How does one come to understand China? Many are those who wish to do so, especially in light of China’s growing global influence. I am not so interested in the motivations for seeking to understand China, ranging all the way from the personal to the geopolitical, although that motivation may colour one’s approach. Instead, I am interested in the ways such understanding is sought.
For some, language is the key that opens the door. With Chinese language, one is able to enter a people and their culture, opening up communication, literature, philosophy, belief and much more. To a limited extent, this is true, for engaging and studying in translation always presents a barrier to understanding. But language is not enough.
For others, the Chinese classics provide the way to understand the place. You may focus on the traditional ‘four books and five classics’ (四书五经) , from before the unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE), or on the many texts gathered until the end of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1912. Again, there is some truth in this approach, especially in light of the way the Classics are restudied and reinterpreted at every important turn in Chinese history – as is the case now.
For others still Confucius provides the way into China, if not each country deeply influenced by Confucianism. ‘The four books and five classics’ are themselves from this tradition, with the former containing some material attributed to Confucius along with subsequent commentary and elaboration, and the latter containing other material in the tradition. Once again, such study is important, but does not provide the sole key to modern China.
Yet more possibilities are proposed, whether Daoism, or some mystical notion of the ‘East’, or kinship, or the metaphysics of yin-yang (阴-阳), which found its way into nearly every tradition or school of Chinese thought.
On a different note, some eschew language, culture, philosophy or belief and focus on economics. In this case, the economic models of the ‘Asian Tigers’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – provide the template for China. Here export focused economies, industrialisation and state intervention led to rapid growth, high incomes and now economic specialisation. Or perhaps Japan provides the model, with its rise to economic pre-eminence under patronage from the United States. This is perhaps the least persuasive option.
Yet, the missing item is Marxism. China remains a socialist country, with the Communist Party being the largest political party in the government. Many continue to dismiss Marxism in China, whether in terms of a repressive and inadequate ideology or as empty words in which no-one ‘believes’ any longer. This is a great a mistake and risks neglecting what is arguably one of the most important factors for understanding China.
Mao Zedong is the point at which one should begin, although it helps to understand Marx, Engels and Lenin, let alone the history of successful socialist revolutions from Russia onwards. Mao’s thought remains the focus of intense study and debate in China today – so much so that the current Chinese president quotes Mao frequently in national and international contexts. Indeed, Xi Jinping has a PhD in Marxism and has recently directed even more resources to the study and fostering of the Marxist tradition and the work of Mao Zedong, so much so that Marxism is now a distinct discipline.
More controversially, Mao Zedong’s acts as a leader are also vital for understanding China. Most debate turns around the role of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which he fostered over the last decade of his life. Was it an aberration, an outburst of revolutionary enthusiasm, or perhaps an effort to restore his sliding power? The semi-official narrative is that the Cultural Revolution set China back in terms of economics, politics and society. The aberration was thus corrected after Mao’s death, when the path of reform was undertaken. However, another and persuasive argument is that it was precisely the Cultural Revolution that set China on its current path. Thoroughly shaking up vested interests in society, from top to bottom, it cleared the ground for China’s rapid rise to becoming the leading global power. This was the shakeup needed to unsettle centuries, if not millennia of social assumptions and cultural norms. And against the orthodoxy that the economy came to a standstill during the Cultural Revolution, it has become clear that the economy actually forged ahead as though released from its shackles.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find a ‘mainstream’ foreign commentator who is even partly aware of the nature of Chinese Marxism. Obviously it entails careful study and a feel for the subject matter. It requires some sense of the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in all its complexity and apparent paradoxes. And it entails the understanding that in China a ‘Marxist entrepreneur’ is not a contradiction.
Languages, the classics, Confucius – these and more are obviously important for understanding China. But they neglect the crucial factor of Marxism. Many may aspire to becoming a Zhongguotong (中国通) – one who understands and senses at a much deeper level how China ticks. But without Marxism, such an aspiration is mere pretence.