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.

The meteoric rise of certain young people should not make one think that the regime trusts youth. On the contrary: promotion in principle goes by seniority. Given the number of echelons and the slowness of promotion, the regime is a gerontocracy: of the twenty men who ruled China in 1972, half were very old men—two nearly ninety, two past eighty, six past or nearing seventy; and in that small group of patriarchs three or four were senile or chronic invalids. Since the regime knows no retirement or age limit for its higher personnel, there is no honorable and decent choice between absolute power and total disgrace, which explains the keenness and energy with which decrepit, disabled, gouty old men cling to their seats on the Politburo.

Another cause of sclerosis is the fact that the top seven or eight bureaucratic echelons are the more or less exclusive preserve of those who joined the revolutionary movement some forty years ago. What is called in the political jargon “a cadre of ’37” (san-ch’i kan-pu)—someone who joined the party after the beginning of the war in 1937—has little chance to climb higher than the sixth or seventh level; this hardly encourages the injection of new blood into the system. The rise of younger people like Yao Wen-yuan and Wang Hung-wen 6 remains exceptional and should not mask another significant truth: in 1973, the Tenth Party Congress sanctioned the almost total elimination of young leaders promoted during the Cultural Revolution, completing the cycle that had begun in 1968-1969.

The cadres serve as transmission belts between the summit and the base. They have some privileges, of course, but before reproaching them for that, we should consider how unrewarding and dangerous their job is. They are perpetually torn between the leaders and the led. Directives from on high are deliberately ambiguous; in case of failure, the leaders thus have a fall-back position, while those who applied the policy are stranded and unprotected, and can be sacrificed to the rancor of the masses. It is unfair to criticize Maoist bureaucrats for their slowness and inertia: most often nonaction is their best chance of survival. How could they go forward? They must set their compasses on the Thought of Mao Tsetung—a very mobile, shifting, and slippery pole.

Judge for yourself. One should avoid leftism, neither should one fall into rightism (sometimes, as in the case of Lin Piao, leftism is a rightist error), but between those two pitfalls, the cadre will seek in vain for a “middle way”—this being a feudal-Confucian notion. Since the right, the left, and the center are equally fraught with danger, the cadre may be tempted to shut his eyes and follow the successive and contradictory instructions of the Great Leader without a murmur. Another error! “To obey blindly” is a poisonous error invented by Liu Shao-ch’i in pursuit of his unmentionable project of capitalist restoration.

In such a situation, the downcast and fearful cadre has his courage renewed by daring new watchwords: one must dare “to swim against the current”; “not be afraid of being in the minority”; “not be afraid of disgrace, even of exclusion from the party.” However, before jumping in the water to swim against the current, the cadre cannot but recall that “the current of history is irresistible” and the Communist Party that embodies it is “grandiose and infallible.” His resolve weakens; then he is reminded that “rebellion is legitimate.” Ready to act now, he gets another cold shower: “in all circumstances, strict Party discipline should be maintained.” Whom to believe? “Truth is quite often the position of the minority.” This helps, but its value is reduced by another basic axiom: “the minority must always submit to the decisions of the majority.” Should decisions be taken by a vote? Not at all, since “respect for majority voting is a bourgeois superstition.”

Faced with all this, the cadre who lacks a philosophical turn of mind may feel giddy and be tempted to leave these thorny theoretical problems and tackle more concrete tasks. But these are also booby-trapped. If he wants to interest himself in culture and literature, how can he reconcile “the need to produce more interesting and living works” with “an active repudiation of the vulgar and bourgeois idea of interesting works propagated by Liu Shao-ch’i-type crooks”? If he is a soldier, he must “avoid giving priority to professional competence”—a rightist error inherited from Liu Shaoch’i and P’eng Te-huai—while guarding himself against the “metaphysical prejudice according to which politics are more important than professional competence,” a poisonous theory coming from Lin Piao, in which is manifested the true nature of an apparently-leftist-deviation-which-is-in-fact-rightist-sabotage.

