"Communist China"-how far Communist? How far Chinese? And what is the difference anyway? How are we to evaluate the impact that decades of war and violence and revolutionary zeal have had upon the China of today? Do Peking's leaders use the terminology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism but express sentiments inherited from the Middle Kingdom? Are they unconsciously in the grip of their past, even when most explicitly condemning it? Certainly there is a resonance between China today and earlier periods. But how great is the actual continuity?

American expectations of Chinese behavior have groped along two lines-the approach by way of Moscow, the Soviet example, and the approach by way of history, Chinese tradition. The two overlap considerably, but both are faulted by discontinuity. China today is not just another Russia. It is very different indeed. Nor is the People's Republic just another imperial dynasty. Times have changed.

History can only help to synthesize these two approaches and suggest the degree of overlap. Chinese traditions, the Soviet example and the accidental conjunctions of events can all be given meaning in a chronological perspective. But history is invoked by all parties-by our Marxist adversaries, so addicted to their "world history," and by our own policy-makers, particularly when we have to be aggressive. Even the stoutest pragmatists can hardly leave it alone. Yet it is an art, not a science, a game any number can play except historians, who feel too ignorant to play with self-confidence.

The first difficulty for all China-pundits is the very high level of generality at which the game is played. Surely "Chinese history" offers "lessons" as diverse as the experience of a quarter of mankind during 3,000 years. But we are all entangled in the old Chinese custom of viewing the Chinese realm, t'ien-hsia or "all under Heaven," as a unit of discourse. We still characterize dynastic periods-Han, T'ang, Sung, Ming, Ch'ing, etc.-as homogeneous slices of experience even when each lasted two or three hundred years. It is like a tenth-grade course on "Europe since the Fall of Rome." At such a level of generality, platitude is unavoidable. Statesmen who need an analytic scalpel are handed a sledgehammer.

Our second problem is the subjective factor. Appraising the impact of Communism on China is like studying the life of a man who got religion. He lives in the same house, with many of the same habits, and looks much the same. His conversion is greater subjectively, as judged by what he says, than objectively, as visible in his conduct. Yet his life has presumably taken a sharp turn and will never be the same again.

The degree of change in recent decades in China cannot be measured quantitatively but only by drawing a qualitative picture of a traditional model. This may then be compared with a similarly abstract contemporary model. Changes of "content" will by definition be greater than changes of "pattern."


China as seen in the middle of the nineteenth century was most remarkable for its great cultural self-consciousness, a sense of its own history and superiority. This ethos or self-image was held and perpetuated by the ruling class, best described as literati. The ruling stratum included nearly all people of substance and status, preëminently the holders of degrees gained through the official examinations or, in about one-third of the cases, through purchase. From these degree-holders or "gentry" were selected the actual officials, who totalled some twenty to forty thousand, depending on how one counts, in any case a remarkably small number considering that they governed a country of three or four hundred million people. The literate ruling class included on its lower level a large penumbra of landlords and merchants, since men of wealth could buy degree status by their contributions to government. At its top level, it included the aristocracy created by the dynasty and the dynasty itself with the emperor at its apex.

Mobility into and out of this ruling stratum gave it strength and durability. The government's philosophy was to preserve itself by recruiting the able. The ruler's chief task was to find men of talent. Unusual talent could rise.

This old Chinese government was hard for Westerners to understand because it really operated at two levels, one official and the other informal. On the official level the emperor and his bureaucracy kept a monopoly of all the symbols of authority, and sat on top of all large-scale activities. The government not only dominated education through the examination system; it had long since broken up the Buddhist church and kept Taoism and Buddhism decentralized in isolated units across the countryside. The secular faith of Confucianism was expounded under official auspices in the Confucian temples. The officials kept all large merchant enterprises under their control by the simple device of squeezing the merchants, and absorbing them into the official class when they got big enough. All large-scale public works were, of course, governmental. The emperor patronized the arts and had the greatest collections of both art and literature. He censored literature with a heavy hand to suppress anti-Manchu works. The emperor as a high priest conducted sacrifices to the forces of nature at the temples of heaven and of agriculture at Peking. He was also the high exemplar of the religion of filial piety so stressed in the Confucian classics. His prerogatives covered everything and made him potentially the strongest monarch who had ever lived.

