Explaining China, Part II: What Do I Know, About China, and How Did I Learn It?

PRC and ROC and Barbarian Nations

In the map above, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is shown in red, while the Republic of China (ROC) is shown in yellow. “Barbarian” nations (from the point of view of the Han, or the ethnic group we call “Chinese” in English) are shown in orange, and both oceans and large lakes are shown in blue. The third (and only other) majority-Han nation, the island city-state called Singapore, is not shown on this map, as it is too far to the South to be seen here. From the point of view of the Han, “barbarians” have been, historically, those humans who were not Han, while “the Han” can be translated as “the people.”

This historical xenophobia I just described among the Han is hardly unique; it is, in my opinion, simply human nature. The British rock band Pink Floyd explained this, quite well, in the following song, “Us and Them,” from 1973’s classic Dark Side of the Moon. This album, in the form of a cassette tape which had to be purchased by my parents (for I would not let go of it in the store we were in), happens to be the first musical album I actually owned, back when it was newly-released (I was born in 1968). If you choose to listen to this song, please consider this idea of xenophobia, as simply being a human characteristic, while it plays.

Ancient Greeks had the same “us and them” attitude about those who did not speak Greek, and the English word “barbarian” is derived from Greek, with a meaning which parallels what I have described in China. Eurocentrism, in general, in the study of “world history,” is well-known. Moving to another continent, the people where I live, the USA, are famous for learning geography one nation at a time . . . as we go to war with them, of course. Only a tiny percentage of Americans knew where either Korea was located until we went to war there, and we (as a people) did not know where Vietnam was until we went to war there. More recently, Americans learned — twice! — where Iraq is, though many of us still, inexplicably, confuse it with Iran. This list of xenophobic nations is far from complete, but these examples are sufficient to make the point.

When, in 1939, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered the famous phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was referring to the Soviet Union (or USSR), although the proper noun he actually used was “Russia.” However, this quotation applies equally well to the PRC, which has one indisputable advantage over the USSR: the People’s Republic of China still exists, while the Soviet Union does not. In the last post here, I began an ambitious series, with the goal of explaining China. I promised, then, that my next post in the series would explain my qualifications to write on the subject of the PRC, the ROC, Greater China, and the Han — so that’s what I need to do now.

I am currently working on my second master’s degree, in an unrelated field (gifted, talented, and creative education). However, my first master’s degree was obtained in 1996, when Deng Xiaoping, while no longer the PRC’s “paramount leader,” was still seen as its most prominent retired elder statesman. It was Deng Xiaoping, primarily, who made (and defended) the decision to send the tanks in, and crush the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June of 1989, which I watched as they happened, on live TV. I was horrified by those events, and this has not changed.

During the early 1990s, I began studying the economic reforms which made the era of Deng Xiaoping so different from Chairman Mao’s China, trying to figure out the solution to a big puzzle: how so much economic growth could be coming from an area dominated by a huge, totalitarian, country which, at that time and now, was one of the few remaining nations on Earth which still claimed to be Communist. This study was done during the time of the “New Asia” investment bubble, as it was called after it “popped” (as all investment bubbles do, sooner or later). New Asia’s economic growth was led by the “Four Tigers” of Hong Kong (still a British colony, at that time), Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. South Korea is, of course, Korean, but the other three “tigers,” all had, and still have, majority-Han populations. What money I had, I invested in the Four Tigers, and I made significant profits doing so, which, in turn, led to a general interest in East Asia. 

