Stupefying the People
Before you read what is here, you must read the Danwei post A brief history of media and information policy in China. There is no disagreement whatsoever from here with Jeremy Goldkorn's post. The remaining part of this post is just copying from Ronald Egan's translation of portions of an essay by Qian Zhongshu's article titled "Stupefying The People" collected in "Limited Views: Essay on Ideas and Letters" published the Harvard University Asia Center.
The first part of the translation is completely consistent with Goldkorn's excerpt:
The envoy saw the noblemen of Zhou. Earl Lu of Yuan, there and, speaking with him, found that he did not like learning ... Min Zima said, "The realm of Zhou will soon be thrown into chaos! There must be many there who have this view before it could extend to the grand officers. The grand officers worry that learning may lead to error and delusion, and some of them say, "It is all right to have no learning. To have no learning need do no harm" -- The Zuo Commentary
The grand officers worried that learning might lead to the loss of the Way and delude people's minds. -- Commentary by Du Yu (222-284)
The notion expressed here is like that endorsed by Li Si (208 B.C.), as recorded in "The Basic Annals of the First Qin Emperor": "To study antiquity instead of taking the present as guide deludes the masses and throws them into chaos." It was, actually, Li Shi and the First Emperor of Qin who brought to prominence this doctrine of stupefying the people.
Chapter 65 of Laozi says, "Of old, those people who excelled at the Way did not use it to enlighten the people but to stupefy them. The reason the people are difficult to govern is that they know too much." It was with such statements as this in mind that the Cheng brothers (eleventh c.) said, "The Qin's policy of stupefying the masses derived from Laozi." Yet actually, the idea endorsed by Earl Lu of Yuan, quoted above, was largely the same. And even in The Analects, it says, "The people can be made to follow a path but not to understand it."
Zheng Xuan's commentary on this quotes Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-ca.104 B.C.): "'People' (min 民) means 'benighted' (ming 暝)." Zhuangzi says, "Cut off the sageliness, and throw out wisdom, then the great thieves will cease." The book of Lord Shang repeatedly counsels similar notions, "If the people do not prize learning, they will remain stupid," and "If all ways to knowledge are kept blocked up and never opened, the people will stay ignorant." The doctrine had circulated at the end of the Zhou dynasty but was only promulgated as a set policy by the First Emperor of Qin and his ministers.
Now, Sunzi's Art of War says, "The method of a general is to attain solitary insight through quiet reflection and to maintain discipline through rectitude. He is able to stupefy the eyes and ears of his officers and men and cause them to have no knowledge." In fact, the basic idea of stupefying the people is that governing the populace is like leading an army. Those below can be made to follow but not to understand.
But there exists a completely different approach to stupefy the people. The First Emperor of Qin was as ancient as the hills, and others have surpassed him in terms of effectiveness through a completely different approach centuries ago! Continue on with Qian Zhongshu's essay as translated by Ronald Egan:
The idea that writing and scholarship might themselves be used as means for stupefying people, so that what ought to be "enlightening" (ming 明) becomes stupefying (ming 暝) and "seeing" becomes "obfuscating" is something that had not occurred to Earl Lu of Yuan or Li Si. It was Chao Yuezhi (1059-1129) who first complained about this development:
The Qin burned the Songs and Documents and buried the scholars, intending to stupefy its people and thought its method was a good one. But later ages came up with an even better more effective method. A single interpretation was devised for the Songs and Documents and passed on to all who studied. Scholars were honored or humiliated according to their handling of this interpretation. Those who mastered it were elevated, in order to feed the flames of its popularity. For those in the political faction that supported it, fame and high rank became hereditary. Thus men of talent were made to be narrow and crude, and men of wisdom became inflexible and stupid.
This was written about Wang Anshi's "New Learning" (compare Chao's condemnation of Wang's commentaries on the classics for "throwing dirt in people's ears and eyes to block their hearing and seeing").
In later dynasties similar criticisms of orthodox "learning" and "writing" were voiced. Wan Shihua (seventeenth c.) says, "We laugh at the special foolishness of burying Confucians alive / Qin did not know to use writing as its killing field." Gu Yanwu (1613-1682) observes, "The harm done by the eight-legged essay is comparable to that done by Qin's burning of books. Yet the number of talented men who have been ruined by the essay exceeds by far the number of those buried alive outside of Xianyang, which was only some 460." In his essay on the Founding Emperor of the Ming, Liao Yan (1644-1705) says, "The examination essay used by the Founding Emperor to select officials was no different from the method of burning books by the First Emperor of Qin. It's just that the Ming was ingenuous while the Qin was crude. Their intent to stupefy the empire was the same."
What is the modern equivalent of the eight-legged essay? As Yu Jie suggest in The Freedom and Perils of Internet Writing in China, the equivalence would be membership in the Chinese Writers Association, in which membership guarantees a comfortable lifestyle, wealth and fame while non-membership means exile and ostracization. Yu Jie describes his personal encounter with the venerable Chinese Writers Association at Asia Week in 2000:
China's authorities have plenty of ways to stop writers like me from making a living. I learned that this summer, when I showed up for my first day of work at the China Association of Writers. I had just graduated from Beijing University, where I received a masters in contemporary Chinese literature. My first book, Fire and Ice, a critical look at modern Chinese history, was widely read, and I had since published four other controversial books. Suddenly the Writers' Association withdrew my researcher's contract. Though initially shocked, in my heart I knew the reason: I was being punished for my criticism of the Communist Party.
But the ancient scholars had never counted on the emergence of the information technology known as the Internet. Yu Jie noted to Asia Week:
The Internet and China's imminent entry into the World Trade Organization are real reasons for optimism. Trade will help cultivate a new sense of fair competition. Though the authorities are still trying to curb political speech on the Internet, they are finding it increasingly difficult. Some individual websites may get blocked. But the tempestuous trend of online free speech can never be stopped by any government. Only by returning to the isolation of Mao Zedong's era could China stifle the Internet. That would be catastrophic; no leaders would dare take that risk.