Suggested readings: Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang; Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by the same author.
The words floating above the Empress Dowager’s head in photos say her name. They tell you, the observer, her title and importance. They declare the supremacy of the Qing Dynasty and create an un impenetrable distance between you and the monarch.
Often, in similar portraits, the words 萬歲萬歲萬萬歲 show up. (“Long live, long live, long long live!”) The same words were screamed into microphones, at rallies, over half a century later, as Mao and the communists were declaring control in China.
It was actually Zhou En-lai who screamed the phrase with the most fervor. There’s a moment when it’s clear he is going to lose his voice. Unwaveringly, he screams through it. Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, spoke before him, already confident in her own political power. But for Zhou, poor, masochistic, terrified Zhou, it was just another attempt to prove himself. Zhou, over the years, was forced to demonstrate his overzealous fervor the most, reduced to a shadow of a man by the terror of Mao’s decades of abuse and blackmail.
In his later life, Zhou was made to perform intricate public self-criticism exercises to appease the Chairman. From early on until his last day, Zhou was under Mao’s total control, deathly terrified of disgrace, yet forced to bear responsibility as the scapegoat for every communist failure.
The tragedy of China is the tragedy of power and language. The language of royalty and that of Stalinist Russia applied to the Chinese: words they’ve known for centuries and words they’ve never heard before. The corruption of power and the corruption of language come together as mythology. Mythology usurps history and usurped history robs people of their cultural heritage.
The truth is that everyone adopts mythology. Even the modernizer, Cixi, was referred to as Old Buddha by the court in her later life. There’s a picture of her dressed as Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, receiving gifts from her favorite eunuch. As a ruling dynasty, the Qing were already considered spiritual successors to Confucianism, the court’s every interaction dictated by its strict rules and conventions. By combining Buddhism with Confucianism, the Qing were able to further entrench themselves as the ultimate lords over the Chinese people, political, cultural, and spiritual power in one clan.
Green jackets. Red stars. Gold hammer and sickle. Red arm bands. Red flags in the hands of the crowd, in the air like a sea of angry waves.
An introduction is made at exactly 3:00pm. Everyone is told to listen up as the Chairman is about to speak. Mao’s characteristic high pitched Hunan accent yells into the microphones, “Fellow citizens, today the central government of the People’s Republic of China has been established!”
The crowd roars into wild applause.
Afterwards, a list of government officials is read out. And a quote that was not actually spoken (“The Chinese people have stood up!”) is attributed to Mao on that day. The course of history is changed forever.
Years later, a video of Mao in a government meeting. He asks the room who amongst them agrees with him. Every hand goes up. Every hand holding a copy of the little red book. The Chairman stands up and inspects the room, looking to see if anyone would dare disagree. He pronounces the measure “Passed!” and appears quite happy with himself. His voice is still high pitched. He continues to speak in a heavily inflected Hunanese accent. In fact, he never learned Standard Mandarin, even though his government made it the official language.
In Qing days, Cixi sat behind a silk screen when she received official audiences. The court officials were not allowed to gaze upon her. The distance was purposeful, responding to both the Confucianist idea of separation of sexes, but also imposing her elevation to deity status upon the worldly mandarins. Those who did gain an audience with the Empress Dowager and the Emperor were expected to kowtow throughout. Often, during her almost half-century long in power (always acting as regent, Cixi was never in power in her own right), Cixi simply was not allowed to talk to her closest advisors directly. It would have been entirely too scandalous in a conservative court.
It is, in China, this is the taboo of leadership.
She was, however, the first to accept criticism. Never before was a monarch in China expected to even listen to a single negative word about himself.
Ultimately, the story of Cixi is a glorious and unfortunate one. A strong woman and leader at a time when women were taboo in such roles. A forward-thinker, Cixi advocated for adopting Western ideas, pushing for a modern China, and actively bringing the country into the 20th century.
But, the great flaw was colonialism. European powers had already encroached into China, divvying up land for themselves, forcing missionaries in to convert the heathens, and imposing war indemnities on a country they simply provoked into battle.
The Chinese reaction to the atrocities of colonialism was isolationist, revolutionary communism, with enemies like “counter-revolutionaries” and “American imperialism” and “kulaks.” New, foreign vocabularies awkwardly rolling off Chinese tongues, as hundreds of millions of people submitted to this new imposed structure.