Yet this formal government by its small size was necessarily very superficial. It sat on top of the society without a rival, but it did not penetrate the villages. They were the scene of an informal or unofficial kind of government, headed by the gentry degree-holders in each locality. This local élite coöperated with the few local magistrates to maintain the social order. They were examination-oriented, always eager to encourage talent that might rise to power. Meantime, they stood for stability and felt an obligation to keep city walls, moats, bridges, roads and temples in repair, to encourage private schooling within the family clan, and even in time of need to organize public relief and raise militia to maintain order.

This local-gentry tradition has only begun to be studied. It included a good deal of local initiative and clan spirit, if not indeed public spirit. Gentry scholars compiled thousands of local histories or gazetteers and family genealogies. They had a secular faith in the Confucian social order. They denounced all improper conduct, heterodoxy and the subversiveness of missionaries with their doctrines of egalitarianism. Gentry and officialdom were at one in supporting the "three bonds" that held Chinese society together-the subordination of children to parents, of wives to husbands, and of subjects to rulers. They did not believe in individualism or equality as abstract principles, but stressed the duties of all good men functioning in their proper niches in the social hierarchy.

The main object of government at both the official and unofficial levels was to perpetuate itself and the social order by living off the peasants and, at the same time, maintaining their welfare. The peasantry being illiterate were politically passive, since political action in this bureaucratic society was through the written word if at all. The peasant village happily never saw an official and dealt with his taxgatherers only periodically. Though illiterate, the villagers of course had a rich culture of folklore and custom, religious faith and superstition, and complex interpersonal relations within and between families. Our picture of this folk society is still seen largely through Confucian glasses. It was, of course, pre-modern and cut off from the outside world. The peasant economy used a highly developed manpower technology that had accumulated over millennia. In good crop years life went on with much stability and many satisfactions; the Confucian ideals of social order had thoroughly permeated the society. Even bandits could follow the norms long since mirrored in some of the vernacular novels. Secret societies had their own ancient traditions. Both Buddhism and Taoism had a message for the old wives, and everyone knew that talent, assiduity, frugality and loyalty to family and friends could help one get along.

This traditional society was mature within the limits of its pre-modern technology and so had a high degree of homeostasis or capacity to maintain a steady equilibrium. It was therefore ill-suited to modernization. The Jesuits pictured it to the European Enlightenment as an example of social harmony guided by ethics. But the law, for example, as Western merchants discovered at Canton, was administered purely as a tool of state and society, not to protect individual rights. It penalized a multitude of infractions of the social order, but obliged the magistrate to add in extra- legal considerations in each case. The letter of the law was obscure or contradictory, and held in low esteem in comparison with ethical principles. Going to law was also bad news for all concerned because of official exactions. Litigation was thus a pis aller, and the law was no help to economic growth.

Much more could be said about our traditional model. Sinologues East and West, ever since Ennin visited T'ang China from Japan in 838-847 and Marco Polo served there under the Mongols in 1275-1292, have never ceased trying to describe the curiously different Chinese way, a topic as enduring in Western culture as utopianism and the limits of state authority. One's main impression in retrospect today, I think, is of the strong Chinese feeling for "the social order," not "individualism," as the basis of welfare and the good life.


Down through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China's evolution continued along established lines. The Ch'ing dynasty rounded out its frontiers across Inner Asia by subjugating the Western Mongols, Sinkiang and Tibet. The Manchu rulers at Peking further perfected their control over domestic administration with all its checks and balances. China was at peace within, and the population apparently grew by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, the Europeans moved into the successive phases of their modern revolution, both in science and technology and in national political development. The commercial and industrial revolutions began to overrun the earth. China, at the end of the line, was soon beleaguered.

