China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘HNC’ tag

Mao: “cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged”

leave a comment

I’ve been reading a series of articles over the past week for my Post-1949 Modern Chinese History class, written by my professor himself, focusing on Nanjing’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, including the January 1967 failed power seizure. The details are more complicated and confusing than I could possibly have ever imagined. I am having trouble making sense of the various actors and plot twists, but that is partially the point. Occasionally sections jump out of the page for being unintentionally hilarious:

 When Mao spoke about Nanjing during this period his utterances were cryptic, cavalier, and arguably deranged. In a meeting with military commanders on July 13 he said,

“Don’t fear chaos, the more chaos there is, and the longer it goes on, the better. The more chaos goes on, there always emerges a hall of fame, and things will clear up. No matter how chaotic, don’t be afraid. The more afraid you are, the more demons will appear. But no matter what, don’t open fire, whenever you open fire its no good. It’s not possible to have nationwide chaos. Wherever there’s a pustule, there are germs, so they’ll always pop. The chaos in the streets of Nanjing is really fierce, the more I see the happier I get. The more chaotic it gets the more there is a third faction that opposes civil war, opposes armed conflict, and that’s great! (Zhang Chunqiao interjects: “Some say the third faction will take a third road”). What third road is there! Everyone should unite, criticize, you should guide them!” (Mao Zedong 1967).

I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth saying once again: if this is the kind of material that is available now, think what will happen when the party collapses and the archives are opened up.

Written by Will

November 7th, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Modernity and the Chinese Experience


This is a piece I wrote that was just published in this month’s SAIS Observer, but it hasn’t been put online yet.

I am one of two international students in my “Modernity and World Social Thought” class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center; the other twenty or so are all Chinese students. Every week we talk about questions of modernity and modernization: whether a country can become technologically “modernized” without being culturally and psychologically “modern”; whether modernity is a universal value or a particular value for particular people; what part, if any, of the past should persist into the era of the nation-state.

I listen when my Chinese classmates debate the influence of Confucianism in the current Chinese socio-political environment, and whether the modernizing reformers of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 have been heeded to the present day. Most interesting to me is whether the project of modernity should have a “purpose,” whether modernity is a project or just an aimless process. Some writers, like Patrick Smith in “Somebody Else’s Century,” say none is needed. Other nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, say that purpose lies in each country’s destiny. And many more say modernity’s purpose is derived from individual human fulfillment.

This question bites directly into the seminar and indeed many of my Chinese peers’ experiences. A century ago, China grappled over whether it could preserve its unique cultural ti (fundamental principles) while grafting onto it Western yong (practical application). Yong is the means, ti is the end. China is still dealing with this rift between ti and yong today. This separation is reflected in a number of common questions, like: what makes our state legitimate? What are our national values? Are we permanently stuck in a culture of material consumption, or is there a way forward?

Mao Zedong said at the outset of the People’s Republic, “Our new China is like a blank piece of paper on which we can write the most elegant characters and paint the most beautiful pictures.” In modern China, the question is not so much how to preserve the Confucian ti, but rather how to come up with a new ti after it has been thoroughly scarred from being scooped out and replaced, over and over again.

But then I focus on the reality of class discussion. I realize that, more than anything else, this small seminar, existing in a tiny bubble within China, is through its own way living out the project of modernity.  We are living out modernity through discussion; the classroom dialectic is perhaps the only way to move forward past confusion and post-modernism. Values are not objects for individuals. They are decided in common. And if we can do our small part in tackling such immense problems, especially in a place like China, then I will be happy.

Written by Will

October 31st, 2012 at 8:36 am