China and the Quest for Dignity

March 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaCold WarMutual Assured Destruction

China and the Quest for Dignity

Mini Teaser: Dignity is an essential concept that connects two objectives usually regarded as conflicting in contemporary China--individual rights and self-determination within its discourse on national rights.

by Author(s): John Fitzgerald

Over the course of his travels in China and abroad, Dr. Li had grown
acutely aware of China's decline as an imperial power, a decline, he
says, that was captured poignantly by "the famous sign at the
entrance to the riverside park along the Shanghai Bund--'Chinese and
dogs not allowed.'" He encountered further evidence of China's
national humiliation in Sydney:

"As a Chinese, I could live there temporarily, practice medicine, and
make good money, but I could never become a citizen. My pride and
self-respect cried out against this racist policy. Still, I stayed in
Sydney, in a small boardinghouse, surrounded by Australians who
thought China was hopeless. I became increasingly depressed."

Dr. Li cured his depression in Beijing, to which he returned in time
to witness the triumphal founding ceremony of the People's Republic
at Tiananmen on October 1, 1949. He recalled Mao Zedong's role in the

"Mao's voice was soft, almost lilting, and the effect of his speech
was riveting. 'The Chinese People have stood up', he proclaimed, and
the crowd went wild, thundering in applause, shouting over and over,
'Long Live the People's Republic of China!' 'Long live the Communist
Party of China!' I was so full of joy my heart nearly burst out of my
throat, and tears swelled up on my eyes. I was so proud of China, so
full of hope, so happy that the exploitation and suffering, the
aggression from foreigners, would be gone forever."

After some time back home, Dr. Li learned to attribute to impersonal
historical forces all of the personal humiliation that he had
suffered. He also learned to attribute to the communist battle with
these impersonal forces all of the pride and joy that he felt in
Tiananmen in October 1949. Once the Communist Party had been
installed in power, Dr. Li recalls, people learned to attribute their
shame and their pride to China's battle with "the foreign powers . .
. what we later called imperialism." His personal struggle against
racism was now subsumed into the greater struggle against that malign
force. Hence when the "People" stood up, so did Li Zhisui.

As they unfold, however, Dr. Li's memoirs highlight a mismatch
between his personal sense of grievance and pride, and the formulaic
prescriptions of communist official ideology. The basic Maoist
idea--that foreign capital had allied with domestic feudalism to
bring China to its knees--only partly explained the humiliation and
indignation people felt as the old empire collapsed about them and
the new Republic failed to deliver on its promises. While for the
moment that explanation sufficed for Dr. Li, in the nature of things
it would never be able to explain the humiliation and suffering
forced upon the people of China by Mao himself, after the founding of
the People's Republic.

Virtually all popular Chinese memoirs published since the Cultural
Revolution have been, in one sense or another, chronicles of
disappointed expectation. The Private Life of Chairman Mao is no
exception. Li Zhisui traces a downward spiral of frustration over two
decades of service at the inner court of Mao Zedong. He is
exceptional, however, in the privileged vantage point from which he
observes the personal as political. By focusing on the sexual
behavior of Mao Zedong, in particular, he exposes a striking
incongruence between the depersonalized Maoist language of national
pride and longing that first drew him into the service of the
Chairman, and the intimately personal experience of shame and
humiliation that the Chinese people endured under Mao. As a Chinese
abroad, Dr. Li knew from personal experience how it felt to be
despised by foreigners. From his time at court, he discovered as a
professional functionary among ideologues how it felt to be despised
by Marxist-Leninists. It felt much the same.

