Ideal and Reality: Cultural Revolution in East Asia
In recent history in East Asia, the laws, ideals, and models of government and culture have produced a reality that is somewhat different from that hoped for and proposed by these arbitrary systems. As Dong Zhongshu notes, the ancient Han dynasty erected an empire that lasted 2000 years based on a Confucian "vision of an omnipotent but disciplined sovereign, who sought to align the population with the norms of Heaven and Earth" (De Bary 157). In China, this basic paradigm of god-like ruler, informed by a counsel of scholars, learned in the ways of the ancients, held true for centuries and even into the modern era, when Industrialization changed the nature of society the world over -- including East Asia. With the introduction of new creeds, East Asian rulers found they had new opportunities to erect new social structures based on their own personal assessment of the human condition. This was certainly true for Chairman Mao, whose Cultural Revolution promised an ideal but delivered a much more harrowing reality. And it was also true for the rulers of Japan, Indochina, and Korea -- nations who suffered at the hands of Western imperialists, whose dangled goods proved just beyond reach, or else deadly when gotten. This paper will examine the effect of the revolutionary "ideal" in realistic terms in the nations of East Asia during the century that redefined the way these nations viewed themselves.
World War 1 affected Japan's social order by nudging it into the hands of the Western imperialists. Japan's culture, which for the centuries preceding the modern era, had resisted Western intrusion, now began to resemble Western nations, in terms of ideology (expansion and democratic voice). The Twenty-One Demands of Japan regarding territories outside its borders, such as Manchuria and Shandong, illustrated the nature of the revolution that come to East Asia: natural resources were vital and land-grabs necessary in power-based systems of government (Lu 383). Buddhism and Christianity in Japan were no longer spiritual systems that could guide even Eastern nations already under the powerful sway of materialist ideology (whether socialist or capitalist). Japan, like China, Korea, Vietnam and Indochina, would have to assert its independence in a global Western empire -- that, or, as some of them attempted, act as Western puppets. The ideal that Japan attempted to affect was one of self-autonomy, as dictated in the Twenty-One Demands. The reality, however, was that after the Second World War, Japan would be controlled by the West and the West's ideology (Stone, Kuznick).
China would be the same, though its espoused ideology different in terms of language and structure. Mao was a materialist, who viewed himself as god-like, as the ancient rulers did -- with this exception: he brooked no criticism, heeded no wise counsel, and destroyed all connections between China and the past C.P. Fitzgerald noted that it was the "purpose of the Cultural Revolution as a whole to eliminate the principal features of the old society, and in particular all that [had] the taint of foreign origin" (124). If Japan and other nations in East Asia were going to fall to Western (i.e., U.S.) influence, Mao was determined to keep China out of it. His solution, however, was to adopt the worst elements of Western autocracy. He alone would be the sole source of all that is good and all that is wise. Mao set about transforming China from a country rooted in antiquity to a country founded upon a madman: in 1964, Mao announced that he had "plans" for China's next generation -- the youth. His ambition was based on the idea that to control the nation of tomorrow one had to control the minds of the young. This was, in fact, no different from the program of the leading Western nations, which had already fallen for the trap of totalitarianism, even if they did manage to disguise it under the auspices of "democracy" (Stone, Kuznick). Mao stated that "the present method of education ruins talent and ruins youth. I do not approve of reading so many books. The method of examination is a method of dealing with the enemy. It is most harmful and should be stopped" (Johnson 552). Mao set about stripping from China all that smelled of foreign influence -- anything that threatened his control. He persecuted the Christian churches, which had, in fact, become part of Asian culture over the years. "Three out of four main creeds" that were of foreign origin were to be eliminated from the cultural horizon (Fitzgerald 124). But he also persecuted those religious and philosophical institutions which were "native" to Asia, which taught an ideal distinct from his own. Mao went after "Moslem institutions and Buddhist sanctuaries" too (Fitzgerald 124).
Mao's Great Leap Forward meant that "Confucian ethics, Buddhism, and the ancient polytheism known as Taoism" all had to be replaced by his new brutalism. He upheld ignorance as "truth," and turned the youth in marauding bands of vicious blackguards. The old customs and ideals of Asia, the old institutions were suspect in his eyes. Mao's love was for the new, the revolution: he had a penchant for the theater, yet he decried (like a Puritan) the loss of morality. He had no sense that his amorality was like a virus spreading throughout the country. His Cultural Revolution was assumed to be "deeply political [in] character" but it was not: it was anti-spiritual and anti-past. He promoted a Great Ideal, as his Great Leap Forward suggested -- but the reality was a tremendous leap backwards towards primitivism. The China of antiquity had come face-to-face with the China of the new world order, inherently materialistic and basically atheistic -- and the China of antiquity had lost (Woodstock 130).
Mao liked to say that "there is no construction without destruction," which meant that his Red Guard had official approval to destroy anything and everything (Johnson 555). The first thing to go at the hands of the youthful Red Guard was the bane of the unlearned: school houses. Thus, the Red Guard's "first act was to attack Tsinghua University" (Johnson 556). The reality of the lack of law, ideal and model in Mao's new China was evident as the reality of the late 1960s began to sink in: the Red Guard smashed "teashops, coffee-houses, independent private theaters and all private restaurants, they put itinerant musicians, acrobats and strolling actors out of business, and they forbade weddings and funerals, holding hands and kite-flying" (Johnson 557). By rejecting its past, its ancestry, the foundations of its culture, and the assistance of the foreign churches, Mao's Asia was a place gone mad. But he attempted to rationalize his madness by articulating bogus attacks on China's cultural heritage -- such as Confucianism.
Tong Zhang and Barry Schwartz state that "radical intellectuals have always criticized Confucius because his doctrines of self-restraint and conformity stand in opposition to ideologies of change" (194). This fit Mao and the other Asian leaders of the 20th century to a "t." Mao refused to submit to any standard outside of his own self-will. Others, in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indochina did as well. The Marxist method became all important in their eyes -- for one reason because it posited an option outside the reach of Western hegemony -- or so they thought. Really, it was just another side of the same coin. Western ideals, founded in capitalism, were just a different avenue through the mainland of materialism. Self-will propelled the U.S. when it came to intervening in East Asian affairs in the 20th century. In order to combat U.S. interventionism, nations like Korea, Vietnam, Indochina and China, turned to the Marxists for ideological support. In doing so, they separated themselves from the ideals of the past, pronounced by Confucius, Buddha and Christ. They promoted the materialistic aims of Marx -- which were really no different from those promoted by Uncle Sam. Centralized power, totalitarianism, land-grabbing, and power-base politics transformed both the West and the East after Industrialization and the loss of old world ethics reshaped the cultural mindset.
Under Mao, China turned against the Four Olds: "old thought, old culture, old tradition, and old custom" (Zhang, Schwartz 197). The new model was supposedly Marxist, but in reality it was distinctly Maoist. The heritage of China fell under the dictator's heel, when the "progressive," Communist revolutionaries began attacking "every aspect of Confucius' thought: his preoccupation with the golden age of the past rather than the future, his male chauvinism, his fetishizing of self-conquest and intellect (which lead inevitably to capitalist careerism and elitism), his inability to recognize that ethics are class-based, not universal, the affinity of his ideas with the interests of China's seemingly indestructible clique of capitalist sympathizers and counter-revolutionaries" (Zhang, Schwartz 200).
As China became totalitarian, other East Asian nations felt the crushing grip of hostile takeover. The Japanese empire had invaded Korea and the Japanese Buddhist monks "began to venture into the colonies, sending missionaries overseas…