China’s Heart of Darkness — Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping (Prologue)

Translatio Imperii Sinici &
a Lesson in New Sinology


Zha Jianying’s ‘China’s Heart of Darkness’ is a five-part study of a political duo — Han Fei and Xi Jinping — that binds an autocratic tradition to contemporary political practice. An appreciation of Han Fei and Legalist thought is not merely of academic interest, a refined topic for the philologists of traditional Sinology. Rather, as the world learns more about China under Xi Jinping, in tandem with its complex political, intellectual, historical and cultural underpinnings, figures like Han Fei and their ideas rightly have a pressing contemporary relevance.


Since 2005, we have advocated New Sinology 後漢學, an approach to appreciating and engaging with the Chinese world that gives due recognition to overculture of the dominant Chinese Communist Party and what, through a skein of ideology, its policies, the mass media, the education system and its internal and global propaganda efforts the Party promotes as Official China. It also inducts those engaged with China into the particularities of Translated China, that is the versions of China advocated by the Party authorities through their selective approach to and interpretation of the Chinese world, be it in the contemporary context or that of the tradition or the twentieth century.

While we pay due attention both to Official and Translated China, the main concern of China Heritage is to introduce readers to some of what we think of as the Other Chinas, that is the multiverse of ideas and possibilities that reflects lived reality while offering a guide to appreciating a past that not only resonates in the present, but that also addresses the future.

The following essay is presented as a ‘Lesson in New Sinology’, one of a series focussed on the kinds of ‘literary-historical-intellectual’ 文史哲 usage and allusions that are used in contemporary politics and culture. It is also a chapter in our series Translatio Imperii Sinici which is concerned with the ideas, habits, cultural expressions and aspirations of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which still powerfully influence the Chinese world, and will continue to do so.

As I observed in ‘Under One Heaven’, the introduction to Shared Destiny: China Story Yearbook 2014, the era of Xi Jinping is:

‘… a boon for the New Sinologist: in today’s China, party-state rule is attempting to preserve the core of the cloak-and-dagger Leninist state while its leaders tirelessly repeat Maoist dicta which are amplified by socialist-style neo-liberal policies wedded to cosmetic institutional Confucian conservatism.’

Jianying Zha is an insightful guide to the world of China’s living past, and its multi-layered present, and I am delighted that we can feature here the work of a writer whom I have admired since first reading the engaging cultural analyses she wrote for The Nineties Monthly under the pen name Zha Xiduo 扎西多, over three decades ago. In a sense, we met under the aegis of Lee Yee 李怡, the editor of The Nineties, my first employer (from 1977) and a writer whose work frequently appears in these virtual pages.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 July 2020


Jianying Zha 查建英 is a Chinese-American writer, journalist and cultural critic who works both in English and in Chinese. Her works include Tide Players (2011), China Pop (1995) and several works of fiction and non-fiction in Chinese, including 《叢林下的冰河》、《到美國去,到美國去》、《留美故事》、《說東道西》and《 八十年代訪談錄》, an award-winning retrospective of Mainland Chinese culture in the 1980s. Zha’s work has appeared widely in publications in China, Hong Kong and the United States, including in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nineties 《九十年代月刊》, Reading 《讀書》, and Wanxiang 《萬象》A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in non-fiction, she has been a regular commentator on current events on Chinese television and has worked for many years for the India China Institute in New York. Born and raised in Beijing, educated in China and the US, she lives both in New York City and Beijing. 


Author’s Note:

As part of my writing project on the topic of ‘law and order in China’, this essay was originally conceived as a sequel to ‘Tourist Trap’, a tale about the insidious police practice of bèi lǚyóu 被旅遊. Composed partly as a result of my ruminations after having re-read Hanfeizi 韓非子, the essay did not conform to the style expected of a typical journalistic profile, it also continued to grow longer as I delved further into the topic. So, when I submitted the first draft to my editor at The New Yorker in April 2019, I was not particularly surprised that it was turned down. I realised that, unless I changed the format and significantly shortened the length of my essay, it would be very difficult for such an extended work to find an outlet, at least among magazines produced for general readers in the United States.

Disheartened, I put the essay aside and turned my attention to another writing project. The following essay would still be languishing in my computer today had I not run into Geremie Barmé during his visit to New York City in the winter of 2019. Geremie’s instant enthusiasm upon reading the draft rekindled my own. Based on his response and suggestions, I further expanded the essay and added footnotes — something I had never done in my past journalistic writing. The second draft was completed in January 2020. Shortly afterwards the ‘viral alarm’ of COVID-19 went off, shrouding the entire world in a dark cloud. It’s not until June that Geremie and I resumed our communication regarding ‘China’s Dark Prince’.