By the late nineteenth century, the inadequacies of the traditional Chinese model were very plain to see. There was no ideal of progress, no sanction for economic gain and growth, no independence for the merchant or legal protection of his enterprise against official exactions. China was not able to transplant modern industry as Japan was doing, and consequently could not build adequate military power. Her great society fell behind. Westerners became entrenched in the centers of foreign trade, the treaty ports, and continued to dominate the processes of modernization.

Most obviously, this was a political problem. The Ch'ing dynasty failed to assert its central control over the economic and social processes that modernization encouraged. Partly it lacked the resources and skills, partly the idea, which the Japanese leaders had got from abroad. In the last analysis the Ch'ing leadership lacked the desire to remake China's traditional society on a foreign model. This was an innate disability, due to China's long history of superiority in her East Asian world. Sitting at the feet of the barbarians was more than Chinese pride could take.

At the same time, however, China's political weakness in the late nineteenth century was an accident of history, due to the declining vigor of the dynasty and the rise of rebellions borne on the back of population pressure. The Taipings and other rebels of the 1850s and '60s almost finished off the Peking régime. It made its peace with the foreigners in order to survive and conquer the rebels. Thereafter it had to accept the foreigners as partners in modernization. But unlike the Japanese, the Ch'ing leadership never really accepted the idea of mastering the foreign- invented processes of modernization and so controlling China's fate, as the Communists are now attempting to do. Instead, unable like Japan to modernize the state and abolish foreign privilege, China fell victim to foreign exploitation in the eventual age of imperialism at the turn of the century.

Traditional China collapsed over a long period with many bangs and whimpers. The emperor's supremacy over all men was tarnished by the post- Opium War treaties of the 1840s and denied by the second settlement of 1858- 60. Yet tribute missions continued to come to Peking until 1908. The transition was gradual. China did not send ministers abroad until the 1870s, and then only grudgingly. She entered the family of nations only part way. Thus her imperial claims to supremacy in East Asia were maintained side by side with the unequal treaties that put China in a semi- colonial position vis-à-vis the West. This mixed order lasted 50 years.

The imperial institution, keystone of the old social order, finally came under attack from Chinese nationalism. Since the Manchus' incapacity to meet the modern challenge had led to China's humiliation, the revolutionaries of the 1900s, by a non-sequitur, denounced the monarchy as the source of China's weakness. In 1911-12 they threw out bath, bathtub, baby and all. Abolishing the monarchy had the effect of decapitating the society and created a serious vacuum of leadership.

Meanwhile the teachings of Confucius had equally suffered attrition. New learning from the West undermined the old faith. Missionaries gained few converts but their preachings of egalitarianism, individualism, science and democracy were lent credence by the superior firepower of foreign gunboats. By the time the peripheral states that had normally been tributary to the Chinese court had become Western colonies, it was plain that the old order was doomed. In 1905 the examinations were abolished in favor of a school system that, however, developed only slowly. As the gentry class disintegrated, new classes began to arise. Meanwhile the economy had been oriented more toward foreign trade through the new treaty ports, urbanization had grown with new factories and communications, and learning from abroad, especially from Japan, had become the accepted panacea. By the end of World War I, China had lost not only her secular faith of Confucianism, but also the formal government headed by the emperor with his broad prerogatives, and even the informal leadership of the local-gentry élite. The swollen numbers of the peasantry were living precariously. Talent had some new outlets but few established channels. Warlords in regional bases were wrecking the processes of government. Foreign influences were everywhere and the great tradition was in the melting pot.


The humiliating weakness and confusion of the warlord era gave the Westerners of the last generation a stereotype of China as "a heap of loose sand" or "a mere geographical expression." It also impelled patriotic youth to support a revival of central power. A new nationalism swept China in the 1920s. The overriding consideration was how to achieve national self- respect. Western influences were providing a stimulus for individualism, for the emancipation of women to control their own marriages and become educated, for the study of science and adoption of technology to achieve "progress." There was a recognition of Western superiority in many ways. All sorts of ideas flooded in and were taken up. But the over-riding and deep-down concern was for the national glory. One could not be Chinese without having a dedicated conviction of the innate worth and superiority of Chinese culture. A strong state to provide a home for it was the first essential.