Economics, agriculture, and industry are still more dangerously mined fields: one must keep the distinctions clear between phenomena that are identical except in the ideologues’ minds. How can one see the difference between “material incentives,” the base weapon used by Liu Shao-ch’i to restore capitalism, and “just rewards according to the work done,” which is a legitimate and necessary encouragement to the creativity of the masses? This is not of purely academic interest: to tolerate the first is to restore the Liuist policy, to forbid the second could well be a Lin Piaoist sabotage.

The People’s Daily gives many examples of casuistry to enlighten the minds of the poor confused cadres. Look at this one: in a Production brigade, the man responsible for cattle obtained extremely good results; thanks to him, the herd increased. The local party branch decided not only to put his name on the honor board but also to give him a sum of money as a reward. Some members of the Brigade now question the decision: is this reward not a “material stimulant” linked to the “primacy of money” advocated by Liu Shao-ch’i? If the words still have their meaning, one would be tempted to say yes; (but in 1972 at least) the official answer of the people’s Daily was NO; the decision of the local party branch had been quite correct, since far from being a Liu-type “material incentive,” this reward was a correct application of the socialist principle of repartition “to each according to his work”; it was beneficial, and encouraged the “positive eagerness” of the workers.

Another riddle: members of a Production Brigade took some hay cut on collective ground to feed their private cattle, and the local Party secretary bawled them out. Who is right? Paradoxical answer given by the People’s Daily: the Party secretary was wrong, because in his excessive zeal he was discouraging a secondary activity (private cattle raising) of the peasants at a time when, for economic reasons, the state was fostering local initiative. The People’s Daily may well give you the solution to a certain problem, but it also gives the opposite solution to the same problem at a different time. Maoist truth is essentially fluid and changing; to survive, one cannot miss the train, or the turn. Maoist propaganda may be one of the most monotonous, arid, and indigent creations in the world,7 but for this reason it is followed by millions with burning interest: their careers, their very lives depend on the changing ideological line, which must be read between the lines and whose message may sometimes be found in the most unexpected and out-of-the-way places. A near-bankrupt businessman follows the financial news and the market figures no less feverishly than a Chinese cadre peruses the guest list at state functions, burials, and ping-pong matches held the day before.

Political ups and downs are also complicated by patronage, one of the most appalling of the feudal legacies burdening Maoist political mores. Each influential person becomes the center of a clique; he has his henchmen, liegemen, and auxiliaries. As a consequence, a disgrace or purge is not a matter limited to isolated individuals: the elimination of a second-rank figure may be the prelude to or early pretext for a larger movement against his powerful protectors. (Remember, for example, how the fall of Wu Han and Teng T’o led to the fall of P’eng Chen and, ultimately, Liu Shao-Ch’i.) The downfall of a leader, on the other hand, will invariably bring about that of all his near subordinates: one could fill an entire page simply with the names of the military officers who sank in the wake of Lin Piao.

It would be a mistake to believe that this bureaucratic phenomenon of hierarchies and privileges is a sickness of old age, the result of sclerosis brought about by twenty years of absolute power. Really to understand Maoism, one should not limit one’s study to the post-Liberation period; one should go further back. If one studies the Yenan period, for instance, so often described by lyrical illiterates—I use the word here in its technical sense of “Sinologists unable to read Chinese”—as the fraternal and heroic age of the fighting revolution, one can see all the vices of the system, already ripe and well deployed. At the time, in fact, a number of militants were struck with despair when they discovered this, for they had joined Yenan hoping to bring a new world to life and had not expected to find there the despotic and bureaucratic vices of the rotten old world they had abandoned. Yenan was isolated and far away, and few of their shouts were heard, but some echoes reached the outside world, and the best example is shown in the Wang Shih-wei affair.

