The emperors’ mandate was to rule “all under Heaven,” which meant not only China but the surrounding barbarian areas that still awaited the civilizing influence of China. After all, the Chinese name for China means “Middle Kingdom” and embodies the sense of a separate and self contained culture….
The dowager empress Tzu Hsi had no doubt that “I am the cleverest woman who ever lived,” even if she did have a portrait of Queen Victoria by her bedside. Moreover, the rival “emperors” of our own day respond to the same emotional tug when it comes to China’s role in the world. Chiang Kai-shek wrote sixty-five years ago that China was the only ancient state surviving, and pictured it as “fighting… for the freedom and liberation of mankind.” An early Communist leader, Li Li-san insisted in 1930 that the Chinese revolution would become “the final decisive class war of the world,” and Chairman Mao’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily of Beijing, trumpeted China during the Cultural Revolution in 1967 as a “center to which the hearts of the revolutionary people of the world will turn.”
Red Flag, the party’s theoretical magazine, argued at about the same time that if the Cultural Revolution had failed, “all China would have changed its color, and the history of mankind would have retrogressed.” And here the messianic message of Communism fuses with the culture-centricity of the empire founded by the lord of Chin.
The republican regimes are not, of course, dynastic. But family ties are still so impelling that they can be used for political advantage. Chiang Kai-shek derived some of his legitimacy from the fact that he was a brother-in-law of Sun Yat-sen, and he handed over his attenuated titles and estate to his son and prime minister, Chiang Ching-kuo.
Mao was far more discreet, yet there was always speculation that Yao Wenyuan, was related to him. The most enduring rumor was that he was the chairman’s son-in-law, having married Mao’s daughter by Chiang Ching. Another story was that Yao’s wife was Mao’s niece, Wang Hai-jung, who advanced in her own right in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet another version had it that Yao was none other than Mao’s long-lost son An-lung, entrusted to a secret foster father during the dangerous years in the early 1930′s when the Nationalists had a bounty on Mao’s head.
No one in Peking of course confirmed any of the theories. However, it was no secret that Mao’s third wife, once a Shanghai actress known as Lan Ping, “Blue Duckweed,” built a political power base with which most Communist leaders had to reckon. Again, there was a parallel: when the empress Tzu Hsi first arrived at the Forbidden City- wearing a black headdress, lavender gown and high heels- she was Lan Kuei, “Little Orchid,” a concubine for the emperor Hsien Feng, and lucky enough to conceive his first male child, the successor-emperor through whom, as regent, she became the real ruler of the country.
In any event, even if the Cultural Revolution revealed how many children of party leaders had become activists in their own generation, nepostism is not really a characteristic of the Chinese Communists. The days are long gone when the birth of an heir to the throne was celebrated, as in Tzu Hsi’s time, by the freeing of all caged birds, general amnesty for prisoners, and a three-day moratorium on killing animals for food.