Great Era

Great Era

| Ryan Ho Kilpatrick
Since 2018, Chinese state media have pushed the idea that the country, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has entered a “Great Era.” Used under Mao Zedong — but also even before the CCP came to power in China — the term has often been a coded demand for unquestioning loyalty and uncomplaining perseverance in the face of clear and present challenges that only a strongman can face. And history teaches that behind its facade, there has often been calamity.

There have been repeated references in China’s state-run media in recent years to the present time as a “Great Era” (伟大时代). Under Xi Jinping, the term has appeared in 64 headlines in the pages of the People’s Daily, representing over half of its total headline appearances in the paper and nearly three times that of his two predecessors combined. How has this phrase been used through China’s political history, and what does it signify?

Civil War and Revolution

Looking back on the period before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) was a “Great Era,” according to newspapers published by the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT). So, too, was the Civil War with Mao’s Communists that followed it.

A 1937 editorial on “the recognition Great Eras deserve” in the Zhongshan Daily (中山日報).

This notion of a “great era” unfolded in the context of war, and its implications could be understood more broadly as a command — that ordinary people make great sacrifices and suffer in silence for the good of the nation. The further implication was that their suffering, their sacrifices, and their silence (as the term could also convey an authoritarian message about the need for obedience and the dangers of dissent) would be remembered as heroic by a grateful nation.

In the Mao Zedong era from the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the notion that China was in the midst of a “great era” (伟大时代 or 伟大的时代) was used to convey a sense of revolutionary change. It was a time during with Mao professed to be delivering on big promises — not just for a New China, but for the great struggle between socialism and capitalism.

In a period when tumult went hand-in-hand with myth-making, the notion of greatness often disguised deadly truths. An article in the People’s Daily on May 7, 1959, under the headline, “Living in a Great Era, in a Great Country” (生活在伟大的时代、伟大的祖国), described bumper harvests at a time when people in China were already enduring one of history’s worst famines:

An extraordinary 1958 — 1958 was a year of great leaps forward for China. We saw in several communes . . . . in 1958 that yields of rice, vegetables, tea and certain cash crops almost doubled compared to 1957 (and were several times higher than in the earliest days of liberation).

According to articles like this one, the successes of the communes, which had been established that year as part of the so-called Great Leap Forward, illustrated the “irrefutable victory” of socialism over capitalism.

The May 7, 1958, report (shown below) and others like it, blinded China’s leaders to the real tragedies created by their policies. “The People’s Communes are Infinitely Good,” reads one of the report’s section titles,” while another section concludes: “[The] socialist system is indeed an invincible new force and that the capitalist system is bound to decay and die.”

From 1959 to 1961, an estimated 30 million Chinese would perish from hunger, with much of the blame owing to a political culture that prioritized falsehood, bluster and ideology over facts and pragmatism.

By the time of the Cultural Revolution, references to a “great era” were generally used to praise the leadership of Mao Zedong as taking China — and indeed the entire world — to new heights of development through his inspirational ideas. Glorifying Mao’s guiding philosophy of Mao Zedong Thought (毛泽东思想), which had been promoted since 1946 as a major advancement of socialism, an article in the September 30, 1967, edition of the People’s Daily quoted Mao himself as saying: “We are now in the midst of a new great era for the world.”

A poster from the Cultural Revolution: “Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts.”

In an image that would come in part to define Mao’s cult of personality in this “new era,” an article the next month in the People’s Daily bore the headline: “Mao Zedong, the Red Sun of the Great Era” (毛泽东, 伟大时代的红太阳).

“Great Era” in the Reform Era

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, references to a “great era” were uncommon, and generally nostalgic — celebrating aging revolutionary soldiers or artists, for example. A slight peak in the use of the term followed after 2007, as Hu Jintao made cultural reforms and so-called “cultural construction” (文化建设) a central feature of his political report to the 17th National Congress of the CCP that fall.