Wang Shih-wei had been a revolutionary for a long time. His first-hand experience of the Soviet Union and his knowledge of Marxist-Leninist classics (which he had translated) had made him something of an authority in the ideological field, and when he arrived in Yenan he was given a teaching post in the school for party cadres. At the beginning of 1942, following a pattern that was repeated again in the “Hundred Flowers” of 1956 (truly, there is nothing new under the Maoist sun), the masses were asked to criticize the cadres, and at public meetings the arbitrary and bureaucratic methods were denounced. Yenan intellectuals, believing that the party really wanted to submit itself to this open discussion, started publishing various articles and essays in the Yenan paper, the Liberation Daily, hoping that their criticism might help to cleanse of its vices the system to which they had dedicated their lives.

Thus the famous novelist Ting Ling attacked the feudal prejudices that the party cadres still had against women, while the writers Lo Feng and Hsiao Chün and the poet Ai Ch’ing reminded intellectuals of their duty to be the critical conscience of society, and expressed in various ways their disenchantment with the bureaucratic Yenan regime. In this chorus, the voice of Wang Shih-wei was dominant, for his theoretical training enabled him better to diagnose the nature of the disease, and his experience as a revolutionary and a Marxist theorist commanded general esteem. In a series of short articles published in March 1942 under the title “Wild Lilies” (“Yeh pai-ho hua“), he pilloried the emergent ruling class that so desperately followed the model of the old society—arrogant, unmerciful, intolerant of criticism, hungry for privileges—and revealed the abyss that separated ruling and ruled. He ended his last article with these words:

I have heard that a comrade wrote an article on “Egalitarianism and the System of Hierarchical Classes,” and that subsequently his “superiors” criticized and attacked him in such a way that he has become half mad. I hope it is only a groundless rumor…but it is not impossible. For my part, though I can’t say I have as strong nerves as some others do, I think my health is good enough to prevent me from going mad, and therefore I follow that comrade in speaking after him about “egalitarianism and the system of hierarchical classes.”

Communism is not synonymous with egalitarianism (in any case we are not now pursuing a Communist revolution): I do not need to write a dissertation on that. And in any case I can affirm it absolutely: there is not one cook here who has the ambition to live on the same footing as his superiors. But the question of hierarchical classes is not so simple. Some deny the existence of hierarchies in Yenan; but their denials are contradicted by reality, because these classes in fact exist. Others say, true, we have a hierarchical system, but it is justified.

This second attitude must be looked at more carefully. Those who think that hierarchical classes are justified usually give three kinds of arguments: (1) According to the principle “from each according to his capacities, to each according to his merits,” it is normal that those who are burdened with heavier responsibilities should have more favorable treatment. (2) Within the framework of the “three-thirds” system, the government is going to set up a salary system soon, and inevitably those salaries will not be equal. (3) The Soviet Union also has a system of hierarchical classes.

There is a lot to be said about these arguments. On the first: we are right now in the middle of the harsh and difficult process of revolution; everyone is physically exhausted and worn out with suffering, and many of us have had our health permanently impaired; under these circumstances it seems premature to speak about “advantages” and “pleasures.” On the contrary, those who shoulder the heaviest responsibilities should especially vow to share the lot of their subordinates (a national virtue that should be fostered anew!) so as to win their true affection and create an unshakable solidarity…. About the second argument: a salary system should keep differentials small. Some favored treatment may be given to people who are not from the Party, but Party members should continue to maintain their great tradition of austere struggle, precisely in order to incite many more people to join us and help us in our enterprise. About the third point: may my bluntness be forgiven, but I would simply ask those “ideological guides” who were all too quick to impose their authority to keep quiet.8

As for me, without being a partisan of egalitarianism, I do not see the need for instituting three classes for clothing and five levels for food; on those points (I enjoy a cadre level for clothing, and I am not compelled to eat canteen food: in my case, it cannot be said that “it’s a question of sour grapes”), the directing principle should be to adopt the solutions dictated by need and common sense.

However, look what happens: sick comrades do not have a chance to get broth, and young students get only two bowls of thin gruel a day (and when asked if they have enough, those who are Party members must pretend that they have eaten their fill, to give a good example to others!), while on the other hand we see VIPs in flourishing health and enjoying completely unjustified privileges; such a situation leads subordinates to think that their superiors belong to a different breed of humanity; not only is it difficult to feel affection for them but also, when they think about it, they become uneasy….

