Nowadays, the words “made in China” have become a stigma of cheap goods, inferior manufacturing, and even defective technology. In ancient times, by contrast, China was the homeland of fine silk, porcelain, jade, and the inventor of paper, printing, and the compass. China’s 5,000 years of civilization have produced one of the most glorious cultural heritages in the history of humankind.
When non-Chinese are asked about what they associate the term “traditional Chinese culture” with, the answers might range from “robed dancers at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,” “martial arts displayed in Shaolin kung fu shows,” “Taichi courses,” to “the programs at the Confucius Institute opened at my university.”
These examples represent myriad performances that seem traditional, and even the native Chinese today might confound them with their cultural heritage. However, decades of political campaigns to eradicate a traditional culture, together with systematic media censorship and blanket repression of religious freedom in mainland China have stripped these tradition-like performances of their inner essence.
What is the essence of China’s traditional culture?
China possesses a rich cultural heritage with countless historical documents, cultural relics, literary classics, legends, and national records through various dynasties. It is the only culture globally that has a continuously recorded history of 5,000 years, allowing its descendants to inherit the accumulated virtue and wisdom from their remote ancestors.
Chinese culture, believed to be transmitted by the deities, began with legends such as Pangu’s creation of heaven and the earth, Nüwa’s creation of humanity, Shennong’s identification of hundreds of medicinal herbs, and Cangjie’s invention of Chinese characters.
Cangjie was an official historian of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), who lived over 5,000 years ago and is considered the very ancestor of all Chinese. Huang Di was indeed a cultivator of the Tao (or the Way) and taught his subjects to live following the heavenly Way.
“Man follows the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows what is natural.” The Taoist thought, considered a wellspring of Chinese culture with the harmony of Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, was systematized by the sage Lao Tzu over 2,500 years ago in his book “Tao Te Ching,” translated as “The Classic of the Way and of Virtue.”
Also, more than two thousand years ago, another Chinese sage named Kong Fu Tzu (Confucius) opened a school to educate students from all walks of life. He promulgated to society the Confucian ideals represented by the five cardinal virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness (ren yi li zhi xin). As he puts it: “Great learning promotes the cultivation of virtue.”
In the first century, Shakyamuni’s Buddhism, focusing on compassion and salvation for all beings, entered China from ancient India. As a result, Chinese culture was widened and enriched. After that, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism became complementary faiths in Chinese society. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Chinese culture reached its zenith, an era often regarded as the pinnacle of Chinese peace and prosperity.
Influenced by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, spiritual values and moral concepts have become deeply rooted in Chinese people for thousands of years. “Respect the heavens to know one’s destiny,” “Kindness will be rewarded, and evil will be punished,” “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” among others, are all products of these three religions’ teachings. That ancient Chinese wisdom brought to life everything from medical innovations to opera, dance, architecture, and even martial arts. Dynasties like the Han, Song, and Tang are full of excellent doctors, poets, and generals who created medicines, prose, and military tactics that would leave many of today’s experts in awe. Almost all of them were engaged in spiritual practices.
In brief, traditional Chinese culture could be considered a divinely inspired culture, a tradition of spiritual self-discipline and reverence of the divine. For this reason, since ancient times, China has been known as the “Celestial Empire,” meaning a land where the divine and mortals once coexisted. Omitting this very essence, regardless of how many traditional performances, cultural expositions, and linguistic programs are organized, they are merely entertainment.
Differentiating the pearl from the fish eye
In recent years, the spread of Confucius Institutes, the public educational and cultural promotion programs implicitly sponsored and directed by the Chinese regime, in dozens of countries worldwide have laid an impression that the Chinese communist regime is probably supporting and enhancing China’s traditional culture.
But their attitude incomprehensibly reverses while addressing Shen Yun Performing Arts – a New York-based company featuring classical Chinese dance and music whose mission is “to revive 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.” According to reports, “the Chinese Communist Party has done everything from slashing Shen Yun’s tour bus tires to hiring hordes to internet trolls to skew the perception of the company on social media. The CCP had Chinese consulates write letters to local officials saying that letting Shen Yun perform in their areas would damage relations with China. They even called up theaters themselves (or through hired proxies) to demand Shen Yun be canceled.”
