Written by Marco Fumian.

“New wine in old bottles” was a slogan particularly in vogue among the Chinese Communists in the late Thirties, at the time of the war against Japan. It meant to put new radical content in the old popular art forms, so to stir the patriotic feelings of the people. “Old wine in a new bottle”, vice versa, is what we could say of the newest slogan of the CCP, launched by Xi Jinping at the end of last year and ever since become the object of inexhaustible commentary in and out of China. For the “Chinese Dream”, in essence, is nothing new under the sun: it is an aspiration that began to take shape more than a century ago and a project that, despite its visionary veneer, still remains cast in the robustly pragmatic imagination of the previous generations of Party leadership.

The Dream, in a nutshell, is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, as Xi Jinping himself summarized. But such “rejuvenation” is a goal that China has unceasingly chased at least since the end of the Nineteenth Century, after the assaults of foreign imperialism, inaugurated with the First Opium War in 1840, started to tear apart the everlasting – and yet decrepit – Heavenly Empire, revealing how weak and marginalized China had already become by that time. From that point on, to reconstruct China, making it a strong and modern nation, became the imperative of generations of leaders, and it translated into a relentless “search of wealth and power”, that continued all through the Twentieth Century, and up to now. The Communist Party, in particular, has always considered its mission to neatly define the contours of this future greatness, so it is no surprise that, in line with his predecessors, Xi Jinping now envisions the Dream as a practical agenda of appointments with the future: to realize a “moderately prosperous” society by the first centenary of the CCP in 2019, and a “rich, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, modernized socialist country” by the first centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049 (the adjectives listed here are more than just a jumbled collection of buzzwords: they are, in fact, the various qualities of the national modernity as they have been cumulatively imagined in the history of modern China – all except the Maoist). Even the part that the dream assigns to the individual seems to be anything but new: for the Chinese Dream is the “sum of the dreams of 1.3 billion Chinese people”, and “everybody can be good only if the country is good”. The Chinese Dream is thus neither collectivistic nor individualistic, because it is both. By putting forward that everybody can fulfill their personal dreams provided that they work hard within the framework of the Party’s nationalist dream, Xi Jinping is just replicating those very ideas that became common sense since the creation of the “socialist market”: everybody is allowed, or better say encouraged, to pursue their own wealth, success and even freedom, as long as their wealth, success and freedom all go in the same direction with those of the country.

So perhaps, if it is not in the content, it is in the form that the novelty resides. And this may be a significant novelty indeed, as the “dream” rhetoric may provide the official indication that the Party propaganda has conclusively stepped into the third phase of its history. In the first thirty years since the foundation of the People’s Republic the Maoist leadership focused on the reform of the people’s political thought, so to conform them to the mold of the socialist state, in the second thirty years Deng Xiaoping and his successors focused on stimulating people’s economic interests, in order to transform them into advanced productive forces. Now, a little more than sixty years later, the Party propaganda seems to focus on the manipulation of the people’s emotional states, apparently to make them content and to win their consent over a social reality which is far from being ideal. After decades of “solid” slogans such as “seeking truth from facts” and “development is the only hard logic”, we seem to have entered the age of “soft” propaganda, one that pays more attention to the “liquid” realm of the individual’s subjective perceptions. Maybe even the Communist Party has realized that the “nation” is an “imagined” community, a symbolic construction that requires to be moored in the people’s fantasies and desires in order to really exist; and this is probably why almost two years before launching the “dream” campaign the propaganda had already started to market the jingle of “happiness”, warning that the Party cadres must also worry about “making the people happy”, and not just rich. Hence, the idea to promote happiness indexes to gauge the “perception of happiness” (xingfugan), as the GDP, the leaders discovered, unfortunately is no more the “only criterion of truth”.

There is, at any rate, a paradox in the CCP’s visionary turn, an incongruity easily grasped by a quick browse at the many official volumes on the Chinese Dream that popped up almost overnight in the wake of Xi Jinping’s election to state presidency last March. None of these books fail to outline the history of the Chinese Dream, which is in fact the official history of modern China according to the CCP, to which the label “dream” has simply been applied. One volume, for instance, tellingly explains that the Chinese Dream first dawned when the Opium Wars opened up a breach in the “iron house” of tradition, “letting in a wisp of fresh air that would gradually awaken the suffering people who were sleeping lethargically in the dark”.

To be sure, the “iron house” image is not the brainchild of the CCP’s spin doctors, it’s a celebrated metaphor immortalized as early as in 1922 by the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun. In the preface to his first collection of fiction, Outcry, Lu Xun allegorized traditional China as “an iron house without windows or doors, utterly indestructible, and full of sound sleepers – all about to suffocate to death” (certainly, the plague of opium-smoking brought along with the foreign aggressions played a decisive part in the creation of this picture of collective slumber). The only hope, to destroy the house and save China, was for Lu Xun and many other modern Chinese enlighteners of his time to “cry out”, to wake up at least some of those who were trapped in the house.

This suggests that since the ideal of a national revival dawned in China, paradoxically, it could never be phrased as a “dream”, because the concept of “dream” was too strongly interlocked with the ideas of unconsciousness, ignorance, and national weakness. To become a modern nation, China could afford to dream no longer, instead she had to cultivate a scientific worldview and awaken its lethargic subjects to spur them into conscious and rational citizens. It was finally up to the Communist Party to turn this widespread aspiration into a long-lasting project, when it reunited the country in 1949. Because the Marxist science had given the Party the keys to the “objective laws of history”, that were to steer China toward the goal of her modern utopia. Indoctrination, for many years, was to a large extent meant to convince the people to put aside their subjective visions of happiness and to join in the “correct path” of national progress (that in the course of the Reform Era was increasingly equated to the “hard logic” of economic development).