In the lines above, I have talked a lot about “affection” and “human warmth”—perhaps as a consequence of my “petty-bourgeois sentimentality”? One will see how I am criticized.9

And one saw, indeed. What followed is all too well known.10 Some weeks later, in answer to this manifestation of independent criticism, Mao Tse-tung struck all thinking heads the sledgehammer blow of his famous “Talks on Arts and Letters,” which anesthetized for good intellectual and cultural life in the “liberated areas” before it extended its fatal influence over the rest of China. Dissident intellectuals were sternly purged, and Wang Shih-wei became a scapegoat. For one thing, his prestige as a revolutionary and a Marxist theoretician aggravated his case; for another, his influence in the party cadre school had been resented for some time by his colleague Ch’en Po-ta, who now saw an undreamed-of chance to get rid of his rival. Wang’s friends and intimates were compelled to disown him and denounce his “crimes,” and Wang himself had to appear several times in public-accusation meetings. But he behaved so courageously, answered calumnies with such calm and pertinence—the last time, supreme sacrilege, he even dared criticize Stalin directly—that the authorities thought best to try his case behind closed doors. He disappeared from view for two years; in 1944 some journalists coming from Chungking managed, after a lot of trouble, to be allowed to see him. They were introduced to a shy and silent man who told them that he was living perfectly happily. When one of them asked him what his present occupation was, he said modestly that he was making matchboxes.

In the spring of 1947, during a Kuomintang offensive, the Communists had to evacuate Yenan in haste. They could not take prisoners with them, but they could not leave such a witness behind either. Wang Shih-wei was shot.

2. Secrecy

State secrets. In theory, except where the contrary is indicated, everything is a state secret. This at least is the principle wisely followed by your average man in the street, especially in dealing with foreigners. One morning in Peking, I saw teams of workmen putting up banners on Ch’ang-an Avenue, and I asked a soldier on duty what was being prepared. “I do not know exactly,” he answered, not compromising himself. Two hundred yards ahead, a large streamer already in place gave me the clue, “Welcome to Prime Minister Trudeau!” and reminded me that the press and radio had already widely announced the news. One could not think of a more deliberately public happening than the visit to Peking of a foreign head of state, but still that good sentry followed the wise principle and faithfully applied the watchword, “everything is secret.”

One day, in Hangchow (even now, I cannot forgive myself for this), I took advantage of a little girl’s ignorance; this was in a small suburban bookshop where I found a wide choice of publications forbidden to foreigners: Arts and Letters of Kwangtung, Arts and Letters of Kwangsi, The Revolution in Education, Arts and Letters of the Liberation Army. A little girl was looking after the shop; she was alone. She sold me all the papers I wanted, even found me back issues, and wrapped everything in a bundle. I paid (it was quite cheap) and fled with the loot. That evening, the man from the bookstore came to see me in my hotel room, with the girl. (How had he found me? you may ask. Silly question. The trace of a foreign traveler in China cannot be lost: he is like a radio satellite on regular orbit, and his course and his coordinates can be fixed in a trice by the “responsible organs.”) My visitors were embarrassed and ill at ease, I even more so.

The man put some money on the table. “You must excuse the child,” he said. “She is young, she knows nothing. This morning she sold you things that—“

I gave him back my bundle of forbidden papers, and he took it with a sigh of relief and gratitude. We exchanged profuse and mutual excuses. “I should not have—“

“But no, it is my fault—“

“On the contrary—“

The took my collection of state secrets, but left me with a less burdened conscience.

Addresses and telephone numbers, whether of public institutions and organizations or of private persons, are also in the category of state secrets. There is no telephone directory, at least not that foreigners can use, and numbers and addresses that one needs for one’s professional contacts are given out individually—stingily, in fact. 11 A number of public buildings have no inscriptions on the outside to identify them: only their majestic appearance and the presence of sentries show that they are official. Which ministry? Better not be too curious.

