RELIGION AND COMMUNISM IN MODERN CHINA
Clash or Synergy of Ideologies?
The Montréal Review, April 2011
Religion and religious institutions in Europe and over the world have been under attack since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Since then the place of religion in organization of society, its importance and influence over the individual and state, has been questioned as never before.
How did the demise of the traditional systems of belief happen? How did the secular revolution begin? It began with politics in the heart of Europe, with a revolt against the old political and social order of privileges and birthrights. In his book "The Old Regime and the French Revolution" Alexis De Tocqueville noted that in 1789-92 the revolutionary bourgeoisie did not revolt against the Christian faith, but against the Church institution, which was seen as part of the "Ancient Regime". The revolutionaries treated clergy as "landed proprietor," a "parasite" on the body of the French nation. At this time, science was still unborn and religious skepticism was heard only from a handful of voices. But in the nineteenth century, the enmity against the Church shifted or rather expanded against the religious faith in general. New secular prophets emerged that were not scientists in the modern sense of the word, but political thinkers and philosophers. They established new and powerful ideological narratives, based on politically colored Darwinism, supported by "scientific" arguments, and attractive promises for successful social(ist) engineering. Although their teachings were only theories, they defended them with religious zeal. The "scientific method" was their Gospel, and in the ferment of the Industrial Revolution, with the exploding progress of science and technology, they claimed ownership over every human achievement, waging a war for the hearts and minds of people, arguing that science and religion are two implacable enemies. The flaw and tragedy of their worldview was that they looked at science and religion politically.
In 1917, the communists in Russia took over the power. Religion and Church were suppressed, because they, similarly to France of 1789, were seen as a part of the old regime and thus a threat to the new power. But unlike the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks had on their disposition the legitimizing ideology of Marxism that rejected both the necessity of religious institutions and religious faith itself.
In the twentieth century, almost all post-colonial national movements adopted the secularist Marxism as their ideology. And if we ask why did a theory that deals with the industrial societies and their social classes become the central ideology of almost all national movements in the pre-indusrtial societies of the twentieth century, the direct answer is that these new nations were not enough mature, not enough historically developed, to create their own modernist message. They borrowed and modified the Western Marxism, their new revolutionary elites found in it a convenient ideology for their ambitions to hold power and rule. The religious institutions in these societies were naturally seen as a part of the old political order (and colonial past) and thus automatically declared as political enemies of national independence and self-determination.
In the twentieth century, Marxism was a dominant although not always winning ideology in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The new national elites that fought against the grip of the old colonial and feudal powers adopted and transformed it according to their own political goals. China was among the states that embraced Marxism and its revolutionary Bolshevik strain - Leninism, as a flagship for its modernization and lost independence. (1) Today, China is the only large state in which the Marxist-Leninist ideology continues to exist, ostensibly untouched by the communist demise of the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
The reason for this resilience is that the Marxist ideology has never been the true matrix of the Chinese political order. A few hours of random reading of Mao's most popular books and pamphlets, (2) where he supposedly exposes his "Marxist" convictions, would hardly reveal a speck of pure Marxist thought. Mao's works were anti-imperialist, nationalist, explaining the tactics and philosophy of revolutionary war against the imperialists, the feudal lords and the enemies of the communist regime, extolling the supremacy of peasantry, but rarely discussing the problems of proletariat. His writing was feverish and exalted, dressed with Marxist-Leninist rethoric, resembling Marxism, but in fact non-Marxist. Marxism is a teaching, before all, against capitalist exploitation, explaining alienation of labour, class relations, and the realities of the Western kind of political order-- things that hardly existed in China of the 1930s and 40s. Marxism is about the emancipation of the working classes, but even in the 1980s the Chinese society was still predominantly agrarian; Marxism is about a teleological process of ultimate change that follows strict historical pattern - feudalism overcomed by capitalism, capitalism undermined by socialism, and socialism developed into communism. There wasn't such historical process at work in pre-Soviet Russia or post-imperial China.
