Daily Archives: 4 March 2007

Was Mao Insane?

Japan-based Ampontan posts some reactions to Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (Belknap, 2006). I’ll just cite the conclusion of a review of the book by Andrew J. Nathan for the New Republic.

So little of what Mao said and did makes cool political sense that one is tempted to fall back on a third theory: that he was insane. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals also employ this explanation some of the time, describing Mao as perhaps paranoid, and as fantasizing during the Cultural Revolution in the way that he did during the Great Leap Forward. (MacFarquhar co-edited The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao, published in 1989, which contain extensive transcripts of some of Mao’s nuttiest ravings from the Leap period.) And Mao is not the only crazy person in this story. Lin Biao was “a small, thin, weak man, his face as white as paper,” who “normally led a mole-like existence in his home.” Jiang Qing’s “paranoia left her constantly on guard.” The ghostwriter Chen Boda and the internal intelligence chief Kang Sheng were also pretty strange. And eventually the regime as a whole acted deranged — as seen, for example, in Central Document Number 3 of 1970, issued after the entire nation had been beaten into submission, which ordered officials “resolutely [to] execute those counterrevolutionary elements who are swollen with arrogance after having committed countless heinous crimes and against whom popular indignation is so great that nothing save execution will serve to calm it.”

Certainly Mao was extraordinarily cruel. But neither MacFarquhar and Schoenhals nor any other scholar has yet presented a plausible diagnosis that would help us to understand how Mao’s pathology directed his actions. Confronting such riddles, one misses a certainty, a fullness of reconstruction, that simply cannot be had when it comes to Mao and his court, because so much remains off-limits even in the recent document collections, biographies, and memoirs. Li Zhisui, who was perhaps the only person really close to Mao who was able to write uncensored, was too limited in his access to the leader — and, indeed, too frightened of him — to provide an answer to the inner mysteries of this supremely mysterious man. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday solved this problem in their best-seller Mao: The Unknown Story with their own imaginations — by making up motives and states of mind that they ascribed to Mao and other actors without authority from their sources. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have respected the limits of their data, and have more scrupulously left Mao an enigma.

As soon as Mao was gone, his project was abandoned. China set course toward wherever one thinks it is heading: capitalism, market socialism, export-led mercantilism — certainly toward a society obsessed with selfish wealth. Deng Xiaoping set to work to make another Cultural Revolution impossible. He created a retirement system for party elders to leave power before they died without retaining the right to intervene in politics (as Deng himself ironically had to do in 1989 against his own wishes), strengthened the role of formal institutions in making decisions and choosing leaders, and established the deliberative technocratic promotion system that produced the current set of organization-man leaders. Deng delivered a formal verdict on Mao in 1981, in a party resolution that evaluated Mao as 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Interestingly, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have discovered that this ratio was originally proposed in 1975 by Mao himself in one of his displays of false modesty, making it a safe formula for the canny Deng to adopt.

Still, readers of MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’s doleful history should not comfort themselves with the thought that Mao’s failure taught the Chinese once and for all that human nature cannot be changed, or that all people want freedom, or that capitalism and democracy are the tide of history. In this sense, I do not agree with the authors that the Cultural Revolution was “the last stand of Chinese conservatism,” by which they mean the last attempt to define a distinctive Chinese form of modernity that uses Western technology to realize a Chinese essence. Hard as it is to believe after reading this masterful and sickening book, large parts of Mao’s vision still live. The dominant voices among independent intellectuals in China today belong not to liberal democrats and human rights activists, but to so-called neo-conservatives and neo-leftists who believe that even though Mao’s revolution failed (through a combination of his mistakes and Western cultural and economic subversion), the search for a distinctive Chinese model should continue. Some of these ideas even animate the current leadership’s push for a so-called “harmonious society,” which aims to use state control to repress social conflict and ease inequality. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last revolution, but it may not have been China’s.

The blogger at Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China is likely to have some interesting reactions after she finishes reading the same book.

Leave a comment

Filed under China

Okinawa D-Day + 1, 2 April 1945

On 2 April [1945] (D + 1) the 1st Marine Division continued its attack across the island. We moved out with our planes overhead but without artillery fire, because no organized body of Japanese had been located ahead of us….

During the morning I saw a couple of dead enemy soldiers who apparently had been acting as observers in a large leafless tree when some of the prelanding bombardment killed them. One still hung over a limb. His intestines were strung out among the branches like garland decorations on a Christmas tree. The other man lay beneath the tree. He had lost a leg which rested on the other side of the tree with the leggings and trouser leg still wrapped neatly around it. In addition to their ghoulish condition, I noted that both soldiers wore high-top leather hobnail shoes. That was the first time I had seen that type of Japanese footwear. All the enemy I had seen on Peleliu had worn the rubber-soled canvas split-toed tabi.

We encountered some Okinawans—mostly old men, women, and children. The Japanese had conscripted all the young men as laborers and a few as troops, so we saw few of them. We sent the civilians to the rear where they were put into internment camps so they couldn’t aid the enemy.

These people were the first civilians I had seen in a combat area. They were pathetic. The most pitiful things about the Okinawan civilians were that they were totally bewildered by the shock of our invasion, and they were scared to death of us. Countless times they passed us on the way to the rear with fear, dismay, and confusion on their faces.

The children were nearly all cute and bright-faced. They had round faces and dark eyes. The little boys usually had close-cropped hair, and the little girls had their shiny jet-black locks bobbed in the Japanese children’s style of the period. The children won our hearts. Nearly all of us gave them all the candy and rations we could spare. They were quicker to lose their fear of us than the older people, and we had some good laughs with them.

One of the funnier episodes I witnessed involved two Okinawan women and their small children. We had been ordered to halt and “take ten” (a ten-minute rest) before resuming our rapid advance across the island. My squad stopped near a typical Okinawan well constructed of stone and forming a basin about two feet deep and about four feet by six feet on the sides. Water bubbled out of a rocky hillside. We watched two women and their children getting a drink. They seemed a bit nervous and afraid of us, of course. But life had its demands with children about, so one woman sat on a rock, nonchalantly opened her kimono top, and began breast-feeding her small baby.

While the baby nursed, and we watched, the second child (about four years old) played with his mother’s sandals. The little fellow quickly tired of this and kept pestering his mother for attention. The second woman had her hands full with a small child of her own, so she wasn’t any help. The mother spoke sharply to her bored child, but he started climbing all over the baby and interfering with the nursing. As we looked on with keen interest, the exasperated mother removed her breast from the mouth of the nursing baby and pointed it at the face of the fractious brother. She squeezed her breast just as you would milk a cow and squirted a jet of milk into the child’s face. The startled boy began bawling at the top of his lungs while rubbing the milk out of his eyes.

We all roared with laughter, rolling around on the deck and holding our sides. The women looked up, not realizing why we were laughing, but began to grin because the tension was broken. The little recipient of the milk in the eyes stopped crying and started grinning, too.

“Get your gear on; we’re moving out,” came the word down the column. As we shouldered our weapons and ammo and moved out amid continued laughter, the story traveled along to the amusement of all. We passed the two smiling mothers and the grinning toddler, his cute face still wet with his mother’s milk.

SOURCE: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E. B. Sledge (Oxford U. Press, 1990), pp. 192-193 (reviewed here: “A biology professor after the war at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, Sledge brings an academic style to the text that flows easily from chapter to chapter.”)

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, Pacific, U.S., war