Why is the Party now converting to the language of dreams?

The first answer, rather obvious, is that as China is becoming a global superpower, it is learning to use the language of the other superpower in order to look similar and at the same time different to its new superpartner  (the Chinese Dream is not exactly identical to the American Dream, but it is a dream anyway: perhaps is it for this reason that some like to call them “Chimerica”?)  Beijing, in the recent years, has made an effort to look friendly and inspiring to the rest of the world, as for example in the 2008 Olympics when the slogan it chose, not by chance, was “One world, one dream”. The second answer, also quite obvious, is that since it started to promote a “socialist market”, in the Nineties, the CCP encouraged the rise of a thriving consumer mass culture, that has long since reshaped the people’s subjectivity with the language of fantasies and desires. Perhaps the CCP’s new leadership realized that it was eventually high time to update its propaganda adapting its ironclad political formulas to the emotional vocabulary of the media.

But we may also venture another answer, one that may sound a little malicious but that yet doesn’t seem entirely absurd either, especially if we borrow once again Lu Xun’s provocative insight. To Lu Xun, as I have noted, the awakening of his fellow countrymen was an absolute priority, but he also conceded, in the famous essay “What Happens after Nora Leaves Home?”, that: “The most painful thing in life is to wake up from a dream and find no way out. Dreamers are fortunate people. If no way out can be seen, the important thing is not to awaken the sleepers”. Influenced by social Darwinism, Lu Xun was concerned that when a caged bird “leaves the cage, there are hawks, cats and other hazards outside”. If the only option for the awakened bird was to go out of the cage and be devoured, then, better stay in the cage and dream.

This is to say that, although on the surface the Chinese Dream intends to signify hope, perhaps underneath it may also signify oblivion. There is in actual fact an ambiguity in the nature of the Chinese Dream, a blind spot that we can grasp by observing how such notion was first formulated by Zhang Yiwu, an influential Chinese cultural critic and ideologist who started to spread the “dream” discourse as early as six or seven years ago. According to Zhang Yiwu, the substance of the Chinese Dream is that even the “most ordinary laborer”, by means of “hard work” and the “effort to make money”, can become a member of the middle class. It was this drive, he said, that for thirty years propelled the Chinese development, as the forces that changed the collective destiny of the nation were the very same people that changed their individual destiny with their personal strivings.

As it often happens with ideological statements, this is only a half-truth. Because if it is true that the laborers’ personal strivings have in general been beneficial to the destiny of the nation, it is not true that they have necessarily brought advantage to the laborers themselves. The economic reforms, since the inception of the socialist market, have tossed the individuals into a harsh competition, with the result that the Chinese society sometimes has really come to remind of an arena dominated by a Darwinian survival of the fittest. If perhaps a fraction of “the most ordinary laborers” managed to enter the middle class, the majority of them, no matter how they strived, have been doomed to lag behind, and to feel that their struggles to improve their personal lot were often inane. As a consequence of this, many in the last years have started to grow disillusioned, frustrated and weary, as they increasingly perceived that the line between poverty and wealth is too difficult to cross, especially due to the ever-growing social inequalities. If the Chinese Dream truly was a hope of upward mobility, this dream today seems to have waned.

Thus it is precisely when the dream wears out that it becomes an official slogan. And the reason why this happens may be twofold: first, the Party wants to restore the people’s hope, infusing the Dream with a new promising reality; second, it wants them to accept the current reality, making them oblivious about its depressing perspectives. In more precise terms, it may signify that the CCP will try to re-legitimize its leadership by rewriting the blueprint of the national development in a way that will give the people more equal opportunities and wider social protection (as another broadly circulated slogan has been advertising so far: “schooling for those who study, earnings to those who work, hospitals for those who are ill, care for those who are old, housing for those who need it”); or rather, in case its commitment to changing the objective reality is not completely sincere, that the Party will instead try to alter the subjective perceptions about such reality, trading a greyed social truth for the allure a national “rejuvenation” because, as Lu Xun ironically noted, “dreamers are fortunate people. If no way out can be seen, the important thing is not to awaken the sleepers”.

We don’t know yet how Xi Jinping will materialize his Chinese Dream. But we know already how Zhang Yiwu imagined his own, and the outcome was at the very least paradoxical. Because Zhang Yiwu repeatedly explained that the Chinese Dream is quintessentially personified by Dumbo (Shagen), a character of Feng Xiaogang’s 2004 film A World without Thieves. Dumbo is a poor, honest and hardworking country boy who toils as a manual worker in a faraway province, piles away a handsome sum of money, and takes the train back to his hometown, to accomplish his typical countryside dream of building his own house and getting a bride. The train, though, is infested with thieves. They set their eyes on his bag and rival to rob his money, until somebody eventually succeeds in the purpose without him being aware that his riches are gone. In the end though, while he is sound asleep on the train dreaming confidently over his bright future, one of the thieves, touched by his purity, sacrifices his life to bring back his money thus permitting him to keep intact the fruit of his labor and his faith that he lives in a “world without thieves”.

Did perhaps Zhang Yiwu mean that the Chinese people can sleep peacefully because, for how many “hawks” will try to prey on their work, there will always be a gentleman thief watching over them? In that case, sweet dreams!

 Dr Marco Fumian teaches Chinese and modern Chinese literature at the University of Chieti-Pescara, Italy. 

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