This doesn't have much to do with ancient Chinese philosophy (though I imagine I could paste on some reference to Taoism somewhere here...) but the idea has been kicking around in my head.
In talking with a student (thanks Kaitlin!) the other day about a paper she was writing for my Chinese politics class, a series of images came up. She was interested in using two photos to contrast the political environment of the late 1970s to that of the late 1980s. I then suggested a third picture to capture the post-1989 political temperament. Here they are:
The first is obvious: the famous poster of Mao conferring legitimacy on the man who would immediately replace him as Chairman of the Communist Party in 1976, Hua Guofeng (whom I often refer to as the "Jerry Ford of China"...). The two men face one and other; Mao is issuing instructions, Hua is attentively receiving wisdom; the writing along the bottom says: "With you in charge, I am at ease." It is all in revolutionary-propaganda style. And it is a reminder that, in the late seventies, none of us could clearly see what China was to become; we were all too immersed in the visual context of the late Mao years. Very few (any?) anticipated the second picture.
And that is a photo of the "Goddess of Democracy," one of the iconic images to come out of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. She too is facing Mao, but this time, unlike Hua, in defiance, surrounded by thousands of students seeking an independent union, and protected by tens of thousands more average Beijing residents, shimin, who would become victims of the state's repression.
Again, at the time we were riveted by this image. We thought it might be the harbinger of a new, more politically liberal China. The repression was shocking, though not completely unanticipated. Yet I, for one, did not foresee the longer term effects of 1989, the way in which it convinced younger Chinese people to turn away from large-scale political protest and focus on the economically and culturally liberating possibilities of "reform and opening" (all of which is capture in Zha Jianying's recent New Yorker piece). The protests that happen now, though numerous, are smaller and aimed at securing specific goals for particular grievances; they do not articulate system-changing demands. Those seem to have fallen with the fall of the "Goddess."
And that brings us to the third picture, the Super Girls statue. It was displayed temporarily last year in Beijing (I don't know what has happened to it since). The one figure is holding something like a microphone, but the up-stretched arm is almost reminiscent of the "Goddess" Yet it does not stand in opposition to anything. It does not face Mao, seeking neither favor or challenge. It is solitary and ephemeral, holding up the possibility of instant prosperity and fun, the pursuits of so many Chinese people today.
I do not mean to be judgmental here. No suggestion of progress or regression is intended. Just an observation: Chinese politics has moved from the Maoist revolutionary project, to mass democratic activism, to the popular pursuit of private advancement.
The only cautionary point is this: we should not take today's iconic photograph as symbolic of where China will be 10 or 20 years from now. What we notice in the present may not be central to society and culture in the future. Way is too vast and unpredictable (there I got in a reference to Taoism!) especially now, under conditions of globalization...