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Theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

In China the God (i.e. 'deity') that the Chinese people are instructed to 'worship' - in the religious sense of the world - is Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s Mao Zedong and whoever is the current leader.

Xi Jinping is trying to become a 'living God' which will empower him to 'takeover the world'.

It is a serious concern that CCP is a nuclear armed, significantly militarized religious cult!

CCP as a 'religious' order discriminates against all others and insists that everyone everywhere must worship their deity! Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang Muslims, Chinese Christians are examples of persecuted 'non-believers' inside China.

HK people are rightfully VERY nervous about religious oppression against those who do NOT believe nor worship the 'God' Mao Zedong nor Xi Jinping!

Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, in December 2020 was named by the 'United States Commission on International Religious Freedom' as a 'Religious Prisoner of Conscience'.

We request that international attention and support comes to bear against CCP for their cult's oppression of religious freedoms worldwide!

The keen observation by Kevin Carrico writing for Apple Daily in a multi-part series that China is a 'theocracy' is another key to fully understanding the ruling totalitarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP). WTPOHK add that still today most Chinese communities are structured as feudal Han Chinese plutocracies: e.g. China, Singapore, Hong Kong. The exception, in every sense of the word, is democratic Taiwan.

CCP please answer the following UN letters sent to you:

Theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state, part 1: was pre-modern China a secular society?

Apple Daily 1 January 2021 by Kevin Carrico (format added)

On the 127th anniversary of Mao’s birth this past Saturday, tens of thousands gathered in Mao Zedong square in Shaoshan, Hunan. Singing “The East is Red,” bowing before the massive bronze Mao statue at the south side of the square, and placing flowers and other offerings at the statue’s foot, one could say, to put it very gently, that the gathering was not characterized by a particularly atheistic vibe.

To deploy a bit of Maoist terminology in the service of irony, these scenes at Shaoshan manifest a contradiction. Not only was a genuinely horrid person being worshipped like a god by people whose lives had been greatly improved by the scrapping of at least some (but still not enough) of his disastrous legacies. At a spiritual level, the event last Saturday at Shaoshan showed the symbolic figurehead of an avowedly atheistic regime being treated in a decidedly religious manner.

This curious scene has inspired me to write a series of pieces over the next few weeks examining what I will call the theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state.

Before we turn to modern concerns, in this first installment I would like to debunk the all-too-common claim that pre-modern China was an irreligious or even secular society. By this logic, the avowedly atheistic Chinese Communist Party regime is simply the latest iteration of a longstanding tradition of rational secularism in China. This is, to put it bluntly, a steaming pile of communist nonsense.

There are a few versions of this nonsense. Some assert that China was the only major civilization that did not produce a transcendental religion: anyone familiar with any aspects of religious practice in China should immediately notice the fallaciousness of this claim. This false claim is in turn based on the equally fallacious argument that Confucianism is a philosophy or ethical system focused solely on the matters of this world, with no concern for supernatural matters.

The obsessive focus on Confucianism in analyses of pre-modern Chinese thought, a feature of both contemporary “Western” and Chinese scholarship, overlooks the very real diversity of thought in this world. In the field of politics, the myopic focus on Confucianism neglects the far more prominent role of Legalism, a form of aspirational totalitarianism, in political practice. Similarly, in the religious realm, a myopic focus on Confucianism neglects the diversity of pre-modern religious life, which placed Confucian teachings in a broader belief network that dealt regularly in transcendental and supernatural matters.

To understand religious belief and practice in pre-modern China, one need not study The Analects, but rather develop an understanding of the cycle of festivals, the regular interactive exchanges with deities via worship and offerings, and the apotheosis of local figures and imperial rulers. Often idiosyncratic local elements combined with broader transcendental meta-narratives, imagining at every level interactions between the human and the supernatural world.

