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Saturday, July 15, 2017


THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO MODERN CHINA (Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2002)
By Vanessa Lide Whitcomb and Michael Brown
Rev. by Hugh Murray
            This is a good, short guide to China’s long history.  But there are problems.  In a chapter on the “Lay of the Land,” the authors include much essential description of the vast and varied areas of China.  However, the one map is utterly inadequate, with no markings for major rivers, the great wall, the grand canal, or the size of territories included within major historical dynasties.  Next, there seems to be a left-leaning bias – thus (p. 266) “ the Korean war broke out,” rather than the North’s leader Kim Il Sung had received Stalin’s permission to invade the southern half of the peninsula.  The authors twice quote Owen Lattimore (44, 51) not because his words were so incisive, but as a way to reject the Cold War Republican charges that Lattimore and other “progressive” authorities who bashed Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, may have helped Mao Zedong and the Communists seize power in China after WWII.  Indeed, the book devotes only one page to the civil war between Chiang and Mao that followed WWII.
            Interesting also is their treatment of the “Hundred Flowers Debacle.” (141)  The authors vacillate on the sincerity of Mao’s call to let a hundred flowers bloom, “to let a hundred schools of thought contend” for what should be the best policies for China, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by the victorious Communist forces in 1949.  When many scholars and intellectuals responded with open criticism of the Party and of Mao during the blooming flowers campaign of 1956-57, Mao suddenly reversed his policy and the Communist Party cracked down.  Soon “some 300,000 intellectuals were denounced, their lives and careers ruined.  Others, not so fortunate, were executed.”  The authors wonder if Mao was sincere in calling for free speech, or simply using his call for openness as a ploy to expose and entrap dissidents.(141)
            The History Channel in 2016 telecast a special on Mao, and it asserted that when the Long March was completed, and Mao’s residue forces finally reached Yanan, the Left was already dominant in the area.  But it was less organized, more student centered, more tolerant.  Mao planned to change that.  His military took control and he imposed more “discipline” on the area.  Then he urged criticism, and a wall of public announcements and critiques was suddenly plastered with suggested improvements and criticism of Mao’s policies.  Mao discovered the main critic, had him arrested, and was there when his men began their lessons on the imprisoned young critic.  For starters, they began by bending his knee in ways that are unnatural but cause incredible pain.  Then they tortured him in ways to inflict ever more pain.  Finally, they killed him.  When word got out, criticism of Mao ceased.  The implementation may have been original to Mao, but the process can be traced back to Lenin and the early days of the Communist state.  The Communists had asked author Maxim Gorki with help in organizing a large gathering of Russian authors and intellectuals.  Gorki did so.  Soon, many of the participants were arrested by the Bolshevik government.  When Gorki complained, Lenin quoted Gorki’s own words that intellectuals were often “irresponsible,” and how the new state could not afford such irresponsibility by bourgeois intellectuals but required instead those who could speak for the workers.  Mao’s flowers, like those of Lenin earlier, seemed to bloom and quickly wilt, at die, in prison.
            There are some errors in this book.  Not in 2002 when it was published, and not even now in 2017, is the population of China 3.4 billion!(6)  The population then was more like 1.4 billion.  The authors got something else backward – China is a huge importer, NOT exporter, of chicken feet.(273)  The authors appear wrong in their prediction: “By fits and starts the process of [North and South Korean] unification seems to be underway.”(238)  While the authors rightly credit Chinese with many inventions, the authors can exaggerate: “The invention of paper [by the Chinese] had a profound influence on the world.  Prior to its existence, parchment was the only writing material available…”(105)  Wrong.  Papyrus scrolls had filled the shelves of the Library of Alexandria and other places.  We all use initials and other forms to save time and space.  I suspect one of the authors used “CM” to mean one thing; and the other mistook the meaning.  So the book notes that in 1848 Karl Marx published “The Common Man.” (43)  In 1848 Marx published The Communist Manifesto.  And one can dispute the number of Chinese who died in various social engineering experiments by the Communists under Mao – 20 million?  Or 50 million?
            Strangely missing from the book is mention of Mao’s policy that pre-dated the well-known “one-child policy” of his successors.  As Mao pondered the possibility of nuclear war against the capitalist nations, or even against the USSR, he believed that China could survive if its population were large enough.  Thus, large families were encouraged.  Later, his successors sought to raise the standard of living, in part, by imposing the one-child policy, at least on urban dwellers.  Missing entirely from the discussion of the WWII era are the different types of experiences  - as few Chinese resided in Mao’s Communist-run areas of China, more in Chiang’s Nationalist China, whose temporary capital was Chungqing, while probably the largest number of Chinese then resided under Japanese occupation: in Manchukuo, and in Wang Jing-wei’s “Reorganized” Chinese government located it Nanjing (a collaborationist government like Marshall Petain’s in France.), and in other Japanese occupied areas of China.  On the other hand the authors report that when the terra cotta soldiers of the ancient emperor Qin were discovered during the Cultural Revolution, Zhou EnLai ordered they be reburied; he feared the Red Guard fanatics of the Cultural Revolution would destroy them.  He ordered, rebury them to save them.(148)
            The authors do make some important conclusions.  China’s efforts in WWII were important for the Allies.  “The bulk of the Chinese fighting had been done by Chiang’s forces, while the communists stayed on the sidelines and built party solidarity.”(127)  The authors calculate that during WWII, 1.3 million Chinese were killed, and another 130,000 missing, for a total 1.43 killed and presumed dead.(127)  Mao had many plans for China, and he and the CCP implemented the Great Leap Forward, to industrialize the nation and collectivize the peasantry.  The result was a man-made famine, 1959-61, in which “it is estimated that as many as 20 million Chinese people starved to death.”(144)  In 1976, with the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Deng Xioaping defeated “the Gang of 4” to succeed Mao.  “Deng took over the government of a country that had just lost 30 million people to famine and the purges of the Cultural Revolution.”(155)  Some anti-communist estimates of the cost of Mao’s egalitarian efforts range up to 50 million Chinese killed.  With such a high cost for “equality,” might China have fared better under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists?  Or even by making a deal with the Japanese, as sought by Wang Jing-wei and his “Reorganized,” collaborationist government?

Despite a few errors, one can learn much from this fast-paced guide to China.   A