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China and Inner Asia
Confronting the Past: Rewriting Chinese History through Confucian and Legalist Conflicts in Mao’s China, 1973 – 1976
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
In 1974, Mao Zedong initiated the “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” campaign that condemned the disgraced vice chairman of China together with the philosopher from the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn Period. While the campaign was a thinly veiled attack on the moderates and reformers within the Chinese Communist Party leadership, it mobilized Chinese intellectuals to construct a series of political historiographies that used the confrontations and conflicts between Confucianism and Legalism to reimagine Chinese history as a constant struggle between sentiment and science. This paper examines a series of political historiographies named “Confucian-Legalist Conflicts (Ru Fa douzheng shi)” that were produced from 1973 to 1976. The rise of Confucianism and the contention from Legalism during the Spring and Autumn period were presented as the original oppression and the first instance of resistance. Marxist historians rewrote major events in Chinese history as conflicts between the sentimental moral politics of Confucianism and the pragmatic scientism of Legalism. This new kind of historiography extolls strong leaders with centralized power who could use science and pragmatism to overthrow the constraints of moral sentiments. This narrative not only provided justification to Mao’s abandonment of mass movements in favor of state apparatus, but also subsumed Maoist revolutionary politics under a meta-narrative of Chinese history that constitutes a socialist national myth.