These were the first rumblings of “cultural soft power” (文化软实力), and the idea — now so familiar under Xi Jinping — that China would need to have a greater reserve of appeal and a strong international image if it was to reach its full potential as a “modern socialist strong nation” (社会主义现代化强国) beyond its clear achievements in terms of its booming economy. In this time of rising triumphalism, ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Hu’s emphasis on China’s international coming of age and a general sense of new vibrancy brought the occasional remark in the official press, more casual than grandiose, about the need to “create literary and artistic masterpieces commensurate with this great age of ours.”

Of the 17 articles mentioning a “great era” during Hu Jintao’s leadership — only a quarter of the frequency to be seen under Xi — the vast majority have to do with the arts and developing the arts in line with socialism, and a handful look back on the revolutionary period.

In a New Era, Echoes of Mao

During Xi Jinping’s first term, references to a “great era” continued in the vein seen under Hu Jintao, referencing artistic works and the need for literary greatness — as in this report mentioning Xi’s encouragement to “workers” in the arts, and the need to create more writers like Mo Yan (莫言 ), recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. As Xi tightened his grip on the media in 2016, “great era” could also be included in appeals for journalists to fall into line with the CCP, and work toward creating a positive image of the Party and of China at home and in the world.

But Xi’s “Great Era” began in earnest in the period following the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, and through the Two Sessions in March 2018. The 19th National Congress brought a clear elevation of Xi’s political status as his banner phrase marking his legacy was introduced, including his own name — something neither of his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, had managed. Then, in March 2018, China’s constitution was amended not just to include Xi’s banner phrase, but also to abolish the two-term limit placed on the presidency, paving the way for Xi to serve beyond 2023.

On March 14, 2018, a piece in the People’s Daily reported that delegates to the National People’s Congress had celebrated the amendments to China’s constitution. “Over the past few days, [NPC] delegates as well as cadres and the masses have responded enthusiastically,” the article said. “Everyone has said that the constitutional amendments have voiced the hearts of the Party and the people, and are in line with the needs of the times.” The headline of the article read: “Contributing to the Great Era, Creating Greater Glory” (助力伟大时代 创造更大辉煌).

Since that time, references to the “Great Era” have often had strong echoes of the bombast of the Mao era.

Phrases like “a great age calls for great spirit” (伟大时代呼唤伟大精神) have promoted the spirit of personal sacrifice in the midst of what Xi Jinping has characterized as a “great struggle” — for example, to achieve so-called “Chinese-style modernization.” All of this is in the service of what Xi and the Party leadership have called the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Despite slowing economic growth, strong headwinds in global cooperation and diplomacy, and problems such as record-high unemployment, 2022 was another banner year for the “Great Era.” Xi has demanded that young people get with the (“Great”) times. Borrowing a phrase redolent of the bad old times before Reform and Opening, Xi has said the youth must learn to “eat bitterness” — to endure suffering and persevere without complaint.

As Xi Jinping began his third presidential term in earnest in March 2023, the CCP leadership began speaking about a new era of not just cultural development but of civilizational creation, with the notion that China has forged a “new form of human civilization” through the process of “Chinese-style modernization.” Xi also introduced a new global “overarching proposal” (Global Times) called the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), claiming much as Mao had to lead the world into a brighter future ideologically free of Western dominance.

An article in the People’s Daily on March 30, 2023, tied itself in knots as it declared great eras and new eras and new chapters all at once: “This is a great era in which the Chinese people and the Chinese nation are entering a new era and writing a glorious new chapter of Chinese civilization!

Journalists of course continue to have a major role as China’s leaders promote the idea that the country is in the midst of a glorious new era. “Living in a Great Era,” the People’s Daily wrote in June 2023, “we as journalists . . . must continuously enhance the ‘four forces‘ in journalistic practice, carry forward the spirit of the great Long March, and walk the Long March of the New Era of Journalists.” In other words, the times demand that they be even more loyal to the CCP and tell even more “good China stories” than ever before.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

CMP Managing Editor

The CMP Dictionary