CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


'Flourishing China': The Normative Dimension | China Heritage Quarterly

'Flourishing China': The Normative Dimension

Klaus Mühlhahn
Indiana University

This essay is based on the author's presentation at the 'Shengshi Zhongguo 盛世中国 Flourishing China, myths and realities' forum at The Association for Asian Studies annual conference, 31 March 2011.—The Editor

While the notion of a rising China appeared on the global stage with great fanfare in the last decade of the twentieth century, the rise of China and the goal of flourishing had been the dominant meta-narrative within China long before the recent past (See William Kirby's essay in Features—Ed.). Indeed the teleology of rising and flourishing has laced the rhetoric of China's intellectuals and leaders since the late nineteenth century, whether Communist or Nationalist, radical or moderate.

As many observers have pointed out, there is among the political elites of China a pervasive consciousness of its global primacy in the past. China's catastrophic decline from this glorious legacy at the hands of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century is felt to be a national humiliation (guochi) calling for redress and 'national salvation' (jiu guo). In fact, recollections of ancient grandeur combined with outrage at China's decline provided the starting point for modern Chinese nationalism at the turn of the century. National salvation meant strengthening and modernization, to become a 'rich country, strong state', to restore China's greatness and to create an age of national efflorescence. Yet while the meta-narrative has been clear and consistent, the concrete policies advanced for the achievement of that goal over the course of the twentieth century wavered between conflicting programs and ideas. While pursuing similar goals, Chinese intellectuals and leaders were deeply divided on how to revive China and restore its greatness, and there has been frequent and often bitter disagreement over the pursuit of political lines and the adoption of foreign models and methods. These differences may be attributed not only to changing domestic concerns, political preferences and internal struggles, but also to efforts to adapt to the (real and perceived) pressures of global developments. The obvious impact of leadership struggles, frequent policy reconfigurations and systemic crises may lead observers to understate significantly the role of several relatively invariant features of China's ideal of flourishing. These features point to a number of central norms that are deeply entrenched in the notion of 'flourishing' itself. These norms entail among others the priority of the state and collective goals, the spirit of individual sacrifice and subordination as well as the desirability of social engineering and transformative policies.

When it comes to Chinese visions of flourishing there is the conspicuous emphasis on the role of 'principles'—other countries' policies may be motivated by economic or political interests, but China has always placed greatest emphasis on principles (zhuyi).[1] From Sun Yatsen's Three Principles of the People to Mao Zedong's Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence; from Deng Xiaoping's Four Cardinal Principles to Jiang Zemin's Three Represents, China's path to flourishing was seen to be grounded in standards, norms and firm beliefs. Principles were needed it was argued because they provided direction, a correct path forward. Above all they made China's aspirations distinctive, if not superior, because they were informed not by self-interest but by altruistic values.

Closely related to this is a predilection for a comprehensive theory or theoretical framework for the nation: A great number of studies have demonstrated the inclination of Chinese governments in the twentieth century toward scientific planning, large scale projects, transformative policies and social engineering. Other countries may have short term policies, but China's path to flourishing is typically conceived as part of a larger theoretical plan or scientific design, into which it must fit—examples range from the Minzu Economy of the 1930s to the Four Modernizations embarked upon from the mid 1970s.[2] The Chinese path to flourishing has to be underpinned by scientific theory in order to be effective and all policies are periodically assessed in terms of their contribution to normative national objectives. To be sure, there have been different theories guiding China's rise, from the Maoist vision of a China-led world revolution to the more recent goal of an 'harmonious society', but there has always been a principle, a theory behind the vision of flourishing.

