This is a story from the year 1942. Named alongside MEI Zhongxie and JIANG Ping as “The Three Heroes of Chinese Civil Law”, Mr XIE Huaishi was still a youth at the time. Not long after graduating from the Department of Law at the Central School of Politics, he travelled on from from Chong Qing to Yan’an, where he lived for a month. “On the one hand, he gained a feeling for the revolutionary spirit in Yan’an, but on the other hand, he felt uneasy towards slogans of ‘unified thought’. He found it incomprehensible as to how people’s thought could be ‘unified’, and as a result he quietly left.” He returned to Chong Qing, took the Advanced Civil Officials Examination and became a judge under the Nationalist government.
On an August evening in 1996，XIE Huaishi sat watching the surging tides of cloud and the movement of the trees in the wind as he pondered the present and reminisced on the past with FANG Liufang, together with whom he talked of the old affairs of that bygone period, also making it clear that he’d “never written them into (his) person curriculum vitae”. The reason for this is easy to gather. In 1949, at a time when the country was changing hands, XIE Huaishi originally had the chance to head for his old haunt Taiwan, yet chose to remain on the Mainland. After this, “I was incapable of forging ahead with the times and eventually by 1957 had denigrated to become a rightist”, and moreover an “extreme rightist”. I was punished with “expulsion from my official position and with reeducation through labour”. His twenty year life in labour camp was a most grinding torture, from which he only narrowly escaped. At the end of 1979 at already 60 years of age he finally cast off the rightist label and restarted his work in legal studies research. His suffering was a veritable result of speech crime, and like the majority of intellectuals of that era had run into the knife point of “unified thought”. In 1942 he had evaded this knife, but in 1957 he was not so lucky. For XIE Huaishi, his trip to Yan’an when he was 23 truly is an ineffable personal feeling. He became aware of the cruelty and suffering of “unified thought”, however as fate would have it, in the end he had no way of escaping.
As a layman in XIE Huaishi’s field of research I dare not add my two cents. What I am precisely interested in is his experiences at Yan’an in 1942; how could the the revolutionary passion of a feverish youth silently slip away in the face of the slogan of “unified thought”? We are separated by 70 years from XIE Huaishi’s visit to Yan’an, and separated by 7 years from his parting with the world. Still, the words “unified thought” ring out through China to the extent that they far surpass back in the day, when they were only catchphrases. Now, however, they have turned into action.
Why are some people so fond of “unified thought”? Can thought really be unified?
Since time immemorial, those most fond of speaking about “unified thought” were always those in pursuit of autocratic power and those autocrats who had amassed great power in themselves. From Qin Shihuang’s (supposedly the first emperor to unify China) book burning and killing of Confucian scholars, to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty who rejected diverse schools of thought in favour of solely honouring the Confucian tradition; from Zhu Yuanzhang (Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty) made deletions to…unsure if banned or just censored the “Mencius” classic, to the literary inquisition during the golden age of the Qing between Emperors Kang Xi and Qian Long; from the “Party Education” of the Nationalists to the unprecedented Cultural Revolution – none of this does not belong on the political spectrum of “unifying thought”. One of the marks of a power wanting autocracy is wanting unified thought. Conversely, from rulers’ attitudes toward thought, we can, for the most part, gain insight into the direction in which power is headed, whether it be totalitarian or separated power, dictatorship or constitutional government.
The reason for “unified thought” is extremely obvious. Those with power attempt to ensure their country is ever fixed throughout the ages, and hope to firmly hold everything under the sky tightly in the palm of her hand. From the crossbow and the kitchen knife to the power to force migration, this includes everything from the people’s bodies, to their minds, and even their sex lives. As was said in Orwell’s ‘1984’, “…the sexual instinct creates its own world that is not within the control of the Party. Hence, the Party must do all that is possible to aid its destruction. Especially important is that taking away sex life is able to induce hysteria, which would be a good thing since it would be able to be transformed into a feverishness for war and worship for the Leader.” would be good if someone could find the original text for this quote, i havent had time
The reason autocracy is autocratic is because it pursues a singularness that demands itself to be the sole orthodoxy and seat of wisdom and greatness. However, the inherent nature of thought finds itself in freedom. Therefore, for an autocrat the liberalisation and pluralisation of thought is simply a lurking menace. To borrow Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote: “In any country, to possess a free thinking mind is tantamount to there existing another government.”
