Time introduced Xu Zhangrun’s triptych ‘After the Future in China’. As we noted there, these essays are a bold attempt by a courageous and insightful writer to consider ways in which the past holds promise for a future free of Communist Party control.

Xu Zhangrun is no malcontent, no one-issue dissident, nor is he a prickly individual preening to be heard. His voice is that of an engaged thinker who is both versed in the tradition and at home in the modern world. His is a voice of conscience, decency and hope. It is a voice that addresses pressing issues of the day while speaking from the long flow of historical debate. Xu Zhangrun articulates what the philosopher Mikhail Esptein says is ‘love of the future, not as a promised State, but as a state of promise’.

‘Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility’ 低頭致意, 天地無邊 — the first of Xu’s three essays —was published in the Chinese edition of Financial Times on 5 December 2018. Due to the length of the original, and the annotations and commentary that supplement the translation, we will publish that essay in five parts. A translation of the text is followed by a bilingual version of the same material with notes that elucidate the author’s particular writing style and offer a guide to the political, cultural and historical dimensions of his work.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
31 January 2019


No Burning, No Hiding

When building up the momentum to translate and annotate ‘After the Future in China’, Professor Xu Zhangrun’s triptych, I jokingly suggested that the tenor of his work brought to mind Li Zhi (李贄, hào Zhuowu 卓吾, 1527-1602), the outspoken late-Ming philosophe maudit. Li’s work was reprinted in the early 1970s as part of the campaign to reevaluate Legalists during the Anti-Lin Anti-Confucius Campaign, and that is when I did my best to read some of it, and also when Professor Xu encountered it.

In the political maelstrom of the late Cultural Revolution, Li Zhi was cast as an anti-Confucian ‘Legalist’. He was a powerful, if eccentric, thinker and a critic of state power who produced work that he well knew was unacceptable. It was for good reason therefore that he called the major collections of his writings A Book to Be Hidden Away 藏書 and A Book to Be Burned 焚書. Professor Xu has derided China’s increasingly authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping as a kind of latter-day ‘Qin Governance’ 秦政. In so doing he is referring to a brutal empire famed for the ‘burning of books and burying of scholars’ 焚書坑儒. Today, censorship and jail are proving to be an effective updated application of Qin ways.

In 1600, Li Zhi was denounced for ‘having the temerity to champion the wrong path, confound the world and mislead the people’ 敢倡亂道, 惑世誣民. Even after he committed suicide in prison Li’s writings ‘continued to circulate so widely in his generation that one late-Ming literatus surmised that virtually every educated man kept a copy of A Book to Burn stashed discreetly up his sleeves.’

Xu Zhangrun is stymied in China, and his work has been denounced by those who would curry favour with the authorities. His writing, however, cannot be burned nor hidden away, and it is the privilege of China Heritage to make it available to an English-reading audience.

***

For people whose lives and minds are mired in the quotidian, whose aspirations last no longer than the next twist or turn in policy, or whose synapses are but a pile-up of Tweets, or social media outbursts, Xu Zhangrun’s writing style, his analysis and his appeals may appear foolhardy, incomprehensible and irrelevant. For those who cleave to rag-tag theories, modish discourse, and academic nullity, Professor Xu is a liberal critic of the present ice age; his is a voice from an Other China.

— The Translator

Note:


English Translation:

Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility

— commemorating the inauguration of
‘Reform and Openness’ in 1978

Xu Zhangrun

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

 

Part I: Historical Awareness, Political Aspiration

 

From the 1980s onwards, and for a period of over thirty years, China once more pursued what I call its ‘Grand Transformation’. In other words, it re-engaged with a profound process of civilisational change that dates back to the 1860s. The era of ‘Reform and Openness’ [initiated in December 1978 and celebrated in December 2018] was in actual fact the ‘Third Wave’ in China’s modern history. It unfolded following a hiatus of some four decades, a hiatus beginning with the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s. From 1978, the country finally reconnected with two earlier waves of change that, taken together, make up what we call the ‘History of Modern China’.

The thirty-five years of Reform and Openness [that I date from from 1978 to 2013] were witness to dramatic developments, but there were also numerous instances of interference. Those years are a record not only of dazzling achievements and the display of vast potential, but also of heart-breaking losses. Although the expression ‘Reform and Openness’ is a shorthand formula for a range of policies, as a description it is nonetheless extremely precise, absolutely appropriate and still crucially important. ‘Reform and Openness’ was no mere process of ‘managed change’ or a shakeup of bureaucratic practices, much less was it a mere administrative re-organisation of government departments.

‘Reform and Openness’ — the Third Wave of Modern China’s Grand Transformation — was initiated at the Third Plenary Session [of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party] in December 1978. In my view, it drew to a close with the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Central Committee [of the Chinese Communist Party] in November 2013. When one considers all the twists and turns experienced during the Reform era, and if one takes into account the complex psychological terrain it covered, the process could simply be summed up by saying that because of it [China was able to] ‘Move Forward by Going into Reverse’.

That is to say that the policies of the Reform era were aligned with the overall impetus for change dating from the 1860s and, it is because [the Party finally] focussed on economic development, social advancement and even limited political openness, that the China of today has come about. So we could say that although the initial aim of post-1978 Reform was ‘to transform and renew the August Heaven [over China] and the Sovereign Earth [on which it exists]’, in the actual process of Reform ‘the Skies themselves were shaken [by the magnitude of change] and tremors went rippling through the Land’. Over time, ‘both Heaven and Earth responded unstintingly’ so that eventually [the efforts and achievements of the people of China] ‘moved the Skies Above and the Earth Below’.

Dear Reader: as we have just noted, [from 1978] China finally ‘Moved Forward by Going into Reverse’. Taking into account the complex interplay of factors involved in this process I would further posit that in noting the achievements of Reform we should humbly acknowledge China’s transformation in relation to four things. That is why, in the commemorative essay that follows below, I consider four interconnected clusters of ideas related to our theme. In conclusion, I sum up my reflections under the heading ‘Learn the Best from Others and Thereby Achieve True Human Dignity’.

To start with, we should humbly acknowledge the long-term context of our topic and appreciate the evolution of what I chose herein to call Modern Historical Awareness and Political Aspiration.

From the early 1860s, when China initially pursued self-renewal by engaging seriously with foreign knowledge, and for a period of well over one hundred and fifty years, the main tenor of the country’s Historical Awareness and Political Aspiration — in other words, ‘public opinion’ and ‘national aspiration’ — has, despite numerous trials and tribulations, gradually coalesced into something of a coherent whole. In short, it is ‘The Search for Wealth & Power, Democracy and Civilisation’. These are, in short, the overall goal of all political, economic and cultural endeavours. As for what is really meant when we discuss such things in terms of ‘the transformation of the political system’, ‘the establishment of state governance’, ‘socio-economic developments’ or ‘the articulation of particular cultural and educational aims’, they can all be summed up with this same formula: ‘The Search for Wealth & Power, Democracy and Civilisation’.

Under the general umbrella of policies related to ‘Civilisation and Openness’, ideas such as ‘Freedom and Equality’ were championed and, in turn, they led to the gradual embrace of the concepts of ‘Legality and Human Rights’, as well as ‘Tolerance and the Open Society’. The determined efforts [of countless individuals] made it possible for these concepts and values to be embedded in Chinese reality and in the process the civilisation of the West was grafted onto China’s own living and vibrant civilisation. This in turn spurred new growth and the maturation of a Modern China with a Modern Civilisation.

The main tenor of modern Chinese history, the aspirations of the multitudes of its people, and the very current of historical change itself have encapsulated these ideas and values. Although they have been sorely tested by the ebb and flow of events, this core body of ideas has survived numerous trials and overcome various tribulations. Of course, the evolution of a truly Modern China has been waylaid numerous times, and it has veered off course, but there has been an essential forward trajectory. That is why, having survived repeated diminutions wrought by war and revolution, finally, and for over three decades [from 1978 to 2013], all of these disparate elements coalesced once more into a dominant and increasingly powerful current of change. And, thereby, a national consensus has come into being.

As we review the 150-year history of Modern China, we can postulate that whosoever has stood against what I have identified in the above as the main tenor of change, or whosoever has ignored the groundswell of historical awareness, has eventually come undone. The country has evolved, not because of them, but despite them. That is to say, no matter how such historical actors have prevaricated or pitted themselves against the tides of change, over time they have been swept aside. [Allow me to illustrate my point:]

  • In the last year of the Qing dynasty [1911] the Imperial Cabinet of Manchu Nobles abandoned political reforms [that had been instituted], and they were immediately done for;
  • Fat-head Yuan [the early president of the Republic of China which replaced the Manchu dynasty in 1912] was brazen enough to declare himself emperor, but in an instant his gambit failed;
  • The Nationalist Party [under Chiang Kai-shek on Mainland China from 1928 to 1949] excluded other political forces and lorded over the nation, it too came to no good end; and,
  • As for the totalitarian rule of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, it too was eventually done for.

And that is why, Reform policies that were ostensibly launched to ‘bring order out of chaos and return [the party-state] to a path of rectitude’ [as the formal slogan puts it] — a pragmatic way for the Communist Party to reorient the nation after the destructive extremism of the Cultural Revolution — these policies effectively helped inculcate [in the leaders] the Historical Awareness discussed above. And with that they even initiated a tentative process that can enable the people at large to express what we call mainstream Political Aspirations [that is, the fitful realisation of popular political aspirations].

By focussing the country once more on building a modern nation, the leaders were by default participating in that self-same Grand Transition that has been unfolding since the 1860s. From 1978, the onward march was resumed. Certainly, the heralded changes were repeatedly disrupted and, time and again, those on the trek may have stumbled, although they always regained their footing. Regardless, overall, they were moving ahead along the Broad Way. Although we must also appreciate the fact that: for them to have done otherwise would have invited the displeasure of the Heavens themselves, and it would have inflamed the fury of the People. [To quote a famous line:] ‘We would have faced oblivion together.’

The very policies that encouraged economic growth, gave license to the renewed pursuit of Wealth and Power, as well as contributing to the repair of a damaged society and a regeneration [of social values] following long-term ethical collapse, also contributed to a rising political awareness — that is, a consciousness that citizens should have a say in how they are governed. This, in turn, led to calls for political reform. It seemed that it would be only a matter of time before political reform became part of the national agenda and many thought that process would ultimately result in something like a ‘Constitutional Democracy in a People’s Republic’.

As this truly ‘Modern China’ evolved, it was hoped that the nature of the polity itself would also be addressed, a transformation of formal political arrangements [that is, as long-delayed political reform was finally undertaken, the party-state would usher in a more diverse and representative political landscape]. This was and is a theme of epochal significance, one that can only come to a meaningful conclusion on the basis of a truly new beginning. But, at the crucial moment when political stagnation demanded a breakthrough, the ending was foreclosed, ’the beginning’ itself stalled and ‘the new’ was frustrated by ‘the old’. It was at that juncture [in 2012-2013], and in the years thereafter, that instead of demonstrating any desire to advance [either economic or political reforms], the Upper Echelons [that is, Xi Jinping and Party Central] have chosen to retreat. Even more surprising is that they are also falling back on Cultural Revolution-era concepts and practices [in pursuit of their goals]. They are fixated on ensuring eternal ‘One Family Domination’ [that is, the Communist one-party state]. They are heedless of what the times require; their folly is absolute and, more importantly, their vision is ultimately unsustainable.

The thirty-five years of Reform witnessed a marked improvement in people’s standards of living. Along with greater material comfort social behaviour gradually evolved and the country witnessed a slow amelioration in the popular understanding of social ethics and community values. All of these social manifestations reflect deep-seated yearnings fed by the wellsprings of a civilisation based on decency, mutual respect and fraternity. Here we see ample evidence that even the suffocating efforts of the party-state and its dominant culture could not completely stifle the pulse of a civilisation whose vital core is Humanness and Fellow-feeling.

In light of all of this, over that thirty-five year period [from 1978 to 2013 that I commemorate in this essay] people were able to marshal their disparate forces and launch coordinated sallies [in favour of change]. A myriad different streams coalesced into a torrent. Thereby, once again China gave expression to what I call here its Modern Historical Awareness and indomitable Political Aspirations.

