Monday, May 21, 2012

China - A Century of Republicanism





As of this last February 12 it has been one hundred years since China has had an emperor. Of course, everyone, I am sure, recognizes that the situation in China at that time was far from ideal. The dynasty would not have fallen if it had been. In some areas China had been treated unfairly, in other areas China had been the victim of circumstances beyond her control and in still others those in power had simply made mistakes. Chinese domination of the Far East area seemed so strong and unassailable that there was neglect on the part of many in the Manchu leadership. China fell behind the other powers of the world technologically and, when confronted with threats and challenges, was unable to match the far more advanced powers from across the Eurasian landmass. Chinese influence in Indochina was lost to the French, Chinese influence over Korea was lost to Japan, Macau was lost to Portugal, Hong Kong to Great Britain, Tsingtao to Germany and a majority of Chinese provinces were within the spheres of influence of various European powers, mostly Great Britain, France and Russia. Internal rebellions shook confidence in the Qing Dynasty and the gamble of supporting the Boxer uprising proved to be a very costly mistake. A population boom combined with some natural disasters caused immense problems any government would have struggled to deal with. Certainly, things were far from ideal in the Middle Kingdom.

The result was an unprecedented event in the history of the world; a revolution which brought down the Qing Dynasty and put in its place a republic. For the first time practically since time immemorial, China was without a “Son of Heaven”. The question then must be asked; how has the Middle Kingdom fared these last one hundred years without an emperor on the dragon throne? The immediate aftermath was a republic that, not surprisingly was a total failure. Not surprising considering it was forced, from the top down, on a country that had known only monarchy for all the thousands of years of its history. It failed and, though it continued on in name, was plagued by coups and counter-coups by powerful factions. The country that had been the Great Qing Empire totally fragmented. Mongolia and Tibet reasserted their independence, all the provinces of China were divided up amongst the powerful warlords who seized power with their own private armies, paying only lip service to the government in Peking in some cases, defying it in others or simply ignoring it in a few cases. The wild-eyed republican agitators who had stirred up disaffection against the Manchus for their failure to defend China against the foreigners caused China to lose more territory to non-Han peoples than any Chinese government since the late Song dynasty succumbed to the invading Mongols of Kublai Khan.

Obviously, if the point was to defend China against the “foreigners” (which they meant as anyone not of the Han nationality) then, we can objectively regard the revolution as a dramatic failure. Tibet withdrew into isolation. Outer Mongolia became a Soviet puppet state and finally Manchuria was detached from China. Ultimately, it must be said, many of these areas were re-taken but with disastrous consequences. Manchuria was regained but the Manchu nationality has been virtually wiped out. Tibet was conquered and the Tibetans are in the process of being drowned out in a flood of Han immigrants (as are the Uyghurs, as are the Mongols in Inner Mongolia and so on). Taiwan was also never regained if one accepts the legitimacy of the communist government as the successor of the original Chinese republic. Then, before, during (to some extent) and after World War II there was the Chinese Civil War which dragged on from 1927 until 1950 in which upwards of five million Chinese were killed, placing it behind only the First and Second World Wars as the most bloody conflict in all of human history and, technically, continues to this day, threatening to resume at any moment. This may be “progress” in the sense that it topped what had previously been the bloodiest civil war in history (the “Taiping Rebellion”) but I doubt many people would regard this as an achievement to be proud of.

In regards to the famines and poverty that afflicted late imperial China, brought on almost entirely by natural factors far beyond the control of the “Lord of 10,000 Years” or his mandarins, again, the situation after the revolution was not an improvement. Nothing any imperial government ever did can compare to what EACH ONE of the two republican factions that succeeded them did. In 1938 the nationalists purposely destroyed dikes on the Yellow River which flooded a huge landmass that killed an estimated 800,000 to one million innocent people. The communists, who were ultimately successful in taking control of the mainland, blindly followed the bloodthirsty, ignorant psychopath Mao Zedong in wiping out tens of millions of people in intentional purges, suppressions and massacres as well as enforced starvation through idiotic communist policies. No Emperor ever intentionally butchered so many of his own people and no Emperor ever sent millions of his own people to slave labor camps, not for anything they said or did but for simply being the wrong “type” of person, being from the wrong class or social background. Today, the standard of living that modern technology has brought to China is often touted as being entirely to the credit of the communist government which has “modernized” China (by bringing in western technology that any government could have done). Yet, no matter how poor the average peasant of the Qing Empire was compared to the average citizen of the PRC, the fact is that one has to be alive to enjoy the new standard of living and, thanks to the communist government, many tens of millions of Chinese never got that chance.

