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.
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.