Therefore, I would suggest that during this still-unfolding process the nineteenth-century Germano-Slavic ideology [that is, Marxism-Leninism] and its Mutations [in China, such as Mao Thought, etc] — which continue to proliferate to this day — should be seen as but a transitory phenomenon. Moreover, the political and constitutional arrangements established on the basis of that ideology could best be thought of as the ‘Provisional Constitution of a Transitional Political System’. I would also argue that the ultimate success or failure of the present system will be determined by whether it accords in the long term with the Mainstream Historical Awareness and Political Aspirations described earlier.

Of course, the short-sighted may well perceive [in the Communist Party] only an all-powerful entity that beclouds the very skies. A broader perspective, however, allows us to appreciate the fact that the majority of people have long since seen through the despicable nature of the system; they regard it as a loathsome thing that has all but reached its limits.

Therefore, given its [the system’s] antipathy to Mainstream Historical Awareness and moving as it still does in the opposite direction of collective Political Aspiration — something evident with every passing day — we find ourselves at a critical juncture. By all rights the system should be dispensed with in all due haste and superseded by something that embraces Universal Values, that is values which underpin the very best kinds of political systems in the modern world.

I am only repeating myself: the evolution of Modern China first saw the creation of a ‘Nation-state Founded on the Basic Principles of Civilisation’. It was on that basis that the country was able to develop, cherishing all the while an ambition to enter an era of ‘Modern Nationhood 2.0’, that is to say, to become a ‘Democratic Nation Underwritten by Basic Freedoms’. It is only on this basis that our polity can honestly embrace the best of Chinese civilisation and evolve a political system best described as a ‘People’s Republic based on Constitutional Democracy’.

Then, and only then, can the Grand Wave of civilisational transformation — the greatest in Chinese history since the Qin and Han periods [200BCE-200CE, when dynastic rule was established] — finally reach a climax.

Friends: the forces coursing through history are powerful and political progress cannot be denied. What viable choice is there apart from acting on the Historical Awareness born of modern Chinese history and the Political Aspirations inspired in its wake?

In summation, let me be completely clear:

The fact of the matter is that [back in 1978] the party-state simply gave in. It was confronted by the overwhelming burdens that weighed down China’s long-suffering multitudes and it simply had to admit defeat. The Party had to face reality and admit that to survive people had to have basic necessities; they needed the means to feed themselves adequately and the wherewithal to pursue normal lives. That’s why with ‘Reform and Openness’ the Chinese people finally had a chance to catch their breath. They were gradually able to recover [from the First Thirty Years of Party rule under Mao and his cohort from 1949 to 1978] and, in the process, some even flourished. But now? People are fearful of what lies ahead; they are alarmed and worried that the economics of scarcity may return and they are alarmed at the thought that the days when you needed ration coupons to buy anything could come again. In short, there is widespread alarm that Mao-style totalitarianism could revisit Our Ancient Land and that, yet again, people would have to endure abject lives.

What is equally evident about the 1978 Reforms was that something we could think of as the historical rational core of Chinese civilisation had been victorious; over time, it had cut a path through the Fog of Words and the Delusions [of the power-holders]. Furthermore, over the years since, people developed a sense of self-worth. Despite frequent bursts of repression within the broader society a fundamental awareness of basic civil rights has emerged and with it there is evidence of a modest determination to resist the Monolithic Thought of the party-state and its Grandiose Unifying Narcissism.

As our nation continues to recognise with all due humility these obvious realities, further historical change and political evolution will be possible. Along with the growing awareness and resistance already described in the above, one can discern a basic political aspiration: that all Chinese people have the right to vote — to cast a meaningful ballot — and that will mark the arrival of a Popular Consensus. Then, a modern constitutional democracy, with all of the pitfalls that it entails, can finally be established on a lasting basis. Only then will China become a truly modern state that can enjoy its onward growth as a mature polity.

So this is what I advocate; this is what countless people in China are hoping for; this, too, is the salutary prayer of our Ancestral Land.


Bilingual Text with Notes:

Humble Recognition, Boundless Possibility

— commemorating the inauguration of
‘Reform and Openness’ in 1978

低頭致意, 天地無邊
謹以此文紀念1978年開啓的「改革開放」

Xu Zhangrun
許章潤

Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

 

Part I: Historical Awareness, Political Aspiration

 

From the 1980s onwards, and for a period of over thirty years, China once more pursued what I call its ‘Grand Transformation’. In other words, it re-engaged with a profound process of civilisational change that dates back to the 1860s. The era of ‘Reform and Openness’ [initiated in December 1978 and celebrated in December 2018] was in actual fact the ‘Third Wave’ in China’s modern history. It unfolded following a hiatus of some four decades, a hiatus beginning with the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s. From 1978, the country finally reconnected with two earlier waves of change that, taken together, make up what we call the ‘History of Modern China’.

The thirty-five years of Reform and Openness [that I date from from 1978 to 2013] were witness to dramatic developments, but there were also numerous instances of interference. Those years are a record not only of dazzling achievements and the display of vast potential, but also of heart-breaking losses. Although the expression ‘Reform and Openness’ is a shorthand formula for a range of policies, as a description it is nonetheless extremely precise, absolutely appropriate and still crucially important. ‘Reform and Openness’ was no mere process of ‘managed change’ or a shakeup of bureaucratic practices, much less was it a mere administrative re-organisation of government departments.

1980年代以還,中國重啓大轉型進程,歷三十五年而未止,實為整個近代中國已然超逾一個半世紀文明大轉型的有機組成部分。換言之,此番大轉型,作為近代中國大轉型的第三波,在「抗戰」爆發導致常態轉型進程中斷四十年之後,終與前此兩波大轉型接榫,而前赴後繼,連綴構成了「現代中國」第次成長的完整歷史。其之起伏跌宕,慘烈異常,而風華無際,以「改革開放」籠統,真切得很,得體得很,要命得很。也就因此,所謂「改革開放」是並且只是在這一意義上措辭,並非等同於一般的行政調整吏治整飭,更非「部委行業重組」一類操作層面。

Notes:

三十五年 sānshíwǔ nián and 晚近三十多年 wǎnjìn sānshí duō nián: the author uses these expressions repeatedly to indicate the period from 1978 to 2013, that is from the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party in December 1978 that formalised the abandonment of the policies of class struggle in favour of economic development. A previous attempt by the Party to focus on economic wellbeing had followed the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s, but this had been sidelined, and then denounced as ‘revisionism’ by Mao and his closest allies. In November 2013, the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress, chaired by the newly selected party-state-army chief Xi Jinping may have gestured towards major new economic reforms, but it was widely regarded as marking a significant departure from the market-oriented policies of the Deng-Jiang-Hu decades, a departure that indicated a move towards a new (or renewed) emphasis on a politics that had points in common with the era of High Maoism (roughly, 1957 to 1978)

近代中國 jìn dài Zhōngguó and 現代中國 xiàn dài Zhōngguó: ‘Modern China’, a complex and debated concept. Communist Party historiography delineates three major periods in modern Chinese history: 1840-1911 is the Modern 近代 jìn dài; 1912-1949 is the Contemporary 現代 xiàn dài; while its own era of rule, dated from 1949, is termed Current 當代 dāng dài. Within this chronology there are complex subdivisions, including the various moments of ‘liberated thinking’ (1942; 1957; 1978), and New Eras (such as from 1978 onwards; and more recently from the extension of the investiture of Xi Jinping in 2018). The Marxist-Leninist schema inherited and enhanced by the Chinese Communists is focussed on process, historical eras, moments, turning points and events that are evidence of progress towards realising the utopian vision of Marx — one that according to dogma is both inevitable yet constantly threatened and therefore worthy of pitiless struggle. These events are also ‘scientifically’ measurable and necessary steps. As Endymion Wilkinson notes:

… in the 1990s, the distinction between modern and contemporary was dropped and the entire period from 1840 to 1949 was labeled modern [近代] (and characterized as China’s semi-feudal, semi-colonial period). That leaves current history (xiandaishi) as starting in 1949, with contemporary history increasingly seen as beginning in 1978. (Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, Fifth Edition, 2018, p.2)

第三波 dìsān bō: ‘the Third Wave’. As mentioned above, the author dates this from late 1978, with a gap of forty years from the end of the ‘Second Wave’ in 1937, with the Japanese occupation of Nanking, the capital of the Republic of China. As we note below, this elides the late 1940s and the Soviet-oriented first seventeen years of the People’s Republic (1949-1966)

前此兩波 qián cǐ liǎng bō: ‘the two waves prior to this’. In this context, the author is indicating the various phases of engagement, reaction and adaptation of the late-Chinese empire, the Republic and the People’s Republic to the system of global trade that evolved in tandem with the expansion of Great Britain, the European and subsequently North American powers from the seventeenth century. The author in particular indicates the First Wave of change under the Manchu-Qing empire that effectively began with the Self-strengthening Movement of the 1860s, also known as the Tongzhi Restoration 同治中興 Tóngzhì zhōng xīng, so named for the Tongzhi reign period of Aisin Gioro Dzai šun (愛新覺羅 · 載淳, 1861-1874). 中興 zhōng xīng indicates a reversal of fortunes following a period of decline or calamity; or a revival or renewal after a period of political desuetude. During this period, diplomatic relations with the Western powers were regularised, a foreign ministry was established and a large-scale effort to build railroads, modern factories and a new army was undertaken along with the pursuit of industrial and commercial policies. Prior to this, the dynasty was threatened not only by foreign incursion, but also by a civil war that claimed tens of millions of lives. Through the creativity of the Manchu nobility in collaboration with the Han-Chinese bureaucracy, the Self-strengthening Movement saw the beginning of the transformation of late-imperial dynastic rule. Some call it China first ‘reform movement by imposition’ 被動改革 bèidòng gǎigé. Despite the successes of the Self-strengthening Movement, the machinations of court politics led to its champions within the Manchu nobility being sidelined, with disastrous results. A further attempt at renovation was launched in 1898, the ‘Hundred Days Reform’ 百日維新, although it was aborted, also falling victim to court intrigue. Following the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and further impositions by the imperialist powers, the Qing court launched ‘New Policies’ 新政, the most radical political and cultural transformation of the empire in its history (for more on this, see below). These were cut short by a revolution in 1911 that saw the abdication of the throne and the establishment of the Republic of China in early 1912. This brought an end to the ‘First Wave’ of transformation.

The ‘Second Wave’ of transformative policies aimed at modernising the nation’s politics, economy, industry, education, society and culture, unfolded during the Republic from 1912 up to the time of the Japanese invasion in 1937, in particular the ‘Nanking Decade’ of 1927 to 1937, arguably the height of Nationalist rule. The author does not include developments in the 1940s, or in fact, the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic in his schema (which included the Communist-led Land Reform Movement 土地改革運動); and the Cultural Revolution is treated as an historical lacuna, one point on which Professor Xu and the Communists would seem to be in agreement.

In both its detail and import, Professor Xu’s chronology departs significantly from Party historiographical dogma and constitutes what has, since 1989, been decried as ‘historical nihilism’ 歷史虛無主義, a catchall term that covers all historical views and evaluations at odds with official dogma

bō/ pō ‘wave’, 主流 zhǔ liú ‘mainstream’ and cháo ‘tide’: In his discussion of the ebb and flow of history, the author frequently avails himself of tidal metaphors. This has been common practice in modern Chinese political language for over a century, and far longer in other languages. As we noted in our 2012 discussion of tides in Heritage Glossary:

The confluence of climatic imagery, poetic tradition, romantic metaphor and revolutionary rhetoric is an important aspect of the late-traditional early modern transfiguration of Chinese socio-political cultural ideas and practices. The word ‘tide’ (cháo 潮) is central to a cluster of terms related to dramatic change, a welling of expectation, revolution and historical trends. It also has a range of other meanings such as ‘fashionable’, ‘trendy’ or ‘edgy’; it is also used in such expressions as ‘currents of thought’ (sīcháo 思潮), ‘new wave’ (xīncháo 新潮) and ’emotional uplift’ (xīncháo 心潮); not to mention, of course, a type of non-socialist high-tide or gāocháo 高潮, that is ‘orgasm’. …

The leader of the movement that led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, Sun Yat-sen, also used the language of ‘tides’ to describe radical change in China. One of his most famous statements remains: ‘World progress is like a tidal wave. Those who ride it will prosper, and those who fight against it will perish’ 世界潮流,浩浩蕩蕩,順之則昌,逆之則亡.

