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Divine Killer

Divine Killer

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’
“Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.”
—From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by Quan Yanchi1

1.

These observations should not be taken on trust. The author, a loyal hack of the official Chinese Writers’ Association in Beijing, based his text on interviews with Mao’s former bodyguard, a man named Li Yinqiao. Li knew Mao intimately, it is true. One of his public duties was to unbutton the Chairman’s trousers whenever he sat down, since “Mao was big-bellied” and he didn’t like his pants to “become too tight for comfort.” But unlike Mao’s ex-doctor, Li Zhisui, who wrote his famous account of life with Mao in the freer air of Chicago,2 Li Yinqiao never left China, where the truth about Mao still cannot be told.

And yet these statements about Mao are not wholly implausible. For squeamishness and sentimentality are often to be found in the truly inhumane. Heinrich Himmler couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and neither, for that matter, could Hitler.3 Mass murderers on a monumental scale are not, on the whole, drawn to doing the dirty work themselves. On his one field trip to Auschwitz, Himmler found it all too unsettling and resolved never to go near the place again. Men of this kind usually do not kill out of sadistic passion; a sadist after all has a perverse but intimate bond with his victim. People who kill one person often act out of passion—anger, jealousy, or love that has turned into loathing. People who make a habit of killing others for pleasure are usually mad. But those who are responsible for the death of millions appear not to be feeling anything much at all—hence, perhaps, the cheap tears, the watery evidence of displaced emotion.

Squeamishness when it comes to the sticky stuff is not the only thing some murderous tyrants have had in common. Hitler and Mao both suffered from “neurasthenia,” an affliction that is no longer fashionable but was apparently so prevalent in Mao’s entourage that his doctor called it the “Communist disease.” The main symptoms are insomnia, headaches, dizzy spells, and impotence. Mao’s potency, so his doctor informed us, was much affected by his political fortunes. Things went well when Mao felt on top of things, but any threat, real or imagined, to his absolute grip on power and the Chairman wilted, no matter how many girls shared his bed. Such psychosomatic problems are perhaps the price people pay for living in a state of permanent anxiety of being knifed in the back, either by courtiers or, in the case of the courtiers, by the tyrant himself. It is possible that Mao’s chronic constipation and Himmler’s stomach cramps came from the same source.

But these are all just symptoms of something. More interesting is the question of what drives certain people, sometimes, it seems, quite unremarkable people, to become the killers of millions. Is it just a peculiar set of circumstances? Is it an axiomatic matter of absolute power always leading to moral anesthesia? Or were such people as Mao, Himmler, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin not in fact mediocre at all, but evil geniuses who grabbed the chance to do their worst?

* * *

I read these two new biographies of Mao, one short, one hefty, with this question in mind. Both authors have a thesis of sorts. Jonathan Spence’s is draped in a metaphor. Mao, in his view, was a “Lord of Misrule,” a kind of fiesta prince of the night who turned the world upside down. Spence takes the example of great European households in the Middle Ages, where a Lord of Misrule would be chosen on festival days to reverse or parody the normal state of things: servants acted as lords, men as women, and so on. It is a common carnivalesque phenomenon, a ritual occasion for everyone to shed conventional roles and let off steam, always to revert to the normality of existing hierarchies. But Mao, in Spence’s view, did it for real, and not just on festive occasions. He wanted to reverse the order forever, exterminate all lords and masters, put the servants in charge, install himself as the people’s permanent Lord of Misrule, and create chaos whenever things got too settled.

It is an interesting metaphor, but it does not quite explain why Mao, from an early stage in his career, was so keen on extermination. Philip Short, whose book is in every sense weightier than Spence’s, draws moral distinctions between Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Indeed, he believes Mao is “in a different category from other twentieth-century tyrants.” Hitler exterminated people, mainly the Jews, because he thought they were vermin. Stalin personally signed the death warrants of thousands because they might have threatened him in some way. But Mao, says Short, had a vision, a utopian dream of the total transformation of China, and if many eggs were cracked in the process of cooking that particular omelet, this should count, in the Supreme Court of History, as manslaughter rather than murder. For, as Short puts it, “Even as his policies caused the deaths of millions, Mao never entirely lost his belief in the efficacy of thought reform and the possibility of redemption.”

Mao was not a racist killer. Yet the moral distinction does not appear as clear to me as it does to Philip Short. For Hitler had a vision too. His murders were also means to an end. Is it Short’s contention that some means are “in a different category” (manslaughter, not murder) because their ends are less repulsive? And were Mao’s utopian ends really so different from Stalin’s? Is he suggesting perhaps that Mao actually regretted the necessary killings, or, as Short puts it, “the human detritus, of his epic struggle to transform China”? If that is the case, we ought to find some evidence for it in Short’s fascinating account of Mao’s life.

* * *

Mao was born in 1893, the son of a relatively well off farmer in the southern province of Hunan. At the age of thirteen, he was already better educated than his father, who had only two years of schooling. In 1910, while he was still at school, Mao got his first taste of political violence. The sequence of events was typical of many modern Chinese rebellions. A flood in the Yangtse River caused a famine in Hunan; people were forced to sell their children, eat bark off trees, even the flesh of fellow human beings. Foreign traders and local gentry refused to stop exporting rice to other, less famished regions. In desperation people attacked the foreigners, always the first to be blamed for Chinese misfortunes, and then the local Chinese authorities. Buildings were wrecked, people killed, gunboats sent down the river, government troops restored order, and two poor wretches who had taken part in the riots were paraded through town in wicker baskets, after which their heads were lopped off and spiked on a couple of lampposts.

Mao said he never forgot it. “I felt that there with the rebels were ordinary people like my own family,” he later said, “and I deeply resented the injustice of the treatment given to them.”

This incident, recorded in both biographies, portrays Mao in the most sympathetic light. It shows that he had a social conscience—even though this sounds odd in a man who would one day be responsible for the starvation of as many as 30 million people. The story also sketches the atmosphere of violence he grew up in. If one wished to make an argument that Mao, unlike Hitler, began as a rebel with a just cause, this would be the way to do it. And it would fit the myth, commonly held in China and elsewhere, that Mao was a heroic figure until the late 1950s, when the old man, increasingly out of touch with reality, became a paranoid and brutal despot.

However, there were early signs in the young Mao of a more sinister cast of mind. Already as a schoolboy Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history. He had a special fondness for romantic tales of noble banditry, but also for stories about the ancient emperors. It has often been remarked that Mao particularly admired the emperor of the Qin dynasty who unified China in the third century BC. The Qin emperor, so far as we can know, was a ruthless tyrant who demanded absolute obedience, and is still commonly regarded by Chinese as a demonic figure. All that mattered to him was submission to his laws, and to make sure they were not softened by Confucian morality, or questioned by educated men, Confucian books were burned and Confucian scholars buried alive.

* * *

The most hated man of this much-hated dynasty lived a century earlier, before the Qin emperor created his empire. His name was Lord Shang, a minister of the legalist school who, according to Sima Qian, the great Han dynasty historian, castrated for his honesty, was “endowed by heaven with a cruel and unscrupulous nature.” Mao, aged eighteen, wrote a school essay praising this Lord Shang, whose laws, he argued, were much needed to whip into line a stupid, backward, and slavish people. Indeed, he said, updating his thesis, the Chinese, in the course of their long history, had accumulated “many undesirable customs, their mentality is too antiquated and their morality is extremely bad…. [These] cannot be removed and purged without enormous force.”

Such sentiments have been shared by many intellectuals from poor and humiliated countries, usually after encountering the wealth and power of richer nations. Pol Pot returned from his studies in Paris in this kind of mood. Mao did not even have to leave his native Hunan. Contempt for his own immoral, backward people went together, as it usually does, with a desire for iron leadership. Mao developed ideas on the Great Leader principle early on, writing as follows in the late 1920s:

The truly great person develops… and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature…. [All] restraints and restrictions [are] cast aside by the great motive power that is contained in his original nature…. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped.

The sexual aspect is interesting in the light of Mao’s later potency problems. More disturbing, however, is the idea that the great hero should not be held back by common restraints, that the truly great man is above all laws. Mao argues in the same essay that chaos can be desirable, for “pure peace without any disorder of any kind would be unbearable…. It is the times when things are constantly changing and numerous men of talent are emerging that people like to read about. When they come to periods of peace, they…put the book aside.” These early throbbings of Sturm und Drang are still the fantasies of a bookish young romantic. It would take some years before they were turned into action. But Mao’s basic ideas on humanity, leadership, history, and politics were already firmly in place before his conversion to communism.

