Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hundred Years

[Chinese Version]

China calls the coming Olympics “a hundred year’s dream”. To the Chinese, Olympics is clearly not only a sports gala and party festival. Incidentally, I’ve recently watched Matching to a Republic, a TV series of historical drama. With fifty nine episodes, and 40 plus hours spent on, it probably deserves some of my comments on the historical road China traversed.

Many of the trajectories of present day China can be traced back to hundred years ago. There isn’t much new under the bright sun.

Let’s start from a scene in a later episode. Sun Yat-sen, who was regarded as the founding father of Republic of China, tried to reorganize his party into a revolution party after he failed the Second-Revolution. At the time, the then president of the new republic, Yuan Shikai, was about to crown himself the emperor of a constitutional monarchy. Of the 11 governors declared as Nationalist Party member, only two supported his agenda in force. Attractive political ideals were no match for practical position in powers. Sun realized the paradox, that he needed more centralized power to achieve his political dream, a real republic. Political construction might get by with loose organization, but a revolution that didn’t have enough public base required authority. He began to encourage political purity and personal loyalty within the party.

Sun didn’t make his political dream a reality. Before him, Emperor Guanxu wanted to reform but lacked real power, Empress Dowager Cixi had the power but didn’t want the radical political reform, at least not while she was still alive. His follower, Chiang, who took a cue from Sun’s realization and took it to another totalitarian level, ran a corrupt government, but at least nominally united China divided by warlords. Mao’s party also understood the secret to survival and what it took to achieve things in China. It promoted ideological purity within party and believed in “Political power grows out of barrels of a gun”. It took only three years for them to win out the civil war. There is no revolution any more today, but the political belief lives on: that you need a degree of central power and authority to get things done in China, where average citizen isn’t informed or active enough of politics. Deng was also such a believer.

Second Revolution wasn’t unique to Sun either. Mao had his own second revolution - the Cultural Revolution. At least part of the motive behind Mao’s second revolution was the same as Sun’s, that he saw his political ideal was in danger, and that his New China was slipping back to the Old China. New bureaucrats were quickly reverting back just like old bureaucrats, and that conflicted with his vision of a strong China. Mao took a page from Sun. To experiment his vision of democracy and people’s power, he encouraged personal idolization of himself and increase his own authoritative power. It degenerated into a disaster. Later elitists inherited the authoritative part but scratched, or postponed democracy part.

The TV drama series stopped short of the Chiang’s era, probably because it was too close for comfort. But Chiang made an unnamed appearance in it. In one episode, a Japanese instructor pointing a finger at mud in a flower pot, said: “This small piece of mud can contain of a large amount of bacteria, hundreds of millions, as many as there any 4 hundred million Chinese.” An angry student went up to the lectern and retorted, “It must contain a hundred million bacteria, as many as the people in Japan.” That man was Chiang.

Ever since Xinhai Revolution, Sun, Chiang, and Mao, their ideology, personal style, and politics were very different, their understandings of the China’s reality and future differ, but they were all nationalist.

Matching to a Republic as a Chinese production of recent history has some refreshing improvements. Gone are stylized faces and ideological divides. In stead, it depicts historical figures as human and personal touches.

I’ve also witnessed some contemporary historical writing go to another radical extreme. Rewriting and redefining seem to be in fashion. It’s not surprising in the context of the world we live today. Overturning history, whether rightfully so or not, means at least the merit of independent thinking. It attracts attention, usually accompanied by commercial success. If it so happens that Napoleon fought Julius Caesar, or we interpret historical figure with our own modern minds, too bad. Dead people can not explain themselves.

George Washington was a slave owner. He only freed his slaves after both he and his wife died, in his will. But that’s not to say he was not “the greatest man in the world”. Chinese intellectuals at the time especially admired him for not declaring himself the new King of America. In truth, there was little political ground on the American colony for him to crown himself. And why would he anyway?Great leaders are charismatic and of great social conscientious, but they are not living not of their time.

Turning 180 too many times makes us forget where we come from and even where we stand now.

China has a strange tradition of overcorrection. History was dressed up like little school girl according to winds of overcorrection.

Overcorrection as an ancient political term deserves some interesting investigation. You see, correct as a verb has a natural authoritative, top-down tone to it, like the time God walked into the city of Sodom and decided to correct them, make it just.

To lead a nation as diverse as China, needs tremendous wisdom and courage. To take the shortcut of making a strong nation needs a degree of authority and central power. The problem is that in China, once the power is installed, it does not have the tradition of checking itself. Or that tradition has been lost. With that, came the revolution and subversion, and the more radical solutions in the pass hundred years or so. The question we have to pose to ourselves: does the approach matter even if it is the right thing to do? Where do we place the so called procedure correctness, and where to draw the line?

The central theme in hundred years of China’s political movements is primitively to make the nation stronger. Rights of people come second. Pragmatism has always had market in China. It fits with the tradition of “succeed you becomes the king, fail you becomes the vagabond” well. Political and ideological arenas are no different.

The modern history of China from hundred years ago started from wars, more precisely, from losing the wars. Since then, general attitude of Chinese toward political system was anxious and goal-oriented, primitively to hope to bring a stronger nation.
An 1876 NYT article said of Chinese “fear of any innovation and reform”. No, it was not describing the religious Tibet, which shall be described as Shangri-La and peace loving etc. Since then, Chinese has made their own conclusion about that piece of history, they flat out concluded: “to be backward is to be beaten.”

