Better Angels, Persistent Demons — Part I

Introducing China Heritage Annual 2021

Spectres & Souls:
Vignettes, moments and meditations
on China and America, 1861-2021


In ‘The Invisible Republic of the Spirit’, the preface to China Heritage Annual 2021, we noted that this would be a year replete with significant anniversaries, both in China and the United States of America.

We posit that many of those moments, as well as the spectres and shades that feature, along with some of the enlivening souls and lofty inspirations they reflect, all of which may assert themselves both in China and the United States during 2021, offer an even more compelling aspect when considered in the context of the 160-year period starting in 1861. In China, the successful Xinyou Coup 辛酉政變 of November 1861 saw the first era of modernising reform just as the devastating Taiping Civil War drew to a bloody conclusion in 1864. In February 1861, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, seven slave-owning states shattered the Union,  that had been established under the Constitution of 1787, resulting in a four-year civil war.

The first era of reform in China, during the Tongzhi Restoration 同治中興, (1861-1875, although the period can be extended to part of the Guangxu reign period and called the ‘Tong-Guang Restoration’ 同光中興, dated 1861-1894) was a self-strengthening movement. The short-lived period of guided change contributed to the Qing Empire surviving into the twentieth century, but it the social and political pressures that continued to build eventually resulted in a civil war between the two new political forces of the Nationalist and the Communist parties. That civil war, which broke out in 1927, and the clash of political systems, social ideas and values as well as economic models, continues to this day between Beijing and Taipei.

Again, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, political, social and ideological strife in America, the modern origins of which can also be traced back to the 1860s, continues to wrack the union in dark and unpredictable ways.

We believe, therefore, that the 1861-2021 timeframe of China Heritage Annual 2021 will afford us the scope to consider some of the daunting spectres of the past that haunt the present. It will also encourage an investigation of the spirits or souls that would quicken — be it positively or as a bane — hearts and minds both in China and the United States. In so doing we will refer to particular incidents and ideas, offer historical analogies and parallels, as well as seeking out what Arthur Miller, when recounting how he came to write his play ‘The Crucible’, called ‘spectral evidence’ — that ‘poisoned cloud of paranoid fantasy’.

In the introduction to Translatio Imperii SiniciChina Heritage Annual 2019 — I reiterated the significance of the challenge posed by better understanding the discontinuities and inheritances of China’s dynastic order in the People’s Republic today. Today, the imperial-scale ambitions of Beijing are even more evident than when Xu Zhangrun warned of the dangers of a new ‘Red Empire’ in late 2018. In the United States, although what some call the ‘political civil war’, or the ‘uncivil war’, of the present has its origins in the unresolved issues of the 1860s, the battle lines of politics, class, identity and economic interest have become ever clearer from the time of the frustrated Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. These fractures were exacerbated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, more so through the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich era of the 1990s and then with the rise of the radical right Tea Party and the repeated perfidy of the Democrats, an avowed progressive party with policies that, in my own clime, represent the political centre-right.

Thus, in 2021, China and America both confront issues of long-term, historically rooted civil discord. As Joseph R. Biden Jr. was inaugurated as the forty-sixth president of the United States, the political scientist Julie Wronski observed:

‘when Americans are divided on simple facts, and live in two different realities, we are not a governable people. To put it another way, when two people playing a game cannot agree on the basic rules and layout of the game, they cannot play. When groups within American society believe in two different sets of rules on how to play the game of democracy, it cannot be played and we become ungovernable.’

Thomas B. Edsall, ‘Is America Ungovernable Now?’
The New York Times, 20 January 2021

A similar case can be made regarding the stark dimensions of the incommensurable chasm separating Beijing and Taipei, and not just their political leaders, but more broadly in relation to everyday people in the People’s Republic and those in the nation on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, who are heir to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.

Through chapters, comments, audio-visual material and translations published throughout the year, China Heritage Annual 2021 will attempt to follow the spectral path of this particular transpacific longue durée.

Below, in part one of ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons’ — the introduction to our series Spectres and Souls — after a short prologue, we cast a gimlet eye at the ‘tiger and monkey spirits’ of Mao Zedong and Donald J. Trump before recalling two significant moments in mid January 1961, one in Washington and the other in Beijing.

