Friday, December 30, 2011

China must "break the tyrannical spell cast by Mao Zedong"

Robert Bellah

I see that my old Berkeley advisor Robert Bellah was quoted in a New York Times column yesterday, or at least in my Thursday issue of the International Herald Tribune, but the online version of the Times posted the column on Wednesday.

In any case, the column, "Mao's Spell and the Need to Break It," by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, is recent, and I discovered that Bellah was in China, also recently, where he gave a talk based on his magnum opus that was published this past September, Religion in Human Evolution, which deals -- among various religious and moral systems -- with Confucianism and other Chinese systems of ethics and religion. I'm particularly interested because I saw much of the book in manuscript form, looking for typos and offering minor feedback. Anyway, Bellah's book was quite warmly received by the Chinese authorities:
The emphasis in his book on Chinese tradition as a contemporary guide was warmly welcomed in a recent essay in the state-run newspaper China Daily, in which the writer, Zhang Zhouxiang, argued, perhaps pointedly, that [Bellah's emphasis on manners or rituals, the concept] li[,] justifies the ruler's right to rule but that the ruler also has an obligation to treat his subjects well.

That's rather interesting, in light of Bellah's view that China "must break the tyrannical spell cast by Mao Zedong":
In the book, Mr. Bellah notes the parallels between Mao and [Emperor] Qin Shihuangdi, a follower of the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. The Qin emperor silenced criticism, burned books and buried scholars alive, while Mao, who admired the emperor, once boasted that he had caused the death of more scholars than Qin Shihuangdi.

Mao's legacy, unfortunately, is inherited by China's Communist Party, which has yet to disavow Mao, and that poses a dilemma. Disavow Mao, and the party itself is disavowed, for it is Mao's creation. Don't disavow Mao, and the party is morally destitute, for it is Mao's creation. Bellah doesn't set forth a dilemma, but he notes a related problem:
"Turning away from Legalism and Mao is going to be a challenge, because they haven't worked their way through the Mao period," said Mr. Bellah . . . . "His picture is still there, and they want to separate the good from the bad part of Mao Thought. Well, sorry, you can't. You've got to break the spell . . . . I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history."

This is particularly a problem for China's leaders because they still emphasize the thought of Mao and Marxism as offering moral authority and guidance, as Bellah notes:
Chinese leaders, who are officially atheist, assume that they have a moral system in place already, he said. "The fact that Marx is taught at every level, from kindergarten to university, shows that they think they have a civil religion. The fact that to many Chinese it's a joke and they don't take it seriously shows they have a problem on their hands."

The Communist leadership's dawning recognition of that problem might explain that recent essay by Zhang Zhouxiang in the China Daily praising Bellah's emphasis upon li. Bellah's views are broader than that as to what constitutes the moral basis of a civilization, and in response to Tatlow's query on what China's future moral basis might be if that country is to step into its role as a legitimate world leader:
Mr. Bellah offered the traditional Chinese concepts of tian, or heaven; li, manners or rituals; and yi, justice, as some building blocks of morality.

To emphasize manners and rituals (le) without grounding them in something greater, justice (yi) confirmed by heaven (tian), would pose the danger of falling again into the Legalist philosophy by another name, with "the Communist Party rel[ying] . . . on people's fear of social chaos to justify its controls."

The Chinese people themselves seem to recognize the need for moral authority, for as Tatlow notes, "spiritual traditions are flourishing, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and folk religions, as well as Christianity and even Bahai." The very search implies that people are "morally adrift, with the 'eviscerated' Marxism of the Communist Party failing to provide the framework for a functioning set of beliefs," writes Tatlow, summarizing Bellah. But perhaps we can expect more attention to these issues among thoughtful Chinese:
Mr. Bellah said he was deeply impressed by the forward-looking optimism and -- relatively -- free debate he saw in China among intellectuals and students.

If free debate grows into a culture of discussion, then the problem can be analyzed and addressed by the Chinese themselves, but the Communist Party will have to relinquish some controls on free speech for that to develop.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home