We certainly know that, in terms of the stated goals of “freedom” or “liberty” or “democracy” or “human rights” or any of the popular revolutionary slogans, the revolution was not a success. There is no doubt that these things, at least in our modern context, were unknown in imperial China. There was no democracy, there were limits on individual liberty (the Manchus famously enforced a new hairstyle on the male population and did try to suppress the “right” to carry on the barbaric practice of foot binding) as the Emperor was an absolute monarch. He was the Son of Heaven, the Lord of 10,000 Years, the master of all he surveyed, his word was law, his person was sacred, his rulings were beyond question. All of it was also perfectly in keeping with thousands of years of Chinese tradition and it was all tempered by the teachings of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. There were efforts to shift toward a constitutional monarchy for China but this was unsuccessful, in large part due to the fact that the discontented wanted immediate change and even modern Chinese state historians have admitted this.

The revolution promised all of these grand, liberal things and they were prepared to take drastic measures to bring them into existence immediately. It is not enough though, by the very nature of the revolutionary paradigm, to say that what went before was not ideal; it must be shown how the situation improved because of the revolution. Obviously, in this regard, the revolution was again a stupendous failure and this time by their very own standards of judgment. China is still, ultimately, under the absolute rule of one man. There is no democracy, there is no freedom of speech, assembly, religion or freedom to dissent. Communism may be downplayed these days but there is still no right to private property and the government may at any time take anything from any person for any reason up to and including their own life and the lives of their children. Even the “Son of Heaven” in all his celestial absolutism, never even imagined that he could hold such total power over the lives of his subjects as to dictate to the people how many children they could have. Any honest observer would have to admit that if the goal of the revolution was to bring democratic republicanism and western political liberalism to China it was an absolutely thunderous failure.

That, however, points to what may be, on a global level in terms of human history and culture, the most insidious result of the revolution in China and the end of the imperial system which is the utter destruction of the traditional Chinese heritage. This is possibly the single most unprecedented event in the entire ancient history of China. There has never been anything at all in those thousands of years to compare it to. China has not often been conquered but on those rare occasions when China was actually overrun by non-Han peoples the traditional Chinese culture was never destroyed. When the Mongol Yuan Dynasty ruled China, they adopted Chinese ways and when the Manchu Qing Dynasty ruled China they also became assimilated into the Chinese culture to the point where the last Emperor could only speak a few words of Manchurian. Yet, the revolutionaries who called themselves “nationalists” (and the communists claimed to be just as nationalist as the Kuomintang) who so decried all things “foreign” have brought in more foreign ideas, customs and institutions and trampled on more of Chinese tradition and heritage than has ever happened in thousands of years of history. Chinese dress, art, architecture, religion and everything traditionally “Chinese” about China was suppressed after the revolution, particularly after the communists came to power and the Cultural Revolution.

The very concept of a “republic” is totally alien to China. It does not matter which revolutionary faction one chooses to follow, be it the American-inspired republicanism of the nationalists or the Marxist-inspired republicanism of the communists, each are totally alien to China and both came from exactly the same western culture that the revolutionaries claimed to despise. Yet, these same revolutionaries forced such systems onto the body of China, forced the Chinese people into the bloodiest civil war in history over two competing foreign ideologies, neither of which were understood by the vast majority of the people in question. Your average peasant in China had no more idea of who Karl Marx was than your average farm boy in Kansas had of who Confucius was. Then, to make matters worse, Chairman Mao comes along and intentionally launches a war on his own people to totally obliterate any lingering remnants of anything actually recognizable as being traditionally Chinese. What was not destroyed outright was locked away so that even if one goes to China one would have to go to a museum to see anything Chinese.

