Rebellion In Our Blood: An Analysis Of China’s Long Tradition Of Revolution

There is a commonly held, rather racist notion in the West that Chinese people are naturally docile and rule abiding. It is a stereotype that has been replicated in countless forums, most notably in the cliché of the Chinese child bowing down to the overbearing Tiger Parent. It is a vast and unfair generalization to say the least. However, unlike most other ethnic and national stereotypes, it is one that, theoretically, can be supported. So much of Chinese history and literature deals with the establishment of order, the implementation of rules, and the respecting of authority. Figures like Qin Shi Huang, Liu Bang, Sun Zhongshan and Mao Zedong are praised for unifying the country and creating laws for all to follow. Similarly, Confucius, the ancient philosopher whose teachings influenced Chinese government up until the twentieth century, states over and over again in his writings that people should respect parental and governmental authority. “When your parents are alive,” he says, “comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them.” What all these various elements do is solidify an image in the Western mind of the Chinese as a passive, obedient people, who, without question, will always bow down to whatever power happens to be in place.

This, of course, is far from the truth. The truth is that China, as a society, actually has quite a long-standing, well-established tradition of rebelling against authority. The country’s history is overflowing with revolutions–three took place within the last hundred years alone–and it’s literature and philosophy positively preach insurrection. One need only look at the poetry in The Book Of Songs, the philosophy of impermanence put forth in the Tao Te Ching, and the supposedly rule-loving Analects of Confucius to find proof of China’s rebellious blood.

The protest-oriented poetry found in The Book of Songs provides evidence of the Chinese people’s tendency towards insurrection. Compiled thousands of years ago, and widely believed to have been edited by Confucius himself, The Book Of Songs is the oldest collection of ancient Chinese poetry in existence, comprising some 305 works from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE. The content of the book can be divided into two main sections: the “Airs of the States” and the eulogies and hymns. The “Airs of the States” are shorter lyrics written in plain language. Simple folk songs for the most part, they are widely believed to encapsulate the thoughts and feelings of the common people. As such, they largely concern themselves with such mundane matters as farming, childbirth, housekeeping and love. However, there are several pieces within the “Airs” that act as political satire and protests against governmental authority. A particularly powerful example of this latter type of poetry is “Big Rat.” A harsh critique of the rapacious government of the State of Wey, the poem describes the peasantry’s desire to leave the country for a better, more just land. “Big rat, big rat,” it begins, “do not gobble our millet! Three years we have slaved for you, yet you take no notice of us. At last we are going to leave you and go to that happy land: happy land, happy land, where we shall have our place.” Whether the peasants literally mean they are going to leave Wey for another kingdom, or else metaphorically leave it by committing mass suicide, the message is the same: the government has abused them, and they will no longer tolerate it. The fact that so many poems like this, poems in which people express frustration with, and a desire to overthrow, the government, made it into a collection of works designed to represent the thoughts of the multitude, illustrates how common place the desire for revolution was in China back then, and shines a light on the rebelliousness of the Chinese people.

Lao-Tzu’s assertion in the Tao Te Ching that nothing is permanent, and that the common people must be kept happy in order for governance to be maintained, both illustrate the Chinese people’s long-standing inclination toward revolution. A text studied for well over two thousand years, the Tao Te Ching, along with the writings of Chuang-Tzu, forms the foundation of the philosophy of Taoism. An alternative to the Confucian school, which asserts that there is, in fact, a single, right way to rule and govern, Taoism argues that nothing is permanent, and therefore, no ideology, or authority, should be viewed as absolute. The text actually begins with Lao-Tzu, the author, asserting, “the way that can be spoken of is not the constant way.” The fact that this kind of philosophy, a philosophy that rejects absolute authority and the idea of permanent systems of government, was developed in China over two millennia ago, and has continued to be studied by countless numbers of its citizens since then, illustrates a pronounced, and well-established, strain of rebellious thinking within the Chinese population; because if no government is truly infallible or everlasting, it becomes that much easier to overthrow them. A more direct demonstration of the Chinese people’s rebellious nature in the Tao Te Ching comes later on when Lao-Tzu states, in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act,” To Lao-Tzu, the only way to govern China effectively is to keep its people happy and ignorant of what the authorities are actually doing. This, in turn, unconsciously reveals the rebelliousness of the Chinese people, because if the only way a ruler in China can hope to govern effectively is to keep his subjects happy and stupid, then those subjects must have a bad, and well-established, reputation of rising up against their superiors.

The seemingly rule-loving system of Confucianism, as espoused in The Analects, actually contains provisions for the masses to rise up against the government, thus illustrating the Chinese people’s intrinsic insubordination. As aforementioned, the teachings of Confucius influenced China’s ruling elite for thousands of years, beginning in the Han Dynasty, and continuing until the early twentieth century. As a political system, Confucianism is extremely hierarchical and rule-oriented. Everyone has their place, and everyone follows the duties assigned to their specific caste. Princes have a higher standing than commoners, parents have a higher standing than their children, sons have a higher standing than daughters, and so on. Such a system seems highly static and unfair to modern Western observers, but actually makes a fair amount of sense given the circumstances in which it first arose. Confucius lived during The Spring and Autumn Period, approximately 771 to 476 BCE, a time in Chinese history where the feudal system of the Zhou Dynasty had become largely irrelevant, and where there was frequent, and intense, fighting between various smaller kingdoms and principalities. It therefore made sense for him to want to reunify the various Chinese states under the old dynasty’s rules and principles. And yet, this conservative, almost reactionary system of governance he promoted actually contains several radical, revolutionary ideas. Throughout The Analects, a book of Confucius’s teachings collected by his students, he constantly asserts that, if there’s anything more important in governing a nation than rules, it is benevolence. If a government fails to be benevolent, it loses the right to rule. “What can a man do with the rites,” Confucius asks at one point, “who is not benevolent?” What Confucius is saying here is that, if there is no benevolence, there is no government. If the common people feel that their ruler is treating them unfairly in any way, shape or form, then they automatically have the right to overthrow that ruler. They don’t even need to wait for political reform, because simply by mistreating his subjects, the ruler has lost the way, and is therefore no longer qualified to govern them. The fact that this kind of invitation to rebel against any and all authority exists within one of the most hierarchical, order-obsessed schools of thought in Chinese history illustrates that the Chinese, as a people, are actually quite defiant.

Contrary to the commonly held Western notion of the Chinese as being submissive and rule-oriented, in reality, the people of the Middle Kingdom have a well-established, long-standing tradition of insurrection. One need only examine the protest-themed poetry in The Book of Songs, the assertions of no authority being absolute in the Tao Te Ching, and the invitations to overthrow unjust rulers in The Analects, to find proof of China’s revolutionary heritage. Such knowledge, while seemingly trivial, is imperative to today’s Western politicians, for in a world where China has the second largest economy on Earth, as well as a permanent seat on the UN Security council, one cannot hope to prevail while continuing to harbor misguided notions of the Middle Kingdom’s people.


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