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No one has destroyed Chinese culture quite like the Chinese

This week’s Kuora comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on June 7, 2014:

China has basically lost touch with its own cultural roots due to actions by the Communist party, especially the Cultural Revolution. Is China trying to underplay the Chinese influence on its language and culture?


Cultural iconoclasm in China — the deliberate disavowal and repudiation of cultural traditions, attacks on the Confucian family system, attacks on classical Chinese, efforts to promote a single, modern, vernacular Chinese — began long before the Cultural Revolution, long before the Communist Party took power, even before the Communist Party’s founding in 1921. It really began with the New Culture Movement, which really began in earnest about a hundred years ago and really announced itself in 1915 with the publication of Xinqingnian magazine (La Jeunesse). Many prominent Chinese intellectuals of the time, with a wide range of ideological predilections — anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, liberals, socialists, Marxists, nationalists — shared an antipathy to many traditional elements of Chinese culture and language, from religious and philosophical traditions from the sort of beliefs they disparaged as folk superstition to Confucianism to yin-yang and five phases cosmology to Chinese medicine. Hostility to classical Chinese actually led to the creation of the baihua vernacular that is used today.

Of course, Mao Zedong, who as a young man participated in the New Culture Movement and its most visible manifestation, the May Fourth Movement, was especially hostile, and during the Cultural Revolution, encouraged a smashing of the “Four Olds” (see above image). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the push to make Putonghua (standard Mandarin) universal continued. Classrooms would elect a tuīpǔ (推普) representative in regions where another Sinitic language was prevalent; not sure whether that still is the case, but it was at least into the 1980s.

And of course, as Dan Holliday and Paul Denlinger have also pointed out, linguistic and cultural homogenization are quite natural especially in a time when mass communications have advanced, spread, and permeated all corners of practically every nation.

It would be incorrect, I think, to ascribe this entirely either to “natural” historical forces or to state agency. And it would be incorrect to suggest that this was something peculiar to the Communists, as it was well underway already.


Kuora is a weekly column.

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Kaiser Kuo

Kaiser Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of SupChina.

4 Comments

  1. Nate Reply

    This is something that often comes up with friends when the topic of cultural destruction comes up, that “This is how China has always been. New empires arrive and destroy the old. Those empires are conquered and destroyed. The PRC is just the newest empire.”
    How exactly did the average citizen in China feel about China’s history 100, 200, 500, 2,000 years ago? How much of the destruction of culture we have backlash towards today is derived from rose-tinted glasses telling us of a mystical civilization that continually embraced its history despite its history being composed of multiple peoples and cultures?

  2. Skamui Reply

    You have the smoking gun, but left out the culprits: Westerners. It was Westerners that told China their culture was lacking

  3. Michael M. Reply

    If you want to talk about the Chinese culture as being something to be valued, then you should also talk about making a real break with both the CCP *and* western enlightenment values in favor of something partially or wholly novel. If “culture” can’t be fit to live on the highest levels of social organization, then it is silly to talk about it as “value” except for a trifling tokenism.

    And it goes back even further than you say. It was European genocide with its frighteningly violent arrogance that first began to rape and shred Chinese culture starting in 1839 (First Opium War). As just one example, Chinese law – a radical-of-difference legal system to anything practiced today, something original – began at effectively that point snuffed in favor of European law over the succeeding time. Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution was really the final coup in a long process of annihilation and tripumhalism that has left the world with little genuine alternatives to capitalist, egoist, colonizer hegemony. Not by a noble contest of merit, but by the barrel of the gun.

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