All things are secret, but some things are more secret than others—things that touch on the army, for example, and on the Supreme Leaders of the Chinese regime. Foreigners are forbidden to buy the army newspaper and its cultural periodical. Even more remarkable: foreigners were refused permission to view an exhibit held in Peking of paintings by military artists. As for the regime’s leaders, their lives—their deaths!—are wrapped in mystery: in Peking armed sentries were posted on the Chung-nan hai Bridge to ensure that no passers-by stopped on it: from that bridge it was possible to see part of the lawn near Mao’s residence half a mile away. The graves of deceased leaders (never mind those who were liquidated) are also protected from the people’s curiosity. Even their hobbies are taboo: K’ang Sheng, under the pseudonym of Lu Ch’ih-shui, is a graceful amateur painter (yes, even policemen have their human side), who has had admirable prints of his paintings made by the Jung-pao chai, a Peking studio that has preserved the traditional craft of making woodprint reproductions of fine paintings. I bought one in an art shop and asked the seller, a wily old fox whose experience was obviously not limited to the fine arts, “But who is this Lu Ch’ih-shui?”

“I don’t know.”

“In Hong Kong, it is rumored that he is K’ang Sheng.”

“Eeehhh, yes, well, I’ve heard people say that….”

3. Happiness

Are the people happy?

The question is simplistic, but after having come back from China you are asked it all the time. The answer will vary, obviously, according to the prejudices and the subjectivity of the speaker. In any case, observations will usually be concerned more with the genius of a nation, the traditional constants of its psychology, than with the special and temporary effects of this or that political regime.

Some people are naturally morose, and remain so even when they have all the advantages—political, social, and economic. But the Chinese are certainly not such a people. The Chinese faculty of intensely enjoying everything that is available is well expressed in their gastronomy, and everyone knows that the Chinese cuisine is delicious. What many people do not realize is that it is a poor people’s food, famine-cooking, and that its infinite inventive resources were stimulated by the need to use everything, to waste nothing, to salvage the most miserable, least appetizing ingredients which richer nations would reject as waste, and turn them into appetizing food. Fish heads, duck’s feet, cow and pig stomach, snakes, offal, tendons and nerves, dog meat and cat meat become prized delicacies. Thus do the Chinese manage to enrich all the events of life, even the most irksome and most barren, and make something savory out of them.

This faculty of organizing small islands of happiness, even in seas of the direst hardship, has always roused the wondering admiration of foreign observers. Bertrand Russell, who visited China in 1920, noted this feature and earned a stinging retort from Lu Hsün.12 About an excursion near the Western Lake, in Hangchow, Russell had written: “I remember one hot day when a party of us were crossing the hills in chairs—the way was rough and very steep, the work for the coolies very severe. At the highest point of our journey, we stopped for ten minutes to let the men rest. Instantly they all sat in a row, brought out their pipes, and began to laugh among themselves as if they had not a care in the world.”13

To this Lu Hsün replied tartly, and his answer, like everything he wrote, is singularly apt today: “As for Russell, who praises the Chinese after seeing smiling porters at the Western Lake, I do not know exactly what he is driving at. I do know one thing: if the porters had been able not to smile at those whom they had carried, China would have long since been out of its present rut.”14

Interpreter-guides from the Chinese travel agency are hybrids: halfway between the common people and the officials, they are half-human, half-bureaucrat. Depending on which element is dominant, they can be pleasant and instructive company, or they can poison your existence.

Every time that the Peking loneliness weighed too heavily I would take a little trip into the country, in the hope (sometimes fulfilled) of meeting some people and talking a bit. Like all foreigners, in each town the first person I met was invariably the guide from the travel agency who would come to meet me at the airport or train station. During the short taxi ride to the hotel, I had to find out what kind of fellow I was dealing with: a human being with whom pleasant relations would be possible, or a lout to be avoided. It is not always easy in Maoist China to get rid of your keeper, but if you want to do it, you must do so at once, before becoming inextricably tangled in a net of various moral obligations: visits to child-care centers, steel mills, sock factories, and agricultural exhibits.

