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May he live ten thousand years

Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

CCP leader Xi Jinping immortalized himself 22 times with his name in a 25-page resolution declared “historic”. Xi declared that the policy document published on Tuesday was drafted by himself, together with his chief theoretician Wang Huning and Zhao Leji, senior Chinese leader of the Communist Party of China. It serves as a summary of the 100-year history of the Chinese Communist Party, but also as its “political manifesto” for a Marxist renewal, the technological modernization of the People’s Republic, and its reincarnation as a global superpower by 2050.

Five years after Xi was appointed “core” (核心) leader of the party in 2016, he is now more firmly in the saddle than ever before. He lets himself be addressed as People’s Leader (人民领袖), Commander-in-Chief (军队统帅) or, almost with the same words as once Mao, as China’s helmsman (掌舵者). All hurdles seem to have been eliminated so that the election party congress can bequeath Xi a carte blanche to continue his rule in winter 2022. However, he still missed one honorary title to match Mao, the master of the personality cults. That the nation exalts him with the chant 万岁, the wish for a life of “ten thousand years”.

The Chinese character for ten thousand (万) is actually reserved for the ruler of heaven. Therefore, the earthly imperial palace in Beijing (Gugong) was not allowed to have more than 9,999 rooms, with just half a room to boot. That’s what many guidebooks say. According to legend, Ming Emperor Yongle (永乐 – 1360 to 1424) had ordered his builder to furnish the new palace planned for him with as many rooms as possible. But he then dreamed that the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝 heard about it and immediately summoned him. He showed him his heavenly palace with 10,000 rooms and warned: Does Yongle plan to own more rooms than he does?

Cult of personality around Mao in the Cultural Revolution. The display board bears four salutations: Great Teacher, Leader, Commander-in-Chief, and Helmsman – May Chairman Mao Live ten thousand years. All four salutations apply to Xi Jinping today as well. Only the slogan “Ten thousand years” is still missing.

Since then, none of the 24 emperors who resided in the Gugong from 1420 until the end of the Qing period is said to have dared to exceed the magic limit in extensions or new buildings after fires. During the Ming period, some 8,000 rooms were counted in the halls and pavilions. After 1972, a systematic survey counted 9,371 rooms, according to China’s room measurement, jian (间).

The measure word 10,000 was not a complete taboo. As sons of heaven, human emperors were allowed to be addressed as Wansui (万岁) as “Ten Thousand Year Ruler”, or to be wished eternal life “for ten thousand years”. According to the 1979 revised edition of the “sea of words” encyclopedia Cihai, “Wansui” has been attested in the annals since the time of the Disputed Empires (475-221 BC). This continued until the reign of Empress Dowager Cixi (1861 -1908). Old photos show her sitting in front of repeated inscriptions such as, “The Holy Empress Mother of the Great Qing live 10,000 years, 10,000 years, ten thousand times ten thousand years.” (大清国當今聖母皇太后 万岁、万岁、万万岁). During the Cultural Revolution, the same exclamation was bellowed for Mao.

Chinese wansui entered other East Asian languages as a loanword, supposedly from the eighth century into Japanese as banzei or banzai. In Korean, it became “manse”, in Vietnamese “vạn tue”. Although the Cihai dictionary denounced “wansui” as a “feudalist legacy”, China’s communists adopted it in 1949. Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic to the present day the inscriptions on the Tiananmen Gate read: “Ten thousand years for the People’s Republic of China”(中华人民共和国万岁) and, as its counterpart, “Ten thousand years for the great unity of the people of the world”(世界人民大团结万岁).

On the Tiananmen Gate, on both sides of the entrance gate to the imperial palace, hang the inscriptions “Ten thousand years for the People’s Republic of China”(left) and on the right, as a counterpart, the slogan: “Ten thousand years for the great unity of the people of the world”(世界人民大团结万岁).” Both slogans remained there unchanged since the founding of the People’s Republic.

Dictator Mao laid claim to everything the old emperors had, from his residence in Zhongnanhai to the Wansui call. At official rallies, he had marchers greet him on May Day in 1950 with the call, “May Mao Zedong live for ten thousand years.” In 2010, the courageous Beijing monthly for Marxist enlightenment, Yanhuang Chunjiu (炎黄春秋), revealed that Mao had single-handedly seen to it. It sparked an explosive debate about his cult of personality. It was based on the recollection of Chen Youqun, who worked as a political secretary for a high-ranking Chinese official in 1950. It was only years after Mao’s death that Chen revealed that Mao, in preparation for the May Day rally in 1950, had “Long live Comrade Mao for ten thousand years” added to the list of proposed “workers’ slogans”.

In the debate led by the magazine on this issue, the first to disagree was historical researcher Zhang Suhua, who claimed that she had found the original five-page draft of 35 slogans for May 1st, 1950, in the party archives, without any discernible change made by Mao. Other critical party intellectuals had rejected her objection, including Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao who later fell out of favor with the dictator and became a dissident. In the July issue of the Yanhuang Chunjiu, Li Rui wrote that Mao had already made sure in advance that his slogan was included in the draft. “Even then, he required many public voices to exalt him.”

Today’s People’s Tribune Xi Jinping is no different. The debate of 2010 (whose articles are now deleted from the Internet after the journal Yanhuang Chunjiu, accused of “nihilism”, was politically silenced in 2016, presumably on Xi’s instructions, and taken over by regime-compliant historians) would be particularly dangerous today.

After Mao’s death in 1976, his cult of personality was criticized, all Wansui calls meant to praise a single leader were outlawed overnight. They resurfaced after the big election party congress in autumn 2022 to affirm Xi’s continued rule. Since the publication of the new resolution this week, China’s state media have praised Xi as the party’s “dignified core,” leader of the people or commander-in-chief, even calling him helmsman “掌舵者.” The Chinese term for this hardly differs linguistically from the same cultural revolutionary term for Mao “舵手”. Millions of Chinese still know the song of helmsman Mao today. “大海航行靠舵手”.

China also celebrated Marx-Engels-Lenin and Stalin in addition to Mao. The poster reads. “May the thinking of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong live for ten thousand years.”

On his own behalf, Xi even applies a whole new level in the resolution. Here, he has his thinking praised as “21st century Marxism, the essence of Chinese culture and Chinese spirit of the time”. He only still hesitates when it comes to the term Wansui: When, during an inspection tour, a spectator from the crowd in Gaotai in northwest China’s Gansu shouted “May chairman Xi live for ten thousand years,” Xi and his bodyguards appeared to be highly irritated. The cellphone footage shared on the Internet was completely deleted by the censors, at least in China. It was not the right time yet.

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