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Dream of the Red Future: Will the Chinese Dream Become an Enduring Classic?

By Nicholas Dynon

In a scene in Cao Xueqin’s epic 18th century classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, protagonist Baoyu drifts into a dream while in a courtly chamber. His unconscious journey takes him to the “land of illusion,” where the fairy, named Disenchantment, reveals the fates of several characters close to him.

John Minford, professor of Chinese at the Australian National University, suggests the underlying theme of this great work is one of “seeing through the Red Dust,” beyond the illusion of earthly “reality.” Richard J. Smith of Rice University notes its theme of the “interpenetration of reality and illusion,” and of true and false producing one another. Ultimately, the work is semi-autobiographical, and reflects lost dreams, particularly the waning fortunes of Cao Xueqin’s own family and, by extension, that of the Qing dynasty.

While perhaps seated in his chamber in Zhongnanhai, Chinese president Xi Jinping recently dreamt his own “Chinese Dream,” but rather than foretelling a future of ill-fortune and decay, this dream speaks of a China on the ascendancy and of the promise of national rejuvenation. Interestingly, just as Dream of the Red Chamber, gave rise to Redology, a field of study devoted exclusively to Cao’s classic, the “Chinese Dream” has created its own international army of interpreters. But as an idea that draws so heavily from established Beijing rhetoric, is this a dream that actually requires any real interpretation?

National rejuvenation

Xi Jinping introduced his dream last November at the National Museum of China’s "The Road Toward Renewal" exhibition. "In my view,” stated Xi, “realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the Chinese nation's greatest dream in modern history.” The New York Times’s Evan Osnos cites China analyst Bill Bishop’s description of the Chinese dream as a term encompassing “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society, and military strengthening as the common dream of the Chinese people that can be best achieved under one party, Socialist rule.”

The Chinese dream is a clear articulation of the necessity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China’s national rejuvenation and historical redemption. According to a recent Xinhua opinion piece:

“The victory of the people’s revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party thoroughly concluded the miserable history of China’s domestic trouble and foreign invasion, and its long-standing weakness of extreme poverty, thoroughly changed the future and fate of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation, and opened up the Chinese nation’s incessant development and expansion, and its historic march towards a magnificent rejuvenation.

Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University insightfully points out that in the 20th Century, “the future was located outside of China.” Official Chinese historiography marks modern history as beginning in the mid-19th century—the start of what the Chinese refer to as the “century of shame and humiliation.” Subjected to various foreign insults, China had been thrust into a globalized world in which it was, materially at least, inferior, and there it remained until recently.

Post-Mao economic reforms have since driven China’s ascendancy to a point where historical redemption—indeed history itself—is within her grasp. That the once so-called “sick man of Asia” is now in a position to not only claim its past and future history but also to rewrite the world’s future, is, according to Xi’s dream and the official mouthpieces that propagate it, attributable first and foremost to Chinese communism.

Rejuvenated nationalism

Reminding the Chinese people of the necessity of the CCP in China’s ascendancy has for some time – and rather ironically – been done in a way that has tried to avoid undue reference to communist ideology. De-politicization of party rhetoric and propaganda began under Deng Xiaoping, whose emphasis on economic liberalization required a rethink of how Marxist dialectical materialism and class struggle might be communicated to the masses. The rhetoric, propagated with concepts such as “spiritual civilization” (精神文明) and “scientific development” (科学发展) was purposefully vague. To delve into greater detail would risk laying bare the irreconcilable contradictions between this new path and the party’s hitherto raison d'être.

Under Jiang Zemin, this continued with the adoption of a cultural nationalist rhetoric that tapped the nationalist sentiments of a nation on the up-and-up. And so we witnessed the rehabilitation of Confucius and a re-engagement with traditional festivals and cultural icons unprecedented in the People’s Republic. In May 1995, Jiang commented that if the Chinese people were to neglect traditional moral teachings, China would become “a vassal of foreign, particularly Western, culture.” Under Jiang, the CCP had re-engaged with and taken on a new ownership of China’s past, thus providing a framework by which the Party could strengthen its claim on the future.

Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, continued the process with his addition to ideological doctrine, the “harmonious society” (和谐社会) concept. Hu’s stress on harmony pushed the CCP’s history-telling further away from the archaic Maoist notions of class struggle, and ironically sought to address the growing class divides wrought by two decades of capitalist economic reforms. As Sun Yatsen famously observed with his “loose sand” statement (一盘散沙), one can’t achieve nationalism with a nation divided.

The most recent installment in this de-politicization process is Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream. Harnessing the triumphalist aspirations of an emergent China and the aspirationalist message of a better tomorrow, it too is a message that remains—for the time being at least—purposefully vague.

As with the flagship buzzwords of previous leaders, CCP mouthpieces and organs have been quick to demonstrate their enthusiasm in interpreting and propagating the Chinese dream. Stein Ringen of Oxford University notes the proliferation across China of discussion groups, research projects, commentary articles, and learned debates” all aimed at fleshing out the theory and practice of Xi’s concept. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Ministry of Education has reported that “Chinese dream” was among the “most frequently used terms in media reports and textbooks last year” in China.”   

This process of ritualistic response to the leadership’s rhetoric is woven deep into the fabric of CCP rule, as characteristic of Maoist political campaigns as it is of post-Mao reform era policy and ideological pronouncements. The process reinforces the maintenance of a clearly defined political order in which society – at least symbolically – accepts what flows from above.

It is thus in the playing out of this ritualistic response to a new leader’s rhetoric rather than in the content of the rhetoric itself where the importance of the process lies. In this case, Xi Jinping has dutifully articulated his obligatory addition to the CCP’s rhetorical corpus, to which the Chinese people’s acceptance has been symbolically acted out.

Against this backdrop, debates within international media over whether or not the Chinese dream is just empty propaganda seem largely irrelevant. A more relevant prism perhaps through which to view it is renowned political anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s concept of the “theater state.” A theater state, asserted Geertz, is one in which the symbolism employed by the state not only convey the power of the elite but enact it.

In its interpretations of the Chinese dream, much international commentary takes on the guise of the fairy Disenchantment, foretelling the fate of an anachronistic authoritarian state destined for demise. Rebuking Xi’s dream, this well-established, neo-liberal trope sees increasing economic wealth, power, and individualism leading to the regime’s eventual collapse. In artfully weaving the “interpenetration of reality and illusion,” to maintain its own legitimacy, however, the CCP has a proven track record of rhetorical prowess. So while the varied interpretations of the Chinese dream out there make for compelling reading, my money is on Xi’s version becoming the enduring classic.


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Nicholas Dynon is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University and is coordinator of the Line 21 project

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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