The Evil in All of Us: Herd Mentality

Shi Tiesheng was a Chinese writer, born on January 4, 1951, and passed away on December 31, 2010. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident at the age of 21, he became a significant literary figure in China. His works often explore themes of human suffering and resilience. Notable achievements include his acclaimed novel “Notes on Principles,” his collection of essays “Me and Ditan (The Temple of Earth),” and his short story “My Faraway Clear Peace.” Shi’s writing has left a lasting impact on contemporary Chinese literature.

Recently, I have been reading Shi Tiesheng’s essay collection, Me and Ditan. Among the essays, there was one that touched me the most: Xiao Heng (小恒).

If you haven’t read this piece yet, please do so. An archived version may be found here.

Wild times

Xiao Heng was a close friend of mine. We are the only two boys in the yard, so that’s totally natural. Every day, Xiao Heng would tell me weird news from around the quarter, like how some families lost their cats and how the smell of cats came from another family…

Nobody knows who Xiao Heng’s father is; only his mother is with him. Every month, his mother receives a check, and signs the check with a meticulously crafted stamp.

Life was normal. Until the Cultural Revolution began in spring 1966. The schools started first; this school became “revisionary” and “capitalist;” that school is “living like a capitalist.” I’m worried, because my grandmother was a “landlord,” one of those who must be denounced and overthrown.

The revolution took the school by storm, and took Beijing by storm. All of China is now “capitalist” and “revisionary!” People in my class were found to have concealed their excreable bloodlines! I tried to look angry, but my heart shivered.

Xiao Heng now only tells me news about how one family was “denounced” and another family was “denounced.” The next time I see Xiao Heng, he has already become a “Red Guard.” The anger on his face, and the hate he gives to our capitalist enemies!

Until Xiao Heng’s family was discovered to be “capitalist” as well. Until precious jewels were discovered in Xiao Heng’s family too.

Xiao Heng’s mother kneeled in the middle of the courtyard, her face ashen. The Red Guards’ angry scolding, and the sound of belts striking flesh.

In such a moment, no one paid any attention to Xiao Heng.

Xiao Heng pushed through the crowd by himself, his face streaked with tears. He walked up to his mother, took the belt from the Red Guards, and then.




The sound was earth-shattering.

No one tried to stop it. No one dared to move.

Herd mentality

“Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”

- Robert F. Kennedy

Shi Tiesheng was paralyzed during the Down to the Countryside Movement during the Cultural Revolution. It’s therefore no wonder that he revolved much of his essays in Me and Ditan around it. The Cultural Revolution revealed one of the most evil evils inherent in all of us: herd mentality.

Xiao Heng, for the “justice” of punishing the “wicked capitalists,” was willing to whip his mother. Xiao Heng, for the “justice” of punishing the “wicked capitalists,” was willing to whip his mother.

It was not justice. It was terror. And herd mentality. Terror and herd mentality made Xiao Heng kneel before authority, and commit crimes against his mother, simply because the collective hive mind told him to do so. Simply because he knew that he would be punished if he didn’t whip his mother.

The Red Guards. The Red Guards. The countless Red Guards during the ten years of terror. Did they know that they were committing crimes? Did they know that they were killing people? Did they know that doing what they are doing, they have already lost all that made them human and become no more than a ferocious boar whose only instinct is to survive?

It was the collective hive mind that forced them to submit. And they had to submit; for that herd mentality is inherent in all of us.

"Neither wealth nor honors can corrupt them, nor can power or force bend them; this is what it means to be a true human of virtue!"

- 孟子 Mengzi

And the herd mentality hasn’t died today. Obviously, because herd mentality is part of human nature, it doesn’t simply die out. Instead, it remains concealed until another social event begins. That is, COVID-19.

COVID-19 took the world by storm. Over the course of 3 years, our lives changed, and so did my view of the world.

Wild times, continued

In 2020, the Chinese media cheered onward those working on the frontlines against COVID-19, along with touching stories of how frontline health workers gave up their families to fight against COVID-19. I was very touched, too.

The government seized the opportunity to bolster nationalism and unity in the country. COVID-19 was used as a rhetoric to connect with people, along with the latest populist propaganda such as how China is way better than other countries and how the collective benefits of fighting against COVID-19 are above all. I submitted to these propaganda messages as well, believing that we are truly on a path to winning, and that I must give up the “individual” in myself in order to reach the path of winning.

But then chaos ensued. In 2022, the entirety of Shanghai underwent lockdown for three whole months. And lockdown meant that you weren’t allowed to open the door of your house in a city where most people live in tiny apartments. People didn’t have enough food. People began to jump off.

Daily COVID-19 PCR tests were required for all citizens in 2022.

There was also a deadly earthquake in Sichuan. People were denied the right to leave their homes because of anti-pandemic efforts. And then they die. Farmers were prevented from sowing their soil because “we’re fighting against COVID!” Contact-tracing “health codes” are turning “red” (a status denying you access to any public venues) for financial scandal protesters—when they are trying to fight for their rights. And the government repeated again, telling people that they needed to sacrifice their own rights for the greater good of public health.

Until finally, people couldn’t hold their anger anymore. Protests flared across China. People chanted and shouted against the brutal humanitarian crisis of zero-COVID. Over the course of three days in December 2022, China’s zero-COVID regime collapsed.

Herd mentality, continued

COVID-19 was the latest in herd mentality.

Over the course of 3 years, people did not dare point out the fallacy in the narrative—that people should give up their individual rights in the face of collective benefits. Neither did I. I still get a sense of guilt whenever I think about COVID-19—I used to champion the idea that individuals can be ignored and that collective benefits are greater without ever questioning what I was thinking, simply because everyone in the media is saying so, everyone around me is saying so. I, too, as a human, am a subject of herd mentality.

I, too, as a human, am a subject of herd mentality.

I was only woken up when I saw the tragedies in COVID-19. People have been locked inside their apartments for three months straight. They do not have food. They are isolated. They are jumping off. It was then that I finally burst out of the confines of herd mentality and allowed my inner conscience to finally wake me up from the long dream of COVID-19.

What can we do?

Conscience… Yes. Conscience. Conscience is how we can break free of the curse of herd mentality.

If the Red Guards would follow the conscience deep in their hearts… If the security guards knew that stopping people from escaping an earthquake was wrong… If I answered my heart’s call, knowing that individual rights must be protected no matter the situation… We would have escaped herd mentality. We would have known what was right or wrong. We would have shown our empathy to others. We. We, as humans, would have created a better world.

Conscience is how we can break free of the curse of herd mentality.

Conscience is how we can break free of the curse of herd mentality. Follow your conscience, because deep inside your heart, you know what is right. Follow your conscience, because deep inside your heart, you know how to do what is right. Herd mentality may be what defines us as humans, but conscience is also what defines us as humans.

Go forth.

Do what is right.

Follow your conscience.

(June 9, 2024)