In China, Feudal Answers for Modern Problems

By Yu Hua

After Mao Zedong announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party began to get rid of all the vestiges of the “feudal” society that had preceded it.

This process culminated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) with the campaign to “Destroy the Four Olds”: old thought, culture, customs and habits. Cultural relics and temples were feudal, and so, too, were traditional celebrations, like the springtime Qingming (tomb sweeping) and Dragon Boat Festivals and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

In Beijing, restaurant names like Donglaishun (East Come Smoothly) and Quanjude (Consummate Virtue) were written off as feudal, and Tongren (Equal Kindness) Hospital and Xiehe (Assisting Harmony) Hospital were renamed Worker-Peasant-Soldier Hospital and Anti-Revisionism Hospital, respectively. In a little town between Shanghai and Hangzhou, the street I lived on as a child, Yang Family Alley, became Sunnyside Alley.

With Mao’s death in 1976 and the onset of market reforms under Deng Xiaoping, the four olds, so long vilified, all of a sudden became jewels of traditional culture. Donglaishun’s poached mutton and Quanjude’s roast duck are now culinary highlights in Beijing. Heritage sites everywhere are being protected and restored (though not always faithfully), while temples and monasteries are once more crowded with worshipers. Traditional festivals have become official public holidays. Soothsayers and fortunetellers, once forced into hiding, are now a dime a dozen. The Sunnyside Alley of my boyhood has reverted to being Yang Family Alley. Most strikingly, practices that used to be criticized as feudal have become, in the hands of some shrewd Communist officials, favored management techniques.

The corruption, income inequality and environmental degradation that have accompanied China’s breakneck economic development over the last 30 years have provoked social unrest. In 2010, China had 180,000 “mass incidents,” the official euphemism for protests — a fourfold increase over the previous decade. Methods of social control that once worked like charms are now losing their efficacy. So the Central Party School and its provincial subsidiaries, which train China’s leaders, are revamping curriculums. Each year they send student-officials to Harvard to study Western management.

But they are often finding that it’s the old feudal customs, so repugnant to Mao, that help them keep a grip on society.

A district chief in a southern Chinese city told me this story: Heavy rains had triggered a flood that swept away over a thousand graves, affecting more than 10,000 people. The Chinese have a deep-seated belief that the state of one’s ancestors’ graves determines one’s own fate. To accommodate urbanization, these thousand-odd graves, originally dispersed over a variety of locations, had been shifted and placed next to one another — a process that was itself contradictory, because according to tradition, graves are not to be moved, lest later generations suffer some calamity.

If a deluge had dislodged the graves from their original burial places, people would have seen that as a natural disaster, but since the government had been responsible for relocating the graves, infuriated residents blamed the authorities for putting their ancestors in harm’s way.

Instead of mobilizing the police, however, the canny district chief summoned a dozen or so practitioners of feng shui. They calmed the protesters, assuring them that when the graves were swept away it signified a fortune in the making. As folk wisdom has it, water is wealth — and an encounter with water means you will get rich. The protesters didn’t trust the government, but they did trust the feng shui masters.

Here’s another story, told to me by a former county official in Hunan Province, in central China. Consignments of timber, concrete and reinforcing rods were piled on a vacant lot to prepare for the building of a government office block. Every evening, local residents would sneak over and help themselves to construction materials, planning to use them for their own projects. In their eyes, stealing property from the government didn’t count as theft, unlike, say, stealing from your neighbor. County officials proposed security measures: a perimeter wall topped by an electrified fence, and regular police patrols.

No need for any of that, the county leader told them. His solution: wooden signs posted on all four sides. “For temple construction,” the signs read. This did the trick: when the locals saw that the timber, steel and concrete were going to be used to build a Buddhist temple, not only did they stop their pilfering, but under cover of darkness they even returned the loot they had carted home. Theft of temple property, superstition told them, would incur terrible retribution.

A Canadian reporter once asked me: “How much longer will Mao’s portrait hang on Tiananmen?”

“If Mao knew his China would be reduced to this,” I replied, “he’d insist that his portrait be taken down right away.”