China, between continuity and ruptures

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China, between continuity and ruptures

By Silvio Marconi: Engineer and anthropologist, specialized in cooperation and development. He has authored, in Italian, several books mostly focused on ethnocultural syncretism.

Opinions expressed in this post are personal.


The US President Donald Trump in his speech at the UN General Assembly, on September 2018, has attacked any country in the world choosing a “socialist or communist way”; his attack was explicitly directed against Venezuela,  accused of following a “Cuban pathway”.

Several observers were doubting if those words were also a new weapon in the economic conflict between USA and People’s Republic of China igniting by President Trump.

Really, China is ruled by a Communist Party, even if an apparent domain of the capitalistic market is established in most of the economic fields; Chinese Communist Party recognizes this situation, calling the system a “market socialism model based on the Chinese history”.

It is slightly difficult, mostly for a Western observer, to understand the meaning of such expression; in the People’s Republic of China business seems to follow the capitalistic rules and mechanisms, but all the credit is oriented by the State, both the educational and information system are controlled by the State and no rich people can follow Berlusconi model, buying tv-stations and creating a political party. The Communist Party hegemony on the state is established both by the Constitution and the practice. The problem is that Westerners are not quite aware Chinese history produced very different models and solutions. Followers of Liberalism and Marxism in the Western countries are stuck in their own models. There is nothing wrong with this because Liberal thought and Communist thought are both product of Western evolution of ideologies and economic structures.

However, China has a different history and also the imported ideas, from Buddhism to Liberalism and Marxian theories, have been always re-elaborated in “China style”.

The capitalistic ruling phase in China was very short, weak and basically dominated by a total dependence on foreign powers: “Chinese” capitalism, between 1911 and 1949, was a puppet of the Western powers, without any national project, while its industrial base, during less than 40 years of evolution, was circusmcribed to some local areas (Shanghai, Guangdong, some Manchurian mining areas, etc.) within a huge agricultural semi-feudal system. Before 1911 China was an empire where, since ancient times, (except in some critical periods) the State controlled the key productions (i.e.: silk, salt, gunpowder, metals, paper, etc.) and the trade was allowed just by the State license. The State even established the place to live and to work. We find no Medici or Fugger family in the Chinese history, no Republic of Venice or Hanseatic League, no Machiavelli or Luther, Voltaire or Hobbes.

As a direct consequence we cannot talk about a real national capitalism in China!

When Mao begun to lead the Chinese Communist Party, it was fresh from Chiang Kai Shek‘s savage repression, occurred in Guangdong (Canton) and Shanghai, against the industrial workers revolts, instructed by the Comintern (the Soviet Union ruled international organization of the Communist Parties).

Indeed the Comintern was founded on the pure Marxian theory that only the industrial working class could and should be the engine of the revolution.

However Marxist theory had been already redefined by Lenin who bypassed the assumption the revolution should have happened in the most advanced capitalistic countries. Lenin, taking advantage of the First World War crisis, leaded the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the less advanced capitalistic state in Europe,  accepting the industrial working class should be the engine of the revolution also in an underdeveloped state.

Mao reversed this idea: adapting the Marxist and Leninist thought to Chinese reality, he leaded a peasants revolution, organizing a Chinese industrial working class (and a Chinese industry not belonging to foreign owners) after the mainly peasants based Chinese Communist Party took the power in 1949! Therefore, it’s only a Western myopia to expect China follows the classic criteria of definition of “socialism” or “capitalism”.

The core-problem is the relation, in the Chinese culture and history, between continuity and ruptures.

No Western modern revolutionary leader used in his speeches, written works or slogans the Occitan poems model or the Byzantine art model.

Mao, asking to “fight against the old traditions” (“Chinese Cultural Revolution” of the Sixties) was using the  poetic models of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 a.C.) and it is possible to find very ancient Chinese legends (like “Yu Kung destroying the mountains”), adapted to a revolutionary tale, in his Little Red Book.

At the same time, many Red Guards posters mixed some elements of the “socialist realism”, imported from the Soviet Union, with imperial Chinese symbols: the sunrise, the phoenix, etc., and/or with ancient mythological symbols: the golden dish, the smiling children, the storks, the turtles, etc. .

In Western  iconography, the use of the red color is obviously making the most of its psychological effect, stimulating passion, but there is no continuity between the red as sacred ruling symbol (and martyrs’ symbol in the Christian universe) and the red of the Paris Commune or the modern Western communists: their red comes directly from the battle flag; historically, the red flag, connected with the blood color, has been used, in the past, by many armies as a symbol of fighting without respite and with the same meaning was used by the Caribbean Pirates. From the XVII centuries it was also used by the besieged fortresses and towns to show that they refused to surrender. In western countries the revolutionary red was never conjoint to the gold or his brother, the yellow. In Asian cultures, the binomial red-gold (red-yellow) is an ancient positive symbol of prosperity, wealth, power; in the Russian language red, красный (krasnyy) means also “beautiful, great” and the Moscow Red Square (Красная площадь, Krasnaja ploščad’) has that name since the XVII century, two centuries before the Marxist followers adopted the red flag and three centuries before they took the power in Russia. In Chinese culture, gold (and yellow) became the symbol of the Empire, while red was (from the blood color) the symbol of life and fertility, as well as in many other ancient cultures. It is interesting to highlight that all the children in the world, also today, consider the red and the yellow the best colors, while a big difference exists among the adults; the Asiatic adult people continue to prefer red and yellow, while the Western adult people prefer the blue, because they have been conditioned by the Western iconography promoting, in the last eight centuries, the blue to the first place. For example, until the XIV century the mantle of Virgin Mary was red and only after that period was transformed in a blue one. The French dynasties promoted the blue as the king color, while it was spread off the absurd idea that the noble people belong to a different human race than the peasants. The first were supposed to have blue blood, the second red. Consequently, the use of the red color (and the red and yellow binomial) in the  political symbols and propaganda, has a totally different meaning and impact in the Western countries and in China. The mutiny seamen exhibited the red flag on their ships on Thames river in 1797, the strikers of the Welsh Merthyr Tydfil mine used the red as a symbol of the gory shirts of their comrade assassinated by the police  in 1832, the German, French, British, Italian workers used the red flag in the XIX century without adding the sickle and hammer, especially never used yellow sickles and hammers, included in the red flag only by a Soviet decree in 1918.

