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Exploring the Forest Haven Asylum: A Hopeless Home for Abandoned People

Hidden only a few acres behind the trees that line the side of Route 197 in Laurel, Maryland, is the Forest Haven Asylum, an abandoned facility as obscure and forgotten as the tenants who once occupied it. Today, crumbling in decay and disrepair after years of neglect, the facility’s compound has an eerie stillness about it, as though something straight out of a horror movie. Though, perhaps that is appropriate, considering the asylum’s troubling legacy.


DSC_0829It was a slow post-Christmas weekend for my girlfriend and I. Looking for a break to conventional routine, we settled upon the decision to explore an abandoned place in Maryland. Forest Haven came as a default; most of the abandoned locations near central Maryland – Henryton Hospital, the ‘Hell House,’ Ellicott City’s silk mill – have been torn down in recent years. Too many teenagers falling through floorboards and too many illegal parties were enough to convince authorities to demolish these run-down parts of our historical heritage.

The Forest Haven Asylum complex, however, remains standing. For sure, the place doesn’t look like it did when it opened in 1925 as the “District Training School for the Mentally Retarded,” but its 20-some buildings are mostly still there. As we quickly came to find, though, the compound sits well-guarded; not only are the ruins located on government property, the same property that houses Fort Meade, they share an access road to a present-day juvenile detention center.

Driving up to the unexpected guard post that kept watch on the road, we brainstormed a justification for our visit. Our true intentions, to spend a day exploring ruins while capturing some interesting pictures with her new DSLR camera, were doubtfully good cause for being there. Yet after briefly speaking to the guard we were waved through. Perhaps our excuse sounded reasonable enough: “we’re journalists, documenting the more forgotten and troubling parts of our region’s past.” In our defense, that last part was definitely true.


forest_haven_aerial-1

A present-day aerial view of the Forest Haven facility. Image source: Bing

When the Forest Haven Asylum first opened nearly 90 years ago, it was widely hailed as a forward-thinking institution, one designed around the progressive change in mental health treatment that was sweeping Europe and North America at the time.

Situated about 20 miles away from Washington D.C. on a 200-acre forested property, the asylum’s setting satisfied the period belief that the mentally ill – who often overwhelmed their families and languished at home – would do well if they  lived and received treatment away from the stresses of urban life. Their daily routines consisted of milking cattle, tending to gardens, and other ‘relaxing’ tasks designed to rehabilitate. Of course, also aligned with period beliefs were the facility’s treatment rooms for operant conditioning, post-dosage observation, and electroshock therapy.

DSC_0816While the first reviews of Forest Haven were positive, their conclusions were drawn more heavily from the facility’s concept and physical amenities than the institution’s actual execution. It was not long after opening that administrators found the place quickly becoming overcrowded and understaffed. Constrained by under-funding for decades, the staff found itself unable to offer proper treatment or find beneficial opportunities for all of their residents. Many regressed while under the asylum’s care. To make matters worse, when the District began suffering from a mid-century financial crisis, the asylum’s education and recreation programs were ended.


Forest Haven’s campus is large, but the buildings are clustered close together. The streets feel narrow from the overgrowth of grass and trees. Dormitories and support facilities, including a Chapel, surround the central office building. We started our tour in the flanks of the campus, working our way through what seemed to be an administrative office into the dormitories.

DSC_0835As you enter these buildings, it’s immediately noticeable just how decrepit the asylum has become. The buildings of Forest Haven are quite literally falling in on themselves: ceiling tiles litter the floors, drywall and insulation cover almost every interior surface, and mounds of dirt pile up in the staircases. Dark hallways give way to pockets of light shining down from holes in the roof above, while second and third floors, their foundations having given way, are broken by steep drops to the level below.

We wondered why the buildings still stood when other local sites had been torn down because of similar conditions. Walking across some creaky floorboards felt like an accident waiting to happen. Is there worth in keeping these buildings up when they pose such a liability risk? Even off-limits, the grounds are well traveled. At any rate, the buildings remain.

DSC_0808Although the institution sits on government property, it has not been taken good care of. Despite the guard posts, the place is a well-known hangout for vandals and the homeless who sneak onto the grounds. Graffiti, while not rampant, marks the walls of most buildings, with the occasional tag recurring in spots all over. The interiors are musky and the air is thick with the smell of dust and smoke; to our surprise, we found a fire still smoldering in a pile of papers sitting in the middle of a hallway of one of the buildings.

