Lessons from the Xi Jinping Book Club

Some World Leaders take off their shirts and ride horses in their spare time. Others shoot hoops or play golf. Chairman Xi Jinping reads.

By Ryan MitchellFebruary 16, 2016

Lessons from the Xi Jinping Book Club

SOME WORLD LEADERS take off their shirts and ride horses in their spare time. Others shoot hoops or play golf. Chairman Xi Jinping reads. And he wants you to know all about it. As he explained in an interview with a Russian television station in 2014, his “favorite hobby is reading,” and books have, for him, “become a way of life.”

In the same interview, he casually recited a continuous string of 11 polysyllabic Russian authors whose works he had enjoyed during his sent-down youth in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, wherever he travels on his globetrotting state visits, he makes a point of announcing before his hosts these canons of local literary figures that have earned his hard-won critical approval. In France, he praised a long list of writer-cum-penseurs from Montaigne through Voltaire and on to Jean-Paul Sartre. In the United States, he lauded Whitman, Thoreau, Hemingway, and Jack London. In Germany, the more “theory”-heavy pantheon included Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Heidegger, and Marcuse alongside Schiller, Heine, and Goethe. The lists go on — at times it seems as though Xi is subtly signaling his desire for an honorary comparative literature degree, perhaps (judging by the continental philosophers) one from a progressive bastion like Berkeley or The New School. But his Tsinghua law PhD has gotten him this far; there’s little reason to be dissatisfied.

What, then, is the point of all the high-profile name-dropping? While a few commentators have connected the practice to diplomatic flattery, and others see Xi simply trying to portray himself as an intellectual, these explanations fail to account for either the prominence or sheer frequency of his literary commentary. Nor would these motivations explain the parallel trend whereby Xi and others in his administration are noticeably raising the status of China’s own cultural traditions. Confucius and his intellectual followers have been the main beneficiaries of this rediscovery of the past, but internal critics such as, among others, the Legalists Shang Yang and Han Fei have also come in for legitimating praise. Official citations in Party documents and propaganda efforts lend such thinkers authority to influence, if not shape, future policies and debates. To a seldom appreciated extent, Xi’s comments abroad also tend to carefully hew to the overall Party ideological line.

Indeed, both Xi’s comments on foreign literature and his cultural revivalism at home should be looked at in connection with the broader slate of initiatives his administration has undertaken in the sphere of culture. Among these, some of the most significant include Xi’s recently published, high-profile lecture to Party members on correct ideological guidance for the arts, the Party’s ongoing attempt to instill discipline and “core socialist values” within its ranks, and, more grandly, the general attempt to bring about the “great rejuvenation (or renaissance) of the Chinese people” (zhonghua minzu weida fuxing). This phrase, which Xi has been deployed in a number of high-profile venues and policy speeches, seems to suggest a restoration of China’s international prestige and status, in both its hard and soft power dimensions, but the formula also conveys the idea of a rebirth of long-neglected cultural traditions. The mentions of foreign literature, likewise, seem to be in service of these inwardly focused projects: like any other “great cultural country” (wenhua qiangguo), China must assert its canon. But there is reason to think that the more important element in this quest is what comes first — a Party-led (and perhaps open-ended) process of more comprehensively defining the Chinese canon. As explained in an edited collection of Xi’s remarks entitled “How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers,” he and the Party as a whole seek the guidance and insight of great minds “from Confucius to Mencius to Mao.”

It’s in the context of such tactics that the overall strategy of Xi’s literary commentary becomes more apparent. Experts debate whether he is hewing more closely to the political model of Mao or that of Deng Xiaoping, but one thing that now seems incontestable is that he has decisively rejected the latter’s mostly hands-off approach to culture in favor of something like Mao’s project of “changing the character of the national citizenry” (gaizao guomin xing). This is especially evident in his speech on the arts, where he cited the early 20th-century modernist author Lu Xun, Mao’s favorite writer, much more than any other literary figure; explaining, for example, that “As Mr. Lu Xun said, in order to reform the spiritual world of the national citizenry, you must start with arts and culture.”

Mr. Lu Xun did say such things. Born Zhou Shuren, he was China’s most influential writer in the crucial early 20th century when the country was transitioning from imperial rule to various experimentations with republican, military, or Leninist political solutions. While he was an erudite polyglot who dabbled in translation from Japanese, German, and English, the subject matter of Lu Xun’s writing was unfailingly, though expansively, local: the character and destiny of a Chinese nation newly thrust into modernity. Like Nietzsche, one of his greatest influences, Lu Xun used criticism of his own people to call for a total rethinking of the modern subject. Frequently, the narrators of his stories are worldly sophisticates who bear witness to the cruelty and ignorance of traditional culture and its (often female) victims. His endorsement of Marxism as a path forward for China, coming at the peak of his career and at a low point for leftists persecuted by the KMT government, combined with his early death to help elevate him to literary sainthood after 1949.