I’ll mention something here as we go: never underestimate the power of thought. Some people are used to separating thoughts (ideas) from actions, reckoning that without the support of the latter, the former is powerless to keep existing. In reality, thought only need be independent and free from it to be a kind of power in and of itself. The pair of old foes Hayek and Keynes unwittingly both emphasised the immense force that thought can exert. Hayek said, “In the long run, it is ideas and therefore those disseminating new ideas that dictate the course of history.” Keynes said, “The sheer power of the thoughts of economists and political philosophers often exceeds the expectations of ordinary people. What in fact are the rulers of the world are merely these thoughts…I am convinced that the influence of vested interests has been rather over exaggerated an is actually far inferior to the enormous gradual eroding power of thoughts. As a matter of time and for better or for worse, what is dangerous is not vested interests but thoughts.”
Because of this, autocrats will do their very worst in order to unify thought. Censoring books, banning books, burning books and waging literary inquisitions or; forging a literary prision are merely commonplace methods. Those of a higher calibre on the hand with attempt to remodel the brains and nerves of human, for example through the use of drugs and deprivations of the senses. Of course, the most cunning and most universally used method is still the making of a thought authority, that is, that the whole country can only have “one thought”. So called unified thought is to unify all thoughts under the banner of “one thought” and have all minds acknowledge allegiance to this single, correct mind. Of course these three are not at all in conflict and can definitely be put to use at the same time, for example by one the hand prohibiting and burning books, and at the same time only allowing the people to read books representative of the “one thought” and the “one -ism”. To speak plainly, only giving the people one kind of book to read is no less harmful then prohibiting them from reading books; only giving them one kind of thought is no less harmful that prohibiting their thoughts.
To use Hayek’s words, the making of a thought authority is called the “nationalisation of thought”. The running and ownership of thought by the state is often accompanied by state run and owned industries, and “as it just so happens, under unity of the internal and the external, of mind and of matter, countless people can be controlled such that they cannot even budge.” If we were to call this a “monopoly”, relatively speaking, the more dreadful monopoly is not a material monopoly but a monopoly of spirit (thought).
It needs to be pointed out that “unified thought” is not only the preserve of dictators, but rather is the dream of all those in power. So long as power is left unchecked, even saints and benevolent rulers will become dictators, believe their own ideas to be the truth, view ideas in conflict with their own as heresy, surely seeking to destroy them speedily. It is precisely in this sense that all free thought is a challenge to autocracy, and that under autocratic rule, even if people are physically unfree, so long as thought is free these dictators will certainly feel uneasy about their imminent death.
In the end, thought is not the body. The body has form and thought does not. It is easy to clamp down the body, but thought is hard to clamp down. Lock someone away in prison and their thought is nevertheless able to fly over the high walls and electric fences, even such that the extinguishing of a person’s life does not necessarily mean the extinguishing of her thought. The body is a carrier for thoughts, but thoughts are not restricted to the body of one person. All of this hinges upon thoughts’ characteristic attribute of freedom. That is not to say that thought will inevitably teach people to gain freedom, but rather, as long as a people are thinking, this is a kind of expression of freedom. As such, regardless of how much those with power try to “unify thought”, and regardless of how sweet their slogans and how cruel their methods may be, thought can never be unified. From the Nazis to the Cultural Revolution, the implementation of “unified thought” can be said to have reached its heights, however, free thought and independent thinkers lit up those long nights of autocracy like an unyielding flame.
On one side is “unified thought” and on the other is free thought. In the history of the human race, at no time has could history not be seen as an intense battle between these two sides. In this war there is no end, unless the human race becomes extinct. In that case, can their be any winners and losers to speak of? I do not know. I only know that a true thinker should be unable but to feel perplexed upon seeing the slogan “unified thought” , just as Mr XIE Huaishi did. Under the surging tide of “unified thought”, he would not “forge ahead with the times” but instead by adopted a posture of retreat, insisted on a standard for freedom and protected the brilliant radiance of thought.
Published in “China Business”