The President & The Chairman in Retrospect

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, Appendix V

It is one of the paradoxes of official life in the People’s Republic of China that the most fraught moment in a person’s career often comes after they are dead. This is the moment when an evaluation of the recently deceased is formalised (if, that is, they have not been purged or denounced during one of the ‘corrections’ that characterise the bumpy rule of the Communist Party). The resulting text is usually read as a eulogy at the funeral. The funeral oration itself — 悼詞 dàocí — is, literally, the last word that the party-state offers to those who have served it. The wording of the text is of particular moment both for the quick as well as for the dead. After all, the posthumous career of a loved one often determines the emoluments and prestige that may be enjoyed by their survivors. The 悼詞 dàocí, or eulogy, is the modern-day equivalent of the old expression 蓋棺論定 gài guān lùn dìng, that is ‘the judgment on a person’s life can only be passed when their coffin is sealed’.

In reality, however, for all the careful orchestration of obsequies and the nitpicking over funeral orations, and despite the Communist Party’s titanic attempts to freeze history, postmortem evaluations of individuals, from the most lowly to the august, can be a moveable feast.

On 18 September 1976, Party Chairman Hua Guofeng praised his predecessor Mao Zedong — ‘the founder and wise leader of the Communist Party of China, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Republic of China’ — as ‘the greatest Marxist of the contemporary era’ who was ‘a brilliant example of wholehearted devotion to the interests of the people of China and the world’. Moreover, he told a national audience numbered in the hundreds of millions, ‘All victories won by the Chinese people are great victories of Mao Tsetung Thought’ and that ‘Mao Tsetung Thought will always illuminate the Chinese people’s road of advance.’ Hua also dedicated the Party and the nation to ‘deepening the struggle to criticize Deng Xiaoping and repulse the right deviationist attempt to reverse correct verdicts, consolidate and develop the victories of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution….’

Two years later, under the aegis of the rightist deviationist Deng Xiaoping and his comrades, Mao’s reputation underwent a seismic re-evaluation. A further historical re-calibration of the late chairmans’s contribution was formalised in 1981 and, even though the Communist Party convinced itself that that particular coffin had been decisively sealed, in unofficial China, Mao’s history, his achievements and his crimes have been debated and contested ever since. During the Xi Jinping decade (2012-2022), Mao even enjoyed a measured revival. As a result, his remains an unquiet ghost.

Foreigners in China’s orbit generally enjoy a more untrammeled posthumous fate. Once they are safely departed the ‘Old Friends of the Chinese People’ 中國人民的老朋友, as those chosen people are known, have their own moment in the shade. Even though the official valuations of their contributions to the People’s Republic and the Communist Party’s enterprise are also the result of painstaking deliberations, their reputations rarely come up for further debate. This was particularly true in the case of Richard Milhous Nixon whose death on 4 April 1994 was reported by Chinese CCTV and whose reputation in China, in so far as it relates to China at least, remained unassailable.

Doubtless, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s ‘China aide-de-camp’, will enjoy a similar afterdeath. Then Kissinger will join the other 600 or so foreign-born individuals yclept as ‘Old Friend’. And, since we are on the subject, I would suggest that, given the proliferation of present-day ‘for-profit friends of China’, it might be time for China Watchers to elaborate a new sub-category of China Studies, one that tabulates how many of the present crop of pro-Beijing fellow-travellers, online foreign influencers and wannabe-pinkoids will last the course to be granted the status of ‘Old Friend’ in the future.


We remember Nixon and Mao, the protagonists of the events of February 1972, by employing a different, but equally Chinese-style approach to commemorating the dead. It is summed up in the word 鞭 biān, literally ‘whip’, and it is the theme of this entry in our series ‘Coups, Nixon & China’. In this context, 鞭 biān is short for 鞭屍 biān shī, ‘to whip a corpse’; that is, to excoriate the deceased. The expression also features in the saying ‘to dig up a tomb and flay the corpse’ 掘墓鞭屍 jué mù biān shī, which dates back to the writings of Sima Qian 司馬遷, the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty.

For the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Nixon ‘represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.’ Every other country, of course, except the People’s Republic of China. Below we reprint Thompson’s obituary for Nixon followed by an evaluation of Mao by Simon Leys, author of The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (1971) as part of ‘1972 朝 — Coups, Nixon & China’, a joint miniseries in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium and Spectres & Souls, published by China Heritage.


