Elite and Popular Culture: Struggling with Class in China

Curating our current exhibition on The Elite and Popular Culture of Old China presented the unique challenge of explaining stark divisions in traditional Chinese society without tacitly or sarcastically endorsing the orthodox communist narrative about oppression of the workingman at the hands of feudal landlords and greedy capitalists.

Contrasting social classes could be a delicate matter in a staunchly apolitical museum with members from both Taiwan and the mainland, and many who fled the current communist regime. But the present day situation is a product of centuries of imperial rule, so it would be counterproductive to omit modern developments from a discussion of class in China. Even as Mao Zedong 毛澤東 sought to stamp out the “four olds” 四舊 of feudal Confucian culture, he employed the traditional arts of prose, poetry, and calligraphy that had helped elites maintain and justify power for millennia.

In many ways, Mao embodied the possibilities of the meritocracy he decried. He studied the master poets, wrote verse in the classical style, and practiced the traditional art of calligraphy. Pursuing education at Peking University 北京大學 helped him rise from a peasant family to the pinnacle of power. One wonders how history would have been different if the imperial exam still existed as a goal for young Mao, or if modern Western theories like Marxism had not become a viable challenge to Confucian orthodoxy.

Mao practices calligraphy in the 1940s
As I prepared my presentation for the exhibit opening, Mao kept creeping into the PowerPoint in unexpected places. There was a great propaganda poster of him writing calligraphy, and images of his family home in Shaoshan 韶山, Hunan 湖南 Province provided excellent (if somewhat stereotypical) illustrations of a simple farmer’s lifestyle. And the audience was particularly amused to learn that a large portion of the building was rented to another family, which means the Chairman himself came from a family of landlords. Technically, Mao was classified as a “rich peasant,” and this oxymoronic label itself reveals the impossibility of strict class categories and hierarchies. 

The traditional Confucian hierarchy 仕農工商 begins with scholar-officials, next comes the overwhelming majority of agriculturalists, then a few craftsmen, and it ends with the despised merchant class. Farmers’ taxes supported local administrators who would settle disputes and provide a virtuous example, while the other trades existed in small numbers as a matter of necessity. Of course, many other professions didn’t fit into and often undermined this hierarchy such as entertainers, eunuchs and concubines, monks and religious leaders, and wealthy merchants who could buy official posts. While Confucian scholars demeaned these other occupations and dominated the elite arts, they had to contend with these other influences to maintain their superiority in the eyes of the populace. 

Popular culture, whether embodied in stories, Chinese Opera or religious movements, provides an avenue for critique and resistance that complicates the simplistic narrative proffered by orthodox Communism. An official post may have been the aspiration of all young students, but villainous officials were also a staple of the Chinese opera. The greatest Confucian scholars, along with Buddhist and Daoist sages, shared a desire to retire to a simple wilderness retreat, but during periods in history when Confucian officials had grown too corrupt and dissolute, popular religious movements have caused several dynasties to crumble.

Traditionally, the emperor could only rule by Heaven’s consent, and famine, corruption, and natural disasters were signs that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven 天命 and should be overthrown. When the people unite behind a new leader, he is said to have the mandate. Thus, Heaven’s will is ultimately manifest in the actions of the common people, and wise rulers always pay heed to popular culture. 

A Cultural Revolution-era propaganda poster
In founding the People’s Republic 中華人民共和國, Mao sought to circumvent Heaven as a source of legitimacy and tap directly into the power of the people. Modern technology allowed him to shape popular opinion to an unprecedented extent, but censoring literature, closing monasteries, and prohibiting or reinventing popular arts like the Chinese opera also closed traditional avenues by which the government could sense the mood of the people. Officials trained in Confucian morality had a duty to remonstrate with any emperor who would fling the nation into foolhardy schemes like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but no one could question the gospel of Mao. In a way, the excesses of Maoism proved the necessity of the traditional restraints he dismantled.

Much has changed in the days since the height of Maoism, but the party still walks a fine line between controlling popular opinion and maintaining public support. Historically, dynasties retain the mandate as long as peace and prosperity reign. Divisions between elite and popular cultures persist, as do conflicts between nouveau riche businessmen and a new generation of scholars trained in everything from engineering to medicine. But just as scholar-officials and farmers coexisted in an economically and culturally symbiotic relationship, impoverished migrant workers and Beijing billionaires are integral parts in China’s recent economic success. In the end, the Elite and Popular Culture of Old China is not about class struggle, but the power of Chinese culture to maintain peace, cohesion and continuity in spite of a tremendous gulf between rich and poor.


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