* * *

Mao was a child of his time. Cultural self-loathing and revolutionary fervor were all around when he was a student. When the May 4th Movement exploded in 1919, first as a protest against the Chinese government for giving away territory to Japan in exchange for much-needed financial loans, and later as a radical intellectual movement for cultural and political renewal, Mao was working as a history teacher. “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” were the twin slogans of May 4th. But the movement was diverse, including radical Marxists as well as liberal followers of John Dewey, who was lecturing at the time to full halls in China. Mao was not yet a Marxist, but he had written an anti-Confucian tract that (like the May 4th Movement itself) was both radical and steeped in older Chinese attitudes. Mao wrote that China was not just ripe for radical change, but that “there must be a complete transformation, like matter that takes form after destruction, or like the infant born out of its mother’s womb.”

This idea of a complete transformation makes sense in a tradition that sees politics as part of a cosmic order. Since in the Great Chinese Tradition political order is based on a moral orthodoxy, upheld by scholar officials and symbolized by a semidivine ruler, whose virtuous governance must reflect the order of the cosmos, you cannot really change one part of the picture without changing the whole thing. In 1919 the semidivine ruler had already gone and political orthodoxy, based on Confucianism, was under attack. A new order had to be put in its place. Communism, with its hermetic world view, its claims to embody Mr. Science, its historical dogma, and its clerisy of Party mandarins, fit the bill more easily than Dewey’s wishy-washy liberalism. It was to be China’s deep misfortune that Mao Zedong had the brilliance and the unstoppable will to marry this new order with concepts of divine kingship that went back all the way to the wicked emperor of Qin.

Violence, even mass murder, was part of this enterprise pretty much from the start. In 1920, Mao had rejected all but one of the many isms floating around, including anarchism and of course liberalism, and become a Communist. His first task was to mobilize the rural population of Hunan, whom he had once described, in the typical manner of a young intellectual who had only just made it out of the village himself, as “stupid and detestable people.” But since the Chinese Communist Party was still tiny in the early 1920s, the strategy of the Party leaders was to join the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), and push it as far as possible to the left. It has sometimes been argued that Mao, like Ho Chi Minh, was essentially a nationalist, and if only the US had been more accommodating, he would surely have become less anti-Western. In fact, already in 1925, even as he had joined the GMD, Mao knew precisely who his enemies were. There was “absolutely no neutral ground,” he said, between “a Western-style, middle-class revolution,” urged by the right wing of the GMD, and the Communist cause. “He who is not for the revolution,” he wrote, “is for counterrevolution.” And since he believed that one quarter of China’s population of 400 million was irredeemably hostile, something had to be done about them.

Two years later peasants in Hunan revolted against the landlord class. Properties were raided, looted, and burned. Anyone suspected of being an enemy was taken prisoner, paraded through the streets, mutilated, and often killed. Even some Communists thought the reign of terror was going too far. Not Mao. He defended “excessive actions,” and said the only effective way to suppress “reactionaries” was to shoot a few in every county. This was the occasion for one of his most famous dictums: “A revolution is not like a dinner party.”

The “counterrevolution” was not noted for its gentility either. When landlord militias struck back at the peasants, they were at least as ferocious. Mao reported that in the province of Hubei

the brutal punishments inflicted on the revolutionary peasants by the despotic gentry include such things as gouging out eyes and ripping out tongues, disembowelling and decapitation, slashing with knives and grinding with sand, burning with kerosene and branding with red-hot irons. In the case of women, they pierce their breasts [with iron wire, with which they tie them together], and parade them around naked in public, or simply hack them to pieces.

Even though Mao was, to say the least, parti pris, there is little reason to doubt that such things happened. Mao suffered personal losses from the periodic outbreaks of White Terror. In 1930 his wife, Yang Kaihui, was arrested and shot when she refused to renounce her husband. In fact, by then Mao had already abandoned her, somewhat guiltily, for another woman, named He Zizhen. In 1934, He and Mao were forced to abandon their two-year-old son during a narrow escape from GMD troops. The child was never recovered. Philip Short writes that because of this “another small part of Mao’s humanity withered on the vine.” This is possible. But the seeds of Mao’s extraordinary brutality had already been sown long before then.

2.

Short’s description of the amazing events of 1930 shows how quickly those seeds had ripened. Since they set the pattern for so much later violence, it is puzzling that Spence passes over them, even in a short book. Mao was based at the time in Jiangxi, a province next to Hunan. The Communists in Jiangxi were often drawn from the rural elite, rich farmers and the like, and they resented having men from Hunan, such as Mao, telling them what to do, especially when it came to land reforms that amounted to confiscation and forced labor. Suddenly there were rumors of a mysterious right-wing clique, named the AB Corps, which was supposed to have infiltrated the Communist Party. Whether this was true, or Mao actually believed it, was beside the point. Since he had been embroiled in some vicious quarrels with fellow Communist leaders as well as locals in Jiangxi, a campaign against reactionary infiltrators was just what Mao needed to cut rivals, or potential rivals, down to size. Mao was about to use Stalin’s methods even when he had only a fraction of Stalin’s power.

The fact that the existence of an AB Corps was never proven hardly mattered. The way to weed out the “counterrevolutionary” conspirators was to arrest a few likely suspects and torture them until they “confessed” and implicated others, who would then be arrested and tortured in turn. Tortures, bearing such quaint names as “toad drinking water” and “monkey pulling reins,” were such that people would say anything at all to survive. Not that it helped them, for most were killed anyway. Women who came to find out what had happened to their husbands were given some peculiarly nasty treatment: their breasts were cut off and their genitals burnt.

First it was a few hundred, then it was thousands, and more thousands, all fellow Communists. Naturally, Mao himself never pulled out anyone’s fingernails or scorched any genitals. That was hardly his job. But he gave orders and benefited from the purges he had instigated, particularly after a link was drawn between the AB Corps and the so-called Li Lisan Line. Li Lisan was a former student in France, like Zhou Enlai, who became a Party leader in Shanghai. His strategy, or “line,” for the Chinese revolution was to concentrate on the cities. Mao disagreed. Since China was mostly a rural society, he believed that the countryside should be liberated first. He turned out to be right. But these disagreements were about power and class as much as strategy, and by associating the secret counterrevolutionary plot with Li Lisan and other metropolitan intellectuals, Mao, the provincial upstart, was able to discredit his rivals and get that much closer to ruling the Party himself.

* * *

As Short points out, Mao was always ready to sacrifice even his closest and oldest comrades when it suited him. Ensconced in the caves of Yan’an during the war with Japan in the early 1940s, he unleashed his security chief, Kang Sheng, a shriveled Beria-like figure with a taste for torture and black leather, who had learned his trade from the NKVD in Moscow. Agnes Smedley, the American revolutionary groupie in Yan’an, once described Mao’s sense of humor as “grim.” Kang’s was even grimmer. His idea of a joke was to arrest a former landowner (and Communist supporter) named Niu, meaning ox, have an iron ring with a rope shoved through his nose, and order that the poor man be dragged through the streets by his own son. Kang’s specialty was the fabrication of charges against anyone Mao wanted out of his way.

In Yan’an atrocities were part of a Rectification Campaign. “Spies,” “Trotskyites,” and members of a phantom “anti-Party clique” were to be rooted out. Kang Sheng’s methods were the same as the ones used against the fictitious AB Corps. Charges were made up and public confessions extracted by torture. Some of the most famous cases concerned a few intellectuals who thought they should have the right to criticize Mao. One was named Wang Shiwei, a priggish but principled literary figure who was accused of being a Trotskyite, jailed for years, and then butchered with an axe.4 But the real targets, as so often, were Mao’s potential rivals for the leadership of the Party, and eventually China. These brutal campaigns to enforce Party orthodoxy (as defined by Mao himself) instilled so much terror that hardly anyone dared to criticize him anymore. It was in those romantic yellow grottos of Yan’an, the destination of many a revolutionary pilgrim and admiring Western newsman during the anti-Japanese war, that Mao appropriated the trappings of divine kingship. It was there that people began to sing hymns to the Rising Son in the East, and the People’s Great Savior. Mao’s sayings began to be quoted, as though they contained the wisdom of a holy sage. And those who still refused to be courtiers and sycophants, and also many who did not, would soon meet with early and disagreeable deaths.