Half a century after their historic meeting in February 1972, the politics of both Nixon and Mao continue to influence profoundly their respective countries and, for that reason, continue to change the world, for the worse.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, The Asia Society
24 February 2022
The Day Russia Invaded Ukraine



Further Reading:



DATE: MAY 1, 1994

He Was a Crook

Hunter S. Thompson

“And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.”

Revelation 18:2

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.”

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he’s gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive — and he was, all the way to the end — we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon’s style — and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.

Nixon was a navy man, and he should have been buried at sea. Many of his friends were seagoing people: Bebe Rebozo, Robert Vesco, William F. Buckley Jr., and some of them wanted a full naval burial.

These come in at least two styles, however, and Nixon’s immediate family strongly opposed both of them. In the traditionalist style, the dead president’s body would be wrapped and sewn loosely in canvas sailcloth and dumped off the stern of a frigate at least 100 miles off the coast and at least 1,000 miles south of San Diego, so the corpse could never wash up on American soil in any recognizable form.

The family opted for cremation until they were advised of the potentially onerous implications of a strictly private, unwitnessed burning of the body of the man who was, after all, the President of the United States. Awkward questions might be raised, dark allusions to Hitler and Rasputin. People would be filing lawsuits to get their hands on the dental charts. Long court battles would be inevitable — some with liberal cranks bitching about corpus delicti and habeas corpus and others with giant insurance companies trying not to pay off on his death benefits. Either way, an orgy of greed and duplicity was sure to follow any public hint that Nixon might have somehow faked his own death or been cryogenically transferred to fascist Chinese interests on the Central Asian Mainland.

It would also play into the hands of those millions of self-stigmatized patriots like me who believe these things already.

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern — but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him — except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.

It is fitting that Richard Nixon’s final gesture to the American people was a clearly illegal series of 21 105-mm howitzer blasts that shattered the peace of a residential neighborhood and permanently disturbed many children. Neighbors also complained about another unsanctioned burial in the yard at the old Nixon place, which was brazenly illegal. “It makes the whole neighborhood like a graveyard,” said one. “And it fucks up my children’s sense of values.”

Many were incensed about the howitzers — but they knew there was nothing they could do about it — not with the current president sitting about 50 yards away and laughing at the roar of the cannons. It was Nixon’s last war, and he won.

The funeral was a dreary affair, finely staged for TV and shrewdly dominated by ambitious politicians and revisionist historians. The Rev. Billy Graham, still agile and eloquent at the age of 136, was billed as the main speaker, but he was quickly upstaged by two 1996 GOP presidential candidates: Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who formally hosted the event and saw his poll numbers crippled when he got blown off the stage by Dole, who somehow seized the No. 3 slot on the roster and uttered such a shameless, self-serving eulogy that even he burst into tears at the end of it.

Dole’s stock went up like a rocket and cast him as the early GOP front-runner for ’96. Wilson, speaking next, sounded like an Engelbert Humperdinck impersonator and probably won’t even be re-elected as governor of California in November.

The historians were strongly represented by the No. 2 speaker, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and himself a zealous revisionist with many axes to grind. He set the tone for the day with a maudlin and spectacularly self-serving portrait of Nixon as even more saintly than his mother and as a president of many godlike accomplishments — most of them put together in secret by Kissinger, who came to California as part of a huge publicity tour for his new book on diplomacy, genius, Stalin, H. P. Lovecraft and other great minds of our time, including himself and Richard Nixon.

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Nixon’s meteoric rise from the unemployment line to the vice presidency in six quick years would never have happened if TV had come along 10 years earlier. He got away with his sleazy “my dog Checkers” speech in 1952 because most voters heard it on the radio or read about it in the headlines of their local, Republican newspapers. When Nixon finally had to face the TV cameras for real in the 1960 presidential campaign debates, he got whipped like a red-headed mule. Even die-hard Republican voters were shocked by his cruel and incompetent persona. Interestingly, most people who heard those debates on the radio thought Nixon had won. But the mushrooming TV audience saw him as a truthless used-car salesman, and they voted accordingly. It was the first time in 14 years that Nixon lost an election.

When he arrived in the White House as VP at the age of 40, he was a smart young man on the rise — a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream with a heart full of hate and an overweening lust to be President. He had won every office he’d run for and stomped like a Nazi on all of his enemies and even some of his friends.

Nixon had no friends except George Will and J. Edgar Hoover (and they both deserted him). It was Hoover’s shameless death in 1972 that led directly to Nixon’s downfall. He felt helpless and alone with Hoover gone. He no longer had access to either the Director or the Director’s ghastly bank of Personal Files on almost everybody in Washington.