In the early 1980s, Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave — a best-seller published in 1980 following the success of Toffler’s earlier Future Shock (1970) — had a considerable impact on Party leaders like Zhao Ziyang, as well as on intellectuals and the general populace. Toffler’s futurology appealed to readers imbued with Marxist-Leninist soteriology. (For a recent study of Toffler’s influence, see Julian Gewirtz, ‘The Futurists of Beijing: Alvin Toffler, Zhao Ziyang, and China’s “New Technological Revolution,” 1979–1991’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 78(1), 2019: 115-140.)

The Chinese political landscape is awash with waves of change and inexorable tides. Here the author bolsters his own argument by resorting to these terms and pairs such language with more traditional tropes related to political fortunes, in particular terms long used to describe the rise and fall of kingdoms, dynasties and power-holders, such as 興替 xīng tì, 興衰 xīng shuāi, 盛衰 shèng shuāi, 興衰存亡 xīng shuāi cún wáng and 更新換代 gēngxīn huàn dài (for more on this, see the introduction to China Heritage Annual 2019 and The Pirouette of Time). These obsessions are shared by the Communist Party and its leaders constantly warn against threats to the regime’s longevity. Party members and patriots are admonished to be ‘ever mindful of lurking dangers even as we enjoy hard-won peace’ 居安思危 jū ān sī wēi

接榫 jiē sǔn: ‘to interlock [one object with another]’. This term is used in carpentry and comes from 榫卯 sǔn mǎo, short for 榫頭卯眼 ‘tenon tongue and mortise hole’, meaning tenon-and-mortise work, or the fitting of a joint. A tenon (榫頭 ‘sun-head’) is inserted into a mortise (卯眼 ‘mao-eye’) — 把榫頭插入卯眼 — to create a tight joint

改革開放 gǎigé kāifàng: ‘Reform and Openness’. This term is associated with the Third Plenum of December 1978, although it did not become an official formulation of Communist Party policy until after 1984. It was eventually written into the Party Constitution to become a long-term, supposedly unwavering, policy position

真切得很 zhēnqiè dehěn, 得體得很 détǐ dehěn, 要命得很 yàomìng dehěn: ‘extremely precise, absolutely appropriate and still crucially important’. The author favours a rhetorical device that uses a ‘tricolon’, or 反覆 fǎn fù: that is three terms or phrases that emphasise and strengthen the meaning with an element of sonorous repetition — in this case, he employs the adjectival complement 得很 dehěn for this purpose thus also allows him to expand his thesis, with a twist in the tail. This device, also known as 排比 páibǐ, or ‘parallelism’, is a common feature of New China Newspeak

行政調整 xíngzhèng tiáozhěng: administrative reform or reorganisation, a universally common phenomenon in government, and one that, despite the claims of its advocates, rarely results in greater ‘efficiencies’

吏治整飭 lì zhì zhěng chì: ‘cleaning up of the bureaucracy’. Here the author is making the point that, although there have been numerous ‘reforms’ 改革 gǎigé in various guises throughout Chinese history — dynastic as well as modern — along with repeated attempts to curb bureaucratic behaviour and rein in corruption, most were predominantly focussed on administrative reform, also known as 改制 gǎizhì, rather than profound systemic change

‘Reform and Openness’ — the Third Wave of Modern China’s Grand Transformation — was initiated at the Third Plenary Session [of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party] in December 1978. In my view, it drew to a close with the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Central Committee [of the Chinese Communist Party] in November 2013. When one considers all the twists and turns experienced during the Reform era, and if one takes into account the complex psychological terrain it covered, the process could simply be summed up by saying that because of it [China was able to] ‘Move Forward by Going into Reverse’.

That is to say that the policies of the Reform era were aligned with the overall impetus for change dating from the 1860s and, it is because [the Party finally] focussed on economic development, social advancement and even limited political openness, that the China of today has come about. So we could say that although the initial aim of post-1978 Reform was ‘to transform and renew the August Heaven [over China] and the Sovereign Earth [on which it exists]’, in the actual process of Reform ‘the Skies themselves were shaken [by the magnitude of change] and tremors went rippling through the Land’. Over time, ‘both Heaven and Earth responded unstintingly’ so that eventually [the efforts and achievements of the people of China] ‘moved the Skies Above and the Earth Below’.

具體而言,第三波「改革開放」起自1978年12月「三中全會」,下迄2013年中共「十八屆三中全會」。其間輾轉,考其心態,審其章法,實以「向後倒退向前進」的方式,順應這一轉型大勢,而致力於推進經濟發展、社會進步和有限政治開放,為這個叫做「現代中國」的龐大實體接生。從而,終究而言,意在改天換地,而勢必撼天動地,未幾席天幕地,終究感天動地

Notes:

三中全會 sānzhōng quánhuì: ‘Third Plenary Session’, short for 中國共產黨第十一屆中央委員會第三次全體會議, The Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was held in Beijing from the 18th to the 22nd of December 1978. Both here and below, the use of parenthesis (‘scare quotes’) around this term indicates that the author is both acknowledging that this is an abbreviation of the full title of the meeting and at the same time distancing himself from such ‘partyspeak’ as being natural

十八屆三中全會 shíbā jiè sānzhōng quánhuì: ‘The Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth [Party Congress]’ short for 中國共產黨第十八屆中央委員會第三次全體會議 The Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was held in Beijing from the 9th to the 12th of November 2013. The meeting hailed the ‘comprehensive deepening of reform’ 全面深化改革. Over the decades, the term 深化 shēnhuà, ‘deepen’, has generally indicated the opposite, in particular regarding party-state initiatives. Calls to deepen such-and-such a political process were regularly issued when that very process was deemed to have run its course. By deepening, the Party was indicating that it was, in fact, retreating. In retrospect, the Third Plenum and the talk about ‘deepening reform’ would be seen by many critics of Xi Jinping-Wang Qishan’s economic policies as being pivotal indicators that substantive new reforms would be stillborn and that henceforth, for ideological reasons, Xi and his allies would favour state-owned industries and various aspects of pre-reform economics

向後倒退向前進: ‘Move Forward by Going into Reverse’, an expression that is very much in keeping with the theme of ‘After the Future in China’, the title I have chosen for Professor Xu’s three-part Provocatio. In other words, for the sake of its own survival and in light of its disastrous (and murderous) mismanagement of the nation for nearly three decades (1949-1978), the Communist Party grudgingly instituted limited agricultural reforms and circumscribed market economy policies in breach of its previous ideological stance and mission to lead China through socialism to communism. Initially, the changes were limited to agricultural reforms that mirrored attempts to repair the damage of the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s, but gradually, due to circumstance, external pressures, increasing success as well as the hard-won wisdom of select Party leaders, the reforms were broadened in the early 1980s and introduced in urban centres. Eventually, Party thinkers concocted an ideological justification for this limited return to the market and capitalism, and, henceforth, the Communists congratulated themselves for guiding the country into what was dubbed the ‘Primary Stage of Socialism’ 社會主義初級階段. Although Mao Zedong had first talked about the idea in 1958, it was during the early 1980s that it matured into a full-blown policy stance, one that was entrenched in 1987 and is part of what would be called Deng Xiaoping Theory 鄧小平理論

順應 大勢 shùn yìngdà shì: to comply with or accord with the overall trajectory of events. Again, the author employs the language of adaptation to change, a change that is both momentous and, due to its circumstances, unavoidable. Here as elsewhere, Professor Xu sees China’s creative adaptation to modernity and evolution as a nation as one that is part of a longer upward trend

意在改天換地,而勢必撼天動地,未幾席天幕地,終究感天動地: another one of the ‘tricolon’ rhetorical devices favoured by the author in which he repeats certain words, each repetition extending the meaning or introducing a new emphasis. In this case the words are 天 tiān, ‘Heaven’, and , ‘Earth’:

改天換地 gǎi tiān huàn dì: literally, ‘to transform heaven and change earth’, meaning the complete transfiguration of society

撼天動地 hàn tiān dòng dì: literally, ‘the heavens are shaken and the earth moves’, historically used to describe the dramatic response of nature to the death of a great ruler

席天幕地 xí tiān mù dì: this is an idiosyncratic variation of 幕天席地 mù tiān xí dì, ‘to use the heavens as a roof and the earth as a mat’. The author has swapped around this famous line from the ‘wine immortal’ 酒仙 Liu Ling (劉伶, c.225-280 CE). Liu’s ‘Hymn to the Virtue of Wine’ 《酒德頌》 reads, in part:

He wanders unrestrained and free;
he dwells within no walls.
The canopy of Heaven is his roof;
his resting-place is the lap of Earth.
He follows his fancy in all things.
He is never for a moment without
a wine-flask in one hand,
a goblet in the other.
His only thought is wine:
he knows of naught beyond.

行無轍跡,
居無室廬,
幕天席地,
縱意所如。
止則操卮執觚,
動則挈榼提壺,
唯酒是務,
焉知其餘。

trans. Herbert Giles, Gems of Chinese Literature (1884)

感天動地 gǎn tiān dòng dì: ‘touching the heart of Heaven itself while shaking the Earth’. This is usually used to refer to a situation of extreme injustice, but here the author changes it to signify the impressive scale of the country’s reforms

意在 yì zài…, 而勢必 ér shì bì…, 未幾 wèi jǐ…, 終究 zhōng jiū… : these other grammatical elements in the sentence indicate that something ‘started with the intention of… but [surprisingly] led to the unfolding potential of… and before long became came… to finally result in… .’

and shì: literally ‘intention’ or ‘purpose’ and ‘unfolding’ or ‘an inevitable development’. Both 意 and 勢 shì: have a long and complex history that will be discussed when the occasion arises

Dear Reader: as we have just noted, [from 1978] China finally ‘Moved Forward by Going into Reverse’. Taking into account the complex interplay of factors involved in this process I would further posit that in noting the achievements of Reform we should humbly acknowledge China’s transformation in relation to four things. That is why, in the commemorative essay that follows below, I consider four interconnected clusters of ideas related to our theme. In conclusion, I sum up my reflections under the heading ‘Learn the Best from Others and Thereby Achieve True Human Dignity’.

看官,說是「向後倒退向前進」,就在於其間的經緯鋪展和綱目排列,無他,實在不過就是在四個維度上「致意」而已。下面對此逐一分梳,重在最後引導出「擇善而從,昂首做人」這一主題。

Notes:

看官 kàn ɡuān: ‘those watching (reading)’, a form of direct address used by actors in Song-dynasty theatrical works and pre-modern popular (episodic) fiction

低頭致意 dī tóu zhì yì: literally, ‘bow one’s head and offer one’s respects’. In this essay the author uses the expression in the sense of ’humble recognition’, and it underlines the overall tenor of a work in which the writer emphasises the need for people in China to think again how they consider the past, what they value in the present, and how a better future may be achieved

在四個維度上「致意」zài sìge wéidùshàng ‘zhì yì’: ‘humbly acknowledging four key aspects of reality.’ The Four Topics addressed in the body of Xu Zhangrun’s essay are:

  1. Historical Awareness, Political Aspiration 近代中国的主流历史意识和政治意志
  2. Tradition & Civilisation 中国文化传统与文明典范
  3. Universal Human Nature 普遍人性
  4. The World-System in the Trans-Atlantic Age [Pax Britannica and Pax Americana] 大西洋文明时代的世界体系

擇善而從,昂首做人 zé shàn ér cóng, áng shǒu zuò rén: as the author indicates, this is the overarching theme of this polemic: that is to say, to continue learning the best from others so as to be able to engage truly with one’s humanity and live with dignity. This is also the title of the concluding section of the essay:

擇善而從 zé shàn ér cóng: is a four-character expression that compresses the meaning of a famous passage in The Analects of Confucius. The original reads:

Put me in the company of any two people at random — they will invariably have something to teach me. I can take their qualities as a model and their defects as a warning.

