01 February 2016

Toward an interior-mainland Sinophilia

Peasants in rural Henan

In my previous post, I castigated the New Confucians for their hypocrisy in presenting themselves as enlightened Western-facing democrats, whilst in reality being all-too-willing to flatter and simper to at least one bloody iron-fisted dictator (as long as that dictator wasn’t Red). And I presented the principled counter-example of the late great Fei Xiaotong, whose intellectual integrity prevented him from wholeheartedly embracing either the Blues or the Reds, and led him to champion the rural poor and his own discipline of sociology. But Fei Xiaotong was not an isolated voice. Mainland Chinese political and cultural discourse operates at two levels – the stultified, bureaucratic upper level, whose representatives are trained in the handling of official buzzphrases and who are granted the megaphone of state approval; and the somewhat more ragamuffin lower level, where authors more-than-occasionally get in trouble for what they write and say in public. It is this lower level on which all the really interesting intellectual footwork is currently being done.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am writing from the standpoint of the sympathetic expat. Well, more than that, really: I’m a Zhongguo nüxu 中国女婿 (a Chinese son-in-law) whose experience has been shaped not only by my studies and personal observations, but also by my relationships with my wife, my in-laws, their friends and my colleagues. And I’ve developed a sympathy with the Chinese heartland, the zhongyuan 中原, which sadly (but unmistakably) finds itself counterposed both culturally and economically against the wealthier, better-connected, more-modernised Chinese coast and islands (Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian-Taiwan and Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong). My closest relations are two generations or less removed from starvation imposed from above and without – with the sacrifices of the Second World War looming as large (if not larger) in their memories as those of the Great Leap Forward twenty years later. Much the same way as Russians and Eastern Europeans of their generation do, they have a complicated approach to the Mao era. (My wife’s paternal grandparents have a portrait of Jesus Christ on one wall of their house and a classic propaganda poster of Mao Zedong on the other. The juxtaposition is very strange.) As far as I can tell from my own conversations with them, they understand as well as anyone else the evils of his rule, on a political and social level as well as in terms of deprivation of the basics of life, but at the same time genuinely value and miss the sense of public service and camaraderie which people of that generation displayed – and don’t appreciate seeing these things devalued and denigrated by younger generations.

The experience of the Chinese interior is something which is addressed only in developmentalist platitudes by the official circles, but even in the ragamuffin lower level of Chinese discourse which still so often looks Westward for inspiration, it constitutes a poorly-understood and marginal voice. Of the few I have read who actively give voice to it (Fei Xiaotong, Wang Hui, Gan Yang, and perhaps obliquely Kang Xiaoguang), only Wang Hui is particularly well-known. Most theorists – especially the theorists of the Chinese coast and islands – see the elder life of the interior as something not to be understood and valued, but as something embarrassing, something to be swept aside before the grand tides of the globalism with which they are already integrated. The fact of the interior’s poverty is ample evidence, as far as the enlightened moderns of the coast (both official and commercial) are concerned, of its backwardness and lack of social or cultural value.

But it’s precisely for those reasons that I love it: literally, viscerally, even romantically on a personal level. It’s a standing rebuke to the apostles of developmentalism and brute-force modernisation. It has a character that shows through with the elder masonry. It has a heart which beats, however faintly, at a different pace than the hubbub of Shanghai commerce or Beijing traffic. It whispers the intimations of its deprival through the postmodern alienation of the films of Jia Zhangke and the wistful Qing Romanticism of Er Yuehe. Its pain echoes in that quintessentially modern Chinese question of the post-Deng moral crisis, whose effects it has felt most viscerally since ‘78.

In short, in the subaltern voice of the Chinese interior there begins to be heard a kind of Sinophilia: a parallel to the early 19th-century Russian Slavophilia of Khomyakov and Kireevsky. This parallel is not accidental at all. Chinese modernism, nationalism (of both the political and cultural varieties) and socialism have already borrowed heavily from the Russian narodniki. Additionally, there is the simple reason that China faces a moment where its national spirit on the one hand, and its desire for greatness on Western terms on the other, stand in stark tension with each other – as they did in Russia after the 1820’s. The official discourse doesn’t (or can’t) recognise this, of course: as long as the economy is running smoothly, the Party has the luxury of pretending in a superficially-convincing way that they can have their (traditional Chinese) cake and eat it too. But some intellectuals – and far from only on the liberal side – feel this tension acutely. This tension informs most of Wang Hui’s historical delvings and attempts to show how certain paradoxes and antinomies in China’s modernity have worked out over time.

But it also shows itself up in the irony of the Chinese coast’s long love affair with xixue 西学 – Western knowledge – and its inability to express that knowledge in an authentic and healthy way. Or even to return to practices from which that knowledge has divorced them. The analogy I have shamelessly stolen from Kaiser Kuo in the past to express this tragic divorce of theoretical-doctrinal knowledge from lived reality (particularly amongst Chinese coastal liberals) has been ‘releasing the snakes’ – a once-valid Buddhist practice of compassion to the animals, which when modern people undertake it in rural areas results in damage to the local ecology and communities. When we look at how Chinese intellectuals have historically adopted ideologies of social Darwinism, nationalism, Leninism, pragmatism and now neoliberalism successively in turn, is it not possible to argue that this also has resulted in ‘releasing the snakes’? It’s hard to argue about the environmental impact of certain Western ideological imports and patterns of consumption, at least. And certainly we can identify a rupture in the social psychology of China, which has made the analyses like those of Zhang Xudong and his contributors in Whither China? possible.

This is what makes the work of Chinese neoleftists, institutional Ruists and rural advocates so valuable. Like the Russian Slavophils, far from being ineffectually anti-modern or blindly reactionary, they are attempting to bring the deep realities of Chinese life and social psychology into agreement with its theoretical and doctrinal knowledge. It’s hard not to see something Romantic in the effort these scholars bring to exposing China’s post-guochi imitations of the Western humanities as pathological, and attempting to draw new life into the Chinese intellectual sphere from the organic grassroots.

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