1. The China Experiment

Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in the most immense and radical social experiment on the planet: the remaking of an entire civilization, culture, and society in the direction of a utopian, socialist, and modern ideal.

It has done so through a series of campaigns and organized structural changes, beginning in the 1950s with the Land Reform that redistributed all privately owned land, taking it away from established landowners, nationalizing it in the hands of the state, then handing it over to poor peasants to farm. This led, by the middle of the decade, to radical collectivization, where everyone was assigned to a work unit (danwei 单位) and each family had to obtain a local household registration (hukou 户口). All property and all activities became communal, to the point where people’s houses did no longer have separate kitchens as everyone ate in collective dining rooms, or spaces for children since all infants were raised in communal creches.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958 enhanced this development through centrally assigned farming directives combined with a nationwide effort to produce steel from all kinds of metals, including farm implements, in backyard furnaces. The result was a massive crop failure that led to three years of famine, during which nearly 45 million people died. The death toll increased during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 when Mao Zedong 毛泽东called upon young people, the Red Guards, to destroy everything old—culture, habits, artifacts, even people. Millions of city dwellers were sent into the countryside to learn from the peasants, while innumerable artifacts and cultural treasures were defaced or destroyed. It only ended with Mao’s death in 1976.

The Four Modernizations under Deng Xiaoping 邓小平, starting in 1978 with a focus on agriculture, industry, defense and science, embodied a more modern vision of socialist China. Being rich was no longer frowned upon nor were private initiative or individual differences. Opening China to Western investments, first in several Special Economic Zones on the southeastern seaboard, Deng guided it to become the workshop of the world and a major export power. Instituting the one-child policy in 1980, he engineered new family structures and limited population growth. As a result, the Chinese economy tripled over the next thirty years and a third of its 1.2 billion people rose into the middle class.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it has evolved since then—interrupted by a period of four more repressive years after a widespread pro-democracy movement was violently suppressed in June 1989—envisions a modern, industrialized, urbanized society made up of well-educated, healthy, and prosperous people who work and live together in great harmony and spread peace and abundance everywhere. Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, who led China from 2002-12, formulated it in terms of the Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces:

Love the country; do it no harm.

Serve the people; never betray them.

Follow science; discard ignorance.

Be diligent; not indolent.

Be united, help each other; make no gains at others’ expense.

Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.

Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.

Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

His successor, the current leader Xi Jinping 习近平, while working hard to extirpate corruption in government and industry, describes it in terms of the China Dream, again endorsing the ideal of social justice and overarching harmony. He also proposes the One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu一带一路) initiative that supports major infrastructure projects in developing countries all around the world, opening them to commerce while enhancing Chinese influence and securing raw materials.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNVBqskxXd8

Read: Benson, Linda. 2016. China Since 1949. London: Routledge.



Daoist China Blog




In May 2018, in conjunction with the 12th international Daoist conference to be held at Beijing Normal University (http://daoistconference.info), I plan to run a 2-week tour called “Daoist China.” This is an expansion of my various Japan tours, which started with the first “Kyoto Hike” in 2004 and have been both successful and enjoyable ever since.

An early venture into China in 2011, using my Daoist expertise to guide a trip following the footsteps of Laozi—from birth through Daode jing transmission to Western emigration—was a mixed experience. With the help of my friend and colleague Robin Wang, I connected to a Chinese travel agent to make all the local arrangements. This worked fine but had the drawback of being in buses a lot of the time, working with local guides whose knowledge of Daoism was negligible, and costing a rather large amount of money.

With the great improvements in Chinese infrastructure, the overall easing of tourist access, and the availability of online booking of hotels, flights, and trains, touring in China has fundamentally changed over the past few years. It is now possible to run a tour along the lines of my Japan trips, focused on themes and places of my preference, relatively inexpensive, and eminently flexible.

To prepare for the tour, when giving lectures at Beijing Normal University in July 2017, I went to various places both in Beijing and Xi’an to explore accommodations and the accessibility of various key tourist sites. Taking the train between the two cities (about 4-5 hours each way) and walking about in the searing heat, I observed continued unbridled construction of huge, megalithic high-rise complexes in vast stretches of the country, complete with the untrammeled despoiling of nature and intensification of pollution, as well as the ever increasing vibrancy of the Chinese people, glued to their cell phones and actively connected online, always moving about and hustling for yet another deal.

At the same time, using the internet without a VPN and talking to colleagues at Beijing Normal University, I was struck by the massive increase in repressive measures by the state, the tightening of the intellectual control of both content and expression, the fluctuating inaccessibility of information sources that used to be perfectly fine. What, I asked myself, is going on here? Where stands China today and where is it headed from here? And what, in all of this, is the role and place of Daoism?

After returning home, I dove into an intensive exploration, reading anything and everything I could lay my hands on regarding the politics, economics, culture, and religion of China today, focusing particularly on works published in the last two years. I have come to see the Chinese situation in a new and rather disturbing light, and am now ready to share my observations in the following vignettes.