The Spectre of Prince Han Fei in Xi Jinping’s China

Spectres & Souls

Vignettes, moments and meditations on
China and America, 1861-2021


‘China’s Heart of Darkness — Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping’, a five-part essay by Jianying Zha 查建英 offered readers a provocative study of the legacy of the ancient thinker Han Fei and the Legalist school in Xi Jinping’s China by one of contemporary Sino-America’s most insightful cultural critics.

Zha’s essay was published by China Heritage in July 2020 as a ‘Lesson in New Sinology’, one in a series that focusses on the kinds of ‘literary-historical-intellectual’ 文史哲 usage and allusions that are a central feature of contemporary Chinese politics and culture. Since 2005, we have argued that an understanding of this matrix of ideas and practices is essential for those who would hope to engage seriously with the Chinese world in the twenty-first century.

‘China’s Heart of Darkness’ was also a chapter in Translatio Imperii Sinici, a series that traces some of the ideas, habits, cultural expressions and aspirations of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which continue to influence the Chinese world in a myriad of ways today.

In November 2020, Jeremy Goldkorn of SupChina recorded a conversation with Jianying Zha and China Heritage about the essay, and a podcast version of the conversation was published on 6 May 2021. We provide links to the original essay, the SupChina podcast below. We also reproduce the Editorial Postscript to Zha’s meditation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Chairman’s New Clothes (Les Habits neufs du président Mao) by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), my mentor.

This material also constitutes a chapter in Spectres & Souls: China Heritage Annual 2021.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 May 2021


The Essay:

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

Jianying Zha 查建英


The Podcast:


The Postscript:

Chairman Xi Jinping’s New Clothes

An Editorial Postscript

Geremie R. Barmé


In the opening paragraphs of her study of the nexus between Prince Han Fei and Chairman Xi Jinping, Jianying Zha notes that when Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, a celebrated legal scholar at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, was ‘unceremoniously stripped of his teaching position and placed under official investigation’ in March 2019, she happened to be re-reading Hanfeizi, the decoction of Han Fei’s Legalist thinking, in an attempt to understand better the draconian rule of Xi Jinping. As Zha observes:

‘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.’

from Prologue: ‘Qin Shihuang + Marx’, 14 July 2020

We have followed the writings, and the fate, of Xu Zhangrun in the virtual pages of China Heritage since August 2018 (see our Xu Zhangrun Archive) and, just as we serialised Jianying Zha’s insightful meditation on Han Fei and Xi Jinping in July 2020, in Beijing Xu Zhangrun was being detained, defamed, cashiered from his job and deprived of his professional standing. Then, without explanation, he was released. (For details, see: ‘無可奈何 — So It Goes’ and ‘Xu Zhangrun & China’s Former People’.)

Jianying Zha’s timely observations on the legalistic rule of Xi Jinping resonate with Xu Zhangrun’s warnings. In a now-famous critique of Xi’s globally consequential mishandling of the COVID-19 epidemic in China from late December 2019, Xu declared that Xi Jinping’s New Epoch was nothing less than:

‘…an evolving form of military tyranny that is underpinned by an ideology that I call “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism” [Fa-Ri-Si 法日斯], one that is cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought [Fa 法; that is, 中式法家思想] wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism [Si 斯; 斯大林主義] along with the “Germano-Aryan” form of fascism [Ri 日; 日耳曼法西斯主義].’

from Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear’
trans. Geremie R. Barmé,
ChinaFile, 10 February 2020

Thirty years earlier, Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), art historian, essayist and Sinologue, had commented on the prospects for the rule of law in post-Mao China. His remarks were made in the context of how best to navigate a way through the maze of Communist Party rule and the tireless power struggles in Beijing:

‘… ingenuity and astuteness are not enough; one also needs a vast amount of experience. Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round (as I have pointed out many times already), and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolve for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective. For instance, when, in 1979, the “People’s Republic” began to revise its criminal law, there were good souls in the West who applauded this initiative, as they thought that it heralded China’s move toward a genuine rule of law. What they failed to note, however — and which should have provided a crucial hint regarding the actual nature and meaning of the move in question — was that the new law was being introduced by Peng Zhen, one of the most notorious butchers of the regime, a man who, thirty years earlier, had organised the ferocious mass accusations, lynchings and public executions of the land-reform programs.’

from Simon Leys (1990)
in ‘Watching China Watching (II)’

China Heritage, 7 January 2018

With a lifetime of experience and an acuity honed over decades as a writer on and interlocutor with contemporary Chinese thought and culture, Jianying Zha is ideally suited to guide readers through the maze of the Xi Jinping era.


‘China’s Heart of Darkness’ was inspired by a lunchtime conversation at the Asia Society in New York on 13 November 2019. Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and head of the Asia Society Policy Institute, had invited me to give a talk about the Chinese ‘anniversary year’ of 2019 (for the video of that talk and a Q&A session hosted by Orville Schell, see here). During my public remarks, I referred to Mao Zedong’s famous quip that he was ‘Marx plus Qin Shihuang’ 馬克思加秦始皇, and I quoted Xi Jinping’s observations about the Qin empire that had been published a month earlier on 2 October as part of the observances marking the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In them, Xi declared that through Party rectitude, ongoing anti-corruption purges and ceaseless political indoctrination, the People’s Republic could avoid the fate of all previous ruling entities in Chinese history. As a warning, Xi even quoted from the most famous poetic account of the destruction of Qin Shihuang’s Epang Palace, written by the Tang poet Du Mu (杜牧, 803-852) in the year 825 CE which ends with the lines:

The Rulers of Ch’in had not a moment
To lament their fate,
Those who came after
Lamented it.
When those who come after
Lament but do not learn,
Then they too will merely provide
Fresh cause for lamentation
From those who come after them.





— from Du Mu ‘The Great Palace of Ch’in — a Rhapsody’
trans. John Minford, China Heritage, 25 February 2019

Xi declared that the Communists had ‘learned and would not lament’. He also returned to the topic of ‘the cycles of Chinese history’ — that millennia-long series of peasant-led rebellions that saw the overthrow of corrupt and unrighteous ruling houses, in the wake of which judicious rulers ushered in eras of stability and prosperity that in their turn, over time, became mired in the same corrupt ways that had undone their predecessors. Quoting Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping declared that equipped with Marxist-Leninist theory China’s Communists had broken free of this vicious cycle. Although, it was telling that he blamed the fall of the Qin empire not on the brutal Legalist thinking that had made the Qin a proto-totalitarian state, but rather on the sybaritic indulgence of the court.

[Note] For more on Xi’s 2 October 2019 essay and the ‘cycles of history’, see ‘The Heart of The One Grows Ever More Arrogant and Proud’ 獨夫之心 日益驕固, China Heritage, 10 March 2020

Contemporary independent writers in China also often refer to the Qin dynasty and its draconian rule as that ancient historical landscape, its tropes and policies, are not only relevant when talking about Mao, but have gained renewed importance in discussions of Xi Jinping’s own imperial ambitions and political overreach.

In his essays Xu Zhangrun has often referred to Xi Jinping as pursuing what he calls ‘rulership in the style of the Qin’ 秦制 Qín zhì. He too has quoted Du Mu’s famous poem ‘The Great Palace of Ch’in’ 阿房宮賦 although, unlike Xi Jinping, he asserted that the Communists have not learned from the murderous failures of their autocracy and that they are repeating the same mistakes that every purblind regime in Chinese history has made.

Writing shortly after the Beijing Massacre on 4 June 1989, Simon Leys noted that:

‘When Qin Shihuang, the founder of the first Chinese empire, died during a voyage in the provinces in 210 B.C., the members of his entourage were so afraid that the empire might immediately disintegrate that they did not dare to disclose the news of his death. Business was carried on as usual; but as it was summer, they loaded a cargo of rotting fish in the imperial chariot, to cover up the smell of the decaying body.’

