How can so large a country be made coherent? What is its story? And how can it balance individual opportunity with collective harmony? Meet the minds who made, and are making, Chinaby Rana Mitter / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The minds who shaped the past
The most influential Chinese person of all time, Confucius was the moral philosopher who gave China some of its most enduring markers of identity. Confucius lived at a time when the rulers of China’s small kingdoms were at constant war with one another. He advocated an alternative to force: rituals and ethical behaviour. There had to be order in society, which, for him, meant control by rulers over subjects and men over women; but he also argued that the strong also owed a duty of care to the weak. Not particularly influential in his own lifetime, Confucius gained huge status in the Han dynasty (206BC to 220AD). The Chinese state continued to draw on Confucian norms into the early 20th century, but he was sidelined and often attacked by a succession of leaders, until Hu Jintao revived his ideas at the start of the 21st century. The sage’s books—often reworked as “self-help” manuals—still stack up in bookshops across the country.
Some countries don’t care that much for their history. China really does; historical analogies shape everyday conversations in boardrooms, schools and ministries. Sima Qian was not China’s first historian, but he may have been its first modern one even though he lived in the first century BC. He was a court historian who wrote at the height of China’s first great dynasty, the Han. He played different sources off against one another, collected oral evidence from participants in major events, and even used fiction as a source (anticipating post-modern ideas that all history is fiction, sort of). His work could get him into trouble; speaking an unwelcome truth to his emperor led to Sima Qian being castrated. But to this day, his Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) stands as China’s answer to Livy and Herodotus.
Even today, Li Qingzhao is known as one of China’s greatest poets. She lived during one of the most turbulent chapter in Chinese history—the Song dynasty of the 12th century. This gave her a life of two distinct halves. She grew up as part of China’s culture of highly-regulated court bureaucracy, with a husband who was a senior official, and she became his superior in literary terms as she developed her skill in classical Chinese poetry. But in 1127, a neighbouring people invaded China, forcing the dynasty to flee and re-establish itself with a new capital. Li wandered for years, trying to preserve as much of her family’s collection of literary classics as possible. Eventually, she settled in the new capital of Hangzhou where she turned to politics, writing a series of broadsides condemning the Song rulers for succumbing to the invaders, establishing an enduring reputation as a true patriot.
The minds shaping the future
Sex wasn’t invented in 1927 but to fans of the Shanghai literary scene, it might have appeared that way. It came by way of a new anti-heroine named Sophie, who lusted after an unattainable man in language that the world of Chinese fiction had not heard before. Sophie was created by Jiang Bingzhi, better known by her pen name of Ding Ling. Over the century, Ding Ling would create new characters who would reflect the changing face of Chinese feminism, such as a Second World War-era female spy behind Japanese lines, who was willing to sully her reputation for nationalist purposes. Under Mao, Ding Ling found her views on feminist self-discovery labelled “bourgeois” and “rightist,” although she was rehabilitated before her death. But the dilemma she pinpointed in her fiction is still relevant today: what is the role of the single woman in a modernising China?
Political theorist (1955-)
One of the top seven leaders of China—a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo—Wang Huning is tasked with creating a new ideological framework for the country: what Xi Jinping has called “the Chinese dream.” Yet despite Wang’s centrality to thinking at the heart of Chinese politics, he remains a somewhat mysterious figure. He’s certainly not just a follower of Xi. Over the past decade and a half, he has headed one of the major Communist Party think tanks, and had a significant voice in shaping the ideas of former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In the 1980s, he argued that the pace of democratic reform could be faster, but within the past decade he has argued that compliance with the constitution is vital for stability. As Xi seeks to strengthen his personalistic rule, it’s not clear whether Wang will simply provide ideological enablement to the project, or have real input into a new mode of politics.
Legal theorist (1953-)
He Jiahong is professor of law at Renmin University in Beijing. More unusually, he’s also the author of detective novels. He’s become well-known for his prominent role in reforming China’s legal system in two areas. One was in wrongful convictions: he established a centre that examined death penalty cases and showed that procedures had led to the wrong result—He’s work led to major changes in criminal appeals in China. More recently he has been involved in finding ways to reduce corruption, advocating more legal oversight of administrators. He Jiahong is an example of the possibilities and limits of legal reform in China today. He has pioneered real changes that have righted injustice, yet he is certainly no dissident from the system. Legal reform in China takes place on Chinese terms—and they are not liberal ones.
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