First of all, we must say that behind China's communism there is nothing but central power. China's communist ideology exists only "on paper," it is a typical totalitarian state propaganda without real and meaningful content. Its real messages are either commands and directives of the central power or education in loyalty to the Party. Its only goal is to keep the society under the control of the ruling elite. The communist ideal of the "People's republic" is a chimera.
The Chinese communism, like every radical political ideology, has a religious nature. (3) Such is the nature of every totalitarian state. Marxism-Leninism is an ideology that, in the name of a utopian promise, promotes the dictatorship and supremacy of one social group (or party) over all others. The Marxism of Bolshevik type, i.e. the radical communism, does not tolerate political or economic pluralism, which makes China's "communism" today an interesting "hybrid." It had its own "classical" non-pluralistic period in the second half of the 20th century; then, in the early 1990s, it has started to develop into a new form of a 21st century "sino-communism," merging in itself the elements of different political, ideological, and economic systems--state capitalism, Confuciansim, and Maoist "Marxism" (as official ideology).
Normally, the totalitarian (and authoritarian) political elites that adopt Marxism as their ideology do not accept the idea of God. They are neither constrained by some genuine religious culture and worldview that the citizens, including the ruling elites follow, nor by any democratic institutions. The god of the Marxist state is the Party, its ideology, and the Leader (or the Party's Central Comitee, the so-called "High Echelon"). All legitimacy of power comes from these three centers--Party, Ideology, Leader. Compared to the God of religion, the presence and the will of the totalitarian god is immediate and direct; the god of the totalitarian state has the power to punish quickly and reward without delay. It is an active, visible, undeniable power; the Party leaders are its bishops, the political activists-- its priests and deacons.
Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan- A Socialist Realism Color Lithograph on Paper by Chunhua Liu B.
Every totalitarian state has its own mythology and system of worship. China has the legend of the Long March, the iconic pictures of Mao, descending from the mountain keeping the scrolls of his pamphlets or walking among his worshipers; it has granite, gargantuan monuments of comunist leaders and revolutionary martyrs, evoking awe and respect; it also has annual commemorations, festivities, and calendars; it has "scriptures," dogmas, and sectarian differences; the symbols of the communist party dominate the Chinese public space - they are unambiguous sings of the religious nature of the regime in Beijing.
Having an institutionalized political religion, the central power in China does not tolerate traditional religions and beliefs. Yet, Article 88 of the first Constitution of People's Republic of China states: "Citizens...of China enjoy freedom of religious belief."
But here is how the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party explains Article 88:
People who believe in a religion have freedom.
People who do not believe in a religion have freedom, including the freedom to be against religion.
People have freedom to change religious belief. (4)
Two things make an impression here: the overusage of the word "freedom" and the difference in the rights of the believers and non-believers. The atheists have "freedom" to be against religion, which means that they might attack and ridicule religious people, on the other hand, the believers have no freedom to be against atheism. So the Central Comitee in a typical subtle way, encourages or at least opens the door for anti-religious actions and propaganda while covering its true intentions with a repetitive application of the word "freedom" (which, we all know, means nothing in a totalitarian, or proto-totalitarian society).
People in China have freedom of religious belief, but according to the government, it should be manifested only in the compounds of religious sites. The "fair deal", according to three Japanese pastors who visited China on a peace mission in late 1964, is as follows: "There has been mutual agreement that atheists do not come into the churches to propagate their atheistic concepts, and religious people do not go out to public places to propagate their religion." (5) At first sight, the "deal" seems fair; at second, we see religious people or religion excluded from the public space.
Mao knew very well peasants' character, he was a pragmatic man, son of wealthy and conservative farmer, and he knew that the Communist Party should not openly attack peasants' religion and "superstitions." In traditional Confucian way, his approach of dealing with peasants' beliefs was practical and crafty. "The idols were set by the peasants, - Mao says in a popular early writing - and in time they will pull down the idols with their own hands; there is no need for anybody else to throw away prematurely the idols for them. The agitational line of the Communist Party in such matters should be: "Draw the bow full without letting go the arrow, and be on alert." (6) Here, we find Mao using a saying from Mencius, the Confucian sage. As we will see after a moment, the Communist party has never lost its Confucian traits in its dealings with the Chinese people and society.