After a while, I developed some simple, quick tests that allowed me to determine quite accurately what kind of person I was dealing with. Since this may have a practical interest for other visitors, I offer my system here (countless variants, equally efficient, may no doubt be devised). You bring the talk around to the harmless and innocent subject of Chinese geography, and ask your guide where he comes from, for example. Then you ask the trap question: “In your job, you must travel quite a bit. Of all the places you have seen, which do you like best? Where would you most like to live?”

Nine times out of ten, the answer is along the lines of, “The place I like best is where I can be most useful to my Country and where I can best Serve the People. Where the Party and the Country send me, there I want to live.” In this case, the chances are high that your depraved nature is unworthy of such virtuous company, and the best thing to do, once you get to the hotel, is courteously but firmly to get rid of your guide for the duration of your stay. If, on the other hand (this happens only rarely), you get a daring individualistic answer like, “Well, I would like Tsingtao because the climate is so pleasant there,” or, “I would like to live in Yangchow because my wife and children live there and I could see them more often,” it is a safe bet that your guide is a powerful, original, and independent personality and that you will profit by his further acquaintance.

4. History

Professor C. is Chinese; he left his country some twenty-five years ago to pursue a brilliant academic career in the West. I met him again by chance in Peking, where he was making a short visit. During our conversation, we got to talking about the attitude of overseas Chinese intellectuals toward Maoist power. Many of them had expressed their hostility to the Peking regime as long as its future was in doubt; they fell silent when it consolidated its power; and, finally, after Nixon’s visit, they started to form a rather impressive choir singing the praises of Maoism. Professor C. took up their defense with a warmth that suggested a certain degree of self-justification, but his argument was not devoid of interest, and here it is in rough outline:

In the West, political power and ideological authority do not always coincide. In their allegiance to the temporal authorities and to the church, for example, individuals may be torn between contradictory demands; in these conflicts individual conscience in the end has to decide. Since the beginning of modern history—the end of the Middle Ages—Europe has had a plurality of political systems and religious confessions; rebels and heretics, when hunted in one state, could take refuge in the next, and go on according to their convictions. These factors have permitted and fostered liberal ideals and individualism among intellectuals. In China, on the contrary, since the first imperial unification under the Ch’in, 2,200 years ago, the political, ideological, and cultural worlds have always coincided, and they make up a monolithic whole. Beyond that whole, there was no alternative for the individual conscience: to reject the “orthodoxy in power” (cheng-t’ung) meant not only to exclude oneself from society, but also to turn one’s back on civilization, to reject the human condition. To adopt that course, one had to be ready to live alone in forests or deserts, with wild beasts as one’s companions.

Dynasties followed upon each other, but the orthodoxy remained: it was from that permanence that each dynasty drew its legitimacy. The only periods when China was without an orthodoxy were the dangerous, chaotic gaps that might occur between two dynasties, when the country sank into lawlessness and violence, until from the turmoil a power emerged that restored the neglected orthodoxy and became the nucleus around which the empire could be made whole again. Chinese scholars are conditioned by two thousand years of history not only to support the ruling orthodoxy, sole barrier against the injustice of lawlessness and disorder, but also to watch for its coming, to welcome it and rejoice in its accession after the darkness of each interregnum.

Anyone who criticized Hitler was immediately accused by his supporters of being anti-German. To attack Mussolini was to show your hatred of Italy. And one had to hate Russia, of course, to resist the charisma of that genius Stalin. This confusionism is typically fascist, and it is practiced actively by Maoists today. According to them, to attack Mao is to attack China and the Chinese people; inversely, a true love of China cannot be shown except through the worship of Mao. The aim is obviously to ward off the dangerous idea that it is precisely a love of China that could and should inspire a critical review of Maoism.