The vision of a sacred emperor figure as the self-proclaimed leader of all humanity, enacting a series of rites and rituals to imaginarily mediate between the human and the supernatural worlds, presents an undeniable example of the theological undergirding of state power. To argue that China was the sole major civilization to have not produced a transcendental religion is therefore to thoroughly misunderstand religion in pre-modern China, which was characterized less by its absence than by its ubiquity.

What can we take away from these basic points about the role of religion in premodern Chinese society and politics? What implications for the present can be derived from a recognition of the prominence of religion in pre-modern Chinese society and the theological basis of the pre-modern state?

There has been in recent years pushback in China-focused analysis against the use of such clichés as translating Zhongguo as “the Middle Kingdom” or basing political legitimacy in “the mandate of heaven.” On one level, I agree with the impetus behind such pushback, insofar as these frames can easily produce overly simplistic and clichéd interpretations of complex matters. On another level, however, clichés often have their basis in truth, and some of this resistance is in fact promoting a misrepresentative reading of the Chinese state as far more secular and rational than it ever has been.

One can, for example, recognize that Zhongguo does not have to be translated as the Middle Kingdom and should instead be understood as the central states (relative to other states), while at the same time recognizing that the point underlying the Middle Kingdom translation, namely Sinocentrism, is nevertheless very much real and lasting, embodied in the emperor mediating between worlds. A certain self-centeredness should be seen as a near universal of all cultures: the one unexceptional thing that all cultures share is faith in their own exceptionality, and China has certainly never been an exception in this regard.

One can also avoid exaggerating superstition by resisting the urge to feed any unfortunate event into the readymade “mandate of heaven” framework, while at the same time acknowledging the reality of theological elements and mystical legitimation among many of the dynasties that ruled over the space that we now call China: aspects of political culture that are not necessarily determinative of behavior today but that nevertheless continue to have an impact.

These two trends, reflections of the theological foundations of the Chinese state, come together in the topic of the next installment of this series: the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, whose politics intersected with Marxist theology to herald China as the leader of an oppressed global proletariat seeking to transcend the current world order to create a new heaven on earth, starting a sectarian war with endless casualties.

(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University)

Apple Daily photo

Theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state, part 2: Maoist monotheism|Kevin Carrico

Apple Daily 29 January 2021 (format added)

According to conventional narratives, the Maoist regime that ruled over China from 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976 was driven by a materialist worldview that led it to enforce an unrelenting atheism.

In this second installment of my series on the theocratic origins of the modern Chinese state, I propose instead that the Maoist regime was in fact a theocratic regime engaged in aggressive proselytizing and endless religious wars.

To begin to understand this thesis, we need to reassess the origins of Marxist thought, recognizing the religious structure therein.

In his Meaning in History (1949), Karl Löwith does precisely this: highlighting the echoes of familiar religious narratives and beliefs within Marxist teachings, opening onto a reinterpretation of Marxism as a fundamentally religious narrative in atheist garb.

There is, for example, the idea of the downtrodden proletariat as the chosen people: the group that exists on the fringes of the present society designated by the higher power of history to forever transform and redeem human society.

In order to achieve this redemptive transformation, there will be a final struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, echoing the messianic and eschatological vision of the inevitable final struggle between the two opposing camps of the Christ and the Antichrist.

According to this narrative, the victor in this struggle will usher in a communist paradise: creating a new Kingdom of God on earth, without God in the familiar sense yet still very much endowed with theological meaning.

The core insight of Löwith’s analysis is that the self-described materialist, scientific, atheist mode of Marxist theory remains firmly entrenched in prophetic religious narratives, reinjecting messianic meaning into the world, and thereby providing an escape from the suffocating boredom of post-Enlightenment secular disenchantment. One could not, after all, bring millions to rise up in the ecstatic fervor of communist rebellion throughout the twentieth century with a science of history based solely in matters of fact.

One of the millions of people inspired by this new religious vision was none other than Mao Zedong, who in turn deployed Marxist teachings to reshape China in his vision.

