Friday, October 30, 2009

The Ancient Battlefield at Bowang Hill

by Maple, guest blogger

[in translation]

For this year's National Day vacation, our target was Nanyang City in Henan Province. There are many historical sites from the Three-Kingdom period (220-280) in this area, one of them the famous Bowang Hill (博望坡).

The three of us – my husband and I, plus our friend Shen – drove from Haikou to Henan. Shen is a Three Kingdoms fan. As we approached Bowang Hill, our usually taciturn friend became amazingly voluble, stories flowing out from his mouth like a running river.

It is said that, shortly after Liu Bei's three courteous visits to Zhuge Liang's thatch hut won the heart of the great war strategist, Cao Cao led an army of 100,000 to attack them. Liu Bei had only a few thousand troops, and he placed all his hope on Zhuge Liang's help. The two discussed strategies alone all day, leaving out Liu Bei's two blood brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Guan and Zhang did not trust the new strategist and were upset by Liu Bei's intimacy with him. With such a big disparity in strength between the enemy's troops and theirs, they didn't believe there would be any way for Zhuge Liang to defeat Cao Cao. But they were, of course, wrong.

Shen explained to me that, at the time Bowang Hill was a rugged area full of bushes and old trees. Zhuge Liang lured Cao Cao's army up the hill, then started a fire all around them. Trapped, Cao's soldiers could neither advance nor retreat, and most were burned to death. Thus Zhuge Liang easily won the first battle after taking up his official post as Liu Bei's adviser.

My heart couldn't bear the burning scene and I said to Shen, This Mr. Zhuge was too insidious and cruel.

What do you know? Shen glared at me, That's called war strategy. Further more, Liu Bei was defending himself; it was Cao Cao, the invader, who was on the wrong side.

Even so, I said, Need he have burned so many men? That was hardly a green strategy either.

Shen was so angry he could only laugh. Lady, he said, That was a time of cold weapons, what else do you expect? Available strategies were nothing more than fire or water.

At the point we had reached Bowang Hill. We chose an ancient post road crossing the hill from north to south. The road was over five feet wide, and we had learned that it was on this section of the road Liu Bei's army had ambushed Cao Cao.

Unexpectedly, challenge began as soon as our car got on that road.

Bowang Hill (photo by Maple Xu)

It wasn't a surprise that the ancient path had been changed to a concrete road, however even Zhuge Liang couldn't have guessed that 1800 years later it would become the villagers' drying square. It was the season for harvesting corn and canola, and the peasants dried the stalks on the road in order to use them as fuel. Those stalks didn't just occupy part of the road; they were piled over the entire road like small mountains everywhere.

We had to look for the lowest "peaks" for our car to pass. The plant stalks screeched under the wheels and scratched the windows, and our car crawled slower than an ant.

Seeing the sun was about to set, I asked my husband to find a different path. He sneered, Obviously you don't know where you are! I looked around and realized that we, like Cao Cao's army, were trapped in a situation in which neither advance nor retreat was viable. There wasn't even a place to turn around.

The villagers not only were unapologetic for the trouble they created for traffic, they held their wooden harrows tight and angrily stared at the cars, as if to say, Did you city people eat so much that you have to come to our drying ground to burst?

My husband advised me to accept fate. Let's just crawl as we can. If you don't behave, that man standing over there might light up the stalks and replay the Bowang Hill burning scene.

Shen lost patience and started to yell. I consoled him that we should soon see a big ancient tree, the sole witness remaining from the Bowang fire battle. Who knows whether that tree is real or fabricated for tourists? He shouted.

I got out of the car to ask a few peasants about the tree. They looked totally lost, unaware what their place had to do with Zhuge Liang. An old man pushing a bike passed by and asked, Are you looking for the Three-Kingdom sites? There's nothing left except a dead old tree. It's still several kilometers away, not worth all your trouble.

So the Bowang Hill's fire battle was real?
— What a question! Of course it was real. The old generation all know clearly about it. In the fields we often dig out dirt that was burned black. The young people don't know because they are only interested in making money today. Old stories are useless to them.
— Why don't you locals take pride in the history and preserve the old sites?
— What's there to be proud of? Zhuge Liang, he wasn't even a Bowang person. Spending money on a few broken old walls is not as useful as building a temple to burn incense, don't you think? All we peasants want is to farm well, and have a temple to pray for good weather. It's just a little inconvenience for you city people to come down and play during our busy season, right?
— Right.

