On China and Chinese History

24 Jan

Two years already
Two whole years
Seven hundred thirty days
Seven hundred thirty nights
Little by little
Have erased the memory
Like raindrops
One by one
Washed clean
The blood-stained Square

From “The Dead Do Not Forget: In commemoration of the second anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre” by Wu Ningkun. His A Single Tear, A Family’s Persecution, Suffering, Love and Endurance, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1993; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993, is not as well-known as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, but is in my opinion a better book really. Here is an interview.

INT: What was it then that made you decide to leave a successful academic career or potentially a successful academic career and return to China in 1951:

WN: Well, in 1951, I returned China, to accept a teaching appointment at Yenching University. I was urged to come home and take a post vacated by a departing American professor, because of the Korean War. But the reason I accepted it was not so simple. In my background there was always this desire to see strong and prosperous China, also a free and democratic China, coming to being. Now the Communists seemed to be doing that all my friends and relatives in China urged me to come home and not become a White Russian in the States. [Clears throat], ever since my childhood or boyhood, China was subjected to the perennial humiliation of being invaded by the Japanese and other foreign powers. We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas but we always commemorated the national humiliation days. So in other words, we were probably, to put simply, very nationalistic. So now is a time to do something for my nation and my people…

INT: You seem to have spoken pretty freely through the fifties and through this period, so how did you survive these enormous changes in cultural and political thinking?

WN: Well, I spoke pretty freely until 1958, when I was denounced as a rightist. So I did not really survive well. But the Communist way is to put the pressure on for a while and then make things more relaxed, so that you would speak your mind and they would keep the record of it. and every time they would tell you, oh this will never happen again. Like in 1955 I was denounced as hidden culture… counter-revolutionary and my apartment was searched and I was under house arrest. But when it was over, they apologized, said it was all a misunderstanding. So I felt OK, so I wasn’t bad. You people went too far, they admitted they went too far. So I spoke with greater urgency. The next campaign came, of course I was court and urged to speak. In 1957, the party leaders came here home, to urge you to speak up, to help the party to rectify its work style, to help the [inaudible] to do a better job. So I started speaking up, openly, as I was, we need freedom of speech. Not only for ourselves, but for the party and for the nation, if the party is serious about rectification. And that’s the end of my free level speech!

INT: So tell us a little, if you would, what happened after your denunciation, where were you sent and what were the consequences?

WN: Yes. Well after my denunciation I was of course publicly humiliated, I was deprived of everything, I was expelled from the ranks of the teachers and they sent me first to the detention center in Beijing, and then to the northern great wilderness, on the Soviet border, facing Siberia, for forced labor reform. That’s…

INT: What did that program of forced labor reform involve? What was your routine?

WN: Well, the routine was hard labor, twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, sometimes it was non-stop, even when the temperature went down to minus forty degrees. I survived, but I was sent back to the [inaudible] State Farm near Beijing. It became harsher because the whole nation underwent a historical famine. People were dying even outside prisons, so I was nearly starved to death until my wife came to my rescue…

INT: Can you tell us a little about the Mao personality cult, was it there from the beginning or did it develop in the later fifties and sixties’ period?

WN: The Mao personality cult developed from the very beginning, but very slowly at first. We just shouted ‘Long live the great leader Chairman Mao’ but it did not come to full blossoming until the Cultural Revolution, when he became the so-called Four Greats – the Great Leader, Great Helmsman, Great Supreme Commander, Great Teacher, Four Greats, see, so that was obvious, he has replaced Stalin and Beijing has become world… the center of world revolution. And his portraits, his picture photos appeared in every paper every day. the Red Guards were frantic about him…. I thought it was bizarre and stupid! And even Marshal Yia had said Chairman Mao would live to a hundred and twenty five years old and would be the greatest happiness of the Chinese people. it sounded very stupid and his closest comrade in arms, Lin Piao who took the lead in a new personality cult and he issued the Little Red Book, quotations of Chairman Mao, and you had to carry it all the time, whatever you do, you had to shout ‘Long live Chairman Mao’. That was a bizarre time in Chinese history. I don’t think any emperor had that honor before him….

It is a very long interview but well worth reading. It corroborates much that we read in extended form in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: the Unknown Story.

Today, of course, the Chinese Communist Party/Government is in very many respects no longer Maoist. But much also remains. The day that Mao: the Unknown Story is published in China, uncensored and freely available to all, would mark a true ending to the whole tragic period, but that day is not yet. In 1990 I heard many first-hand accounts of Tiananmen. I also read, over the next year or two, the official Chinese account of those “disturbances” and saw in full display the dishonesty that characterises so much official Chinese thinking even now. I also saw the amazing capability of Australian communists, including some dear friends, to be sucked in by the lies and happily assert that nothing bad really happened in China at that time. I was and am amazed by that, having spoken to people who removed bodies from the square or its surrounds, to someone whose best friend was killed, and of course later on actually meeting one of the hunger strikers.

Mao: the Unknown Story is not a fully rounded history. While reading it I have dipped into a good standard history, The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. There are wider perspectives that Chang and Halliday do ignore, so their work alone is not enough. At the same time, there are things in Spence’s excellent history that need revision in the light of new information in Chang and Halliday, who had access to archives and people that Spence clearly did not, indeed could not have had access to.

Given that 20th century Chinese history has been the site of some of the most determined propaganda and falsification imaginable, Chang and Halliday take us closer to the truth. Even if only 50% of the new information in Chang and Halliday proves to be reliable, our picture of Mao Zedong can never be the same again. Mao: the Unknown Story cries out to be read; do not be content with reviews or arguments about it — read it.