The Chinese communist state has never been very different from the traditional imperial state in its philosophy of governing. Confucianism is interwoven in the communist ideology in curious ways. For example, in his short book "How to Be a Good Communist", the member of Politburo Liu Shaoqi writes,
"All those who have succeeded in becoming very good and experienced revolutionaries must certainly have done through long years of steeling and self-cultivation in the revolutionary struggle... Confucius said: At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decree of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire, without transgressing what was right. Here Confucius was relating the process of his steeling and self-cultivation. He did not regard himself as a born "sage."" (7)
Liu Shaoqi's book was among the staple readings in the preparation of Communist cadres in the 1940s and 1950s.
No wonder that Confucianism, which was the ideology of imperial state, was used and is still used by the Communist Party. We can even argue that Communist China, in many respects, seems more Confucian than Marxist; like the old imperial China, today's China is religious and secular in the same specific way, both conservative and "modern." In his book "State and Religion in China", Antony C. Yu noted, "Despite the adoption of a constitution that allegedly would transform [China's] socio-political body into a modern, secular republic, it has yet to scrutinize and query the legitimacy of its enduring form of political religion - the worship of absolute power invested in the state." (8)
Confucianism was a compendium of ecclesiastic wisdom without the support of a true system of belief; it was pragmatic, moralistic, demanding both loyalty to authorities and respect to rituals and ceremonies. Faith in a transcendent deity, in the Western sense of the word, was practically non-existent in it. The goal of the rituals in the Confucian system was not so much in binding people together through common prayers and worship, but in the state regulated education and the channelling of the energy of the population. "Lead them by means of virtue and regulate them through rituals and they will have a sense of shame and have standards," (9) was written in the Confucian Analects. "A ruler directs his ministers through established protocols. A minister serves his ruler with loyalty," (10) is another example from the Analects, which is also applicable to the principles of communist party's hierarchy, organization, and government.
Chinese communism, like Confucianism, bears strong moralistic messages, it believes in the importance of state approved (and controled) education, it preaches "self-improvement" as the Confucians did, it demands strong loyalty, and promotes secular ritualism. In Confucianism, the emperor had Mandate from Heaven. In Chinese communism, the ruling party has the infallible scientific theory of Marxism, a kind of "Mandate of Heaven."
Confucianism is a philosophy of pragmatic government and "gentlemen's" behaviour, there is no mysticism in it; in the same time, it encourages superstition and religious belief as far as they are in the regulated framework of state approved "standards". Here an example:
"Why does it rain after a prayer for rain?" asks the Confucian sage and continues with sincerity, "I say, for no reason. It is the same as raining when you had not prayed. When there is an eclipse of sun or moon, you "save" it; when there is a drought, you pray for rain; when an important decision is to be made, you divine. It is not that you can get anything by doing so. It is just decoration (italics are mine). Hence, the gentlemen considers them ornament, but the common people think spirits are involved. To consider them ornament is auspicious; to consider them as spiritual acts is inauspicious." (11)
The dual, secular and religious, nature of Confucianism, its pragmatic understanding of the place and value of religion for the aims of state power, is particularly visible in the following tale:
"Zigong inquired about governing. The Master said, "Make food supplies sufficient, provide an adequate army, and give the people reason to have faith." Zigong asked, "If one had no choice but to dispense with one of these three, which should it be?" "Eliminate the army." Zigong continued, "If one had no choice but get rid of one of the two remaining, which should it be?" "Dispense with food," Confucius said. "Since ancient times, death has always occurred, but people without faith cannot stand." (12)
The quoted tale is a method and principles of governing that the Communists follow naturally. Their political ideology is a utopia and they rely on peoples' belief in the Communist promise. They offer faith to the people; faith in the Communist Party, its leaders and ideology. Ideological indoctrination is the focal point of the communist rule in China. The other staples of good governing, mentioned in the tale, - the army and the "nursing" state - are also key components of Communist rule.
