When China talks, people may listen. But how many people understand is a separate question. The problem is not strictly one of language. Good translators, although rare, are plentiful enough to convey the words. What is lost are meanings, and the ideologies behind them. The untranslatable cannot be translated; it must simply be understood. And if the world is going to treat China as anything other than an enemy, feared because unknown, China must be understood.
China is incredibly complex, to be sure. Five thousand years of history is a richer tapestry of plot and character development than any historian could fictionalize. Yet contemporary China is, at some basic level, easier to understand than one might think. The key to understanding China today is to understand its basic ideology of patient pragmatism.
China’s massive youth population is set to make a very important impact on the world we live in today. In order to know the type of impression they will make, it is necessary to understand who they are. In order to do that, we must understand where they have come from. Let’s take a look at cultural and historic factors that have moulded modern Chinese youth characteristcs.
Confucianism and Chinese Youth
Past and modern Chinese culture has largely been ruled by Confucian values. Confucianism is concerned with good conduct, practical wisdom, and proper social relationships. Central to Confucianism, which is not a religion but is often treated as such, is the value of learning and social mobility. This is achieved through intellectual development, and education is used largely for acquisition of personal power.
Confucianism encourages collectivism in society, and there is an emphasis on obedience and loyalty towards the family and clan. However, while Confucian teaching continues to dominate certain practices in present-day China, exposure to Western culture has led to the adoption of Western values by younger-generation Chinese. However, collectivism continues to play a dominant role. Family ties and filial piety remain extremely important in Chinese adolescent life.
Chinese Youth in History
Since the sixth century BCE, students in China have been protesting against government corruption and malfeasance. When their politicisation began to wane in the 1960s, China’s then leader Mao Zedong took up extreme measures to repoliticise them.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) was Mao’s so-called attempt to empower young people in China. It freed youth from authority in the summer of 1966 to early 1977. It was Mao’s desire to rid the bureaucracy of elitism and cultivate a new generation of revolutionaries.
Mao, of course, had once been young himself, and was attempting to recreate a similar atmosphere to the one he had experienced when he joined a Marxist study group at Peking University and became one of the original members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was during this revolution that Mao made the famous statement: ‘The young people are the most active and vital force in society, the most eager to learn and the least conservative in their thinking.’
At the end of the GPCR, youth were once again expected to submit to rigid authority under a democratic-centralist system, and many youth were sent to the countryside to work alongside and learn from peasants. It was not long until another youth-oriented event shook youth back into their shells.
In 1989, one of the most memorable tragedies of the modern world took place in China. In a political centre point, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chinese youth were massacred after a prolonged stalemate during which they had occupied Tiananmen Square for six weeks. The political statement made by these self-sacrificing youth demanding political reforms shook the world, and the Chinese government. The event is thought to have largely shaped Chinese youth today.
Sun Yat-Sen Elected First President of China
Sun Yat-sen, who is commonly called the “Father of Modern China” due to his lifelong dedication to ending corrupt, conservative imperial rule, was elected the first president of the Republic of China in 1911.
Born to a peasant family near the Portuguese colony of Macao in 1866, Sun moved at age 13 to Honolulu to live with his brother. He enrolled in school, where he studied English, mathematics and science, as well as Western religion. After graduation in 1882, he returned to his hometown, but was banished for defacing the village idols. The following year, he was baptized by an American Christian missionary in Hong Kong.
In 1892, Sun graduated from the Hong Kong College of Medicine as a doctor. But he was so incensed by the weak, backward Qing, or Manchu, dynasty’s inability to defend China against foreign colonialists that he gave up medicine for politics. He returned home again and founded the Revive China Society, which was dedicated to fostering prosperity and revolutionary action.
Kidnapped in London
The Sino-Japanese War seemed to favor the possible overthrow of the Manchus, so Sun returned to Hong Kong and reorganized a revolutionary coalition, the Alliance Society, which recruited overseas Chinese. An uprising he planned in Canton in 1895 was discovered, and some of his comrades were executed. This time, he found refuge in Japan.
Sun donned Western clothes, grew a mustache and, posing as a Japanese, set out to raise money and win new recruits. In London, he was kidnapped by Chinese diplomats and held captive pending deportation to China. Rescued at the last minute, he emerged with an international reputation enhanced by his own written account of the ordeal, Kidnapped in London, published in 1897.
In England, he frequently visited the reading room of the British Museum, where he studied the revolutionary works of Karl Marx. After the failure of another rebellion in China in 1900, Sun spent three years in Japan, establishing ties with Chinese students who flocked there for a modern education. From 1903 to 1905, he resumed his travels, recruiting adherents among expatriate Chinese in Hawaii, Southeast Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States.
Three Principles of the People
In 1905, Sun proclaimed his political philosophy, the Three Principles of the People, which embraced nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood (or socialism, populism, and livelihood, depending on the translation). These became the ideological foundation for his Revolutionary Alliance. However, pressured by Beijing, the Japanese government expelled him. In 1907-08, he staged several revolts from Hanoi, where the sympathetic French had welcomed him, but imperial pressure prevailed again, and he had to flee to Singapore.
Sun returned to the United States and was enroute to Kansas City on a fund-raising tour when he read news reports that a successful revolt had erupted in the central Yangtze Valley city of Wuchang. This insurrection toppled the Qing Dynasty on October 10, 1911, while he was still in exile.
Sun returned to his homeland and was elected the first president of the Republic of China at a meeting of representatives from the provinces. In 1912, Emperor Puyi abdicated, marking the end of the last of the imperial dynasties that had ruled China for more than 2,000 years. Sun led the newly formed Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party. Then, in 1913, he resigned the presidency in favor of Yuan Shikai, an army commander. Sun led an unsuccessful revolt against Yuan, and was forced to seek asylum in Japan again.
After falling from power, Sun tried to set up alternative revolutionary governments, challenging the warlords who controlled much of China. But he would not live to see the KMT consolidate its power over the nation or see his principles put into practice. In 1915, he married Soong Ching-ling while he was still wed to his first wife.
In 1917, he wrote The Vital Problem of China, on colonialism, and, four years later, the International Development of China. In his Methods and Strategies of Establishing the Country, completed in 1919, he urged that his political doctrine be used to establish peace, equality and freedom in his native land.
Sun Admired Abraham Lincoln
Aided by advisers from the Soviet Union, Sun reorganized his KMT in 1924, admitting Communists to its central committee, cooperating in a fragile alliance with the Chinese Communist Party, and approving the establishment of a military academy, run by Chiang Kai-shek. He also gave lectures on his political philosophy, but died of liver cancer at age 58 at the Rockefeller Hospital In Beijing. His last words were: “The revolution has not yet succeeded. Comrades, you must carry on!”
In 1927, the KMT and Communists split into two factions, sparking the Chinese Civil War. His widow, Soong Ching-ling, sided with the Communists and served as vice president of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1981 and as honorary president shortly before her death in 1981.
Sun often stated that the formulation of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address –“government of the people, by the people, for the people” — had inspired his Three Principles of the People, whose goal, he said, was “to create socialism and anarchism.”
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