China’s Tradition of Dissent

Orville Schell is the author of numerous books about China. He is the dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley

China’s leaders would like the world to believe that Wei Jingsheng is an apostate who is anathema to what Chinese President Jiang Zemin described as China’s “5,000 years of history, culture and splendid traditions.” The gist of this argument is that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is entitled, because China’s unique cultural tradition, to be politically repressive. In an effort to connect its nouvelle authoritarianism to this tradition, the party has even exhumed Confucianism, conveniently forgetting that its leaders have spent decades reviling classical culture as the source of China’s decadent system of “feudal oppression.” But to so blithely lump the sage Confucius in with Lenin and Mao, as an antidote to the likes of Wei, ignores some fundamental aspects of traditional Chinese culture.

While the ethical proscriptions associated with Confucius do stress hierarchy, obedience to authority and social order, they also reflect a deep moralism and humanism. An important part of this aspect of Confucianism has always been a veneration for qing guan, or “upright officials,” who have, regardless of the personal sacrifice, dared to stand up to unjust authority. As the Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang put it, “The great man should achieve righteousness through sacrifice and not prolong his life if that means the destruction of righteousness.”

An enormous body of popular lore soon built up around such historical figures. Perhaps the most revered qing guan is Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), whom legend portrays as an official of such uncompromising uprightness and integrity that he withdrew from office and drowned himself rather than acquiesce to his king’s erroneous policies and course of action. Qu’s death is still celebrated in China each spring with the Dragon Boat Festival.


This tradition of feeling compelled by honor to remonstrate with one’s ruler when injustices were being perpetrated began to acquire a distinctly Confucian cast in the Tang Dynasty, when such upright officials as Wei Zheng, a historian and counselor to the Emperor Tang Taizong, also entered the pantheon of folk heroes for daring to infuriate the throne with his truthfulness. The Song Dynasty general Yueh Fei became the embodiment of the neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi’s admonition, “To die after having done everything according to the right way is the proper political fate,” when he was accused and executed for treason after daring to differ with the emperor over military strategy. This neo-Confucian tradition of humanistic reform tempered respect for authority with a veneration for self-cultivation and moral individualism and gave rise to such expressions as: Wenren si jian, wuren si zhan--”Just as a military man must be ready to die on the field of battle, a scholar must be ready to die remonstrating with his ruler”--that are still used today.

It was in this spirit that the legendary Ming Dynasty official Hai Rui brazenly censured the Jiajing emperor for his vanity, extravagance and repressiveness. “It has already been some time since the people under heaven started to regard Your Majesty as unworthy,” he bluntly memorialized before being jailed and becoming mythologized as a hero, helping to create part of what the contemporary Confucian scholar Theodore de Bary has called “a virtual tradition of principled dissent.”

In 1960, when historian and Beijing Vice-mayor Wu Han wanted to warn against Mao’s own autocratic excesses, he wrote a play about Hai Rui, describing him as a man who “was upright and firm in principle” and “not swayed by threats of violence.” Not surprisingly, Wu, too, ended up in prison and died shortly thereafter. By this time, Mao’s power had become so absolute and Confucianism so ravaged by party attacks that there was not even vestigial respect left in official circles for remonstrating before unjust power.

Indeed, so sensitive is the party to the legacies of such historical figures as Hai Rui that censors often ban books and TV programs that seem to extol the ancient virtues they represent. For instance, when a recent TV serial about Prime Minister Liu Yong, who acquired a lasting mythic reputation for his honesty, outspokenness and fearlessness as an official during the reign of the Qing emperor Qian Long, began winning unusually high ratings, censors canceled the program altogether.

Wei Jingsheng is the torchbearer of this eroded Confucian legacy that party leaders now want to ignore. Goaded by concerns about their ideological bankruptcy, they have been trying to hijack a distorted version of the Confucian tradition. They would do well to remember, however, that Confucianism is not an invitation to unalloyed despotism. The sage may have emphasized respect for one’s superiors and authority, but he also stressed the need for humanism, just governance and honest criticism. As Wei wrote in 1979, “People’s rights cannot be protected by a dictatorship which strips them of their rights.”

Party leaders may have forgotten the Confucian admonition that “a virtuous man is like the Polar Star which keeps its position while all other constellations are attracted towards it.” Wei, as the heir of this Confucian tradition of remonstration, is such a star who, to Beijing’s chagrin, has now begun shining brightly abroad, even giving rise to an annual effort to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claims that as “a condemned criminal,” he has “no qualification to be awarded a Nobel Prize.” But far from being an impediment, being “a condemned criminal in prison” has often been a hallmark of virtue, especially for those heroes who have come to be known through historical lore as “upright.” As Wei himself has said, “Whether a political view is correct or not is an issue that must be decided by history rather than by judges.”