In this article, Mujing discusses the gradual evolution and loss of rituals in China.
China used to be and still is a country of rituals, though in vastly different ways.
Before the communist takeover in 1949, China was supported by “rules of propriety,” a key component of institutionalized Confucianism. In Confucian classics such as the Book of Rites, the daily life of a Chinese from dawn to dusk is ritualized through a sophisticated set of rules, giving it a sense of quasi-religious holiness. However, this ancient system was not completely compatible with China’s modernization drive. It was first challenged during the “Learn From the West” movement in the Republic of China and was later demonized and destroyed in the political movements launched by the Communist Party. It is no wonder that Mr. Yu Yingshi, a leading expert on Chinese intellectual history, describes contemporary Confucianism as “a wandering ghost” because it has been deprived of its ritual establishments.
A new China has adopted a new system of rituals, shifting emphasis from the ethical realm to politics and social life. In the process of creating the “New Communist Man,” the life of a Chinese citizen was collectivized and militarized. Rituals not only strengthened the ideological legitimacy of the state but also aroused fear and an irresistible urge to obey and sacrifice. Although the revival of the market economy after Mao’s death marginalized the role of rituals in political and social life, making mass rallies and mobile broadcasting stations on top of trucks a distant past, their remnants still support the fragile legitimacy of the regime and continue to haunt the Chinese mentality.
Many are familiar with the recent farcical military parade celebrating the victory of the Sino-Japanese War, but few have realized that this national orgy of Neo-Fascism comes from the rigorous cultivation of rituality in everyday life. In Chinese schools, there is at least one flag ceremony every week which requires mandatory attendance of every student. The ceremony is often accompanied by moral lecturing of the headmaster and the announcement of “advanced” individuals and classes in the past week. Honors include the red flag for good learning, the red flag for good behavior, the red flag for good hygiene, the red flag for good suite etc. In my primary school, there was even a red flag for doing eye massage well. Students who did poorly in intra-class evaluations are labeled as “dragging the leg of the community” and are often looked down upon by their peers.
The Chinese government has successfully established the cult of collectivism through rituals which simultaneously serve as micro-mechanisms of social control. Such rituals still have an overwhelming presence in schools and continue to instigate a combined feeling of pride, veneration and fear. However, nearly all Chinese students will experience painful disillusionment at some point in their lives. The great schism between ideology and reality will backfire on the sacredness of rituality and produce widespread cynicism. Idealism for the post-Mao generations has already become a luxury.