Theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state, part 1: was pre-modern China a secular society?|Kevin Carrico

Published (HKT): 2021.01.01 09:25

On the 127th anniversary of Mao’s birth this past Saturday, tens of thousands gathered in Mao Zedong square in Shaoshan, Hunan. Singing “The East is Red,” bowing before the massive bronze Mao statue at the south side of the square, and placing flowers and other offerings at the statue’s foot, one could say, to put it very gently, that the gathering was not characterized by a particularly atheistic vibe.

To deploy a bit of Maoist terminology in the service of irony, these scenes at Shaoshan manifest a contradiction. Not only was a genuinely horrid person being worshipped like a god by people whose lives had been greatly improved by the scrapping of at least some (but still not enough) of his disastrous legacies. At a spiritual level, the event last Saturday at Shaoshan showed the symbolic figurehead of an avowedly atheistic regime being treated in a decidedly religious manner.

This curious scene has inspired me to write a series of pieces over the next few weeks examining what I will call the theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state.

Before we turn to modern concerns, in this first installment I would like to debunk the all-too-common claim that pre-modern China was an irreligious or even secular society. By this logic, the avowedly atheistic Chinese Communist Party regime is simply the latest iteration of a longstanding tradition of rational secularism in China. This is, to put it bluntly, a steaming pile of communist nonsense.

There are a few versions of this nonsense. Some assert that China was the only major civilization that did not produce a transcendental religion: anyone familiar with any aspects of religious practice in China should immediately notice the fallaciousness of this claim. This false claim is in turn based on the equally fallacious argument that Confucianism is a philosophy or ethical system focused solely on the matters of this world, with no concern for supernatural matters.

The obsessive focus on Confucianism in analyses of pre-modern Chinese thought, a feature of both contemporary “Western” and Chinese scholarship, overlooks the very real diversity of thought in this world. In the field of politics, the myopic focus on Confucianism neglects the far more prominent role of Legalism, a form of aspirational totalitarianism, in political practice. Similarly, in the religious realm, a myopic focus on Confucianism neglects the diversity of pre-modern religious life, which placed Confucian teachings in a broader belief network that dealt regularly in transcendental and supernatural matters.

To understand religious belief and practice in pre-modern China, one need not study The Analects, but rather develop an understanding of the cycle of festivals, the regular interactive exchanges with deities via worship and offerings, and the apotheosis of local figures and imperial rulers. Often idiosyncratic local elements combined with broader transcendental meta-narratives, imagining at every level interactions between the human and the supernatural world.

The vision of a sacred emperor figure as the self-proclaimed leader of all humanity, enacting a series of rites and rituals to imaginarily mediate between the human and the supernatural worlds, presents an undeniable example of the theological undergirding of state power. To argue that China was the sole major civilization to have not produced a transcendental religion is therefore to thoroughly misunderstand religion in pre-modern China, which was characterized less by its absence than by its ubiquity.

What can we take away from these basic points about the role of religion in premodern Chinese society and politics? What implications for the present can be derived from a recognition of the prominence of religion in pre-modern Chinese society and the theological basis of the pre-modern state?

There has been in recent years pushback in China-focused analysis against the use of such clichés as translating Zhongguo as “the Middle Kingdom” or basing political legitimacy in “the mandate of heaven.” On one level, I agree with the impetus behind such pushback, insofar as these frames can easily produce overly simplistic and clichéd interpretations of complex matters. On another level, however, clichés often have their basis in truth, and some of this resistance is in fact promoting a misrepresentative reading of the Chinese state as far more secular and rational than it ever has been.

One can, for example, recognize that Zhongguo does not have to be translated as the Middle Kingdom and should instead be understood as the central states (relative to other states), while at the same time recognizing that the point underlying the Middle Kingdom translation, namely Sinocentrism, is nevertheless very much real and lasting, embodied in the emperor mediating between worlds. A certain self-centeredness should be seen as a near universal of all cultures: the one unexceptional thing that all cultures share is faith in their own exceptionality, and China has certainly never been an exception in this regard.

One can also avoid exaggerating superstition by resisting the urge to feed any unfortunate event into the readymade “mandate of heaven” framework, while at the same time acknowledging the reality of theological elements and mystical legitimation among many of the dynasties that ruled over the space that we now call China: aspects of political culture that are not necessarily determinative of behavior today but that nevertheless continue to have an impact.

These two trends, reflections of the theological foundations of the Chinese state, come together in the topic of the next installment of this series: the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, whose politics intersected with Marxist theology to herald China as the leader of an oppressed global proletariat seeking to transcend the current world order to create a new heaven on earth, starting a sectarian war with endless casualties.

(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University)

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