Edward Luttwak Goethe in China LRB June 3, 2021


goetheThe best-known books are quite portable: the two parts of Faust, Italian travel (which points travelers in the right direction, Sicily), The sorrows of young Werther (with which the most disparate readers identify too easily) and, for those of us who can say it in German, the sinister, irresistible Erlkönig. But the complete Goethe is immense: the “ collected works ” in twelve volumes contain prose and poetry, but scientific, autobiographical, historical and other non-fiction, poetic, prose and dramatic writings (with Faust listed separately as Schrank or the closet drama, to read rather than to interpret) fill 143 volumes in a current German edition.

The vastness did not deter Wei Maoping, the dean of the School of Germanic Studies at the Shanghai University of International Studies, who announced in 2015 that all Goethe would be translated, estimating the total to reach thirty million. characters in forty or fifty volumes. Where does the money come from? Shanghai International is one of China’s “double first class” universities, which is set to become world class by 2050. But in the meantime, there are 36 class A and six class B universities that surpass the double group. first class and also get more funding. To conquer Goethe, Wei had to recruit all the qualified Chinese Germanists and translators, with only a few provided by his own staff. A Western scholar, in a similar situation, allegedly slipped some fundraising clues into the big announcement, but Wei didn’t – the reason being, I suspect, he has a paying client: Xi Jinping, probably the only world leader who knows Faust by heart.

Xi, born in 1953, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, former head of the party’s propaganda department, member of the Central Committee and since 1959 deputy prime minister under Zhou Enlai. In 1962, Xi Zhongxun was accused of supporting an anti-party clique (the worst form of betrayal) because, as the party’s de facto publisher, he had approved the publication of a quasi-fictitious and hagiographic biography of the hero of war and martyr Liu Zhidan by Li Jiantong (who was married to Liu’s brother). Kang Sheng, the head of the party’s internal security and intelligence apparatus, chose to read the book in an attempt to challenge Mao’s eminence. Liu Zhidan was the communist leader of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi when Mao arrived there at the end of the long march in October 1935. Liu claimed general command, colliding with Mao and his veterans of the long march, but lost. the fight and left. Xi Zhongxun had been Liu’s deputy but did not follow his leader, instead siding with Mao (after a short delay). Given Mao’s capacity for pronounced suspicion, it is unlikely that Xi ever fully earned his trust.

When, in 1959, Liu Shaoqi replaced Mao as President of the People’s Republic and sidelined him to end the deadly famines of the Great Leap Forward, Mao needed someone to bring down to show strength and return to power: Xi Zhongxun was a target of opportunity. (Liu Shaoqi’s reward for saving tens of millions of people from starvation came in 1967: arrested, publicly beaten by the Red Guards, jailed and kept alive only to be exhibited at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, where Gentleman Zhou Enlai proclaimed him “ a criminal traitor, enemy agent and gal in the service of the imperialists, modern revisionists and reactionaries of the Kuomintang. ” Liu died soon after.) Mao’s momentary political need had consequences immediate for the young Xi Jinping: he was expelled from the family mansion in the verdant The management of Zhongnanhai with his cooks, drivers and bodyguards, in a small room without comfort where his mother, Qi Xin, and her four children huddled together.

After attempting to atone through self-criticism and obedient acceptance of ritual humiliation, Xi Zhongxun was demoted to the post of deputy director of a tractor factory in Luoyang, once the imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty and now a metropolis. , but at this time a very dark place. Having been punished as an individual, with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the elder Xi was brought back to Beijing to be punished again as a former member of the party’s elite: there is a photo showing him with a sign listing his sins. He was pushed, hit and thrown on the street with his wife walking alongside to hit and curse him like a revisionist traitor. She must have been convincing: although she was repeatedly beaten during this period, she was not imprisoned, nor spent six years digging ditches in Inner Mongolia like her daughter Qi Qiaoqiao, nor driven to suicide like Xi Jinping’s half-sister, Xi Heping. Unlike many others, the elder Xi survived the ordeal and was not left paralyzed, but was imprisoned or otherwise confined until 1975 – when he was sent to another factory in Luoyang, but allowed to join the party. Mao’s death in 1976 made things better for him, but he was not fully rehabilitated until December 1978, when he was sent to Guangdong as party leader and political commissar. He began the then controversial “special economic zone” experiment in Shenzhen Township, now an industrial and high-tech metropolis of twelve million people.