Hoover was Nixon’s right flank, and when he croaked, Nixon knew how Lee felt when Stonewall Jackson got killed at Chancellorsville. It permanently exposed Lee’s flank and led to the disaster at Gettysburg.

For Nixon, the loss of Hoover led inevitably to the disaster of Watergate. It meant hiring a New Director — who turned out to be an unfortunate toady named L. Patrick Gray, who squealed like a pig in hot oil the first time Nixon leaned on him. Gray panicked and fingered White House Counsel John Dean, who refused to take the rap and rolled over, instead, on Nixon, who was trapped like a rat by Dean’s relentless, vengeful testimony and went all to pieces right in front of our eyes on TV.

That is Watergate, in a nut, for people with seriously diminished attention spans. The real story is a lot longer and reads like a textbook on human treachery. They were all scum, but only Nixon walked free and lived to clear his name. Or at least that’s what Bill Clinton says — and he is, after all, the President of the United States.

Nixon liked to remind people of that. He believed it, and that was why he went down. He was not only a crook but a fool. Two years after he quit, he told a TV journalist that “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal.”

Shit. Not even Spiro Agnew was that dumb. He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed. But he was Nixon’s vice president for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.

Unlike Nixon, Agnew didn’t argue. He quit his job and fled in the night to Baltimore, where he appeared the next morning in U.S. District Court, which allowed him to stay out of prison for bribery and extortion in exchange for a guilty (no contest) plea on income-tax evasion. After that he became a major celebrity and played golf and tried to get a Coors distributorship. He never spoke to Nixon again and was an unwelcome guest at the funeral. They called him Rude, but he went anyway. It was one of those Biological Imperatives, like salmon swimming up waterfalls to spawn before they die. He knew he was scum, but it didn’t bother him.

Agnew was the Joey Buttafuoco of the Nixon administration, and Hoover was its Caligula. They were brutal, brain-damaged degenerates worse than any hit man out of The Godfather, yet they were the men Richard Nixon trusted most. Together they defined his Presidency.

It would be easy to forget and forgive Henry Kissinger of his crimes, just as he forgave Nixon. Yes, we could do that — but it would be wrong. Kissinger is a slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick German accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure. Nixon was one of those, and Super K exploited him mercilessly, all the way to the end.

Kissinger made the Gang of Four complete: Agnew, Hoover, Kissinger and Nixon. A group photo of these perverts would say all we need to know about the Age of Nixon.

Nixon’s spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives — whether you’re me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin’s daughter or your fiancee’s 16-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him. This is not a generational thing. You don’t even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.



Remarks on the Death of Mao Zedong

Gerald R. Ford

9 September 1976

The People’s Republic of China announced today the passing away of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Chairman Mao was a giant figure in modern Chinese history. He was a leader whose actions profoundly affected the development of his own country. His influence on history will extend far beyond the borders of China.

Americans will remember that it was under Chairman Mao that China moved together with the United States to end a generation of hostility and to launch a new and more positive era in relations between our two countries.

I am confident that the trend of improved relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, which Chairman Mao helped to create, will continue to contribute to world peace and stability.

On behalf of the United States Government and the American people, I offer condolences to the Government and to the people of the People’s Republic of China.


Aspects of Mao

Simon Leys

13 September 1976


Some misunderstandings acquire historical dimensions. In the celebrated interview he granted Edgar Snow, Mao Tse-tung allegedly described himself as “a lonely monk walking in the rain under a leaking umbrella”. With its mixture of humorous humility and exoticism, this utterance had a tremendous impact on the Western imagination, already so well attuned to the oriental glamour of the “Kung Fu” television series. Snow’s command of the Chinese language, even at its best, was never very fluent; some thirty-odd years spent away from China had done little to improve it, and it is no wonder that he failed to recognise in this “monk under an umbrella” [和尚打傘] evoked by the Chairman a most popular Chinese joke. The expression, in the form of a riddle, calls for the conventional answer “no hair” (since monks keep their heads shaven), “no sky'” (it being hidden by the umbrella) — which in turn means by homophony [無法無天] “I know no law, I hold nothing sacred.” The blunt cynicism shown by Mao in referring to such a saying to define his basic attitude was as typical of his bold disregard for diplomatic niceties as its mistaken and sentimental English adaptation by Snow is revealing of the compulsion for myth-making, of the demand for politico-religious kitsch among certain types of Western intellectual.