Motivated by simple human avarice, I studied the Four Tigers intensely, leading me to focus (to the extent made possible by the course offerings) on 20th Century East Asian history, during the coursework for my first master’s degree. There was a problem with this, though, and I was unaware of it at the time. My university (a different one than the one I attend now) had only one East Asian history professor, and he was very much a Sinophile. Sinophiles love China uncritically, or with the minimal amount of criticism they can get away with. When we studied the rise to power of Mao Zedong, and the PRC under the thumb of Chairman Mao, I heard it explained by a man who viewed China, and Chairman Mao, through rose-colored glasses, even while teaching about others who made the same error, to an even greater degree. I had already read one book about the Cultural Revolution, earlier in the 1980s, so I was skeptical, but he was also my only professor. The result was confusion. This was the book I had already read, along with a link to a page on Amazon where you can purchase it, and easily find and purchase the Pink Floyd music posted earlier, if you wish to do so. This is Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, and you can buy it at https://www.amazon.com/Son-Revolution-Liang-Heng/dp/0394722744/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468869380&sr=8-1&keywords=son+of+the+revolution.

Son of the Revolution

This book was read for an undergraduate sociology course, at my first college, during the Reagan years. The important thing to know about Liang Heng, the book’s primary author, is that he was, himself, of the Han, as well as being from the PRC itself. The professor for this course wanted us to see the horror of a mass movement gone horribly wrong, and she chose this insider’s view of the Cultural Revolution, during which I was born, to do that. What I heard from my East Asian history professor did not mesh well with what I was taught by my East Asian history professor, and so I left that degree program confused. This professor’s argument, in a nutshell, was Chairman Mao was a figure of tremendous importance (true) who had good intentions (false), and tried to do amazing things (half-true, and half-false by omission, for these were amazing and horribly evil things), but had them turn out wrong (true), with many millions of his own people dying as a result, over and over (definitely true; Mao’s total death total exceeds that of Hitler or Stalin, either one). The “good intentions” part was what confused me, of course, for Mao was a monster, yet, from my later professor, I was hearing him described as a Great and Important Man.

I would have remained in this confused state, has I not also read this book, also written, primarily, by a person of the Han: the amazing Jung Chang, who has her own page on Amazon, at http://www.amazon.com/Jung-Chang/e/B00N3U50ZO/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1468870698&sr=8-2-ent. (On that page, I notice she has a newer book out, which I have not read, and she is such a fantastic author that I am buying it now.) This, by contrast, was her first well-known book, and the one I read as an undergraduate:

wild swans

Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of Han women: Jung Chang’s maternal grandmother (who had bound feet, and could barely walk, for that reason), then the author’s mother, and then finally Jung Chang herself, who found herself a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 14. This book tells their story, and is riveting. It has nothing nice to say about Chairman Mao, and contains much criticism of “The Great Helmsman,” as his cult of personality enthusiastically called him, yet he is not the focus of Wild Swans. The author’s family, over three generations, is.

I did my master’s degree work from the Sinophile professor described earlier, and then, later on still, I encountered Sinophobes. The opposite of Sinophiles, people who have Sinophobia have nothing nice to say about China, nor the Han. They hate and fear things Chinese because they fear the unknown — in other words, Sinophobia is a more specific form of xenophobia. 

So, first, I read Liang Heng, and then, later, I started reading Jung Chang. Next, I heard the Maoist viewpoint explained quite thoroughly by my Sinophile professor, while my reading of Liang Heng and Jung Chang had exposed me to an anti-Mao, but non-Sinophobic, point of view, which is a direct consequence of the fact that both authors were actually of the Han, and had direct exposure to Maoism. Later came the Sinophobes, and their written and spoken, anti-Chinese, case for . . . whatever. (Actually, the Sinophobes never make a case for anything, unless one counts hating and fearing China and the Han as being “for” something. I do not.) Later still, one of my close friends studied ancient Chinese history and philosophy extensively, and we had (and still have) many talks about both ancient and modern China, including Chairman Mao, and the silliness of the Sinophobes, but this friend is more interested in talking about, say, Confucianism, rather than Maoism, or Mao himself. I was primed to learn the truth about Mao, but had to wait for the right opportunity.