Our thanks, as ever, to Lois Conner for her support, as well as her permission to use two works from ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’, a series made in New York during the 2020-2021 election year. We are also grateful Callum Smith for his tireless logistical support.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
20 January 2021


Manhattan subway, NYC, 20 January 2021. Source: @plannedalism


Spectres & Souls:

Related Material:

China Heritage Annual:

Commemorations & Anniversaries:


From ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’, a series by Lois Conner made in New York during the 2020-2021 election year. © Lois Conner



In recent years, when I have had the pleasure of addressing academic and general audiences in America, I have found some solace in the fact that, given the particular political constellation formed by the administration of Donald Trump, the Republican majority in the US senate and the slanted configuration of the Supreme Court, one’s American cousins were now better placed than at any time in recent memory to understand the outrage, the frustrations and the hopelessness that men and women of conscience and basic decency experience in China on a daily basis.

In the American case that slow-moving lava of anger was further excited by an Attorney General who promoted the overreach of executive authority and by the Murdoch and right-wing media claques which would cheer every new absurdity. The exceptionalism of both China and America now echoed with an ever-greater hollowness.

Those of us who are inextricably involved with both of those nations while living, for the most part, on the periphery of the cheek-by-jowl empires, have long witnessed a decades-long ‘apache dance’. For me, the contemplation of that fluid, constantly-transmuting dialectic invariably brings to mind the description of the come-hither performances witnessed in the New York art world as described by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word(1975):

“The artist was like the female in the act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt … more thrashing about … more rake-a-cheek fury … more yelling and carrying on … until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriek — pain! ecstasy! — she submits … Paff paff paff paff paff … How you do it, my boy! … and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds …”

In recent times, that bilateral gyration is more reminiscent of a danse macabre, the dance of death that flourished as an idea, a cultural trope and a reality in the late middle ages. During an era when war, pestilence and poverty might visit a cruel fate upon anyone at any time, the danse macabre was a reminder and warning, as well as a form of comic relief that was performed as a memento mori — a reminder that we all die. The danse macabre helped the living face the inevitable even as they dealt with the horrors of the day. As part of the dance, the cadaverous messengers of Death were unequivocal:

Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis
‘What we were, you are; what we are, you will be’

Editor’s Introduction, ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington’
China Heritage, 14 May 2020


‘The harvest is past,
the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’

Jeremiah 8:20

China Heritage was launched in Melbourne, Australia, on 15 December 2016. I concluded the speech I made to mark that occasion by noting that:

‘I was named after Jeremiah who, it is said, was called to prophetic ministry in the year 626BCE. That makes this also an anniversary year for the man known as the “Weeping Prophet”. It is a year then that also marks an anniversary year for the Jeremiahs of the world. As it does the passing of one of the great poets and seers of our age, Leonard Cohen, a man steeped in Biblical and Talmudic tradition, as well as mysticism East and West. Therefore, it seems only fitting for me to end what is essentially a Jeremiad (that is, a “cautionary harangue”) on “Cutting a Deal with Xi Dada’s China”, by quoting from the Old Testament:

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.’

— Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

On 1 January 2017, China Heritage went online with an essay titled ‘A Monkey King’s Journey to the East’ written in anticipation of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. I observed that:

‘The 13 January 1967 issue of Time magazine featured Mao Zedong on its cover with the headline “China in Chaos”. Fifty years later, Time made US president-elect Donald Trump its Man of The Year. With a ground-swell of mass support, both men rebelled against the established order in their respective countries and set about throwing the world into confusion. Both share an autocratic mind set, Mao Zedong as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Donald Trump as Chairman of the Board. As Jiayang Fan noted in May 2016, both also share a taste for “polemical excess and xenophobic paranoia”. For his part, Mao’s rebellion led to national catastrophe and untold human misery.’

‘Chairman Trump Zedong’, by G. Zaleski

In 1966, Mao observed to his wife Jiang Qing that his personality was a mixture of contradictory elements. There was the self-assured sense of destiny and confidence that led him to challenge and overturn earlier leaders of the Communist Party, confront Chiang Kai-shek and lead the Chinese revolution. This was, he said, an expression of his Tiger Spirit 虎氣, something that was in constant interplay with his Monkey Spirit 猴氣, one that was skittish, paranoid and unpredictable. The Monkey was always ready to take on the Tiger with devilish glee.

Indeed, under high Maoist rule from the mid 1950s, China lurched between authoritarian control and anarchic confusion. During his four-year misrule, the confrontational Spirit of the Tiger of Donald Trump has wreaked mayhem along with his mercurial Spirit of the Monkey. The similarities between Mao Zedong and Donald Trump don’t end with the autocrat’s mindset, or with the clash between tiger-like brio and the dyspathy of the monkey (for a list of seven shared traits, see ‘A Monkey King’s Journey to the East’). The will to autocracy means that both figures also feature (along with elected or self-appointed strong men, historically and worldwide) many disturbing points of overlap. And, just as the shade of Mao has haunted China since his death in 1976, the spectre of Trump — one that, in many ways, is also a ghoulish throwback — will continue to be visited upon America. Fifty-five years after hundreds of millions of Chinese embraced a personality cult and fervently believed the dark lies of their Chairman as he launched a civil war against his own party-state in 1966, tens of millions of Americans followed their chaos President to the brink.

