Adam Smith, Arnold J. Toynbee, Beijing Temple of Agriculture, camera obscura, Canaletto, Charles L. Mee, Chiang Kai-shek, China, Chinese bureaucracy, Communism, Confucius, corporation, Edgar Snow, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou, Emperors of China, Empress Dowager Cixi, Hundred Flowers Movement, ITT, Jiang Qing, John Kenneth Galbraith, Joseph Needham, Mandarins, Mandate of Heaven, Mao Anlong, Mao Zedong, Ming Tombs Dam, People's Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, The Wealth of Nations, Wang Hairong, Xianfeng Emperor, Yao Wenyuan
As Chairman Mao Tse-tung once observed to his American admirer Edgar Snow, it is difficult for the eight hundred million citizens of China ‘to overcome the habits of 3,000 years emperor-worshipping tradition.’ It is equally hard, he could have added, for the political leaders of the People’s Republic of China to disregard the patterns and practices of imperial rule.
The ‘Emperor Wu Ti’ depicted above is Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou (ruled 561 – 578).
The Chinese ship of state has always been powered by a bureaucracy, the emperor sometimes its helmsman, sometimes a mere figurehead. But the greatest Chinese leaders have united both functions in their person. Such a unity is essential to the basic concept of the Chinese imperial tradition: that of the Mandate of Heaven, an idea predating even Confucius. The emperor is both king and high priest, and so bad government, or bad conduct on his part, is doubly damaging and leads to withdrawal of the mandate. A rebellion against an unjust or oppressive emperor has only to be successful to be justified in the eyes of heaven. In this sense, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung each adhered to the tradition of legitimizing their usurpation of authority; and moreover, each of them has acted, at various times, within the imperial terms of reference.
Mao, especially, has adopted the ways of the old imperial tradition to the needs of the new Communist state. Shunning extravagance in his personal life, he has nonetheless allowed the pageantry of spectacular parades and celebrations, taken it upon himself to guarantee the growth and prosperity of the nation, encouraged something akin to the old emperor-worship, and promoted the formation of a new religion with himself as its high priest.
After describing the ‘Hundred Flowers Movement‘, and how it was suppressed, he gives an imperial precedent:
Chin Shih Huang Ti dealt with opposition from the intellectuals of his day by allowing only seventy ‘scholars of great learning’ to possess books of ideas (as distinct from technical manuals, which were freely available to all). These seventy were kept in powerless luxury at the court while others were forced to give up their precious books to the bonfire. Hundreds who resisted were sentenced to hard labor or buried alive. No wonder Mao dismissed Chin Shih Huang Ti as ‘lacking cultural refinement.’
But along with power and glory went heavy responsibility, for the rights held by the emperor under the Mandate of Heaven were conditional, and in ancient times he was held accountable for the prosperity of the land and good harvests. In 1958, Mao and his party lieutenants spent a day or two shoveling earth alongside the citizens of Peking when the Ming Tombs dam was built on the outskirts of the city. Dr. Joseph Needham, a British science historian who witnessed this, wrote: ‘I should not hesitate to regard these manifestations as the extended modern equivalents and lineal descendants of the ancient rite in which it was customary for the emperor and his ministers to plough the ceremonial furrows every year.’
The event Needham refers to, one of the most colourful in the old Peking calendar, took place in the Temple of Agriculture, with the emperor symbolizing the unity of the Son of Heaven and his people before the forces of nature.
The republican regimes are not, of course, dynastic. But family ties are still so impelling that they can be used for political advantage. Chiang Kai-shek derived some of his legitimacy from the fact that he was a brother-in-law of Sun Yat-sen, and he is about to hand over his attenuated titles and estate to his son and prime minister, Chiang Ching-kuo.
Mao is far more discreet, and yet there is occasional speculation that the rising star in the Politburo, Yao Wen-yuan, is related to him. One rumor is that he is the chairman’s son-in-law, having married Mao’s daughter by Chiang Ching. Another story is that Yao’s wife is Mao’s niece, Wang Hai-jung, who is advancing in her own right to a senior position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet a third version has it that Yao is none other than Mao’s long-lost son An-lung, entrusted to a secret foster father during the dangerous years in the early 1930’s when the Nationalists had a price on Mao’s head.
No-one in Peking will confirm any of these theories. It is no secret, however, that Mao’s third wife, once a Shanghai actress known as Lan Ping (‘Blue Duckweed’) but now famous as Chiang Ching, has within the last five or six years built a political power base with which all Communist leaders must reckon. Again, there is a parallel: when the empress Tzu Hsi first arrived at the Forbidden City – wearing a black headdress, lavender gown, and high heels – she was Lan Kuei (‘Little Orchid’), a concubine for the emperor Hsien Feng, and lucky enough to conceive his first male child, the successor-emperor through whom, as regent, she became the real ruler of the country.
In ‘Inheritors of the Earth?’, Arnold J. Toynbee (then aged 84), asks whether the West has had its turn at world leadership, and may have to step aside for China:
Who is going to inherit the West’s ascendancy in the world? Before 1914 this question would have seemed senseless. Before that apocalyptic date Westerners assumed that the West’s ascendancy was well deserved, that it was beneficial to everybody, and that it had come to stay. In 1974 the West is manifestly sick, and its dominance appears as ephemeral as that of, say, the Mongols or the Moslems…
The victims of the Industrial Revolution have been the industrial workers. Their alienation from the society that has exploited them is the West’s congenital weakness. Moreover, Western society’s continual effort to increase its GNP is bringing it into collision with the non-Western majority of the human race and with the biosphere. It looks, then, as if the world were moving into a post-Western age, which for good or for evil will inherit some Western legacies…
Who will assume these Western legacies? The successor will not be the Soviet Union or Japan. These two mighty powers have Westernized themselves so successfully they have caught the West’s congenital sickness. They are out of the running, and so are Black Africa and India. The Africans are preoccupied with local problems, and the Indian subcontinent is divided by religious and linguistic conflicts.