The trick is not new. Those who are called “China-haters” today should not worry too much, for they are in good company. Their dean is Lu Hsün, who in his time was called exactly that by Kuomintang-paid hacks. For them, the attacks of this great patriot and brave man against the Nanking government were “treasonable acts against the country,” while his essays on politics and ethics as well as his fiction (especially Ah Q) expressed “a visceral hatred of the Chinese people.”15

It is really very difficult in China to do something new. History has a precedent for everything. Even the queerest excesses of Maoism do not escape this rule, as the precedent of Chu Yuan-chang shows. Chu Yuan-chang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, was a talented statesman, but he was also a brutal tyrant who terrorized the intellectual life of the entire country. He had an abiding hatred for Confucianism, especially its more democratic brand as represented by Mencius (Mencius vindicated tyrannicide and put the interest of the people above that of the ruler). Not only did he want to have the philosopher’s effigy in the great temple of Confucius destroyed but he had more than a hundred passages of Mencius censored. At the same time, he fancied himself a political philosopher. His works reveal a self-made man—an odd mixture of trite sayings, clichés, truisms, with here and there a dazzling, sharp, original remark. His principal thoughts were condensed in a digest called Ming ta kao (Great Ming Edict), and its reading was compulsory for all subjects of the empire: each family had to have a copy. Since the Chinese population was then (the fourteenth century) around eighty million, the Ming ta kao remained for a long time one of the most widely distributed books in the world.16

This enormous distribution did not prevent its almost complete disappearance. Today the Ming ta kao is a very rare curiosity, eagerly sought by bibliophiles. The first edition of the Little Red Book—that is, the one with a foreword by Lin Piao—has reached the same level only a few years after being published.

Other precedents are offered by more recent history. The Red Guards and the ideology of the Cultural Revolution were strangely prefigured by the fascist movement of the Blue Shirts that developed in Kuomintang China during the 1930s.17 The Blue Shirts was a paramilitary movement which demanded of its members that they place above everything else their personal and unconditional allegiance to the Supreme Leader. In cultural matters, the movement flaunted its contempt for the humanities and for traditional education, which maintained and spread the habits and prejudices of a decadent, parasitic elite. They advocated that in schools the students, instead of “wasting their time over dead books trying to become bureaucrats,” should engage in directly productive work: a quarter of their time should be given to agricultural and other manual work. Before graduating from high school or the university, all students should be compelled to work for a year in farms, factories, or shops. Engineering students should spend half their day in factory work in order to overcome the traditional contempt which they, as intellectuals, had for manual labor, and in order for themselves to become productive citizens.18

The Blue Shirts had a very radical economic program and advocated agrarian collectivization. Xenophobes and anti-imperialists, they were the spearhead of the fight against the Japanese, murdering collaborators, and so forth. (Because of this, the Japanese paid special attention to that movement, and a large part of the presently available sources on the Blue Shirts, apart from their own publications, is comprised of secret reports of the Japanese intelligence services.) The movement fought against the “pernicious influence of the West,” root of the moral and cultural bankruptcy of modern China, and groups of commandos raided movie houses and dancing halls, pouring acid on patrons dressed in Western clothes.

The Blue Shirts hated liberalism and its “corrupting license,” believing that “individualism” and “cosmopolitan dissipation” must be eliminated, by violence if necessary. The movement praised Ch’in Shih-huang, who had burned books and killed scholars for the good of the country, and it declared unceasing war against corrupt bureaucrats. As was written in a lead article in one of their periodicals (She-hui hsinwen, or Social News): “The only way to get rid of the bureaucratic organization is to create a mass-violence organization, taking the people as its supreme principle.”

The case of Chu Yuan-chang brings us back to two fundamental questions that were touched on above: the isolation of China and the phenomenon of its monolithic orthodoxy.