In the conclusion of ‘A Monkey King’s Journey to the East’ I remarked that:

‘For popular Chinese commentators and the nation’s cynics — furious men and women cowed and domesticated by a paternalistic system that at every turn reinforces their political impotence — Trump’s victory is a boon, a new source for anti-US Schadenfreude. It offers further evidence of the bankruptcy of Western-style politics and proof that we are in an era of illiberal democracy, one in which China’s sham multi-party system and farrago about basic human rights are trumpeted by the official media and the bullish propagandists at The Global Times.

‘What is significant for readers of China Heritage is that Donald Trump’s presidency augurs a dark future for public information, understanding and “truthiness” in how people think about and engage with the Chinese Commonwealth. Meanwhile, over the past four years, Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping’s dolorous rule in Beijing has revived memories of Silent China 無聲的中國, making that country once more an open secret: superficially easy to gain access to but one in which all serious, non-commercial and creative interactions are once more heavily policed by the guiding hand and deadening censorship of the Party.

‘In the USA, the escalating clamour of factional politics and media hysteria may well, as it has so often in the history of China over the last century, marginalise and suppress moderate, considered opinion. This will only further humanity’s move towards a new Age of Extremes. This will inescapably require us all to confront an unfinished twentieth century.’

What remains now of Trump, as it does of Mao, is an inescapable feeling of stalking menace.


May Fourth 2020 was something of a ‘red-letter anniversary’, one on which issues that have bedeviled China for over a century, and that have also been a spectre haunting the Sino-US relationship for the entire history of the People’s Republic, enjoyed a clarifying moment in the spotlight. In commemorating 4 May 2020, we discussed two very different messages delivered on the day to Young China. The first, created by a commercial video-sharing website in Shanghai, took the form of ‘agitprop-advertising’. The other was a ‘spot-off’ claim on the hearts-and-minds of China’s youth released as a recorded lecture in Standard Chinese from a White House that was the viral epicentre of America’s politics of self-destruction. (That someone, anyone, at the Trump White House would have the gall to lecture anyone else about ‘Mr Democracy’ and ‘Mr Science’ — those twin tutelary spirits of May Fourth 1919 — at the height of America’s coronavirus crisis was simply beyond satire. It was not, however, above critique.)

The May Fourth messages both from Beijing and Washington despite their specific displays of bombast, hyperbole and self-delusion demonstrated just how much the contending great powers share in common, albeit often unconsciously. Spectres & SoulsChina Heritage Annual 2021 was in part inspired by the inter-mixed messages in Beijing and Washington on 4 May 2020. For more on this see:

A President’s Farewell Warning
& a Chairman’s (reluctant) Admission

On 18 January 2021, we published ‘The Invisible Republic of the Spirit’, the preface to Spectres & Souls — China Heritage Annual 2021. That day that marked this year’s Martin Luther King Jr Day, one on which the life and activism of that champion of civil rights in America were recalled and celebrated. Although gazetted as a federal holiday in 1983, MLK Day has only been observed in all fifty states of the Union since 2000.

The 18th of January 2021 followed by a day the sixtieth anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation, on 17 January 1961. In that address, the outgoing preside declared that the ‘conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.’ Noting the grave implications of this in the nation’s life Eisenhower warned:

‘In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.’

He went on to say that:

‘We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.’

As Eisenhower addressed the nation in Washington at a time of heightened tensions with the Soviet-led communist bloc (something that his successor, John F. Kennedy, faced during the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961), a secretive meeting of the Chinese Communist Party was drawing to a close in Beijing. The Great Leap Forward launched in May 1958 had led to what was now criticised as ‘Communist Mania [for extreme egalitarianism]’ 共產風 that had led to the collapse of the nation’s rural economy resulting in what would later be seen as the largest man-made famine in history. At the Party’s Ninth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee the scale of the disaster was finally recognised and the movement was brought to an end.