A further normative element is the notion that individual prosperity and happiness rest almost entirely on the prosperity and harmony of the state; both are conceived to be necessarily and largely congruent. While it may be possible to trace those ideas back to certain legacies of imperial China, the important role of the state or the collective in securing prosperity and security became increasingly prominent in the modern period.[3] Yan Fu, for example, was primarily concerned with the wealth, power and future of the Chinese nation, and he understood liberty as a means of securing China's survival as a nation. But he was also convinced that individual liberty had to be restricted in order that it would be socially productive. He wrote: 'the precondition for acquiring freedom is the self-government of each individual, lest freedom should lead to chaos.'[4] In other words, without discipline the restoration of greatness and flourishing would remain elusive goals. He went on to lay out three strategies for the strengthening of the Chinese people: enhancement of physical strength, development of the intellect and renewal of the morality of the people. Liang Qichao made a similar point. In the chapter entitled 'On Liberty' (Lun ziyou) in his New People (Xinmin shuo), Liang put liberty at the center of his project to forge new citizens. Such liberty is, however, not seen as the unfettered freedom to act in order to safeguard one's own survival. Rather, it is described as a limited freedom for the purpose of national survival and the benefit of the collective.

Throughout the course of the twentieth century it was frequently stressed that excessive freedom and the lack of self-discipline formed the main obstacles to social and national cohesion, to China's efflorescence. We find similar arguments not only in Sun Yatsen's and Chiang Kai-shek's public speeches, but also in the writings of many intellectuals. The editor-in-chief of The Eastern Miscellany (Dongfang zazhi), Du Yaquan, published an article entitled 'Reform of the Individual' (Geren zhi gaige) in June 1914. In this piece he argued that reforms would remain superficial as long as they were only directed at the political and educational structures of society. Reforms must start from the individual, and changes must be initiated at this basic level of society if they are to become effective. But he also argued that individual freedoms must be limited for the sake of the nation's stability.[5]

Increasingly, the ideal of a flourishing China implied the refashioning of individuals in order to shape mentalities conducive to national goals. During the Republican era, schools, prisons, and government-initiated social movements promoted the creation of good, selfless citizens as a sine qua non of national flowering. The modern Chinese subject was supposed to be freed from the Confucian-imperial system, but only—in the words of Chow Tse-tsung—to be placed in new 'bondage to state, party, or other social and economic organization'.[6] Freed from clan and family, the individual came to be viewed as a powerful resource to be incorporated by the nation-state and appropriated for its project of national flourishing.

Neither was the quest for wealth and power that began with the early reformers at the turn of the twentieth century interrupted during the history of the People's Republic. After proclaiming that 'the Chinese people have stood up' in 1949, in the 1950s Mao Zedong called the country to 'catch up with Great Britain and outstrip the United States'. Propaganda posters painted a glorious future of wealth, collective harmony and great power status—all under party stewardship. The Great Leap Forward, despite its horrible consequences, was Mao's attempt to create a flourishing society so that by 1988, China would have an economy that rivaled America. Many intellectuals, including some educated in the West, believed that the time had come for them to fulfill their historical mission of creating a strong flourishing China based on communist theory.

In order to achieve those goals the party called for the convergence of individual and group interests. Mao wrote: 'The individual is an element of the collective. When collective interests are increased, personal interests will subsequently be improved.'[7] The individual should subject himself to the higher interests of the larger group such as the Party, the class, or the nation. The ideal of flourishing China also acquired a statist quality as it portrayed the Communist state as the embodiment of the nation's will, seeking for its goals the kind of loyalty and support granted the nation itself. State nationalism and its nation-building aspirations invested state policy with a nationalistic tone. Economic development became a national cause and transformation into a powerful and modern flourishing country became a collective effort led by the Communist state.[8] Economic, political and social policy-making and implementation were infused with official propaganda emphasizing national unity, goals and accomplishments. Common public goals could only be achieved meaningfully by collective effort, whereby members had to unite to pursue the common good. In this line of thinking, individualism or the notion of individual rights denoted disunity, selfishness and the private. The Communist Party therefore considered that the promotion of individual rights or freedoms would only weaken state unity and undermine the path to flourishing.[9]

After 1978, the state and party continued the search for a strategy that would make China 'strong and powerful' and secure it a central place in the world. The condemnation of Maoist policies and the sudden awareness of China's economic backwardness dealt a heavy blow to national pride. Many citizens could not help asking why China was still so backward after thirty years of socialist reconstruction. After the end of the Cold War, there was a new upsurge of Chinese aspirations for national greatness. This time, however, Chinese intellectuals and middle class citizens once again became one of the driving forces, often even outflanking the state. Since the 1990s many well-educated Chinese—social scientists, humanities scholars, writers and other professionals and above all students—have given voice to and even become activists for the nationalist undertaking to create a flourishing China.

