Wang-sun Chia asked: “What does this saying mean: ‘It is better to sacrifice to the god of the stove than to the god of the family shrine’ ”?
The Master said: “Nonsense. If you offend Heaven, there is no one you can pray to.”
– Analects, 3.13
Of all the myriad horrors that attended China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, surely none was more impious than the destruction of the Cemetery of Confucius. It was on November 7, 1966, that members of the Jinggang Shan Red Guard Corps of Beijing Normal University swore a solemn oath to “annihilate the Kong family business,” and within three days communist acolytes were pouring into the city of Qufu, in Shandong Province, home of the Kǒng lín, the “Kong Forest of Gravestones.” Situated just beyond the northern gate of the city walls, the necropolis was home to the mortal remains of some 100,000 descendants of Kǒng Qiū — better known as Kǒng Fūzǐ or Confucius — who had been laid to rest there over a span of two millennia, their burial chambers and barrows sheltered beneath imposing stands of cypress and pine trees. A place for quiet contemplation, for placating the resident spirits, and for preparing for one’s own journey to the afterlife, the site was a powerful locus religiosus, but also a social venue, where clan ties could be maintained and renewed over the centuries.
The Red Guard Shock Brigade was entirely uninterested in such high-minded considerations. Upon arriving in Qufu, guardsmen led by the dogmatist Tan Houlan established a Revolutionary Rebel Liaison Station to Annihilate the Kong Family Business, held a boisterous Mass Rally for the Thorough Smashing of the Kong Family Business, and assembled a Poor-and-Lower-Middle Peasant Grave-Digging Team to assist in the grisly work of exhuming corpses, smashing stelae, and pulling down the temple fronts and commemorative arches that lined the cemetery’s ancient spirit-ways. Revolutionary zealots then paraded through Qufu, defacing statues of the great sage, rounding up local scholars, and organizing struggle sessions. The descendants of Kǒng Fūzǐ were treated with contempt, ridiculed as “Filial Sons and Virtuous Grandsons Paying Last Respects to Kong the Second Son.” A total moral inversion was taking place, in which age-old virtues like filial piety and ancestor-worship were derided as the type of reactionary values to which only superannuated “ox-devils” and “snake-spirits” would cling.
Actually disentombing tens of thousands of human remains proved to be a rather daunting task, however, and on November 29 the Red Guard settled on a compromise: the Kong line would be laid to waste “from beginning to end,” which was to say that Confucius, his sons, and his grandsons, as well as the most recent three generations of his descendants, would be disinterred. Later that day, the Red Guard proudly drafted a telegram to be delivered to Chairman Mao:
Dearest Chairman Mao,
One hundred thousand members of the revolutionary masses would like to report a thrilling development to you: we have rebelled! We have rebelled! We have dragged out the clay statue of Kong the Second Son; we have torn down the plaque extolling the “teacher of ten-thousand generations”; we have leveled Confucius’ grave; we have smashed the stelae extolling the virtues of the feudal emperors and kings, and we have obliterated the statues in the Confucius Temple!
As Sang Ye and Geremie Barmé have noted, Confucius’ grave was not actually “leveled” there and then; “the reality was that on the first day the grave was flattened, on the second day a three-metre deep trench was dug, but by the third day the rebels had run out of patience so they used dynamite to blow up the site. The grave was effectively obliterated.” Meanwhile some 100,000 classical texts were pulped or consigned to bonfires, thousands of ancient pine trees were cut down, and the famed archway bearing the inscription Wangu chang chun, or “Eternal Spring,” was vandalized. If Confucius was the voice of the ancient Spring and Autumn period, the Red Guards were bringing about a veritable cultural nuclear winter.
Yet a carnival atmosphere nevertheless prevailed in Qufu. Visitors to the demolished cemetery could take in the macabre sights, and nauseating smells, of the desecrated burial ground. Who, after all, could pass up the rare opportunity to grab a stick and poke the corpse of the 76th generation Duke Yansheng as what was left of the great man dangled from a tree? The Yansheng name meant “Honorable, Overflowing with Sagacity,” traits seldom on display in Qufu that cruel winter. Kong Fanyun later recalled, “as for the atmosphere, it was just like a temple fair, there were such jostling crowds. Some were outsiders but also members of our extended family. Some even prodded the corpses with sticks. Forget all that stuff about ours being a noble family honored by ages. No one bothered covering up the nakedness of our ancestral grandmothers, let alone bother taking them away.” I am reminded of Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s immortal aphorism: “Stupidity is the mother of revolutionary atrocities; savageness is only the godmother.”
