Why does China still conduct military parades? On Thursday, October 1st, Beijing will host the sixtieth-anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic. The Communist Party leadership has elevated the event into a state-religious holiday, of sorts, centered on a massive military parade—including five thousand soldiers arranged partly by height—followed by a civilians’ parade involving a hundred thousand citizens.
Geremie R. Barmé, Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University, is a leading expert on Chinese culture and intellectual history. Recently, he co-published a pair of great pieces, with scholar Sang Ye, on the history of China’s National Days celebrations. They are available, here and here, at the site of China Heritage Quarterly.
I asked Barmé about the imagery and significance of these spectacles. Our exchange follows.
The iconography of a military parade seems at odds with China’s general effort to avoid arousing international concern about its rise, suggesting, instead, that this is for a domestic audience. What is the message, and who exactly is it supposed to persuade?
China’s party-state often expresses its contradictory impulses between state-orchestrated displays of martial vigour and celebratory spectacles of civil achievement. I would note that, originally, Qin Entombed Warriors in the form of gargantuan puppets (piying) were to feature in one scene of the Zhang Yimou-designed Olympic Opening Ceremony of August 8, 2008. The phalanx of warriors was choreographed to perform a victory march into the Bird’s Nest Stadium during the show. At the last minute, however, the scene was deleted by Party leaders who were concerned that it would send the wrong kind of message—that of triumphalism—to the world.
The primary aim of the October 1, 2009, military parade, which is after all only one part of the Grand Parade (da yuebing) designed for Tiananmen that day, was stated in rather stark terms some months ago. In the “Propaganda and Education Outline for the Military Parade in the Capital on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Founding of New China,” produced by the PLA Logistics Department and published in the PLA News (Jiefang Jun bao) on February 10th, it says that:
This military parade is a comprehensive display of the Party’s ability to rule and of the overall might of the nation. It has a profound political significance in that it bolsters confidence in the Party’s leadership and belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics… This Grand Parade is the first of its kind in the new century. It is a crucial manifestation of the recent victory of the people who have achieved the construction of an overall moderately prosperous society under the Party’s leadership and represents the realization of the great revival of the Chinese nation as a result of tireless struggle.
What was once fairly much of an internal affair observed eagerly by Zhongnanhai-watchers anxious to gauge the pecking order of China’s secretive leadership has become, this time around, quite a media circus. China’s leadership politics is as opaque as ever, but the parade remains an event primarily designed for the domestic audience. It is meant to educate, excite, unite and entertain. If a tad of “shock and awe” is delivered around the world, all well and good. But as the old Party cliché holds, such events must essentially satisfy the “two olds” (er lao): the “Old Cadres” (lao ganbu) and the “Old Hundred Names” (lao baixing), that is, the broad masses of Chinese people.
Having said this, we should remember that, apart from those up on the rostrum of Tiananmen Gate, the parade and the festivities are primarily produced for a TV audience (as well as spinoff Internet and DVD viewers). As they have for sixty long years, the residents of the capital provide the fodder, the backdrop, the crowds, and the logistical wherewithal for the lavish display, but they are not its target audience. For the most part, locals are required to stay off the streets, keep indoors, and make like the rest of the country: behave and watch the show on the tube. In the past, as in 1999, for instance, the masses were allowed out onto Tiananmen the following day to look at and be photographed with the amassed floats (caiche) that have featured in the day’s parade and the evening’s carefully managed “party.”
Did China have a tradition of military parades before the rule of the Communist Party and, if not, what element of Party psychology drives this?
The first recorded details of this kind of “triumph,” to use a term familiar to your readers from Roman history, can be found in the ancient Chinese classic Book of Change (Yi Jing). Dating from as early as the eighth century BCE, a second-century BCE version of this famous book of divination was unearthed in 1973. The well-known translator John Minford has used this version in his upcoming re-translation of the text.
In this second-century BCE text, Hexagram XXX, or Li, contains the following lines:
Yang in Top Place
Goes to war.
Captives are taken,
Not from the enemy.
In imperial times, victory parades were frequently organized for the emperor. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), for example, the emperor would review such displays from his throne atop the Meridian Gate (Wu Men), the formal entrance to the Forbidden City, as booty and enslaved enemies were arranged in the large square below. Trophies included plundered riches, as well as the heads and left ears of enemies. Indeed, there is a specific and very ancient word, guo, that is specifically used to denote the left ear cut off a prisoner.