三人行,必有我師焉。擇其善者而從之,其不善者而改之。

— 《論語 · 述而》
The Analects of Confucius,
trans. and notes by Simon Leys,
New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, p.31;
used in the heading of the Conclusion

昂首做人 áng shǒu zuò rén: this is a reworking of the common expression 低頭處世, 昂首做人 dī tóu chǔ shì, áng shǒu zuò rén, which roughly means ‘first find your way in the world by humbly learning, only then can you hold your head high’. (The words 低頭 dī tóu also mean ‘to hang one’s head’, ‘to admit inferiority’ and ‘to yield’). Here the author has replaced 處世 chǔ shì , roughly ‘adapt to the realities of life’, with 致意 zhì yì, ‘to acknowledge’, ‘pay one’s respects to’. In a famous essay titled ‘On the Origin of Strength’ 原強, the influential late-Qing thinker and translator Yan Fu (嚴復, 1854-1921) used the expression: ‘As to why nations rise and fall or are strong or weak, one must clearly acknowledge that this depends on the character of their people, for better or worse.’ 而於一國盛衰強弱之故,民德醇灕合散之由,則尤三致意焉。

The seemingly simple expression 做人 zuò rén, literally ‘to act like a person [in a particular social environment]’, has a complex range of meanings and connotations. To ‘act appropriately’ —做人 zuò rén — in any given circumstance may well mean to be pragmatic, manipulative, underhanded or wise in the ways of the world. To be criticised for ‘not knowing how to 做人 zuò rén’ 不懂得做人 can mean that one has no social skills, be they positive or negative, or that one does not know how to deal with people and everyday affairs 待人接物 dài rén jiē wù, or, for that matter, one lacks basic interpersonal skills, commonsense and the wit to navigate one’s way in life 為人處世 wéi rén chǔ shì. But ‘to be an upstanding person’, also simply expressed as 做人 zuò rén, that is to be someone with dignity is to live in a manner that reflects the best attributes of humankind and to fulfill one’s potential as a socially engaged, aware, caring and upright member of society

In an essay titled ‘I Refuse to Compromise with this Era’ 我拒絕與這個時代和解 published on 12 March 2018, Xu Zhangrun wrote:

做人 zuò rén is a term that includes both hardship and dignity; it’s an old term, an obvious expression, but what it really means is that one can only really acquire the knowledge about how to 做人 zuò rén at the expense of a life fully lived, one that advances step by step. As Confucius himself said, [only when you know about death] can you gradually learn about life.

「做人」,這個艱辛而莊敬的字眼,老話,大白話,原來意味著需要以畢生長旅為代價,一步一步往前跋涉,如夫子所言,始能徐徐知之也。

Here Professor Xu is referring to the following passage in The Analects:

Zilu said, ‘May I ask you about death?’ The Master said: ‘You do not yet know life, how could you know death?’

敢問死。曰:未知生,焉知死。

— 《論語 · 先進》
The Analects of Confucius
Simon Leys, p.50 

To start with, we should humbly acknowledge the long-term context of our topic and appreciate the evolution of what I chose herein to call Modern Historical Awareness and Political Aspiration.

From the early 1860s, when China initially pursued self-renewal by engaging seriously with foreign knowledge, and for a period of well over one hundred and fifty years, the main tenor of the country’s Historical Awareness and Political Aspiration — in other words, ‘public opinion’ and ‘national aspiration’ — has, despite numerous trials and tribulations, gradually coalesced into something of a coherent whole. In short, it is ‘The Search for Wealth & Power, Democracy and Civilisation’. These are, in short, the overall goal of all political, economic and cultural endeavours. As for what is really meant when we discuss such things in terms of ‘the transformation of the political system’, ‘the establishment of state governance’, ‘socio-economic developments’ or ‘the articulation of particular cultural and educational aims’, they can all be summed up with this same formula: ‘The Search for Wealth & Power, Democracy and Civilisation’.

一、近代中國的主流歷史意識和政治意志

首先,向近代中國的主流歷史意識政治意志低頭致意。從1860年代初期啓動洋務自新運動以還,超愈一個半世紀里,近代中國的主流歷史意識和政治意志,也就是人民公意民族願景,經磨歷劫,漸次顯豁,最終提煉定型。它們不是別的,就是追求「富強、民主與文明,以此為一切政經活動與文化事業的鵠的。通常所謂政體變革、國家建構、經濟社會開發與文教鋪陳,戰爭與革命,悉數圍繞這一軸心打轉。

Notes:

主流歷史意識 zhǔliú lìshǐ yìshí: ‘mainstream historical consciousness’, which is translated here as ‘modern historical awareness’. This is not the kind of consensus about historical fact or the past discussed by historians or debated in academe. Rather it is a way of talking about a popular view of the significance of the past as it has an impact on the lives and aspirations of people today. Needless to say, the author’s understanding and interpretation of such a ‘public consensus’ or 人民公意 rénmín gōngyì as he puts it, is at variance with the historical view formulated by Party thinkers since the 1930s and re-configured as part of The China Story 中國的故事 since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. (For more on The China Story, see my Telling Chinese Stories)

政治意志 zhèngzhì yìzhì: ‘political will’ / ‘political aspirations?’, that is long-term political tendencies and aspirations which the author links to 民族願景 mínzú yuànjǐng ‘the hopes or vision of the nation/ people’. This is a complex cluster of concepts since ‘the nation’ or 民族 mínzú refers predominantly to the Han majority of the People’s Republic of China; here it would appear that the differing, or contrary aspirations, political will or, for that matter, ‘historical consciousness’ of China’s non-Han populations, are not addressed (or even taken into consideration)

洋務自新運動 yángwù zìxīn yùndòng: the Movement for Westernisation and Self-renewal, more commonly called 洋務自強運動 yángwù zìqiáng yùndòng (洋務運動 yángwù yùndòng for short), or the Self-Strengthening Movement 自強運動 zìqiáng yùndòng. This period, also known as the Tongzhi Restoration (同治維新 tóngzhì wéixīn or 同治中興 tóngzhì zhōngxīng), c.1861-1895, saw the launch of institutional and industrial reforms guided by members of the Manchu aristocracy with the support of Han-Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. Defeat at the hand of foreign forces in two wars, the pressure of a devastating civil war, and a growing awareness of modern industry, trade, and imperialism, helped spark reforms that unfolded in the wake of a palace coup in 1861

富強、民主與文明  fù qiáng, minzhu yǔ wénmíng: ‘Wealth and Power, Democracy and Civilisation’. The expression 富強 fù qiáng, ‘Wealth and Power’, originates with Legalist thinkers in the pre-Qin era, and it features in the Biography of Li Si in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian:

Duke Xiao used the laws of Shang Yang to modify the usages and change the customs. The people thereby became prosperous and flourishing and the state became wealthy and powerful. The clans served with joy, and the feudal lords concluded marriage alliances and offered their allegiance.

孝公用商鞅之法,移風易俗,民以殷盛,國以富強,百姓樂用,諸侯親服。

— 《史記 · 李斯列傳》, translated in Derk Bodde
China’s First Unifier: a study of the Ch’in dynasty
as seen in the life of Li Ssû 李斯 (280?-208 B.C.)
Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1938, p.16
romanisation converted to Hanyu Pinyin

The draconian laws of Lord Shang 商君 laid the basis for the military expansion of the State of Qin and the tyranny of its first emperor, Qin Shihuang, a century later. 富強 fù qiáng was a shorthand used by Japanese thinkers during the Meiji Restoration 明治維新 Meiji ishin from 1868 when the throne exhorted the nation to 富国强兵 fukoku kyōhei, ‘Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces’. This was one of a series of four-character expressions that encapsulated national policy. The others were: 殖産興業 shokusan kōgyō ‘Encouraging Industry’, 文明開化 bunmei kaika ‘Civilisation and Openness’ (for more on this, as used by Xu Zhangrun, see below), 忠君愛國 chūkun aikoku ‘Loyalty to the Emperor and Nationalism’ and 官尊民卑 kanson mimpi ‘Respect Officials and Put the People in their Place’. Japan’s Meiji-era policies would also have an impact on China’s Self-Strengthening Movement, as well as subsequent late-dynastic reforms. A century later, Japanese practices of innovation within tradition would also have an impact on China’s post-1978 transformation.

民主與文明 mínzhǔ yǔ wénmíng: ‘Democracy and Civilisation’, along with ‘Wealth and Power’ these terms comprise the notional Chinese national for the realisation of modernity under Communist Party tutelage. At the Seventeenth Party Congress in October 2007, it was declared that for the foreseeable future China would remain in the Preliminary Stage of Socialism, the aim of which was to build a socialist country that was ‘Wealthy, Powerful, Democratic, Civilised and Harmonious’ 富強、民主、文明、和諧. Non-party thinkers like Xu Zhangrun have clear ideas what these terms mean, without the imposition of the Party’s ‘socialist values’

變革 biàn gé: here the term means massive change or revolutionary transformation as the author is alluding to the collapse of dynastic rule which was in turn replaced by a flawed republic and then the one-party Communist state. It is worth noting that the state-sponsored exhibition held at the National History Museum in Beijing to mark the four decades of reform in December 2018 was called ‘The Grand Reform’ 偉大的變革 

Under the general umbrella of policies related to ‘Civilisation and Openness’, ideas such as ‘Freedom and Equality’ were championed and, in turn, they led to the gradual embrace of the concepts of ‘Legality and Human Rights’, as well as ‘Tolerance and the Open Society’. The determined efforts [of countless individuals] made it possible for these concepts and values to be embedded in Chinese reality and in the process the civilisation of the West was grafted onto China’s own living and vibrant civilisation. This in turn spurred new growth and the maturation of a Modern China with a Modern Civilisation.

The main tenor of modern Chinese history, the aspirations of the multitudes of its people, and the very current of historical change itself have encapsulated these ideas and values. Although they have been sorely tested by the ebb and flow of events, this core body of ideas has survived numerous trials and overcome various tribulations. Of course, the evolution of a truly Modern China has been waylaid numerous times, and it has veered off course, but there has been an essential forward trajectory. That is why, having survived repeated diminutions wrought by war and revolution, finally, and for over three decades [from 1978 to 2013], all of these disparate elements coalesced once more into a dominant and increasingly powerful current of change. And, thereby, a national consensus has come into being.

為此,在「文明開化」這一總體框架下,標舉「自由與平等」,將「法制人權」和「寬容開放」等價值,慢慢收納入懷,力爭落地生根,而於移植西洋文明中啓發華夏生機締造現代中國及其現代文明。此為中國近代歷史的主旋律,億萬同胞人心所向,大勢所趨,雖歷經跌宕,而流離必於是,顛沛必於是。考其進程,雖屢遭打斷,時見偏差,而內裡脈絡連綿不輟,並在歷經戰爭與運動衝擊後,終究於晚近三十多年里匯集一堂,蔚為主流,愈見其茁,而終成全民共識

Notes:

文明開化 wénmíng kāihuà, or bunmei kaika in Japanese: ‘Civilisation and Openness’. This was a central aspect of a broad-based modernisation strategy in Meiji era Japan, one which in many ways unfolded in parallel with the Qing court’s reforms. The thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi 福沢諭吉 introduced the expression 文明 bunmei / wénmíng in 1875, and the concept, one which embraced everything from modern transportation, to education, social mores, fashion and personal habits, soon resonated with China’s modernisers

落地生根 luò dì shēng gēn: literally, ‘fall to earth and strike root’, also the Chinese botanical name of Bryophyllum pinnatum, a tropical and subtropical plant species colloquially called ‘air plant’, ‘life plant’ or ‘miracle leaf’. The seedlings of B. pinnatum fall to the ground, take root easily and soon give rise to new plants. Here the author uses an extended botanical metaphor to make his point — ‘Civilisation and Openness’ strained to take root 落地生根 luò dì shēng gēn and thereby the ideas and values of Western Civilisation were grafted 移植 yí zhí on to China 華夏 huáxià helping ‘germinate’ 啓發 qǐ fā organic renewal 生機 shēng jī that would build or create the basis for 締造 dì zào a truly modern China and Chinese civilisation

華夏 huáxià: ‘China’ or ‘Chineseness’, a relatively abstract term frequently used by the author. By so doing, he avoids the more common word 中國 Zhōngguó, which generally indicates the geopolitical territory of the modern nation-state. Early texts describe 華夏 huáxià as ‘the place formerly of the Xia dynasty which is also notable for ritual and formal attire’, and two abiding set expressions (that is, clichés) regarding 華夏 huáxià speak of this ‘China’ being ‘a superior land where people dressed in the appropriate [Xia-era] attire, a territory of rituals and propriety’ 衣冠上國、禮儀之邦. 華夏 huáxià remains the powerfully evocative term for something akin to ‘Eternal China’, or the Core China and its Civilisation of the Central Plains, that is the idealised (that is, mythic) culture, land and civilisation that evolved in and around today’s Henan province prior to the chaos of the Warring States period. Below, and in his other writings, the author uses the term 華夏邦國 huáxià bāngguó to indicate China while avoiding the word 中國 Zhōngguó.