Thus we never got to see the tree, or any relic from the Three Kingdoms time at Bowang Hill .

Monday, October 12, 2009

Double Nature of Student Movements in China

It was like déjà vu. About one-third into Leslie Chang's Factory Girls, a book I was reviewing for WRB, I found a story about the tragic death of the author's American-educated grandfather, Zhang Shenfu, who had become a leading engineer in China's mining industry in the 1940s.

I knew the story. I knew the name. But from where? I didn't know anything about the author before reading her book. I went to check my notes from another project. Sure enough, in an interview with my mother four years ago, she had cited the "Zhang Shenfu Incident" as the earliest trigger of her political career. I’d just started to work on a memoir provisionally titled Letters Lost in Chongqing, researching my parents' youth as Communists also in the 1940s.

On August 9, 1945, the same day the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan, the Soviet Union attacked the Japanese army in Northeast China. The entire war of Chinese resistance against Japan ended within a week. Both America and the Soviet Union took the credit.

When Japanese soldiers laid down their arms, the Soviets replaced them as occupiers of Northeast China. The then-government of China was anxious to regain control of the industry infrastructure there. In January 1946, the Nationalist government in Chongqing (my home city) sent eight engineers, led by Zhang Shenfu, to take over operations at the Fushun Coal Mine. The Soviet occupiers refused to cooperate.

On their way back to the nearby city of Shenyang, all eight men were pulled off their train and brutally killed. A nation was in shock. The Nationalist government accused the Soviets of the murder; the Soviets blamed it on "anti-Soviet forces"; the Chinese Communists blamed it on local thugs. The case was never solved. Today the Chinese Wikipedia has an item for "Zhang Shenfu" plainly stating that he was murdered by the Soviet Red Army. According to Chang’s version of the story in Factory Girls, her family believed this as well.

My mother was a sixteen-year-old student in Chongqing when news broke of Zhang Shenfu's murder. Thousands of angry people took to the streets to protest, my mother among them. She and her fellow students shouted slogans such as “Soviet Union Show Your Conscience!” and “Avenge Martyr Zhang Shenfu!” The demonstration, the first of many against the Soviet occupation, lasted all day.

Six decades later, however, my mother belittled the action and attributed it to her political naïveté. As she recalled, that demonstration also started her distrust of the Nationalist government supporting it.

Because of their political unity with the Soviets, the Chinese Communists took a restrained approach at the time, neither openly opposing nor contributing to the student movement. Meanwhile, the Nationalists used the murder to damage the Communists. The Nationalist officials running my mother’s school required everyone to participate, she told me, threatening to expel those who hung back.

Before the parade, the students were warned to be careful when passing the office of Xinhua Daily, the Communist newspaper, of a possible attack from the Communists. Male students took this warning so seriously that when the parade approached the Xinhua Daily office, they walked on the outer lines to protect their female schoolmates. What my mother saw, however, was the newspaper’s door tightly shut; no one seemed to be inside.

When the students returned to school, they heard that a mob had wrecked the Xinhua Daily office. The Nationalist media blamed angry students; the Communist media blamed the Nationalist secret police. My mother didn’t know which side to believe, but she trusted the student leaders, who firmly denied any role in the destruction . She found a copy of Xinhua Daily and eventually became convinced by its version that Zhang Shenfu had been killed by local thugs.

The nationwide protests apparently did help to speed up the Soviet Army's withdrawal; this began a month and a half later. Meanwhile, the American troops that came to China's aid during the war stayed on. On Christmas Eve of the same year, a female student in Beijing named Shen Chung was raped by two U.S. marines. This incident triggered another, larger wave of student demonstrations across China.

This time, my mother was no longer a mere participant. She became a leader and an organizer at her school, fighting on campus against the officials who tried to block the news of Shen Chung's rape, and protesting American troops on Chongqing's streets. She did this because of her "righteous hatred toward injustice and violence," as she proudly put it during my interview. Curiously, she didn’t note her political naïveté here. She was unaware of the heavy involvement of Communists in facilitating this later demonstration, but they were watching her, and she was soon recruited.