In his speech on the arts, Xi reminds an audience of professional writers and Party ideological authorities of a text by Lu Xun that, per China’s universal educational curriculum, all but the very oldest of them would have had to read in middle school. Exhorting them to serve the people by creating memorable and meaningful characters, he points to the example of Lu Xun’s titular protagonist in the 1919 story “Kong Yiji,” a one-time scholar of the Confucian classics whose poverty combines with an obsession over his status as an “elite” intellectual to leave him a figure of ridicule and alienation from both the upper-class gentry and the exploited masses. Though he is intelligent and healthy, Kong’s character is warped by a preoccupation with distinguishing himself from “the people,” rather than identifying with and learning from them. By analogy, China’s intellectuals today should also be more concerned with “studying the masses” than with following avant-garde cultural trends, asserting their social capital as members of the creative class, or (a recent bête noire) pursuing fancy international prizes instead of contributing to the collective good.

One exhortation that emerges time and time again in these pronouncements on cultural production is the concept of jie diqi. Literally meaning “receive the earth’s energy,” the phrase is often translated as “staying grounded” or “being down to earth.” While it does carry connotations similar to our English cognates, it goes much farther, especially in the context of the post-Cultural Revolution era. In a society where intellectuals and their families (including Xi himself) keenly remember being forcibly “sent down” to the countryside to learn from peasants, the concept of jie diqi sounds like anything but an abstract platitude. Yet by contrast with the Cultural Revolution era — when such a phrase was a Party-enforced commandment — when Xi uses the phrase it indicates what is at least supposed to be a completely voluntary process. In an important conference on July 11, 2013, for example, he returned to the small rural county where he had once occupied his first position as a Party Secretary in order to, in his words, “see folks from my hometown, receive some of the earth’s energy, and charge up some electricity” (kankan xiangqinmen, jiejie diqi, chongchong dian). At that meeting, he officially sought out the views of poor local residents at the beginning of the Party’s new Mass Line Campaign to determine ideological orthodoxy. Following Mao’s dictum of “from the masses, to the masses,” artists and writers are also expected to follow Xi’s example, actively seeking out this chthonic power.

The ideal of political commitment, and especially the suppression of merely personal interests to devote oneself to a higher, communal goal, runs throughout Xi’s approach to arts and literature, sometimes in surprising ways. In his recent speech before the British Parliament, Xi made the obligatory references to great British authors (including, in a good-humored aside, the longtime London resident Karl Marx). Yet on this occasion his remarks went on in considerably more detail. As it transpired, during his days dwelling in rural poverty during the Cultural Revolution, Xi had sought out and read all of the works of Shakespeare, along with all of the other great literature he could manage to acquire (on previous occasions he has mentioned walking miles through rough country just to borrow a copy of Goethe’s Faust). Upon reading Hamlet, he told Parliament, he too had made a decision “to be or not to be” — one that, he implied, had led him to his present position as Party Chairman.

Bland diplomatic praise this was not. Whether reading the play was the decisive moment or just one step in a long journey of personal and political reflection, Xi certainly would have had reason to identify with the dispossessed Danish prince — who had lost a father and a crown — at a time when his own father had been violently cast from the upper echelons of the Party and he too had lost his place in the young elite. Perhaps more relevant than the specifics of Hamlet’s story, however, is how Xi’s commentary lends further support to his overall message of the role of literature in politics, society, and personality formation. Like Xi, German political theorist Carl Schmitt wrote in his 1956 essay “Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time into the Play” that he, too, saw in Hamlet a paradigmatic treatment of the problem of existential political decision-making. By waiting too long to make his fateful decision to contest for the crown, Hamlet dooms both himself and his dynasty to foreign conquest. For Schmitt, this theme mirrored Britain’s own crisis of dynastic transition at the time Shakespeare was writing — and warning against similar indecisiveness on the part of King James I. Xi’s reading of the play, too, seems to focus on the virtue of existential commitment to a cause. Although the Party has often marginalized or persecuted those who attempt to shape it, Xi seems to be arguing that it is still incumbent upon China’s intellectuals to devote themselves to China’s cause.