From the late-nineteenth century both 華夏 huáxià and 中華 zhōnghuá (roughly, ‘the flourishing region of the Central Plains’) have been used in discussions related to the whole gamut of Chinese traditions, as well as in debates related to Chinese exceptionalism, race and nationhood. In recent decades, the Communists have used 中華 zhōnghuá in many contexts (for more on this, and ‘New China’ 新華 xīnhuá, see the essay New China Newspeak), it is also the word used for ‘China’ in the name both of The Republic of China 中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó and of The People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國 Zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó

主旋律 zhǔxuánlǜ: literally ‘main melody’. Here the author is playing on a word commonly used in Party propaganda, but with a very different purpose in mind. Following controversies surrounding ‘anti-socialist’ and ‘unhealthy’ cinema, Deng Xiaoping declared ‘All films that reflect Truth, Goodness and Beauty are Main Melody Cinema’ 一切反映真、善、美的都属于主旋律影片. Main Melody Movies and TV 主旋律影視 form a particular, officially supported category of audio-visual culture with an uplifting, positive and pro-Party message. One of the first Main Melody Movies was The Beguiling Band 迷人的樂隊, an ‘upbeat reformist slapstick’ film directed by Wang Haowei 王好為 in 1985. From 1987, Main Melody culture became a prominent feature of the propaganda landscape, and the term has been used ever since to describe sanctioned cultural works. Main Melody projects such as The Founding of a Republic 《建國大業》made to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009 enjoy privileged access to funding and national distribution

人心所向 rén xīn suǒ xiàng, 大勢所趨 dà shì suǒ qū: literally, ‘everyone wants it; it is the direction in which everything is headed’. This paired expression frequently appears in official propaganda indicating the mass popularity of the Party and the historical inevitability of socialism

流離必於是 liú lí bì yú shì, 顛沛必於是 diān pèi bì yú shì: ‘through trials and tribulations’. The modern expression 顛沛流離 diān pèi liú lí , ‘forced to leave one’s home due to terrible circumstances’ dates from the Song dynasty. Here the author is combining that meaning with a line from The Analects:

Never for a moment does a gentleman part from humanity; he clings to it through trials, he clings to it through tribulations.

君子無終食之間違仁,造次必於是,顛沛必於是。

— 《論語 · 里仁》
The Analects of Confucius
trans. Simon Leys, p.15

全民共識 quánmín gòngshí: ‘national consensus’. In a country with a guided media and policed public life whatever polls are available would generally seem to reflect state approved views. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the meaning of ‘national consensus’

As we review the 150-year history of Modern China, we can postulate that whosoever has stood against what I have identified in the above as the main tenor of change, or whosoever has ignored the groundswell of historical awareness, has eventually come undone. The country has evolved, not because of them, but despite them. That is to say, no matter how such historical actors have prevaricated or pitted themselves against the tides of change, over time they have been swept aside. [Allow me to illustrate my point:]

  • In the last year of the Qing dynasty [1911] the Imperial Cabinet of Manchu Nobles abandoned political reforms [that had been instituted], and they were immediately done for;
  • Fat-head Yuan [the early president of the Republic of China which replaced the Manchu dynasty in 1912] was brazen enough to declare himself emperor, but in an instant his gambit failed;
  • The Nationalist Party [under Chiang Kai-shek on Mainland China from 1928 to 1949] excluded other political forces and lorded over the nation, it too came to no good end; and,
  • As for the totalitarian rule of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, it too was eventually done for.

And that is why, Reform policies that were ostensibly launched to ‘bring order out of chaos and return [the party-state] to a path of rectitude’ [as the formal slogan puts it] — a pragmatic way for the Communist Party to reorient the nation after the destructive extremism of the Cultural Revolution — these policies effectively helped inculcate [in the leaders] the Historical Awareness discussed above. And with that they even initiated a tentative process that can enable the people at large to express what we call mainstream Political Aspirations [that is, the fitful realisation of popular political aspirations].

By focussing the country once more on building a modern nation, the leaders were by default participating in that self-same Grand Transition that has been unfolding since the 1860s. From 1978, the onward march was resumed. Certainly, the heralded changes were repeatedly disrupted and, time and again, those on the trek may have stumbled, although they always regained their footing. Regardless, overall, they were moving ahead along the Broad Way. Although we must also appreciate the fact that: for them to have done otherwise would have invited the displeasure of the Heavens themselves, and it would have inflamed the fury of the People. [To quote a famous line:] ‘We would have faced oblivion together.’

實際上,縱觀一個半世紀的中國近代歷史,可以看出,但凡違迕這一主旋律,昧於這一歷史意識,背離這一政治意志,則為逆歷史潮流而動,而終究為中國現代成長進程所拋棄,在激烈對壘後雨打風吹去。晚清皇族內閣拒延深化改革,玩完了;袁大頭悍然稱帝,立馬玩完;國民黨一黨獨大,也玩完了;「文革」式極權暴政,同樣玩完了。因而,晚近三十五年里,所謂「撥亂反正」,扭轉「文革」式極權,正不外醒悟到這一歷史意識,回歸於這一主流政治意志,而於建設現代中國的日邁月徵中,向著這波大轉型的最終目標而日就月將。從此邁步,磕磕碰碰,屢僕屢起,康莊大道也。否則,勢必天怒人怨,而「吾與汝偕亡矣!」

Notes:

晚清皇族內閣 wǎn qīng huángzú nèigé: ‘the cabinet of Manchu nobles of the late-Qing’, a term used to describe, sarcastically, the first modern cabinet in Chinese history. Established at a time of unrest when Han elites were demanding radical change to dynastic rule, the cabinet of the imperial chancellor Prince Qing 慶親王 (Yikuang 奕劻) was dominated by members of the Manchu-Qing nobility. It was immediately mocked for being unable to reflect both elite and popular will. Prince Qing’s cabinet lasted from May to November 1911. The background of this failure was the stalled Self-strengthening movement following the diminution of the power of its chief advocate, Prince Gong, in the 1880s, as well as the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898. The Qing imperial house reluctantly introduced what it called ‘New Policies’ 新政 Xīn zhèng from 1901. Those comprehensive reforms included a proposal to create a constitutional monarchy and modern parliament, and undertakings to pursue broad-based changes in such areas as education, industry and government administration. Following the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi, a late convert to substantive political change, in 1908, the New Policies continued in fits and starts. The ‘Cabinet of Nobles’ was seen as an empty political gesture and during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 it was replaced by a cabinet appointed by a new chancellor, Yuan Shikai, who then argued for the imperial house to abdicate the throne and bring an end to China’s millennia of dynastic rule (see the following note)

袁大頭 Yuán dàtóu: ‘Fat-head Yuan’ is Yuan Shikai (袁世凱, 1859-1916), the canny first president of the Republic of China who, in 1914 attempted to declare the republic the Great China Empire 中華帝國 with himself ascending the throne under the reign title Hongxian 洪憲. His presidential headquarters at the Sea Palaces, Zhongnanhai, to the west of the Forbidden City was renamed New China Palace 新華宮 and a gate — New China Empire Gate 新華門 — was built in a fussy late-dynastic style and opened on to Chang’an Avenue. It is now the formal entrance to China’s party-state leadership compound.

The ‘Yuan Shikai Dollar’, formally called the ‘Yuan Shikai Portrait Silver Coin with a Reverse Golden Harvest Decoration’ 袁世凱像背嘉禾銀幣, was first minted in 1914. Colloquially called ‘Fat-head Yuan’ 袁大頭 (the surname Yuan 袁 and ‘Chinese dollar’ yuán 圓/元 are homonyms) the coin continued to be minted up until 1951. When the ‘terminal tenure’ of Xi Jinping was announced in early 2018, online commentary frequently referred to him as Fat-head Yuan, comparing his quasi-imperial behaviour with that of Yuan Shikai over a century earlier (see A Landscape Desolate and Bare 白茫茫大地真乾淨, China Heritage, 12 March 2018)

國民黨一黨獨大 guómíndǎng yīdǎng dúdà: the KMT created what was in effect one-party state, or 黨國 dǎngguó, ‘party-state’. 一黨獨大 yīdǎng dúdà means ‘one supreme party that dominates all other political forces’. For a discussion of the party-state in twentieth-century China and today, see The Party EmpireChina Heritage, 17 August 2018

「文革」式極權暴政wéngé’ shì jíquán bào zhèng: a totalitarian despotism such as that of the Cultural Revolution. 文革 wéngé is an abbreviation of 無產階級文化大革命, Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The prescient, and tragic, young critic Yu Luoke 遇羅克, writing in his 1966 diary, called Mao’s purge of top leaders nothing less than a ‘palace coup’ 宮廷政變. He was also one of the first people to quip that the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was neither ‘cultural’ nor ‘revolutionary’. Yu was arrested in Beijing in January 1968 and executed at a mass rally on 5 March 1970 along with nineteen other people who had been found guilty of political crimes

撥亂反正 bō luàn fǎn zhèng: a term used from 1977 to signify the turning of history on its head and righting the wrongs of the High Maoist era (c.1964-1976). In 1977, the Party leader Chen Yun 陳雲 led high-level efforts for de-Maoification, first by supporting the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, which invoked the re-evaluation of the 5 April 1976 Tiananmen protests and Deng’s ouster by Mao, then by extending the process by calling for the rehabilitation of other leaders denounced in the Mao years, starting with Peng Dehuai who fell during the Great Leap Forward. Chen also played the key role in addressing the nationwide attack on intellectuals and protesters during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 (one led by Mao but carried out by Deng Xiaoping), a process which led to the ‘rehabilitation’ of tens of thousands of Mao-era victims. Chen was also the crucial figure in challenging and then overturning Mao’s Stalinist-style economic policies that had resulted in profound hardship and deprivation for over two decades. In reality, it was Chen Yun who, during those crucial early post-Mao years, wielded his immense influence to help salvage the Party’s tattered reputation and set it on a course for profound economic change. Chen had fallen foul of the Maoist bureaucracy in the 1950s, while other far more canny operators like Deng Xiaoping survived until 1967, and resurfaced some years before Mao’s death. Most of the credit for the crucially important efforts to rescue the Party by Hua Guofeng, Chen Yun and others would be, and still is, enjoyed by Deng Xiaoping. (See 宋毅軍, 實事求是,撥亂反正——陳雲在中共十一屆三中全會前後)

In comments made on 25 October 1980, Deng Xiaoping explained that the expression 撥亂反正 bō luàn fǎn zhèng, meant: ‘correcting the chaos created by Lin Biao and the Gang of Four, criticising the errors made by Comrade Mao Zedong in his later years and returning to the correct path of Mao Zedong Thought 撥林彪、’四人幫’ 破壞之亂,批評毛澤東同志晚年的錯誤,回到毛澤東思想的正確軌道上來. The four-character sentence 撥亂反正 bō luàn fǎn zhèng dates from the classical text Gongyang Zhuan where it states that Confucius supposedly compiled the Spring and Autumn Annals with a political and moral aim to ‘correct the aberrations of a chaotic world and return things to a path of rectitude’ 君子曷為春秋, 撥亂世, 反諸正… (see《公羊傳 · 哀公十四年》 )

