Chinese Lesson: Paying the Price for Uprightness
Mohan Guruswamy May 22, 2019/Op-Ed
World’s largest electoral exercise, in the largest democracy – India, concluded on May 19th. The counting and results are awaited in a few hours from now. This elction has been the most acrimonious so far in Independent India’s history. Given the endemic corruption and the corrosive hyper-nationalism around the world today, the importance of honesty, integrity, and uprightness in public life is in stark focus. The French Revolution produced Maximilien Robespierre, ‘the Incorruptible’ whose intolerance for corruption brought in the infamous guillotine. Mohan Guruswamy goes down Chinese history to highlight the importance of uprightness, whatever the price maybe.
Recently I had a visitor from Hainan, China, Jiang Zhongqiang. Jiang is from the South China Maritime Research Centre, and has been commissioned to write a book about the Congress Party. I told him that to understand the inner workings of the party he would be better off first studying the inner workings of the Ming court. When asked to elaborate I told him about Hai Rui (1514-1587), the honest bureaucrat from Hainan who is buried in the provincial capital Haikou in a nondescript grave. We also spoke about the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), who like Hai Rui paid a heavy price for his uprightness.
Hai Rui was a scholar-official of the Ming dynasty. He is remembered as a model of honesty and integrity in office. A play based on his career, Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, by Wu Han gained political significance in 1961 after the Peking Opera staged it. Initially Mao applauded the play, but when people started seeing in it as an allegory of him and Marshal Peng Dehuai, the Great Helmsman changed his mind. Peng himself agreed with this interpretation, and stated: “I want to be a Hai Rui!” in a 1962 letter to Mao requesting his return to politics. Wu Han himself was purged for his troubles and died in prison in 1969.
Hai Rui was a scholar-bureaucrat. Like many educated Chinese he joined the bureaucracy and soon gained a reputation for his morality, scrupulous honesty and fairness. This won him widespread popular support, evinced among other things by his being enshrined while alive; but he also made many enemies in the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, he was called to the capital Peking and promoted to the position of secretary of the ministry of revenue. In 1565, he submitted a memorial strongly criticising Emperor Jialing for the neglect of his duties and bringing disaster to the country, for which he was sentenced to death in 1566. He was released after the emperor died in early 1567. Hai Rui was reappointed under the Emperor Longqing, but soon forced to resign in 1570 after complaints were made over his overzealous handling of land-tenure issues.
He is not particularly celebrated in China any more, which is not surprising given the open corruption that flourishes there. Like in India now, wealth is more celebrated than character in China. When I visited Haikou, Hainan, in 2013, I asked my hosts to be taken to Hai Rui’s grave. My hosts were surprised. Perhaps he makes the Communist mandarins feel uncomfortable?
Interestingly enough, Hai Rui had an Indian connection. He was descended from a native of Guangzhou named Hai Da-er (Haidar), and his mother was also from a Muslim (Hui) family that originated from India. Hai Rui himself was however known primarily as a Neo-Confucian and never discussed Islam in his Confucian works.
In April 2015, I drove out from Shanghai to Shaoxing in Zhejiang province and crossed over the 36-km long bridge across the Hangzhou Bay from Jiaxing to Cixi. Cixi incidentally is the birthplace of KMT Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek. The next town Shaoxing is the birthplace of Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s devoted acolyte. But Shaoxing is a much-visited tourist destination these days because it is the hometown of the venerated writer Lu Xun, commonly considered the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century. Lu Xun was also an important critic known for his sharp and unique essays on the historical traditions and modern conditions of China. Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Zorn, born in a wealthy Shaoxing family. This home of the family Zhou is a much-visited tourist site, not only for its simple elegance and for the unique peep it offers into late 19th century upper class family life in China, but also because it is the locale for several of Lu Xun’s stories.
His official biography in the brochure reads: “Lu Xun left his hometown in 1899 and attended a mining school in Nanjing; there he developed an interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution, which became an important influence in his work. Chinese intellectuals of the time understood Darwin’s theory to encourage the struggle for social reform, to privilege the new and fresh over the old and traditional. In 1902 he traveled to Japan to study Japanese and medical science, and while there he became a supporter of the Chinese revolutionaries who gathered there. In 1903, he began to write articles for radical magazines edited by Chinese students in Japan. In 1909 he published, with his younger brother Zhou Zuoren, a two-volume translation of 19th-century European stories, in the hope that it would inspire readers to revolution, but the project failed to attract interest. Disillusioned, Lu Xun returned to China later that year.”
Lu Xun was a contemporary of Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) and like him excelled in short story writing. He began writing full time in 1918 and his first published fiction was the now-famous short story Kuangren riji (“Diary of a Madman”). Like the Russian realist Nikolay Gogol’s tale of the same title, the story is a condemnation of traditional Confucian culture, which the madman narrator sees as a “man-eating” society. It was considered a tour de force that attracted immediate attention and helped gain acceptance for the short-story form as an effective literary vehicle.
Like Premchand, Lu Xun’s stories were telling commentaries of the times usually told with a sardonic sense of humor. In 1930 Lu Xun stopped writing fiction and devoted himself to writing satiric critical essays, which he used as a form of political protest. The same year he became the nominal leader of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Although he himself refused to join the Chinese Communist Party, he considered himself a tongluren (fellow traveler), recruiting many writers and countrymen to the Communist cause through his Chinese translations of Marxist literary theories, as well as through his own political writing.
During the last several years of Lu Xun’s life, the KMT government prohibited the publication of most of his work, so he published the majority of his new articles under various pseudonyms. He criticised the Shanghai Communist literary circles for their embrace of propaganda, and he was politically attacked by many of their members. In 1934 he described his political position as hengzhan or “horizontal stand”, meaning he was struggling simultaneously against both the right and the left, against both cultural conservatism and mechanical evolution. Hengzhan, the most important idea in Lu Xun’s later thought, indicates the complex and tragic predicament of an intellectual in modern society.
The celebration of the life and works of Lu Xun leaves its imprint all over the lovely town of Shaoxing. Lu Xun rather than Zhou Enlai is the popular and loved son of Shaoxing. All over Shaoxing you will see not only statues of Lu Xun but also statues of characters from some of his more celebrated works. Even Lu Xun’s favourite restaurant is a popular eatery and it is very difficult to get a place. Our party of four got a courtyard table after our local hosts told the owner that two Indians (Ambassador T.C.A. Rangachari and myself) had come across the globe just to pay homage to Lu Xun. The food was worth every word of praise Lu Xun may have had for it. I had a dish of braised mushrooms with pork and rice, which was a favorite of Lu Xun’s.
I was at Ghalib’s haveli at Ballimaran some months ago. Ghalib, like Premchand many decades later, was the greatest commentator of the period. The haveli where he lived the last nine years of his life is a sorry mess. It reflects nothing of his immense popularity and greatness. As a chronicler commented: “Ghalib’s last home lost its original flourishes of frescoes, alcoves and archways, following several sub-divisions and additions over the years. Reduced to a dimly lit gallery, a small verandah and a claustrophobic courtyard, it was a coal store at some time in the past. Ghalib would have chuckled.” Poor Premchand had to wait till 2016 to get a research centre named after him in Varanasi. I am sure both would have said something pithy about how we celebrate our scholars.
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy. He is a Trustee and Distinguished Fellow of TPF.
This article was published earlier in Deccan Chronicle.
Image Credit – PublicDomainPioctures from Pixabay.