Of course, we are now told that the Cultural Revolution is a rather unpleasant memory and that we should just ignore that and focus on how great and glorious the nominally communist dictatorship of today is. The problem with this is that it has simply replaced the old ugliness with a new ugliness. Again, if we are to regard the lack of an emperor as a benefit, we must see some improvement over what was. We must see the “New China” doing things to surpass the old. What could these be? The technological improvements are those allowed in from outside and, as has been stated, required no revolution to accomplish it. Japan modernized long ago without a revolution and without wiping out everything native to the Japanese culture. So, what about the cultural achievements of this post-imperial China? Where are the great architectural marvels to top the magnificent monuments such as the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs or the Forbidden City itself? Certainly not the Great Hall of the People which is hardly distinguishable from the box-like architecture of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. Perhaps the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium? Sorry folks, the thing looks like a giant bed pan. Judging these things may be subjective but I do not see Chinese people walking around in jeans and t-shirts as an improvement over exquisitely embroidered silk robes.

On the contrary, the current China sans-empereur has absolutely nothing to offer and even continues to do harm. They may not be as blatantly attacking traditional Chinese culture to the extent as in the Mao era but the government acts as a pimp, selling access to the beautiful masterpieces of the Chinese heritage to foreign tourists with money to spend. It is true that once China was the land of discovery and innovation, first developing many of the basic inventions from which all others have flowed. Of course, that was Imperial China, today the much-vaunted economic powerhouse of China consists of building cheap what foreigners invent or ripping off foreign products and mass-producing them at rock bottom prices. Even after the last Emperor of China had been deposed, but was still around, basic traditional Chinese customs and values were preserved and honored. Today, God help me, there is a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. In many ways, I think that says it all. China has been one hundred years without an emperor. I hope the stooges in Peking are proud.

6 comments:

  1. China is one of the Greatest Tragedies of Modern Republicanism, because it utterly destroyed China in a way only rivaled by the Russian Revolution.The sad part is, most today think DEMOCRACY is the answer to China's problems, unaware that the official Chinese Government is officially Democratic.

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  2. To Use democracy as a means to combat communism is much like giving a man with a hangover a pint of booze.

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  3. Perhaps the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium? Sorry folks, the thing looks like a giant bed pan.

    THAT was the description I was groping for. Thank you!

    The sad part is, most today think DEMOCRACY is the answer to China's problems, unaware that the official Chinese Government is officially Democratic.

    Communists, being liars, always describe their regimes as "democratic." That the junta in Beijing calls itself "democratic" says more about its mendacity than it does about whether democracy is feasible in China.

    I may have asked this before, but: if and when the Communist regime collapses, are there any heirs to the throne left who are on record as favoring restoration? (I don't suppose there's any way of knowing whether the average Chinese would support restoration.)

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  4. There are so many people that could possibly claim the Dragon Throne due to the thousands, and I'm sure millions, of people who have the surnames Liu, Zhao, Zhou, Yang, Li, etc.

    In my opinion, either the leader of a restoration of a Chinese monarchy movement/revolution should take the throne per the Mandate of Heaven theory, or the Kong Clan, the family of Confucius, should take the throne themselves, as they can easily represent nearly everything that is Chinese in a constitutional monarchy and even limit their power per the rulings of Confucius should any other monarchy be established.

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  5. For China, I agree with you Colombian, I think a New Dynasty should be created, to break with the Tragedy of the Old, and one set up along Confuscian lines woudl be a wonder after the years of Maoism.

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  6. My wife is the daughter of a Party member that lives in old Mukden. After a month tour of China we had a big banquet in Shenyang (Mukden) before returning to the US. I mentioned one thought to one of my wife's uncles: "they should have fixed the Qing instead of what followed" and got a round of applause. The ROC was a wreck and the PRC has been a calumny. Very sad and not inevitable.

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