Page 1 of 4 CHINA'S MASSIVE WRENCH, Part 1 Change in the face of foreign devils By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Libraries are filled with thousands of volumes explaining all the
problems and intricacies of the momentous passage from agricultural to
industrial society, from rural to urban life, from a world marked by huge gaps
in time and space to another in which communications and telecommunications
immensely narrow time and distance.
These changes still puzzle us and seem largely unexplained. Yet the changes,
occurring over a span of 200 years, are minimal if compared to what has
happened in China in the past 30 years.
The changes have been concentrated in a little more than a
generation. But this is just a small part of a larger phenomenon: in the past
150 years, China's complex cultural values have been under constant attack,
forcing revision. That is, not only did China have to undergo the same
structural changes as the West in a shorter period, at the same time it also
underwent dramatic cultural changes.
The only similar development took place in Japan in the late 19th century. But
to put it very briefly, Japan was at a much earlier phase of cultural
evolution, so the breadth of the structural change was not as huge. It was in a
society that claimed it had already absorbed and digested a foreign culture,
that of China about a thousand years earlier. So the present digestion of
Western culture was within the Japanese tradition and it could do so with great
confidence because in the first phases of the reform it had military victories
over the regional superpower China, in 1894, and a Western power, Russia, in
China, conversely, arrived to the fast phase of modernization pretty late, with
a larger gap to fill in less time. China also didn't have much confidence, as
it had been defeated by foreign powers, invaded and almost totally conquered by
Japan, and had won only a small war against India. It managed to gain an almost
honorable draw with America in Korea in the 1950s (with Russian support) and
with Vietnam in 1979 (with some American assistance).
Furthermore, China had no affirmed tradition of digesting foreign culture into
its own mold and changing itself in the process. It had the opposite tradition,
of making anything foreign "Chinese", which occurred several times in Chinese
history. The last time was with the minority Manchu invaders, who eventually
were completely Sinified (or Hanized). One could argue that Buddhism vastly
changed China, but the current perception is that, in fact, China changed
Buddhism even more. Now, the situation is completely different, and there is no
doubt that China is changing to adapt to a Western values-dominated world,
rather than the contrary.
The country that faced the "foreign devils from the ocean", yang guizi,
during the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century dramatically changed in the
following century and a half - to the point that contemporary China can be
regarded as only superficially similar to the country it was during the Opium
Wars. In fact, the whole social and personal context, which defines and
influences ideas, ambitions and world-views, has been totally transformed in
these 150 years.
The new family
The change started with the family, the cell and basis for society and the
state. The ideal family in the 19th century was unchanged from the times of
Confucius, some 2,000 years before: three generations under one roof. The older
man had many wives and even more children. Each male heir also had many wives
and children, all living together in a large courtyard, resembling a small
village of dozens of people.
In the courtyard, there were also many servants. The females of the clan were
betrothed to neighbors, who then gained a closer relationship with the family.
In this way, whole villages or even towns were under the control of one family.
Each relative had a name indicating his precise relationship to the speaker.
There were no vague appellations like "aunt", "uncle" or "cousin". There were
terms such as "uncle, first younger brother of my father" (da shufu) or
"uncle, second brother of my mother" (er jiufu), and so on. Cousins also
bore different names, accordingly.
It was an intricate cobweb of relations in which each individual had his or her
precise place. A male child grew up thinking that if he studied hard and if he
were virtuous and filial, he would pass official exams, become a successful
mandarin, inherit the family fortune and establish his own large family home.
Then, he would pick the brightest of his heirs and support that child through
his studies, continuing the glorious family tradition.
That was an ideal. Most men had only one wife, as they could not afford more.
Some men, poor, had no wives; and some, just a little less poor, had to share a
wife with their brothers. Yet, the ideal family was one man, many wives and
many, many children.
For the emperor, this was an issue of state security. The emperor had many
wives to make sure he had many children and could choose the fittest from them
to succeed him. The successor had to be male, but not necessarily the first
born from the first wife, as was the situation in Europe. The Chinese system
tried to make sure the emperor was not incompetent, which could be the case
with the European system where God chose the successor - namely, the
The issue of family and keeping only one wife was the stumbling block in the
conversion of a Qing emperor to Catholicism. The Wanli emperor might have
entertained the idea of converting to Catholicism, as many of his closest
advisors were Jesuits, but he could not accept the idea of having one wife, as
this would alter the rules for succession in China. However, the Jesuits in the
17th century knew that they could not compromise on the rule of succession: the
king's many wives and their children had been the very issue that had caused a
split between England and Rome the century before with Henry VIII and
Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1603, seven years before Italian Jesuit priest
Matteo Ricci's demise in Beijing in 1610.
This ideal of the family persisted until the communists took over in 1949.
After the May Fourth movement in 1919, the idea of one wife was introduced as
progressive and modern. However, Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek had
more than one wife, as did many senior KMT officials.
Conversely, the Communist Party broke the old mold and introduced puritanical
rules imposing just one wife. This was already a major break with tradition,
but an even greater break came in the 1980s with the one-child rule. This
completely reversed the old pyramid of relations. A hundred years before, a
grandfather could be served by scores of grandchildren all vying for his favor.
In 1980s, one couple, some of them being two single children of single-wife
marriages, could have as many as four grandparents all hovering around their
single child. Then, there would be six adults spoiling one child. This is the
phenomenon of the "little emperors". The children were spoiled, but also under
enormous pressure. They had the responsibility to succeed for their family's
In larger families, this responsibility was spread among scores of siblings who
first had to learn to live with each other. The one child born after 1980 had
to be number one in his class to be sure to get into a good high school, which,
in turn, guarantees a place at a good university in the extremely selective
Chinese education system.
But this, of course, is impossible. What happens, then, in most families, if
the one child fails to get into a good university and has no hope for a good
job? How do the children reconcile themselves with their lot? Will they be
frustrated and angry? They are no small number - millions of children fall into
this generation. How will these people impact society, the state, the world and
culture in the next 20 years?
One thing is sure, China has never experienced a generation like this, and
neither has any society in the world, so it is difficult to forecast trends.
Because the situation is so widespread, the Chinese government has realized the
problem and is trying to address it. But before turning our attention to the
answer, first we have to look at how the Chinese government itself has
End to the emperor
Since unification in the late 3rd century BC, China was ruled by an emperor, a
supreme head of state, ultimate source of power and decision-maker. Possibly,
there were "emperors" even before then, such as the son of heaven (tianzi)
of Zhou times, but he was likely more of a religious and ceremonial figure than
a real political monarch.
The imperial system really started with the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty
(221 BC-207 BC) - Qinshi Huangdi. The system underwent many changes, but there
was always one constant: the emperor did not run the administration of the
country. That duty was largely entrusted to a body of ministers and officials
who were selected on the basis of merit. The emperor embodied the interests of
the state, as the state was his. It was a mechanism similar to that of modern
companies differentiating property and management. The owner, or major
stock-holder, sets the goals and decides the broad direction and the interests
of the company, such as its stability and welfare. The emperor's interests
coincide with the interests of the population, or in our comparison, the
employees in a company. The citizens want to lead comfortable safe lives, and
creating this environment ensures a stable hold on power for the emperor.
In the middle, between the emperor and the people, there were officials who had
the job of running the country and maintaining stability. It is easy to see how
people recognized their interests as coinciding with those of the emperor, and
as a result both the emperor and the people blamed officials if something minor
went wrong. If something major was wrong, it meant the emperor had lost his
marbles, he did not understand his and his people's interests, or heaven did
not want him to rule - and that was the end for him and the dynasty. They would
be replaced by a new