The basements, meanwhile, are veritable swamps, with inches of accumulated rainwater sustaining an ecosystem of mold and small plants. Signs for fallout shelters adorn the walls, testaments to the institution’s height of operations during the tenser years of the Cold War. The silence and stillness about the place is real, broken only by the clatter of our shoes against the cement floors, loose doors creaking in their hinges, and the occasional gust of wind blowing through openings.

DSC_0805Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine these buildings were ever inhabited, much less overcrowded. Yet it need not be imagined; the evidence of people past can be seen almost everywhere: in the medical documents and written reports pouring out of filing cabinets and littering the floors, in the gurneys and wheelchairs sitting in corners, in the various patient possessions that were left behind.

More than anything else, it was in the documents that we found the most insight into the people who called Forest Haven their home. While the buildings still remain as evidence of the place, the stories told in the papers strewn about the floor stand as testament to the people who knew it.


DSC_0793Though the asylum was originally instituted for individuals with severe mental handicaps, by the 1960s even people with treatable or mild learning disabilities were categorized as “retards” and sent to live at Forest Haven. So too were individuals deemed “undesirable” by their families or conventional hospitals, such as the deaf, dyslexic, epileptic, and illiterate. The facility’s resources, already stretched beyond their limits, were directed toward capacity instead of rehabilitation. Programs aimed at returning residents to normal life became untenable.

Coupled with the myriad other problems that befell Forest Haven, this would inevitably lead to cases of chronic abuse that would plague its patients in the decades leading up to its closure. Suits against the District for the mistreatment patients suffered in Forest Glenn were first brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1972. They brought to light chronic mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the facility.

DSC_0824Throughout the 1970s, the families of abused residents continued to build cases against Forest Haven by tracking patient mistreatment and turning their findings over to the Justice Department. Visiting families spoke of residents being bound to urine-soaked mattresses in locked wards. One particularly egregious story was that of a woman named Bertha Brown, who suffered from a disease which caused her to eat anything in sight. Tied to a toilet and left unattended, she tried to eat her feces and choked to death.

Yet the real impetus toward reform came in 1976, with the death of 17 year old Joy Evans. Joy died from aspiration pneumonia, an infection of the lungs caused by food or saliva. Unattended, Joy choked on her own food, as patients were often fed lying or strapped down to their beds. Joy’s parents filed a Federal class-action lawsuit against Forest Haven, detailing the facility’s abuses:

The lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs to meet individual needs of residents; the unsafe, unsanitary, and unpleasant condition of the Forest Haven facilities; inadequate staffing, lack of training, and abuse of residents by staff; inadequate medical, dental, and mental health care and nutrition; inadequate record-keeping; lack of after-care and rehabilitation programs and vocational training for former residents; and inadequate funding.

DSC_0832On June 14th, 1978, signing what became known as the Pratt Decree, Judge Pratt of the United States District Court ordered the institution to close. By the late 1970s, as patents were gradually moved out of the facility, the population of Forest Haven had fallen to around 1,300.

Still, crimes against the mentally ill would continue.


DSC_0804In the facility’s administrative building, patient records sit out right near the open entrance. Reading them was a quick introduction to the medical diagnoses and evaluations that characterized every resident of the institution. At the time, we were unaware of the history of the place. From these papers, a voice was given to Forest Haven’s past.

Drug addiction, lack of education, and inability to find work came up often as items listed for the residents’ issues. Some had been listless in life before Forest Haven, unemployed and homeless. Others had faced trouble at home, usually coupled with trouble with the law. Yet in these papers were peoples’ stories, told through their brief medical histories and personal descriptions. These were people who, deemed as going nowhere, were sent to Forest Haven, where they found themselves with nowhere to go.

DSC_0807Not everything we stumbled upon was official paperwork. In both the administrative building and the dormitories, we came upon personal journals, notebooks, reading supplies and literature, and handwritten notes. Many of them appeared written by the residents themselves.

