Demons Demonise Demons 妖魔化妖魔

Demonisation has been a feature of religious and political life in many societies over the ages. The ‘People of the Book’ (أهل الكتاب ′Ahl al-Kitāb; עם הספר Am HaSefer) — those who identify with the body of writings in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions — were masterful in demonising other belief systems, and persecuting their adherents. The language they developed in their cultish crusades influenced the kinds of demonisation employed by Christian missionaries in China in the nineteenth century, as well as the language of modern political demonisation in the media.

The King of Hell sitting in judgement. Source: 詳注聊齋志異圖詠, 1886.

The Chinese world has its own traditions of demonisation, added to with the advent of Buddhism, traditions that were reinforced by ideas about culture and ethnicity (see, for example, the references to the Tang writer Han 韓愈 below). Elsewhere in our discussion of the Ghost Festival we have touched on late-Ming and subsequent Han attacks on the Manchus (‘barbarians’ who were supposedly beyond the pale of the Confucian rites and civilisation), as well as the Maoist era use of demonology to attack political enemies. In modern China demonisation has also been commonplace: the Republican Nationalist government demonised the Communist Party and its supporters and, following the Communist victory on the Mainland in 1949, it was popular to depict them metaphorically as ‘green-faced long-fanged monsters’ 青面獠牙的魔鬼. Chiang Kai-shek’s remnant Nationalist regime on Taiwan did not fare much better in Communist propaganda.


Politics and religion were married in the anti-communist propaganda that evolved from the time of October 1917 Russian Revolution; this vituperative vocabulary was easily transferred to the denunciation of the Chinese communists. Following the death of Mao and the formal end of the Cultural Revolution, China enjoyed over a decade of ‘humanisation’ as it pursued a de-politicised politics and economic reform. That changed once more with the rupture in the global narrative about China following June the Fourth 1989 (on this and other media ‘disconnects’, see Telling Chinese Stories).

In the 1980s, the canny pro-Party conservative critic 何新 helped lay the groundwork for an anti-Western neo-nationalism. As his star faded after 1989, other ambitious propagandists filled his shoes. In the early 1990s, the journal Strategy and Management 戰略與管理 promoted self-serving stereotypes of the international media, demonising Western views of China as condescending, neo-imperialist and racist. In 1996, a number of books fed the nationalist sentiment that had been on the rise after 1989. Behind the Demonisation of China 妖魔化中國的背後, a work by the journalist Li Xiguang 李希光 and Liu Kang 劉康, an academic, was an immediate success. For a public weary of negative Western reporting a publication fad was born, one of the more notable (although execrable) books produced at the time was China Can Say No: political and emotional choices in the post Cold-War era 中國可以說不——冷戰後時代的政治與情感抉擇. Those had been the demonisers were in turn demonised by authors with one eye on the ideological weather vane and the other eye on market sentiment. The new generation of hyper-nationalist drew on the considerable anti-Western lexicon as well as the array of rhetorical devices that had been developed during the Maoist years (for more on this, see my comments on Chen Boda in Mao Zedong’s Monsters and Demons 牛鬼蛇神.

For their part, American demonisers continued a less-than-venerable tradition of imperial and post-imperial China-bating. Their number includes self-congratulatory collapsists like Gordon G. Chang 章家敦, famed for his 2001 The Coming Collapse of China, and, more recently, David Shambaugh, author of China’s Future (2016). Then there is the grand master of China panic, Peter Navarro, author in 2006 of The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won; in 2011 of Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action; and in 2015 of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World. Navarro currently serves as the Assistant to US President Donald Trump and is the Director of the White House National Trade Council.

Although writers, propagandists, thinkers and politicians may think they are on the ‘side of the angels’, to their competitors, people and nations with whom they are in economic, political, religious or cultural contestation, they are the devil’s spawn.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage

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