The murder campaigns never really let up. Lee Kuan Yew, himself no slouch at the art of eliminating rivals, once put it so well (speaking about the British colonial regime):

I’m told [repression] is like making love—it’s always easier the second time. The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course, with constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack and in the scope of the attack.5

Again, the analogy between ruthless Great Leadership and sex is striking. But neither Spence nor Short shows any evidence that Mao ever felt guilty about it. In Spence’s case, this hardly matters, for he makes no special moral claims for Mao. But since Short bases his thesis on the idea that Mao’s victims were the unfortunate detritus of his political visions, and not the victims of murder, pure and simple, it does. Since both Mao and Stalin had many people killed purely to expand their personal power, I cannot see a categorical difference between them.

* * *

What about Hitler? There are, I believe, similarities between Mao and him as well, aside from neurasthenia, and the rumor that the two Great Leaders had only one pair of descended testicles between them.6 Even though Mao never attempted to exterminate a race of people, he was proud to have destroyed countless members of certain social categories. In 1950 it was “counterrevolutionary elements”—that is, bourgeois, intellectuals, capitalists, former members of the GMD, and so on. In six months 710,000 people were killed or driven to suicide. In 1952 it was landlords and their families: up to one million dead.

The numbers become dizzying; people turned into ghastly statistics. But do sheer numbers have any moral significance? Are the violent deaths of 800,000, because, in Mao’s words, they “deserve to die,” in a separate league from the murders of four, five, or six million? And is it categorically different to murder people because of their class than because of their race? There is a distinction, to be sure: Hitler wanted to kill every Jewish man, woman, or child. Mao still believed that at least some reactionaries could be redeemed through “reeducation.” And yet when one thinks that Mao’s victims included the children and even grandchildren of class enemies, persecuted simply because of their background, the difference may not disappear entirely but surely becomes less categorical.

“Intellectuals,” meaning anyone who was educated, were a group that bore the particular brunt of Mao’s fury. Mao loathed them as much as Hitler did, and the reasons why might help to explain the peculiar nature of their bloodlust. When dogma becomes an instrument of oppression, anyone with the knowledge to challenge it becomes a threat. That is why the emperor of Qin had Confucian scholars killed. Mao—unlike Hitler—was an intellectual of sorts himself who had once challenged many dogmas, beginning with Confucianism. And yet in the more cultivated company of Beijing University graduates and other metropolitan luminaries Mao had always felt inadequate and provincial. His Marxist theorizing, his so-called Mao Zedong Thought, was often improvised, incoherent, and subject to wild shifts and contradictions.

The only way to crush all criticism, then, was to destroy all the possible critics by banishing them to remote labor camps, sometimes for life, or ruining their careers, or turning their children against them, or humiliating them in forced public confessions, or simply by murdering them. In a typical example of the Chairman’s grim humor, he once referred to comparisons made between himself and the Qin emperor. “Well,” he said, “what’s so special about the Emperor of Qin? He only executed 460 scholars. We killed 46,000!”7

Chinese intellectuals were betrayed in the most vicious manner, though not necessarily killed, after the campaign to Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom in 1957. First they were cajoled, bullied, and sometimes even forced to voice their critical opinions about Party policies. People needed to be pushed, for they knew what open criticism normally led to. Once they began, however, they often could not stop. Some were even so bold as to question the right of one party to monopolize every source of power. The result: more than half a million people purged, imprisoned, or branded as class enemies with the usual consequences—lost jobs, children deprived of a decent education, increasing harassment, and so forth. Short believes that the “intellectuals were scorched so badly in the Anti-Rightist campaign that they would never believe Mao again.” I’m not so sure. The awful truth is that many continued to believe in Mao for many years to come, no matter how much he had made them suffer.

There may have been an even deeper reason than class envy and dogmatism for Mao’s hatred of intellectuals. Like Hitler, Mao fancied himself as an artist. Even though Arthur Waley once said about Mao’s poetry that it was better than Hitler’s paintings but not as good as Churchill’s, experts tell me that the early poems in particular had an eccentric charm. Short thinks quite highly of them. Spence calls one of Mao’s poems (about the murdered wife he had abandoned) “moving.” The point of Mao’s artistic bent is, however, not the quality of his poems or his calligraphy but the fact that he had the power and the desire to use a country of over half a billion people as his canvas.

* * *

One of Mao’s most chilling and revealing statements, quoted by Short, bears the unmistakable signs of a mad artist:

China’s 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities; they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.

Mao’s China, then, like Hitler’s Reich, was to be a Gesamtkunstwerk of one man’s crazed imagination. In 1959, a year after he made this statement, Mao embarked on his Great Leap Forward, one of the most fatal schemes (in sheer numbers, the most fatal) cooked up in the twentieth century. The idea that China, by having everyone melt down pots and pans in their courtyards and conduct bizarre agricultural experiments cribbed from Stalin’s ideological scientists, would catch up with Britain in a few years was pure fantasy. But up to 30 million people died of hunger as a result.

This example of l’imagination au pouvoir was not the same as sending millions to the gas chamber. But the carnage arose from a similar kind of quasi-artistic impulse, an aesthetic vision based on pseudoscience. If Hitler’s fantasies were fueled by biology and race theory, Mao’s vision was based on crackpot agricultural theories, mostly borrowed from Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, the man who tried to “transform nature” for Stalin. The idea of planting grain everywhere, even when utterly unsuitable, was a Soviet inspiration. And so was the notion that fantastic new crops would be conjured up by cross-breeding. In Henan province, sunflowers were crossed with artichokes, in Beijing corn with rice. Cotton plants were reputed to have been crossed successfully with tomatoes to produce red cotton. And Mao’s wisdom was supposed to have produced monster pumpkins, weighing 132 pounds.8 This was the story an awestruck Shirley MacLaine repeated to Deng Xiaoping when he visited the US. Deng gently told her not to believe everything she heard.

Khrushchev had warned Mao against copying Stalin’s mistakes. But the Chairman would not be stopped; the blank canvas had to be filled with his picture. Anything standing between the artist and his vision had to be eliminated: “bourgeois scientists” with their silly objections were sent away, ridiculed, and sometimes shot. When Mao’s old comrade in arms, Marshal Peng Dehuai, carefully but critically tried to draw his attention to the catastrophic consequences of the Great Leap Forward, he was purged and later imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Others, such as Zhou Enlai, who could have told Mao some truths, denounced the brave critic and told Mao that he was a genius. (Some of the best passages in Short’s book describe Zhou’s constant groveling in sickening detail.)

* * *

Spence puts all this lunacy down to Mao’s wholesale divorce from reality. No one could or would tell him the truth about anything anymore. Short writes that Mao had a medieval idea of science. Both these observations may well be true. But they ignore the sheer loathing of intellectual knowledge that comes over failed artists with dreams of omnipotence. Real expertise, as opposed to pseudoscientific fantasies, can easily make dictators’ dreams look ridiculous. Consider this extraordinary statement: “A change in education is a further necessity: today we suffer from over-education. Only knowledge is prized. The know-it-alls are the enemies of action. What is needed is instinct and will.”9 Hitler said that, but it might as well have been Mao. “Science is simply acting daringly. There is nothing mysterious about it.” Or: “You shouldn’t care about any First Machine Building Ministry, Second Machine Building Ministry, or Qinghua University, but just act recklessly and it will be all right.”10 Mao said these things, but it might as well have been Hitler.

There was, nonetheless, always a rational self-serving core to Mao’s madness. It is true, as Short says, that Mao wished to transform China. But that is not a sufficient argument for putting him in a different moral category from other modern dictators. For in the end, or perhaps from the very beginning, there was but one overriding concern, in aid of which all policies, principles, and artistic visions were twisted and turned, and that was Mao’s own power, his need for total control, his pathological fear of impotence.

Spence is right that Mao’s desire for chaos and misrule was part of his aim to crush the old order. But it was also the most effective way to ensure his dominance. By keeping his comrades, courtiers, and satraps permanently off balance, by setting “the people” upon them, dividing them among themselves, and having them periodically purged, humiliated, and killed, he made sure nobody could ever usurp his throne. This was Hitler’s basic instinct too, and Stalin’s, and every other tyrant who darkened the history of man.