The final form of the present essay has benefited greatly from Geremie’s thoughtful feedback, rigorous intellectual interrogation and painstaking copyediting. My essay finally found a perfect editor and a perfect publishing platform in China Heritage.

Jianying Zha
July 2020


‘Han Fei, the Legalist’ 法家韓非 (detail), an award-winning sculpture by Zhang Junde 張俊德 in the permanent collection of the National Museum of China


China’s Heart of Darkness
Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping

Prologue: Qin Shihuang + Marx


Jianying Zha 查建英


‘The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the western family. It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.’

Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning
US Department of State, 29 April 2019

A Spectre Prowls the Land

The book I’m reading was one of Chairman Mao’s favorites, and President Xi Jinping has repeatedly quoted from it in his speeches. Hanfeizi 韓非子, literally ‘Master Han Fei’, named after its author, the Prince of Han, is a classic. It was written over two thousand years ago during the Warring States period and, yet, page after page, chapter after chapter, reading this ancient text today I’m struck by how eerily familiar it all sounds: the pragmatic outlook, the cold reasoning, the dark warnings, the ruthless and shrewd advice.

The Altar of the State can stand because of national safety and tranquility.


—《韓非子 · 詭使》

Men of remote antiquity competed via morality and virtue; those of the middle ages strove after wisdom and strategy; today, men contend by force and strength.


—《韓非子 · 五蠹》

My body stiffens; my ears tingle. I feel like a fly on the wall of a secret chamber, eavesdropping on a conspiratorial conversation. Important advice is being offered, and the ruler is listening.

Indeed, when the superior’s name is degraded and his position endangered, it is always because the inferiors are not obedient to laws and orders…. Yet if their actions are not forbidden, their gangs are not dissolved, and their partisans are not thereby dispersed, but they are honored instead, it is the fault of those in charge of state affairs.


—《韓非子 · 詭使》

Is this at the imperial court of Qin, or in an audience hall of Zhongnanhai, the forbidden headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing?

In general, those who disturb the superior and act contrary to the age, are often scholars having a double-face and pursuing private studies.


—《韓非子 · 詭使》

For such reasons, it is a common trait of the disorderly state that its learned men adore the ways of the early kings by cleaving to benevolence and righteousness and variously adorn their appearance and habiliments; they gild their eloquent speeches in such a way as to cast doubt on the law of the present age. They thereby beguile the mind of the Lord of Men. Itinerant strategists advance deceptive theories and utilise outside influence to achieve their self-seeking purposes at the expense of the Altar of the State.

是故亂國之俗,其學者則稱先王之道以籍仁義,盛容服而飾辯說, 以疑當世之法,而貳人主之心。其言(古)〔談〕者,為設詐稱,借於外力,以成其私, 而遺社稷之利。

—《韓非子 · 五蠹》

As my eyes lingered on these words back in March 2019, a law professor at China’s elite Tsinghua University was being unceremoniously stripped of his teaching position and placed under official investigation. It had been a year since China’s National People’s Congress had removed presidential term limits from the constitution so that Xi Jinping could stay in office indefinitely. The law professor, Xu Zhangrun had emerged as the lone, open critic of the move.

Known for his unfailingly dignified manner, his elegantly simple wardrobe, eloquent lecturing and powerful essays suffused with classical cadences, Professor Xu is a beloved figure among China’s more open-minded academics. Passionate about constitutional rule as well as Confucian cultural traditions, Xu is one of those moderate Chinese liberals who argues that his country’s future lies in a painstaking fusion of the best of the tradition and global modernity. His moderate reformist views were tolerated until the good professor decided to express publicly his concerns about contemporary politics. From mid 2018 to mid 2020, Xu published a series of essays on the Chinese website of Financial Times and in the independent Hong Kong press in which he directly criticised Xi Jinping’s leadership, calling it regressive, erroneous and dangerous for the nation (for details, see the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’). The critique resonated with many readers who circulated Xu’s essays widely on social media. Nobody, however, was particularly surprised when the professor was punished. What could someone who openly challenged the system expect except an iron fist?

