Homage to the 70th Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, or a critique on the Messianic symbolism of our national festival
By Yufeng Liu
Is it surprising that France commemorated the anniversaries of Storming of the Bastille, the violent insurgency against the ancien régime, every year?
Does the fact that, neither the founding of the First Republic ending the long-standing absolutism monarchy, the August Decrees abolishing feudalism, nor the 1875 Constitutional Laws which finally made modern France not a restored monarchy but a republic are officially commemorated on the same level with le 14 juillet, make it even more surprising?
Thanks to the researches done by revisionist French historians including Alfred Cobban and Jacques Solé, we know that the event on 14 July, 1789 was not an actual turning point – even the whole Revolution, from 1789 to 1815, had not changed the French society in an overwhelming way people used to imagine, as Solé concluded in La Révolution en questions. What really does matter about the destruction of the Bastille fortress is it being a symbol of national unity and, if it is more important, the beginning of a transition from feudalism to modernity, absolutism to democracy, and monarchy to republic, which had not been accomplished until the mid-20th century, since the Republic endured obvious political instability in Dreyfus affair during the 1890s and 1900s, the antiparliamentary crisis of February 1934, and the putsch by Organisation armée secrète in 1961.
What’s significant was not le 14 juillet itself, in short, but its symbolism, the aufheben of the thousand years history of French monarchism. The symbolic significance of the Revolution is disemboweled from the sociopolitical legacy of the Revolution for the use of commemorating the start of the long course of giving birth to the modern Republic, and the date le 14 juillet is empowered by the need of consolidating the national identity which is also defined by the Revolution. As Lafayette said in the Fête de la Fédération of 1790, the first anniversary of Storming of the Bastille, it was “to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.” The inscription of the Revolution – especially the bloody insurgency, of course – is a part of the “cognitive process,” “simultaneity” linking back to Benjamin’s ruptural Messianic time by Benedict Anderson.
In this sense, it is probably a new surprising fact that, the People’s Republic of China commemorates the 70th anniversaries of its founding but a Messianic time from the Chinese Communist Revolution. The 10 October, which was the date the Revolution of 1911 broke out in Wuchang, nonetheless, becomes the national festival under the Republic of China, both before and after its retreat to Taiwan. The collective memory of the Revolution, redemption from the homogenous, empty time of the past, is always the most important source of the national identity of a revolutionary state being born in the collapse of the previous unpopular regime, but how could we interpret the case of the PRC?
There was not a single event or breaking point led to the Chinese Revolution, or the War of Liberation, or the Chinese Civil War, whatever you’d like to name it, as some may argue, and thus Mao’s proclamation of the PRC on the gate tower of Tiananmen, visualized by photographs and paintings in various occasions from textbook to propaganda, became the most unique and important moment. The immediacy of that moment was concretized, rupturing the contemporary history with the past.
The actual problem is, that the past is a collection of ruins. The first armed uprising of the CCP in Nanchang, 1927 is too distant from the triumph of the People’s Liberation Army on the Tiananmen Square, 1949, leaving a long, bleeding and complicated period between. The goals of the communists were also realized throughout longue durée, since the initiation of land reforms in Hunan, 1927 on a local level to the nationalization of industrial sector and agricultural cooperativization after the founding of the PRC. There was no such a thing like the mutiny on 10 October 1911 or the uprising on 14 July 1789, which were soon signified by the collapses of the long-standing political systems, during the far-flung, half-century struggles of the Chinese communists.
But the proclamation on 1 October 1949 didn’t remark a ruptural aufheben, or the sublation – one of those imperfect English translations for Hegelian-Marxian terminology. Unlike le 14 juillet of France being the start of a long-term struggle and transition, 1 October was in the midst of such struggle and transition. Unlike 4 July of the United States declaring the independence of a new nation, 1 October, as Mao’s speech stated, saved an aged nation from sliding into the abyss of losing independence. St. Patrick’s Day is religious, Japanese Matsuris roots in locality, Diwali finds its origin in the ancient traditions, and 1 October doesn’t have any of these characteristics. It is celebrated as the birth of the contemporary China. It is the fulfillment of the homogenous, empty time by combining (1) the start of a state’s history, (2) one of the many moments symbolizing the revolutionary struggle’s history, and (3) a visualized turning point in the midst of a people’s history, together.
Those pieces of symbolism center at the showoff of the monopoly over the use of force, being essential to characterize a state. It not only promises protection and security, but also shows the determination of maintaining the existence of such entity by violence. Military parades, on both the Champs-Élysées and the Tiananmen Square, synthesize the thesis of the justified violent overthrow of a previous regime and the antithesis of the justified violent perpetuation of the current regime. Only by essentializing the existence of state itself and degrading the symbolism of the right to armed struggle, the combination of various connotations could survive.
Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” would cherish such combination, too, a collection of the debris of the past. But one cannot stand in front of the debris, appreciating the simultaneity of the present he’s stopping by and the past he’s looking backward:
“Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; … The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
It would produce a Frankenstein if one tries to concretize all the ruins from the past when emphasizing a progressive historiography, which is the case in contemporary China. The commemoration of the birth of the state became especially ironic in regards of the following forty years, a history in which the state apparatus revitalized into what it had been like. It is true that in an age of mass media, images, videos, links, and everyone’s posts and shares can effectively build a bridge between the present and the constructed Messianic time of 1 October 1949, but it shouldn’t be like that: the history between must not be jumped over, and the connotations of the festival we are celebrating must be questioned.
Satirically enough, the most notable inconsistency after that Messanic time, is the de facto elimination of the holiness of endogenous popular movement and disobedience. What has been given birth by the mass mobilizations in the May Fourth Movement ideologically and during the wartime militarily, after its rise to power, soon built a new state apparatus guarding the reestablished hierarchy, and ultimately denied the legality of mass action and excluded those who had empowered it from the political machine. In this manner, the history is divided into two linear courses at that Messanic moment, and such inconsistency needs to be remarked as long as we’d like to conform the ideals and fruits of the Revolution.
There needs to be a rupture breaking the continuity from the past to make sense for progressivism. Thus, I would suggest commemorating 1 October as a Messianic time of the Chinese Revolution, or a symbolism of the revolutionary struggles, and disemboweling the references to the founding of the state from it. Standing at such a moment, my back is turned to the continuous thousands of years’ self-evident privileges, the holiness of Confucianism hierarchy, and a society in which the majority of human beings were not behaving like human beings, while my front faces the uncertainty and possibilities of a new regime. What I need, standing here, is a departure from the past, so that I could identify myself from the homogenous, empty time while escape from confronting the future, in which there might have been full of disappointing things.
Yeah. I’m celebrating the Chinese Revolution, by which I mean I’m commemorating the end of the exploitative, indignant continuity of ancient past rather than the start of the contemporary time. I would also remember what George Orwell writes in the very end of Homage to Catalonia:
“It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface.”