During the Qing era, the Kangxi emperor revived the ancient tradition of Tours of the South (nanxun), that is, imperial tours of the southern provinces. He made six such tours, which allowed him to familiarize himself with the newly conquered empire at the same time as displaying his imperial authority, as well as his vast military might. These tours were like a moving triumph or parade of strength. The most recent “tour of the south” was conducted by Deng Xiaoping and his entourage in 1992.
But there are other, more recent dimensions to such orchestrated displays. It shouldn’t be forgotten that China and its Communist Party rulers have been enmeshed with Hollywood and its culture of spectacle for decades. Just as Taylorism and the idea of “scientific management” in the U.S. gave V. I. Lenin ideas about assembly-line production, time-management, and the power of statistics in the Soviet Union, so too has Hollywood long been giving China cues about staging public events. Early Hollywood mega-flicks and cinematic versions of the Ziegfeld Follies fed into both Soviet and Chinese designs for mass rallies and proletarian tableaux vivant. Hollywood turned choreography and synchronized gymnastics into mesmerizing cinema. The socialist world adapted such cog-in-the-machine balletics to celebrate the state and its unrivalled power.
The Chinese revolution featured parades from its earliest days. Of course, I’m referring to the Republican revolution of the nineteen-tens (now all too easily forgotten or overshadowed by the successful Communist insurgency of 1946-49). Yuan Shikai, president of the republic, reviewed troops from the newly built Xinhua (New China) Gate, built as the formal entrance to the government compound of the Lake Palaces (Zhongnan Hai), which is still the heart of the country’s political power. He even mounted a stead and joined the review himself along what is now Chang’an Avenue.
Local parades of have been a feature of the Communist Party’s revolutionary politics since the nineteen-twenties. Party organizers encouraged local uprisings and then enjoined the peasants to parade members of the gentry before ritual denunciations and executions. Similar displays, called youdou, were a common feature of life in the early years of the People’s Republic and again during the Cultural Revolution. Ritualised public displays of criminals in lorries before and after public trials and executions have also been a feature of Party rule. However, the days of violent and militant slogans in National Day parades, and before an international audience, although common in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, are long gone. Now harmony and light reign supreme.
Over the life of the People’s Republic, the National Day celebrations have been a barometer of the national psyche at that moment. As you see it, what are some of the most revealing moments or details from previous military parades and mass spectacles?
One favorite but rather recondite moment (given the fact that the documentary footage is something of a rare item) is the extravagant 1969 parade when army soldiers paraded their killing skills for the leader, Mao Zedong. The official, though later banned, film of the parade shows how they had been instructed not to point their bayonets at the rostrum of Tiananmen, where the sacrosanct Great Leader stood to witness the spectacle. The 1984 parade celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic and, by fortunate coincidence, Deng Xiaoping’s eightieth birthday, featured a rare spontaneous moment: a group of Peking University students marching in the parade held up a home-made sign that said “Xiaoping, nin hao!” (“Hello, Xiaoping!”). Of course, the official filmmakers didn’t have the outburst in their script, so they failed to capture the moment on film. After discussion, negotiation and high-level agreement, the spontaneous outburst was restaged, filmed and duly edited into the official account of the parade. Such good-natured outpourings of emotion have not been a feature of subsequent National Day parades, of which the 1989 celebration, coming so soon after June 4th, was particularly grim. Perhaps this October 1st some fortuitous event will slip through the heavily policed merriment of the occasion?
I noticed that in 1999 the “long live” slogans seem to have been set aside. What are some of the details you will be looking for this time as a measure of the Chinese state of mind?
The selection of slogans has always been a gauge of the party-state’s mood at the moment of the parade. Sadly, since the nineteen-eighties, the lacklustre bureaucratese of Deng Xiaoping and his technocratic successors has consistently assured us of bland and turgid sloganeering. Invariably, this time around there will be the usual nostrums related to Hu Jintao’s much touted but deeply troubled “harmonious society” (hexie shehui) and the “scientific developmental strategy,” which is his vaunted theoretical contribution to “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought-Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin-ideas.” These will appear along with the usual array of wholesome homilies in the national media.
National unity will also be a feature, something aimed at symbolically assuring everyone that the borderland uprisings since 2008 are but the work of a few malcontents in cahoots with international splittist schemers. Those in doubt just have to see the police and military hardware that will be out in force. And, daresay, as with the Olympic Opening Ceremony, there will be a serious of vague formulations about China’s peaceful rise on the world stage and its non-aggressive and inclusive approach to global affairs. As we all know, design by committee might produce good mass spectacle, but anything truly inventive or quirky ends up as an outtake. Zhang Yimou, the overall director of the civilian parade and party, is more than familiar with the painful necessity to “kill your babies.”