In the Chinese case, red and yellow have a millennial history and meaning. This iconographical difference is the symbol of a huge one involving the meaning of concepts as “capitalism”, “socialism”,  “state”; without immersing these concepts in the millennial Chinese history and culture, especially in the Chinese dialectic relation between  continuity and ruptures, no current aspects of the People’s Republic of China reality can be properly understood. Continuity and ruptures’ dialectic in China are not just related to political aspects; the same characteristic influences art and poetry, institution and personal attitudes, symbols and business. Chinese culture has never been the “static and motionless” reality depicted in the sinophobic Western vision: important evolutions have been registered, over the centuries, in painting and technology, in religion and literature.

However, the Chinese evolutions never have deleted the past like in the Western case. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, never a unitary state has dominated the territories included in that Empire, no unitary language has been established, no unitary institutional and economic system, artistic model, religion have characterized those regions and each evolution has been also the consequence of a destruction, like the erasing of the pre-Christian ideologies and art, the removal of the role of the Muslim culture in the Western Middle Age Europe, the destruction of the feudal system of values by the winning bourgeoisie, etc. . More, the area ruled by the Roman Empire was characterized, in the last fifteen centuries, by any kind of bloody conflicts among different religious currents, ideologies, socioeconomic models producing oppositions and destructions, as well as a huge division between peoples and societies.

Nowadays, the present difficulties inside the European Union are also the consequences of centuries of conflicts and divisions not only among different powers (a universal reality) but among opposite concepts and theories. China in its millenary history had a lot of conflicts, periods of fragmentation and reunification, dynasties crisis, civil wars, invasions, but religions never fought in China as in Western Europe, different languages have never destroyed its unitary culture, unlike in  Western Europe, institutional and socio-economic differences have never fragmented the Chinese territory, again unlike in Western Europe where we can recall divisions and conflicts between the maritime republics and the absolute monarchies or between the Emirate of Cordoba and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom).

More, when foreign invaders (Mongols and then Manchu) conquered China they gradually accepted the Chinese culture, up to self-proclaim as guardians and defenders of the Chinese identity, while the Normans invaders of the British Islands and Sicily, the French invaders of Catalonia acted to destroy and substitute the existing identities and cultures. Imagining a present China with 28 nations and languages, with monarchy and republics, with centuries of reciprocal wars, with different tax systems and laws as the European Union, instead that a unitary state, we can understand as all the influence, the power, the richness, the same identity of China could not exist. The existence itself of a unitary state has been the eternal goal of any Chinese leadership in the history: in any crisis and fragmentation period the dreams of any local leader was to reconstruct the unity of the state, because in the Chinese traditional conception China is the State and the State (not the territory with its borders) is China. Unity of the State is possible (or dreamed) for centuries only if continuity and ruptures dialectically cohabit as they have done, till now, in Chinese world; the Western Europe’s attempt to achieve this goal is the product of imperialistic conquests, as in the cases of  Napoleon and Hitler, or of democratic limited project strictly concerning the finance and trade aspect, like the European Union, because Western thought doesn’t admit the Taoist dialectic between the opposites (in the Western thought, tertium non datur) and the Chinese dialectic between innovation and tradition, new and old, revolution and conservation. Western people and leaders have internalized the idea that the model of society built by them through the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the capitalistic system is the best in the History, without considering that the possibility of carrying out the Industrial Revolution was based on the plunder of the “New World” resources, on the genocide and on the Atlantic the slave trade. Therefore, Western people and leaders are accustomed to think that their model can be only spread off on the whole Planet, with very little local adaptations, without considering that other perspectives, other histories, other thoughts can have a better adherence to the reality. After a parenthesis of around two centuries of Western domain, now the World is assisting to the re-birthing of a power that was one of the biggest at Planet level for around two thousand years: China; also India has taken again an important role in the international scenario, in tune with its important role in the ancient past, from the Harappa and Mohenjo Daro civilization to the Moghul Empire. We cannot forget great schools of thought as Buddhism grew up exactly in India, before influencing most of the Eastern Asian lands and, partially, Christianism as well. If the Western people and leaders will persist to be flattened on their preconceptions, to prefer the excluding opposition instead of a dialectical approach, our societies will be obliged to afford new, horrible crisis, not only economic, even at ethic, social and environmental level.