Censorship, arrest, imprisonment, police harassment, reeducation camps — after six years of a top down ‘civil war’, Xi Jinping and his coterie have broken the back of their opponents as well as of nearly all potential enemies of the Chinese party-state. Wherever they have been hiding, be it in the ranks of officialdom, within the sprawling commercial and state media, the academy or within civil organisations, malfaiteurs have been identified and rooted out. Crushed. Cowered. A web of high-tech surveillance is being cast far and wide. An army of grassroots informants are mobilised in schools and neighborhoods. The vast population of the country and its territory are on the authorities’ radar. Law and order, as formulated by the Communist Party, are being rigorously enforced. National security and social tranquility are to be achieved and maintained no matter the cost. The Altar of the State stands, proud and seemingly unassailable. Certainly, a few cynics observing the scene from afar might bring up that old line from Tacitus:

‘They make a desert and call it peace.’

But closer to home Prince Han is doubtlessly smiling approvingly from his ancient grave.


A detail of the ‘Altar of the State’ 社稷壇 in Beijing, dating from 1420. The ancient term 社稷 shè jì refers to homage jointly paid to spirits of the soil — 土神 — and spirits of grain — 穀神, personified as the Earth Goddess 后土 and the Lord of Millet 后稷. These spirits were offered sacrifices and, over time, a formal structure, or altar, including soil of five colours that represented all quarters of the imperial realm, and the centre, was integrated into palace design. The last dynastic ‘Earth and Grain Altar’, or Altar of the State, built in the Ming-dynasty and of great symbolic importance until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, is located in modern-day Zhongshan Park on the western flank of Tiananmen Gate in central Beijing


The Deep Structure of Party-State Power

The international media unfailingly labels Xi Jinping ‘the strongest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’. Some commentators also have a penchant for comparing the thinking and style of the two chairmen (Xi is known as ‘Chairman Xi’ inside China, not ‘President Xi’) in the hope of finding clues as to why China, after forty years of economic reform and opening up, has transmogrified, seemingly overnight, into this spooky giant before our eyes. Instead of Panda democracy, it looks like what has taken shape is an odd union between George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

How did this happen?

Tracking the irresistible rise of Xi Jinping back to Mao Zedong may yield some useful insights, but to suggest that Xi simply represents a linear regression to Mao — or for that matter, a radical break from Deng — is simplistic and distorting. The real picture is multi-dimensional, the phenomena itself complicated and hefty. Xi seems to be everywhere and nowhere, his omnipresence makes him familiar yet his person remains aloof. Like all Chinese leaders, Xi Jinping’s public profile displays a studied opacity. Yet, unlike his recent predecessors, we find ourselves confronted by an evidently ambitious man who, in important ways, embodies the contradictory impulses of contemporary China itself.

Xi presents himself as a true believer in the gospel of Communism, a champion of free trade and globalisation, as well as touting himself as the proud heir of a profound civilisational heritage. Similarly, he often speaks using a hybrid language, one whose varied registers and vocabulary reflect different cultural, ideological and political considerations. Moreover, Xi’s verbal concoctions are tailored to suit every occasion. Chinese have particular, and well-honed, expectations of their leaders and over the decades their ears have become highly attuned to different cadences. As a result, a resourceful political leader — and those in their brains trusts who concoct his public utterances — will employ a variegated collection of rhetorical devises and linguistic props in their public addresses. Communist Party propaganda-speak ranges from rigid official parole through techno-babble and intellectual sophistry to folksy language and regional argots. It strikes whatever notes are required, including those resounding refrains of defiant nationalism or the modulated tones of diplomatic internationalism. All of these, and more, are part of the linguistic arsenal stashed inside Zhongnanhai — probably at something like a ‘Hall of All Languages Under Heaven’ — and ready to be deployed by the president-general secretary-chairman-commander-in-chief Xi Jinping at a moment’s notice.

In speeches and Party directives aimed at a domestic audience, Xi routinely quotes pithy proverbs, classical texts or lines of ancient poetry; references to the dynastic past and the conjuring up of a vaunted celebrated spirit of resilience also regularly feature in his bloviation. No one who has been subjected to Xi’s repeated proclamations about the ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’ could have failed to pick up on the ever-present reverberations of history and perhaps they share in a measure of a sovereign’s pride in a great, once-humbled civilisation-empire returning to its rightful place of pre-eminence.