The deficiency of politics of which primary goal was to catch up with the world and make the nation stronger – not be mention it was spearheaded by a small population of new elite – was the lack of stability. Only when the population was modernized and learned how to comprise and manage the country through politic could stability be possible. People sometimes are used to all the responsibilities to the leaders and politicians, yet Confucius said: “I reflect upon myself three times a day.”

The TV drama gave great sympathy to most of the historical figures.

Empress Dowager Cixi was a steady political hand. Her temper might be fickle, but her ability to manage the Qin officials was unmatched. She even had the courage, or foolishness depending on how you see it, to declare war on all major Western powers. However, whatever she did or did not choose to do, she managed the country as if it was her property. Winning the wars would have been nice, but losing wasn’t too much of a disaster either. The burden of war retribution fell on the population, not her highness.

Lee Hongzhang, the last Qin statesman who was called “Bismarck of the East” by the West and once called traitor by the Chinese, devoted his life to China’s diplomatic relation with the world. However, his none-resistant policy was equally costly. He steered clear of the provenances under his governance clear of the military conflict even when the central power in Beijing was been traced out of the city. Once the war was lost, people under his governance couldn’t escape the bitter result either, they would also have to pay war retributions. Frankly, on one hand China was too big for the then imperialists to swallow; on the other, a defeated country has little to bargain for, great diplomatic skill or not. Lee wouldn’t make the slightest difference.

Yuan Shikai, the able politician whose personal ambition drove him to be the hero who ended the Qin monarch, but also doomed him to be one who wanted to become an emperor of his own. But as capable as he was, his Beiyang New Army didn’t register a victory or even a serious fight for the country. In stead, it became a bargaining chip of his own power.

Kang Youwei, the ambitious but impractical reformer who failed, was really the father of all “overseas democratic fighters”.

Chinese like to speak of “grand virtue”, loosely interpreted as fighting for the people, and “personal virtue”. But, grand virtue is sometimes hard to judge, it swings with political and cultural tides. Chinese also often speak of personal political ambition negatively. But ambition isn’t really sinister. The sad tragedy of all these historical figures of the last hundred years was that there wasn’t a system in place to align their personal ambition with the common good of the people.

Luckily, we average folks still have personal virtues to cherish with, especially with the ones close to us.

The success of the gradualism reform in China was largely praised around the world. Gradualism reform can be traced back to the experience of a hundred years ago. The more radical reform of Wuxu failed, but a more gradual approach later was largely successful.

The world today warily watches China as a “rising power”. Let’s not forget there was a period a hundred years ago the world warily watched China as a possible power, mistakenly we must say, reflectively. The prospect of a large population and vast market was simply attractive, then and now.

The debate started a hundred years ago continued into today: should China make foundation of Chinese wisdom but adopt Western knowledge? Or should China totally westernize, especially in the political areas?

I shall point out this is really a false topic. When enough people opened up to the modern knowledge, when enough people are wealthy and educated enough, when politics is no longer but designed by a small educated elite, people will reach a natural selection. Chinese or Western, does it matter? Moreover, the distinction between Chinese and Western may be water under bridge then. Culture is fluid.

Similarly, Chinese characteristic is a natural mark, not something you proclaim for, or design for. Proclaiming of ___ (feel free to fill in the blank) of Chinese characteristic is always suspicious.

Speaking of war and treaties, let’s look into a few. The first Sino-Japanese war of Jiawu was largely limited to the navy fights. The central government, the Qin court, was under menace. A treaty was quickly signed. No serious fight was staged. The Battle of Beijing by the eight-nation alliance saw an army of only teens of thousands, with a casualty of less than 2000. Many Chinese forces didn’t fight in the war. The New Army of Beiyang didn’t open a shot, and the South China stayed out of the conflict all together. Although the Boxers, agitators of the conflict, joined the fight, but it’s safe to say no “war of people” happened. To blame the loss of war and unfair treaty all on “to be backward is to be beaten.” seems to be overly simplistic. Fifty years after, facing another advance equipped United Nation army, Chinese forces didn’t loose ground.

It’s not surprising Western powers called the Chinese “loose sand” then. They had a point.

What the new People’s Republic really contributed to the Chinese wasn’t ideological ist, but the new found upward spirit and confidence in the society.

The Beijing Olympics is said by Beijing and foreign media as a landmark of integrating into the modern world. The process and exploration started more than a hundred years ago.

In fact, the shaping of modern China and its choices are always under the influence of the Western powers, including the worrisome nationalism. People in the West don’t often understand why China can not let go of the memories of more than a hundred years ago. But for Chinese, history from a hundred years ago directly influenced political choices of their nation every step of the way, and thus wired into their current life.

Many people have pointed out Chinese society is often restless. Such restlessness also started a hundred years ago. The history of being the invaded makes people less confident, makes the politics more radical.

If China could have waited the development of the country and its new social class entered the political scene, things might be different. But the international society then didn’t give China patience and time; the wars didn’t give China much time and choices.

Nowadays, the powers make a point not to burden the defeated countries with unbearable debt or too much unfair treatment. That’s an improvement. Lesson learned. But history has no what ifs.

Now that Beijing Olympics is finally here. For many, “a hundred year’s dream will be complete. Can we get the game start with, and finally get on other businesses?

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