One note, written in neat cursive and covered in soot, stood out to me in particular. It was a list of goals, short-term and long-term: finish my GED, go to school. Stay drug free, give back to the community. The words seemed to speak for all of the voices we couldn’t hear, a humanizing and personal touch in a setting otherwise defined by decaying installations. I couldn’t help but wonder whether they succeeded. Or is their story, all their stories, lost, buried in a pile of loose writings in a crumbling corner of an abandoned hallway?

DSC_0812Themes of liberation and freedom ring out of the murals plastered on the dormitory walls. Images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. tatter with the failing paint. There didn’t seem much hope left in it anymore.


Because of the court order to close Forest Haven, no improvements or repairs would be made to the buildings for over a decade. Continuous use stressed the structures beyond their capabilities. The facility was crumbling, even as people continued to live inside it.

DSC_0809With patients being transferred out of the facility and into group homes, staffing and funding at Forest Haven saw even deeper cuts than before. The asylum sat as most of its Medicare and government subsidies evaporated. Qualified volunteers and staff members were few and far between.

Ten deaths occurred at the asylum between 1989 and 1990, a remarkable rate considering the institution had only 252 residents at the time. The rate of bowel obstructions, aspiration pneumonia, rashes, and muscle atrophy accelerated to obscene levels in the final months of Forest Haven. By 1991, only ninety one patients remained in the facility, yet they fared far worse than those who came before them.


DSC_0819It wasn’t only documents that littered the interiors of Forest Haven’s facilities. We were surprised just how many items – books, computers, clipboards, machines, equipment – were left behind. Rooms still sit almost entirely furnished.

It was enough to make us start wondering what happened at Forest Haven, and why it was left as it was. While today these virtual artifacts are deteriorating from age and the elements, they must’ve amounted to a considerable sum of worth at the time the facility closed. Walking among the scenes they set in these forgotten buildings was lonely, apocalyptic. One of us observed that the place felt like something out of Fallout 4. It was an apt assessment.

DSC_0837In the dormitories, we came across what may have been the library. Piles of books are poured across the floor. Their bindings are slowly unwinding, sitting in inches of water and muck. I found myself moved by the tragic scene, one which a line of graffiti scribbled along the wall satirized properly. “Drop out of school. Read books.”

We continued our tour through the facility. The idyllic buildings had grown imposing on me; the longer we stayed, the stronger I felt that the place belonged in a horror movie. As the day progressed, the sun’s light sent shadows flying across different surfaces; light areas grew dim, doorways ended in rooms of darkness. The movement of trees’ limbs shaking in the corner of our eyes sent us casting jumpy glances, believing someone was there. As we entered the administrative building, we thought we heard a sneeze. Perhaps we weren’t alone.

DSC_0833A dentist’s office sits ready in the administrative building, complete with chairs and equipment. It was cramped, liked many of the hallway’s other offices, perhaps as a dentist’s office should be. We found further medical facilities down the hall; a medical ward of sorts.

I tried to imagine the sounds of bustle in the place, of doctors going through their files, sick patients coughing down the halls, medical supplies banging around in their containers. I tried, but the gentle whistle of the light wind squeezing through the collapsing ceiling drowned out the phantom bustle I sought to conjure. And then: another sneeze. Was it my mind playing tricks, twisting a dropping tile or a collapsing desk into what they were not, or did we have company? Footsteps. I glanced over at my girlfriend, who seemed far less perturbed, grabbed her arm, and quickly made down the building’s winding staircase and out the open frame that was once a loading dock. Leaving, we heard, from back in the building, slight murmurs. Who it was, we never found out.


Forest Haven’s final weeks were, to say the least, hectic. As residents were readied to move, the staff packed their belongings into small footlockers and tucked away their suitcases in empty corners of the facility. The last fifteen residents were moved out in late September 1991, 13 years after the order was given to close the institution. Finally, on October 14th, the Forest Haven asylum officially closed. It had served the District for 66 years.

DSC_0813Yet an official declaration of closure is merely a bureaucratic tool, some mid-level government worker placing a signature upon a promptly filed-away piece of paper. Though Forest Haven had closed in its capacity as an asylum, new uses were found for its premises. One of the buildings toward the far end of the grounds became a holding block of sorts for troubled female youths. As it turned out, a lack of communication between the agencies responsible for the site had left some officials unaware that the building was crumbling and packed with asbestos.

