Built on Islets of Sand: Mao on China’s Problem (1920)

One of the features I have begun to notice about Chinese intellectual life is that it is inherently engaged with social and political problems. Often, a scholar will identify what is regarded as the core problem of China as a whole and then seek a solution (of all 1.3 billion people). The identification of the problem and indeed the solution may change, but the form of scholarship remains. I am told this is deeply Confucian. Mao is no exception, as in this lyrical piece from 1920 when he was engaged in the project to reconstruct his home province of Hunan as a separate state.

Buildings constructed on islets of sand will collapse even before they are completed. The twenty-four dynasties of China may be regarded as twenty-four buildings built on islets of sand, every one of which collapsed precisely because not one of them had a foundation. The four-thousand-year-old China is merely an empty frame. All the activities of its many politicians and all the scholarship of its many scholars have been just sketches painted on this empty frame … Thus, our ancient and civilized country with its four thousand years of history has never really been a country at all. The country is merely an empty frame with absolutely nothing inside. It might be said that there were people, but the people were scattered. It is a pity that ‘a sheet of loose sand’ does indeed describe them!

Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, p. 579.