In 1984 my wife left Beijing. Only eight years after Mao’s death, it was still a difficult time to leave China. Without going into the details of her departure, I can tell you it was very hard. It involved her father being separated from Hsing-ay and her mother for two painful years. It also meant that they sold everything and left behind an entire life to begin with nothing in a country with a completely different language. This is a radical, all encompassing change. They didn’t know if they could ever go back to China. They didn’t know how they would make a living in America (her parents both left very prestigious positions in Beijing). They didn’t know when they would ever see beloved relatives again. They didn’t have any idea what American society was like or what their lives would look like. They just left.
I always knew the story of Hsing-ay’s family leaving China. I also knew they had lived through some bad times and left for political and religious freedom. Perhaps a simpler way to say it is that they left for a chance to make a better life. They also left so that they would not live through another awful time in China.
Sometime after the birth of our daughter I had the idea that we should live in Beijing for a month during my sabbatical year. It seemed like a great way to introduce our daughter to her mother’s country and to support/encourage her Chinese study. It also seemed like it would be a great family experience and the exact kind of thing that a sabbatical should be about. So the planning began and in the last year I decided this was a good time for me to actually learn about China. I wanted to read about Chinese history and understand just where my wife and her parents have come from.
Without realizing it, I began a journey that may well span many years or even a lifetime. I’ve read history books, memoirs from the Cultural Revolution, Chinese poetry, Chinese historical fiction, Chinese cookbooks, memoirs about westerners living in China, and memoirs about Chinese food. I’ve learned about a culture with one of the greatest cuisines, fine poets, beautiful art and calligraphy, stunning architecture, great inventions and discoveries, and rich story telling. I’ve also learned about a dark history filled with death, murder, wars, occupations, feudal battles, natural disasters, futile building projects, evil rulers, extensive poverty, great injustice, corruption, and horrible human rights violations. Take a peak into Chinese history/culture and you discover a world of rich and dark complexity. Go one level deeper and China seems virtually incomprehensible.
The last 100 years of Chinese history are filled with multiple radical changes. It began as China ended empirical rule, which had dominated China for centuries. This change was the first attempt to reclaim China’s former glory – to again restore its dignity. As that first attempt failed, tumult ensued until Chiang Kai-shek was able to reunify China in the 1920s. Corruption and abuses of power were again prevalent with the Kuomintang rule. But that was mild compared to the violent and dark Japanese occupation. When the Japanese finally left, the country moved through a four-year bloody civil war, which resulted in victory by the communist party. Mao Zedong had successfully reunified the country behind the vision of Marxist socialism in China. He earned the title The Great Helmsman.
Mao sold the country the idea of no more corruption, no more “ruling class”, no more excess and abuse of power. The communist party would rule in the interest of all of China and they would pave a new future that would reshape the world. But the results were tragic. Mao’s policies were either stupidly naive or pure evil. His policies in the Great Leap Forward were asinine and lead to The Great Famine. This lead to criticism, so Mao instigated the Cultural Revolution as a way to maintain political power. Mao and his wife terrorized the country for one of China’s darkest times. During all of this time, Mao had China shut itself off from the outside world. Information was tightly controlled and the worst things were taught about the decadent west. Meanwhile the quality of life in China sank and even simple pleasures like green grass, teahouses, and colorful dresses were squashed in the name of Revolution. Its hard not to look at this time and wonder what good did communism accomplish in China? All of China suffered and the wounds they inflicted on each other rival the worst parts of the holocaust. China nearly killed all of its former culture, they enjoyed no prosperity, and there was no joy in life. China had struggle, hardship, terror, suspicion, hunger, murder, and death.
In 1976 Mao dies and his wife, the white-boned demon, is imprisoned. The Cultural Revolution ends. Deng Xiaoping comes into power and reform begins. Slowly China starts to heal. Education resumes, the economy awakens, personal property and capitalism return. Ideals from the west take hold and China recovers. But a whole generation is shattered and lost. The stories of destroyed lives are rampant and terrible.
During our visit to Beijing we stop in to see the newly renovated National Museum of China. One large room hosts huge paintings celebrating the early history of the Peoples Republic of China. These are paintings of victory and joy even as people fought to unify the country under communism. I take in the exhibit as an outsider trying to absorb the history. I notice that my wife is becoming visibly upset, even enraged. So I pry and she mentions that the people are happy in all of the paintings. Even as they fight bloody battles in mountain passes, the people are happy. Then she breaks down and tells me it was all lies, all lies. All of the fighting and sacrifice was for the promise of a better life, a new China. But that new life was awful, wretchedly horrible. She finds the hypocrisy of these paintings overwhelming and intolerable. We leave the exhibit sad and angry. We had witnessed yet another twisted view of history that presents communism in China as one of the greatest human accomplishments. And Mao is at the center of it all, with a cultish worship only reserved for deity. Yet Mao was responsible for the worst of it all. His leadership, ego, paranoia, spite, and hypocrisy are at the center of it all.
