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.

Circle Dance

I met Milan Kundera when one of the Great Loves of My Life (GLOML) left behind a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I thought it was amazing and, after that, tromped down the hill to downtown San Diego (then a rather dilapidated shabby place) to local used bookstores to get the rest of Kundera’s books. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I read about the Czech Spring, all the hopes and the crumbling of those hopes. Kundera’s books are semi-autobiographical and quite intimate in a way. Love and friendship combine with politics. This little bit from Wikipedia explains Kundera and the world revealed in his novels.

In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interferences. He and writer Jan Trefulka were expelled from the party for “anti-party activities.” Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967). After Kundera graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other reform communist writers such as Pavel Kohout, was partly involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with fellow Czech writer Václav Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that “nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet,” and “the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring.” Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He taught for a few years in the University of Rennes.[] He was stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979; he has been a French citizen since 1981.

Having (at that time) only very recently spent a year living under a fairly repressive regime in the Peoples Republic of China, I was still sorting out my own feelings about totalitarian Communism. That is not something every American has to do on the level of someone who has lived under it. I had been hired by it, paid by it, sheltered by it and, at the same time, had experienced through the recounting of friends’ experiences, the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. Most of those who had suffered were “different.” They spoke English as a result of working with the American Army in WW II (known in China as the “anti-Japanese War”). They might have been descended from landlords or intellectuals. They might just be taller and “whiter” than others, with athletic talent. They might have spoken up at some point against totalitarianism — as did the writer Lao She in his science fiction novel, Cat Country in which Communism is called “everybody shareskism.” It warned against following the lead of Stalin’s Russia… The list of “crimes” committed by people who suffered during the Cultural Revolution is pretty long…

The party spied on people (including me). My students spent several evenings a week in “Political Study” which was simply a way to make sure no one was ever alone. My students, who were being educated to become English teachers, had EXTRA political study every week to compensate for the evils they were subconsciously imbibing by studying this odious language. It was a crime to be different.

This passage in the book the GLOML left behind struck me as being true. Kundera is speaking of his own experience in the Prague Spring.

“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back.” Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

That passage stuck with me all these years. There might be safety in a circle (“circle the wagons”) and it might be a “sacred symbol” but it doesn’t go anywhere. Its possibilities are closed. It is finished.

Communism in “Forgotten” America

On a Facebook meme I read a cool thing that said, “If you have enough time, everything’s in walking distance.” I love(d) to walk so I suppose I’d walk across country with my big white dog and her cart pulling our camping supplies. Bear doesn’t have a cart and I don’t have camping supplies anymore, but I still think that would be fun. That’s why this is one of my favorite videos — I’ve hiked part of this, the beginning — but since I was alone, it was a back and forth thing and I didn’t get far but I was thorough…

What I really want to write about is communism. I live in a communist town, but If I told them that, they’d come visit me with torches and pitchforks or something. 😉  I have all the stuff I bought to help me rehab after the surgery I’m not doing and I wanted to find a place to take it where it might help people. I posted on my town’s community Facebook page and soon got the name of a woman. She (I do not know her) messaged me; she’s the pastor’s wife at the First Christian Church. They keep a closet of medical equipment for people who need it. Perfect. But that is communism. The movie theater in my town went out of business year before last. The community raised funds, bought the theater and keep it open. It’s run by volunteers; proceeds from sales go to getting NEW (really new) movies. The community felt it needed the theater as a place for kids to go on weekends, for families, for dates… Communism.

As I was driving through the valley with my step-daughter-in-law, we passed a huge truck filled to overflowing with potatoes. I pointed it out to her. She said, “I’ll never look at potatoes the same way.” The day before we’d been at the supermarket and I’d shown her a bag of potatoes that had been grown in Monte Vista. She was truly stunned by the writing on the bag, “Monte Vista, CO.” Heaven. As we drove around, I had pointed out the harvested fields and the old and dilapidated, no longer used, adobe potato barns, replaced by more sophisticated (really? are they?) systems. I told her about the Potato Festival and how wonderful and magic it was in its way. “We are so far away from where our food actually comes from,” she continued, looking at the truck, “and the work that goes into growing it. It’s sad that’s how it is.” I agree. I thought, “Honor the labor of the peasant.” A Maoist slogan. I hate Maoism, but that is the point, the good side of it. I don’t see the farmers around me as “peasants” but the labor is hard and their product does no less than keep people from starving.

My step-daughter-in-law asked if anyone ever left the Valley and I said yeah, of course, but people also come back. I told her about the people I’d met — many — who’d gone somewhere else looking for what they imagined would be a bigger life. Of course the ones I know are the ones who came back, but their reasons for returning are almost always, “It wasn’t that great. I missed the beauty of the valley and the people.” It’s more or less what drew me here — years and years of hard work in a world in which I did not matter, where much of my effort was “busy” work. The work done by people in a community like this is NOT “busy work.”

People here are intensely patriotic. I feel their deep sentiments are for a gubmint that (IMO) no longer exists or knows they are here. Poverty here is harsh. What the poor have for social welfare, though, is not so much government programs as it is the church, the family, the town, the neighbors — it is the community. The food bank is active and generous and open to people. Communism.

This is also the old-fashioned way of small-town life. It’s nothing “special” — it’s how people have lived in villages forever.

I remember how long it took me to learn in California that in that kind of population, the numbers, the ethnic and national diversity, high taxes to support government run programs are absolutely necessary. There is no way a community can voluntarily support a population of need such as exists there. The numbers are too great and the motivation is different. People really do need to be paid to help each other because the cost of living there is so high. For example, it’s not walk down the street and man the food bank for half a day. It’s drive at $4/gallon for forty minutes to help out at the foodbank half a day. And it isn’t just ONE foodbank; there need to be hundreds of foodbanks.

I wish there were a way to differentiate taxation based on the nature of communities — maybe there is but I don’t know it. The reason regions such as mine vote conservative — passionately and adamantly — is not because they love Fox News, it’s because increased taxation HURTS us. We raise our OWN funds if we need a community center; we contribute our OWN money, out of pocket, to support the local food bank meaning that taxation is DOUBLE for a community like this one. The government taxes us and then we tax ourselves. We know this — when a proposal comes along to build something for a community, those who grow food (live on more than 40 acres) are exempt from contributing. They can if they want, of course, but they aren’t required. Potatoes.

So tomorrow I will load my car with my brand-new walker, still in its box, my bath seat — still in its box, the grabber, the raised toilet seat — still wrapped, and a pair of crutches that just happen to be in my garage and take it all over to the First Christian Church. When I do decide to get knee surgery, I’ll know where to go to get help with medical equipment. I’ll go to my community.