Daily Kos: ..The Idiot's Guide to China - May 4, 1919 - Oct 1, 1949, Mao, post Mao

May 4, 1919 - Oct 1, 1949
To explain the dates, May 4, 1919 is the beginning of the May Fourth (Wu Si) literary movement, and October 1, 1949 is the day of "liberation" (when the Communists took over).

The May 4th movement is characterized by a frustration with China's backwardness and lack of technology and its seeming helplessness as it is taken advantage of by foreigners. The economy was in the crapper and poverty was everywhere. Chinese writers were looking outward at the rest of the world and then looking inward at China's problems. The father of Chinese modern literature is Lu Xun, who wrote - among other things - Diary of a Madman (Kuangren Riji). Stories from the May 4th movement were never just about a private person and his or her emotions, they were always about how to better China or what China's current problems were. Many of these stories are very disturbing.

Just like the literary world was full of new ideas and hopes to improve China at this time, so was the rest of China. The Nationalists (a.k.a. the KMT, the current government of Taiwan) and the Communists had their start around this time. There were also other movements going on, but those were the major two. At first the KMT seemed to get a lot of power, and quite a few Communists were persecuted by them. The Communists went on a massive retreat called the Long March in 1933 and settled in a small town called Yan'an. It's a good bet that the leaders you still see in China today were on the Long March or were in Yan'an. The KMT was concentrated in the cities, and this became significant because the Communists built up support in the countryside and this strategy is ultimately what contributed to their win in 1949.

Also during this time, the Japanese attacked and the Chinese were pulled into WWII. The Japanese owned Taiwan at this point, and they also had holdings in Manchuria (China's Northeast). During WWII, the Rape of Nanjing took place. There was disagreement between the Communists and the KMT about who they should fight first - each other, or the Japanese. Ultimately, the Japanese were defeated with the atom bomb, but Mao's troops fought like dogs with very little technology to aid them, and he saw Japan's defeat as a victory of people power under his populist model. Once he took power, this became a kind of theme with him - working hard with your hands is good for people yada yada yada.

If you are interested in learning a little more about this period, I suggest reading some May 4 literature by authors such as Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or Yu Dafu (email me if you have interest and I can recommend many short stories) or watching the movie Yellow Earth

If you've read all of that, it all comes together with Mao Zedong. At the height of Mao's power, he was worshipped as a god, much like Confucius (this is ironic because in the cultural revolution, he tried to rid China of its cultural past - just goes to show how hard it is to shake 2000 years of history). He also saw himself as analogous to the emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. I can agree with that one. Powerful, shrewd, cruel, and Machiavellian. The shoe fits.

Interestingly enough, I see some parallels between Bush and Mao. The Machiavellianism, the anti-intellectualism, the increase in federal power over the rights of the individual, the disregarding science on ideological bases, and the screwing of the population.

From 1949 to Mao's death in 1976, it is safe to say that every time something royally crappy happened in Chinese history, that representated a rise in the power of Mao. If you were in the room of Communist leadership, there were a number of heavy hitters at the table, including names you know like Deng Xiaoping. At times, the pendulum of power swung towards Mao, and at times it swung away. For about the last 10 years of his life (1966-1976), Mao was extremely powerful (and thus, life in China was sucking hard).

Mao's populism can be summed up that all people will be equal... equally poor. The population was rising at about the same rate as the economy grew, so people stayed at a substistance level and never rose above it. Mao made sure most of the resources went into creating things like factory equipment and atom bombs and other things that are not going to feed your people or improve their standard of living.

From 1949-1976, there were a number of big political campaigns (which were all very bad). They include:

* 1956 - Hundred Flowers The government told the people to "let a hundred flowers bloom" - meaning, go ahead, give the Communist government some constructive criticism. Intellectuals took this at face value and many of them did give criticism. Mao took it about as well as Shrubya would, and the government REALLY cracked down on the intellectuals.

* 1959-1962 - The Great Leap Foward The government set up enormous communes in an attempt to give China's economy a "great leap forward." This was a HUGE disaster. In addition to any bad policy or organization, two factors just compounded the widespread famines that occurred. First, droughts and other environmental factors. Second, the Chinese need to "save face." Chinese officials witnessing the famines were reluctant to report what they saw as it would represent a failure and a loss of face. Face is a MAJOR thing in Chinese culture (we'll talk about it later) and although it sounds crazy that the entire country of China could starve for a year or two before the central government was actually informed of it, the need to save face was powerful enough to actually make that happen.

* 1966-1976 - The Cultural Revolution The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to erase all past culture of China. I am sure you've heard of the Red Guards and book burning or desecration of religious places, etc. Students would criticize or even beat teachers. Children would inform on their parents. Your background was very important. A good family background was one of farmers or factory workers. A bad family background was one of landlords or intellectuals. Mao thought intellectuals needed to learn how to work with their hands. Schools closed for many years during this decade.

If you want to watch some movies about this period, watch To Live or Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.


After Mao, things got better - if slowly. There is a Chinese propensity to find a fall guy and blame something big on them. A group called the Gang of Four, including Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, were arrested and blamed for the Cultural Revolution. Remember, they had just gone through ten years of neighbor informing on neighbor and students criticizing teachers, etc, and it wasn't always so easy to just drop it and start fresh. It would've been like blaming all of Abu Ghraib on Rumsfeld and being done with it, without so much as bothering to try Lynndie England or anyone in between.

