Monday, November 14, 2011

Leaving China - More Thoughts on Mao

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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Visiting Mao Zedong

Note: Currently my family is on a month long trip to Beijing. We are blogging about our trip here. This post seemed inappropriate for a travel blog so I have posted it here.

Visiting Mao Zedong

Today I waited in line to see the body of Mao Zedong at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall at Tiananmen Square. When Mao died in 1976 (the year both Hsing-ay and I were born), the Chinese followed their Russian comrades and decided that all great communist leaders should be embalmed and put on display. So, Mao was embalmed and a memorial hall was constructed at the southern end of the square. Each day 10s of thousands queue up to pay their respects, or at least to briefly gaze upon Mao’s preserved body.

Although seeing Mao will not cost you a dime (or a Yuan), it will drain you and require a few hours. I arrived at the square around 8AM and already thousands were lined up. I naively thought I might get a jump on the line. So I queued up with the masses and spent roughly two hours slowly moving forward through the line. If you have ever visited China, you have likely experienced the peculiarities of how the Chinese line up. They rarely follow a calm order and typically push forward in a very aggressive fashion. So lines quickly become people massed upon people and any sense of personal space is non-existent. So for two hours I went chin to head, elbow-to-elbow, baby feet to back, toe to heel with all of the tourists who decided today was the day to see Mao. This was expectedly exhausting. Luckily I only had one cup of tea so far and was able to hold my own in the line. Once you get out of line, that’s the end of that.

The line winds its way around the outside of the hall and gradually arrives near the front door where they check your ID and send you through security. I had a terrible moment of panic early on when I realized I left behind my passport and only had a CO driver’s license. I could think of nothing worse than getting to the front of the line and being turned away. So I gambled that it would work out, and it did.

Near the front door, there are several vendors selling single stem white flowers. These are to pay your respects to the Chairman. 99.999% of visitors are Chinese that are there to pay their respects. This is a big deal for them and young and old, baby and extreme elderly all line up. We don’t really have an equivalent in America. For the religious, you might compare this to a pilgrimage. You want to see and touch the place where they say Jesus died. You want to make it to the Holy Land to touch the Wailing Wall. The Chinese want to see the person who personally saved all of China.

Once you get inside the building, you break into two lines. In the first room is a large marble statue of Mao reclining in a chair. It is an iconic image and this is where people deposit their flowers. If you have a flower, you can briefly step forward in front of the statue, then you bow several times and lay your flower upon a pile of thousands of flowers. Of course these flowers get removed everyday and I have to wonder if any of them get resold the following day.

Next you move into his room and two lines file around a glass chamber, which holds Mao. His body is covered except for his face, which is orange because of lights shining upon it. I believe the orange is to help cover up whatever unnatural color he has turned having been dead 35 years. Slowly you file past and everyone silently gazes upon his body. All in all, you are with Mao maybe 60 seconds. And then that’s it. You exit the building where you can buy souvenirs.

I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon my visit. I can’t do this without sharing some of my personal feelings about Mao. Since this will get a little bit political, I wish to say up front that I am just beginning to learn and process recent Chinese history and I do not claim to even remotely understand the totality of Mao’s life and his ultimate impact on China. In fact very few if any really have a full understanding of Mao’s life. Communist China is rarely forthcoming with details that reflect badly upon it and Mao is a particularly hard character to understand. His biographers vary in their assessments. The official Chinese stance is that Mao was 70% correct and 30% in error. Some say he was pure evil and knew everything he was doing and in an ultimate state of egomaniacal fervor he oversaw the needless deaths of tens of millions. Others say he was simply a bad leader and absentmindedly did not know much of what went on.

Here’s what I understand: Mao brought forth policies in the Great Leap Forward that led to The Great Famine. Somewhere between 15 and 45 million Chinese died in The Great Famine. Unspeakable crimes also accompanied this three-year famine (including cannibalism, unimaginable brutality, political persecution, etc). When criticized for his errors in the Great Leap Forward, Mao ushered in the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in a few million violent deaths and a reign of political terror that could rival any in human history. The Cultural Revolution has also been called China’s Lost Decade. By all accounts, it was awful. In the west we look at the holocaust as an example of evil run amuck in human behavior. The Cultural Revolution is just as shocking. In addition, Mao’s wife, the White-Boned Demon was personally responsible for much of the evil. Upon Mao’s death, she was imprisoned and has been considered a horrible villain ever since. Mao goes down as the great savior of China and his wife goes down as the embodiment of evil. That is hard to reconcile.

By many accounts, the three evil leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. By body count, Mao might easily win. When Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended and tremendous reforms began that changed China into the modern super power we know today. It seems that almost everything good that has happened in recent Chinese history began with Mao’s death.

Stalin and Hitler are not celebrated. In general, we don’t celebrate those who ushered in so much pain and death. Yet, I stood in line for two hours with thousands to pay reverence to this murderer. Mao’s portrait still decorates the very heart of Beijing. Portraits of Mao are everywhere and Chinese school children are taught that he is the savior of China. 70% correct and 30% incorrect…

I know that it is easy to make these simple observations as an outsider or westerner. So easy to look at a culture that is not my own and make big sweeping critiques. I mean to write my personal thoughts in humility, but I am sure they can come across as western arrogance. Yet, this culture is my own to a degree. 12 years ago I married into a Chinese family. This family fled China in 1984 because of all this horrific tragedy. They gave up everything in order to gain freedom and to offer a better life for my wife (who was 8 at the time). My in laws lived through the worst of these events. They were a family of musicians (educated academics) and they saw and felt the terror upon their teachers, their colleagues, and themselves. It was awful and the scars run deep even to this day. I still can’t begin to imagine what they went through but I see the residual damage in a very palpable way.

So I am angry with Mao. In fact I am furious. Even if he was a naive, bumbling leader, his arrogance allowed him to lead and under his leadership millions died needlessly. The souls were sucked out of many who lived. The beautiful image of humanity was squashed. And he is largely responsible. If he was a very capable leader and these things happened with malicious intent, then he may well be the greatest monster humanity has ever experienced. In his own words, in order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Make that millions and millions of eggs. What is the value of a single human life?

I find it stupefying that he is celebrated. I don’t blame the thousands that line up to see him, but I blame a crazy system that continues to prop him up as the savior of China. This is a system that does not allow an honest assessment of its own history. This is a system that does not allow dissenting opinions. He is a villain and he has caused my family and millions of other Chinese great harm.

Before I lined up, I knew every part of what would happen because I had read other accounts of visiting Mao. I knew that two hours of exhaustive waiting would lead to a strange 60 seconds of trying to process the experience of looking at a 35-year dead body. I also knew that many suspect the body has been replaced with a wax replica because the original is either too rotted, or they are worried of vandals. Yet, I wanted to experience this ritual in person. I wanted to stand with thousands and wait for this brief moment. As I seek to understand Chinese culture, I wanted to include this experience. I wanted to see the Chinese people journey on this pilgrimage. I wanted to experience the residual of decades of Mao worship. I probably will never do this again and I certainly don’t advise most western tourists to wait in line. However, I will go again some day if my daughter also wants to experience a visit to Mao’s body. Its important for us to understand this complicated period of Chinese history that has shaped my family.