The crime of imposed language is a crime of controlling the populace. Often, meanings were arbitrary, resulting in people led to execution based solely on someone labeling them a counter-revolutionary, regardless of evidence or motivation.
The bloody years leading up to the communist takeover of the country never really ended; the Chairman’s tight grip on power rivaled that of the Qing before him.
A handwritten poem by Mao Zedong
In the 1950s and 60s the central government of the People’s Republic of China promoted and imposed use of “simplified” Chinese characters, ostensibly in an effort to promote literacy.
This change stripped out a significant amount of meaning from written Chinese language.
In Chinese, written language is made up of hanzi (漢字) which literally means Han characters, Han being the majority ethic group in China. These same characters were adopted all over Asia, as kanji in Japan and hanja in Korea. They were also used in Vietnam before the Latin alphabet was adopted.
Hanzi are comprised of strokes, as they were traditionally written with a brush. Certain numbers and types of strokes come together to form elements which are used across different characters and words. The elements themselves contain information. They pass along something to the reader about either meaning or pronunciation, sometimes both.
An example: the character for heart, 心, appears within the character for love, 愛, in a smaller form. However, in the simplified character, 爱, heart is missing.
The difference here between 愛 and 爱 are perhaps not entirely problematic, as the character has retained a great deal of it’s look and feel. Readability-wise, it’s almost the same. But what about 車 and 车? 衛 and 卫? 樂 and 乐? Or 戰 and 战? The emptiness of 广 in place of 廣, the first character of the name Guangzhou, or Canton, a Southern Chinese province. Further examples are abundant.
And then there’s the fact that Hong Kong and Taiwan, places which never adopted simplified characters, have higher literacy rates than those of Mainland China.
Like the minimalist aesthetic of revolutionary communism in general, the Chinese communists were able to cut off their own people from a rich literary-based culture heritage which is their writing system. Much of the richness of Chinese characters lost for the sake of ascetic cleansing. A new world order in which stark practicality took precedence.
Combine this with the newly imposed use of Standard Mandarin throughout all of China. A standard specifically based on Beijing dialect of spoken Mandarin: A new language, a foreign tongue, for hundred of millions.
These complexities are not perhaps a direct cause or result of modern Chinese culture, but rather a portrait of it. A window into the lives of billions of human beings, expressed though an uneasy past. An enlightened despot followed by a chaotic period of a powerless child emperor (Puyi, who later became a puppet to Japanese control in Manchuria and the subject of the film The Last Emperor), passed control and then confusion around who was in charge with two conflicting factions of leadership: the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the communists, led, mostly in name until not, by Mao Zedong.
Both sides post-Qing were brutal. Chiang was a general, and the communists had ‘trained’ as guerrilla fighters by becoming bandits in the Southern mountainous regions of China before pushing North. In fact, despite being a leader in the Red Army, as far as his military prowess goes, Mao was a complete and utter failure. Yet somehow, if failure could be a winning strategy, he prevailed. Somehow, amidst the atrocious decision-making, ultimately self-serving for Mao, the Red Army prevailed. The one thing Mao understood and used to his advantage was this: it didn’t matter how many people died, there were always more people to recruit to fight. China had and still has a huge population; its biggest and, in Mao’s view, most expendable resource was people.
As far as communist revolutions go, Mao’s objectives and his realities were far from communist. Marxism-Leninism (馬克思列寧主義), the particular brand of Communism expounded upon by Mao, becoming Maoism or Mao Zedong Thought (毛澤東思想) in China, was never enacted or realized in any way. The government may have owned, by means of theft, private property and industry; they may have put into place an intricate system of control over the populace. But the lives of the proletariat class (無產階級, literally “without property class”), the class that Mao Thought claimed was central to the revolution, never benefitted from communism. In fact, the proletariat was the most negatively affected by the Chinese revolution.
[For what it adds to the topic, the other common term used for proletariat in Chinese is 普羅大眾 which translates as “general + net or collection + the masses.” Also worth noting: In Chinese, Communism itself is called 共產主義 which means “collective or public property + -ism” the emphasis on property and its distribution; by definition the proletariat did not have property (無產) and was thus, even linguistically, set up to be excluded from success in a system focused on the collectivization of this commodity.]