According to the traditional view of existence, life unfolds in eternally regenerated and repeated cycles — something comparable, one might imagine, to Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘eternal return’. Even though China’s dynastic cycle does not point to the advent of ‘supermen’ of the kind evoked by Nietzsche, Xi Jinping has been bestowed with an almost godlike ‘Superman’ status in the mass media, something particularly evident when he is hailed using the ancient expression ‘The Ultimate Arbiter’ 定於一尊. But what exactly is being regenerated and rejuvenated in China today? Is the emergence and ascendance of a leader, one who is evidently trailing clouds of imperial glory like Xi Jinping, really an inevitable part of China’s cycle of ‘eternal return’ in which one individual is the summation of the aspirations of everyone else? What then are the actual intellectual underpinnings of the worldview of Xi and his image consultants? And what are the cultural wellsprings of his inspiration? If we examine his character and leadership bearing such questions in mind, what may we learn?


What’s So Very Old About Xi Jinping’s New Age

The official media celebrate the years since November 2012 as being the ‘Xi Jinping New Age’. It is a formation deserving of closer scrutiny than a mere arched eyebrow or dismissive snigger might suggest. The political system of the People’s Republic, as well as the Chinese who have been subject to its ways for over seventy years, is adroit at adapting to ever-changing circumstances so as to be able to forge on regardless. ‘Keep pace with the times’ 與時俱进, a popular slogan adapted from an axiom 與時偕行 in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the most venerable classical text, sums up the sentiment. A plethora of proverbs and folklore tales speak about how the spectre of the past can be reanimated by inhabiting a corpse 借尸還魂; or, what looks like a new bottle of wine may actually be an old vintage in deceptive form 新瓶装舊酒. Given the tumultuous history of the past two centuries, people are inured to the idea of evolving events and change is a given; equally recognised is the fact that the old is always embedded in the new, that the past is bound to return, now and in the future, even if it assumes a seemingly new guise.

Considering all of this, to be able to interpret China today and appreciate the cloaked behavior of its leadership, merely by dialing back a few decades — to the High-Mao era (c.1957-1977) for example, may not be sufficient. We may want to delve further, dig deeper and look harder.

In any case, over the years as I have followed my own path down into the ‘rabbit hole’ of Chinese history, I have repeatedly encountered both familiar ghosts and disturbing wraiths. During my recent meditations on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘New Age’, a shade came lurching out of one particularly dark recess and I found myself face to face with an age-old malevolent spirit: Han Fei.

‘You haven’t thought about me for a long time.’ The Prince of Han greeted me coolly, flashing a reproachful smile. ‘I knew you’d end up here one day. After all,’ he added obliquely, ‘in China, nothing happens overnight.’


The author’s copy of the 1974 Shanghai People’s Publishing House edition of Hanfeizi


Occidental Fantasy, Oriental Reality

The Prince of Han, or Master Han Fei 韓非子 as he is often called, is arguably the most important thinker in China’s ancient Legalist tradition, a major school of political thought little appreciated by even well-informed readers outside China. In the West, it has been commonplace since the late-Ming dynasty (the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries), to regard traditional China as being dominated intellectually and politically by ‘Confucianism’. According to that perception, both elites and commoners practiced elaborate rites of ancestral worship, and the rulers followed the hoary precepts of revered Confucian classics, submitting themselves to a governing structure predicated upon an exquisitely defined hierarchy of power.

While Europe was still struggling with religious dogma and feudal tyranny, Enlightenment thinkers like Leibniz and Voltaire helped embellish the romantic image of the Orient, a place where, it seemed, that Plato’s philosopher king reined over an orderly realm. They found much to admire in what they thought were the wellsprings of China’s political wisdom and secular culture: the meritocracy of the exam-system, the dignified Mandarins, the respectful and gentle social customs. With the exception of Montesquieu (who identified the Chinese system as a special type of despotic rule), the seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophes generally held a positive view of the Middle Kingdom. As the West was continuing to claw its way out of the dark ages, the faraway Asian land, vast and serene, seemed to be bathed in the sun of sweet reason.

Reality was far less indulgent of such smug perceptions and, only a few decades later, that particular Chinoiserie bubble was popped by rude British fingers. Then the Two Opium Wars of the nineteenth century exposed fully China’s brittle autocracy. Defeat ushered in what, in the twentieth century, would be dubbed ‘A Century of Humiliation’, a phrase — and a history — in which every child of my generation was schooled. In the ensuing twentieth century of the Chinese enlightenment and revolution, Confucianism both as a political ideology and a sustaining thought system was subjected to sustained onslaughts, from progressive intellectuals to Communist radicals. ‘Confucianism’ became a shorthand for China’s backwardness.