By the following spring, some 2,000 more graves had been defiled as treasure hunters descended on the grounds in what later commentators called a pafenchao, or “grave-digging frenzy.” By late August, 1967 the Revolutionary Rebel Liaison Station to Annihilate the Kong Family Business had wrapped up their mission, summarizing their campaign in one final, contemptible dispatch:
The dog emperors of the past have all fawned over Old Kong. They declared him to the Ultimate Sage, the First Teacher and the Mentor of Ten-thousand Generations. All the plaques with these words on them in the Temple were pulled down and burnt. Then the raging torrent swept into the Confucius Cemetery where stelae were smashed and the Kong tombs dug up. Let all those saintly people in their finery and with their solemn bearing kneel before Old Kong’s grave and eat dirt!
In the Confucian Book of Rites, we are told that “the greater a wound is, the longer it remains; and the more pain it gives, the more slowly it is healed.” The self-inflicted wound of the Cultural Revolution, typified by the sick, twisted spectacle that took place in Qufu in November 1966, will take a very long time to heal indeed.
Shortly after the destruction of the Cemetery of Confucius, the People’s Daily published an editorial, submitted by the Mao Zedong Red Guard of Beijing University but reflecting the official party platform, declaring that “to struggle against Confucius, the feudal mummy, and throughly eradicate … reactionary Confucianism is one of our important tasks in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Mao’s so-called Anti-Confucian Campaign was thus conceived as part of the Criticize the Bourgeois Reactionary Line agenda and a continuation of the class struggle waged by the “proletariat” (rather loosely defined here) against so-called “feudal parasites.” By vilifying the ideology that had underpinned and sustained Chinese civilization from time immemorial, the Chinese Communist Party had set into motion a series of events that would have long-lasting implications not just for Chinese culture but for Chinese demographics.
Zongli Tang, in his 1995 Population and Environment article “Confucianism, Chinese Culture, and Reproductive Behavior,” observed that “traditional Chinese reproductive behavior is strongly influenced by Confucianism,” adding that in the Confucian conception of the world,
All movement in the universe is part of the process of reproduction. If reproduction stops, nothing on earth would exist any longer; society would disappear, and the world would be destroyed. The philosophical idea of “reproduction as the fountainhead of a flourishing and prosperous world” has helped to formulate the Chinese reproductive behavior: “the more the children, the more the fortune.” … It is not only the Confucian world view that is based on the thought of yin and yang, but also all Confucian fundamental ideas start from the “reproduction worship.” In a sense, Confucianism is a philosophy of reproduction.
With its fundamentally pro-natalist approach, Confucianism thus “brought an indomitable vitality to Chinese reproductive behavior. Even when the population grew beyond the capacity of natural resources, particularly the capacity of the land, the Chinese people did not change their reproductive behavior by attempting to reduce fertility.” Instead, “the reestablishment of ecological balance was achieved through violent turmoil. Civil wars which usually led to a change of dynasty caused a large number of deaths; then the population decreased to the level where a new ecological balance was established.” Tsui-jung Liu, in a wide-ranging 1985 study of the genealogies of two Chinese clans in Zhejiang province, found that “Chinese reproductive behaviour did not change markedly until the introduction of family planning in the 1950s,” notwithstanding the series of unbelievably bloody convulsions that wracked China over the centuries.
China’s “one-child policy,” begun in 1978 just as the Cultural Revolution was being officially wound down, thus represents another sort of moral inversion, another sharp break with the Chinese past. Shocked by projections that the Chinese population would reach an (admittedly) astonishing four billion by 2080, Chinese authorities implemented a Family Planning Policy aimed at curbing population growth, and quickly. In some cases, the assessment of a “social child-raising fee” was enough to persuade families to limit the number of offspring, while elsewhere more invasive measures were taken. The anthropologist Erik Mueggler, in his 2001 monograph The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China, described how
Birth planning gave the state access to the most intimate of all realms. Surgeons’ scalpels made this access material as they cut into female bodies to perform IUD insertions, tubal ligations, and abortions — the predominant contraceptive methods in rural areas. The objects of these surgical incisions, wombs, were the most intimate places of all, and fundamental to every vision of social unity…. In justifying these policies, they [the state] no longer appealed to class struggle or even to personal enrichment but to the utterly abstract issues of “quantity and quality of the population.”
The notion of “population quality” is redolent of eugenics and Social Darwinism, and official expressions of concern regarding “negative selection” — higher reproduction rates of minority ethnic populations — tend to confirm this suspicion. Party apparatchiks fretted that the ethnic minority population could reach 567 million by 2048 and that “populations most deficient in quality were growing the fastest,” making the policy of invasive anti-natalism, the very antithesis of Confucian “reproduction worship,” a matter of allegedly existential national importance.