The Cultural Revolution was started for precisely that reason. The aging Mao saw plunging knives in every shadow. Old comrades, who had long ago become terrified sycophants, were still seen as threats. The smallest criticisms that had been made against Mao years before were still brooded over and became in his paranoid mind clear signs of simmering rebellion. That is why he decided, in 1966, to incite millions of frustrated teenagers to pounce on their teachers, fathers, mothers, and finally even the top Party leaders, apart from Mao himself, a handful of useful courtiers, and the coterie of extremists around Jiang Qing, Mao’s detested wife.

In May 1966, the People’s Daily announced that Mao was “the source of our life” and whoever dared to oppose him “shall be hunted down and obliterated.” A frenzied murder spree in every Chinese city was followed by extensive purges inside the Party, orchestrated, as always, by the expert in these matters, Kang Sheng.11 Short mentions one instance which reveals the scale of Mao’s last horrific campaign. A governor and alternate Politburo member in faraway Inner Mongolia was said to have started a “black party” as a rival to the official Communist Party. It was nonsense of course. But in an effort to “ferret out traitors,” 350,000 people were arrested, 80,000 beaten so badly that they were permanently maimed, and more than 16,000 killed.

* * *

None of this information is particularly new. People have known about Mao’s murderous record at least since the late 1950s, and things rapidly got worse after that. And yet Mao’s reputation in the democratic West has indeed been of a different order than that of other twentieth-century tyrants. Hitler never had much credit in the first place. But long after Stalin was utterly discredited, Mao still enjoyed a good press in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley, London, and New York, and we cannot totally blame such boosters as Edgar Snow and Han Suyin for it. It was partly because Mao was seen as a resistance hero against the Imperial Japanese Army—even though Mao’s strategy had been to let Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang do most of the fighting. It was partly the unsavory reputation of Mao’s adversaries: the corrupt GMD and the allegedly “evil” landlord class. But Mao’s best assets, so far as public relations in the West were concerned, were the combination of third-world romanticism and a bizarre and noxious kind of cultural exceptionalism.

Mao enjoyed a particularly good run in France, on both sides of the left/ right divide. On the conservative side, such figures as Alain Peyrefitte, De Gaulle’s former education minister and amateur China expert, thought Mao was a great man in the Chinese “tradition,” and since this tradition, in Peyrefitte’s view, did not include human rights or civil liberties, we should not apply such standards to Mao.12 This argument is echoed to this day, most notably by Henry Kissinger. On the left, a typical admirer would be Jacques Vergès, the radical lawyer who became famous for his defense of Klaus Barbie. Half Vietnamese himself, he put the romantic third-world case perfectly. His enthusiasm for China, he said, dates from his childhood. His French father greatly admired Asian civilizations, and to the young Jacques, “China was a model of heroism. The Long March, et cetera. I was enthusiastic when the Chinese triumphed in 1949. And when I visited China in 1951, I was absolutely seduced.”13

Like many Mao worshippers, Vergès has contempt for democracy. What he especially admires about Mao, and Stalin too, is their Robespierrean quality, their will to sacrifice everything for the grand design. Vergès calls it “grandeur.” He is “fascinated by destiny, not happiness, especially since happiness in Europe became an idea polluted by social democracy.”14 Anything for a bit of excitement, then, as long as you don’t have to suffer the consequences yourself.

Mao has been dead now for twenty-three years, and China itself is yet to be officially “de-Maoified.” Even the reformers in the 1980s, such as Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang, did not dare go that far. His embalmed corpse, which has taken on a greenish tinge around the sunken lips, is permanently on display in a squat mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. During my last visit, I took a taxi to the square and noticed, with a feeling of slightly horrified amusement, a little gold pendant bearing the young Mao’s image dangling from the driver’s mirror, as though he were now a god.

* * *

My taxi driver was not an eccentric, for a god is indeed what Mao has become to some people, and not only in his native Hunan, where pilgrims visit the Mao family home, the Mao clan temple, and a 10.1-meter-tall bronze statue of the Chairman. There is a Mao folk legend, somewhat like the many legends of the Holy Virgin that you find scattered around Europe. It is said to have originated just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen, the most modern, glittering, greedy, relatively freewheeling showcase of Chinese capitalism, the kind of place that Mao would have absolutely abhorred. One day a man in Shenzhen had a terrible car crash in which several people were killed. But the man himself survived without a scratch, protected from harm by an image of Mao on his dashboard. Soon similar occurrences were noted all over China.15

It is hard to tell whether Mao’s divine status will survive his true story when it eventually can be told in China. It probably will. History is history and legend is legend. But whatever happens in China, Mao will be remembered as a Great Leader, and also as the most terrifying ruler since the emperor of Qin. Either way, I don’t think Mao would be at all displeased.


  1. Published in 1992 in Beijing by Foreign Languages Press.
  2. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, 1994).
  3. H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (Macmillan, fourth edition, 1971), pp. 22, 80.
  4. Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and 'Wild Lilies': Rectification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party 1942-1944 (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).
  5. Legislative Assembly Debates, October 4, 1956. Quoted in Francis T. Seow, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison (Monograph 42/Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1994).
  6. Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, p. 100.
  7. Quoted by Simon Leys in Essais sur la Chine (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1998).
  8. Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Free Press, 1997), p. 70.
  9. George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich (Schocken, 1981), p. 10.
  10. Becker, Hungry Ghosts, p. 62.
  11. Kang Sheng was so eager to purge people that even as he lay dying of cancer he offered to purge Jiang Qing herself, who was not only Mao's wife but Kang's closest ally.
  12. For a brilliant short critique of Peyrefitte, see Simon Leys, Essais sur la Chine, p. 809.
  13. Jacques Vergès, Le Salaud lumineux (Paris: M. Lafon, 1990), p. 78.
  14. Vergès, Le Salaud lumineux, p. 82.
  15. Geremie Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 22.
Topics: 
Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in Maro...

Reviewed in This Article

Mao: A Life
by Philip Short
Holt, 782 pp.

Mao Zedong
by Jonathan Spence
Lipper/Viking, 188 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 24, 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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Lift up your head Calm your eyes Look far away, as far as you can Look beyond the walls What do you see?The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of ChinaFile.org and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review'...

Banned in China

Jonathan Mirsky
In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China...

China Gets Religion!

Ian Johnson
This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the...

Do China’s Village Protests Help the Regime?

Ian Johnson
Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public...

The Real Deng

Fang Lizhi
When a scientific experiment uncovers a new phenomenon, a scientist is pleased. When an experiment fails to reveal something that the scientist originally expected, that, too, counts as a result worth analyzing. A sense of the “nonappearance of the...

My ‘Confession’

Fang Lizhi
From reading Henry Kissinger’s new book On China,1 I have learned that Mr. Kissinger met with Deng Xiaoping at least eleven times—more than with any other Chinese leader—and that the topic of one of their chats was whether Fang Lizhi would confess...

Making It Big in China

Jonathan Mirsky
Jianying Zha describes China as “way too big a cow for anyone to tackle in full.” Therefore, Ms. Zha says, she omits “the rural life, the small-town stories, the migrants working in huge manufacturing plants…continued poverty in parts of interior...

Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

Ian Johnson
With worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest, China’s leaders have a lot on their plates these days. And yet when the Communist Party met at its annual plenum earlier this week, the issue given...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

Ian Buruma
Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage,...

China’s Tibetan Theme Park

Richard Bernstein
In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing...

China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

Robert Barnett
Much of the talk about Vice President Joe Biden’s four-day visit to China last week centered on the man who hosted him: Xi Jinping, expected to become the country’s next president in 2012. Biden’s office has said that the principal purposes of his...

‘I’m Not Interested in Them; I Wish They Weren’t Interested in Me’

Ian Johnson
Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with...

Murdoch’s Chinese Adventure

Jonathan Mirsky
During a Parliamentary hearing last week in London, the Murdochs, father and son, riveted television audiences with their combination of wide-eyed, hand-on-heart innocence (James), and long silences and “Yups” and “Nopes” (Rupert). After the elder...

China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

Jonathan Mirsky
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-...

The High Price of the New Beijing

Ian Johnson
One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye...

