The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China’s Leadership
In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites end and secular life resumes.
I was reminded of this while watching the Communist Party’s eighteenth Congress unfold in mid-November in Beijing. The location was the auditorium at the Great Hall of the People, the gargantuan, 170,000-square-meter temple to Communist Party power off Tiananmen Square.
The hall was built with political-religious imagery in mind: the outward appearance is a fascist-totalitarian mixture of columns and severe lines, but the details are from traditional China’s religious-political state. The pillars are adorned with lotus petals, a Buddhist symbol, and their number purposefully equals the twelve columns of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. In a nod to traditional Chinese geomancy—the methods of divination based on ground markings and called feng shui—the entrance is slightly asymmetrical to the museum across the square to avoid having the main doors face a grave. Here the grave is the memorial to the martyrs of the revolution, an obelisk planted like a dagger in the middle of Tiananmen Square. As one of the main architects put it, he didn’t want “the living” (in the Great Hall) to “face the dead.”1
The Great Hall can be rented out for business or academic meetings but at certain times of the political calendar it is transformed into a center of state ritual power. In this case it was the Communist Party’s Congress, just the eighteenth in its ninety-year history.
Hu Jintao, the president of China and general secretary of the Communist Party, opened and closed the Congress with a series of incantations, reciting phrases—slogans, some might call them—meant to invoke the greats of Communist yore and to build up his own authority. Thus the 2,268 delegates heard much about Marx, Lenin, Mao, Deng, and “scientific development,” Hu’s favorite phrase, which he later had enshrined in the Party’s constitution—a move to make himself ideologically immortal.
Like a Daoist priest, Hu emulated an immortal, but instead of wearing the richly embroidered robes of a god, the sixty-nine-year-old went for more modern symbolism: dying his hair jet-black to make himself look ageless, and surrounding himself with banners like those found in a temple—these however conferring immortality (wansui) on the Communist Party.
Cynics might call this empty ritual, and yet it worked. As Hu spoke, he was watched by many of his aging predecessors. These elderly…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.