In putting together the various strands of Xi’s literary reflections, a more “down to earth” message emerges for China’s growing class of creative professionals. At a minimum, they are to avoid the Western premise of the isolated, atomized liberal self and instead see their cultural production as a service to the country and its people. Indeed, at a time when Western universalist ideas and local liberal critiques are both being increasingly downplayed in Chinese journalism and academic discourse, the modernist project of self-fashioning advocated by Lu Xun offers a tempting alternative. As in Xi’s own case, “learning from the people” can be a kind of general guideline for the formation of an individual’s personal, intellectual, and meaning-making pursuits within the conditions of a complex, often alienating, society. Though the ideas and works emerging from such processes can be critical and reform-oriented, they nonetheless adopt an internal perspective rather than that of a universally applicable standard such as human rights law or the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy.

In political terms, this internalization of critical conversations is often associated with various forms of the idea of communitarianism. Many observers have already pointed out the extent to which China now seems to be not merely deferring liberal political reforms, but actively seeking to present an alternative ideology based on a new assertion of communal values. Xi’s assertion of a canon (and his reminders to other nations of the value of their own) certainly seems to be one piece in this larger trend. Yet at the same time, the concept of a canon, or a cohesive political community, is far from static. Rather, as Lu Xun and other Chinese modernists showed (and as Proust, Joyce, and others demonstrated in their own contexts), the practice of “innovation within a tradition” allows for even radical critique to be based in the sense of a common project of rethinking existing narratives. Lu Xun and his talented contemporaries such as the more romantic Yu Dafu (whose best-selling first story, “Sinking,” dealt with foreign poetry, alienation, sexual obsession, and suicide) may have held themselves to an injunction of “receiving the earth’s energy” — but they transformed that energy into imaginative, morally potent writing that revitalized Chinese literature and contributed to the experimental, adventurous spirit of their times. Much of that output deserves to be more widely read today.

Xi’s administration is not, in the end, burning experimental works or demanding that authors commit themselves to some essentialist portrayal of Volk-ish “true Chinese-ness.” Though he has sought to bring cultural production into his ideological project, there are, as noted, a plethora of progressive and critical voices within the communal tradition that he is prioritizing. Those of us from liberal societies tend to get alarmed as soon as the state starts expressing preferences in the domain of culture; certainly, censorship and propaganda have little appeal for us. Yet that alarm is ultimately about issues of political practice and the lack of checks on Party power, not about which literary role models Xi has chosen.

As one of today’s most influential Chinese writers, the novelist and essayist Yu Hua, has reflected, one of the ironic tragedies of the Cultural Revolution was that endless Party propaganda in favor of Lu Xun put Yu off for years from seriously reading his illustrious predecessor. When he did, he discovered an honest, compelling, and above-all self-critical voice that went on to shape his own writing. Of course, genuine independent criticism of the Chinese state and society was hardly possible during the factional chaos of the Cultural Revolution era. Nor have those who attempt to write from such a position been the most celebrated and accommodated figures in China’s literary establishment in recent years. But as an ideal, Lu Xun’s “changing the character of the national citizenry” was precisely supposed to be the work of free intellectuals critically engaged with their own culture in the effort to make it more rational, just, and modern.

In that sense, even if the reality continues to fail to live up to the ideal, it may be that very ideal that can offer the sharpest critique of existing realities. This is, in fact, another lesson that one could potentially draw out of Xi’s reading lists. It has been interesting to note that, frequently, the national canons Xi describes culminate with Marxist or socialist-leaning figures who were dispassionate critics of their national cultures, rather than their cheerleaders. Figures like Sartre in France or Marcuse in Germany drew upon their respective traditions while infusing them with a new moral perspective. So too, in different ways, did Jack London, Maxim Gorky, and Octavio Paz. And many of China’s greatest modern writers, not least those mentioned above, adopted related approaches. Of course, we still don’t know just what Xi will make of his project of canon-building, or of the “earth’s energy” with which he’s trying to recharge the Party and state apparatus. But we can safely conclude he agrees with Lu Xun that “pieces of writing should not be treated like valuable antiques”: they must all have a social as well as a moral dimension, and none can remain outside the sphere of politics.


Ryan Mitchell is a Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellow and PhD candidate at Yale University. His research addresses comparative legal and political theory, modern China, and the history and theory of international law. He received his JD from Harvard Law School and his BA from The New School, and is a member of the State Bar of California.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Mitchell is a Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellow and PhD candidate at Yale University. His research addresses comparative legal and political theory, modern China, and the history and theory of international law. He received his JD from Harvard Law School and his BA from The New School, and is a member of the State Bar of California.


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