Thursday, 30 September 2010

Losing the mandate of heaven


In my recent blog on Liberia I alluded in passing to Joseph Conrad, specifically having his novella Heart of Darkness in mind. Have you read it? If you have you will recall the final words of Kurtz in his moment of epiphany shortly before his death - The horror! The horror!

Let me take you to another heart of darkness; let me take you to China in the middle of the twentieth century, to the time of the so-called Great Leap Forward. I’ve been reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, a new study of that grim period in the country’s history. It’s a sober, scholarly, thoroughly researched piece of work, written in clam and measured prose. But you should see my copy, see my marginalia, see the things I’ve written as I went along. I’ve not quite written The horror! The horror! though I came close, alighting on passages like this;

If the thatch on the roofs had not been consumed by fire, it was taken down and eaten in desperation. Villagers also ate the plaster from the walls. (p.169)

The worst form of desecration was to chop up the body and use it as fertiliser. This happened to Deng Daming, beaten to death because his child had stolen a few broad beans. Party Secretary Dan Naming ordered his body to be simmered down into fertiliser for a field of pumpkin. (p. 297)

Human flesh, like everything else, was traded on the black market. (p. 321)

But as desperate survivors all of them would have witnessed many of the horrors being inflicted on living human beings, from body parts being chopped off to people being buried alive. Surely, in the midst of state-sponsored violence, necrophagy was neither the most common nor the most widespread way of degrading a human being. (p. 323)

And so it goes on, the story of the most devastating manmade famine in all of history, one that is now estimated to have taken the lives of at least 45 million people. I do have one small criticism of this book – the title is rather misleading. Yes, most people caught up in this madness died of hunger, but a great many died of disease or neglect or were worked to death, including pregnant women; others were beaten to death with clubs. Some two million in desperation took their own lives. And of course, going on the Marxist principle that those who do not work do not eat, the sick and the elderly were simply given no food at all.

The madness had a face: the face was Mao Zedong, one of the most abhorrent criminals in human history. It was his ‘vision’ that in a few years China could overtake the capitalist West and the Soviet Union in its rate of industrial development. It could all be done, he believed, by a single act of collective will, voluntarism, his particular contribution to Marxist thought. Opposition was dismissed as ‘rightist’, the work of ‘bad elements.’ The demand was for higher and higher targets in every field of economic activity; and since the whole system was driven by fear, higher and higher targets meant bigger and bigger lies; bigger and bigger lies meant more and more requisitions until people were left with a hundred per cent of nothing. Farmers were driven from the fields to work on irrigation projects, worthless in the main, so no seeds were planted and crops grown. And since in the communist scheme of things steel production was an important sign of ‘getting it up’, Mao called for backyard furnaces into which people were compelled to throw all of their metal implements, even their cooking utensils, to receive brittle and worthless chunks of pig iron at the end. No matter, there was nothing to eat, so who needs a wok?

Existence was collectivised: people were driven into mass farms and then into vast communes. There was no defence in law, no right to private property; even nappies were commandeered. But on it went, Mao urged forward by a sycophantic court. Sparrows, he decreed, were vermin, eating grain; sparrows were to be exterminated. They were, in their tens of thousands, with the result that the pests which made up the largest part of their diet multiplied out of control, with an even greater impact on the diminishing food supply. In the end, in one of the craziest trade deals in history, China was obliged to import sparrows from the Soviet Union.

I do not envy modern China its prosperity; how it has earned it by forms of suffering that most of us simply can’t conceive; the suffering of parents who sold their children or relatives who had to dig up their dead in a country with a deep reverence for departed spirits simply because they had nothing else to eat.

It used to be said that when an imperial dynasty was coming to an end in the great cycles of Chinese history that it had lost the mandate of heaven. For a good part of the twentieth century, from the Revolution of 1911 until at least the death of Mao in 1976, China itself might be said to have lost the mandate of heaven. Frank Dikötter shows just how deeply the country descended into one cycle of hell. Not long after it was over Mao took into another – the Cultural Revolution. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

44 comments:

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  4. I'm too tired now to challenge anyone on anything. And so to bed. :-)

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  5. The human life span is relatively short for good reason.

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  7. Adam, now I'm awake and alert, and, yes, I would challenge that! I think you might benefit from a reading of Red Plenty. The Brezhnev years were dead years, as the whole Soviet experiment descended into terminal senility.

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  8. Anthony, some, millions, were unecessarily short. Others ended before they had even begun.

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  13. Stalin was the first Red Tsar, as a certin gentleman pointed out in a particularly fine biography. :-)

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  16. His grave beside the Kremlin Wall has almost as many flowers as that of Stalin. I don't think I will ever fully understand Russia and the Russians. Churchill was absolutely right about the country.

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  20. But I've immersed myself deep in Dostoevsky!

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  23. He certainly is for me, along with Charles Dickens. But I so admire Russian literature in general, from Pushkin to Bulgakov, another great master.

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  25. Bronte, which Bronte? I'm guessing Charlotte. Emily's my girl, and Wuthering Heights would be my choice for the greatest English novel of the nineteenth century. Even Charlotte failed to recognise its true genius.

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  27. Adam, I think your assessment of Russia, and the worship of beauty (and acceptance of intense suffering to attain beauty) is spot on.

    And Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov are all great inspirations!. Tolstoy is a bit too rationalistic and reductionist in his understanding of humanity for my tastesthough.