This new nationalism converged with or overlapped the traditional urge to reunify the state after the collapse of a dynasty. The 40 years from the end of the Ch'ing in 1912 to the Communist takeover of 1949 is about the standard length of a dynastic interregnum in earlier instances. There had been comparable periods of disorder at the end of the T'ang, the Sung and the (Mongol) Yuan dynasties. The consolidation of Ch'ing power took 40 years from the seizure of Peking in 1644 to the last suppression of rebels in 1683. In every such period, there eventually arose a universal demand for a return to peace and order under central authority. By the end of World War II in China, this had become a widespread longing.

The rebuilding of central power was, of course, not merely a Communist achievement but began with the Kuomintang. Sun Yat-sen based his revolution on the foreign edge of China, using the funds of overseas Chinese merchants in Malaya and Hawaii, recruiting the patriotism and eloquence of students abroad in Japan and Europe, mounting his ten putsches from around the edge of China with arms smuggled in to secret societies allied with him. Yet he found that the democratic West could give him all the equipment and methods of modernization except the essential one of organizing power in post- dynastic China. He found constitutions of little use, warlord armies unreliable no matter how good their weapons, and parliamentary parties as friable as the politicians who joined them, without constituencies and without loyalty to any common authority. By 1919 Sun was convinced that his revolution, if it was to make any comeback at all, must be led by a reorganized party. He found a model for this in Leninism, and Soviet delegates helped him organize the Kuomintang in the early 1920s at the same time that they helped the Chinese Communist Party come into being in 1921.

The competition between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists in the 1920s, which has almost monopolized the attention of historians, was never as close a race as some have liked to think. There was no real competition at first between Sun Yat-sen's many thousands of middle-aged revolutionaries and the few dozens or hundreds of young Communist students. By 1927 the Nationalist reunification had succeeded up to a point and the social revolution of the Communists was deferred. Apparently China was ready for the former but not for the latter. The new student class and the merchants in the cities were most aware of the foreign "imperialist" presence and most moved by the new nationalism, whereas the crisis in peasant life and the breakup of the old family system in the villages were not yet in the forefront of concern.

The first move in rebuilding a central government was the establishment of a party dictatorship and a party army to support it. This was achieved under the national government at Canton in the early 1920s, in Sun Yat- sen's last years. Many of the Cantonese and other leaders in his group accepted Lenin's theory of imperialism and were united by anti-foreignism but abjured the class struggle within the nation. Out of Canton, as head of the Northern Expedition to unify China, came Chiang Kai-shek. It is now evident that his rise was due not merely to a talent for political-military manipulation, but also to his devotion to the primary cause of the day, national reunification. For this he saw the indoctrinated party army as the essential tool, acting on behalf of the Kuomintang dictatorship. China's nominal reunification under the Nanking government in 1928 thus marked the first great institutional step of substituting party dictatorship for dynastic rule.

This transition, with all its modern potentialities, now permitted the state for the first time to penetrate the villages. Twentieth-century China had inherited a polity that was highly authoritarian but superficial. Modern totalitarianism has been achieved by expanding the old authoritarianism down into the body social-politicizing, activating and manipulating a populace that was formerly inert in politics and parochial in its interests. Among so vast a public, this has been a slow process. In addition to the practical concerns of livelihood that induce modernization, it has been motivated by national pride. One result of mass participation has been a dilution of quality and lowering of standards in the first instance. If we compare the upbuilding of China's new order with the old structure sketched above, we will be struck by the simultaneous revival of old patterns and creation of new content to fit into them.


