Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Six Chapters from my Life Downunder by Yang Jiang

A very curious little book - written about 10 years after the author and her husband, the famous scholar/novelist Qian Zhongshu, spent a few years in the countryside "learning from the peasants" during the Cultural Revolution.

And I admit to being completely baffled by it -- perhaps a lot was lost in translation?

The problem is --- nothing happens in those six chapters.

No drama - no death - no character study -- nothing but the kind of stuff that happens to us when we're camping out in the woods. The author's big drama was getting lost in the dark of night -- and how many times has that happened to me?

No -- wait -- there was one death -- the suicide of the author's son-in-law -- but even that event painlessly and swiftly passes by -- as we might regard a flat tire on the highway.

Even her husband, in his preface to the book, wishes she had written more -- specifically one more chapter entitled "A Sense of Shame: Participating in Political Campaigns"

And yet Yang chose to stick to the small, daily routine of life in a labor camp -- which really wasn't all that tough on them -- since, as old people, they were given easy jobs and they still had their salary - or part of it -- with which to buy food.

Perhaps the idea of this book was "We're above all this nonsense" -- in which case, even its 100 pages were way too many.

Except that this book is written about the lives of two literary celebrities -- so I suppose that context must be kept in mind. Especially the husband -- who was both a popular novelist (I wrote about his book here ) -- and -- a celebrated scholar of Classical Chinese literature -- and I can't think of any living English writer who would fit that description.

And in the long run -- they're right.

Their cultural contributions will remain -- and the trauma, madness, and suffering of millions of people during that era will be forgotten.


Most memorable event: the author builds an outhouse - by digging a pit -- surrounding it with four vertical poles -- hanging reed mats between the poles to make the three walls - and finally hanging a reed door over the entrance.

First -- the door gets stolen -- so women who use the facility must go in pairs - one to stand where the door used to be. Then -- one by one -- the walls get stolen -- and finally -=- even the shit gets stolen (it's a valuable fertilizer)-- as does every plant that the team grows in the garden.

All of which -- is a reality check on the glowing reports that well-monitored foreign visitors used to give about the honesty and high-morale that accompanied the communist revolution.

As this book -- as well as Jung Chiang's book about Mao -- amply demonstrates: this was a system that forced people to contemplate nothing beyond their own survival -- or as Lenin wrote: "Freedom is the acceptance of the necessary"

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Mao - the Untold Story by Jung Chang

What can you say about a book like this ?

It's a personal diatribe against the man who tortured and murdered the author's father.

So it's not a history in the great traditions of either Thucidides or Sima Qian -- but that doesn't mean that's it's merely an entertaining rant -- its full of historical theories - and attached documentation -- including the personal reminiscence from hundreds of people who were involved at high levels in the Chinese and Russian regimes over the course of six decades -- assembled over ten years with the collaboration of the author's husband, a professional scholar of 20th C. Russian history.

And perhaps the life the great helmsman can best be understood as one of ruthless personal ambition to kill his way to the top -- of the party -and then international communism -- and eventually the world -- a modern version of the original Chin emperor -- the difference being -- that when the Chin emperor died -- the entire empire rose as one to throw off the domination of his regime -- while the Communist Party still rules China, and Mao is still celebrated as its founder.

Jung Chang is out to change that benign, mythical, celebrity status -- and show her subject as a self-centered , cold, calculating killer -- with no particular talents - except that of political infighting. A heartless parent, a treacherous comrade, a disastrous national leader -- for whom abandoning his own wives and children was as easy as destroying millions of lives through famine or even nuclear holocaust. (he tried his best to get the Bomb and an effective delivery system -- he just didn't live long enough)

I think she makes a good case -- but all this one-sided evidence does beg for an alternative interpretation.

The big problem here -- is that the Peoples Republic was a tightly closed society -- there was no freedom of information - so it's difficult to rely upon anything beyond personal anecdote. How many people died from famine/murder/suicide during Mao's reign ? 70 million ? 30 million ? 10 million ? In the extended family of my Chinese friend -- of the 50 or so members -- no one died -- except for an old grandmother who starved to death in the countryside. But maybe her family was exceptional -- as peasants who moved to Beijing and mostly became high officials. There's no question that the women of her generation -- and their daughters -- had far better lives than her two grandmothers -- but that might well have happened under a Nationalist regime as well.