Like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square: the government was rolling tanks while the lone proletariat was Tank Man, a rail thin bag man, standing in the way. In both instances, Tank Man at Tiananmen and during the crimes of the revolution, we see the true character of the Chinese people come out: perseverance in the face of great adversity.
As is the case in so much of Chinese history: it is taboo to even speak about these circumstances. The censorship apparatus that extends throughout modern China makes it nearly impossible for public discourse on these topics. Again, a crime against language, here the mere use of it; the banning of expression of thought. Perhaps, the banning of the thought itself.
If you paid attention to news items about the recent anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, you may have noticed that the one large city in China that was able to publicly mark the event was Hong Kong. A former British colony until 1997, when Britain’s lease was up and Hong Kong was returned to China, the rules in Hong Kong are still different from the rest of China. As a “Special Administrative Region” (香港特別行政區), the Chinese vowed to make no changes in Hong Kong’s way of life or capitalist system for 5o years from the time of the return. Said another way, free speech is still alive in Hong Kong.
And this arrangement, which is similar to that of Macau, a former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, is also telling of the Chinese appetite for ambiguity. The same could be said of the current status of Taiwan. An island off of Fujian Province on the Southeast coast of mainland China, Taiwan, also known as Republic of China, is another anomaly.
When the Nationalists finally lost, in 1949, as Mao was being attributed that false quote about the Chinese people standing up, Chiang took his Nationalist camp to Taiwan to plan next moves. They never made it back to the mainland. The heir to Chiang’s Nationalists, the Kuomintang (國民黨, “the national people’s party”) is the both name used by Chiang’s Nationalist camp pre-1949 as well as the name of the party those same Nationalists became in Taiwan; a party which completely dominated Taiwanese political power until only very recently. To this day, Taiwan is still claimed by The People’s Republic of China, a territory in perpetual dispute, incessant ambiguity.
The official position concerning this ambiguity is that China is “One country, two systems” (一國兩制) but the reality looks more like “One country, multiple variations and flavors of a few systems.”
All of this makes one wonder if there could have been a different course for China. If Cixi had been able to influence the future beyond her many years at the top through a lasting legacy. The truth is that without Cixi’s early modernization, there is absolutely no way the communists would have been able to force modernization further. This forcing of modernization, known as The Cultural Revolution, followed the armed revolution and was a humanitarian disaster by any account. Millions dead, mass starvation, people buckling under the sheer exertion of force by the central government to do as they were ordered. It would be difficult to imagine, even in the grandeur that she enjoyed, Cixi allowing the people to suffer as much as Mao made them suffer during the Cultural Revolution. For all her faults, she didn’t seem to think of people as an expendable resource secondary to state success. While people were dying of starvation all across China, Mao was exporting and promising an ever increasing percentage of China’s actual agricultural production to pay for nuclear technology from the Soviets.
And within this universe, where food rations decreased to almost nothing, as people where barely subsisting, production demanded of them was the highest: the work levels set by the central government were literally unattainable. Because, remember back, Mao’s modus operandi at the time was to announce what he was doing, then demand everyone in the central committee to raise their hands, clutching his Red Book, and “vote” in his favor. No one would dare disagree. Language was strangled. Even at these heights of power, language was taboo.
Today, the artist Ai Weiwei embodies almost every aspect of this difficult history and its relationship to language. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet at the time of the communist revolution. He had been associated with the Communists and tortured by the Nationalists.
Ai Qing’s original last name was Jiang (蒋), the same hanzi as General Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalists. The story goes that after being imprisoned and tortured, he was so bitter that he shared a family name with the person responsible for his reprehensible treatment, that when he went to sign his name, he began with the first part, 艹, then wrote an X underneath. This combination, 艾, happens to be pronounced “ai” and his name was created.
During one of the several Communist Party purges, reminiscent of Stalin’s purges in the USSR, Ai Qing was banished, then by the Communists, to a far away province where he had to clean army toilets. Young Ai Weiwei was with his father on this arduous journey, an experience which inevitably shaped him and his way of thinking about the Chinese government.