* * *

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Gould’s Book Arcade (pic above) in Newtown is legendary. You can’t really find what you are looking for — it’s probably there somewhere — but you find lots of other things of interest in its wonderful disorder. Bob is also legendary, one of Sydney’s great Marxists from the Vietnam War period. While I was working on From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Longman Melbourne) in 1993-4 he sold me many things, including Simon Leys, The Burning Forest (London, Paladin, 1988). You can read a chapter on that link. “Of course, Leys was right about Mao,” Bob admitted. It is a short step from Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Another chapter in The Burning Fore
, “The China Experts”, nails without mercy the purveyors of dewy-eyed propaganda about Mao in the 60s and 70s, especially the Australian Ross Terrill.

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine by Jasper Becker (1996) draws attention to one of many horrors that befell China under Mao. A student at Wessex, older than the rest, alluded to this is a lesson once by answering “Starving” to the question “What do you remember from your childhood?” The point is the famine was man-made. At the time, in the late 50s and early 60s, China was exporting massive amounts of food in order to pay for Mao’s industrial and military build-up, including the development of atomic weapons.

Finally, granaries were either opened or broken into. Peasant revolts occurred in various areas. Mao was forced to reverse course, but not publicly. All the shifts in policy were made to seem normal change and adjustment on the continuing road towards communism.

Thirty million people may have died because of his folly, but Mao would not forget that others in the party had challenged him — that they had made him admit that physical laws of nature had stood in his way of making China over in his own image. And in 1966, Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, supposedly to purify the party and to rejuvenate the Chinese revolution. Its real purpose was to serve as the vehicle for Mao’s revenge against his opponents. It, in turn, cost the lives of millions more and resulted in the loss of another generation of Chinese.

Robert Mugabe, for one, seems to have learned well, doesn’t he?

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6 responses to “On China and Chinese History

  1. Marcel Proust

    May 5, 2006 at 4:15 am

    Haloscan January 23 2006

    As to “significant contributions the book makes to a more balanced assessment of Mao” I would say it does make a significant contribution to a “more balanced” account of Mao Zedong in the sense that it is, throughout, entirely unbalanced in its approach to its subject in a manner which “balances” other interpretations merely by being contrary to them.

    Haloscan does not permit further treatment here, but I note that

    LRB | Vol. 27 No. 22 dated 17 November 2005 | Andrew Nathan, “Jade and Plastic” at (there is further correspondence in ensuing issues)

    and a rather good article in the Financial Review magazine by Paul Monk, now available at:

    reach similar conclusions.

  2. owner

    May 5, 2006 at 4:17 am

    Haloscan 23 January 2006

    M’s wisdom — he was a teenager when Mao died. 1) Never trust anyone in a high position. 2) History, as he was taught it in China, was to learn the textbook by rote, but he never believed the textbook. 3) He knew the history of his own family.

    Speaking of family, I was fascinated to read an account of the great-grandfather of one of my Mine ex-students in Mao: The Unknown Story; I had heard some of it from said ex-student, and it fits.

  3. Marcel Proust

    May 5, 2006 at 4:19 am

    Haloscan January 24 2006

    You say:

    “Even if only 50% of the new information in Chang and Halliday proves to be reliable, our picture of Mao Zedong can never be the same again.”

    That you need to qualify your encomium by this statement just begins to suggest what a bad book this is, even if it is leavened with grains of truth. A number of the headline facts you refer to have been disputed.

    Excepting Jasper Becker, I suspect that the last book on China read by many of the reviewers collected on the review bibliography you previously cited was “Wild Swans.” My understanding of the dissentient reviewers’ (and it is pretty amazing that the LRB review is only described as “mixed”) criticism is that many of Chang and Halliday’s good hard facts are already well known. We already have, eg, the memoirs of Mao’s doctor (I read in China an account by Mao’s bodyguard which was obviously contrived to counter this).

    I think Jung Chang’s big name excites my tall poppy syndrome a bit. I would say the book is more of a publishing phenomenon than a work of scholarship.

    Incidentally, Chang was, despite her renegade status, a bit of a CCP princess all the same. How else do you think she ever got out to Cambridge when she did?

    And what kind of literary star-fucker has to cite Michael Caine’s recollections of his experiences as a conscript in Korea as evidence for the misguidedness of Mao’s involvement in and conduct of that war?

    But I do agree with you that “A Single Tear” is a much better book than “Wild Swans”.

  4. Owner

    May 5, 2006 at 4:21 am

    Haloscan January 24 2006

    I stick by my conclusion that Mao: The Unknown Story is a much better account of the man and his times than the hagiography we inherited from the days of earnest Maoist fantasies parading themselves as truth.

  5. Marcel Proust

    May 5, 2006 at 4:23 am

    Haloscan January 25 2006

    But that hagiography had and has long since been superceded, even in China (though not so far as to supplant its effects on many Chinese).

  6. Owner

    May 5, 2006 at 4:25 am

    Haloscan January 25 2006

    Yes, history writing in China is better than it was, and there have been very good things in literature and film as well, especially on the “ten wasted years” of the Cultural Revolution. But it is still difficult in China to write honestly about Mao, even today. “Wild Swans” is still banned in China, and when Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of Eternal Peace was translated and published in China it was severely bowdlerised. And here is the fate there of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs.

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