Published on 9th March, 2018, on The Economic Times.
Soon the Constitution of China will be changed and Xi Jingping will become President for life. Many people across the world will envy his power and wonder why the Chinese people, through the People’s party, are allowing this grab of power. Perhaps it is an echo of the Mandate of Heaven, the cornerstone of Chinese myth.
In the old days every shaman approached the gods in heaven. This confused the gods and so to ensure efficiency and effectiveness, all prayers were communicated to heaven via one shaman, the Emperor, the link between heaven and earth. For thousands of years, the Chinese believed that this leader was given the Mandate of Heaven to establish heaven on earth. If he failed to do so, there would be a revolution and he would be replaced.
Xi Jingping seems to be creating heaven on earth, making China a powerhouse in geopolitics, restoring the glory of China since the infamous ‘hundreds years of shame’ in the 19th century. The Communists of China will reject this suggestion. As Communists they insist they are rationalists and reject all things mythic.
In fact, over the last century, the Communist state has brutally wiped away all ancient ‘irrational’ customs and practices. Ancient Chinese culture, with its gods and rituals and festivals, embedded in Taoist, Confucius and Buddhist ideals now exists only in those who long abandoned the mainland and took refuge in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. This explains the great divide that exists around the world between the Mainland Chinese and other Chinese.
But it is tough to wipe out mythic thinking. Mythic thinking is embedded through stories, symbols and rituals, inherited over thousands of years. Chinese culture is as old as Indian, conservatively between 3000 and 5000 years old. If you ask the Chinese they will insist their civilisation is older, oldest perhaps, with an unbroken tradition of writing that is at the heart of Chinese civilisation.
Mythologically, China sees itself as the centre of human civilisation that springs from Beijing. Here sits the emperor, on his dragon throne, who brings to earth the Mandate of Heaven. The closer you are to the seat of the power, the more cultured and aligned to heaven you are. The farther you are from the centre, the more barbaric you are.
Great walls were built along the northern frontier to keep the barbarians out. Buddhists introduced the idea that heaven exists in the West, beyond the Himalayas, in the land of India, where the Buddha once lived. But as far as imperial China is concerned, India is the land of chaos. Order springs from China alone, from Beijing, via the Emperor. As long as the earth obeys heaven, subjects obey the leader, women obey men, the young obey the old, the children obey the parents and as long as there is perfect alignment from top to bottom as in a beehive or an anthill, harmony will prevail.
Now look at China. It is clear that Chinese Communism functions because it fits into the template of the Mandate of Heaven, with the Communist Party functioning as the old Imperial order, and the President of the party functions as the emperor.
Singapore fitted Capitalism to the Mandate of Heaven model. As in Mainland China, Singapore is effectively a one-party state, with a clearly defined Emperor, to whom everyone submits. The obedience reaps rich dividends as one can see from the success of China. Modified versions of this model can be found in North Korea, South Korea and Japan. It is rooted in centralisation, hierarchy, submission to authority and a valorisation of discipline for the larger good.
Two thousand years ago, when Buddhism entered China, new ideas such as karma, renunciation, monasticism and nirvana entered China. But the Buddhism that thrived in China was customised to the Chinese mythic template, that prefers the material to the psychological, and so rather than the Buddha, the rather introspective teacher, greater value was placed on the Bodhisattva, the problem-solver. Further, this problem solver was given a female form known as Gwanyin nearly a thousand years ago, and as per one hypothesis to legitimize the rule of China’s only female emperor during the Tang dynasty.
This obsession with central control and order is missing in India. In India, it is family that plays central role, then jati (caste), then religion, and only then allegiance to a king and nation. That is why, in its long history, relative to China, India has been fragmented, with more peripheral control than central control. While in China, obedience and submission if valorised (in which it is very similar to Catholic or Islamic faith), in Hinduism greater value is placed on freedom (mukti), hence the pleasure in breaking rules and a mockery of those who follow rules.
You can understand China by focussing on a single script that unites all Chinese. Try uniting India with a single script or language, and you will know why India is not China, and will never be China.