Deng Xiaoping ascended to power and he radically shifted the policy by saying basically "We are still all going to get rich - just some of us will get rich first" (as opposed to Mao's ideal of complete and total equality, with the goal of making the country rich all together at the same time but no visible evidence of that ever happening). He also basically said "We are going to try a bunch of things and see if they work. If they work, we'll call them Communism. If they don't work, we'll call them Capitalism." Anything I put in quotes is probably way off of any real quotations... they're just my memories from class.

In 1979, Deng put in place a set of policy known in Chinese as "Gai Ge Kai Fang" (awkwardly translated as "Reform and Opening Up"). It was basically the single most important economic change that lead to China's prosperity today. China still refers to itself as a developing country, but the changes between 1979 and now are drastic, and most can be traced to Gai Ge Kai Fang.

I read a fantastic book called China: Alive in the Bitter Sea by Fox Butterfield. Butterfied, an American journalist, went to China when it first opened up in 1979 and stayed until 1981. The book is a collection of his experiences, observations, and the stories of people he met. It is a snapshot in time. At that time, top Communist cadres had access to things like English dictionaries, bicycles, and color TV, but the mainstream public did not. Most people had to wait in lines to get food all day. One line for the chicken, one line for the pork, one for the vegetables, etc. There were also waiting lists to get bicycles. Color TVs were trickier - often you had to know a westerner who could go purchase one for you at the Friendship store. It was risky being seen with foreigners, and Chinese were not supposed to give foreigners such "classified information" as even a phone book. When you called someone on the phone, often the first thing they asked was "Where are you?" The meant, what is your danwei? Danwei roughly translates to unit. Each person was in a danwei which decided their job, home, healthcare, school, and many other things. It was not easy to change your danwei.

A second book I read that was very good was called Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China by Paul Theroux. Excellent book. This one is similar to the Butterfield book, except it takes place in about 1984, and Theroux draws a LOT of comparisons between China and the book 1984.

Another thing to note is literature. China and its writers were traumatized by the Cultural Revolution. 1949-1976 is basically a black hole as far as Chinese lit is concerned. After 1976, there was a period known as Scar Literature - literature written while China's authors were getting over the shock of the last ten years. Then there is Root Seeking Literature - because if China erased its centuries of culture, then what is left? After these periods, Chinese authors really came into their own. Modern Chinese avant-garde literature is much more sophisticated than any previous literary movement. I have an anthology of short stories I like (if only for the cover) called Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused...

I was in China over the summer of 2000, and I read Fox Butterfield's book while I was there. There was an amazing contrast between his description of the same city only 20 years before and what I observed in present day. For example, he spoke about how books like English dictionaries were hard to come by if you weren't an important cadre. In 2000, there was a brand new huge bookstore a few blocks from my dorm that sold anything you might want, including English books with English on one side of the page and Chinese on the other so you can practice reading English if you are learning. Butterfield describes long lines and shortages. I was a short walk from a hypermarket that sold EVERYTHING - no shortages there. Way back when, foreigners had to use a special foreign currency. Not now. We foreigners use the same currency - Renminbi (the people's currency) - as everyone else.

Chinese communism is different from pure Marxism or Soviet communism. Today they seem to define it in whatever way they think will benefit them. I know that once you get into business and legal affairs, there's a lot to contend with, but if you go there, you will see individuals selling fruit, vegetables, shoe repairs, steamed buns, fans, designer knockoffs, and even pet rabbits on the street. You will see McDonalds (Maidanglao) and KFC (Kendeji) EVERYWHERE. They also have Starbucks, A&W, Hagen Daas, and more. These Western restaurants are expensive to the Chinese, and McDonalds and KFC especially are seen as a treat. I don't mean to say that I am a fan of Chinese communism, I'm just saying you can't paint it with the same brush as any other communism you've learned about, and China now is different from the China even 15 or 20 years ago.

The most important concept to grasp about the Chinese is the concept of face. The Chinese word for it is mianzi. They have expressions like diu mianzi (lose face), gei mianzi (give face), and meiyou mianzi (have no face). Generally speaking, face is respect. You need to be able to have respect for yourself among those around you. You may lose face by being caught in a lie, being forced to back down in an argument, or being otherwise embarrassed in public.

You can give someone face too. Nixon gave the Chinese face by visiting them. Anything you do to recognize someone's importance or show them respect by dedicating time, money, or valuable resources to them will give them face. When my father went to China on business, he printed that he had a PhD on his business cards. By sending a PhD to China (and not just any old schmuck), his company gave their business associates over there face. It used to be common that if you went to China on business, the most important person possible from the Chinese company or group you were visiting met you at the airport. This is less common now, but imagine the statement it makes. It says "You are so important that our company's {whoever} took time out of his or her busy day to meet you at the airport."

Bush is giving the Chinese face by visiting. It would also give some face if he bothered to learn ANYTHING about China at all before he went... but I wouldn't count on him to do that. It would make China lose face if Bush said something to embarrass them while they were getting covered by the international press during his visit. One last word on face and then we'll move on. If you make a Chinese lose face - YOU WILL NOT WIN. The Chinese will get you back, no exceptions. Maybe Bush says something embarrassing about Tibet or Taiwan in front of the international media. Some time later, he goes to China about a trade agreement... and the Chinese say "the trade agreement is inconvenient." Or they say "we will put it under consideration" and never get back to him. When our plane crashed in Hainan, Bush made China lose face because the press started reporting on it. The result? The Chinese didn't want to give the plane back. It was all about face.

Daily Kos: UPDATED: For Bush: The Idiot's Guide to China


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