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Rulers of the Middle Kingdom

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) in traditional dress. Click on image for a larger view.  

Have China's Communist leaders truly broken with the imperial past?

By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- Since the founding of the People's Republic, China's leaders have launched numerous campaigns against superstition. For some Chinese, however, ancient traditions die hard.

One such tradition dating to dynastic times is that natural disasters are harbingers of political change.

"Every peasant believed in the umbilical relationship between man and nature, and therefore between natural disasters and human calamities," noted the late historian John Fairbank in his book, "China: A New History."

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It was no coincidence, for example, that the tumultuous Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64, which further undermined the decaying Qing Dynasty, was preceded by years of famine and flood.

In recent times 1976 stands out for many Chinese as a year in which natural disasters and politics are inextricably linked.

The year began with the death of Premier Chou En-lai, who succumbed to cancer in January, setting off a power struggle in which Deng Xiaoping, then deputy premier, was purged. Turmoil within the government continued when Zhu De, a prominent general in the People's Liberation Army, died on July 6.

Three weeks later, on July 28, a massive earthquake destroyed most of the city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people and injuring 600,000 more, according to official estimates, although the numbers are believed to be much higher. The quake was so strong that some people were reportedly killed in Beijing, about 100 miles to the west.

Mao's body lies in state after his death on September 9, 1976. He bragged that he burned more books than any emperor  

Then on September 9, 1976 -- just six weeks after the Tangshan disaster -- Mao Tse-tung died. Mao's death may have stunned many Chinese, but it didn't necessarily surprise them. They sensed it was coming. To this day Mao's death and the earthquake are inseparable in the minds of many Chinese people.

Lest one think such mindsets are anachronistic, recent census figures suggest that one in five Chinese still practice Taoism and other centuries-old folk religions -- faiths that make strong connections between the natural and man-made worlds. Such beliefs apparently are still ingrained in the Middle Kingdom's national psyche, especially regarding its government.

'Mandate of Heaven' for the PRC?

A Chinese emperor ruled under the auspices of the "Mandate of Heaven" -- the heaven-sent right to rule, similar to the "divine right of kings" in Western civilization. Confucian practitioners in dynastic China were taught that the mandate could be taken away from immoral or tyrannical leaders. Emperors who had apparently lost heaven's mandate were considered ripe for ouster.

Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven in the southern part of Beijing was built in 1420 so the emperors could worship heaven and pray for abundant harvests  

In 1949 the Chinese Communists were clearly defeating the rival Nationalists in the nation's prolonged civil war. Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who had received military, financial and moral support from the West for decades, was seen by much of China as tyrannical and corrupt. As Chiang's armies lost one battle after another to the Communists and inflation spiraled out of control, it appeared to many Chinese that the Nationalists had lost their "Mandate of Heaven."

"The [Nationalist Party] had thrown away whatever chance it had of governing China," Fairbank wrote. "Thus the Nationalist government acted out with a vengeance the role attributed in Chinese history to the 'last bad ruler' of a dynasty."

Chiang and his defeated supporters fled to Taiwan, and on October 1, 1949, Mao Tse-tung formally announced the founding of the People's Republic of China. He did so from a balcony on Tiananmen -- the gate to the Forbidden City, the living quarters of China's emperors.

A break with China's traditions?

Given the strength of China's centuries of culture and tradition, is it possible that the People's Republic is a true break with the nation's imperial history? Or should it be considered just the latest dynasty to govern the Middle Kingdom, albeit with a different political structure and vocabulary?

Fairbank noted several similarities between the Chinese Communist Party and dynastic governments -- in particular on the issues of conspiracy and dissent.

"Conspiracy was a continual part of imperial Confucianism, because the ruler's legitimacy was assured only when his proper conduct produced harmony between ruler and ruled," Fairbank wrote in his final text, "China: A New History."

"Dissent was disharmonious, and so a dissenter feigned loyalty to protect himself," Fairbank wrote. "Sensing this deceit, a ruler easily became suspicious, if not actually paranoid. The system had little space for the open expression of opposition because policy was part of the ruler's moral conduct and so of his legitimacy."

Indeed, the founder of the People's Republic occasionally drew parallels between himself and China's past rulers.

"Mao Tse-tung, for all his railing on feudalism and saying that communism was going to be its antithesis, would often use analogies between himself and the emperors," says Steven Hood, chairman of the politics and international relations department at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

"Mao once said: 'Qin Shi Huang [the emperor who first unified China] was famous for burning books, but I burned millions of them and in many cases the authors who wrote them.' I think Mao saw himself as setting up a new dynasty," Hood says.

Hood also notes that in Communist China there is unquestioned respect for high authority, a tradition that goes back to the days of the emperors.

"If you look to Hong Kong and Taiwan," he says, "they look with real suspicion at their leaders. In mainland China they may dislike their leaders, the ones in the central government, but they are still held in a sort of awe."

Hood, a former Fulbright scholar in China, recalls once talking with two Chinese Education Ministry officials who favorably compared Deng Xiaoping to Qianlong, the 18th century Qing Dynasty emperor who greatly expanded China's size and prestige.

Far from the cheering throngs

Imperial artifacts
Artifacts of China's imperial past: Cannons of the Qing Dynasty sit on display outside the front gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing  

With the death of Deng in 1997, however, China's leadership is now one generation removed from its Communist revolutionary roots. Some of China's new rulers have been characterized as "technocrats" -- heads of a colorless bureaucracy whose personas bear little resemblance to the larger-than-life veterans of the Long March.

"[Chinese Premier] Zhu Rongji is not a Deng Xiaoping," says H. Pierson French, professor of history and political science at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. "He doesn't have the dynamism in terms of policy. I think he's in a far worse [political] situation then Deng was when Deng opened things up in the late 1970s."

Paul Cohen, professor of Chinese history at Wellesley College, notes that some emperors in the past, like some modern leaders, took an active part in governing the country.

"A powerful emperor's charisma, however, was not expressed in the same way," he says. "In his relationship to the people, the emperor was aloof. He didn't give speeches before cheering throngs in Tiananmen Square."

Cohen also believes that the China of today represents a significant break from imperial times.

"Today, for the first time, China is undergoing a true industrial revolution," he says. "The Chinese government today is also very much concerned with the entire world, with being a player in global contexts of all sorts. It's quite a different story from governments prior to the 20th century, whose arena of concern was generally confined to East Asia."

And Steven Hood says China's next generation of leaders may bear even less of a resemblance to the old emperors.

"Educators I spoke to say this is not the government China will have a decade or so down the line," he says. "For now they are spewing the government line -- saying we are moving toward something, we just don't know what it is."

For his part, H. Pierson French, who also advises the U.S. Episcopal Church on the Chinese government's religious policy, believes many Chinese will still look for omens, as they did during the days of the emperors, when it comes to changes in their government.

"Confucianism by any other name is still Confucianism," he says. "You can't have traditions going on for 2,500 years without [them] sticking. We knock wood for luck, leave a house through the same door we entered. Those things still stay with people."

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