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Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Note: Simon Leys is the pseudonym of a Belgian art historian and Sinologist who has lived and worked in China and other parts of the Far East for more than a decade. This is the second of two articles drawn from parts of his book Chinese Shadows. The first appeared in the May 26th issue.

As the day is divided into ten periods, so men are apportioned into ten classes, in such a way that the inferiors serve the superiors, while the latter serve the gods. In that manner, the king gives orders to dukes, the dukes to high officers, high officers to gentlemen, gentlemen to lictors, lictors to intendants, intendants to majordomos, majordomos to servants, servants to footmen, footmen to grooms. There are also stableboys to look after the horses, and herdsmen to care for the cattle, so that all functions are filled.”

Tso Chuan (Seventh year of Duke Chao), an ancient
commentary, composed somewhere around the third century BC, on the Confucian classic The Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronology of events in the state of Lu, from 722 to 481 BC.

1. Bureaucracy

In the sixth century BC, at the time the Tso Chuan refers to, China’s social hierarchy had only ten degrees. We have progressed since then: the Maoist bureaucracy today has thirty hierarchical classes, each with specific privileges and prerogatives.1 Its scrupulous care, nay obession, for protocol is a permanent cause of wonderment for Western diplomats in Peking, just as the lack of formality in the embassies of some new nations (where quite often a Third Secretary will call the Ambassador by his Christian name) has the Chinese mandarins flabbergasted. In all their contacts with foreigners, the Maoist civil servants insist on being given the exact title, function, and position of each person, so as to be able to gauge precisely the length of red carpet each should have: any uncertainty about this makes them uneasy to the point of anxiety. In fact, they only want to apply to others the precise and rigid classifications that rule their own official life and give it such splendid orderliness. Nothing, no futile detail is left to chance: the place of an official photograph in the newspaper, its size, the presence (or absence) of important persons in it, the order in which the names of leaders are given—all have meaning, all are organized more formally than any Byzantine ritual.

To avoid mixing sheep and goats is another obsession, and no sacrifice is too great to keep the classes, castes, and hierarchies strictly separate. For instance, in Peking’s diplomatic ghetto, it would have been very easy to organize one big cafeteria for everybody, but not only are the Chinese kept apart from the foreigners (of course!) but for the Chinese there are two different cafeterias, one for the intellectual aristocracy of employees and interpreters, one for the lower classes (drivers, sweepers, and other domestics).

The original purpose of the so-called May Seventh schools2 was to allow bureaucrats to be periodically in touch with workers and peasants. In practice, nothing of the kind occurs: one cadre, when I asked him whether he lived with the farmers during the periods when he worked in the fields, was quite shocked by my question. One should know that since the May Seventh schools have been institutionalized, 3 they have become bureaucratic islands in their rural environments. Their inmates plant cabbages and feed pigs, granted, but they do it with other bureaucrats, on the school grounds. Do they get any chance to learn about the life of the peasants? Of course! Once or twice a week some farmer comes and gives them a talk, and tells them how Chairman Mao and the Party have changed his existence out of all recognition.

In old China, the mandarins were called, in a very telling phrase, “Those-who-eat-meat.” Various gastronomical privileges still distinguish officials of a certain level from mere mortals: for them (especially in the provinces) any pretext will do (the visit of a foreign delegation, a visiting ambassador, anything) to organize private galas, and the extravagance of these can be quite extraordinary. (For anyone who has enjoyed attending these intimate banquets, the vaunted haute cuisine of the state dinners so often given by Chou En-lai in the Great Hall of the People to honor Nixon, Farah Diba, or the like is by comparison at something like the armycanteen level.) But if a new phrase must be found to qualify modern mandarins, “Those-who-ride-in-cars” would probably be the most appropriate. In China, there are no cars but mandarinal cars: all mandarins travel in cars and only mandarins travel in cars. (Old people, people gravely ill and on their way to the hospital, if they are unlucky enough to be just ordinary people, must do with a wheelbarrow or cart pushed by parents or friendly neighbors.)

Since all cars are official cars, the simple fact of sitting in the back seat of a limousine is equivalent to a laissez-passer. If you have to do business in a government building and you come on foot, you are sure to be stopped by a sentry, or a doorkeeper, or an usher with whom you will have to discuss your visit at length before being allowed to pass through the first gate. If you come by car, on the other hand, the various watchdogs will swing the iron grille of the gate wide open as soon as they espy you from afar and you can zip through without even having to slow down.

In professional bureaucratic life, not to use a car sometimes seems as indecent as dressing only in underwear. A young European diplomat in Peking, new in the job, a decent fellow if somewhat naïve, thought it fitting in this proletarian-revolutionary capital to replace his car by a bicycle—as much as possible anyway. One day he had an important meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry; the interpreter-dragoman of the embassy caught him just as he was getting on his bike. “But Cultural Attaché, Sir! What are you doing! You’re not going to go to the Ministry on a bicycle, are you?” Our young friend had to admit sheepishly that such was his intention. The interpreter, on his own initiative, called for the embassy car, and under his stare our progressive attaché had to climb meekly in. Thanks to the intervention of a Chinese employee, a shocking outrage to the Peking bureaucratic order was thus avoided.