Think about this, please. How many books have been written that accurately describe Stalin as a monster? How many exist about Hitler? I should not have had to wait so long to find out something about Mao I felt I could believe, and that described him as the monster he was, but wait I did, for no such book existed . . . until Jung Chang came to my rescue, with her next book, after 1991’s Wild Swans. All 800+ pages of it.

mao the unknown story

It took her many years to write this tome, and it was published in 2005. She grew up under Mao, having been born in 1952, not long after the revolution of 1949, which established the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao finally died in 1976. Two years after that, Jung Chang was sent to Great Britain as a college student, on a government scholarship. Being highly intelligent, and not wanting to return to China, she went on to become the first of the Han to receive a Ph.D. at any British university. This book, focused on Mao’s formative years, rise to power, and tyrannical rule, all the way to his death, is, as its subtitle states, “The Unknown Story” of this historical period. Jung Chang was uniquely qualified to write this story, having lived through so much of the events described in her book. She knew how expendable people were to Mao, having witnessed it, and survived. To the extent possible (and she was quite resourceful on this point) she used primary sources. This is why I give her much credibility. 

These are the ways I have learned about China: from three books by two of the Han, long talks with a personal friend, and two college professors with different points of view on China, and Mao in particular. I have rejected the points of view of both the Sinophiles and the Sinophobes, and now I try to learn what I can from other sources, especially sources who are, themselves, of the Han — although I am weakened in this respect by the fact that I am only bilingual, with my two languages being mathematics and English, in that order. If you think this approach makes sense, I hope you will read my other posts, past and future, about China and the Han.

My Four Favorite Authors

favorite authors

Whenever people ask me to name my favorite author, I always have to ask them to be more specific, for I cannot bring myself to choose just one. If gender is specified, and either fiction or non-fiction is, as well, then I am able to choose a favorite author in each of the resulting four categories.

My two favorite writers of fiction, Flannery O’Connor and Robert A. Heinlein, are shown at the top. Flannery O’Conner was often described as a Southern gothic writer with an excellent ability to describe the grotesque, mostly with short stories, while Robert Heinlein was often called the greatest of all writers in the genre of science fiction. I wish it were possible for them to write even more, but, unlike the two authors described next, they are no longer living.

Shown below O’Connor and Heinlein are my two favorite authors of non-fiction, Jung Chang and Sam Harris. Jung Chang writes about Chinese history, eloquently, from the perspective of someone who actually was a Red Guard during the utterly insane period known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, but later managed to get out of the People’s Republic — and, crucially, she was also able to mentally escape the powerful cult of personality which surrounded that nation’s leader for over two decades, Chairman Mao Zedong. She has gone on to become one of Mao’s harshest critics.

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, began his career as an author by writing books criticizing religion, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. He has since moved on to other topics (and writing better books than his earlier work, in my opinion), such as the corrosive effects of lying, the question of the existence or non-existence of free will, and a scientific approach to dealing with issues involving good and evil. He also has a new book coming out in September.

Other than their amazing skill at the difficult craft of writing, these four have little in common . . . but who wants to read the same sort of books all the time? If you aren’t familiar with their work already, I recommend giving each of them a read, and seeing what you think of their books. For one of them, Sam Harris, you can even give some of his writing a try for free, for he maintains a blog you can check out for yourself, at http://www.samharris.org.

For the other three, it isn’t quite that easy to get started, but their books may still be found in any decent public library, or, of course, websites such as Amazon. For O’Connor, the best place to start is with her collected short stories (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Stories-Flannery-OConnor/dp/0374515360/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1405366654&sr=8-2&keywords=collected+short+stories+of+flannery+o%27connor). For Jung Chang, I recommend starting with the story of what happened, against the tumultuous backdrop of Chinese history, to her grandmother, mother, and finally herself, in Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China (see http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Swans-Three-Daughters-China/dp/0743246985/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405366792&sr=1-1&keywords=wild+swans). Heinlein’s works are numerous, and there are many good starting places to be found. Among the best books with which to start reading Heinlein are Stranger in a Strange Land (his most famous work), Friday, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Job:  A Comedy of Justice. Amazon’s Robert Heinlein page may be found at http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Heinlein/e/B005GDIOHM/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1405367065&sr=1-2-ent.

Enjoy, and, if you have book recommendations of your own, I invite you to leave them in a comment to this post.