Simon Leys, ‘The Wrong March’
The New Republic, 19 June 1989

[Note] The original line in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historianreads: ‘會暑,上轀車臭,乃詔從官令車載一石鮑魚,以亂其臭。’

Not long after the demise of the first Qin emperor, ‘Emperor Second Generation’ 二世, Shihuang’s hapless son Huhai 胡亥 (this eighteenth son replaced the chosen successor, a more competent older brother, who had been executed) fell victim to plotting courtiers. Soon China’s first dynasty was overthrown by peasant rebels and the sumptuous Epang Palace was razed.

Leys ended his June 1989 essay with a question:

‘What amount of smelly luggage will be needed now to enable Chinese communism to continue much further on its aimless journey?’

The events of 1989, both in China and internationally, forced the Communists to change tack; all predictions of China’s imminent collapse have been confounded both by policy innovation and by the substantive transformation of the country’s economy and people’s livelihoods. As Jianying Zha observes in her powerful study of Xi Jinping, at the core of the odiferous juggernaut of the Communist Party a dark heart continues to beat.


The grave of Emperor ‘Qin Second Generation’ 秦二世, Ying Huhai 胡亥, Xi’an, Shaanxi province


During a lunchtime discussion following my Asia Society talk hosted by Kevin Rudd, Jianying mentioned that she had recently gone back to Hanfeizi and had even drafted an essay about the gloomy shadow the ancient Legalist thinker cast over Xi Jinping’s China. Having initially acquainted myself with Hanfeizi, Lord Shang and the Legalist tradition during my studies at Maoist universities in 1974-1976, I was intrigued. As a result of subsequent discussions at cafes in New York and via email and Skype after I returned to the Wairarapa in New Zealand, Jianying  expanded on her original draft for publication in China Heritage.

An important body of material exists in both Chinese and European languages related to the pre-Qin Legalists and the rise of the Legalo-Confucian-Taoist (and later Buddhist) amalgam that exerted political and cultural power in the Chinese world for over two millennia. Academic purists may well disdain the everyday application of ancient ideas to contemporary politics; they may have even less time for those who attempt to see how power holders today evoke, manipulate and reinterpret the past.

In 1964, Mao Zedong used a pithy expression to express an ancient political practice: ‘make the past serve the present’ 古為今用 gǔ wéi jīn yòng. Scholars may like to think that Lord Shang, Han Fei and Dong Zhongshu, among others, are the exclusive preserve of refined scholarship, but statesmen, advisers and ambitious thinkers throughout Chinese history have proven that the power of the past is rarely merely academic.

The evocation and updating of tradition in modern China — that is, from the late-Qing era of the nineteenth century up to the present day — is a continuation of that age-old story. As ‘China’s Heart of Darkness’ demonstrates, it is also a constantly evolving reality. For those who would appreciate both the pull of the past and the forward thrust of the present, we encourage an approach grounded in New Sinology — a study of the Chinese world that takes the diverse literary, historical and intellectual traditions of the past, as well as the influences of Japan and the West, seriously.


The year 2021 will mark fifty years since Simon Leys dissected the nature of Maoist rule in his book The Chairman’s New Clothes (Les Habits neufs du président Mao). His forensic account of the Cultural Revolution written in the form of a diary, Leys revealed the skulduggery and the power plays at the heart of the Maoist enterprise. In early 2020, outspoken figures like the legal activist Xu Zhiyong and the former real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang used that same metaphor when they lambasted Xi Jinping as ‘an emperor with new clothes’.

In ‘China’s Heart of Darkness’, Jianying Zha trains her X-ray vision on the Chairman of Everything and offers a chilling report on what she can see.

22 July 2020
New Zealand