In fact, all her close friends who actively participated in the "Shen Chung Incident" demonstration were recruited and later joined the Communist Party. Organizing student movements was a most effective way for the underground Communists to discover new blood. To many young patriots at the time, the Communist Party’s anti-American position was exactly what attracted them to join, as it had become clear that the Nationalist government wanted to keep American forces in the country for support in fighting China’s civil war. In a sense, the American military activities in post-war China helped cultivate massive future cadres for the Chinese Communists.

So my mother became an underground Communist at age 17, and met my father, another comrade, two years later. My family's tortuous fate was thus sealed, long before my birth, by the "Zhang Shenfu Incident.” Our path was the opposite of the one followed by Leslie Chang's family. And although many decades have passed, the double nature of student movements in China has never ceased.

(A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally posted on WOMEN = BOOKS, the Blog for the Women's Review of Books, with the title "Déjà Vu: A Surprising Link from Author to Reviewer.")

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why Didn't Peasants Riot During China's Three-Year Famine? (2)

(2 of 2, continued from yesterday's post)

Raised on hot and tingling peppers, tempered by relentless harsh winters with no central heating, my Sichuan folk are known to have firecracker tempers. This was one reason that, during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Sichuan, especially my home city Chongqing, became the biggest factional battlefield in China, killing thousands and thousands.

This makes the lack of protests during the three-year famine more puzzling. Local characteristics notwithstanding, at the point of life-and-death, even the herbivorous rabbit will bite.

Some might attribute the "peaceful" deaths to the government's tight control and the peasants' fear of retribution. That line of reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny. In the 1950s and 60s, China's countryside had limited law enforcement. The main force to maintain public order was the so-called "people's militia"(民兵), who were peasants themselves. In the rural communes where my mother was sent down to during late 50s and early 60s, each commune had only one "public security officer." In terms of training, arms and size, they were no match for today's riot police who still can’t prevent riots.

Historically, when there was more than one way to die, Chinese peasants did not hesitate to choose rebellion. The famous Chen Sheng uprising that destroyed the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) was a good example. Chen Sheng and other peasants were being escorted to a military post as compelled recruits, when days of rain delayed their trip. The punishment for missing the deadline was said to be beheading. Chen Sheng said to his fellow recruits, "It's death either way, why not die for a big cause?" His calling was echoed by all. They killed the two escorting officers, "chopped down trees to arm the soldiers, and hoisted their banner on a bamboo pole." That is the first peasant uprising on written record, followed by numerous others in every dynasty during disastrous times.

The tradition ceased in the Mao era. Again, this can't be simply explained by fear. The peasants loved Mao. It was Mao who took the land from the old-society's land owners and gave it to them. When Mao died in September 1976, I was a sent-down student in the countryside. The villagers cried sorrowfully, which made me feel guilty for my dry eyes. A decade after Mao's death, in the mid-1980s, my American husband, Bob, rode a bike through rural China. He was surprised and baffled by the peasants' apparent veneration for Mao. He did not realize at the time that such veneration was consistent with thousands years of Chinese people's dependency on and loyalty to wise and able emperors. When life was bitter, they'd rather take on corrupted local officials; the emperor was the last person they would lay blame on.

As for the local officials, in the 1950s-60s, party members and cadres were required to "be the first to eat bitterness and the last to enjoy life." Mao had believed that wealth was the cause of corruption, and the way to keep corruption at bay within the ruling party was to keep everyone equally poor. He apparently took Confucius's edification, that "the head of a state need not be concerned lest his people be poor, but only lest there be ill-portioned distribution among them" (不患寡而患不均) to an extreme.

In those years, from elementary school on, children were taught to "build up the country through arduous struggle and frugality." Nationalism and idealism were high, and making personal sacrifices for the country did not need much mobilization. A slogan that excited everyone then was "Surpass England and catch up to America in twenty years," my father recalled, thus the enthusiasm for the "backyard steel making" that ended up producing useless iron lumps while crops rotted in the fields. Meanwhile, no individual was allowed effective means to obtain wealth.