The remainder of the buildings sat. And sat. A March 2004 audit of the facility, nearly 12 years after its official closure, found gross mismanagement on the part of the District. None of the unused buildings had ever been secured. Many still had power and running water; documents were shuffled into different buildings instead of being destroyed. Even the medical equipment and computers, while stored, remained functional. Finally, in December 2011, 20 years after Forest Haven was shut down – 30 years after the order to close its doors was given – the District allocated the funds to properly handle and secure what remained at the property.

DSC_0792Much, but not all, of the equipment in Forest Haven – enough to fill a museum – was removed following the 2011 destruction order. Yet, as we experienced firsthand during our visit 5 years later, enough remains to tell the story of the place; documents litter the floor, chairs and gurneys sit unused, filing cabinets are spilled across rooms. The photographs in this post are testament enough to what remains. One need not search long or hard to get a sense of the Forest Haven’s purpose or its legacy’s meaning.


We left Forest Haven through its main access road as the sun began to set, walking past buildings casting dark shadows upon our path. We coming across a service vehicle – or, more aptly put, the service vehicle came upon us, its driver quickly booking it down the road to cut us off. He met us with a stern look and a series of interrogatives. We repeated our story to him and, though he seemed perturbed, he let us walk by and back to our car. Did he know about the troubling history of the facility he guarded? Was he paid enough to care?

DSC_0810Driving home from Forest Haven, I was enthused about the opportunity to write this blog post. How often does one explore a still-furnished yet long-abandoned facility? I had hoped this post would be a fun little travel log, a story of our wanderings if nothing else. I had already begun writing this post when I decided, on a whim, to search a little into the asylum’s backstory. Maybe – I reasoned – it would provide some good context for the reader. I’d devote a paragraph, maybe two, to that history and then be done with it. No need to bore my audience with insignificant tokens of the past.

In the end, our exploration of the facility turned out to be what was insignificant, a simple justification to devote discussion to the place’s history. And that history, far from being a token of the past, was, is, and will remain a troubling scar upon and a damning indictment of  our mental health system and of our dealing with our historical heritage.


According to various sources, some 3,200 patients spent time at the institution while its doors were open. Considering the 387 deaths that occurred at Forest Haven, it had a residential death rate of twelve percent. Statistically, one in ten people who showed up at Forest Haven – often the disabled, the troubled, the rejects of society – wouldn’t expect to leave alive.

The Forest Haven Asylum: a hopeless home for abandoned people.


Further Reading:

http://sometimes-interesting.com/2014/04/12/abandoned-home-for-the-abandoned-forest-haven-asylum/ – (all credit goes to this truly fantastic write-up, from which I drew most of my information)

http://dcist.com/2013/11/abandoneddc_haven.php#photo-1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/march99/grouphome14.htm

http://articles.latimes.com/1994-04-03/magazine/tm-41569_1_forest-haven-bleak-house-institutional-abuse

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Haven

“Moscow and Chinese Communists,” A Review

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 represented the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Kuomintang in the struggle for power in and control over China and culminated decades of civil war and revolutionary intrigue. Western scholarship on the Chinese Revolution has paid particular focus to the leading actors and key events within the Chinese Communist Party during the crucial years between its founding in 1921 and its ultimate ascendency in 1949. So, too, does the contemporary Chinese revolutionary narrative pay reverence to the mythos of Mao, the “Long March,” and the triumph of the Chinese communists against seemingly impossible odds. Yet lost in this narrative is the reality that no revolution exists in a vacuum; indeed,  external actors, events, and circumstances have the potential to fundamentally shape the characteristics of a revolutionary moment along with the character, organization, strategy, and tactics of a revolutionary movement. Such is particularly the case for revolutions framed around Marxist ideology, which is global and transnational in both theory and practice.

In Moscow and Chinese Communists, Robert North explores the external actors and events which came to dramatically shape the origins and character of China’s Communist Party and revolution by detailing the intricate linkages between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. The book progresses through a tracing of the history of Soviet influence on China’s communist party, beginning with the origins of Communist thought in China, the formation of the CCP, and the Kuomintang-Communist alliance, through the Kuomintang-Communist split, Mao’s ascendancy to power, the experiment of the Kiangsi Soviet, and the Sino-Japanese war. Throughout this progression, North breaks from the conventional analysis of the Chinese Revolution as a product of Maoist theory, strategy, and practice, proposing instead that the Soviet Union’s strategy for international communist revolution, along with the individual characters of Soviet leaders, the dynamics of Soviet politics, and the prejudices and perceptions of the advisors sent by the Soviet Union to advise the CCP, shaped the ultimate direction the Chinese revolution would take.

