The Altar of Progress

Jiang Zhi’s Onward! Onward! Onward!:

The Altar of Progress

By  Qiu Zhijie     

Translated from the Chinese by  Philip Tinari

Historians often take China’s modern history as a process of facing up to the invasion of foreign civilization, a series of impacts and responses that brought about a social transformation. This kind of national intellectual history is utterly inseparable from the introduction of the idea of social evolution. Yan Fu translated the Darwinist Thomas Henry Huxley’s treatise Evolution and Ethics in 1898, and then in 1903 introduced the thought of another popularizer of Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer. Spencer took natural selection and survival of the fittest as scientific principles of nationalist ideology capable of saving a nation from extinction. This slogan-like consciousness became the motto and principle of most cosmopolitan Chinese intellectuals of that time. After the Qing fell, the Beijing Academy changed its name to Peking University, and Yan Fu became its first president. His own influence—as well as that of the social evolutionary thinking he championed—on the Chinese intellectual scene of the time is obvious. From Sun Wen to Lu Xun, from Liang Qichao to Mao Zedong, it can be said that every major figure in modern Chinese history considered social evolution as valid and basic. The biological necessity on which the metaphor of social evolution is based provided an endless source of legitimacy for the narrative of Chinese progress.

 What people often ignore is that Yan Fu, as a returned student from England, had absorbed many classic tendencies of Victorian-era scholarship: understanding all social and cultural processes as inevitable, using the model of the natural sciences to explain everything. At that time, biology was the main discipline appropriated to explain social movements. This same understanding of history penetrates even Chinese primary and secondary school history textbooks today. In discussions of modern Chinese history, the idea that “backwardness invites attack” is taken as a basic principle, appearing over and over again.

 Looked at closely, this interpretation masks a major logical flaw: If a cultivated old gentleman and a wild and vigorous youth face off, of course the old man will be beaten up. Likewise, if the immensely learned Einstein came across a young Mafioso, he too would be beaten up. And yet this cannot prove that the old man is backward compared with the young man, or that the Mafioso is more advanced than Einstein. In fact, new historical research shows that the Opium Wars between the U.K. and China were precisely such a clash between an old gentleman and a young tough. In terms of GDP, educational level, crime rates, and even subjective happiness—all the indicators one uses to measure social civilization—it is hard to claim that China under the Daoguang Emperor was very far at all behind the newly industrialized British Empire. The real difference between the two was simply that a civilized society is not necessarily a machine for war. Throughout history we see examples of barbarians invading the civilized, which argues that being attacked is not the same as lagging behind. If we use the dichotomy of advanced and backward to interpret the Opium Wars, we have a difficult time explaining their origins. Why was a “backward” country able to maintain a trade advantage for so long, and why did the British feel the need to undertake an extremely risky war in order to offset their inferior position?

 And yet our history has already been written in accordance with the Victorian “scientific spirit,” and the precept that “backwardness invites attack” has attained the status of a widespread and widely believed maxim. We were beaten, which proves that we were backward; if we don’t want to be beaten again, we must advance, advance, advance further, not stopping for even a second.

 In order to understand China’s ultra-rapid development today—the speed with which buildings go up in Shanghai, the efficiency of factories in Shenzhen, the hyper-busy, overdrawn state of people in Beijing, or even just why the word “advanced” appears so many times in the official political ideology of the “Three Represents”—one needs to understand the urgency contained in that maxim of “backwardness invites attack.” In order to understand why China must “Run into Communism,” why it must “Surpass England and Catch up with the U.S.A.,” why it must “Achieve Greater, Faster, Better, and More Economical Results,” and indeed the absurdity and tragedy of China’s entire modernization history, we must keep coming back to this one sentence: “backwardness invites attack.”

 Doubtless, Communism is the imagined, optimistic world of the Communist, another kind of pre-determined historical teleology. The bright road toward this historical endpoint is grand, but curvy and slow. It becomes obvious that a slogan like “Run into Communism” refers less to a goal than to an attitude. And it becomes obvious that what actually attracts people is not necessarily the allure of the goal itself, but the feeling of safety that comes from running so fast. As long as we are running, we are always advancing. Every Chinese child has heard the story of the tortoise and the hare, and all have come to feel deep in their hearts: we cannot stop, to stop is to fail. The important thing is not necessarily running to anywhere in particular, but the act of running itself. Running becomes a collective unconscious, a form of belief.

 This collective unconscious becomes the belief of an entire people, with even leaders coming under its control. Those familiar with Chinese political rhetoric know: whenever a leader encountered doubt, he would swim across the Yangtze to prove his continuing ability to lead the people forward, from one victory to the next. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have both left us these historical snapshots. Swimming: an even more tortuous, more confident form of running.

In China’s modernization history, a leader cannot but be a nationalist, and all leaders function as projections of the collective unconscious. On the surface, leaders appear on the Tian’anmen rostrum, waving at the crowds, pointing them forward. In actuality, the leaders have never stopped running. For a nationality that believes in running, only a capable runner can win a leader’s post. They are required not only to understand which direction to run in and why to run, but even more to be a model practitioner of running as ideology. This is an ideology of advancement, a religion of progress more fervent than Futurism.

Jiang Zhi’s three-channel video installation is an altar to precisely this kind of faith in progress. The running leaders represent themselves, but also the entire Chinese people. Jiang Zhi once debated with me whether this sort of video needed to be accompanied by the sound of a few million people’s running footsteps. I contend that the images of the leaders, as collective forms, already embody the running of millions. I like the loneliness worn deep on the bodies of the leaders in this work; it represents an aspect of modern Chinese history apart from the main theme of progress, a knowledge of life, an understanding of fate. This work opens up a new possibility for us to understand history. And this is where the power of art lies, in its ability to deconstruct symbols, even as it employs them.