The Communist Party icon. Photo: iStock
The Communist Party icon. Photo: iStock

The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is held every five years in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The stage is always dominated by the classic symbol of communism: the hammer and sickle.

But with the invariable photo-ops and the hosting of foreign dignitaries for state visits or international gatherings, the backdrop is entirely different. Rather than the hammer and sickle, we see a monumental view of a mountainous landscape partly shrouded by mist. In the middle of the landscape is a waterfall cascading from the mountains into the river below.

Like the hammer and sickle, the landscape is symbolic. In classic Chinese art, this image is known as a water-mountain picture. Water-mountain represents the Chinese view of Creation. Water is yin, mountain is yang.

The ancient Chinese said: “When the yin and the yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water.” The mysterious something that governed the separation of yin and yang is symbolized by the dragon, that most Chinese of all Chinese symbols. Today, China combines a Western ideology and the rediscovery of its own ancient and unique world view to create a modern state.

After World War II, China used Western ideology, science and technology to become a global power. While a foreign ideology, communism was not inimical to Chinese culture. Mengzi, a near-contemporary of Confucius, first proposed what may be seen as a collectivist system. Mengzi (Mencius) referred to the ancient Luoshu grid, the nine-field square that was the blueprint for China’s ancient capitals cities, to encourage the development of social communities. He wrote:

I would ask you, in the country where the nine-square division [Luoshu] is observed, to reserve one division to be cultivated on the system of mutual aid, [would this not deserve consideration?] … The central square is the public field, and the eight families, each having its private hundred acres, cultivate this public field in common. And not till public work is finished may they presume to attend to their private affairs.

The modern Chinese historian Feng Yu-lan pointed out that Mengzi’s proposal had “socialist implications.”

Even critics of China will agree that the Chinese are first and foremost pragmatic. Since the market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping under the slogan “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” China became a hybrid system that has economically outperformed nearly all other countries in the world. China today is by some measures the largest manufacturer in the world, and the list of industries in which it is leading the world is growing by the day, with artificial intelligence being the next target.

A joke making the rounds in China goes like this: The United States has two political parties but cannot change policies; China can change policies but cannot change political parties. While a simplification of a complex issue, the same Chinese will whisper that the US political system was developed more than 200 years ago and may no longer be able to respond to rapidly changing social dynamics and global economic realignment. The Chinese experience suggests that ideology is a means to an end rather than a means in itself, as it is in the US.

The days of China learning from the West are coming to an end and the Chinese will have to draw on other sources to take over the torch. They do not have much of a choice but to reach into their own 5,000-year-old culture.

The “mountain-water picture” is probably a sign of things to come. It is the essence of Chinese cosmogony in which esthetics was a guiding principle. This often overlooked aspect of China was best articulated by the American scholar George Rowley, author of Principles of Chinese Painting. Rowley compared Chinese with Western and India culture and wrote:

The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art. Instead of religion, the Chinese preferred the art of living in the world; instead of rationalization, they indulged in poetic and imaginative thinking; and instead of science, they pursued the fantasies of astrology, alchemy, geomancy and fortune-telling.

In traditional China, not everything had to be logical as long as it worked beautifully. Tradition may have been obscured by modernization, but the roots have not been forgotten. A mere 70 years of communism is a blip in its 5,000-year-old culture. Expect to see the rebirth of the Chinese Dragon in a high-tech jacket.

Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Leibniz, Einstein, and China (2021).

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