We must look for the West’s heir in Eastern Asia, in some community capable of coping both with the legacies of the West and with the perennial problems of an agricultural society – in short, a community capable of starting a new chapter in the history of mankind.
…China’s past achievement and historical experience have endowed it with the qualifications that the West so conspicuously lacks. On the strength of that achievement, China has a more promising chance of shepherding mankind into political unity than any other country.
To treat one of the best works of one of Italy’s finest eighteenth-century painters as a mere tourist’s memento of a London holiday – as no more than a picture postcard – must seem callous indeed. However, Canaletto’s art was exactly that of the postcard maker. Before the days of Polaroid and Kodak Instamatic, Canaletto used the camera obscura to outline the details of his panoramic souvenirs before he colored them in. He was the leading painter of veduta, or views, and he made quite a handsome living whacking them out for eighteenth-century tourists. His View of the Thames from Lambeth Palace, in fact, was sold in 1742 to a tourist, Ferdinand Filip, Price of Lobkowicz and Duke of Sagan, and taken to Prague where it now hangs in the National Gallery.
…In Canaletto’s day, properly raised Englishmen flocked to Italy for a refreshing taste of loud arguments, sudden passions, and art collecting…Nearly all the work Canaletto did at this time was bought up by one man, Joseph Smith, a merchant and art collector who became the British consul in Venice in 1744. But, with the little free time Smith left him, Canaletto did occasional veduta for Frederick [sic – actually Henry], fourth Earl of Carlisle, and John, fourth Duke of Bedford.
By the mid-forties, however, the tourist trade had been seriously upset by the War of the Austrian Succession. The English stayed home, and so Canaletto did the only thing he could: armed with letters of introduction from Joseph Smith, he went to London to seek his patrons there. He arrived toward the end of May, 1746, the ‘Famous Painter of Views’, nearly fifty years old and prosperous enough to bring with him some money to invest in English funds. He took up residence at what is now 41 Beak Street, in a comfortable five-story brick town house that still sells souvenirs and postcard views of London. The ground floor of the house is taken up today by the Lord Byron Greek Taverna, where Simon plays Exciting Bouzouki Music until 3:30 A.M.
Directly across the river, at the extreme left of Canaletto’s picture, is the coal wharf, where the red-coated man is standing idly in a boat. He can afford to stand there idly. He and his fellow coal heavers work irregularly; but when they do work they make good money, as much as ten shillings a day. If this man works two days a week, he can meet his budget for his wife and three children, living in one of the shacks nearby. His lodgings, coal, candles, and soap only cost five shillings a week; the rest goes for food and clothing. He will not be able to afford beer, it is true, but he will drink it anyway, several pints a day at least, and hope to make up on the budget later. The pubs nearby boast that a man can get drunk for only a penny, so that is a mere seven pence a week.
If we draw back from Canaletto’s painting now, and look at it as a whole, surely its most surprising feature is that there are very few surprises in it…He gives us a sunny day, an utter absence of conflict, a pervading warmth and tranquillity, a sense of solid, middle-class prosperity, an overpowering sense of peace and well-being…We have always regarded Canaletto, working with his camera obscura and meticulously recording every detail with the utmost accuracy, as a very realistic painter. But the tricks of light and shade that he had learned along the shimmering canals of Venice transformed London into a sunny creation entirely his own.
With Das Kapital and the Bible, Wealth of Nations enjoys the distinction of being one of the three books that people may refer to at will without feeling they should have read it. Scholarly dispute over what is Smith’s principal contribution has gone on endlessly. This is partly because there is so much in the book that every reader has full opportunity to exercise his own preference.
Exercising that preference, I have always thought that two of Smith’s achievements have been neglected. One, mentioned by Gibbon, is the gift for language. Few writers ever, and certainly no economist since, have been as amusing, lucid, or resourceful – or on occasion as devastating…Also neglected now are the ‘curious facts’ that enchanted Hume and of which Wealth of Nations is a treasure house…The facts appear in lengthy digressions and have been criticized as such. But for any discriminating reader it is worth the interruption to learn that the expenses of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ‘before the commencement of the present disturbances,’ meaning the Revolution, were only £18,000 a year and that this was a rather sizable sum compared with New York and Pennsylvania at £4,500 each and New Jersey at £1,200. (These and numerous other details on the Colonies reflect an interest John Rae believes was stimulated by Benjamin Franklin, with whom Smith was closely acquainted.)
Smith’s error was his underestimate of man’s capacity, perhaps with some social conditioning, for co-operation. He thought it negligible. Men would work assiduously for their own pecuniary advantage; on shared tasks, even for shared reward, they would continue to do as little as authority allowed…There is no more persistent theme in Wealth of Nations…
In fact, experience since Smith has shown that man’s capacity for co-operative effort is very great…Most likely he failed to see the pride people could have in their organization, their desire for the good opinion or esteem of their co-workers, maybe what Veblen called their instinct to workmanship.
…The most spectacular example of co-operative effort – or perhaps, to speak more precisely, of a successful marriage of co-operative and self-serving endeavor – has, of course, been the corporation. This, for reasons just noted, Smith did not think possible. And the development of the corporation, in turn, was destructive of the minimal state that Smith prescribed…A state that served its corporations satisfactorily quickly ceased, except in the hopes of truly romantic conservatives, to be minimal…There is no ITT in the system.
…Given his avid empiricism, his deep commitment to reality, his profound concern for practical reform, he would have made the corporation and its power, and the related power of the unions and the state, an integral part of his theoretical system.