Like all stereotypes, the farrago about Confucian dominance in China and its pervasive evils contains kernels of truth. Nonetheless, the image of ‘Confucian China’ reveals as much as it obscures and deflects: other important intellectual and religious ideas that crucially shaped the country’s dynastic history have often eluded critical scrutiny. The mixed influences of Taoism and Buddhism should be considered, of course, but here I’m talking about something, I believe, that is profoundly significant yet far less examined: Legalism. In the art of Chinese-style imperial rule, if Confucianism is the outer shell, then Legalism is its inner core. To put it more bluntly, it is the abiding heart of darkness of the Chinese state.


Mao Zedong and Lin Biao, his ‘close comrade-in-arms’, in the early Cultural Revolution


Mao Zedong Goes the Way of Qin Shihuang

My copy of Hanfeizi weighs heavily in my hand; it’s chunky like a brick. Printed on cheap paper and published in 1974 during the waning days of the Cultural Revolution, the two-volume set compresses 1151 pages of text and annotations. The thin, plain covers have loosened from the spine, the pages are brittle and yellowish, so I’m handling the copy with care, alert all the while both to its physical fragility and its intellectual fortitude. Much has changed since as a middle schooler in Beijing I first took it down from my father’s bookshelf.

Back then, the latest in a series of ideological firestorms that Mao periodically ignited was raging across China. It was a peculiar campaign with a peculiar name: ‘Assessing Legalism and Denouncing Confucianism’ 評法批儒. Selected classics including the Confucian Analects 論語 and Hanfeizi which had long vanished from bookstores and homes were suddenly ordered to be reprinted and widely distributed to be used as key study materials. Although, as the name of the movement itself indicated, the official verdict had already been handed down: Legalists = good, Confucianists = bad. Why? Because Chairman Mao said so. And why did Chairman Mao say so? Because Marshal Lin Biao said the opposite.

Marshal Lin had been Mao’s designated heir. In official propaganda photos, he was always seen closely following behind the Great Helmsman and waving a copy of the Little Red Book of Mao quotes. He was the chairman’s most assiduous student and closest comrade-in-arms, we’d been told. So, besides chanting ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’ day in and day out, we also fervently prayed for Marshal Lin’s ‘eternal good health’ 永遠健康. But, then, he turned out to be a two-faced traitor!

In 1971, according to the official line, after his plot to assassinate Mao and stage a coup was revealed, Lin and his family had attempted to flee to the Soviet Union. They had died when their plane crashed in the desert vastness of Mongolia. Afterwards, the treacherous Lin’s diaries and other private communications revealed that the marshal and Lin Liguo 林立果, his Young Turk of a son, had been secret admirers of Confucius: they praised the Confucian virtue of ‘self-restraint and ritualised rule’ 克己復禮 while condemning Mao as ‘a de facto modern-day Qin Shihuang’. Qin Shihuang was the First Emperor and he had detested the Confucianists as impractical hypocrites. Shihuang favored the Legalists and adopted their ideas to create China’s first family dynasty and empire. Got the picture now?

Rather than dwelling on the finer points of Mao-era politics and philosophy, this cartoonish version of the anti-Confucian, pro-Legalist purge of my youth more or less reflects, I suspect, the level of understanding among the vast majority of ordinary Chinese who participated in the campaign at the time. How many (or how few) people who dutifully read those dense classics composed in an archaic language could actually understand them, let alone offer some independent appraisal of their meaning? Don’t forget the Cultural Revolution was an era when old books were burned, confiscated, or banned. My generation was, to be brutally honest, brainwashed from birth and raised on a constant diet of propaganda.

Looking back I can now admit that I found The Analects a more appealing read than I had expected: some of those pithy sayings and nifty aphorisms caught my teenage fancy. Maybe this only goes to prove what an insidious trap that wily old Confucius set for us all — he even managed to corrupt a few naive socialist youths like me!

By contrast, Hanfeizi was completely beyond me. The text seemed tedious and gloomy; I flipped through it with befuddled impatience.

The campaign, a bizarre form of proxy war with ancient stand-in characters, only really ended with Mao’s death in September 1976. That, in turn, triggered another, this time successful, coup. Eventually, Deng Xiaoping came to power and a new era was ushered in. With slogans like ‘Emancipate the Mind’, the floodgates opened and a torrent of books, new and old, Chinese and foreign, came gushing forth. Suddenly everyone around me was reading eclectically, hungrily, joyfully. Hanfeizi became a distant memory.


‘Denounce the Confucian Middle Way, Persevere with the Philosophy of Constant Struggle!’ Propaganda poster from the Anti-Lin Biao Anti-Confucius Campaign, 1974-1976