The transition from dynastic to party rule, at least in theory, had taken only 16 years, from 1912 to 1928. It shows considerable continuity in the midst of discontinuity. Dynasties and parties have in common, first, a definable and ongoing group of power holders, whether it is a harem- produced swarm of princes or a central committee thrown up by the intra- party political struggle. Secondly, this ongoing group selects, not without much interplay of pressures, the top executive and assists him in running the government. The top man, Chinese-style, has to be both a sage and a hero, enunciating the ideology, making the final decisions and ruling in person, not just reigning. He must be a model of propriety and the patron of art and letters, even a poet, as well as the arbiter of disputes and maintainer of morale. His ideological pronouncements are important because his rule is still very personal, by moral teaching more than by legal process. Personal loyalty still plays a role.

Finally, the structure of government is still similar. The military are quite separate from the civil administration but both are headed by the One Man. Meanwhile there is a third, separate echelon of supervisory personnel. In the old days it included palace eunuchs as well as dynastic family members and the whole establishment of the Censorate, both at the capital and in the provinces. Both Chiang and Mao have sat on the ancient tripod of civil bureaucracy, army and supervisory agencies, which now include secret police and informers as well as the party apparatus.

Discontinuity, of course, is most evident in the substitution of Marxism- Leninism-Maoism for imperial Confucianism, of a dialectic doctrine of struggle instead of harmony. Yet we should not overlook the pattern of orthodoxy so evident in both cases: the faith in a true teaching revealed in classical works, the role of the One Man or Leader as their expositor, the recruitment of talent as tested by the orthodox teaching, and the constant indoctrination of the entire government apparatus as a means of giving it unity and keeping it under control. Talent is still recruited and examined, a bureaucratic career still requires qualities of loyalty, obedience and finesse in personal relations, and heterodoxy is still condemned and attacked.

One principal change comes from the expansion of politics. Every village now participates in the political life that was formerly reserved for the ruling class. Peasant passivity has given way to activism by all citizens. Where a dynasty used to claim it ruled the Middle Kingdom with the Mandate of Heaven, now the "people" are said to make their own destiny through their chosen (?) instrument, the Chinese Communist Party. One of Mao's departures from Marxism-Leninism is to assert that the Party leads China's regeneration not only on behalf of the proletariat but also on behalf of a coalition of major classes-in effect, the whole people.

Without attempting further to describe it, one can only conclude from the outside that the content of the new orthodoxy is a far cry indeed from the comparatively static doctrines of Confucian self-discipline within an immutable social order inherited from the golden age of antique sages. Having supplanted the forces of nature or "Heaven," the "people" are now viewed as the vital makers of history, brimming with creative capacities. The Maoist leadership with its insight can liberate these long latent "productive forces." The new China is science-minded, "people"-minded, dynamic and convinced of its own creativity.

Yet this new order still subordinates the individual. Chinese youth escaped the family only to come under the small group, the production team, the party and the nation. From the first Mao has warred against individualism as the germ of bourgeois thinking. Civil liberties piously listed in state documents are reserved for the "people," not for those viewed by authority as "enemies of the people." An accused has few judicial rights-how can his petty interest outweigh that of all the rest of the Chinese people? Law still lacks any sanctity or even a codified and publicized content and reliable procedure. People's courts and procurators steer by political considerations as well as by Mao's normative pronouncements and administrative regulations. The authoritarianism of the traditional state left little sanction for individualism, and the Communists do not propose to supply any now.

Just here, however, history perhaps has a message for us. The old China, in daily life below the official level, was humane in many senses of the term. The ideal "superior man" (chün-tzu), whose learned and proper conduct entitled him to public prestige and leadership, was not merely a servant of state authority. When not in office he pursued self-cultivation (hsiu- shen), calligraphy and poetry, even philosophic meditation. The old Chinese compulsion to train oneself in literacy and other accomplishments was not purely repressive self-discipline but created one's capacity for friendship and personal enjoyment. Confucian humanism had a long tradition, albeit within a collectivist social order, and peasants who today join in politics, as only the "superior man" used to do, may sometimes also aspire on a mass scale to the self-cultivation that was once the hallmark of the gentry élite. The historical adage that revolutions after their excesses swing back toward past norms has received some support from Soviet revisionism, and Peking's fulminations against it make it seem a bit more probable for China in due time.