That was why the peasants could not see whom, or what, to blame for the famine. In the grassroots government, the commune and village cadres ate – or did not eat – the same as the peasants. So did the cadres sent-down from the district, like my mother and Mr. Chen. Though there indeed existed an urban-rural gap, across the visible community equality prevailed. It was a collective poverty; no one was rich or corrupted enough to become a target for mass protests.

They did not realize, however, that corruption does not have to involve money. Mao's practice of maintaining collective poverty did keep embezzlement at bay, especially at the grassroots government level. But beyond the peasants' sight, corruption took a different form, as exemplified by what Sichuan's then-governor Li Jingquan did to accelerate the peasants' starvation: blocking famine information from the central government, inflating grain production statistics to cover up the disaster, transporting large amounts of grains to Beijing and Shanghai despite Sichuan itself suffered severe food shortages…

The internet was still in the remote future then, and the provincial courtyard was too far away. The peasants had no way to know what Li Jingquan did. The grassroots cadres like my parents and Mr. Chen didn't either. Not even the central government knew what their trusted Sichuan governor was up to, until it was too late.

In January 1962, during a congress of seven thousand government officials from the county level up, a Sichuan man wrote an anonymous letter to the national leaders, exposing Li's crime and Sichuan's severe famine for the first time. Li was then criticized in the meeting, but never punished, because the fact that he had sent grains to support Beijing and Shanghai was regarded as a major credit, enough to cancel his "mistakes." The fact that he was Deng Xiaoping's close friend also helped.

After that congress, Li's crime remained unknown to the public, until the Cultural Revolution began in summer 1966. The rebelling Red Guards, while destroying every level of government, dug up Li's history and denounced him as the number one "capitalist roader" in the province. The facts of what he did during the famine years were listed on "big character posters" and put up on urban walls everywhere, but peasants in the countryside remained largely uninformed. When I was in middle school in early 1970s, we often had sessions to "recall the bitter past and think of the sweet today," in order to enhance our concept of "class struggle." The school would invite a poor peasant to vent his grievances against a land owner of the "old society," referring to the pre-communist regime. In one of the sessions, an old peasant invited by my school was asked to tell us his bitterest experience, and he immediately began to cry over his suffering during the "three difficult years" – the official term for the famine period starting in 1959. The teacher who was chairing the meeting got confused and asked who he was complaining against, and the peasant was agape, unable to name a name. Quickly he was taken away.

So the "nice peasants" in the countryside accepted their fate quietly, apparently believing that the "emperor" in Beijing knew about their situation (how could he not?), and would eventually do something to save them. Even long after the famine, people still believed it was a natural disaster caused by bad weather. I wonder, had the starving peasants in Sichuan seen their commune's storage rooms full of grains waiting to be sent to other cities, had they heard their governor's dismissive words about their insignificant life and death, what would they do?

In a nutshell, the appearance of equality (= collective poverty), the lack of information, and the tradition of Chinese' faith in wise emperors, had all contributed to the "peaceful" mass deaths during the three-year famine. Today, the first two conditions are diminishing, which at least partially explains the rapid rise of mass protests in recent years. As for the third, it still exists, and it is too soon to judge its present impact.

An additional observation: now as in the 1960s, China's government corruption is much worse at the city and provincial levels than at the grassroots and national levels. The grassroots governments are too closely watched by people, and the national leaders of such a big country usually have aspirations and incentives beyond personal wealth. The city and provincial governments are less encumbered by observation and ideals, thus providing the most fertile soil for corruption. The latest issue of the Economist has an article suggesting that "part of the problem lies with there being too many tiers of government—China has five, compared with three in America." Cutting one or two layers might indeed be a great idea.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why Didn't Peasants Riot During China's Three-Year Famine? (1)

Yesterday, Sam of The Useless Tree commented on my post What Kept China from Total Collapse during the Cultural Revolution: "I think you're right about the CR, but the key point about the maintenance of agricultural production raises another question: how is it that the Great Leap Forward did not produce a massive anti-government backlash?"

A great question, and I'm glad it has finally come up, though it would be nice to have someone Chinese ask it. For years I have wondered why I never heard anyone raise the issue, as if nothing were unusual about 30 million peasants passively starving to death without putting up so much as a fight.