The Past and the Future

Fang Lizhi
Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether...

Kissinger and China

Jonathan D. Spence
It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign...

China’s Glorious New Past

Ian Johnson
I first went to Datong in 1984 and was immediately taken by this gritty city in China’s northern Shanxi Province. Along with half a dozen classmates from Peking University, I traveled eight hours on an overnight train, arriving in a place that felt...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

Jonathan Mirsky
On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

Amartya Sen
The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10...

Recharging Chinese Art

Jonathan D. Spence
Retirement was not usually a concept of pressing concern to Chinese emperors. Succession and survival were normally quite enough to keep them occupied, and death—when it came—was often unexpected and frequently brutal. But Emperor Qianlong, who...

China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Ian Johnson
Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and rants into...

On the Sacred Mountain

Pico Iyer
A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of Mount...

How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions

Perry Link
Chinese authorities have done what they can to stop news—and worse, from their point of view, any influence—of Tunisian and Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. They have been worrying especially about what social media like Twitter and...

The Secret Politburo Meeting Behind China’s New Democracy Crackdown

Perry Link
In an NYRblog post on February 17 (“Middle East Revolutions: The View from China”), I discussed Chinese government’s efforts to block news of the democracy uprisings spreading across the Middle East and speculated how China’s rulers might view those...

Middle East Revolutions: The View from China

Perry Link
Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the People’s Daily...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

Roderick MacFarquhar
When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had...

China: From Famine to Oslo

Perry Link
Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy...

Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims

Ian Johnson
Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the seventy-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the government-run Xinhua news...

At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair

Perry Link
On December 10, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which the government of China had a few days earlier declared to be a “farce.” The recipient was a friend of mine, the Chinese scholar and essayist Liu Xiaobo...

Unveiling Hidden China

Christian Caryl
Napoleon famously described China as a sleeping giant that would shake the world when it finally awoke. Well, now the giant is up and about, and the rest of us can’t help but notice. 2010, indeed, could well end up being remembered as the year when...

How Reds Smashed Reds

Jonathan Mirsky
July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate...

A Hero of Our Time

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize because he...

A Very Superior ‘Chinaman’

Richard Bernstein
Charlie Chan, the fictitious Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, makes his first appearance in the movie Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) looking out the window of an airplane while flying over the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We next see him, looking...

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson
Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting...

‘A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link
It would be hard to overstate how much the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on October 8 has meant to China’s community of dissidents, bloggers, and activists. Not only has it lifted their spirits tremendously; many also view it as a...

A Hero of the China Underground

Howard W. French
As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’s student movement, people like...

The Question of Pearl Buck

Jonathan D. Spence
The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by...

Jailed for Words: Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize because he...

Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

Richard Bernstein
Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding U.S. relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust public...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

Ian Johnson
In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of...

Booming China, Migrant Misery

Richard Bernstein
At the beginning of September, a Beijing criminal court announced a decision that called attention to the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances of millions of migrant workers in China who have left their countryside homes to work for low...

Waiting for WikiLeaks: Beijing’s Seven Secrets

Perry Link
While people in the U.S. and elsewhere have been reacting to the release by WikiLeaks of classified U.S. documents on the Afghan War, Chinese bloggers have been discussing the event in parallel with another in their own country. On July 21 in...

The Message from the Glaciers

Orville Schell
It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most...

Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama

Perry Link
Following is an English translation of an Internet dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens that took place on May 21. The exchange was organized by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual known for his writing on Tibet and for theorizing...

Brutalized in China

Jonathan Mirsky
She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone for every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.“She” is Granny Lin, a fifty-one-year-old Chinese woman who has...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

Jonathan D. Spence
Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a...

Locked Out: Beijing’s Border Abuse Exposed

Perry Link
On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a Chinese citizen...

What Beijing Fears Most

Perry Link
On December 29, four days after being sentenced to eleven years in prison for “subversion of state power,” the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo filed an appeal to a higher court. For many familiar with the Chinese regime, the decision seemed quixotic: it...

The Trial of Liu Xiaobo: A Citizens’ Manifesto and a Chinese Crackdown

Perry Link
One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more months, on the...

Copenhagen: China’s Oppressive Climate

Perry Link
As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference will depend...

Specters of a Chinese Master

Jonathan D. Spence
1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the...

China: The Fragile Superpower

Christian Caryl
Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s highly-scripted trip this week provided little to support that claim. As The Washington Post...

The Empire of Sister Ping

Richard Bernstein
The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at 47 East...

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell
I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless documentary...

The Enigma of Chiang Kai-shek

Jonathan D. Spence
Back in 1975, when he died in Taiwan at the age of eighty-seven, it was easy to see Chiang Kai-shek as a failure, as a piece of Chinese flotsam left awkwardly drifting in the wake of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary victories. Now it is not easy to be so...

Obama’s Bad Bargain with Beijing

Perry Link
As the echoes of China’s spectacular military parade on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama administration, in quieter settings in Washington, D.C., were telling representatives of the Dalai Lama that the president was not going to meet...

China at 60: Who Owns the Guns

Perry Link
The most striking feature of China’s October 1 celebration of sixty years of Communist rule was the spectacular and tightly choreographed military parade in the center of Beijing. The display of crass militarism—paralleled only by parades in...

China’s Dictators at Work: The Secret Story

Jonathan Mirsky
Prisoner of the State is the secretly recorded memoir of Zhao Ziyang, once holder of China’s two highest Party and state positions and the architect of the economic reforms that have brought the country to the edge of great-power status. The book...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Jonathan D. Spence
{vertical_photo_right}Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its...

‘A Hell on Earth’

Pico Iyer
“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain indifferent.”...

The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Richard Bernstein
Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by...

The China We Don’t Know

Jonathan Mirsky
In the late 1990s, Chinese peasants in the village of Da Fo, many of whom between 1959 and 1961 had survived the twentieth century’s greatest famine, felt free enough to install shrines to Guangong, the traditional war god of resistance to...

China’s Charter 08

Liu Xiaobo, Perry Link
The document below, signed by more than two thousand Chinese citizens, was conceived and written in conscious admiration of the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, where, in January 1977, more than two hundred Czech and Slovak intellectuals...

An Asian Star Is Born

Christian Caryl
Ian Buruma’s life would itself make a nice subject for a novel. His father was Dutch; his mother was British, from a family that emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; as an undergraduate in the Netherlands he focused on Chinese...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

Jonathan D. Spence
It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

Orville Schell
The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus...

Why Didn’t Science Rise in China?

Jonathan D. Spence
In response to:The Passions of Joseph Needham from the August 14, 2008 issueTo the Editors:In his illuminating essay on Joseph Needham [ NYR, August 14], Jonathan Spence notes that early in his career Needham posed the question: “What were the...

How He Sees It Now

Jonathan Mirsky
It is open season on the Dalai Lama and not just for Beijing, for whom he is “a monk in wolf’s clothing,” or for Rupert Murdoch, who dismissed him as a “very old political monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” During his trip to London in May, when...

Casting a Lifeline

Francine Prose
Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai

1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to...

Thunder from Tibet

Robert Barnett
1.Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet...

Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation, by Some Chinese Intellectuals

Wang Lixiong
At present the one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media is having the effect of stirring up inter-ethnic animosity and aggravating an already tense situation. This is extremely detrimental to the long-term goal of safeguarding national...

He Would Have Changed China

Perry Link
In trying to make sense of their country’s turbulent modern history, Chinese intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one or another accidental event had happened differently? For decades...

He Won’t Give In

Jonathan Mirsky
On June 4, 1989, having heard that the Tiananmen demonstrations had been lethally crushed, Kang Zhengguo, a professor of literature at a university in Shaanxi province, pinned a piece of paper to his chest displaying the words “AIM YOUR GUNS HERE.”...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly...

The Amazing Wanderer

Christian Caryl
1.I could tell you a lot of potentially useful things about Colin Thubron’s latest travel memoir—for example, that he’s a gifted linguist, a dogged reporter, and an elegant writer. For a start, though, perhaps it’s enough to point out that his shoes...

‘Ravished by Oranges’

Simon Leys
How can we be informed? Chesterton famously observed that when we read in today’s newspapers that one window-cleaner fell to his death, our general understanding of window-cleaning is distorted; the information that 35,000 window-cleaners actually...

