I just finished watching the PBS series and I’m left with a churning anger inside, a resentment. Ultimately it’s propaganda. The narrator — a British historian named Michael Wood — clearly loves Chinese history from a British historian’s perspective. He waxes enthusiastic for what he understands to be ancient Chinese traditions (ancestor worship for example) without ever considering how some of those old traditions actually hurt people and led to suffering over the years.
He paints in wide swaths to reach the final conclusion that now that China is capitalist, everyone is happy again.
He makes no effort to understand China at the time Chairman Mao (and others, not even his followers) wandered the countryside doing things like teaching the peasants to read. This British historian speaks only about the rural Chinese as vast numbers of people and he calls their villages “remote” — the villages are not remote at all in a world that is traveled on foot; they are only remote if you want to take a plane… They were not remote to the people who lived in them in the early and mid twentieth century and that is one reason for the incredible success of some of China’s most interesting revolutions, including Mao’s revolution at the end of WW II.
I love China so much I cannot even express it. I came home in 1983 and wondered where in the hell I had been, what in the hell had I seen. I spent the next decade figuring that out. I had been in a world so different from anything in my experience that I owed it an open mind, as open as possible, anyway. I was lucky to have been there only a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the damage done to what I would now call “tourist attractions” (historical sites); I heard the stories of people who had survived the persecution. I read the fiction written in China throughout the 19th and 20th century. I did everything in my power to see how the streets with which I became familiar had come to be.
I saw legless men walking on their arms, their torso supported by a block of wood hung from the shoulders by suspenders. I was dumbfounded when a man tried to sell me his child. I spent Chinese New Year in a remote, rural fishing and farming village with no plumbing, no electricity but surrounded by friends. I spent an afternoon with two old men who owned an art store in the Fragrant Hills, their dream come true, the reward from their government for their having gone on the Long March. I woke up every morning to The East is Red. I lived there in the middle of the “one child policy” — which this historian calls “misguided” but which I know pertained only to urban Chinese and was designed to prevent further population explosion and another famine like that in the late 1950s. I don’t have words, as I’ve said before.
I would never ever in a million years attempt a conclusion about the progress or regress of Chinese society based on its political ideology or power structure. That this “historian” has done that upsets me a lot. Yes, it’s better to have than to have not. It’s far better to eat than it is to starve. It’s better to have an education for your kids than not, but what Chairman Mao accomplished (and I don’t like the man, I think he was unspeakably evil, and DJT reminds me of him) was real. The Maoist years ultimately served as a bridge for all Chinese — not just urban Chinese — into the modern world. In 1950, China’s rate of literacy was only 20% — an important point this historian did not mention.
Communism has many commonalities with traditional Chinese Confucianism. No, they are not the same, but the organization of an extended Chinese family is not so different from the organization of a work unit and most Chinese villages are FAMILY villages…
I don’t even think a Chinese can write the ultimate truth about China. I know I can’t. But when it comes to history I hate it when a historian negates complexity and reduces history to the events that interest him and the line that supports his biases.
All this being said, it is a captivating series and well worth watching.
Photo: Fish market in Guangzhou, 1983