Thoughts on Totalitarianism (and Chairman Mao)

“Our Party enjoys the greatest prestige, unshakable prestige, among the people. Our Party represents the highest interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the working people, and its relationship with the masses of the people is, as Chairman Mao says, like that between fish and Water.”

The Great Socialist Cultural Revolution

This little book came to me on Christmas Eve, 1982, slid under my door with a Christmas card and an assortment of Mao Buttons. It was not signed but I knew where it came from. It was a gift from Teacher Hu, a high school English teacher in the nearby village of Liede, a man from Hainan Island who was a good friend and former teacher of my best two Chinese friends. He was also the man to whom I had given my Bible. You can read that story here, and if you have enjoyed my stories of China, I think you would enjoy that post. I had invited him and his wife to our Christmas Eve party, but I did not expect him to come. What had happened between us was certainly not as secret as we imagined it had been.

Most Americans should be grateful that they have never lived under a totalitarian regime. I have, and while the iron fist of the Party never came down on me, I knew plenty of people who had suffered from it. Even during my year in China, there were students who were consistently being pulled out of class or denied privileges and sent to extra “political study.”

Every Thursday there was college-wide political study which meant Jim and I had the afternoon off. If anything came up during that meeting, we would learn about it one way or the other. There was the moment when a Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the US, and for a week our students and friends were forbidden to talk to us.

Mr. Hu had served with the US Army on Hainan Island during the war against the Japanese. He became an interpreter because of his linguistic abilities. He was one of the few people I met in China who spoke English with an American accent. His having contact with Americans led to him being imprisoned in a Tiger Pit for several years during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His wife was similarly imprisoned and, at some point during this nightmare, she killed herself.

Many people killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution, so many that people I met who were older than I by at least ten years frequently spoke of someone who had “gotten the suicide” the way you might get a cold.

Generally speaking, the Cultural Revolution was, “… a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976.” And it sounded great, but, in real life it was a trap for squelching any remaining dissent on the part of the Chinese people.

Mao was a true hero. During WW II his leadership did a great deal to defeat the Japanese, far more than did the leadership of President Chiang Kai Shek and the Republican army with whom the US had allied. Mao understood the people, was one of the people, and still embodied many of the “virtues” people expected in an dictator, oops, leader. For one thing, he could write poetry. IMO it’s not great, but it’s legit. “Snow” is his most famous poem.

North country scene: 
A hundred leagues locked in ice, 
A thousand leagues of whirling snow. 
Both sides of the Great Wall 
One single white immensity. 
The Yellow River’s swift current 
Is stilled from end to end. 
The mountains dance like silver snakes 
And the highlands* charge like wax-hued elephants, 
Vying with heaven in stature. 
On a fine day, the land, 
Clad in white, adorned in red, 
Grows more enchanting.

This land so rich in beauty 
Has made countless heroes bow in homage. 
But alas! Chin Shih-huang and Han Wu-ti 
Were lacking in literary grace, 
And Tang Tai-tsung and Sung Tai-tsu 
Had little poetry in their souls; 
And Genghis Khan, 
Proud Son of Heaven for a day, 
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched 
All are past and gone! 
For truly great men 
Look to this age alone. 

If the subject of Mao, Chiang Kai Shek and the US in WW II interests you, Barbara Tuchman wrote a great book about that moment in Chinese history in Stillwell and the American Experience in China.

After the war — both the Anti-Japanese war and the civil war against the Nationalist forces, with Chiang Kai Shek gone to Taiwan, Mao had to consolidate his power. To my knowledge, he didn’t have any problem doing this, but then, how would I know? He started up various movements. At first he followed the Soviet idea of Five-year Plans. The first was successful, so he came up with his own. There was the movement to eradicate sparrows (they eat grain, you know) which led to famine (imagine!). In 1957 he came up with the Thousand Flowers Movement with its beautiful slogan, “Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred thoughts contend.” Some historians now think it was a ploy to trap dissidents. I tend to agree.

In 1958 he began “The Great Leap Forward,” (website with a good description and amazing posters) described to me by Chinese colleagues as, “When we all made steel in our backyard.” This was also the moment in which villages were converted to communes, and in cities, factories and neighborhoods were divided into “work units” which facilitated spying on your neighbor and reporting back to the cadres via China’s ubiquitous gossip system. Mao’s last desperate attempt to retain total power was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976.