Professor C.’s argument about this one-way orthodoxy needs some modulations. It is true that the Chinese universe has always appeared as an organic whole, but it is only since the Ming that this civilization of the organic whole became totalitarian. Under the Han, the T’ang, and the Sung, China’s authoritarian regimes were not despotic; a wide and fruitful margin of expression was allowed to minority or opposition groups, and because of that, it was inconceivable that the honnête homme should not take part in politics: a saying such as “The destiny of the empire is my personal responsibility” (yi t’ienhsia wei chi jen) could serve as the motto of the entire scholar elite (whereas anybody who would have dared utter it under the Ming would have been guilty of the capital crime of high treason!).

Statesmen sometimes fell out of favor and were exiled to far-flung provinces, but they continued to do official tasks and to receive their salaries. Promotion or removal depended not on the whim of the ruler (whose powers were severely restricted by the very complexity of the governmental and administrative structure) but, rather, on the contradictory actions of various political factions. (In the time of Su Tung-p’o and Wang Anshih, conservatives and progressives succeeded each other in power in a way not far removed from the alternation of power in a two-party democracy.)

With the Ming, this all changed drastically. The emperor took on absolute power and he exercised it not through ministers and the traditional high administration, but through his eunuchs and private servants. A career in politics, which for two thousand years (practically since the time of Confucius!) had been the privilege and responsibility of the scholar elite, became a cesspool from which honest men recoiled in disgust, a den of cut-throats from which they fled in fear. At the same time, the rigid control over public opinion exercised by the Ming regime condemned intellectual life to dogmatism, paralysis, and sterility. The only original thinkers of the period were active at the risk of their lives. As a corollary, and crowning their totalitarian enterprise, the Ming then cut off the Chinese empire from all external contacts. (The famous sea expeditions of Cheng Ho were ventures of empty prestige, with no cultural or economic significance, and cannot be compared to the flourishing maritime activities of the Sung.)

The image of China that the West received—of a static, sclerotic, hermetically sealed empire—reflects the state of affairs created by the Ming and perpetuated by the Ch’ing (the latter were barbarians with no political traditions, who painstakingly modeled their governmental administration on what they thought was the traditional Chinese model, whereas it was only a Ming perversion of it). This image does not in the least fit the reality of China under the Han, the T’ang, the Sung, even the Yuan. China’s powers of invention, evolution, and adaptation, its creative genius, its political, cultural, and economic vitality, were both the result and the cause of a civilization that was essentially open, even frankly cosmopolitan. 19

If the start of the industrial revolution in Europe had coincided with one of those times when China was wide open to the outside world—which was its normal historical situation—China would never have been outdistanced in the modern “race to progress.” The multiple, dense net of cultural and, even more important, economic ties that linked it with other countries would have kept it informed of the changes taking place. The pressure of these new developments would have been enough to generate similar or superior developments in China, long before the West acquired the decisive superiority in technology that was to bring about the tragedies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In fact, because of this fatal historical accident—the establishment of the isolationist and totalitarian Ming system, made worse by the new lease of life that the Manchus offered—China confronted the modern world blind and paralyzed, with the worst possible political heritage. A fair evaluation of the Maoist regime should take into account the heavy burden of this past. The totalitarian cancer, the organized cretinization, the dictatorship of illiterates,20 the crass ignorance of the external world together with a pathetic inferiority complex toward it21—those traits are not the natural features of the most civilized people on earth. To understand how Maoism could temporarily lead them into a rut so unworthy of their calling and their genius, it would no doubt be necessary to retrace the historical events by which the nation was so incredibly derailed.

Postscriptum. I wrote most of the foregoing in 1972-1973. I hesitated for a long time before having it published. Meanwhile, I returned to China again, and this helped me to bring my notes up to date on a few minor points.

This work is at the opposite pole from the one I would wish to write—and one day hope I can write.

If the Maoist bureaucrats could only shed some of the pessimism, suspicion, and contempt with which they look down on those over whom they rule, and if they would only take a risk and let us live, truly live, among the people, I cannot believe that the experience would furnish such negative impressions as mine here. Not that the daily life of the Chinese people is such a picnic—far from it—but at least its inexhaustible humanity would be enough to wash the sterile sarcasm from these pages.

July 1974

This Issue

June 9, 1977