This was all in the future when in 1968, after being taken out of school in Beijing two years earlier, fifteen-year-old Xi fell victim to Mao’s Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside movement, through which educated young city dwellers were sent to rural China “to learn from the people”. Others in Xi’s position could still rely on powerful relatives or relatives to ensure they were sent to relatively healthy villages, where at least one local contact could provide assistance. But Xi started so high that he needed to be put down more than most. He was sent to work in Liangjiahe, a miserably poor mountain village with windowless cave houses in a barren landscape of deforested hills in northern Shaanxi. It was there that another exiled teenager loaned him a copy of Faust, which Xi read over and over until he knew it by heart, as he credibly bragged about having met Angela Merkel.

Xi made his own Faustian deal not only with the Communist Party, but with great emphasis with Mao’s party: he was assiduous in restoring Mao’s authority, which his predecessors had cumulatively reduced – there is a few months, in reaction to the intensification of the confrontation with the United States and its allies, Xi ordered the study of the intelligent but prolix conferences of Mao from 1938, On the protracted war. He is constantly raising the man who imprisoned and publicly humiliated his father, terrorized his mother, caused the death of his half-sister and imposed many years of acute misery on his siblings as well as himself (the celebrations of his devoted service to Liangjia never mention his desperate flight and forced return).

What does it mean that the Chinese president, the party secretary general, the chairman of the Central Military Commission and the “leader” are a Faustian figure? Probably nothing: psychologizing explanations of present or past political decisions seldom add much. But if Xi is a consciously Faustian figure, it would be possible to cause personal unrest to explain the sudden escalation of violence against Vietnam and India, the unprecedented diplomatic feuds with Canada, Sweden and Australia, and the intensification of the confrontation with the United States, as well as the sharply increased repression of Hong Kong, previously immune Tibetans, Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Mongols, and Christians in China – all of which took place in China. during the plague year of 2020.

Xi Jinping’s translator Faust, Guo Moruo was himself a consciously Faustian character, although his own widely accepted claim was that he was the Goethe of China. He wrote poetry in various styles, fiction, historical drama, history and philosophy, as well as the translation of a dozen Western classics (probably from Japanese which he learned while living in Japan for two decades), Peking opera librarians and autobiographical monographs: the complete works come in 38 volumes. And, like Goethe, Guo was also a government official; he was the founder and first president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its subsidiary University of Science and Technology, and the president, organizer or patron of countless committees and commissions.

I met Guo in September 1976. I was to visit Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, sponsored by Marshal Ye Jianying, the Minister of Defense (who was also busy organizing the coup that overthrew the Gang of Four on October 6, 1976), but Mao’s death had me stranded in Beijing. Without professional appointments and little to see – Beijing, even now, is not Rome; tourists run out of monuments worth three days – I was visiting the two surviving antique dealers in Liulichang when my German-speaking companion, one of the few foreign diplomats accredited to Beijing, offered to arrange a visit to Goethe in China.

It was strange to meet Guo Moruo in his Qing Dynasty pavilion among the precious antiques, with a pair of hovering servants, while Beijing was still in Cultural Revolution mode, with only a few trucks and fewer cars on the streets. with a myriad of bicycles and hand carts and dried cabbages piled up on the balcony of every apartment, without which most people would not have had anything green to eat until spring.

Guo had earned his extravagant luxury twice: first as a staunch Communist revolutionary since 1927, through the Civil War and the Japanese occupation, and the second time by successfully maneuvering to survive the Cultural Revolution. Its exceptional importance – no other artist or intellectual in China came close – demanded exceptional lowering. When they came for him, he had a self-critical text ready for distribution: he declared that all his writings were objectively counter-revolutionary and therefore should be burned, thus avoiding any need to amend or correct them one by one. This brilliant gesture was just the start. Guo further appeased his accusers by widening their net, as many others have done: he denounced his closest friends and colleagues as counter-revolutionaries, ensuring that they would be treated very harshly, if not killed. . Finally, having repudiated all his earlier writings, Guo produced new poetry and prose in full praise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, while avoiding bourgeois sentimentality by keeping quiet when the Red Guards persecuted two of his son, Guo Minying and Guo Shiying. They refused to report their friends and colleagues and committed suicide in 1967 and 1968 rather than suffer further torture.

Guo’s campaign was an incredible success. While Xi Jinping’s father did not regain official favor for sixteen years, enduring physical abuse as well as imprisonment, Guo was chosen for Mao’s praise barely three years after the start of the Cultural Revolution ( at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969). , a prelude to his installation in the mansion where I met him, a personal gift from Méphistophélès. Xi Jinping, too, always praises Mao, without stopping to mention the deliberate massacres and murderous follies whose victims exceeded those of both Hitler and Stalin, or the cruelties inflicted on his own family. of Xi. His goal in defending man is obviously to defend the legitimacy of Mao’s once repudiated system of absolute power, which he now wants for himself.

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