Continuity is thus a matter of degree. So much remains of the old landscape and its many problems: the Yellow River still flows 500 miles across the North China Plain, silting its bed above the level of the fields. There are still the precarious rainfall in the Northwest and the danger of drought and famine, the weaknesses of a capital-poor and labor-intensive farm economy, the need to keep up morale and "nourish honesty" (yang-lien) as of old among so far-flung a bureaucracy. Chairman Mao's vision of betterment must still be achieved inside a society that has a deeply ingrained inheritance, more profoundly imbedded than either we or even Chairman Mao, from our opposite sides, may realize. It is represented, for instance, in the Chinese ideographic writing system, which it seems cannot be changed into a more flexible alphabetic or other purely phonetic system.

Even the most iconoclastic new leaders, facing these problems, will be tempted to revive traditional ways of meeting them, like the well-worn device of mutual responsibility that sets neighbor spying on neighbor within a street committee. Whatever the leaders may hope, the people by their responses, less creative than the leadership, may revive old ways under new names. Certain continuities like pride of culture may well up in a resurgent nationalism that no man can control. It is in this context that we must view Peking's recent series of remarkable disasters in foreign relations.

It is a truism that the Long March generation now in power have been spiritually in combat all their lives and are psychologically struggle- prone. By 1949 their heaven-storming militancy had picked the United States, the biggest thing in sight, as their implacable foe. By 1960 they had added the Soviet Union. This imprudent and irrational course has been justified by Mao and explained by outside observers partly on ideological grounds. Mao's doctrinaire extremism has not only challenged the Chinese people to superhuman efforts, it also keeps the Leninist faith intact.

But the vehemence of Peking's denunciations of the two outside worlds that now encircle the embattled People's Middle Kingdom (Jen-min Chung-kuo) seems more than "ideological" in the usual sense of the term. Such impassioned scorn, such assertive righteousness, also echo the dynastic founders of ages past.

Founding a dynasty required a man larger than life, and several great dynasties were put together by individuals with some touch of paranoia. The unifiers of the Ch'in in 221 B. C. and the Sui in 589 A. D. pulled the empire together in fevered bursts of energy. The founder of the Ming who threw out the Mongols in 1368 also had illusions of grandeur, cut off heads, liked to have errant ministers ceremoniously beaten in court, built vast walls and palaces, and got all East Asia to send him tribute missions. This fanaticism was in the minority tradition of emperors who conquer by the sword and organize manpower to build great public works-a Great Wall, a Grand Canal-rather than in the majority tradition of those who consolidate and rule through the bureaucracy. Dynastic founders were often great blueprint artists who reorganized Chinese society according to dogmatic plans and visionary doctrines. They were usually followed by consolidators who tidied up the régime and eventually let the people relax.

Mao's hostile extremism today toward an outside world that he only vaguely discerns must be seen as a function or offshoot of his extremism within his own country. Remaking China, remolding all of its people, building a modern state power, are an all-absorbing task. No one else in world history has ever tackled such a big job, for no other country has ever been so big and so materially backward. Mao's considerable achievement-everyone fed, everyone marching-is a triumph not of cool calculation but of vision and will, as he is not the last to proclaim. In this violent process of constant and induced "struggle," ideology is a factor in its own right but also a tool of that more protean collective impulse we inadequately call "nationalism." We could equally well call it sinocentrism in modern dress.

Xenophobic contempt for foreign cultures became a standard part of China's long-conditioned response to the power of the Inner Asian barbarians. Until 1860, barely a century ago, China's leaders had suffered many times under foreign rule but had never met an equal, much less a superior, foreign culture. The old political myth of China's superiority was based on solid cultural realities even when inspired also by a need to rationalize military weakness. Today, to expect Chinese patriots to acknowledge a double weakness, both cultural and material, in both basic principles and practical devices, the t'i and the yung discussed by early reformers, is asking too much. They will sooner claim they have what China needs and condemn the outside world as evil, fit only for salvation through Maoist- type subversion.

In short, Peking's intractable mood comes out of China's history, not just from Lenin's book.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now