日邁月徵 rì mài yuè zhēng and 日就月將 rì jiù yuè jiāng: both expressions come from the classic Book of Songs, and both remain in use today. 日邁月徵 rì mài yuè zhēng means ‘time continues to press forward’ and 日就月將 rì jiù yuè jiāng ‘constant progress is made [towards a goal]’. The author uses these expression both for the resonance resulting from the repetition of the words 日 (day) and 月yuè (month) and a meaning related to temporality

康莊大道 kāng zhuāng dà dào: a broad road that is both wide and smooth. Originally from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, where it is written 康莊之衢 kāng zhuāng zhī qú. Frequently used by the Communists to describe the path to socialism, the author suggests that this broad avenue leads in a different direction

勢必天怒人怨 shì bì tiān nù rén yuàn: again the use of the expression 勢必 shì bì, one which indicates both inevitability and propensity. An essay in China Heritage Annual 2019 is devoted to the meanings of the word 勢 shì in the meaning of potential, possibility, propensity

吾與汝偕亡矣 wú yǔ rú xié wáng yǐ: a famous line from the Book of Documents, one of the Confucian classics. The full sentence is 時日曷喪 shí rì hé sàng, 予及汝皆亡 yú jí rǔ jiē wáng: ‘When will these dark days end? You will die with us!’ Also recorded by Sima Qian it is said to reflect the sentiments of slaves who rebelled against the tyrant Jie 桀, last ruler of the Xia dynasty. Rather than living in painful servitude, they swore to die along with their oppressor (see ‘Declarations of Tang’ in the Book of Documents《尚書 · 湯誓》)

The very policies that encouraged economic growth, gave license to the renewed pursuit of Wealth and Power, as well as contributing to the repair of a damaged society and a regeneration [of social values] following long-term ethical collapse, also contributed to a rising political awareness — that is, a consciousness that citizens should have a say in how they are governed. This, in turn, led to calls for political reform. It seemed that it would be only a matter of time before political reform became part of the national agenda and many thought that process would ultimately result in something like a ‘Constitutional Democracy in a People’s Republic’.

As this truly ‘Modern China’ evolved, it was hoped that the nature of the polity itself would also be addressed, a transformation of formal political arrangements [that is, as long-delayed political reform was finally undertaken, the party-state would usher in a more diverse and representative political landscape]. This was and is a theme of epochal significance, one that can only come to a meaningful conclusion on the basis of a truly new beginning. But, at the crucial moment when political stagnation demanded a breakthrough, the ending was foreclosed, ’the beginning’ itself stalled and ‘the new’ was frustrated by ‘the old’. It was at that juncture [in 2012-2013], and in the years thereafter, that instead of demonstrating any desire to advance [either economic or political reforms], the Upper Echelons [that is, Xi Jinping and Party Central] have chosen to retreat. Even more surprising is that they are also falling back on Cultural Revolution-era concepts and practices [in pursuit of their goals]. They are fixated on ensuring eternal ‘One Family Domination’ [that is, the Communist one-party state]. They are heedless of what the times require; their folly is absolute and, more importantly, their vision is ultimately unsustainable.

The thirty-five years of Reform witnessed a marked improvement in people’s standards of living. Along with greater material comfort social behaviour gradually evolved and the country witnessed a slow amelioration in the popular understanding of social ethics and community values. All of these social manifestations reflect deep-seated yearnings fed by the wellsprings of a civilisation based on decency, mutual respect and fraternity. Here we see ample evidence that even the suffocating efforts of the party-state and its dominant culture could not completely stifle the pulse of a civilisation whose vital core is Humanness and Fellow-feeling.

In light of all of this, over that thirty-five year period [from 1978 to 2013 that I commemorate in this essay] people were able to marshal their disparate forces and launch coordinated sallies [in favour of change]. A myriad different streams coalesced into a torrent. Thereby, once again China gave expression to what I call here its Modern Historical Awareness and indomitable Political Aspirations.

故爾,從1980年代以還之發展經濟、追求富強、修復社會與重建倫理,到此刻的政治參與意識高漲,而呼喚政治體制改革,以及在可見未來政改終究勢必逐步提上議事日程,而以「立憲民主、人民共和」來最後收束,道出的是「現代中國」的成長必須解決國家建構和政治建設升級換代這一時代課題,必以開闢新局終局。此時此刻,新局未開,則終局姍姍來遲,正面臨著非先破局而後邁步開局不可的當口。當此之際,幾年來,層峰不進則退,居然訴諸文革式理念與治理方式,汲汲於所謂「家業」永固,可謂昧於時勢,愚不可及,而終究難以為繼。同時,三十多年里,隨著國民生活水準遞次提升,行止出處漸求雅馴溫文,倫理社會漸次恢復和公民友愛滋長髮揚,展現了華夏民族追求文明仁愛的心理脈動,說明其強勢黨國文化所能全然閹割得了的。凡此諸端,三十五年里,分頭合擊,萬流歸宗,演繹展示著中國近代歷史的主流歷史意識和強毅政治意志。

Notes:

政治體制改革 zhèngzhì tǐzhì gǎigé, or 政改 zhèng gǎi for short: systemic political reform, a reference to policies initiated by liberal Party leaders in the 1980s, partly with the support of Deng Xiaoping himself, aimed at the gradual transformation of the one-party state into a more open, participatory system. Rapid social change, economic disruption, unrealistic popular expectations as well as the constant interference and manipulations of conservatives contributed to a sense of national crisis from the mid 1980s and the eruption of mass protests in 1989. The violent quelling of those demonstrations on 4 June 1989, the purge of liberals in the Party leadership along with the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, which China’s leaders took as a warning for themselves, along with the fear of Western influence, effectively brought an end to the mooted moderate political reforms

立憲民主人民共和 lìxiàn mínzhǔ, rénmín gònghé: a vision for the People’s Republic repeatedly mooted by liberal thinkers, political activists and public intellectuals in support of true constitutional rule, or 憲政 xiàn zhèng, that vouchsafes the basic rights of citizens and gives true meaning to the expression ‘a people’s republic’, words that are central to the formal name of the People’s Republic of China.

In 2012-2013 a short-lived hope that a new party-state leader would inaugurate a process of constitutional reform first proposed by Sun Yat-sen nearly a century earlier was quashed. The Southern Weekly 南方周末, an influential pro-reform newspaper based in Guangzhou had a tradition of publishing a new year’s special editorial and, in December 2012, inspired by Xi Jinping’s use of the China Dream as a political concept that he said the Party would use in the years to engage and motivate the nation, a lead writer drafting a New Year’s editorial titled ‘Dream of China, a dream of constitutionalism’ 中國夢, 憲政夢. In other words, the paper declared that the real China Dream, not the one outlined by Xi Jinping and the Party, was the century-old hope that the country would become a modern constitutional democracy. The censors stepped in, there was a tense stand off with rebellious journalists but, over time, the Party asserted its unequivocal control (for Xi Jinping’s response, see his comment that China’s media goes by only one surname, that of The Party).

The quelling of journalistic outspokenness put paid to any hope for liberal change in the foreseeable future. As some writers observed: ‘we might share the same bed, but we dream different dreams’ 同床異夢.The development of a Xi Jinping personality cult in 2016-2017 and the March 2018 revision of the Constitution allowing state leaders the equivalent of lifetime tenure, all of which followed on from years of increasing political rigidity and ideological policing incited writers like Xu Zhangrun to speak out

: ‘state of affairs’ or ‘situation’. 局 is yet another word with numerous meanings and nuances, one that the author uses here in all playful seriousness when he writes: 此時此刻,新局未開,則終局姍姍來遲,正面臨著非先破局而後邁步開局不可的當口。

新局 xīn jú, literally ‘a new situation’, is one with potential; 破局 pò jú is an act which disrupts an unfolding scenario or something that results in an unexpected change, or even a breakthrough. 開局 kāi jú, ‘start of a game’, or the early stage of an ongoing process; while 終局 zhōng jú is the end result, victory or the conclusion of a game or a particular set up.

To play a game of Chinese chess (whether Xiangqi 象棋 or Go 圍棋) is to 下一局棋. Chess games 棋局 qí jú throw up dizzying scenarios. The cultural significance of the game (like that of Mahjong for some) is such that political leaders and strategists often refer to China itself as being like a chess board 全國一盤棋 quán guó yī pán qí. That is to say, ruling China is a holistic undertaking in which disparate aspects of its governance, development and society are considering, and controlled, in an integrated fashion. Political leaders (as well as everyone else) need to consider the entire chess board 棋盤 pán, that is ‘the big picture’.

A ‘player’ 局中人 júzhōngrén is someone who is involved in the game, or, for that matter, someone who is so mired in the details of a particular scenario (‘chess game’) that they cannot see the whole game or scenario 全局 quán jú. In Beijing dialect the word 局氣 júqi refers to someone who is loyal, reliable or just a ‘decent sort’.

The word 局 is also used when people get together to play games such as Mahjong or poker, which are referred to as 牌局 pái jú. An old term for ‘lunch or dinner out’ 飯局 fàn jú, usually paid for by someone else, has also enjoyed a revival.

In this passage in which he discuss the transfer of power and the dramatic political developments of 2012-2013, when Bo Xilai fell from grace and Xi Jinping became undisputed party-state-army leader, Professor Xu plays on the word 局 to express both the possibilities and frustrations of contemporary Chinese politics. He may well have been naïvely optimistic about possible scenarios for 2012-2013, but not even the most pessimistic outsider or observer 局外人 júwài rén could have imagined that the new establishment, or The Powers That Be 當局 dāng jú, would take the autocratic turn excoriated in this series of essays

層峰 céngfēng: ‘the peak’ or ‘pinnacle’, one of the many tongue-in-cheek ways the author refers to the Xi Jinping-Wang Qishan duumvirate

汲汲 jí jí: ‘anxious for’, ‘desirous of’, an expression taken from Tao Yuanming’s ‘The Gentleman of the Five Willow Trees’《五柳先生傳》, one of the most quoted, and beloved, autobiographical sketches in the tradition. In it Tao says of the subject of the piece (that is, himself): 不戚戚於貧賤, 不汲汲於富貴 — ‘he had no envy of fame or fortune’ (trans. J.R. Hightower)

家業 jiā yè: ‘family enterprise’, or ‘One Family Domination’, a sarcastic reference to the Communist Party, or, to use Chu Anping’s expression the ‘Party Empire’ 黨天下 (see The Party EmpireChina Heritage, 17 August 2018). Traditionally, a 帝業 dìyė, ‘imperial enterprise’, indicated a dynasty established by one family or clan. Thus, the Qin 秦 — the first dynasty in Chinese history — was founded by the Ying 嬴 clan, while the last dynasty, the Qing 清, was ruled by the Aisin Gioro 愛新覺羅 or Jin 金 family of imperial Manchus. In this passage, Xu Zhangrun chides the Communist Party enterprise for being akin to a dynastic clan.

Upon joining the Party, which in many ways is akin to joining a religious order, the individual takes an oath of loyalty and supposedly foreswears all other allegiances, including to family and clan. In the past the Party was even described as being closer and more important to the Party member than either their mother or father, summed up in the slogan 爹親娘親, 不如黨親.

From 2010, Xi Jinping, who was then only a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, began talking about the ‘Party Surname’ 姓黨. During formal inspection tours of Party media offices in 2015 and 2016, Xi declared that the party-state media — commonly referred to as 黨的喉舌, that is the ‘Throat and Tongue of the Party’ — had a singular loyalty and identity, their Surname is the Party’ 姓黨.

