The Chinese Communists are not prevented, in the popular view, from inheriting the imperial mantle merely because they lack blue blood. That most rational of sages, Confucius, established 2,500 years ago that nobility depends not on birth or wealth but on the capacity for greatness that all men have within them. And many new dynasties were, in fact, founded by commoners. The first Ming emperor to whom Dr. Sun Yat-sen made obeisance was a starving beggar at the close of the Mongol era- and “one of the ugliest men ever to appear on earth,” according to a contemporary account of the time.
The common touch was a particularly important ingredient in Mao Zedong’s charisma. His unselfconscious peasant traits ensured his popularity in a Politburo that had more than its share of intellectuals who were temperamentally aloof from the crowd. Equally important, Mao Zedong’s Communism represented a swing of the pendulum- away from the Confucianism that had become absurdly formalized, and back to a philosophy that stressed the forces of nature and the need for rulers to retain human contact with their subjects, for teachers to act in society as well as give exhortatory lectures.
The view of the third century B.C. philosopher Chuang-tzu, that all rulers are robbers and tricksters, and the robbers the real aristocrats, came very much alive in 1967 when Mao Zedong encouraged the young Red Guards to “bomb the Communist Party headquarters” because it had become a haven for faint-hearted reactionaries. As a high party official in the 1960′s, “The first emperor is always the most glorious, but he is also the most fierce.”
Mao Zedong and his successors have all made what they will of the political importance of the imperial pattern, and despite the curve ball of ideology this tradition can never be totally avoided. Even Mao Zedong once observed to his American admirer Edgar Snow, that it is difficult for the then eight hundred million citizens of China “to overcome the habits of three thousand years of emperor-worshiping tradition. It is well-nigh impossible for the political leaders of the People’s Republic of China to disregard these patterns and practices of imperial rule.
For his part, Mao showed himself by no means shy in reaching for an imperial precedent or model where it suited his purpose. To the extent where his goal was to restore the health unity, integrity and world power of China, the ghosts of former emperors might well have applauded Mao as a modern emperor and his successors who adjusted the model of statehood, made the structural reforms, and guarded those deep rooted connections to the “long march” of history.