This is illustrated by the popularity of a twelve-part TV documentary on 'The Rise of Great Powers' (Daguo jueqi).[10] The series was co-produced by China Central Television (CCTV) and Peking University, with several scholars actively involved. In the series, economic efflorescence functions as both the central field of competition between empires and nations and the major basis for claims of great-power status. This strongly reflects the concept of modern history as a history of modernization. National unity, a strong state, and political stability appear as preconditions for economic efflorescence.

The features briefly touched upon above point to a principled, normative consistency that is part of China's projected national self-image as well as its ideal of flourishing. Although legitimacy is a typical concern of elites everywhere, the normative dimension seems unusually prominent in this case. In particular, it points back to long-standing ambitions to national greatness and concerns about unity and China's place in the world. It also points forward to the continuation of these ambitions as well as the anxieties barely hidden beneath it. Flourishing China, then, aims at an ideal outcome no one has yet seen (except perhaps as a Golden Age projected back onto the past). The correlation between embodied elements and different norms (wealth, statism, national strength, collectivity) is therefore in constant flux and inherently ambivalent. The embodied norms are also somewhat vague and even in conflict, as the relationship between different elements is never made clear. But flourishing China is not only a lofty ideal; it is also a transformational goal that has been the basis and justification for far-reaching interventions and policies aimed at a large-scale reconfiguration of society for achieving efflorescence. While the elusive vision of a flourishing China is meant to galvanize the population behind the leadership, the very real consequences of the transformative policies have given rise to frequent adjustments, deep frictions and bitter disputes within Chinese society at large.

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[1] Lowell Dittmer, 'On China's Rise', in Brantly Womack, ed., China's Rise in Historical Perspective, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010, pp.39-59.

[2] Margherita Zanasi, Saving the Nation: Economic Modernity in Republican China, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006; and, Susan Shirk, The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

[3] Imperial Confucianism stressed that every member of society has above all the duty to serve the state and society at large. The individual was viewed as part of a dense hierarchical web of social relations which defined a person's position, social role and obligations.

[4] Yan Fu, translated in Jerome Chen, China and the West: Society and Culture, 1815-1937, London: Hutchinson, 1979, p.180.

[5] Lydia H. Liu, 'Translingual Practice: The Discourse of Individualism between China and the West', in Tani E. Barlow, ed., Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1997, p.96.

[6] Tse-Tsung Chow, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1960, p.312.

[7] Quoted in Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy, New York: Knopf, 1986, p.64.

[8] Suisheng Zhao, 'Chinese intellectuals' quest for national greatness and nationalistic writing in the 1990s', China Quarterly, 152 (December 1997): 725-45.

[9] After assuming power, the CCP carried out several campaigns to re-educate Chinese citizens and propagate the primacy of collective interests. 'Thought reform' (sixiang gaizao) or ideological re-education was at the centre of many campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. Citizens all over the country were required to participate in study and discussion sessions aimed at identifying individualism and bringing the thinking of all into line with the ostensible interests of the collective. See Klaus Mühlhahn, '"Friendly Pressure": Law and the Individual in Modern China', in iChina—The Rise of the Individual in Modern Chinese Society, edited by Mette Halskov Hansen and Rune Svarverud, Copenhagen: NIAS, 2010 (NIAS Studies in Asian Topics #45), pp.227-250.

[10] Nicola Spakowski, 'National Aspirations on a Global Stage: Concepts of World/Global History in Contemporary China', Journal of Global History 4:3 (November 2009): 475-495.