China’s Area of Darkness

Jonathan Mirsky
The very first anonymous star on the CIA’s wall of honor at Langley, Virginia (the agency rarely identifies its dead heroes), refers to Douglas MacKiernan, the agency’s man in Urumqi, the capital of what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous...

The Dream of Catholic China

Jonathan D. Spence
From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with soldiers...

Mission to Mao

Roderick MacFarquhar
“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto...

Chinese Shadows

Perry Link
In 1920 a young Chinese poet named Guo Moruo published a poem called “The Sky Dog,” which begins:Ya, I am a sky dog!I have swallowed the moon,I have swallowed the sun.I have swallowed all the planets,I have swallowed the entire universe.I am I!After...

Court Favorite

Jonathan Mirsky
At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the National...

China’s Great Terror

Jonathan D. Spence
Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese...

Why They Hate Japan

Ian Buruma
1.Those who think that the Japanese are a little odd will have been confirmed in their prejudice by the behavior of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro during his June visit to the United States. The social highlight was a trip to Graceland, home of...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

Pu Zhiqiang
The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of...

China: The Shame of the Villages

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Published fifteen years ago, Chinese Village, Socialist State, as I wrote at the time, not only contained a more telling account of Chinese rural life than any other I had read; it also produced a new understanding “of the methods by which the...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

Perry Link
Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the...

Portrait of a Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
1.It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an...

China: The Uses of Fear

Jonathan Mirsky
Instilling deadly fear throughout the population was one of Mao Zedong’s lasting contributions to China since the late Twenties. In the case of Dai Qing, one of China’s sharpest critics before 1989, fear seems to explain the sad transformation in...

Chinese Shadows

Ian Buruma
There are many reasons for getting tattooed. But a sense of belonging—to a group, a faith, or a person—is key. As a mark of identification a tattoo is more lasting than a passport. This is not always voluntary. In Japan, criminals used to have the...

China: Wiping Out the Truth

Perry Link
Somehow poison got into the food at a snack shop in Nanjing, China, on September 14, 2002, and more than four hundred people fell ill. After forty-one of them died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in...

Passage to China

Amartya Sen
1.The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers...

Taiwan on the Edge

Jonathan Mirsky
The events in Taiwan since March 19, the day before the presidential election, can be seen as a Taiwanese version of the long wrangle between Al Gore and George W. Bush more than three years ago. No matter how the election is resolved, something...

The Party Isn’t Over

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Early in the years following China’s post-Mao reforms, a Chinese sociologist told Princeton’s Perry Link, “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such a condition the fish never...

Chiang’s Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
1.During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the Gestapo and the SS under Hitler...

The Hong Kong Gesture

Jonathan Mirsky
On September 5, in an astonishing victory for liberty in Hong Kong and an equally unexpected defeat for Beijing and its hand-picked chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong government withdrew a proposed new law against subversion and treason...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison

Jiang Qisheng
“What I did, what landed me in prison, was really quite simple—I just said in public what my fellow citizens were saying in all those other nooks.” —Jiang Qisheng

A Little Leap Forward

Nicholas D. Kristof
The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a...

AsiaWorld

Ian Buruma
To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-...

How the Chinese Spread SARS

Jonathan Mirsky
Communist China’s long obsession with secrecy is one cause of the present SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis. This passion for secrets—protected by lies—can involve events more than forty years ago, and it is heightened by a conviction...

China’s Psychiatric Terror

Jonathan Mirsky
1.At its triennial congress in Yokohama last September, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) overwhelmingly voted to send a delegation to China to investigate charges that dissidents were being imprisoned and maltreated as “political maniacs”...

China’s New Rulers: What They Want

Andrew J. Nathan, Bruce Gilley
Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of...

China’s New Rulers: The Path to Power

Andrew J. Nathan, Bruce Gilley
Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of...

Taking Rights Seriously in Beijing

Ronald Dworkin
Last May I was invited to China for two weeks, first to take part in a two-day conference at the law school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, and then to give several public lectures there and in other cities. The Tsinghua conference was arranged...

There Were Worse Places

Jonathan Mirsky
In the mid-1980s I made occasional trips to Harbin in Manchuria to report on the Orthodox White Russians who lived there, the remnant of a community that had fled from the new Soviet Union after the revolution. There were once so many of them that...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier

Perry Link
In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police...

Inside the Whale

Jonathan Mirsky
Ian Buruma is a powerful storyteller and much of his story about Chinese rebels is very sad. This sadness persists throughout his long journey, starting in the United States, where he met most of the well-known dissident Chinese exiles, and ending...

China’s Assault on the Environment

Jonathan Mirsky
In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning North and South, and a Natural Barrier becomes a thoroughfare...

Un-Chinese Activities

Jonathan Mirsky
In the first week of November 1728, China’s Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned between 1723 and 1735) ruled over something like 200 million people and the vast territory that Beijing today claims as the People’s Republic. He had plenty on his mind. He...

On the Road

Pico Iyer
Books that “follow in the steps of” a well-known traveler are more and more ubiquitous these days, but many of them are slightly suspect. Following in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessor can look a little like a gesture of defeat,...

Writers in a Cold Wind

Jonathan Mirsky
Early in 1979 the Chinese officials in charge of culture declared that the Maoist ban on nineteen traditional classics and sixteen foreign works, including Anna Karenina, was lifted. On the day the books became available at a Beijing bookshop, a...

Tibet Disenchanted

Ian Buruma
The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these...

‘Taiwan Stands Up’

Jonathan Mirsky
Politics in Taiwan is a deadly business, sometimes literally. Chen Shui-bian’s first public act, on the morning of his inauguration as president on May 20, was to carry his wife in his arms to their waiting car. In 1985 she had been run down by a...

Found Horizon

Ian Buruma
Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United...

China’s Dirty Clean-Up

Sophia Woodman
Every year, millions of China’s poorest and most vulnerable people are arrested on the streets of the nation’s cities merely because the way they look or speak identifies them clearly as “outsiders,” not native to the city in question, or because...

A Lamas’ Who’s Who

Jonathan Mirsky
A one-l lama, he’s a priest. A two-l llama, he’s a beast. And I will bet a silk pajama, There isn’t any three-l lllama. —Ogden NashThe only Tibetan lama most Westerners knew of until recently was the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the genial Nobel Prize...

East Is West

Ian Buruma
Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward...

Misfortune in Shanghai

Jonathan Mirsky
Connoisseurs of traditional Peking opera would have enjoyed the recent meeting in Shanghai sponsored by Fortune to consider “China: The Next 50 Years.” The audience of approximately three hundred CEOs of US and other companies and over a dozen...

China in Cyberspace

Ian Buruma
It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever...

Room at the Top

Pico Iyer
The last time I was in the Himalayas, I met a young, highly Westernized Tibetan who, misled perhaps by my Indian features (born in England, I’ve never lived in the subcontinent), started talking to me about the strange ways of the exotic foreigners...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

Orville Schell
Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to...

The Dalai Lama on Succession and on the CIA

Jonathan Mirsky
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into Indian exile. He is sixty-five and some day even god-kings must die. But in the eyes of Tibetans he is also the fourteenth incarnation of the first Dalai Lama, who died...

Message from Shangri-La

Jonathan Mirsky
On October 6, 1939, on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Hugh Richardson, who is now ninety-three and the West’s foremost living Tibetanist, saw the arrival in the city of the five-year-old boy who in early 1940 would be installed as the...

Talking with Mao: An Exchange

Henry Kissinger, Jonathan D. Spence
In response to:Kissinger & the Emperor from the March 4, 1999 issueTo the Editors:No China scholar has influenced my own thinking more than Jonathan Spence. My comments on his review of The Kissinger Transcripts edited by William Burr [NYR,...

Kissinger & the Emperor

Jonathan D. Spence
From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

Ian Buruma
Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack...

Democratic Vistas?

Jonathan Mirsky
In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said: Democracy without...

Goodfellas in Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to kill...

Talking with Wei Jingsheng

Jonathan Mirsky
Speaking to a small group in London this January, nearly two months after he was expelled from China, the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told his somewhat startled listeners, “The earliest human rights movement in the world was the ‘People’s...

