Feudalism Makes a Comeback in China

The linguistic quirks of a bygone era signal the inequalities of the present.

A man uses a brush and water to write Chinese characters on a road in central Beijing.  (David Gray / Reuters)

Recent news from China has focused on how the politically well-connected and well-off have used their positions to avoid punishment and enjoy preferential treatment. Commentators in the Western news media have likened these trends, fueled in part by economic liberalization, to a Chinese "Gilded Age," in reference to the period of wealth creation, freewheeling robber barons, and social inequity in the United States a century ago. But how do today's Chinese see their own country? Linguistic trends reveal that some fear China's history is repeating itself.

Both online and off, Chinese have dusted off outdated vocabulary to describe their government and various social phenomena. Old fashioned phrases likeguanfu (官府) "Official Mansion" and yamen (衙门) "Official Gates" are used to refer to the authorities or the police, while tianchao (天朝) "Celestial Dynasty" is used as a synonym for China in general.

These phrases were seldom heard in the days of Mao's China, when they were seen as obsolete artifacts of a feudal era that had been eclipsed by the new and glorious socialist state. Once again part of everyday speech, they are usually used in a mocking or ironic context, when citizens criticize the failings of government policies or air their frustrations with the state of Chinese society. These changes show that many Chinese feel they are once again living in "Old China."

"Old China" and "New China" are used to describe two vastly different eras in the orthodox version of history according to the Chinese Communist Party. The terms differentiate between the eras before and after the communist victory on the mainland, known to many simply as "Liberation." After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, many of the customs and practices from "Old China" were deemed products of the "old society." Children growing up in "New China," were taught to view the "old society" as a backward and hellish world of gangsters and concubines, where most people lived miserable lives as sharecroppers under the tyranny of brutal landlords. "Old China" was spoken of as a world of exploitation, inequity, and superstition; where warlords, landlords, and foreigners owned all of the capital while they robbed and oppressed the common Chinese. Due to decades of institutional and political stagnation, compounded by the effects of a series of wars, famines, and subjugation at the hands of foreign imperial powers, this less than flattering description of an earlier China was more or less true at the beginning of the 20th century.

At this time, progressive Chinese revolutionaries like Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun embraced a prevalent, problematic binary that depicted the West as modern and China as backwards, and they criticized conservative ways of thinking that held China up as a superior civilization despite its economic and political oppression. Driven by these ideas - in particular that the modern and the traditional were mutually exclusive - the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to revive the nation by replacing old superstitions with modern science and "feudal" society with socialism. Despite the anti-imperialist slant and slogans of nationalist self-determination, the CCP did not reject the most basic assumptions behind imperialist thought; rather, they sought to change China's status within the existing framework.

For thirty years following "Liberation," the CCP mobilized the masses in cataclysmic political movements in order to propel China into modernity. As part of this iconoclasm, old ideas like Confucian patriarchy and the Mandate of Heaven (China's version of Divine Right) were consigned to the dustbin of history along with other artifacts of traditional culture.

Yet Contemporary China once again resembles the "old society" in many ways. Due to wealth inequity, there is once again social stratification of the different classes; official data has shown that China's Gini coefficient, which measures the wealth gap, has increased by more than 50 percent since the 1970s. Injustice prevails as the rich and well-connected transgress the law with relative impunity, as in the case of Li Tianyi, the son of a high-ranking official in the People's Liberation Army. Even concubines have made a modern-day comeback with the rise of mistress culture, in which extra-marital mistresses (二奶) for the economic elite are an expected status symbol. The "New China" built by the CCP is far more economically developed and politically powerful than the China of the early 20th century, yet these changes have been uneven, leaving many in positions of poverty, powerlessness, and oppression.

A loss of faith in China's legal and judicial systems in particular has many Chinese drawing parallels between contemporary China and "Old China." In "Old China," elite power struggles were a bloody and a constant fixture, power brokering was done through coersive force rather than procedure, and the ruling structure was always highly centralized. The CCP abolished many aspects of China's feudal era, but the Bo Xilai scandal, among other recent occurrences, shows that history has had lingering effects.

In today's China, the contentions of internal Party politics are murky at best to the outside observer. But looking over the history of the CCP and its generations of leadership, it would be unfair to say that progress had not been made. Gone are the days of charismatic strongmen like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who wielded supreme authority. Authority and leadership are now shared between a number of officials, and precedents have been established for leadership terms.

Whether such changes are coming fast enough to maintain stability and prosperity in China remains to be seen. As Chinese revive imperial-era phrases, it might be taken as quaint or even nostalgic. However, their mocking tone is a reminder that the Mandate of Heaven, which legitimized state entitlement in "Old China," has been "Liberated" away.

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.