“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” — Confucius
“Civilize the mind, but make savage the body.” — Ancient Chinese Proverb
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging.” — Xi Jinping
Many of us may still remember how the great Athenian statesman Pericles proposed to melt the gold from the statue of Athena, patron goddess of the city, when the war against Sparta was exhausting all of Athens’s funds. Which leads us to think about how a symbol can elicit such strong emotional responses from the nation’s citizens when it is at the risk of being desecrated. We similarly may remember that the sections of the Great Wall of China were first joined together around 220 B.C. by Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of a unified China under the Qin Dynasty) as a means of preventing incursions from the northern nomads. Work on it then continued for centuries, through the Han Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty, by which time it was over 13,000 miles in length, and had cost the lives of over a million workers. The building baton was passed on from one emperor to the next, even though they all knew that it was a failure in terms of preventing foreign invasions. But by the time of the powerful Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (between 1206–1368), it was widely known that the Great Wall was perceived as the most important symbol of China for the Western world—a symbol of enduring Chinese strength, physically and psychologically, as a unified nation that could repeal all foreign influences.
A parallel may be found in the way that we, in the US, having been trying so hard to establish a long-term condition for democracy to thrive (which seemed to be apparent, as both the party of liberty and the party of equality had agreed, since the end of the Cold War in 1991). The basic idea was that the more steadily capitalism spread the more likely it was that communism would retreat or even disappear. But that is not how things turned out. With the devastating war in Ukraine, Russia is isolating itself further from the West while fueling economic insecurity around the world. China is calculatingly asserting itself as a formidable force to be reckoned with just the same, and is doing so with the virtue of patience and self-discipline that has been known as one of its strongest national characteristics over the centuries.
Certain events become engraved in a nation’s consciousness. George Washington crossing the Delaware River in a snowstorm that changed the course of the American Revolution. Or the crossing of the Rhine in 1945, which even though it was considered “a bridge too far” nevertheless brought about the defeat of Nazi Germany. And of course there is Mao Zedong swimming across the Yangtze River to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966. And more recently, the staging of the removal from the Chinese Party Congress of former president Hu Jintao by the current president Xi Jinping can be seen, at least in my personal reading, as a symbolic spectacle of public humiliation meant to convey both a rejection of the West’s capitalist penchant for easy consumption and a declaration of who is in charge of China’s future.
The unceremonious way in which Hu Jintao was removed from the party Congress has some lessons to teach us not only about China but about our own democracy. The ideology of China’s Leninist structure has was gradually eroding ever since Mao’s death in 1976, largely to China’s advantage, since it reflected the ways in which China observed and studied carefully the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in response wisely moved closer to a market economy, which allowed it to gain open access to the American market and at the same time mobilize on a massive scale the hard work and entrepreneurship of 600 million peasants, thereby lifting some 800 million of their citizens out of poverty. In recent years it’s become apparent that the difference between Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and current China is simply the economy. The hybrid model that Xi has calibrated in maintaining the balance between the vibrant private sector and state control through its Ministry of State Security has led to a growth in China from a GDP of 200 billion dollars to a GDP of 18 trillion dollars—which when measured per person has risen from 500 dollars per year per person to close to 20,000 dollars. This has been the most spectacular economic growth—emerging from extreme poverty to prosperity—in world history.
Audre Lord once famously suggested that we ought either to use the same tools that have worked for our building purposes or to reinvent new ones that may achieve similar goals instead of using “the master’s tools [that] will never dismantle the master’s house.” Shouldn't we remind ourselves at this point in time that what has brought the brilliant success of our democracy was in fact based on the resilient spirit of all Americans in trusting the self-corrective mechanism, which can never be separated from its ongoing commitment of experimentation. In short, democracy’s greatest strength lies in its agility, the ability to think on its feet while making things happen. In recent years, China seems also to have been thinking on its feet in a way that combined its gift for being patient with adaptations of American-style technical innovations and entrepreneurship. As a result, it has been able to use its low labor costs to exploit the American middle-class’s addiction to cheap goods made from China. In response, in order to compete, the US must reconnect with its roots in democracy as an experiment. Which simply means that American democracy must be reborn for every generation, not by complacently acting as a kind of bureaucratic machine that undermines democratic learning, but by readjusting the various aspects of American society so that high-skilled workers are treated on equal terms with businessmen, academics, and other professionals. We must remain proactive in welcoming the uniqueness of everyone’s experiences instead of shoving them into a melting pot where things and people lose their distinctiveness. It’s time to rethink the ways in which the arts and humanities interact with society at large and can be integrated with statecraft, among other fields, so we can all look at the world with wider perspectives as opposed to insularly small lenses.
In solidarity, with love, courage, and cosmic optimism,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives and works of our two friends: the legendary painter, filmmaker, and publisher Alfred Leslie (1927–2023), and phenomenal artist, illustrator Bill (William) Anthony (1934–2022), without whom it would be impossible to take occasional glimpses into the bohemian lives of downtown New York City along with their hardship, humor, and fearless commitment to artistic freedom. We’d like to send our deep condolences to the members of Alfred’s and Bill’s immediate families and admirers here and abroad. Meanwhile, as the month of March symbolically represents new growth, fertility in all living things—humans, plants, and animals—we at the Rail are thrilled to announce that the distribution of our beloved journal has now reached twenty-three states across the country. We’re equally thrilled to continue curating our ever-popular series of Singing in Unison exhibitions (dates and locations to be announced), as well as working on adding two new sections to the Rail, one on fashion and one on architecture. We’d like to send, lastly, our huge collective birthday greetings to three of the Rail’s beloved team members Kathleen Cullen, Carolyn Ferrucci, Patrick Hill, and Cy Morgan.