The unveiling of the Karl Marx statue in Trier, Germany, a gift from China on the bicentenary of the philosopher’s birth. Picture: Xinhua
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

What unites Karl Marx and China’s first emperor? State ideology, ruthlessly enforced

By enforcing a strict, singular school of thought that it was perilous to question, China’s first emperor set in place a model of intellectual administration that remains today

China recently presented a 5.5-metre-tall bronze statue of Karl Marx to Trier, the German philosopher’s birthplace, to mark his bicentenary.

Marx’s theory that class struggle forms the basis of human history and development is the central tenet of China’s belief system. One may dismiss the Communist Party adherence to Marxist ideology as mere lip service, given its relentless pursuit of capitalism that has resulted in social inequality, but students and civil servants in mainland China still have to study courses in Marxism-Leninism, which, together with its party sanctioned variants, remains the only ideology the state assiduously upholds, by force if necessary.

The first emperor of the Qin dynasty. Picture: Alamy
When the first emperor of the Qin dynasty unified China in 221BC, he implemented a draconian policy that suppressed all schools of thought except state-sanctioned beliefs. In the preceding centuries, during the Spring and Autumn (771-476BC) and Warring States (475-221BC) periods, China had provided fertile ground for the proliferation of thought.

It was the intellectual golden age, when the teachings of philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, Xunzi, Mozi and more developed into “the hundred schools of thought”, which included Confucianism, Legalism, Taoism and Moism, each vying to convince ruling elites of the veracity of its theories and the advantages that could be gleaned from its adoption.

In 356BC, before the nation had unified, the state of Qin (in present-day Shaanxi province) adopted a form of Legalism, which was characterised by the strict observance of laws and brutal punishments when they were broken. After the Qin conquered the rest of China and its king proclaimed himself the first emperor, all other schools of thought were prohibited.

The burning of Confucian texts in 213BC, ordered by the first emperor. Picture: Alamy
The first emperor ordered the destruction of all annals and books belonging to the former states. Only those of the state of Qin, as well as books on agriculture, technology, divination and medicine, were spared.

Anyone caught discussing these forbidden works was executed and their bodies publicly displayed and those who criticised the regime were killed together with every member of their clan.

During the Western Han dynasty, which replaced the short-lived Qin, Emperor Wu decided to banish the hundred schools of thought and venerate Confucianism, setting in place the dominance of Confucian thought in China for the next two millennia.

However, in contrast to the terror tactics employed by the first emperor, Confucianism was reinforced in relatively benign ways. Alternative ideologies were not so much banished as dismissed as trivial or frivolous, and state institutions, such as the imperial examination system and the bureaucracy, buttressed the hegemony of Confucianism.

Recent history suggests that the brutal and unsophisticated methods of the first emperor have not been completely abandoned. As to how effective they are in an age when physical mediums are no longer needed for the recording and transmission of information, we shall have to wait and see.