This leads us to recall the ideological debate that raged from 1990 to 1992 regarding the direction of economic reforms summed up in terms of whether one was ‘Surnamed Socialist’ 姓社 or ‘Surnamed Capitalist’ 姓資. After 4 June 1989, some Party thinkers and propagandists like the veteran Maoist Deng Liqun 鄧力群 (who featured in our series Drop Your Pants!), advocated limiting market-oriented reforms which they argued had led to the political upheaval at Tiananmen Square. Others claimed that further economic change was essential if the positive momentum of the post-1978 reform policies was to be maintained. During his early 1992 Tour of the South, Deng Xiaoping addressed this debate and quashed opposition to accelerated reform with a series of arguments that were more sophistry than sophisticated

仁愛 rén ài: ‘to have fellow feeling’, ‘human care and sympathy’, ‘kindheartedness’, ‘charity’. This is an expression with a long and complex history that relates to positive values espoused from long before the rise of dynastic rule in the second century BCE. The term 仁愛 rén ài has been promoted, used and abused ever since

強勢黨國文化 qiángshì dǎngguó wénhuà: translated here as ‘the suffocating efforts of the party-state and its culture’, that is the officially supported and state-funded culture promoted by the Communists since 1949 which has, for the most part, reflected the policy priorities and conformed with the ever-changing needs of the Party. Even though it is funded by taxpayers and various forms of tithing, party-state culture essentially advertises, promotes and adulates ad nauseam the Party itself. In recent decades, traditional cultural forms have been increasingly encouraged, although they too must be edited and re-cast for this purpose. As a result, ‘traditional culture’ reflects a heavily edited and reinvented tradition. Fortunately, people both within and outside the Party are adept at manipulating official policy and champion genuine academic and cultural activities. In this passage the author also makes the point that despite decades of political repression and social engineering, basic human decency, civility and cultural values revived whenever they had the chance

閹割得了fēiyāngē dé liǎo: translated here as ‘could not completely sever’, although 閹割 yāngē means ‘castrate’. In the context of the discussion of the Party being a ‘Family Enterprise’ 家業, the author’s use of ‘castrate’ is an oblique reference to the dynastic practice of employing eunuchs in the palace

分頭合擊 fēn tóu hé jī: ‘to make a concerted attack from different angles using disparate forces’, translated here as ‘to marshal disparate forces and launch coordinated sallies’

Therefore, I would suggest that during this still-unfolding process the nineteenth-century Germano-Slavic ideology [that is, Marxism-Leninism] and its Mutations [in China, such as Mao Thought, etc] — which continue to proliferate to this day — should be seen as but a transitory phenomenon. Moreover, the political and constitutional arrangements established on the basis of that ideology could best be thought of as the ‘Provisional Constitution of a Transitional Political System’. I would also argue that the ultimate success or failure of the present system will be determined by whether it accords in the long term with the Mainstream Historical Awareness and Political Aspirations described earlier.

Of course, the short-sighted may well perceive [in the Communist Party] only an all-powerful entity that beclouds the very skies. A broader perspective, however, allows us to appreciate the fact that the majority of people have long since seen through the despicable nature of the system; they regard it as a loathsome thing that has all but reached its limits.

Therefore, given its [the system’s] antipathy to Mainstream Historical Awareness and moving as it still does in the opposite direction of collective Political Aspiration — something evident with every passing day — we find ourselves at a critical juncture. By all rights the system should be dispensed with in all due haste and superseded by something that embraces Universal Values, that is values which underpin the very best kinds of political systems in the modern world.

I am only repeating myself: the evolution of Modern China first saw the creation of a ‘Nation-state Founded on the Basic Principles of Civilisation’. It was on that basis that the country was able to develop, cherishing all the while an ambition to enter an era of ‘Modern Nationhood 2.0’, that is to say, to become a ‘Democratic Nation Underwritten by Basic Freedoms’. It is only on this basis that our polity can honestly embrace the best of Chinese civilisation and evolve a political system best described as a ‘People’s Republic based on Constitutional Democracy’.

Then, and only then, can the Grand Wave of civilisational transformation — the greatest in Chinese history since the Qin and Han periods [200BCE-200CE, when dynastic rule was established] — finally reach a climax.

換言之,此間出現而延綿至今的十九世紀日耳曼—斯拉夫式意識形態其變種,僅為暫時現象,進而,奠立於此的政制及其憲法,是並且只能是「過渡政體下的臨時憲法」。其之消長,亦必以是否順應近代中國的主流歷史意識和政治意志為取捨從違的準繩。眼光囿於短程,便只見其力大,一手遮天放眼大歷史,則明瞭其惡盈,早已人人憎惡,實為強弩之末。從而,其之明顯違迕此間歷史意識,而背逆此種政治意志,遂愈發顯豁,亟需於拋棄裁汰之際,最終擁抱普世價值,建立迄今為止世界文明所能開示的最佳政體。此亦無他,就是如筆者所一再申說者,現代中國的成長,需於建設「民族國家—文明立國」這一維度和層次之上,更新換代,再上層樓,引入「民主國家—自由立國」這一現代國族2.0版本,藉此奠立華夏文明「立憲民主,人民共和」的政治大廈,而完成秦漢以還中國歷史上最為宏大的這一波文明大轉型

Notes:

日耳曼—斯拉夫式意識形態 Rìěrmàn—Sīlāfū shì yìshí xíngtài: the ‘Germano-Slavic Ideology’ is the author’s tongue-in-cheek term for ‘Marxism-Leninism’ — Marx being German and Lenin Russian, or a Slav

其變種 qí biànzhǒng: ‘its mutations’, or variations. This refers to Sinified Marxism-Leninism, starting with Mao Zedong Thought and including theoretical varietals associated with Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao as well as, most recently, Xi Jinping

暫時現象 zàn shí xiànxiàng: a temporary or transitory phenomenon. Here the author is purposefully using the kind of language employed by Party propagandists to mock what he regards as the relatively fleeting nature of their historical role and importance

過渡政體下的臨時憲法: ‘Provisional Constitution of a Transitional Political System’. This long-winded expression is also an allusion to the ‘Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China’ 中華民國臨時約法 which was hastily adopted in 1912 to limit the powers of the ambitious military leader Yuan Shikai, himself a provisional president who had forced his way into office. As we noted earlier, in 1916 Yuan declared himself emperor of a new dynasty

一手遮天 yī shǒu zhē tiān: literally, ‘attempting to cover the whole sky with one hand’. It means that any attempt to cover up reality is doomed to failure. What is now a common four-character expression comes from a line in a Tang-era poem about Li Si, the infamous chief minister of the First Emperor of Qin mentioned above. The poem, by Cao Ye (曹鄴, 816-? CE) reads: 難將一人手,掩得天下目, ‘Impossible it is to block the eyes of All Under Heaven with but a single hand.’ (from 曹鄴《讀李斯傳》). 一手遮天 yī shǒu zhē tiān is a favourite term in official propaganda. It is employed in particular to mock enemies and foreign governments who presume to claim an authority (or to ‘cover the skies with one hand’) over issues deemed to be inimical to the unfailingly correct Party line

放眼大歷史 fàng yǎn dà lìshǐ: the Communists pride themselves on their accurate view of history and progress and a favourite term is 放眼歷史 fàng yǎn lìshǐ ‘to views things from a broader historical perspective’. Here the author subverts a Party cliché based on one of Mao’s poems, but reformulated as ‘Have the Fatherland in Our Hearts as We Consider the World [Revolution]’ 胸懷全國、放眼世界 xiōnghuái zǔguó, fàng yǎn shìjiè by the forgotten wordsmith Chen Boda 陳伯達, who played a crucial role in forging the particular diction of the Cultural Revolution. In a speech made on 30 July 1966, Chen declared:

Chairman Mao has said that [the Cultural Revolution] is a profound revolution that touches people’s souls. Only when we have purged things in ourselves tainted by the bourgeoisie, exploiting classes and individualism can we really ‘Have the Fatherland in Our Hearts as We Consider the World [Revolution]’. This shouldn’t be an empty statement and now we are really coming to understand the profound meaning of a slogan popular among the masses. Without Mao Zedong Thought and without the masses, we can never truly ‘Have the Fatherland in Our Hearts as We Consider the World’.

毛主席說,這是觸及人們靈魂的大革命。革了資產階級,剝削階級,個人主義的東西,才能胸懷全國,放眼世界。這不應該是一句空話,現在懂得了這個群眾性的口號有深刻的意義。沒有毛澤東思想,沒有群眾,胸懷祖國,放眼世界是做不到的。

On 3 January 2019, Chairman Xi Jinping used the expression when he congratulated the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the establishment a new research institute devoted to (the Party’s version of) Chinese history. Among other things, Xi said that China’s historians:

must adhere to Historical Materialism and apply its ideas and methodologies while grounding themselves in China, contemplating the world as a whole, standing at the crest of the wave and understand change, both past and present, and be a prescient voice.

堅持歷史唯物主義立場、觀點、方法,立足中國、放眼世界,立時代之潮頭,通古今之變化,發思想之先聲。

違迕此間歷史意識,而背逆此種政治意志: here we return to the language of inexorable change and tides, and the author uses such laden verbs as 違迕 wéi wǔ and 背逆 bèi nì, short for 背叛忤逆 bèi pàn wǔ nì, which taken together mean to move forcibly against, to betray, or rebel (in a pejorative sense)

普世價值 pǔshì jiàzhí: universal values, a term of profound significance for China (not to mention other countries) that has been at the heart of ideological contention since the early 1950s. This topic is discussed at length in Part 3 of Xu Zhangrun’s essay

政治大廈 zhèngzhì dàshà: the Grand Edifice of Politics. The old expression Grand Edifice of Socialism has been renewed under Xi Jinping whose theorists now declare that the Grand Edifice is constructed from sturdy stuff using Four Rafter Beams and Eight Pillars 四梁八柱, a traditional architectural term repurposed by the Party. It goes without saying, the Party is the 頂梁柱 dǐng liáng zhù, that is, the mainstay and key supporting pillar of the edifice. Addressing delegates from Chongqing at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March 2018, Xi Jinping said:

The Grand Mansion of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is held up by Four Beams and Eight Columns. The Party is the framework and Party Central is the mainstay and key support.

中國特色社會主義大廈需要四梁八柱來支撐,黨是貫穿其中的總的骨架,黨中央是頂梁柱。

完成秦漢以還 這一波文明大轉型: ‘complete the Greatest Civilisational Transformation [in China] since [dynastic rule was established by] the Qin and Han [dynasties]’. Here the author is suggesting that, prior to the 1860s, ‘China’ had experienced only one other major transition, that dating from the creation of a unified empire under the State of Qin in the third century BCE, which was consolidated during the former and latter Han dynasties from the second century BCE to the second century CE. The Qin-Han imperial transition marked the establishment of dynastic history spanning, in one form or another, over two millennia until the collapse of the Manchu-Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912

Friends: the forces coursing through history are powerful and political progress cannot be denied. What viable choice is there apart from acting on the Historical Awareness born of modern Chinese history and the Political Aspirations inspired in its wake?

朋友,歷史脈動強勁,政治進程不可阻遏,則近代中國的主流歷史意識與政治意志,捨此其誰歟 ?!

Notes:

朋友 péngyǒu: although this is the common word for ‘friend’, in this context it means ‘someone with similar ideas’ or a person who is in sympathy with the argument of the author. Professor Xu pointedly uses 朋友 péngyǒu in contrast to the Party’s formal form of address, which is ‘comrade’ 同志 tóngzhì. Here we might imagine 朋友 péngyǒu as being somewhat similar to the literary term ‘Gentle Reader’, that is a sympathetic or amiable lecteur, as in the last stanza of ‘Bedlam’ by Abner Coses, written in 1914:

And so, dear gentle reader,
You see, by all the rules,
That earth’s whole population
Except ourselves are fools.