North particularly emphasizes the fluidity and pragmatism of Leninist and Bolshevik revolutionary strategy, directed by the Soviet Union through the Comintern, in the context of the Chinese Revolution, along with the impact they had. The main recurring point in this analysis explains Soviet support for the Kuomintang, which set in motion the circumstance which would eventually lead to an independent, and ultimately victorious, Chinese Communist Party, as a method to influence key political actors in China and undermine anti-revolutionary currents; supporting the Kuomintang was, as North puts it, a supposed “Trojan horse for gaining control of China” for Bolshevik leaders (pg. 66). Crucial to this is North’s other key point, that political events and actors outside of China ultimately played the key role in determining the strategy and direction the CCP would take. He details how the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin for leadership in the Soviet Union manifested itself in China’s revolution, with Stalin’s push for CCP-Kuomintang cooperation, developed to oppose Trotsky’s calls for an autonomous communist movement in China, emerging triumphant with Stalin’s consolidation of power. This point plays into North’s broader conclusion, that the strategies imposed by the Soviet Union on China’s communists were borne not only, and perhaps not even so much, out of a desire to see Communism in China, but as “weapons in personal drives for power” (pg. 30). The challenge of democratic centralism and the dictatorial Leninist system for global Marxist revolution, then, is perhaps most clearly demonstrated through North’s claims that Stalin’s carefully laid plains, and the manifesting Bolshevik influence on the CCP, “had precipitated nothing but near-disaster for the Chinese Communists” through successive failures, setbacks, and deceits (pg. 97).

The analysis North provides of the Chinese Communist Party, and the influence had on it by the Soviet Union, puts into global perspective the narrative told about the Chinese Revolution, one which often overlooks or undervalues such key linkages. His detailing of the personalities, prejudices, and perceptions of the numerous actors who took part in the connections between the Soviet Union and the CCP reveals political action and intrigue far broader and more complex than what is usually given by simply analyzing Mao and his key lieutenants. Indeed, for this, North’s book sheds much needed light and insight into the formation and character of the Chinese Communist Party, insight which is lost when credence isn’t paid to the multitude of individuals who helped shape its direction.

Regarding Mao as the sole face, character, and strategist of China’s Communists removes from consideration the significant roles played by others, especially Soviets, in defining Chinese communist strategy and organization. Similarly, regarding China’s Communist Revolution as an isolated, insular event neglects the global political and broader communist context in which it existed. Doing such provides an incomplete, and even incorrect, understanding of not only China’s revolution, but the contemporary characteristics of China’s Communist Party. North’s work represents an admirable attempt at combating such simplistic explanations.

Though North focuses his analysis on the Soviet Union’s influence on China’s communists, emergent from his work is an equally valid and intuitive critique of the strategies of Bolshevism and the role played by the Comintern in inciting global communist revolution. By demonstrating the role played by the Soviet Union in structuring, and sometimes dictating, the organization and revolutionary strategies of the CCP, he reveals how the Comintern was, far from being only a tool used to further the revolutionary current, a tool used to secure Soviet leadership and hegemony in the communist world. His critique of the pitfalls in the role played by the Soviet Union in the communist world, such as Stalin’s utilization of the Comintern and shaping of Bolshevik strategy for his furthering of personal power and the inefficiencies and challenges facing a centralized yet transnational communist organization, readily support the historical reality of the Comintern’s failure to develop a unified, cohesive communist bloc. His analysis can thus be used to effectively and insightfully analyze communist movements and their relations to the Soviet Union in countries other than China.

