Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

by on Thursday, 07 July 2011 Comments

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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