The Mark of Cain

Jonathan Mirsky
1.In Hong Kong’s China Club, fashionable people have lunch beneath pictures of Mao Zedong after a drink in the Long March Bar. Most of the members are refugees from Mao or the children of refugees. In Russia, or Germany, or Cambodia, there is surely...

Lost Horizons

Pico Iyer
Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering in just...

Betrayal

Jonathan Mirsky
It is unusual in British political life for a high official to leave his position and immediately reveal in his own words or through an intermediary what in his opinion really happened while he was in office. Furthermore, unless he has been roughly...

Selling Out Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went...

Peking’s Choice

Jonathan Mirsky
The recent sentence to six years in prison of one of Tibet’s supreme monks shows Peking’s determination to dominate all events in the region and bring to an end a period of intense confusion within the Chinese Communist Party. For a brief time the...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine modeled after the London Tatler, I was reminded of a story I once heard about the Rothschild house in Paris. When Victor Rothschild visited the Avenue de Marigny...

Peking, Hong Kong, & the US

Jonathan Mirsky
No recent book has blown a bigger hole in the proposition that the US must follow a policy of “positive engagement” with China than The Coming Conflict with China. It is a mark of the wound they inflicted on Peking that the authors, ex-reporters in...

What Confucius Said

Jonathan D. Spence
1.The first Western-language version of Confucius’ sayings—later known as the Analects—was published in Paris in 1687, in Latin, under the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with a brief dedication to King Louis XIV, thanking him for supporting...

Demolition Man

Roderick MacFarquhar
Deng Xiaoping was eulogized by his colleagues as the “chief architect” of China’s reform program and its opening to the outside world.1 This was misleading. Deng was no master builder. Unlike his patron, Mao Zedong, and fortunately for his...

China: The Defining Moment

Jonathan Mirsky
The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in...

The Risks of Witness

Jonathan D. Spence
With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance. In this...

The Hope for China

Fang Lizhi, Perry Link
1.“Some people,” declared Mao Zedong in 1959, “say that we have become isolated from the masses.”1 By “some people” Mao meant Peng Dehuai, a subordinate who had dared to criticize Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” which was just then creating in China the...

How China Lost Taiwan

Jonathan Mirsky
1.For foreign correspondents who had been present in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the events of the night of March 17, 1996, in the plaza in front of the Taipei city hall, showed more clearly than any other what the China-Taiwan crisis is...

One More Art

Simon Leys
1.The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.1Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the...

River of Fire

Jonathan Mirsky
In her introduction to a collection of Karl Marx’s newspaper dispatches on China, Dona Torr conceived a charming fantasy in which Marx speculates thatWhen our European reactionaries have to take refuge in Asia and at last reach the Great Wall of...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Vaclav Smil
1.Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its...

The Beginning of the End

Ian Buruma
Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among...

In China’s Gulag

Jonathan D. Spence
Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects...

Jumping Into the Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians and the population,” the Emperor Qianlong ordered in 1793. This is one of the many pointed epigraphs in China Wakes, and it shows what Chinese rulers knew for centuries: that, for the emperors,...

The Underground War for Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
During the night of November 21–22, 1928 a steamer moored at the docks in the Chinese section of Shanghai, and a group of harbor coolies, flanked by a squad of thirty armed guards, began to unload chests onto the dock. Alerted by a tip some weeks...

Unmasking the Monster

Jonathan Mirsky
In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the...

The Bottom of the Well

Jonathan Mirsky
Do Chinese women, as the Communist Party has held for decades, “hold up half the sky?” Or, like the frog at the bottom of a well in a famous Daoist legend, do they see only a little blue patch? Why is it that tens of millions of them are said to be...

Remembrance of Ming’s Past

Jonathan D. Spence
To many readers in the past, The Plum in the Golden Vase has seemed an inchoate mass of a story. Even if it was clearly “about” a wealthy urban merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing, his six consorts, and numerous other sexual companions, it was also full of...

The Prodigal Sons

Jonathan Mirsky
What do Xi Yang, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Juntao have in common? Yes, they are all “counter-revolutionary elements, subversives, splittists, black hands”—whatever Peking cares to call them—and all three are familiar with the Party’s prison...

The Old Man’s New China

Perry Link
The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human rights. So how...

The Battle for Hong Kong

Jonathan Mirsky
1.Hong Kong—The first weekend of the Year of the Dog, February 11–13, was not a good one for those of us who live in Hong Kong. The annual fireworks display, sponsored by the Bank of China (in Peking fireworks are banned), was muffled in mist. In...

Where the East Begins

Jonathan D. Spence
Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the visual arts in the West. Beginning...

The Chinese Miracle?

Jonathan D. Spence
Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of...

Unjust Desserts

Jonathan D. Spence
Can there be any justice in today’s China? It is the deepest question that the film director Zhang Yimou has asked so far. His best-known earlier films, sexually supercharged, suffused with violence or the threat of it, always found some politically...

The Party’s Secrets

Jonathan Mirsky
Not long after Mao Zedong died in 1976, one of the editors of the Party’s People’s Daily said. “Lies in newspapers are like rat droppings in clear soup: disgusting and obvious.” That may have been true of the Party’s newspapers, which Chinese are...

Deng’s Last Campaign

Roderick MacFarquhar
China had its own form of grueling political campaign this year, which ended when the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party (CCP) took place in October. There, too, the issue was “change” and the main concern the economy. But in China the...

Squaring the Chinese Circle

Jonathan Mirsky
“China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”1 This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most people who have studied, read about, or traveled and lived in China. In the late sixteenth...

The Other China

Jonathan D. Spence
On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into...

Blazing Passions

Geoffrey O’Brien
In a coincidence of programming in New York City a selection of the commercially most successful Hong Kong movies of the 1980s ran at the same time as a retrospective of work (some of it only marginally released in its country of origin) by the...

Literature of the Wounded

Jonathan Mirsky
In Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, Bette Bao Lord’s memoir of her three years in Peking as the American ambassador’s wife, she recalled that “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding...

John King Fairbank (1907–1991)

Roderick MacFarquhar
John Fairbank, who died on September 14 at the age of eighty-four, read virtually all serious Western works on China. Reviewing them, principally for The New York Review in the last several years, was for him one way of keeping abreast of China...

The Anatomy of Collapse

Roderick MacFarquhar
In Moscow, 1991, as in Beijing in 1989, eight hard liners made a last-ditch stand to preserve communism. Yet in both cases, the Communist party was left on the sidelines and no appeal was made for support in the name of Communist doctrine. Politics...

China on the Verge

Jonathan D. Spence
During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also a...

The Myth of Mao’s China

Jonathan Mirsky
In China Misperceived Steven Mosher strikes back at the profession, clan, or family of China watchers that cast him out. The official reasons have never been made public, although his university, Stanford, hinted at academic misconduct when it...

Brutality in China

Merle Goldman
At the same time that President Bush is speaking up against Saddam Hussein’s human rights atrocities, he is appeasing China’s octogenarian leaders on the very same issue. In order to persuade China to cooperate in the United Nations actions against...

Lost Horizons

Jonathan Mirsky
Except for the Chinese Communists, who call him names like “the wolf in monk’s robes,” or “the criminal Dalai,” virtually everyone speaks well of the Dalai Lama. The latest incarnation is the Fourteenth in a line that began in 1351 and exists...

History on the Wing

John K. Fairbank
Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American...

The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page

Simon Leys
1.In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling...

The Chinese Amnesia

Fang Lizhi
The following was written while Fang Lizhi was staying in the American Embassy in Beijing, before his release last June.In November 1989, during the fifth month of my refuge inside the American Embassy in Beijing, I received two letters from New...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

John K. Fairbank
When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from...

In A Cruel Country

Jonathan Mirsky
In her disturbing memoir of three and half years in Beijing, Bette Bao Lord, the author of the novel Spring Moon and wife of Winston Lord, the American ambassador until just before the Beijing killings, retells a traditional story which is wholly...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that I arrived in Hong Kong to take up a job. The prime ministerial fall; which preceded a fierce quarrel with Deng...

The Empire Strikes Back

Jonathan Mirsky
“President Bush still regards you as his friend, a friend forever,” Brent Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping in Beijing on December 10, six months and seven days after Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square. In Washington, the...

Keeping the Faith

Fang Lizhi
I am proud and deeply moved to have this opportunity to speak with you here today; but at the same time, I am also filled with a sense of sorrow and shame. I am moved because you have chosen to honor me with the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights...