After the anti-communist rebellion in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the Communist Party in China has started two general campaigns: economic reforms to ensure that the "supplies of food are sufficient" (as should be according to the Confucian wisdom) and educational campaigns, the building of the so-called "socialist spiritual civilization", that meant to straighten the faith in the Communist Party and its messianic mission.
In its propaganda and policy, the Party has always used traditional Confucian approaches. For example, the post-Mao regime propagates the "Four Cardinal Principles," a phrase that immediately evokes associations with the popular Confucian "five principles of relationship." Surely, the majority of Chinese people do not care what the Four Cardinal Principles are, but the important thing here is that this propaganda phrase aims to appeal to the traditional psyche, to the collective memory. It is a manipulation, just another example of the psychological war that the central power wages for controlling the minds and beliefs of millions of people. In fact, The Four Cardinal Principles are not principles at all, they are commands from the central power: 1) Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, 2) the socialist road, 3) the dictatorship of the proletariat, and 4) the leadership of the Communist Party. The character of the Confucian Five principles of relationships is not very different: 1) king to subject, 2) father to son, 3) husband to wife, 4) older brother to younger brother, 5) friend to friend. Both Communism and Confucianism demand the same--loyalty; and both rest on hierarchy.
The Communist party treats religion and religious practices - Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, etc. - in the same way as the Confucian imperial elites treated them: sometimes with iron fist in velvet gloves, sometimes with open hostility. When Buddhism entered China in third and fourth century AD, the opposition against it was severe. The Buddhist religion was undermining the basic structures of the old Chinese society that were hierarchical, demanding loyalty to king, elders, and ancestors.
The traditional Chinese worldview was seeing the cosmos as a three level structure: Heaven, Man, and Earth. Man was the link between Heaven and Earth - that's why with his actions the man was able to disturb or facilitate the cosmic harmony. But man was not just everyone, the king was the Man who held the biggest responsibility for the smooth functioning of the cosmic order. Confucianism entrusted king and state officials with moral responsibility, it taught that if the center is corrupted, so the chaos is near.
Buddhism did not care about ancestorships and king's powers. "Although various schools of thinking in classical China had sought to diminish the power and vice of the princes through criticism, none of them had ever thought of re-envisioning the bond of society in anything other than kinship terms," says Antony C. Yu in his book State and Religion in China and continues, "The Buddhist Sangha, on the other hand, represented a radical re-definition of human community by eliminating the biological factor, and with it any valorization of kinship ties." (13) In the same book, Yu quotes a few writings from the period of Buddhist-Confucian polemical conflict that clearly show that the traditional Confucian elite was alarmed by the undermining effects of the Buddhist faith on key Confucian concepts such as filial piety, lineage maintenance, and ancestral sacrifices.
One might still say that communism has nothing in common with the Confucian state and order, but that would be wrong. Chinese Communism was a child of the national movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. "With the rise of revolution and republicanism and the fall of the Qing, the link between cosmos and ruler was served. Sovereignty was meant to originate not from the balance of Heaven, Earth, and Man but from human agency alone," 14 says Rebecca Nedostup in her book Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity. "The 1911 Revolution had broken the link between state and cosmic power. When this failed to produce a strong Chinese nation-state, unified and able to negotiate its interests on the world stage, critics blamed lingering elements of the cultural past... New culture critics began to absorb other influences ranging from the atheism of the late Qing anarchist movement to the writings of Friedrich Engels, and linked religion to autocracy and imperialism... Intellectual debates posited that aesthetics, philosophy, or science would replace religion in modern civilization." (15)
Nedostup argues that nationalism did the first large-scale experiment in Chinese history. It created the first secular government stripped of rituals linking sovereignty to cosmic authority. It built quasi-democratic nationalism theoretically premised on popular mobilization, but ultimately dependent on political control. It created secularized civic ceremonies, and replaced customary models of social arrangement, including religion, (16) but failed to unify the country and offer a cohesive system of belief or ideology that could accommodate the majority of Chinese population. This last thing--the unification of the state under one state ideology and power, was successfuly performed by the communists. What they did was to preserve the "secular-nationalism," while promoting the religious promise of the communist "just" order and society. They succeeded in accommodating the majority of Chinese population, because their political base was the peasantry and they knew well its soul, sufferings, and aspirations. Moreover, they not only built their regime on the back of the nationalist movement, they succeeded to "modernize" and apply classical Confucianism in their own political strategy. In fact, they did something amazing... and yet natural. They absorbed the Confucian ideals, Nationalist ideals, and Marxist ideals, while building a modern state on traditional totalitarian basis. They used the experience of the past and the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century to create modern Communist China, even their harsh criminal code, with wide range of death penalties, resembles the legalist tradition of the glorious Qin dynasty.