Why was Mao drawn to Marxism? Treating Marxism as a materialist and scientific theory makes this question impossible to answer. Both Marxists and anti-Marxists agree, China in the 1920s did not in any way resemble a society on the verge of a socialist revolution as envisioned by Marx: China was not an industrialized capitalist society at the time, and for this reason lacked a substantive proletariat, the main actor in the Marxist narrative of revolution. Nothing, in short, seems to match.

Yet if we draw upon Löwith’s theological reading, Marxism’s appeal to Mao becomes obvious: theocratic re-enchantment of the world masquerading under the cover of scientism.

Because Marx placed the marginal and downtrodden proletariat at the center of a narrative of global redemption, first Li Dazhao and later Mao were able to reimagine China as a “proletarian nation.” This pessoptimistic vision provided the perfect narrative structure to resuscitate Sinocentrism (discussed in the first installment of this series) from its own collapse in modernity: China’s perceived marginalization in relation to the global system in the modern era made it destined to play a redemptive role therein as the proletariat designated by the laws of history to transcend this order and usher in history’s next and indeed final stage.

For this reason, Maoist internationalism always had a decidedly nationalist tone, a fact belied by the notable lack of solidarity and indeed ruthless competition for primacy among the nominally proletarian regimes of the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and beyond.

Such international competition for primacy as the great global redeemer had its domestic counterpart in sectarian wars suppressing all other belief systems.

From Christianity to Buddhism to Islam to Confucianism, all forms of religious belief in China after 1949 were forced to yield to the domination of Maoism.

This is not, as some assume, because the Maoist regime was scientific and atheistic and therefore determined to stamp out so-called feudal superstition, but rather because it was monotheistic and determined to enforce its own feudal superstitions without competition: the suppression of opposing and competing forces of course being the defining mark of actually existing communism.

Yet as other religious beliefs were suppressed, the theological and indeed mystical elements of Maoism became increasingly evident.

From the frenzied mass mobilization of an imagined Great Leap Forward to a pseudo-secular heaven on earth, to the religious reverence for Mao embodied in such model figures as his good soldier Lei Feng, to the reorganization of society and culture around Mao worship and zealotry during the Cultural Revolution, the fundamentally theocratic core of Maoism revealed itself ever more clearly as other belief systems receded.

Practices from the Cultural Revolution most clearly reveal the mutually reinforcing relationship between a top-down state enforced monotheism and a genuine bottom-up interest in and passion for Maoist monotheism.

Mao’s core teachings were condensed into sacred scripture in the form of the portable and accessible Quotations from Chairman Mao, designed for commitment to memory and recitation. Subjects had daily-state organized study sessions on Mao’s writings, decorated their attire with symbolic Mao talismans and adorned their houses with Mao images and busts. The most devout of subjects would seek guidance from one’s resident Mao in the morning and provide a complete report of one’s behavior to him in the evening.

What has previously been called the “Mao cult” would thus be better understood as a Maoist monotheistic theocracy, resuscitating both the Sinocentrism and mystical legitimation inherent in premodern state forms.

And although undoubtedly state enforced to the exclusion of all other belief systems, this religion also had genuine popular appeal in constructing a seemingly complete interpretation of the world, providing answers to all questions, and endowing people’s existence with a sense of purpose and meaning, no matter how misguided, self-destructive, and indeed at times evil, leading directly to the death of tens of millions of compatriots.

The taboo on heresy was so great that even as Mao’s belief system pushed the People’s Republic to the brink of self-destruction, there was no space to break away from his failed teachings while he remained alive. Yet although the most openly religious aspects of Maoist monotheism were abandoned after his death, I will argue in part three of this series that the contradiction of the theocratic undergirding of nominally atheist state power remains firmly in place in China today: on the one hand distorting people’s understanding of their relationship to the state and the broader world, while on the other hand rescuing subjects from the boredom and triviality of a purely secular world vision.

(Kevin Carrico is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University)

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