In a rambling and at times incoherent speech Mao Zedong, party chairman and leader who had chosen to believe years of misleading reports from sycophantic bureaucrats at every level over the dire warnings of his skeptical colleagues, admitted that things had gone badly awry:

‘These last few years we haven’t been investigating, we’ve been doing things on the basis of estimates; I urge the comrades to promote a resurgence of investigation. In everything we must start out from actuality, and not express an opinion or make a resolution if we are not sure of the situation. It’s not that hard to do investigation, and it doesn’t take that many people or that much time; in the rural areas, you can investigate one commune unit or in the city one or two factories, stores or schools, no more than a dozen or so in all. You don’t have to do it all yourself: if you do one or two yourself you can organize a squad for the rest and lead it yourself… . This is very important: party committee secretaries and members should all do investigation and study, or they may not have a clear understanding of conditions. You should understand good, average and bad typical cases. …

‘In 1961 we wanted to have a year of “seeking the truth from facts”. We have a tradition of “seeking the truth from reality” but probably as the pressure of official work increased we no longer paid attention to getting to the bottom of things. If you do not understand typical cases, then you will not be able to do your work easily. From now on everybody must do investigation and study and not just run other people down. …

‘As to the question of unity within the party: the unity of the Central Committee is the heart of the unity of the whole party. At the Lushan conference there was a small number of people who were opposed to unity. But we must stress unity. Making progress is well and good, but are we really making progress? They say “you have made mistakes too.” This is right. Everybody makes mistakes; but they differ in size and nature. If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to hold up your head: the Central Committee and the locals have all made mistakes.’

from Mao Zedong, ‘Speech at the Ninth Plenum of the
Eighth Central Committee’
, 18 January 1961

Participants in the plenum criticised Mao directly for his responsibility for the catastrophe and early the following year he would admit a measure of culpability and step back from his dominant role in the nation’s life. The Party abandoned its murderous policies and permitted a period of modest economic reform; it was a minor prelude to the momentous policy reversal of December 1978 that ushered in the Systemic Reform and Open Door Policies that transformed both the economy and the trajectory of China. However, in the intervening years, Mao would engineer a return to centre stage and launch a new, even more ambitious, leap into an imagined future. Although it would be called the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’, in reality it was a chairman-instigated civil war.

To draw a close to Part I of ‘Better Angels, Persistent Demons’, our introduction to Spectres & Souls: Vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021, we return to the present and the 20th of January 2021.

The Editor

A New Low

Max Boot

Donald Trump’s tenure was characterized by colossal incompetence and mind-numbing indifference to the public good. His coronavirus management has resulted in more than 24.1 million cases in the United States and almost 400,000 deaths — projected to exceed 500,000 deaths by May. While overseeing arguably the worst loss of life since the great influenza of 1918, Trump also presided over the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. He is the first president in modern history to see a net loss of jobs during his time in office.

Those bare figures — catastrophic as they are — barely begin to plumb the depths of Trump’s failures, which were moral as much as managerial.

He was the most dishonest president ever: He produced more than 30,000documented falsehoods.

He was the most corrupt president ever. He used his office to enrich his businesses, interfered in Justice Department investigations, engaged in obstruction of justice, stonewalled Congress, refused to release his tax returns, purged inspectors-general and pardoned his cronies and co-conspirators.

He was the most openly racist president in modern times — arguably since Woodrow Wilson. He consistently tried to fire up his White base with bigotry against people of color. His actions too often matched his vile words — most notoriously when he ordered the children of undocumented immigrants separated from their parents.

He was the first president who refused to accept election defeat or propagated bizarre conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in the electoral system.

He became the only president ever impeached twice — once for trying to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically, the second time for inciting a violent insurrection to try to stay in office.

He leaves office with only 34 percent approval in the Gallup poll after having been the first president never to crack 50 percent support since the advent of Gallup polling.




‘There are some antecedents for Trump’s failures in the long record of American Presidents, of course. Woodrow Wilson botched the handling of a pandemic in 1918; L.B.J. and Richard Nixon lied to the American public about Vietnam and much else besides. Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson were impeached; many Presidents were outright bigots and philanderers. But none before Trump was all of those things at once, and that in the end will be the lasting embarrassment that Trump bears with him off to Mar-a-Lago.’

Susan B. Glasser, ‘Obituary for a Failed Presidency’
The New Yorker, 19 January 2021


Never Mind

This was your heart
This swarm of flies
This was once your mouth
This bowl of lies

You serve them well
I’m not surprised
You’re of their kin
You’re of their kind

Never mind
Never mind
The story’s told
With facts and lies
You own the world
So never mind

from ‘Never Mind’, by Leonard Cohen
The Flame, 2018, p.137


From ‘Shooting 5th Avenue’, a series by Lois Conner made in New York during the 2020-2021 election year. © Lois Conner