    But of the post-WW2 Russian novels (alcoholism + the follies of atheist materialism + Brezhnivite stagnation), the one I can't recommend highly enough, for its literary genius and profundity of understanding, is this one.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Moscow-Stations-YEROFEEV-MULRINE/dp/0571192041/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_2

    As Amazon actually (for once) has a copy available at a reasonable price I would highly advise someone who might appreciate such a thing to snap up a copy! (I think it's vaguely telling that it took an Ulsterman to make a decent translation into English)

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  28. Can you really change what has happened no matter how much you disagree ? You can learn from past mistakes and inform others,Dictators do not live forever and situations change. .In taking action to dispose of them many will also die.Like a cancer early diagnosis and agressive treatment is the best solution.Preventing their rise to power early on is best.

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  29. Hello sweet Ana!
    I have been "off line" a little recently,but I wouldn't miss this one. Great writing as always! but hard for me to swallow.

    I will certainly read this book. I believe it is utmost important document for Chinese history under communist government.
    I agree with you, the title is misleading, but the reason of being misleading I think is different from yours: it gives an impression that it was Mao's responsibility alone for such a man made disaster. I just cannot take that anymore.

    I cannot agree more with what Charles Van Dorren's said in his brilliant work "History of knowledge", history events could not take place just by the idea of one side, it has to be an agreement of both sides (not original texts). This is so true for happening like "great leap forward". Mao alone, could not make this happen, no matter how monstrous he was. The ignorance of majority Chinese people played a huge role in this event (or maybe in any horrible historical events). I tend to believe that Mao might not even know many of those inhuman happenings in countryside (Of course, even he knew he may not care!).
    I believe Chinese people really need to do some cultural ideological self-cleaning, instead of blaming every bad things to Mao alone, or Communism alone, otherwise, history will repeat itself again.

    Even like a relatively recent event 6.4 at "Tian An Men Square", there are still so many Chinese people (I am talking about "intellects" because those none-educated Chinese don't count!) still on the government side! They believe government did right thing by killing those students, because they believe that a stable country (sorry, I believe they meant "empire") is more important than several hundreds lives of students!

    I read your earlier post about that courageous mother of a murdered student during 6.4 movement. I feel sad to say, there are not many people acted like her in China (for this reason, I love her even more and I could not imagine where she could be now). Had more Chinese people act like she did, Mao could not master his politics like that.

    My parents both have been through this period of time but I have never heard they talking anything like that horrible, neither I heard any from other elder people. But people were indeed feverous about Mao's idea, did so many awkward things. For those inhuman killing/torturing I believe were mostly limited within countrysides, where there were not much control of government. But of course, peasants are majority of population!

    You are right Ana, there is not much to envy about for modern China. It is pure materialism and it is based on sacrifice of individual freedom.

    btw, how nice to see your discussion ended with Emily Bronte! What a "great leap forward"! or "backward" chronologically!

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  30. Mao's brutal regime came up last night whilst my brother (who is reading Sociology at Middlesex University) and I were watching The Last Emperor of China. I said that it was my view that every totalitarian state such as that of Mao and others must resort to such inhumane brutality against those whose views do not coincide with their own.

    Thanks for suggesting this important study to me on Goodreads. Did you see the recent ground-breaking and timely Mao biography by Jung Chang? And if so it would be great to know your views on it. You've set me going 'like a fat gold watch.' There was a recent biography I saw at the Royal Festival Hall bookshop on China's last empress I must retrace. Thank You, once again dear Ana.

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  31. It's easy to understand Russians. They are gangsters, just like the Sicilians: brute force and ostentation.

    Re: Mao. Every dynasty since Qin (and perhaps before, though since he had all histories burned it's hard to discover) collapsed in a welter of chaos and mass murder. It is a pattern Han has repeated many times. I believe it to be an inevitable result of their worldview and its inherent contradiction with fundamental human nature. The tensions lead to strains that require ever more force to contain, but, eventually, those strains lead to fracture and disintegration.

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  32. Thanks, Adam. I was sure it was Charlotte because you wrote 'output'. Of the three sisters she was the only one who can be said to have had any kind of output!

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  35. Yun yi, I always value your contributions but on this particular subject more than any other. You are absolutely right: Mao cannot carry sole responsibility for this horror. There were many in the Party who supported this programme and others, while they recognised the truth of what was happening, were too scared to speak out. There were courageous exceptions, though, particularly Liu Shaoqi, who did much to bring the madness to an end. He was to suffer for his courage during the Cultural Revolution. I have a friend who lives in China who tells me that many of the people who lived through these times are reluctant to talk about them because of a deep sense of shame, understandable, I think.

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  36. Rehan, yes, I read that biography when it was first published, 2005, I think. It's an excellent piece of work.

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  37. Calvin, the Red Emperor was worse than any other. His horrors were not part of a process of disintegration.

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  38. Adam, so you did! Hell, I'm not going to start splitting hairs here. :-))

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  39. thanks for your kind words ana. it is my pleasure to come here read your writing and i cannot tell you how much i enjoyed.
    another brave person who was persecuted by mao was "peng dehuai", who wrote very long writing document about all those rediculous plans during the time. i guess the different between liu shaoqi and peng dehuai is liu had recognized that real mao, who was unscrupulous for his own power, and peng had not. for what i know, pend believed mao was just making mistake until the last second of his life.

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  40. another thing is, i believe the collective power is made for weak individuals: the weaker they are, the more power they expected from their group, and group leader. and dictators know this as well, that's why they deprive everything from individual, make them weaker and weaker, and at the same time they offered promises of collective super power... that's why people were so fervent about those movementa, that's why so many russians and chinese still worship stalin and mao, reminisce those time when they virtually had nothing but "passion" about "their" country.

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