In searching for an alternative idiom in which to recount his
personal experience, Dr. Li resorts to two widely shared memories of
national shame and pride: one of the sign in a Shanghai park, barring
"Chinese and dogs", and the other of Mao Zedong announcing that "the
Chinese People have stood up." The resilience of these two motifs is
all the more remarkable for their having virtually no basis in fact.
There never was a sign by the entrance to a park in Shanghai that
proclaimed "Chinese and dogs not allowed" (or any similar form of
words), nor did Mao say that "the Chinese People have stood up" (or
any similar form of words) when he declared the founding of the
People's Republic. Nevertheless Dr. Li, along with many others in
China in recent years, chose to locate his life story between these
two historical boundary markers, one of national humiliation and the
other of recovered national dignity.

The tenacity of these two literally incorrect, yet psychologically
authentic, memories of China's triumph over national humiliation
demonstrates the persistence of thymos in cultural memory. Beneath
the authorized Maoist rhetoric of "imperialism" and "feudalism" is
another language that has lain submerged these four or five decades
past. This alternative language revolves around issues of
humiliation, recognition and dignity, in contrast to the official
language of oppression and liberation. Hence in the remembered
history of national dignity, "dogs" and "standing up" are
misrepresented together: the motif of a dog that gets around on four
legs is redeemed by the motif of a state that stands up on two.

The idea of China "standing up" in 1949 has many different discursive
roots in Chinese literature and ritual practice. The most important
source is probably the one that gave us the legendary sign in the
park in Shanghai. Basically, when China "stood up" in 1949 it
signaled to the world that the country had straightened its back and
would no longer tolerate humiliation at the hands of foreigners. In a
style characteristic of British municipal administration the world
over, there appears to have been a sign listing a number of
regulations governing use of the park in the Shanghai International
Settlement, including one concerning the entry of dogs, and another
dealing with the admission of local Chinese (but permitting entry by
Chinese servants of Europeans). The intervening regulations needed to
be elided by an editorial stroke of the nationalist imagination to
arrive at the condensed statement that dogs and Chinese were

It took time before the sign could reveal itself with such elegant
simplicity, for the residents of Shanghai had first to learn that
their daily routines and personal habits were linked to the welfare
of the nation. But once the municipal noticeboard was read as a sign
of racial subjection, it stimulated the people of China to get up on
their hind legs, or "stand up." Lao She's novel, Ma and Son (1929),
offers an explicit example of this rhetorical connection:

"In the twentieth century attitudes towards 'people' and 'country'
are alike. Citizens of a strong country are people, but citizens of a
weak nation? Dogs! China is a weak country, and the Chinese? Right!
People of China! You must open your eyes and look around. The time
for opening your eyes has come! You must straighten your backs. The
time for straightening your backs has come unless you are willing to
be regarded as dogs forever!"

Lao She concedes the comparison between Chinese and dogs only to turn
it back on his countrymen as an injunction to stand up. This
connection goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of the
mythical Shanghai sign as an historical signpost marking one of the
boundaries of modern Chinese political life. It also summons into
existence another sign announcing that China has recovered its

The second of these signs, Mao's famous statement that "the Chinese
People have stood up", shows similar evidence of historical
tampering. In this case, the tampering serves the added purpose of
encoding the personal experience of individual shame and racial
humiliation in the language of Marxism-Leninism.

What did Mao actually say at Tiananmen in October 1949? After Lin
Boqu, newly appointed secretary of the Council of the People's
Government, introduced the Chairman of the People's Republic to the
crowd assembled on the square, Mao ascended the podium to announce,
"The Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China
has this day been established" (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo zhongyang
renmin zhengfu yi yu benri chenglile). He stepped aside while the
flag of the People's Republic was raised over Tianan Gate, and then
read aloud from a prepared statement on the formal arrangements of
government, on key personnel who would take up leading positions in
government and military agencies, and on the status of the new
government as the sole legitimate government of China for the purpose
of diplomatic recognition. Next came the swearing in of numerous
state functionaries before the proceedings continued with an
impressive military parade. As the ceremony drew to a close, members
of the crowd cried out, "Long live the People's Republic of China!"
and "Long live Chairman Mao!" Mao responded by raising his hand in
acknowledgment and calling back, "Long live Comrades!"

Essay Types: Essay