Vengeance in China

Merle Goldman
While China’s leaders try to assure the outside world and themselves that “everything is back to normal,” the national problems that existed before the June 4 crackdown have become much worse. China’s students and intellectuals were already...

Stories from the Ice Age

Jonathan Mirsky
Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese...

China Witness, 1989

Jonathan D. Spence
In response to: China’s Spring from the June 29, 1989 issueTo the Editors:The absolute cynicism displayed by the current Chinese leadership as they present their version of this spring’s events in Beijing and other cities offers a special challenge...

After the Massacres

Simon Leys
A historian of contemporary China who is considering the events of three years ago, of ten years ago, of twenty years ago, must feel dizzy: each time, it is the same story, the plot is identical—one needs only to change the names of a few characters...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

John K. Fairbank
To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

Roderick MacFarquhar
When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It...

The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean

Simon Leys
Since the Beijing massacres, the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: “Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were...

Letters from the Other China

Fang Lizhi
During the student demonstrations that swept China toward the end of 1986, the brilliant astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who was then vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, emerged, through his speeches to student groups, as the...

China’s Spring

Orville Schell
To stand, in early May, atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which guards the entrance to the Forbidden City, and look across the vast crowd of people jammed into Tiananmen Square was to have a historically new sense of what Mao called “the broad masses...

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jonathan Mirsky
Just before the recent demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, which shook the Party to its foundations, a rumor ran through the capital: Mao Zedong’s body, embalmed and mounted in the ugly Memorial Hall which disfigures Tiananmen Square...

The Chinese Intellectuals and the Revolt

Perry Link
The Beijing revolt of 1989 has caught the world’s attention, but the malaise that led to the emergency is broader and deeper than any of its conspicuous slogans can suggest. For foreigners like myself who live in Beijing, it was already clear nine...

Mao and Snow

John K. Fairbank, Jonathan Mirsky
In response to:Message from Mao from the February 16, 1989 issueTo the Editors:Edgar Snow was set up by Mao and mugged by the Cold War. I first met him in 1932 in Peking and kept more or less in touch during the next forty years of his life. I think...

Message from Mao

Jonathan Mirsky
In Kansas City, Missouri, the family of Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China was to introduce Mao Zedong to the world, employed a black washerwoman, Crazy Mary, who hated one of her Chinese competitors. To enrage the man she taught young Edgar to...

China’s Despair and China’s Hope

Fang Lizhi
Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

Nathan Gardels
Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party...

Roots of Revolution

John K. Fairbank
The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

Roderick MacFarquhar
Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the...

China on My Mind

Jonathan D. Spence
Almost forty years have passed since John King Fairbank’s first book, The United States and China, was published in 1948. A careful blending of Chinese institutional history with diplomatic history, the book proved immediately popular among...

Surviving the Hurricane

Judith Shapiro
At a time when the new freedoms of the post-Mao years are in jeopardy, many issues of intense concern to Chinese can freely be discussed only abroad. Of these, among the most important is the Cultural Revolution, about which Nien Cheng has written...

Turbulent Empire

Jonathan D. Spence
Among the great and enduring questions in the study of Chinese history are these: In an agricultural country of such extraordinary size how was the land farmed and what were the patterns of ownership and tenancy? How was the rural revenue extracted...

The End of the Long March

Roderick MacFarquhar
In Peking last September, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, pensioned off the surviving generals of the Long March. Fifty years after their epic exploit, these old soldiers finally agreed to fade away. Deng must hope that the legend has now...

Our Mission in China

Jonathan D. Spence
This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the...

China: Mulberries and Famine

Jonathan D. Spence
Near the beginning of the Chinese “Classic of Historical Documents” (the Shujing), where the doings of early mythic rulers are being described, there is a brief passage that stands out among the others for its precision and clarity. The focus of...

China: How Much Dissent?

Jonathan D. Spence
In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy...

His Man in Canton

John K. Fairbank
In the Chinese united front of the mid-1920s, the Soviet agent Borodin has been a protean figure. Bringing Leninist skills, arms, and advisers to Canton, he seemed to be the priceless ingredient that finally catalyzed Sun Yat-sen’s revolution...

Take Back Your Ming

Jonathan D. Spence
Until very recently the great expanse of the Ming dynasty, which ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, was largely uncharted in Western historiography. The dynasty was seen either as having come at the end of a great tradition that had been dominated by...

Forever Jade

Jonathan D. Spence
A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total rejection...

Why Confucius Counts

Jonathan D. Spence
One would be hard pressed, surveying any of the political cultures in human history, to find a parallel for the continuity, longevity, and vitality of Confucianism. This moral and ethical system was given initial shape in the fifth and fourth...

The Chinese Dream Machine

Jonathan D. Spence
Simple-looking questions make good starting points for books; for simple questions are usually very hard to answer, and if the author is skillful enough he elaborates the simple question until it is overlaid with hovering qualifications, doubts, and...

Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Simon Leys
In the sixth century BC, at the time the Tso Chuan refers to, China’s social hierarchy had only ten degrees. We have progressed since then: the Maoist bureaucracy today has thirty hierarchical classes, each with specific privileges and prerogatives...

Chinese Shadows

Simon Leys
In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their...

Sitting on Top of the World

Harold L. Kahn
Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor...

Traveling Light

Martin Bernal
With the exception of Joseph Kraft’s short work, all the books on China mentioned here have been padded. Barbara Tuchman includes a fascinating historical essay. Galbraith has animadversions on San Francisco, Paris, TWA, and many other matters, and...

Rules of the Game

John Gittings
On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as...

Up Against the Wall at Tsinghua U.

Ross Terrill
Some Chinese refer to their lives before and after the Cultural Revolution as if that storm of the Sixties were a religious conversion. Like John Bunyan writing with enthusiastic horror of his unregenerate days, the cadre or craftsman today says he...

A Shameful Tale

John Gittings
On the contents page of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs1 the new shape of American diplomacy is writ large and in italics. In this prestigious house organ of the international affairs establishment—and by coincidence it happens to be its...

Who’s Who in China

Martin Bernal
Written Chinese is extremely difficult. Before the revolutions of the twentieth century, the literary language was a barrier protecting the Confucian elite. Anyone who could jump over that barrier by passing the official examinations immediately...

Bringing Up the Red Guards

John Gittings
Everyone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“‘P'an T'ien-shou’ is a...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

John Gittings
In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to...

How Mao Won

Martin Bernal
In response to:Was Chinese Communism Inevitable? from the December 3, 1970 issueTo the Editors:Although pleased by Martin Bernal’s laudatory reference to my piece criticizing Chalmers Johnson’s thesis concerning the reasons for the Communist triumph...

Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?

Martin Bernal
It is likely that, even now, many people in America and Britain still hold to the simple formula that people are good and communism is evil. And, just as good cannot support evil, people cannot support communism. Therefore any political movement...

Mao and the Writers

Martin Bernal
By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only offered...

Report from the China Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
Since the Communist victory in 1949 there has been very little contact between Americans and Chinese. Although a tiny community of aging Americans continues to live in Peking, no American, except for Edgar Snow, has traveled widely in the People’s...

Still Mysterious

John K. Fairbank
Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live...

A Mao for All Seasons

Martin Bernal
{vertical_photo_right}A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis...

Pekinology

Martin Bernal
Mr. Pye is disarming and sensible in his description of his method. From the start he makes it clear that The Spirit of Chinese Politics is an “interpretive and largely speculative essay.” He refuses to cite specific examples to strengthen his case...

The Great Wall

John K. Fairbank
China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different...

Puritanism Chinese-Style

Martin Bernal
Specialists in the USSR and East Europe have both helped and hindered modern Chinese studies. Many scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz came to the serious interpretation of Chinese Communism from Slavic studies. On the other hand, less sensitive East...

Chinese Checkers

Martin Bernal
In Response to:Contradictions from the July 7, 1966 issueTo the Editors:Martin Bernal in his review [July 7] describes Franz Schurmann’s brilliant new book Ideology and Organization in Communist China as “easily the most provocative work…yet seen on...

Contradictions

Martin Bernal
Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time extensively...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution

John K. Fairbank
The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon...

Down There on a Visit

Martin Bernal
In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the...

Mao’s China

Martin Bernal
To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of...

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

Martin Bernal
Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation has...