China in year 2011 is a remarkable place. It is a vast and powerful country that will someday have the world’s largest economy. Chinese is probably the most valuable language to learn for a westerner and China will increasingly find itself at the center of the world. The economy is booming, life has not been so prosperous in decades, tourists flock there, and even Chinese culture is back in full force. I love visiting China and enjoy the country immensely. You could look at China today and not detect a clue that they lived through decades of awful times under Mao. But these changes happened because Mao’s policies were gradually reversed and more and more western ideas were put in place. China today is an explosion of capitalism, greed, and excess. I spoke to many Chinese who think modern China has returned to the corruption and indulgences of the Kuomintang rule, or even empirical rule. It is almost as if China bypassed the Mao years and is back to business as usual. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is vast and China has many problems to overcome. It’s hard to find genuine expression of Social Marxism in modern China. So how did Mao change the world? How is modern China not one big hypocritical conundrum?
For the last year I have wanted to understand this Mao worship. In the west we don’t hold Hitler up as a “great leader”. He was an evil madman who was a very capable leader. His status as a great leader is removed because he directed his rule towards such terrible and awful ends. He is simply not “great”, not someone to be revered in anyway. Recently I talked with an American friend who taught English in Beijing for a couple of years in the 90s. He doesn’t view Mao as so bad since he was necessary for China to recover from its incapacitated state in the early 1900s. I can’t buy that argument. That is like saying “the holocaust was necessary for modern Israel to exist, so ultimately it wasn’t so bad.” I think that millions of needless deaths are always awful and the ends do not justify the means. The large majority of Mao’s life is dominated by his horrendous acts and the blood of millions of lives is on his hands. It is also impossible to know what modern China would be like if the Kuomintang had won. Hong Kong and Taiwan have enjoyed prosperous lives for the last 60 years. Would all of China have enjoyed those freedoms and prosperity? The issue is far too complex to ever know.
Keith, my American friend who has lived in Beijing for the last 8 years, gave me a new perspective. He said that China has been ruled by dynasties for many centuries. A significant and often ruthless leader ushers in and defines a new dynasty. They often destroy many things from the previous dynasty in the process. That dynasty has its successions and when it ultimately weakens enough, a new dynasty enters. He says that Mao and communism is simply the latest dynasty. A wealthy and all-powerful ruling class (with a central figurehead) continues to rule the powerless masses. Corruption and abuses continue to reign. Mao started this new dynasty and he is the face of this new dynasty. If his portrait was ever removed or his leadership discredited, then the communist dynasty would lose all credibility and crumble. So Mao must remain the unmarred founder of the party (even while his last wife and partner in crime is the undisputed villain of China). Lies must be told about Mao and communist history so that the party will remain intact and chaos will not ensue (or the ruling class won’t lose their power and excesses).
I had a few chances to talk openly with young Chinese during our trip. One agreed with many of my views. Another views almost every aspect of modern China negatively and says every part of the government is filled with corruption, greed, and hypocrisy. Most said that Mao was a great leader who reunified China and resurrected China from its near fatal status. Sure the Cultural Revolution was bad, but it’s not so bad in the grander scheme of things. They also say that Mao changed the world. It’s a Chinese trait to look forward and not backwards. Why analyze the past when the future is what’s important and the future looks so bright?
My interest in China’s past comes from a desire to know the story of my wife’s family. Half of my daughter’s story is wrapped up in the dark part of early Chinese communism, which lead a family to give up everything in the hope of something better.
Once during our trip someone bluntly asked my wife why she left China. This person was hurt that Hsing-ay’s family abandoned China. There was also a subtle resentment that Hsing-ay had enjoyed a better life in America while he suffered in China. The ranges of emotions were too complex to ration with, but I naively tried to offer an explanation. I told him that Hsing-ay’s parents had been wounded by all of the bad things they had lived through. They had emotional wounds that were so deep and bled so much that they simply had to leave. When they found a way to leave, they couldn’t bear to stay any longer. Although we’ve never openly talked about it, I suspect that they looked at their young child and wanted her to never experience what they had experienced. They would risk everything for a gamble that Hsing-ay’s life would not know the same pain. And their gamble was good. This is now my daughter’s story though she doesn’t know any of it yet. Hsing-ay’s parents left China, I met Hsing-ay 17 years ago, and Kaela was born in Colorado five years ago.
As Kaela grows up, we want her to love China for all the great things it has to offer. We want her to speak Chinese, to learn to write some Chinese, to enjoy the food, to learn the folk stories, to visit often, and to take pride that one of the world’s truly great civilizations is her heritage. We also want her to know her family’s story. Why they left China and what it meant to leave China.
Note: I openly admit that I am just beginning to learn about Chinese history and may be very naïve in many of my thoughts. My understanding of these issues will surely evolve and change as I continue to learn. I have written this essay at the end of a month long trip to Beijing as a way to process my current thoughts. I am also aware that my essay is very critical of China. I do not believe that America or the west has all the answers or that we are above many of the same problems that plague modern China. We have our own complicated past and substantial problems to overcome.