Today, the Communist rule in Beijing has the same problems as the old Confucian power had. It has to stay alert for any sign of religiously or ideologically inspired opposition. It has to work tirelessly on education, indoctrination and engagement of society in state rituals and beliefs. It has to demand loyalty and punish the "traitors" mercilessly. It has to care for everything, because the Party is responsible for everything, as the emperor was responsible in the past for the cosmic harmony. Perhaps, today's communist leaders secretly believe, as the old Confucian officials did openly, that history is a cyclic movement, not progressive as Marxism teaches. They probably know that there would be a demise of their modern communist dynasty as it happened before with all Chinese kingdoms, and do their best to fight corruption in their ranks and to grow prosperity of the ordinary man, hoping that the inevitable collapse would not happen soon.
For a final, I would like to say that this text is not political. It doesn't aim to say what is good or bad in China, it only suggests the idea that the Chinese communism is a synergy of old and new, an unusual "secular religion" that serves the power of political center in the tradition of old imperial China.
1 In the late nineteen and early twentieth century, anti-imperial, anti-colonial revolutionaries did not know Marxism. Their ideology was a formless compendium of unsettled ideas. For example, Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People - anti-imperialist nationalism, democracy, and socialism - although a motto of the revolutionary movement in the early twentieth century, were still an unclear grouping of vague concepts. Nationalism was the real ideology of early twentieth century China, but after the Bolshevik revolution, the withdrawal of the old Russian concessioners, and the activity of the new Russian communist emissaries in China, nationalism merged with Marxism following the example of the Soviet nation building. For more historical references, see Jonathan D. Spence's " The Search for Modern China" , Part III, "Envisioning state and society" (Norton, New York, 1999) pp. 265-375, also Arif Dirik's " The origins of Chinese Communism " (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Benjamin I. Schvartz's " Chinese Communism and the rise of Mao " (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).
2 We can easily find how far from the orthodox Marxism Mao's thought is, if we just compare his writings to the writings of communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. For instance, in one of Luxemburg, Liebknecht's most popular, international texts of communism, "A Call to the Workers of the World " (See " The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Works " (Courier Dover Publications, 2003) pp. 232 -235) the word "imperialism" is mentioned only once, while "proletariat" appears seventeen times. When Mao says, "the main socialist transformation has been completed with respect to the system of ownership", he meant that the communists eliminated "landlord and comprador classes" (On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People (February 27, 1957), 1st pocket ed., pp. 51-52 ) The landlord is a feudal, the "comprador" is the person who trades with the Western companies, yet both of them have nothing to do with the "working classes" in the traditional Marxist sense. (See "How Communist is China?")
3 Richard C. Bush expresses the same opinion in Religion in Communist China, (Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , (p.15)
4 "From the Other Side of the Desk" China Notes (September, 1963), pp. 3-4, quoted by Bush (Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China , ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) ,), p.18
5 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p.19
6 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p. 30
7 Quoted by Jonathan D. Spence in " The Search for Modern China", (Norton, New York, 1999, p. 495)
8 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 145
9 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook " (Simon and Schuster, 1993) p.21
11 Ibid. p.24
12 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook" (Simon and Schuster, 1993)
13 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 97
14 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 9
16 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 279