IT'S JUST A...USELESS TREE
In my mispent youth as a naive undergrad I by chance had an old and wizened professor of history who was a Chinese specialist. He had starting teaching Chinese-related courses way back in the 1950's and spoke Mandarin, Han, Japanese and some dialects of interest only to professional linguists. When China opened up to the world he was among the first batch of American academics to go there while China was still deeply under the influence of Maoist Communism. He liked to go off on tangents on the differences between Wade-Giles
transliteration, the influence of the Whampoa Academy
on the Kuomintang, the Chinese view of American noses and sometimes even played the guitar in class.
In his view, an entire career could be profitably spent studying a single dynasty, so he explained that he would instead use our very limited time to give us a good, basic, understanding of Chinese philosophy. The history of China we could go look up ourselves later. And he did ! It was an excellent and systematic introduction to Eastern philosophy and the great ideas of Sinocentric cultures. Of all the courses I took as an undergraduate that one was in the top three and it definitely steered me in the direction of exploring Zen.
So, to my pleasure today, a reader Sam C.
informed me that he has started The Useless Tree
, a blog looking at world events and history but centered on Chinese philosophy. A post of Sam's that caught my eye was " Mao as a failed Legalist
". The Legalist
( sometimes called "Realist") school followed the philosophy of Prince Han Fei-Tzu
, perhaps best understood by westerners as the Machiavelli of the East whose ideas were implemented in an anti-Confucian, proto-totalitarian fashion by the short-lived Qin dynasty
that unified China. An excerpt:
" But however much Mao may have revered the first Qin emperor, who was a staunch Legalist, the Communist leader ultimately failed to appreciate one of the finer points of Han Fei Tzu's writing: In his chapter on "Precautions within the Palace," Han warns that the ruler must be careful not to "afflict the people." His worry here is not humanitarian (Legalists really don't feel your pain), but political:'If too much compulsory labor is demanded of the people, they feel afflicted, and this will give rise to local power groups...Hence it is said, if labor services are few, the people will be content; if the people are content, there will be no opportunity for men to exercise undue authority on the lower levels and power groups will disappear.'
This is a fair description of what happened in the People's Republic during the disaster of the Great Leap Forward
Mao Zedong may have imposed Marxism-Leninism on China and scorned Khrushchev and his successors for criticizing the " Elder brother" Stalin, but Mao always remained first an egocentric revolutionary whose ideological dogmatism correlated directly with how a policy affected his personal power and iconic status. Chinese philosophical precepts and Marxist orthodoxy were not graven in stone.
At least where Mao himself was concerned. Everyone else had to tow the line.