When dynasties fall, the Chinese have often blamed their women. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), considered China's golden age, two women were blamed for upheavals that disrupted power. The first, Empress Wu Zetian, a Buddhist, was defamed for having a harem of lovers, one of whom would hang by rope over her dinner table, sporting a coat of feathers, and chirp, half-naked, for her delight and the delight of her guests. The Confucian scribes who wrote the traditional histories, schooled in a cultural system that was founded on Confucius' own remark, a millennium earlier, "The gentleman keeps his distance from two people: the petty man and women," always found a way to blame women for the downturn in a dynastic cycle. Empress Wu's alleged moral debasement was considered a sign of her proclivity for bringing ruin on the country.
But it wasn't just the historians who did this, as far as we know. During the height of the Tang, China's supposedly most beautiful woman, Yang Gui-fei, was accused of misleading the emperor, bringing about a rebellion, and eventually, if the histories are correct, of prompting the palace guards to have her strangled to death as a condition of their continued subservience to the fleeing emperor.
Cases like this are legion. China scholars have succeeded in finding all sorts of explanations for why women are cast in such a bad light. One of the most prominent, for instance, argues that women did in fact have "agency" of a sort. Although, during many dynasties, they were confined to the "inner quarters" of their houses, and could not leave their homes, they were absolute mistresses of this inner domain. They could choose their husband's new wives, his concubines, they could beat the servants, and they, most importantly, could guide their sons' education -- which meant controlling the allegiance of the future generation. According to this theory, in China, it is the vertical relationship, parent to child, that is the lynchpin of society, not our horizontal one of husband and wife. So, on this reading, women had plenty of power. We just don't see it because of our cultural blinders.
Take footbinding, for example. In the past, Chinese historians gasped and gaped about how women's feet were reduced to bloody pulp for most of their childhood until they were reformed into a tiny folded mass of flesh called a "golden lotus" that made them eligible for marriage (some husbands would delight in sucking on them). A later view, however, argues that this practice was merely a fashion, picked up from visiting court dancers -- perhaps a little bit like high-heeled shoes today.
Be that as it may, Chinese women (along with eunuchs) always seemed to get the hit when the dynasty seemed about to crumble. At the end of the last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), a proud, strong woman, the Empress Dowager Cixi Taihou, was traditionally blamed for stalling reform efforts and obstinately holding onto power as China was havocked by greedy, imperious western nations. More recently, however, scholars have argued that it was her power sharing with visionary military reformers that kept China going for several decades after the Opium War and major internal rebellions, when it should have collapsed.
So now we come to today. The wife of Communist Party superstar Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai, is in custody. The government has released a televised statement of her indicting her husband. And she is blamed in the death of a British businessman. Commentators are opining that all this has to do with China's transformation -- or lack of transformation -- from a Maoist system of mass campaigns and blind following of misguided, dictatorial leadership.
But put in the context of history, what else can we glean?
Here we have Gu Kailai accused, and supposedly found guilty, of poisoning a British businessman in a dispute over money. Anyone who has spent any time in China, working with Chinese officials, knows that Chinese are so afraid of causing a scandal involving a foreigner that such charges, on the surface at least, must seem ridiculous.
But let's look more deeply. The charges, as far as they can be ascertained from the official media, are, more or less, that she killed him because he threatened to kill her son. She had him drugged and then a family retainer dripped poison into his mouth as he lay unconscious on a bed in a cheap hotel room.
Okay. In the Chinese labyrinth of political and legal workings, we may never get to the truth of things. Why? It is well known that the country's legal system does not operate outside of the jurisdiction of the Communist party. Does it matter?
When it is impossible to trust the verdict of a legal system that is in thrall to its politics, we must seek other ways of interpreting its verdicts. We must see its verdicts as a sign of the times.
Let's just say when major changes in governance occur, a powerful woman usually gets offered up as a sacrifice.
What are the changes now striking China at its heart?
There are no way statistics can convey the level of desperation and frustration that is ready to explode in the minds, hearts and souls of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Chinese at this time.
We could say China has a "floating population" of over 200 million migrant, underemployed or unemployed workers from the countryside that, if they are supremely lucky, and have connections, may find part-time employment in factories that manufacture the products we buy.
Or we could say that the cost of a small house in Tacoma, Washington, say $250,000, would barely buy the square footage of a small bathroom in an industrial wasteland like Xian. We could talk about the millions of college graduates who cannot afford homes, wives or even find jobs. We could talk about a greater number of farmers whose lands are being stripped away by local governments and their cronies. Or we might even point to the desolate countryside, immolated with decades of toxins, the ever-present pollution that chokes the air, turns major metropolises into cauldrons in which black smoke roils, blinds the eyes and rips open the lining to the mucus membranes, sinuses, throat, and stomach.
That is, except for the rich, who are able -- and who have sacrificed everything -- to send their children abroad to study.
How does a government made up of Communist officials who realize they are sitting atop a powder keg of class anger, a rising threat of chaos and fury over the widening gap between the rich and the infinite number of poor, cope?
Easy. It sacrifices a woman.
Let's go back to China's earliest dynasty for which we have ample archaeological evidence, the Shang (1600-1050 B.C.E.). There, human sacrifices were routinely conducted when a king died. The society was a slave society, with the elites on top and masses and masses of slaves below, ready to work or die for their rulers.
When the ruler died, during this, and even in later periods, sometimes the queen and in some cases concubines, would be sacrificed along with him. They would be buried alive. In one famous story, the father of the soon-to-be-immolated concubine appears in a dream to the king, who is on his deathbed, pleading for him not to slaughter her when he dies.
So what does this say about today?
What better way to communicate to a mass audience that the government is serious about cracking down on corruption, in other words, wealthy, rich elites, in other words, those who are at fault for the widening disparity between rich and poor, than to take one of them, one of the flashiest and most vibrant, and put her on display, as a scapegoat?
Will we ever really know if she was behind the murder of a businessman from the UK? The western media, not to mention Chinese chat rooms and other unofficial forms of discourse, have plenty of conspiracy theories. I'm suspecting we may never really know the truth -- perhaps in 50 years a historian will find documents in an archive and come up with a hypothesis. But what we do know now is that the government, in an almost unheard of act, released video of her testimony to the public via television.
In it, she confessed her and her husband's close ties to a mega-rich Chinese tycoon.
Maybe it's all part of a power struggle within the party. Maybe it's strictly due process. But this conspiracy theory sees it as a culturally-predictable sign that the "dynasty" is somehow in trouble, that the forces that hold it together are coming apart, that a change is coming.
It's almost predictable, like the weather. Offer up a woman as a sacrifice before the nation and appease the angry gods. In this case, though, it's not clear whether the "sacrifice" of Gu Kailai will persuade the people that the government is really able to make long-term changes that will help ease the agony of the multitudinous poor.