However, despite the attention North dedicates to the often overlooked actors crucial to China’s Communist Revolution and the insights gained from such, North neglects to spend focus on what are conventionally considered the key actors. He dedicates only a brief chapter to Mao’s life, rise, and influence on Chinese Communism. Focusing his attention on the Soviet influence on the characteristics of Chinese communism, he further fails to consider deeply the origins of, and significance of, Maoist thought and theory. By doing so, North commits an error equally dangerous to overlooking less significant actors in the CCP; without providing ample consideration of Mao or Maoism, North is unable to provide a rounded, complete analysis and understanding of the Chinese Communist Revolution and all the sources of influence which brought about its ultimate success. Attention could have been directed toward the influence of Bolshevism and Bolshevik theory on the formation of Maoist thought, or the interplay between the development of Maoism and the application of Leninist strategy in the context of the CCP’s strategy; North, however, does not attempt such an analysis, narrowing his focus instead largely on the application of Soviet practices in the CCP’s strategy.

Another issue, though one not necessarily emergent as a result of North’s work, is when his book was published; in 1963, the year of publishing, the Sino-Soviet split was only just beginning, and little access to documents detailing the intricacies of Soviet-CCP cooperation was available. Accordingly, North, as an American living in the height of the Cold War, laces his analysis with a detectable concern about the prospects of a Sino-Soviet bloc; indeed, he frames his analysis of international communist cooperation as enabling Western audiences to “perhaps be less inclined to behave precisely as the Bolshevik strategists and tacticians expect – and, for Communist purposes – want them to behave” (pg. 8). This prejudice undermines his analysis of the Chinese Communist Party, which should otherwise be an objective analysis of a case study in political developments and international cooperation, by framing it as a global conspiracy rather than as a product of historical circumstances. As such, the reader is left wondering whether the characteristics and perceptions ascribed by North to the Soviet Union’s various advisers and China’s developing communist thinkers are indeed borne from reality, or if they have been construed to convey to the reader a fear of a growing and perhaps impending global communist victory. Meanwhile, without access to a breadth of documentation on the topic of his analysis, North falls short of providing a full and complete, and likely even substantial, understanding of the true depth of the cooperation between the Soviet Union and China’s communists. Further work is left to be done by other researchers and authors to expand and refine upon the analytical framework North has provided.

Robert North’s Moscow and Chinese Communists provides a reader with a fuller picture of the development of China’s Communist Party and the eventual Communist Revolution, one that would otherwise be impossible if focus was only paid to Mao and the elements of communist theory indigenous in China. Despite the issues raised by this review, he admirably sets forward to depict China’s Revolution as an event created by, and often directly influenced by, outside forces and outside actors. Developing a true understanding of the Chinese Revolution, or any revolution influenced by Marxist ideology, necessitates knowledge of the various international forces and actors in play and the influence they had. The reader will finish this book feeling more confident in that knowledge, and therefore have a more nuanced and rounded understanding of how and why the Chinese Communist Party took and used the character, organization, and strategies that came to define it.

Moscow and Chinese Communists. Robert C. North. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963. 310 pp.

The Importance of Understanding China’s Imperial Heritage

Is knowledge about China’s imperial heritage important for understanding Chinese government and society today?

Not only would I argue that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is important for understanding Chinese government and society today, I would say that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is necessary for doing so. As an aside, I believe that this question touches upon a broader characteristic of political science, in which no country’s political system, political culture, or geopolitical role can be properly understood outside of that country’s historical context. If the field of history describes what major political decisions have been made, the field of political science describes how and why those political decisions came to be; underlying these two fields is the fact that events in the past come to intimately shape and define the characteristics of a country’s contemporary policy-making and political systems. It is thus impossible for the political scientist to adequately understand a country without first grounding themselves in the major characteristics of that country’s past. Nonetheless, in the specific case of China, a number of specific features and characteristics of China’s past and the legacy of its imperial heritage have shaped, and continue to define, contemporary Chinese government and society. Among them are the legacy of Imperial hegemony and China’s “national humiliation,” which drives contemporary Chinese nationalism and assertive foreign policy, the legacy of the “peasant rebellion,” which underlies the agrarian, peasant-based foundation of Maoist theory and China’s Communist Revolution, and the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian traditions, which continue to lend cultural legitimacy to China’s bureaucratic, authoritarian, single-party political system.