Four decades later, the effects of China’s decades-long experiment in compulsory birth planning are finally being felt. A recent New York Times analysis of global birthrates, “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications,” predicted
an especially sharp decline for China, with its population expected to fall from 1.41 billion now to about 730 million in 2100. If that happens, the population pyramid would essentially flip. Instead of a base of young workers supporting a narrower band of retirees, China would have as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds. China’s rust belt, in the northeast, saw its population drop by 1.2 percent in the past decade, according to census figures released on Tuesday. In 2016, Heilongjiang Province became the first in the country to have its pension system run out of money. In Hegang, a “ghost city” in the province that has lost almost 10 percent of its population since 2010, homes cost so little that people compare them to cabbage.
Interestingly, China’s rival Taiwan fares much, much worse in this regard, having managed to achieve the world’s lowest total fertility rate (TFR) on the planet (1.07 children per woman, as compared to China’s 1.60, with 2.1 being replacement level). Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, and South Korea are likewise cratering, though Russia’s 1.60 TFR and the United States’s 1.84 TFR are not particularly high themselves, at least in historical terms. (Niger leads the pack with a 6.91 TFR.) Mindful of the long-term implications of the one-child approach, Chinese authorities first experimented in the 1980s with a “1.5 child policy” (hard to achieve on an individual family basis, but a common enough metric in the modern world) before adopting an outright “two-child policy” beginning in 2016. A “three-child policy“ was then announced on May 31, 2021, at a meeting of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. There exists widespread skepticism that these refinements will have the intended effect. As the satirical Twitter account “China Nonghua News” cleverly framed it, “BREAKING: Because citizens do not want to have Second Child, our China Central Planning committee will now authorize Third Child.”
China’s “one-child policy” was a product of its time. In 1972, the Club of Rome commissioned an influential study, The Limits to Growth, the same year the Ecologist published A Blueprint for Survival, which argued that overpopulation would bring about “the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet.” These works were doubtless inspired by Paul Ehrlich, who in his 1968 The Population Bomb had gloomily predicted that the 1970s and 1980s would be marked by widespread famine. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich lamented, and it is unsurprising that the Chinese scientist and party official Song Jian, after encountering this wave of pessimistic reports, would counsel the Politburo to take steps to reduce his country’s population to an ideal 700 million. (Song was evidently gifted with considerable foresight, his projections having proven spot-on, if the above-cited Times report is to be believed.)
To address the subject of overpopulation is to tread on dangerous ground. We would do well to avoid the clinical anti-natalism of the Chinese Politburo, or that of those on the left who seek to “abolish the family” and “denaturalize the mother-child bond,” a program sure to lead to societal implosion. The Pentti Linkolas of the world, for their part, have failed to win friends and influence people by proposing that “births must be licensed,” while bemoaning how it was only “by a twist of man’s tragicomic fate, [that] at the very point when the institution of war appeared capable of taking out truly significant shares of fertile females — as was intimated by the bombings of civilians in the Second World War — military technology advanced in such a way that large-scale wars, those with the ability to make substantial demographic impact, became impossible.” This sort of misanthropy is unlikely to garner widespread popular support, even if there is a sort of internal logic at work.
At the same time, we must always keep in mind Leopold Kohr’s dictum that
Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. If the stars in the sky or the atoms of uranium disintegrate in spontaneous combustion, it is not because their substance has lost its balance. It is because matter has attempted to expand beyond the impassable barriers set to every accumulation. Their mass has become too big. If the human body becomes diseased, it is, as in cancer, because a cell, or a group of cells, has begun to outgrow its allotted narrow limits. And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units such as mobs, unions, cartels, or great powers.
One does not need to accept every contention made by, say, A Blueprint for Survival to accept its authors’ fundamental premise that centralization, globalism, extreme population density, concrete sprawl, industrial overreach, and monoculture have proven highly detrimental to the public good and that “local government should be strengthened and as many functions as possible of central government should be transferred to it,” the better to avoid the situation, widespread today, in which “men, women, and children are merely consumer markets, and industries as they centralize become national rather than local and supranational rather than national, so that while entire communities may come to depend on them for the jobs they supply, they are in no sense integral parts of those communities.”
The dire forecasts of the late ’60s and early ’70s may have failed to materialize, but these days, as Merlin Sheldrake noted in his recent study of fungi, Entangled Life, “global agricultural yields have plateaued, despite a seven-hundred-fold increase in fertilizer use over the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide, thirty football fields’ worth of topsoil are lost to erosion every minute. Yet a third of food is wasted, and demand for crops will double by 2050.” An “alarming deterioration” of the health of trees has likely been caused by “a disruption of their mycorrhizal relationships, brought about by nitrogen pollution.” Our demands on the environment, and our predilection for conspicuous consumption and promiscuous waste, will have profound ramifications in the decades to come. Heinrich Heine’s neologism comes to mind: weltkuddelmuddel, a world-engulfing mess, with no obvious way out.