In fact, the crude riddle so naively misunderstood by Snow provides us with one of the keys for understanding Mao’s complex and contradictory personality. There is little doubt that Mao’s spontaneous inclinations generally favoured radical policies, and yet, looking at the countless twists and turns of his entire career, leafing through many of his earlier writings, it would be easy to put together a file on the subject of his “revisionist capitulationism” and “rightist opportunism” thick enough to hang three dozen Liu Shaoqis and Deng Xiaopings. And for that matter, his record as “leftist adventurist” could without difficulty eclipse even Lin Piao’s. Actually, in order to discourage such an exercise, the Peking authorities wisely refrain from publishing Mao’s complete works: the authorised version of the Selected Works is a carefully censored one. Although Mao was genuinely impatient with bureaucratic practices, he nevertheless became both the architect and the cornerstone of the most gigantic totalitarian bureaucracy this planet has ever known.

To reconcile such paradoxes, one must either learn the mental acrobatics of a very sophisticated game played by the enlightened vanguard and called “dialectics”, or, more vulgarly, face the fact that rather than being the prophet-philosopher as described by his worshippers, Mao was essentially always and foremost a practical politician for whom what mattered above everything was power — how to obtain it, how to retain it, how to regain it. In order to secure power, no sacrifice was ever too big and least of all the sacrifice of principles. It is only in this light that it becomes possible to understand his alternations between compromise and ruthlessness, benevolence and ferocity, suppleness and brutality, and all his abrupt volte-faces: none of these were ever arbitrary.

Although political power was the ultimate yardstick of all his actions, it would of course be foolish to assume that a man of such stature was merely pursuing power for power’s sake. He had an acute awareness of his place in history; this intense historical consciousness – which in our age he shared perhaps only with De Gaulle — also made him profess an unabashed admiration for the great tyrants of the past: Napoleon, Qin Shihuang…. If the fluctuating tactical imperatives make it very difficult at times to distinguish his actual policies from those of his successive rivals and scapegoats, his style remained unique. We can grasp it most clearly in some of his artistic creations. His calligraphy (one of the major arts of China) is strikingly original, betraying a flamboyant egotism, to the point of arrogance, if not extravagance; at the same time it shows a total disregard for the formal discipline of the brush, and this contempt for technical requirements condemns his work, however powerful, to remain essentially inarticulate. His poetry, so aptly described by Arthur Waley as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s”, was rather pedantic and pedestrian, managing to combine obscurity with vulgarity: and yet, within the framework of an obsolete form, it remains, in its very awkwardness, remarkably unfettered by conventions. Moreover, the fact that he devoted somne part of his energy to the uncertain pursuit of the aesthetic hobbies of a traditional gentleman and scholar is in itself quite revealing. As Erica Jong has observed: “There is nothing fiercer than a failed artist. The energy remains, but having no outlet, it implodes in a great black fart of rage which smokes up all the inner windows of the soul.” And sometimes it drives a man into politics.

This phenomenon of the failed artist as a statesman, of political leadership as self-expression, ought some day to be properly analysed; in the course of such a study, Mao could provide one of the most exemplary cases. The kind of idealism, subjectivism and voluntarism that inspired his most daring initiatives betrays the aesthete’s typical approach. Even some of his basic political utterances rest on artistic metaphors — like his famous observation about China’s “poverty and blankness” [一窮二白], which make her more easily available, like a blank page for the free improvisation of a great artist’s brush. … Like a sculptor who submits the yielding clay to his inspiration, shapes it in accordance with an inner vision, the artist-statesman, using history and nations for his material, attempts to project in them the images from his mind. This visionary quality accounts for most of the unexpected, dazzling victories of Mao’s maturity; unfortunately, it was also at the root of the increasingly erratic, capricious and catastrophic initiatives of his late years when, increasingly divorced from reality, ever more absorbed in his lonely dream, he repeatedly brought the very régime he himself had created to the brink of chaos and destruction.

Strangely enough for a leader of such stature, Mao had very little personal charisma. He was a poor speaker, with a high-pitched, unpleasant, and monotonous voice. His thick Hunanese accent, of which he never could rid himself, did little to improve this. The masses could easily relate to leaders like Zhu De and Peng Dehuai because of their simplicity and human warmth; they liked Chou En-lai for his patrician charm and selfless dedication to the service of the nation. But with Mao it was a different story: well-orchestrated propaganda imposed his image upon the people as that of a Sun-God. More than two thousand years of imperial tradition have created in the collective consciousness the constant need for a unique, supreme, quasi-mystical head: the shaky and brief republican interlude did not succeed in providing any convincing substitute for this, and Mao knew shrewdly how to manipulate this traditional legacy to his own advantage.