The opposite reactions of the Chinese government towards the two supposed pro-Chinese culture entities have revealed its real motivation. According to international accusations reported by Fox News, behind the scenes, the so-called Confucius Institutes seek to impose a system of propaganda of communism, truth censorship, and a distorted account of reality and social conflicts. Whereas Shen Yun shows “China before Communism” and exposes truths in China’s modern history.
Since attaining power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used all means to destroy China’s traditional culture. Its state-sponsored movements ranged from the “Movement to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” in the early 1950s, which aimed to destroy the traditional Chinese religions of Buddhism and Taoism; the “Anti-Rightist Movement” of 1957 targeting intellectuals, considered as cultural elites; to the unprecedented massive Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), during which almost wiped out China’s 5,000-year-old culture. Regarded as objects of “feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism,” the Buddhist and Taoist temples and statues, ancient relics and antiques, calligraphy and paintings, classic books and scriptures became the targets for destruction by the Red Guards.
More cunningly, the Chinese Communist Party even sent its underground members to infiltrate the religion directly and sabotage it from within. As a result, the Chinese Buddhist Association founded in 1952 and the Chinese Taoist Association founded in 1957 publicly announced in their founding statements that they would be “under the leadership of the People’s government.”
Religions are a way for people to cultivate uplift themselves from the mundane world, emphasizing “the other shore” (the shore of perfect enlightenment) and “heaven.” Yet, the political monks who formed united fronts with the CCP encouraged Buddhists and Taoists to pursue secular gains such as wealth, rank, and happiness in this life, overlooked the ancient precepts, and modified the religious doctrines and their meaning. They made up a series of deceits and lies such as “human world Buddhism” and “there is no contradiction between this shore and the other shore.”
One of China’s cultural and religious symbols is the Shaolin Monastery, recognized as the birthplace of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu. Located at the foot of Wuru Peak of Mount Song in Henan Province, which proclaimed one of the Five Holy Peaks (wǔyuè), for centuries, the monks of the Shaolin Temple devoted their lives to meditation, praying, and practicing martial arts, while living off the land and the donations of worshippers. Today, however, their activities extended to food and medicine sales, construction, entertainment, and consulting.
Bloomberg in 2015 reported the story of Shi Yongxin, Abbot of Shaolin Temple, who wanted to transform Shaolin, a picturesque compound of prayer halls, tree-dabbled courtyards, and Buddhist shrines set against a lush mountainside, into a complex with a four-star hotel with 500 beds, residential villas, and a 27-hole golf course, at the cost of more than $270 million. Yongxin was both vice-chairmen of the Buddhist Association of China and a National People’s Congress member.
Reporter Christopher Beam recalled his visit to Shaolin Temple in his article as follows:
“I’d heard a lot about the commercialization of the Shaolin Temple, but nothing could prepare me for my first encounter with Buddhism Inc. I paid the steep $16 entrance fee and walked the long, tree-lined path from the front gate of the Songshan Shaolin Scenic Area to the temple. The lilting theme song from Shaolin Temple, the movie, played from speakers in the trees.
“Tour groups congregated in front of the temple, snapping photos of its front steps, sloping tile roofs, and, despite a rule against it, the occasional monk. A man in a puffy jacket offered to sell me a Photoshopped picture of myself with Yongxin and Vladimir Putin flanking me like bodyguards.
“I shelled out $30 to see the 400-person nighttime Shaolin Zen Music Ritual, and caught a kung fu performance where the stage was emblazoned with the name of a tire company. In the mall-like gift shop, I bought a toy gun.”
In his book, Yongxin interprets his goal for the temple as the preservation and spread of the so-called authentic Shaolin culture instead of commercialization. To do that, he argues, monks necessitate being engaged in the secular world.
According to Bloomberg, upon becoming abbot in 1999, Yongxin lobbied the local government to approve demolition in the area, regardless of the opposition from villagers whose livelihoods were jeopardized. In 2002, the forced relocation proceeded, which pleased the abbot. “Now it possesses a little bit of the poetic charm that I have long cherished for the Shaolin Temple,” he wrote. The project fitted with his trademark-protection litigation, as he attempted to control the temple’s image locally and abroad.
Apart from the public’s nickname “CEO monk” thanks to his busy business affairs, Shi Yongxin’s private life was flooded with scandals. First, Yongxin was accused of living an increasingly extravagant lifestyle: from accepting a Volkswagen SUV worth $125,000 given by the government of Dengfeng in 2006 to showing off a cloak with gold thread worth $25,000 as a gift from a brocade company in Nanjing.