Population booms and busts are nothing new, of course, regularly occurring as early as the Neolithic. Pre-modern populations were generally kept in check by disease, famine, over-exploitation of natural resources, and warfare, rather than by technology and ideology. The curious thing about our own epoch is that we are experiencing concomitant booms and busts. Emmanuel Macron notoriously suggested back in 2017 that Africa’s “civilizational” problems are not limited to “failed states” and “complex democratic transitions” but also include “demographic change,” adding that “when countries still have 7 to 8 children per woman, you can decide whether to spend billions of euros [on aid, but] you stabilize nothing.” Macron’s controversial comments came around the time Denmark’s minister for development cooperation, Ulla Tørnaes, was offering some $14 million from her nation’s coffers for family planning initiatives, on the grounds that “part of the solution to reducing migratory pressure on Europe is to reduce the very high population growth in many African countries.” The Biden administration, meanwhile, has revoked the previous administration’s enforcement of the Mexico City Policy and Kemp-Kasten Amendment, opening up funds for family planning education, birth-control distribution, and abortions abroad. At the same time, governments in Hungary, Russia, and elsewhere have been offering up “maternity capital,” tax incentives, free school meals, and other benefits to encourage the formation of larger families. A successful effort to tamp down fertility in certain parts of the globe, while boosting it in others, would seem to require something of a delicate dance.
Mark Steyn has always maintained that “the future belongs to those who show up.” It will be interesting to see whether population dirigisme — China’s three-child policy, Russia’s maternity capital policy, Hungary’s nationalized IVF clinics, or Poland’s 500-złoty monthly stipends per child, to take only a few examples — will help those nations to avoid the suck of the demographic tides. These modest programs may very well prove inadequate, given the deeply rooted source of the demographic crisis. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his passage “Of Individualism in Democratic Countries,” diagnosed the origins of the problem early on: “The woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” Christopher Lasch similarly warned of the consequences of the modern and postmodern world’s “shattered faith in the regeneration of life,” the loss of any “sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future,” the tragic divergence of daily life from the “great biological stream.” This deracination necessarily implicates every aspect of our existence, our collective TFR included. “Humans have survived,” wrote the archaeologist Alexander Langlands in his magisterial Craeft, “because of an ancient practice intrinsically based in the local — a fundamental connection to the land on which we live. Having lost that connection, we now find ourselves at the mercy of the global winds of change, relying almost religiously on the vision of a hi-tech future to solve the crisis of ever-rising food prices and population growth” (or decline, in certain cases). These are weighty matters that go far deeper than anything your average national or transnational bureaucracy can address with a few judicious policy tweaks, economic incentives, and informational pamphlets.
Contemporary China is in the grip of something of a neo-Confucian revival. President Xi Jinping, in his 2014 keynote speech at an international conference marking the 2565th anniversary of Confucius’s birth, declared that the “values and spiritual world of the Chinese people have always been deeply rooted in the fertile soil of China’s traditional culture” and that “the Chinese Communist Party is the successor to and promoter of fine traditional Chinese culture…. We have consciously absorbed nutrition from the teachings of Confucius to those of Sun Yat-sen.” “Xi Jinping Thought” cannot be adequately understood without recourse to Confucian thought, albeit filtered through “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Ceremonies commemorating Kǒng Fūzǐ are once more held in Qufu, and the Qufu County Cultural Relics Management Committee continues its efforts to re-purchase “funerary objects dispersed among the masses” during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Reproduction is once again viewed as “the fountainhead of a flourishing and prosperous world.” Things have come a long way since the “Thorough Smashing of the Kong Family Business,” but will this ideological reversion accomplish its goal? Chinese authorities have long been confident in their ability to channel their subjects’ behavior through “thought reform,” re-education, and social engineering. It is one thing to influence people’s system of ideals via propaganda or their economic behavior via inducements; it is another thing altogether to reshape people’s reproductive predispositions after decades of countervailing indoctrination.
The Chinese state once sought to improve the “quantity and quality of the population,” and now it is scrambling to secure its very demographic future. Whether or not it succeeds will in large part determine the course of the century to come. The stakes are considerable: China’s ambitions will not be easily realized if it becomes a “super-aged state,” with its population pyramid turned on its apex. Perhaps China can defy the odds and increase both its standard of living and its birth rate. Or perhaps the Chinese will, like the rest of the developed world, find themselves increasingly at the mercy of the global winds of demographic change, obliged to rely on a vision of a high-tech future that helped create the crisis in the first place. What we do know is that Mao and his immediate successors took filial impiety to new heights, waging a pitiless Anti-Confucian Campaign while eradicating the age-old Chinese “philosophy of reproduction,” and today’s commissars must now grapple with China’s Confucian legacy and its communist repudiation. For this reason, it seems fitting to end on an explicitly Confucian note. “Ruin from Heaven we can weather,” Mencius wisely counseled, but “ruin from ourselves we never survive.” Surely China will not be the only country learning this lesson afresh in the years to come.