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China: Collective responsibility and harmony

Published on 28 September 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

(less than a conjecture, more than an untruth)

Judge Bao Zheng (999 – 1062) became a legend in China as the “pure, orthodox and incorruptible character who unfailingly establishes the true nature of the crime and its culprit, either through his native intelligence or by supernatural means and sees to it that the criminal, irrespective of his or her position and connections, will be punished.”[1] Reading these anonymous tales based on a zaju play of the second half of the XIIIth has been for me a pleasure.

Tricks, improbable reversals of fortune, cunning abound. These amazing events are held together by a subtle sense of self-deprecation and irony. Like mist after the rain wafting in front of sheer over hanging rocks, they shroud the stark and jagged morality tale in whimsical contingency and make it interesting. For a moment, the Judge Bao ballades bared to me the shadow of a key for reading current Chinese history and even events. Henceforth, I shall never look to matters Chinese with the same eyes.

When Judge Bao – fresh Top-of-the List examinee – is named to the prefecture of Kaifeng, finds eight “guarantors,” whom he chooses among the top imperial administrators (e.g. Chancellor Black Wang (pg. xxxi). Guarantors are personally liable for the behavior of their charge. If their charge is demoted, they pay the price as well. Guarantors have a collective responsibility towards the Emperor, and they secure harmony in the realm by overseeing the actions of their charge.

This system of “collective responsibility” was not a bureaucratic quirk limited to mandarins. We find this “collective responsibility” model in villages, where ten or sometimes five households were similarly bonded together and made responsible for the behavior of any of its members. An equivalent principle underpinned the army’s structure.

Underpinning the “collective responsibility” system is the worldview of the whole being responsible for the individual and the individual for the whole. “Above and below, the same rules apply everywhere.”[2] It even applies in personal matters like medicine. The failure of the Chinese culture to develop surgery may have its origins here: “taking out” parts of the body would destroy the body’s capacity to become “whole” again. Decapitation or “death by a thousand cuts” was particularly feared because the punishment destroyed the integrity of the body. Eunuchs carefully preserved their severed parts in order to be “one again” – at least in death. The holistic worldview ran deep in Chinese culture.

When harmony and collective responsibility coincide, the individual and the whole are in a dialectical relationship – we may call it a “relational culture.” The individual is not simply subjected to the whole as in a top-down despotic system, being cast out if found to be useless. Stalin could send millions to the gulag – period. In a “collective responsibility” system the individual has a constructive role to play even as he is destroyed.[3]

Where “collective responsibility” rules, the individual’s (bad) behavior affects the whole – hence, it affects harmony. The culprit has the responsibility to make the “whole” whole again. For harmony to return after his “failure,” the wrongdoer (however identified) must be struggled against until he repents and confesses publicly – and thereby bear witness to the renewed integrity of the “whole.” It is not enough for the designated victim to be the scape-goat: it must be consentient. The other members must actively participate in the “struggle” and thereby demonstrate wholeness. Far from cynically and cruelly establishing collective guilt for murdering him (as Western pundits suspect), participation in struggle is seen as a sign of the community’s health. Struggle becomes a purifying ritual.[4]

What shocked me most, in reading recently about the Great Leap Forward,[5] was not so much the number of people killed by Mao’s madness, as the instances of “struggle” emerging spontaneously across the country. The sheer horror of the ordeal – and the numbers! Being an optimist, I don’t believe in people in general being evil. How could common decency that had been practiced within the village for centuries suddenly turn to struggle – which must be one of the worst forms of torture, because it targets both the body and the soul at the same time? And how could these instances spread like wildfire throughout the country? Surely there must have been some predisposition for such behavior?

In such a world, both elements are needed for restoring harmony: struggle of all against the individual, and the individual confessing to his failure. Such a worldview would explain it all. Maybe it does. Maybe it does not. I don’t know. Nor do I know whether the “guarantor” system is practiced in China today, or to what extent the “collective responsibility” worldview still permeates this society.

Looking at the matter from another angle, we know that members of the CCP are “above the law”. This has been criticized in the West, and held up as evidence of the party being inherently undemocratic and corrupt. I’m no longer so sure. Harmony within the CCP may require struggle against the accused first, only followed afterwards by the course of penal justice.[6] In certain instances, the second phase may not be needed. The CCP may come to the conclusion that “repentance” is genuine; harmony having being restored, there is no further need for action. Successful struggle is more important than retribution.

Harmony, of course, unconditionally upholds the CCP’s hold on power. Just as surgery was not practiced, in this worldview “surgery” of the CCP as a whole would be inconceivable. It would destroy the country’s aspiration to “harmony.” Of course, the ruling elite may lose “Heaven’s mandate”. But this can be established only ex post. Until it succeeds, rebellion is perceived as destroying harmony. Rebellion is inherently ambiguous.

The physicist Niels Bohr said that a deep truth includes an opposite truth. “Harmony” may have a sinister bent as well. I present these thoughts not because they may, in any way, be true. After all, the mind of over one billion Chines cannot be collapsed into one. Cultures hide their deepest truths is attitudes and unconscious predispositions, and (Western) cultural introspection is not the best approach to understanding the “other.”[7] Reading the ballads of Judge Bao may be a better way toward cross-cultural reflection.

[1] Wil L IDEMA (2010): Judge Bao and the rule of law. Eight ballad-stories from the period 1250-1450. World Scientific Publishing Co. Singapore.

[2] Suwen, the seminal text of Chinese medicine. See: Paul U. UNSCHULD (2013): The fall and rise of China. Healing the trauma of history. Reaktion Books (I do not recommend this book).

[3] We see traces of this kind of thinking in the West also: Stalin’s purges included show trials where the defeated members of the elite confessed publicly their “misdeeds”.

[4] This is a statement of tendency only. It may not even represent a polarity, for all I know.

[5] See e.g. Jasper BECKER (1996): hungry ghosts. John Murray, London, but also: YANG JiSheng (2012): Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine. Penguin, London.

[6] There are echoes of this in the Catholic Church’s insistence, in Medieval times, that the secular hand execute the heretic after condemnation by the Holy Office.

[7] See, e.g. Simon LEYS (2013): The hall of uselessness. Collected essays. New York Review of Books. New York. I’d like in particular to recall John NEEDHAM’s comment: “Chinese civilization presents the irresistible fascination of what is totally other, and only what is totally others can inspire the deepest love.” This high-minded professor also has a sideline in sexually exploiting his Chinese reserchers…

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