From 1959 to 1961, ten million of the starvation deaths occurred in my home province, Sichuan. Today it is common knowledge that the severe famine was caused by the fanatic Great Leap Forward movement, the ludicrous practice of "backyard steel making," the wasteful all-you-can-eat communal dining rooms, and the fictitious reports of high agricultural production.

Puzzlingly, there were no riots during that period. Not even small revolts. There were individual complaints and "guai hua" (怪话), but that was pretty much it. Why didn't the peasants, the largest social group whose numerous uprisings were the primary forces pushing feudal China's history forward, put up fierce fights for their lives then? In light of frequent mass protests in recent years, the "peaceful" mass starvation then is utterly unimaginable.

This was the primary question I had in mind when I interviewed Mr. Chen three years ago. I was writing a memoir about my parents' past, and it turned out the famine years were a key period in their life together. At the time, my mother was a grassroots government cadre sent down to the countryside as punishment for her "rightist thoughts." Mr. Chen had been her colleague and friend in the local government. They both closely witnessed the famine.

The following is an excerpt of the interview in translation, which I hope will shed some light on China's rural situation then. 

Time: August 2006
Location: Mr. Chen's home in Chongqing, China
Me: Uncle Chen, when did the famine become apparent?
Chen: 1959.
Me: About the peasants' situation, what did you see in your own eyes then?
Chen: One thing stood out in 1960…I went to a production team. A family in the village steamed and ate, ah, a baby.
Me: (in shock) What? They killed the baby?
Chen: It seems the baby was sick or something.…it was bloated up by the steam...
Me: They steamed the baby whole?
Chen: Umm.
Me: Was the child killed or dead of sickness?
Chen: No no, wasn't killed. The child was very sick, dead or nearly dead, it seemed. I told Secretary Zhang after I returned to the district office…
Me: [still in disbelief] You really saw it?
Chen: Yes…Secretary Zhang said, [in rapid voice] "Never never tell this to anyone!"
Me: Secretary Zhang?
Chen: He was the party secretary of our district, my immediate superior.
Me: He prohibited you from talking about it.
Chen: Right, he said I couldn’t talk about it. The city's party secretary was Xin Yizhi at the time. Xin openly told us, "Ours is the people's country, no one is allowed to die by Liberation Monument! If someone's dying, go inside to die!"
Me: Can't die on the streets.
Chen: [bitter titters] Not on the streets around the Liberation Monument.
Me: One can only die inside.
Chen: Eh, if one is dying, get him inside to die, not outside.
Me: The peasant family you saw who steamed the baby, how many household members did they have?
Chen: I wasn't clear about those details…
Me: Which township was it?
Chen: Xiema.
Me: Oh, my mother was sent down there too! How come she didn't know this?
Chen: Of course she didn't know. Those things, you see it, you don't [talk]…
Me: Why were you there?
Chen: That place was Xin Yizhi's selected point. I was assigned to follow him down and do policy research, but he wasn't there that day.
Me: How did you find out about the baby?
Chen: I just bumped into it.
Me: How did the peasant family react after you saw it?
Chen: They were like, okay, now you've seen it, let it pass. These things, they were already enormously miserable. (sigh)
Me: Did you tell Xin Yizhi?
Chen: No, I only told Secretary Zhang.
Me: Did Xin Yizhi take any measure about the famine?
Chen: What measure could he have? (pause) We were given a 21-jin* monthly grain ration.
Chen's wife: That was in the city. Who could have that in the countryside?
Chen: Right, only in the city.
My mother: You guys in the district office had 21 jin. We who were sent down had 2 jin less. We had only 19 jin.
Chen's wife: I had 19 jin as well.
Me: Is it true that people died mostly in the countryside, but not many in the city?
Chen: It's true. Thousands and thousands died in the countryside, few in the city. The guideline at the time was that rural deaths were not a big deal, but we can’t let urban people die.
Me: So peasants' lives were not attached importance. How come they didn't run away to other places?
Chen: Where could they run to? (pause) Hmm, a few peasants did escape to Xinjiang, I heard.
Me: So they just sat at home waiting to die?
Chen: They didn't just sit; they still labored, even though they were all swollen from malnutrition. They died of exhaustion.
Me: My mother said the government distributed medicine for curing swelling?
My mother: It was chaff powder in boxes, chaff powder mixed with a little bit soybean powder.
Chen: Oh, the dross from the Daxi medicine factory became a big deal treasure!
My mother: Also, every commune opened a hospital to treat swelling.
Me: How did they treat it?
Chen: The hospital got a slightly higher grain ration.
My mother: Cadres and active elements with serious conditions were sent to the swelling hospital.
Me: They didn't treat common peasants?
Chen: Mmm.
My mother: They just couldn't. Too many of them.
Me: In ancient times, if the emperor and his local officials didn't care about the disaster-stricken people, people rebelled. Why for three years in this famine no one revolted?
Chen: Chinese peasants were too nice.
Me: Nice? There is no shortage of peasant uprisings in history.
Chen: But they didn't see bad officials [during the famine].
Me: Why couldn't they see? They surely knew cadres lied about their production.
Chen: (voice rose emotionally) How could they see? Everyone was equal. The provincial leaders ate the same, no special treatment. When cadres like us went down, we ate and lived exactly like the peasants.
Me: But in fact there was a difference. You guys had a 21-jin monthly ration; the peasants didn't.
Chen: This….
Chen's wife: [The peasants didn't need the ration] because they were the producer of the grains.
Chen: The peasants advocated the Communist Party. They believed in the Party. They didn't have antagonistic feeling toward the government.
My mother: Where I was sent down, every day I saw people die. They simply buried the bodies. They said nothing. They didn't know the disaster was man-made. How could they see it? The man-made factor would be corruption, but corruption meant embezzlement. There wasn't embezzlement then.
Chen: The Party's reputation was really high.
Me: So the peasants basically didn't complain.
Chen: Who could they complain about? The cadres were generally good.
* 1 jin = 1.1 lbs
More discussion will follow tomorrow. (to be continued)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Kept China from Total Collapse during the Cultural Revolution

Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief, wrote a piece yesterday titled "China 60 years on: From Mao to today." When talking about the Cultural Revolution, he said, "For ten years, China was condemned to political turmoil and economic malaise. Perhaps the only factor that kept the country from total collapse was the people's incomparable resilience and their ability to 'chi ku' (eat bitterness, or bear hardship)."

What he said wasn't really wrong, but he missed the main factor. During the disastrous ten years from 1966 to 1976, peasants had kept farming and providing food for the nation. Because of this, despite the chaos and paralysis of the state apparatus, urban food shortages were not nearly as severe as in the "three-year famine" period (1959-61). I remember food rationing in my childhood during the Cultural Revolution, and how each family was forced to take a portion of "coarse grain" such as corn to supplement rice the "fine grain." I also remember meat rationing and my craving for pork dishes, but we did not starve. Not even close. Thanks to the hard-working peasants -- those are the people that have shouldered China's crises time and again.

The comparison between the two periods bookending the 1960s is especially worth noting for Sichuan, my home province nicknamed "the country of heaven," which suffered the most during the 1959-61 famine. The famine killed about 30 million people nationwide, and one third of the "abnormal deaths" were in Sichuan.

At the time, Sichuan's governor was Li Jingquan, a close friend of Deng Xiaoping (who was also from Sichuan). After the rural famine began, Li blocked information from the central government. Meanwhile, he inflated Sichuan's grain production statistics to please Mao and cover up the disaster. What he did was much the same as Madoff’s representations of double-digit returns on bogus investment funds, the difference being the scale of damage, as well as the motivation: not money but power. Consequentially, unaware of Sichuan's real situation, Beijing ordered Li to transport large amounts of grain to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while Sichuan's starvation deaths escalated. Even after the nation-wide famine finally came to an end in late 1961, Sichuan continued to have starvation deaths in 1962. Li's famous words were, "China is so big, which dynasty didn't have people starve to death?"

Ironically, the only time Li Jingquan was punished for his crime was during the Cultural Revolution. He was "struggled" by the Red Guards numerous times. His family suffered even more: his wife committed suicide, and a son was beaten to death. But Li himself returned to power after that movement and died of old age, with a glorious obituary on the lid of his coffin.

So, at least for people in Sichuan, one other reason we had avoided starvation during the Cultural Revolution might be because Li Jingquan was pulled off the horse by the lawless Red Guards. Just a glimpse into how complex and contradictory history often is.