Son of a poet, the younger Ai became an artist and his art walks the line between protest and censorship, between ancient and modern, between language and ambiguity.
In China, people have found ways to adapt language to avoid censorship from the government, particularly on the internet. One common phrase is “grass mud horse” (草泥馬) which is a homophone of, and thus replacement for the phrase “fuck your mother” (肏你媽). In a self portrait, Ai Weiwei poses nude, jumping, covering his privates with a small stuffed grass mud horse.
The name of the portrait is “草泥馬擋中央” or “Grass mud horse covering the center.” This title is also a direct homophone to the phrase “Fuck your mother, Communist Party Central Committee.” (肏你媽黨中央）
Not surprisingly, Ai Weiwei has had significant legal issues in China; he has been arrested and imprisoned himself, and yet continues to make art. The art he makes is important because it is a mixture of historic, culturally Chinese art with the modern, of visual with language, of communication with obscurity. Clarity in crafted ambiguity. The subject of his artistic commentary is often the topic of internet censorship, as is the case with the grass mud horse portrait.
“Three Principles of The People Unites China”
This sign appears on Dadan Island, part of Kinmen (English: Quemoy) which is administered by Taiwan. The message is written in Traditional Chinese characters, the official character set in Taiwan, and faces Fujian Province in Mainland China.
As the Chinese empire was crumbling, the Qing were still in control but only barely. And remember, the Qing emperors were Manchurian, not ethnically part of the Han majority. Cixi was slipping away after forty years in power. Puyi, then two years old, was the newly annointed emperor. At this moment in time Sun Yat-sen was becoming a very politically active revolutionary, advocating for the establishment of a republic in place of the empire.
Sun’s seminal work was Three Principles of The People (三民主義) which advocated for the Chinese version of manifest destiny: The Chinese people were destined to lead their own country and needed to take it back from both the internal foreigners (the Manchurian Qing) and external powers (the Europeans). The three eponymous principles of this work are: nationalism (民族主義), democracy (民權主義), and welfare/livelihood (民生主義).
The obvious connection here is through the use of the repeated character 民 (Mandarin pronunciation: mín), a collective noun meaning “the people” or “subjects” or “citizens.” This character figures prominently throughout post-imperial China as the concept of the people governing becomes in vogue.
This same character is used in the official name of The People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國) as well as the name adopted by Taiwan, The Republic of China (中華民國). It is used throughout China in official names of places and organizations: The Great Hall of The People (人民大會堂) in Beijing where the Communist Party meets for legislative and ceremonial purposes. The Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院), the highest court in China. Even The People’s Daily (人民日報), the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party in China.
It should be mentioned that Sun Yat-sen was no communist. In fact, he was an anti-imperial revolutionary who is considered to be the father of the Republic of China, a nationalist democratic government, which Chiang Kai-shek would eventually inherit and move to Taiwan. Yet he is one of the few figures respected in Mainland China as well as Taiwan, despite their political differences.
Even still, the theft is striking. It is a theft of language. One character, to be exact. A character that sums up an entire population in five strokes, and has been applied as a sort of shorthand across China to legitimize communist rule over the populace. As if the communists are merely proxies through which The People of China actually govern; in a building bearing their name, in a court system bearing their name, in official propaganda bearing their name. For all the talk of The People in China, it is clear that the usage is but a superficial one. A requirement of communist rhetoric and discourse, but ultimately a word so over-used and under-utilized that it has since lost its meaning. This is The People of which 民 speaks today: a loss, via degradation, of collective identity; a deliberate linguistic murder for political control.
In a country like China, linguistic diversity is a fixture of daily life: according to the 2013 edition of Ethnologue, China has some 298 living languages. In such an environment, where global success is measured in a country’s ability to complete economically, it is clear there were going to be broad swaths of the Chinese population who would experience linguistic discrimination.
In every country, at every corner of the globe, linguistic plurality exists; in most cases, a stratification occurs whereby an acrolect (the spoken variant closest to the standard prestige language) is not only favored but used as a tool in judgment of a mesolect and basilect underneath. This description, reminiscent of sedentary rock, is most aptly applied to linguistic environments where creoles, or mixtures of languages, are spoken. However, the same can easily be applied to the Chinese context, as the politics around language usage is a significant factor to not only success, but general communication.