To ride in a car marks you as an official, but the model, color, and size will vary according to your importance. At the bottom levels one finds Russian, Czech, and Chinese medium-size cars, cream-colored or gray; at the top, one has long black Hung-ch’i limousines, with tulle curtains that conceal the passengers from the crowds. Peking is thick with these capacious hearses; their blinded windows have an aura of august mystery, suggesting at the same time the Coach of the Holy Sacrament and the limousines that Arab sheiks shuttle their harems around in. One of the favorite pastimes of Peking people—they do not have many—is to crowd around the entrance of the Peking Hotel or near the Great Hall of the People on gala nights to see the loug processions of official cars go past with drawn curtains. Those people, one feels, have no envy or bitterness—they have the experience of three thousand years of despotism—but only the normal curiosity of gapers who try to glimpse, however fleetingly, the faraway magical world where their mysterious rulers live.

The Cultural Revolution has hypocritically masked some of the most obvious forms of class divisions, without changing their substance. In trains, for instance, first, second, and third classes have disappeared in name, but you have now “sitting hard” (ying tsuo), “sleeping hard” (ying wo), and “sleeping soft” (juan wo), which are exactly the same classes as before and with the fares, as before, ranging from single to triple prices, External insignia have nearly completely disappeared in the army; they have been replaced by a loose jacket with four pockets for officers, two pockets for privates. In this way, a colonel traveling first-class on the railway is now merely a four-pocket military man “sleeping soft”—with a two-pocket man respectfully carrying his suitcase. In cities one can still distinguish between four-pocket men in jeeps, four-pocket men in black limousines with curtains, and four-pocket men who have black limousines with curtains and a jeep in front.

In addition to the visible signs of their hierarchical dignity (to which they cling tenaciously: their absence is immediately interpreted as a sign of disgrace), the mandarins also have material advantages meticulously doled out according to their level. Salary differentials are quite steep in all sectors (a young university lecturer begins at 50 ¥ a month, a full professor gets 340 ¥; in a factory, the salary range may be from 35 to 210 ¥), but they are most marked for government officials, whose monthly salaries range from 20 ¥ at the bottom to 728 ¥ at the top.

But for those who rise in the hierarchy, the salary is of course only a minor consideration compared to all the other advantages deriving from more influence and power: the possibility of going abroad, of sending one’s children to university, of finding comfortable jobs for relatives, of getting goods in times of scarcity, and so on—in short, all that the colloquial language sums up in the phrase “going through the back door” (tsou hou-men). From time to time those practices are severely repressed—the Cultural Revolution was one of those times—but bureaucratic nature quickly prevails and the situation normalizes.

It must be said that examples come from on high: Chairman Mao’s nepotism can be seen by all. What would Chiang Ch’ing be today, with her starlet demimondaine talents, if she had not become the wife of the Great Leader?4 The case of Wang Hai-jung, Mao’s niece, is equally remarkable: after getting her diploma at the Institute of Foreign Languages in 1965, this inexperienced young woman entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which, curiously enough, shares with the Institute of Foreign Languages a kind of aristocratic prestige) and became Chief of Protocol almost at once; barely thirty, she was propelled into the position of Assistant Minister! What about Mao Yuan-hsin, the Chairman’s nephew, who, not yet thirty, became vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Committee for Liaoning province in 1968, and shortly after was promoted to Secretary of the Party Committee for that province.5 One can go on: there is Hsiao Li (Li Na), Chiang Ch’ing’s daughter, who at an early age filled an important post on the staff of the Journal of the Liberation Army; and many others who owe their brilliant careers to family influence. But why continue? Everyone knows it, and the practice shocks no one: Mao was only following an ancient tradition in government practice that has become solid as a law of nature.

  1. 1

    It is noteworthy that the Cultural Revolution brought no change in this thirty-class division. This has been confirmed to me several times by different civil servants to whom I put the question in 1972 and 1973, in Peking and in the provinces. The system, adopted in 1956, is described in Yi-chiu-wu-liu nien chung-yang ts’ai-cheng fa-kuei hui-pien (Peking, 1957), pp. 226-247. See also on this subject F. Teiwes, “Before and after the Cultural Revolution,” a report to the Symposium on Contemporary China, Australian National University, Canberra, November 1973.

  2. 2

    Thus named after a directive issued on May 7, 1966 by Chairman Mao (actually it was a letter addressed to Lin Piao, but since Lin’s downfall this historical context has been conveniently forgotten), underlining the necessity for the cadres to participate in manual labor together with workers and peasants.

  3. 3

    During the Cultural Revolution, the May Seventh school had a punitive-corrective character: disgraced bureaucrats were sent there. Later on, however, a routine was set, and it became a kind of institution providing all bureaucrats in turn with regular opportunities to have short study sessions in the country.

  4. 4

    She would be precisely what she has become now that the Great Leader is dead and unable to protect her any more: a non-person.

  5. 5

    Mao Yuan-hsin, born in the early 1940s, was given a home in Yenan by Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Ch’ing after the death of his father, Mao Tse-min, who was executed in 1943. Since Mao’s eldest son, An-ying, died during the Korean War, and his second, An-ching, is mentally ill and confined in an institution in Talien, Mao Yuan-hsin was the Chairman’s nearest male heir. 1977 postscriptum: Mao Yuan-hsin fell in disgrace too, as soon as Big Uncle passed away….

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