The mess did not stop there: later allegations included Yongxin raping a nun, fathering two children, and embezzling funds. Shi Yanlu, Yongxin’s once-loyal disciple who then wanted to separate his business from Shaolin’s, reported to the government that starting in 2005, the Shaolin abbot began asking him for money. “He was insatiable,” Yanlu’s spokesman told Caixin. Yanlu also declared being obliged to pay 2 million yuan to the Shenzhen businesswoman with whom the abbot allegedly had sex. “He was the abbot, so I had to do what he said,” Yanlu wrote. “After that, he warned me not to raise the issue of the money or else I’d be kicked out of the temple.”
Despite the gravity of all charges against the Shaolin “CEO monk,” investigation results by the Chinese authorities have never been fully released, and Yongxin remained in office up to now. But, as written by one Chinese netizen, “He’s a good Party monk, of course, he can’t have problems.”
A culture almost lost in mainland China, but why?
Temples like Shaolin are meant to be pure land where people can cultivate, hear bells in the morning and drums at sunset, and worship Buddha under burning oil lamps. Ordinary people can also find inner peace by confessing and worshiping there. A pure heart free of pursuit is needed for cultivation, just like a solemn environment is necessary for confession and worship. Bodhidharma, the founder of Shaolin Temple Martial Arts and Zen Buddhism founder, is known for going inside a cave in Wuru Mountain and sitting facing a wall for nine years until reaching enlightenment. He sat for so long that his shadow was etched in the stone.
Nevertheless, many temples today have become riotous tourist resorts; they are no different from secular fields with all kinds of struggles for profits and fame. By restoring the semblance, but destroying the inner meaning of traditional culture, be it Buddhism, other religions, or cultural forms derived from them, the Chinese Communist Party has successfully degraded these holy presences.
To further confuse people, the CCP has emphasized China’s vilest historical events, which occurred whenever people deviated from traditional values, such as struggling for power within the royal family, the use of tactics and conspiracy, dictatorship and despotism, to create the CCP’s own set of moral standards, ways of thinking, and system of discourse. As a result, the CCP has created the false impression that this “Communist Party culture” continues traditional Chinese culture. Taking advantage of some people’s antipathy toward Party culture, the CCP even spurs them to reject the authentic Chinese tradition further.
One may wonder why the Chinese Communist Party has to ruin such a harmless and beautiful traditional culture?
The root reason is the Communist Party’s inherent ideological opposition to traditional Chinese culture. With its atheist roots, the Chinese Communist Party fears that faith in the divine would weaken allegiance to and challenge the legitimacy of the Party’s rule.
The CCP claimed that communism is an earthly paradise, led by the pioneer proletarians or the Communist Party. Meanwhile, traditional Chinese culture respects the mandate of heaven and believes in the reincarnation cycle of life and death and the karmic causality of good and evil.
Traditional culture values kindness to others, while communist ideology encourages class struggle and sustains its rule by violence and terror. Confucianism respects family and promotes filial piety; the Communist Party also obliges the people to support their old parents financially but readily coerce them to denounce their family members if the latter are labeled as “counter-revolutionary.”
The Chinese Communist Party wants to canonize its leaders and promote a cult of personality. Mao Zedong once said that he followed neither the Tao nor heaven. By contrast, traditional culture regards the emperor as the “Son of Heaven” with heaven above him. He would be judged according to heavenly principles or the Tao, and officials needed to point out the emperor’s mistakes at all times. If the emperor was insistently immoral, people might overthrow him. As long as traditional culture remained, who would praise the Chinese Communist Party as “great, glorious, and correct?”
An ancient Chinese saying goes, “When something reaches the extreme, it reverses.” History proved that no wicked dynasty lasts forever. After all the suppressions and destructions glooming over a century of communist rule, there is a hope that China’s traditional culture would be revived in its fullest glory and magnificence elsewhere on earth. When that day comes, perhaps, it would feel like in a Tang poem by Meng Haoran,
I wake up with the sun up high
Birds chirp everywhere in the sky
Last night a rainstorm passed by
Flowers must have fallen down
In an upcoming episode of China Revealed, we will explore the clues of traditional Chinese culture’s preservation and return.