The Chinese civilization is among the oldest in the world, having lasted continuously for thousands of years. Throughout the breadth of Imperial history, China had not only been a center of rich artistic, religious, cultural, scientific, and technical advancement, but had also been among the strongest powers in the Asia-Pacific. The strength of Chinese civilization was reflected in the fact that foreign conquerors, rather than imposing their cultural norms and values on the Chinese, instead took Chinese culture as their own. As such, when it comes to their heritage, the Chinese have much to be proud about, and this pride manifests itself in growing contemporary nationalism. Connected intricately to this rich history and the nationalism which it breeds is the period of “national humiliation” China suffered at the hands of Western imperialist powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which China was relegated to a second- or third-tier colonial status and in which Chinese values and culture came under increasing attack by the West. The period of “national humiliation” was a striking blow to the Chinese psyche, and almost all subsequent political events in China can be seen as an attempt to overcome that humiliation; indeed, the Chinese Communist Party, by premising a great deal of its legitimacy on its continued success in bringing economic and geopolitical growth to China, has taken on the role of restoring China to the eminence it once possessed. The increasingly assertive and aggressive foreign policy that characterizes Xi Jinping’s administration, which is driven by and in turn drives Chinese nationalism, is just another manifestation of the Chinese attempt to restore China to its “rightful” position of power and prestige on the regional and global stages.

The tradition of the “peasant rebellion” is a distinct, and perhaps unique, characteristic of Imperial Chinese history. Throughout much of the Imperial period, mass peasant movements, frustrated by the failure of ruling dynasties to uphold the “Mandate of Heaven,” challenged, and occasionally overthrew, the ruling regime. Near the end of Imperial history, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, both mass peasant movements, further challenged the Chinese state. Indeed, the proto-communist elements of the former and the anti-imperialist motivation of the latter were harbingers of the rhetoric which would serve as the basis of China’s Communist Revolution. Mao based the ideological and theoretical premises of his communist movement on the agrarian peasant and mass mobilization, no doubt drawing inspiration from the historical precedent set by past “peasant rebellions.” There are, to be fair, endless criticisms of Mao’s ideological basis, which was arguably less peasant-based than the usual narrative portrays it to be, and, especially since the Reform Era, China’s peasants have played an increasingly less prominent role in the Chinese state. Yet, nonetheless, in order to understand the contemporary Chinese state and Communist Party, one must first understand its origins in the Maoist era, and, in turn, to understand the Maoist Era, one must first be grounded in an understanding of the precedents set by the tradition of the “peasant rebellion.” Also of growing significance in contemporary China is the issue of rural agitation, in which disgruntled peasants are increasingly willing to organize and protest against perceived offenses by the state. These modern day “peasant rebellions,” too, are grounded in and likely influenced by the historical precedent set by those of the past.

There is also the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian heritage, which today influences the character and culture of China’s political system. The Imperial Chinese system was long characterized by a massive, well-trained, and competitive bureaucracy that was ultimately answerable to the ruling Emperor. The contemporary Chinese state, characterized by a well-organized hierarchy of power, a large state sector, and a significant wealth of bureaucratic institutions ultimately answerable to the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, can be seen as a continuation of this organizational tradition from China’s historical heritage. China’s Confucian tradition, which instilled values of deference to authority and respect for elders, is, despite various attempts during the Maoist years to undermine or eliminate it, still a pervasive part of the Chinese political culture. Most of China’s upper leadership, who wield the bulk of power in the Chinese system, are “elderly,” and, though other, modern factors such as improvements in the quality life may keep China’s population politically subdued and apathetic, the underlying Confucian value of deference to authority undoubtedly plays some role in reinforcing authoritarian, one-party rule. After all, cultural norm and values, especially those as long-lasting and deeply entrenched as China’s Confucianism, serve as the foundation by which individuals perceive, interact with, and form expectations of their state and society.

Accordingly, knowledge of China’s Imperial heritage is crucial for an understanding of contemporary Chinese government and society. Many facets of the Imperial era, such as the tradition of the “peasant rebellion,” the bureaucratic and Confucian organization of the Chinese state and society, and the period of “national humiliation” in Chinese history, all directly and indirectly influence and shape the modern day characteristics of China. Of course, China is not a unique when it comes to the necessity for a background understanding of its history; a political scientist studying any country must first ground themselves in the historical context of that country before they can truly “understand” its present day characteristics. After all, political science and history are two deeply intertwined fields, perhaps even more interconnected than political scientists and historians often wish to them credit.

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