That he was in fact the main organiser of his own cult cannot be doubted: he justified the necessity of it to Edgar Snow by observing cynically. “Khrushchev did not build his own cult, look what happened to him!” But if he became a god for the masses, those who were in direct contact with him were somewhat put off by his aloofness, his secretive and devious ways, his utter lack of personal loyalty, the ruthlessness with which he could get rid of lifetime companions-in-arms and faithful assistants, once they had become a hindrance or dared to voice criticism, One of his early admirers, the American journalist Agnes Smedley a dedicated revolutionary who had the courage, during the war, to break through the Guomindang blockade and join the Communists in Yenan — gave in 1943 a remarkably frank account of her first encounter with him:

His hands were as long and sensitive as a woman’s. … Whatever else he might be he was an aesthete. I was in fact repelled by the feminine in him. An instinctive hostility sprang up inside me, and I became so occupied with trying to master it, that I heard hardly a word of what followed…. The following months of precious friendship both confirmed and contradicted his inscrutability. The sinister quality I had at first felt so strongly in him proved to be a spiritual isolation… In him was none of the humility of Zhu De. Despite that feminine quality in him, he was as stubborn as a mule, and a steel rod of pride and determination ran through his nature.

In complete contrast with the intellectual revolutionary élite of his time, which was sophisticated, urban, and cosmopolitan, Mao belonged to the old inward-looking peasant world. His intellectual landscape was furnished not so much with Western marxist writings which he read belatedly, in a haphazard and superficial way – as with Chinese classical literature, historiography, and fiction, with which he developed a lively if patchy and unsystematic familiarity, typical of a self-taught provincial genius.

When already the master of China, he had himself photographed at his desk for an official portrait: it was not by accident that the collection of books stacked in front of him was not one of marxist classics, but a famous series of eleventh-century Chinese manuals on imperial bureaucratic government. His attacks against Confucius sprang from a pathetically Confucian frame of mind: he still lived in a world — utterly foreign to younger Chinese generations — where Confucius occupied the place and fulfilled the function he envisaged for himself, that of Supreme Teacher of an all-encompassing orthodoxy. The anti-Confucius campaign was but one more expression of the living anachronism he himself had become. His world was still a ritual world, ruled by ideology rather than laws, by dogmatic scriptures — yesterday the Confucian classics, today the Little Red Book — rather than popular debate.

When he pronounced “the primacy of the red over the expert”, he was merely rephrasing a 2,000-year-old axiom from the Confucian Book of Rites: “What is achieved by technique is inferior, what is achieved by virtue is superior.” Such deep roots in the Chinese traditional universe accounted for his most brilliant achievements in the past: when waging guerrilla war in the remote peasant heartland of old China, he had no rival. But when it came to confronting a new world and a new age, when he had to guide China into the modern era, his very strength turned into his worst limitation. He always tried to reduce new problems and issues into terms more familiar to him, those of the backward peasant hinterland, the nostalgic arena of his early victories.

He attempted to move the fight back to his own battlefield, away from the disquieting areas of contemporary ideas and technology that were the preserve of people of whose language he had only an uncertain grasp – those odious intellectuals, academics, specialists, and experts towards whom he demonstrated relentless and obsessive hatred.

Here lies his tragedy: he outlived himself by some twenty years. If he had died a few years after the Liberation, he would have gone down in history as one of China’s most momentous leaders. Unfortunately, during the last part of his life, by stubbornly clinging to an outdated utopia, by becoming frozen in his own idiosyncrasies and private visions, less and less attuned to the objective realities and needs of a new era, he became in fact a major obstacle to the development of the Chinese revolution. The ultra-conservative faction (mistakenly labelled “left” by some Western observers), bent on keeping China in tight isolation in order to preserve her ideological purity, used him as a buttress in their last, most desperate stand against the long-overdue movement towards at last to start forging ahead again, after an all too long and true modernisation and opening of the country.

China has lost her “Great Leader”. This should allow her at last to start forging ahead again, after an all too long and abnormal interlude of chaotic rule and cultural stagnation. For a nation such as the Chinese, the loss should not be crippling: do truly great peoples ever need a “Great Leader”?



  • Simon Leys, ‘Aspects of Mao’, The Australian, 13 September 1976. The Wade-Giles romanisation of the original has been converted to Hanyu Pinyin