I’m not an expert on the Cultural Revolution, but what I do know is that it fostered ignorance, led to the persecution of intellectuals, anyone who’d traveled abroad — especially to America, anyone who spoke English, and, of course, anyone who criticized the government. It was a youth movement that seems to have harnessed the zeitgeist, “youth is truth,” that was happening all over the world. It was taught that the only knowledge anyone needed was in the Little Red Book — the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

It’s superficial objective was the elimination of the “Four Olds” — old ideas, old habits, old customs, old culture. Essentially, everything about China before that particular moment in Chinese history. In some ways it reminds me of the Protestant Reformation (and the Roman Catholic counter-reformation), down to the destruction of icons and the execution of dissenters.

Propaganda was disseminated in every possible way — big character posters, loudspeakers on trucks and the commercial media as well as in the classroom. When I first studied Chinese I learned to say to my students, “Ni hao tóngzhìmen” or “hello comrades.” Later I was told to say “tongxuemen” or students. I never said either. I spoke to my students in English. 😉

Many of China’s great writers and artists — patriotic Chinese — were imprisoned, forced to write confessions, hounded publicly, driven to suicide or killed outright. Among them was Lao She, a writer I happen to love. His love of China shines in every word he wrote (and I’ve read everything that’s been translated to English). One of his novels, Camel Xiangtse, was translated to English soon after it came out in the late 1930s. It became a bestseller. It’s known as Rickshaw Boy.

All translations published in China. “Teahouse” is a beautiful play that tells the story on an old-fashioned Chinese story-teller amid the rapid changes in Chinese society in the early/mid 20th century.

It’s true that Lao She criticized Communism in his satirical, science fiction novel, Cat Country (the word for cat in Chinese is “mao”) that gently points out the problems of “Everybody Shareskyism” and its intrinsic conflict with traditional Chinese Culture, and he never joined the Party, but, at the same time, he frequently expressed support for Mao and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

For a short time Lao She lived in America. His friend, Pearl S. Buck, brought him over for his own safety. He was never at home anywhere but Beijing, so he returned. Perhaps his having lived in America is part of the reason for his treatment during the height of the Cultural Revolution. A good article about what happened to Lao She is here in the South China Morning Post, “The Mystery of Lao She.”

For a while the Chinese were aware that things had gone awry with their revolution, but until Chairman Mao died, they couldn’t do anything about it. With such a heroic figure in power, who was going to do anything? Mao dies, the Gang of Four powerful party leaders, including Mao’s wife, were accused of crimes against the state (were they guilty? were they scapegoats? I don’t know) Deng Xiao Ping rose to power, Nixon came to call, and it was time for China to rebuild itself.

The most wonderful letter I have ever received. ❤

What I learned about totalitarianism in endless conversations with people during my year in China is that:

  • the people must support it;
  • it cannot co-exist with critical thought;
  • it requires a cult of personality, someone with the larger-than-life image of Chairman Mao;
  • the media must be controlled and free expression of ideas must be suppressed;
  • knowledge is the enemy of totalitarianism;
  • the language of totalitarianism relies on hyperbole and absolutes such as “the greatest” and “the only;”
  • repetition, repetition, repetition, slogans and proverbs serve the ends of totalitarianism;
  • totalitarianism is attractive to desperate people who are looking for a fast solution to their problems.

I also came to understand that communism is not totalitarianism; that is just the only model recent history has offered us.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chairman Mao on the Side of a Building in Haikou City on Hainan Island

Very little of Chairman Mao remained in “my” China. There was only one random Mao picture. It was on a remote and then very poor part of China, Hainan Island.

Hainan is now a developed luxurious place for tourists.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Totalitarianism (and Chairman Mao)

  1. This is probably the same period when they were using Han pottery, ground up, to pave their roads. They did eventually come to their senses, but they destroyed a huge amount of ancient porcelain and let the Forbidden City fall into further ruin. I used to belong to a group and the dues I paid were used to help try to keep that city from complete collapse. I think they eventually realized it was a tourist site. Saved by tourism.

    • China was saved by tourism. When they figured it out (I was there at the time) they started putting a priority on repairing things they’d destroyed. But I think they also repaired them for themselves. All the “olds” just went underground.

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