Let’s not forget that the Qing, of Manchurian origin (the ruling family being the Aisin-Gioro clan: an entirely un-Chinese clan name if there ever was one), spoke Manchu, a Tungusic language unrelated in both phonology and writing system to Chinese, a Sino-Tibetan language family member, in the court. The Manchurian Qing were both preserving their cultural heritage and excluding vast populations from political power through institutionalized language politics. As is the case here, and in instances of spoken creoles, the political leadership is responsible for the designation of acrolect on down through basilect, a type of caste separation the result.
It would be unfair to omit comment on the fact that in all circumstances of linguistic plurality, a lingua franca is used to allow for inter-communication between members of disparate linguistic classes.
However, it would be equally unfair to omit comment on the fact that language systems each entail and implicitly confer their own logic and thinking structures upon their speakers. Thus, the mass adherence to what is called Standard Mandarin Chinese as a communication tool, on one hand, facilitates inter-communication between speakers of non-mutually intelligible languages or dialects while allowing for national communication on a massive scale, but, on the other hand, robs a large percentage of the population from their natural patterns of thought.
In China, Cantonese (粵語 or 廣州話, itself a lingua franca for those in China’s Southern Guangzhou province), speakers are still primarily employ the Traditional character set. This means that to participate on a national level, not only are Cantonese speakers forced to abandon their mother tongue, but they must also use the Simplified character set which, for many, has had its meaning stripped out, as we saw earlier. The same goes for other regions of the linguistically fertile China; whether variants of Chinese, such as the prestigious Shanghainese (a dialect of 吳語, Wu), or other languages all together like the all but obliterated Tibetan.
And while China does bring up questions about how linguistically diverse national entities can and should function in this vain, it also forces us to look at the political crimes against language that have occurred throughout history and how they impact today’s circumstances.
China is far from the only country or unified national entity to partake in such crimes. Until as recently as the early 20th century, European countries all had active “regional dialects” which sometimes represented legitimately different languages and were, in all cases, repressed in favor of the national acrolect. France had Breton, a Celtic language, in the West, Provençal, close to Italian or Spanish, in the South, and Alsatian, a Germanic language, in the East, just to name a few. The acrolect in France was Parisian Standard French, for obvious reasons. Throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, we see English as a forced national unifying language with the Celtic tongues in Scotland, Wales and Ireland being supplanted. (Cf. “The Queen’s English”)
These two cases represent only the smallest percentage of the world’s linguistic warfare that has been carried out against people, always in the name of political gain or sustainability.
What is unique in China, however, is the extent to which the supplantation of ‘lesser dialects’, massive-scale censorship, politics of writing systems, and access to real power through only a narrow linguistic avenue which is not attainable but to an elite, come together to replicate the true nature of the Chinese political system. The context of Chinese linguistic interplay is an accurate reflection of the expressly complex political system that serves to manage and control over a billion people.
When it comes to language usage, there is always more that lies beneath the surface. It is never a simple situation, nor are there simple solutions. Certainly, there is a need, more than ever, for effective inter-communication. But there is also an imperative to preserve the cultural identities and heritages of all of the people across the globe. In China, we are witness to systematic, historical, and perhaps even culturally-engrained linguistic politics, where language has been used both to suppress and maintain power. In other parts of the world, regional dialects were often casualties of massive nationalization movements whereby regional nation-states became unified nations and pledged allegiance to one power.
In the United States, where no official language exists, we can still see the effects of the English acrolect upon speakers of regional dialects (accents), as well as speakers of other languages. Where most big cities often have multi-lingual signage in places to accommodate our multi-cultural reality, there are still calls to “speak English.”
If I were able to prescribe one take-away from this essay it would be a better understanding of the Chinese people and the complexity of both their current situation and their history. In a country that has experienced massive and sustained upheaval, industrial and economic, over many years and is changing culturally, perhaps faster, than any other country on Earth, these questions and the history behind them take on a meaning that is often overlooked. While looking to the outside, it is easy to dismiss what we don’t understand, but there is always more to our own narrow field of view. This is certainly the case in China. As it is in our own universe.