Which doesn't get this regime off the hook -- but I do get the feeling that I've only been told half the story.

I'm just doubting that murder, terror, and mis-information completely accounts for Mao's success and the longevity of his regime -- or that bungling gullibility accounts for the failure of its opponent, Chang Kai-shek.

Here's a point-by-point contrast of the Jung Chang and the Wikipedia versions of the story:

Mao enlisted as a soldier in a local regiment in Hunan which fought on the side of the revolutionaries. Once the Qing Dynasty had been effectively toppled, Mao left the army and returned to school.(Wikipedia)

*He first enlisted in one of the Republican armies, but left within months as he did not like the drilling or chores, like carrying water for cooking, which he hired a water vendor to do for him (Jung Chang)

Mao turned down an opportunity to study in France because he firmly believed that China's problems could be studied and resolved only within China. Unlike his contemporaries, Mao concentrated on studying the peasant majority of China's population.

*Some of Mao's friends went to France, but Mao did not. The prospect of physical labor put him off. And another factor seems to have played a part - the requirement to learn French. Mao was no good at languages, and all his life spoke only his local dialect.

In early 1927, Mao returned to Hunan where, in an urgent meeting held by the Communist Party, he made a report based on his investigations of the peasant uprisings in the wake of the Northern Expedition. This is considered the initial and decisive step towards the successful application of Mao's revolutionary theories.

*In November 1925, while working for the Nationalists, Mao voiced an interest in the question of the Chinese peasantry for the first time ---Mao's new interest did not stem from any personal inspiration or inclination; it came on the heels of an urgent order from Moscow in October, instructing both the Nationalists and Communists to give the issue priority. The Nationalists heeded this call at once.

Mao was first introduced to communism while working at Peking University, and in 1921 he co-founded the Communist Party of China (or CPC).

*The eight or so founding members were all eminent Marxists, and Mao had not yet even said that he believed in Marxism. The Party was founded in August after Mao had left Shanghai

Around 1930, there had been more than ten regions, usually entitled "soviet areas," under control of the CPC. The prosperity of "soviet areas" startled and worried Chiang Kai-shek, chairman of the Kuomintang government, who waged five waves of besieging campaigns against the "central soviet area." More than one million Kuomintang soldiers were involved in these five campaigns, four out of which were defeated by the red army led by Mao.

*Regarding the four Nationalist defeats:

1 & 2 - "Yet it was not Mao's brutal (scorched earth) strategy that clinched the Reds' victory - what really tipped the scale was Russian assistance (military intelligence)
3 - "the Red base had been reduced to a mere dozen square kilometers, and Mao's men were on the verge of collapse - but Chang did not press on, Mao was saved by the most unlikely actor, Fascist Japan"
4 - "Giving Moscow no time to intervene, the leaders in Ningdu dismissed Mao from his army post" --"the main military figure on the Chinese Red side during this fourth campaign was Chou Enlai

Chiang Kai-shek, who had earlier assumed nominal control of China due in part to the Northern Expedition, was determined to eliminate the Communists.By October 1934, he had them surrounded, prompting them to engage in the "Long March," a retreat from Jiangxi in the southeast to Shaanxi in the northwest of China.

*There can be no doubt that Chiang let the CCP leadership and the main force of the Red Army escape... he wanted to preserve the main body of the Red Army so that it would pose enough of a threat to the warlords ... that they would allow Chiang's army in to drive the Reds out"

After the end of World War II, the U.S. continued to support Chiang Kai-shek, now openly against the Communist Red Army (led by Mao Zedong) in the civil war for control of China. The U.S. support was part of its view to contain and defeat world communism.

*"It was no secret that many U.S. officials were decidedly unenthusiastic about Chiang, and so Mao acted to exploit this ambivalence -- General George Marshall was to perform a monumental service to Mao. When Mao had his back against the wall in what could be called his Dunkirk in late Spring 1946, Marshall put heavy - and decisive -on Chiang to stop pursuing the Communists into northern Manchura, saying that U.S. would not help him if he pushed further, and threatening to stop ferrying Nationalist troops to Manchuria.... Chiang gave in a agreed to a 15 day ceasefire -- Mao thus gained a secure base in northern Manchuria -- with long land borders and railway links with Russia and its satellites... Marshall's diktat was probably the single most important decision affecting the outcome of the civil war"

Following the consolidation of power, Mao launched the First Five-Year Plan (1953-8). The plan aimed to end Chinese dependence upon agriculture in order to become a world power. With the USSR's assistance, new industrial plants were built and agricultural production eventually fell to a point where industry was beginning to produce enough capital that China no longer needed the USSR's support.