脈動 mài dòng: the throb, pulse or vital movement of a biological entity; this is different from the waves, tides and fluid movements mentioned elsewhere. It shares to a greater extent than is indicated in the text many features of ‘late modernity’, or what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, that is a fluid sense of self and systems. While faddish theory-driven academics quickly claimed a post-socialist and post-modern status for the People’s Republic, or even an ‘anti-modernist modernity’, the reality for this author is that in terms of long-term social and political stability, as well as in regard to fundamental human rights, many of the most basic aspects of modernity have yet to be realised. For decades, state-funded Chinese thinkers have been anxious to claim that the People’s Republic has made a series of successful systemic and social great leaps, and through such sophistry they have deftly avoided painful, and dangerous, confrontations with the enduring status quo of the one-party state

捨此其誰歟 shě cǐ qí shuí yú: ‘what choice is there [apart from xxxx]’? Here, again the author modifies a famous quotation from the Confucian thinker Mencius. The original, now a common four-character set expression often used by people who believe they are indispensable to history, is 舍我其誰 shě wǒ qí shuí, ‘who is there other than me?’ It occurs in the second part of the Gongsun Chou chapter 《孟子 · 公孫丑下》:

When Mencius left Qi, Chong Yu questioned him upon the way, saying, ‘Master, you look like one who carries an air of dissatisfaction in his countenance. But formerly I heard you say— “The superior man does not murmur against Heaven, nor grudge against men.”‘

Mencius said, ‘That was one time, and this is another. It is a rule that a true royal sovereign should arise in the course of five hundred years, and that during that time there should be men illustrious in their generation. From the commencement of the Zhou dynasty till now, more than seven hundred years have elapsed. Judging numerically, the date is past. Examining the character of the present time, we might expect the rise of such individuals in it. But Heaven does not yet wish that the kingdom should enjoy tranquillity and good order. If it wished this, who is there besides me to bring it about? How should I be otherwise than dissatisfied?’

孟子去齊,充虞路問曰:夫子若有不豫色然。前日虞聞諸夫子曰:君子不怨天,不尤人。曰:彼一時,此一時也。五百年必有王者興,其間必有名世者。由周而來,七百有餘歲矣;以其數,則過矣;以其時考之,則可矣。夫天未欲平治天下也;如欲平治天下,當今之世,舍我其誰也。吾何為不豫哉。

trans. James Legge, The Works of Mencius
romanisation converted to Hanyu Pinyin

In summation, let me be completely clear:

The fact of the matter is that [back in 1978] the party-state simply gave in. It was confronted by the overwhelming burdens that weighed down China’s long-suffering multitudes and it simply had to admit defeat. The Party had to face reality and admit that to survive people had to have basic necessities; they needed the means to feed themselves adequately and the wherewithal to pursue normal lives. That’s why with ‘Reform and Openness’ the Chinese people finally had a chance to catch their breath. They were gradually able to recover [from the First Thirty Years of Party rule under Mao and his cohort from 1949 to1978] and, in the process, some even flourished. But now? People are fearful of what lies ahead; they are alarmed and worried that the economics of scarcity may return and they are alarmed at the thought that the days when you needed ration coupons to buy anything could come again. In short, there is widespread alarm that Mao-style totalitarianism could revisit Our Ancient Land and that, yet again, people would have to endure abject lives.

What is equally evident about the 1978 Reforms was that something we could think of as the historical rational core of Chinese civilisation had been victorious; over time, it had cut a path through the Fog of Words and the Delusions [of the power-holders]. Furthermore, over the years since, people developed a sense of self-worth. Despite frequent bursts of repression within the broader society a fundamental and new awareness of basic civil rights has emerged and with it there is evidence of a modest determination to resist the Monolithic Thought of the party-state and its Grandiose Unifying Narcissism.

As our nation continues to recognise with all due humility these obvious realities, further historical change and political evolution will be possible. Along with the growing awareness and resistance already described in the above, one can discern a basic political aspiration: that all Chinese people have the right to vote — to cast a meaningful ballot — and that will mark the arrival of a Popular Consensus. Then, a modern constitutional democracy, with all of the pitfalls that it entails, can finally be established on a lasting basis. Only then will China become a truly modern state that can enjoy its onward growth as a mature polity.

So this is what I advocate; this is what countless people in China are hoping for; this, too, is the salutary prayer of our Ancestral Land.

進而言之,此一面向歷史意識與政治意志之低頭致意,某種程度上,也就是在向全體國民,所謂億萬人民服軟,被迫向千門萬戶的柴米油鹽婚喪嫁娶這一生存事實讓步,故爾才有「改革開放」後生民稍得喘息、民生漸次復興欣欣景象。而此刻大家憂心忡忡,就在於擔憂照此以往,伴隨著「短缺經濟」與「票證時代」再度回復的,是毛氏極權政治重臨華夏,則民不聊生矣。就此而言,考其內里,不妨說凡此表明基於華夏文明正宗的歷史理性戰勝了雲山霧罩政治譫妄,屢遭壓抑的新型公民理想初步獲得了反抗黨國意志一統獨大局面的柔弱能力。今後的歷史進程與政治努力,當在此低頭致意之後,緊接著一個直接賦予國民選票、面向億萬國民真正低頭致意的政治進程,而這也就是「公意時刻」降臨,現代立憲民主政治滄桑落地,華夏邦國終成現代國族而走向政治成熟之日。吾所喚,而萬民待祖國 馨香禱

Notes:

服軟 fú ruǎn: literally ‘give in to weakness’, that is to ‘admit defeat’ or ‘admit one’s mistakes’. After Mao Zedong’s death in September 1976 and the arrest of the key leaders of his political faction in October that year in what amounted to a coup d’état, the surviving leaders had to work out how to salvage Mao and Mao Thought for the sake of the Party’s reputation and policy continuity. One of the ways they did this was to proclaim that ‘Seeking Truth from Facts’ 實事求是 shí shì qiú shì, a pragmatic political orientation advocated by Mao himself as early as 1938, would henceforth be the basis for evaluating the relevance and efficacy of government policy. The revived slogan ‘Seeking Truth from Facts’ was advocated by Chen Yun in 1977, although it would be hijacked by Deng Xiaoping who would claim it was the basis for the Party’s celebrated pragmatism. In the above passage, Xu Zhangrun states that the policies of Reform and Openness were born of ideological and political defeat, reluctantly initiated by the Communists after two disastrous decades of economic and social mismanagement

柴米油鹽、婚喪嫁娶: translated here as ‘to feed themselves and to live a normal life’. The author uses two well-known formal sayings to express this:

柴米油鹽 chái mǐ yóu yán: literally ‘firewood, rice, cooking oil and salt’. These four items along with ‘soy sauce, vinegar and tea’ 醬、醋、茶 jiāng, cù, chá are known as the ‘Seven Necessities for Running a Household’ 開門七件事 kāi mén qī jiàn shì, thus: 柴、米、油、鹽、醬、醋、茶。(In the Southern Song, the list extended to Eight Necessities, including ‘wine’ 酒; this was deleted in more austere times.)

婚喪嫁娶 hūn sāng jià qǔ: ‘weddings and funerals’, that is to say, one’s own marriage 婚; the death of a member of one’s immediate family 喪; the marriage of a daughter (out of the family) 嫁, or of a son (who brings a bride into the family) 娶.

From 1949, Party propaganda repeatedly trumpeted that, unlike the dark days of ‘Old China’, the ‘New China’ of the Communists had resolved these matters

復興 fù xīng ‘revive’ and 欣欣 xīnxīn ‘flourish’: both terms are common in the self-congratulatory propaganda of the Party and the author uses them here to make his point while indicating the vacuousness of Party bombast. 復興 fù xīng is used ad nauseam to describe the Party’s China Dream of national revival; and 欣欣 xīnxīn is constantly used in the expression 欣欣向榮 xīn xīn xiàng róng, common in such formulations as ‘Our Socialist Enterprise is flourishing and on a constant ascendant’ 社會主義建設欣欣向榮, 蒸蒸日上。欣欣向榮 xīn xīn xiàng róng comes from Tao Yuanming’s famous rhapsody ‘The Return’ 歸去來兮辭 [https://zh.wikisource.org/zh-hant/歸去來辭並序 ]: ‘The trees put forth luxuriant foliage,/ The spring begins to flow in a trickle’ 木欣欣以向榮,泉涓涓而始流。(J.R. Hightower’s translation)

短缺經濟 duǎnquē jīngjì and 票證時代 piàozhèng shídài: an ‘Economics of Shortage’ and the ‘Era of Ration Coupons’. As the socialist planned economy became entrenched, from 1955 goods were rationed and families were allocated limited numbers of ration coupons for such essentials as grain, cooking oil, cloth, meat, sugar, soy products and consumer items such as bicycles and watches. As economic reforms took effect in the early 1980s, coupons were also available for the purchase of washing machines and TV sets while most daily essentials were available without coupons. The system was not entirely eliminated until the early 1990s, nearly forty years after it was first introduced

民不聊生 mín bù liáo shēng: literally, ‘the people would not have the wherewithal to survive’, a common Party description of the desperate straits suffered by the Chinese people in pre-1949 ‘Old China’ under the Nationalist government

華夏文明正宗的歷史理性: this complex formulation repeats the author’s view about the underlying positive nature and decency of Chinese civilisation. He elaborates elsewhere in this essay

雲山霧罩 yún shān wù zhào: literally, ‘cloudy mountains further obscured by mists’, an expression that means obfuscating nonsense. Here we translate it as the ‘Fog of Words’

政治譫妄 zhèngzhì zhānwàng: ‘political delusions’. 譫妄 zhānwàng is the medical term for delirium or being delirious, that is to be in a confused state and demonstrating restlessness, delusional behaviour and incoherence. By using this word the author is offering a damning characterisation of China’s official ideology and those who espouse it. Delirium is often described as a state of late-state dementia that presents before a person’s demise

黨國意志一統獨大 and concept of ‘the superiority of the one-party system’ 一黨優勢制 which is supposedly superior to ‘modern constitutional democratic government’ 現代立憲民主政治

滄桑 cāng sāng: literally ‘sea and mulberry’ comes from the expression 滄海桑田 cāng hǎi sāng tián, ‘the blue ocean [over time becomes] fields of mulberry trees’, meaning that things can, and will, change dramatically. One of its famous uses is from the fourth century CE, in Ge Hong’s Lives of Divine Immortals 葛洪著《神仙傳》. As one immortal is recorded as having said when being entertained by another:

Since being thus received, three times have I seen the Eastern Sea turn to mulberry fields and back again. Over to Penglai, the water is waist-deep; I wonder if it will become dry land once more? 接待以來, 已見東海三為桑田,向到蓬萊,水又淺於往昔,會時略半也,豈將復還為陵陸乎。

In modern usage, 滄桑 cāng sāng generally means ‘vicissitudes’, ‘changing fortunes’ or ‘political ups and downs’. Here the author employs the term to indicate the fact that although underwritten by constitutional law, the realities of democratic politics and voting systems promise a complex reality and will result in the ever-changing fortunes of those involved in the process. In other words, the author, while advocating universal suffrage and modern democratic processes is by no means a pie-in-the-sky naïf

華夏邦國 huáxià bāngguó: a faux-archaic neologism for 中國 Zhōngguó, ‘China’. For more on this, see the note on 華夏 huáxià above

: this word is repeated at the end of each phase in the three-part sentence 吾所喚矣,而萬民待矣,祖國馨香禱矣! Again, the author is employing ‘tricolon’, three-phrase sentence in which one element — 矣 yǐ — is repeated rhetorically, to build up to a verbal crescendo. All three statements end with 矣 , a participle that combines finality with an exclamation

祖國 zǔguó: ‘the land of one’s ancestors’ or ‘patria’. According to patriarchal tradition, ancestors were specifically the male line of a clan and family, therefore this term, a modern usage adopted from Japan, should be rendered as ‘Fatherland’. Aware of the Nazi odium associated with the word ‘Fatherland/ Vaterland’, the translators of the Chinese party-state have long since taken to using ‘Motherland’, also popular because of its associations with the Russian родина rodina, widely used in the Stalinist propaganda that suffused China from the 1940s. The ideas of nurture, birth and progeny may well be related to Motherland, but the primary element in the Chinese word 祖 , as in 祖國 zǔguó, is 且 a stylised representation of a penis

馨香禱 xīnxiāng dǎo: in contemporary usage 馨香 xīnxiāng means ‘fragrant’ or ‘far-reaching aroma’. In older usage it indicated the aroma from burning grains 黍稷 shǔ jì (broomcorn and foxtail millet) offered in devotional ceremonies. Such a ‘fragrance’ 馨 xīn is not merely an olfactory effect, from ancient times it was also thought of as demonstrating charismatic (political) virtue 明德 míng dé, as indicated by a line in the classic Book of Documents 書經:

An ideal politics gives off a fragrance that can touch the spirits; it is not the sacrificial grains that exudes this aroma for it is the result of virtue enhanced.

至治馨香,感于神明,黍稷非馨,明德惟馨。