*"After Mao had accepted an end to the Korean War , in May 1953, Stalin's successors in the Kremlin agreed to sell China ninety-one industrial enterprises. With these assured, on top of the fifty projects agreed to by Stalin, Mao was able to launch his blueprint for industrialization on June 15. This focused exclusively on building up arms industries to make China a superpower. It's utterly military nature was concealed, and is little known in China today.... According to official statistics, spending during this period on the military , plus arms-related industries, took up 61 percent of the budget- though in reality, the percentage was higher. In contrast, spending on education, culture and health combined was a miserble 8.2 percent, and there was no private sector to fall back on what the state failed to provide"

In January 1958, Mao launched the second Five-Year Plan known as the Great Leap Forward, a plan intended as an alternative model for economic growth to the Soviet model focusing on heavy industry that was advocated by others in the party. Under this economic program, the relatively small agricultural collectives which had been formed to date were rapidly merged into far larger people's communes, and many of the peasants ordered to work on massive infrastructure projects and the small-scale production of iron and steel. All private food production was banned; livestock and farm implements were brought under collective ownership.

*"While the nation was told that, vaguely, that the goal of the Leap was for China to "overtake all capitalist countries in a fairly short time" --- Mao spelled out to small audiences and strictly confidentially just what he meant to do once the Leap was completed. On 28 June he told an elite army group "Now the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful. It can only be peaceful when we have taken over" ... and on August 19 , Mao told select provincial chiefs "In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee and make a uniform plan for the Earth" Mao dominated China. He intended to dominate the world"

Under the Great Leap Forward, Mao and other party leaders ordered the implementation of a variety of unproven and unscientific new agricultural techniques by the new communes. Combined with the diversion of labour to steel production and infrastructure projects and the reduced personal incentives under a commune system this led to an approximately 15% drop in grain production in 1959 followed by further 10% reduction in 1960 and no recovery in 1961.

*"For the Chinese population, the Great Leap was indeed an enormous jump - but in the amount of food extracted. This was calculated not on the basis of what the peasants could afford, but of what was needed for Mao's program.

In an effort to win favour with their superiors and avoid being purged, each layer in the party hierarchy exaggerated the amount of grain produced under them and based on the fabricated success, party cadres were ordered to requisition a disproportionately high amount of the true harvest for state use primarily in the cities and urban areas but also for export. The net result, which was compounded in some areas by drought and in others by floods, was that the rural peasants were not left enough to eat and many millions starved to death in what is thought to be the largest famine in human history.

*"Mao proceeded by simply asserting that there was going to be an enormous increase in the harvest, and got the provincial chiefs to proclaim that their area would produce an astronomical output ---- claims in this vein were not, as official Chinese history would have us believe, the result of spontaneous boasting by local cadres and peasants. The press was Mao's voice, not the public's"


Overall - I think Mao deserves credit for the strategies that were effective in seizing and holding power.

*the military strategy of incrementally taking the countryside and strangling the cities

*the land reform that assured the loyalty of those who had gained from it

*the endless cycle of purges that kept people focused on saving their own butts by betraying the people they knew.

So while it 's inconceivable that the revolution would have succeeded without the patronage of the Soviet Union -- it also needed a ruthless, inventive leadership like Mao's ---and isn't that why Stalin kept supporting him -- despite his continuous insubordination ?

But the ultimate question is whether all the death and destruction of this revolution achieved anything worthwhile (that would not have been achieved without them) Asked a similar question about the French Revolution, Chou Enlai said that it was too early to tell -- but if the burden of proof is on those who kill and destroy -- the answer would have to be no --regarding all these revolutions - until proven otherwise -- and if medical technology had allowed Mao (and Stalin) to keep on living -- I doubt whether the question would have to be (or even could be) asked.

That's the most frightening thing about the stories of these two despots: they both created an unbeatable system of tyranny-by-terror that was only defeated by their own, natural deaths --
and hopefully this kind of witness to that terror will keep idealists of the future from giving so much power to revolutionary leaders.

If there hadn't been smart, efficient, committed idealists like Chou Enlai to give him power-- Mao would have gotten nowhere.