Tag Archives: Cultural Revolution

Book: China Since 1911

China Since 1911

Explains 1911 to 1989 in more political detail than you’ll ever need to know!
315 pages, 

China Since 1911 is told from a purely political perspective. This book is a concise, authoritative historical account of the 1911 Nationalist revolution to the anti-reform protests of 1989. This period of history was one of China’s most tumultuous: warlords fought each other in the 1910s, the Nationalist regime collapsed into mini-states in the 1920s, Japan invaded in the 1930s, then World War II broke out in the 1940s. Widespread famine took root in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution uprooted what little progress China had made in the 1960s, Mao’s death in the 1970s left China politically divided and spiritually lost, then anti-corruption protests spread across the nation from west to east in the 1980s, the most famous of which took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Only the last chapter of this book, when the dust starts to settle, does China show any signs of hope!

You’ll learn almost nothing about Chinese culture from this book. It documents the internal political struggles that gave rise to certain (crazy) decisions, but makes almost no comment on the social implications of those decisions. The text is littered with names of medium-level Chinese officials whom I’ll never remember. For a social history, I recommend reading Mao’s Last DancerWild Swans or the soothing 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)(Chinese) instead.

While China Since 1911 is extremely well-researched, there was not enough social emphasis for my liking. This book should be renamed China’s Political Leadership since 1911 instead. 

 

Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans
A Modern Chinese Classic

Bloody, detailed, action-packed account of Chinese history from the warlord-ridden 1920s to the reformist 1980s from the perspective of three generations in one family.
666 pages, ★★★★★

Through the eyes of three generations of women in one family, we learn about China’s tumultuous transition from the corrupt “warlords & concubines” era in the 1920s, to the “heaven on earth” 1950s, to the rough 1960s to the “post-Mao, reformist era” of the 1980s. Together, over six decades, their stories document China from both urban and rural perspectives, from both coastal and inland perspectives, and from the perspectives of every rung on the social ladder. Wild Swans covers basically every aspect of China’s transition—it’s an excellent starting point for studying modern Chinese history.

There’s also focus on Chairman Mao in this book. This is inevitable, as he dominated every Chinese person’s life from the Lei Feng cult (1962) to the end of the worst of the Cultural Revolution (1972). Jung Chang’s next book is a 1000-page biography of the Chairman himself, and it’s on my reading list.

[The next 984 words are omitted. After I wrote them, I felt uncomfortable about putting them online. Email me if you want a copy.]

In conclusion, while Communist China was bloody, violent and imperfect, Wild Swans suggests it was a more progressive and much happier place to live than the Nationalist China that preceded it. This conclusion isn’t obvious, however, from the number of pages that Wild Swans devotes to graphic descriptions of each historical episode. Wild Swans also paints a more flattering picture of the Communist regime than does Mao’s Last Dancer, whose author was born after Nationalist rule had ended.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who loves modern Chinese history★★★★★

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★

Book: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
So red. Who could resist?

Simple, plod-along depiction of rural life from 1949 to today.
552 pages, ★ on an e-reader; possibly five stars in hardback.

Mo Yan is famous for writing novels set in the Chinese countryside. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan describes the growth of modern rural China (post-1949) through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating landlord called Ximen Nao (闹西门).

Protagonist Ximen Nao begins the novel as a successful businessman in Gaomi Township, Shandong Province. At the start of the novel, he is tortured and killed as a “capitalist counter-revolutionary” in the 1949 revolution. The story proceeds through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating protagonist; the book’s six parts represent each of his reincarnations. Between lives, Yama, lord of the underworld, determines Ximen Nao’s fate:

  • Before New China (1949): human
  • New China (1949) to the Great Leap Forward (1957): donkey
  • Great Leap Forward (1957) to the Cultural Revolution (1966): ox
  • Cultural Revolution (1966) to the death of Chairman Mao (1976): pig
  • Death of Chairman Mao (1976) to Opening Up and Reform (1992): dog
  • Opening Up and Reform (1992) to the year 2000: monkey, then a child

He lives in the same village throughout these lifetimes, witnessing—sometimes interacting with—his wife, children and friends from when he was a human.

Two aspects of this book were most interesting. First, there’s how China changed suddenly in 1949, not just politically (into a one-party state) and economically (with the onset of Communism), but also socially: people got killed, elevated, and demoted; and romantic couples re-arranged themselves with new society. Legalising divorce resulted in a flood of second-marriages, step-parents and intertwined family trees (I drew a character map for this book, but it looks too messy to be of use!)

Second, we watch China transform from a backward agrarian society led by Chairman Mao into the BMW-driving, hair- (and skin-) bleaching society that we see today. Protagonist Ximen Nao reincarnates himself every time China reincarnates itself (1949, 1957, 1966, 1976 and 1992). Even though Life And Death is fictional, it’s believable and historically accurate, and takes the perspective of an average Chinese rural dweller. (See also Zhang Yimou’s flim, To Live, which also does this very well). Historical texts such as China Since 1949, however, are too dry for many readers, and usually focus on top-level party politics, rather than on ordinary people’s lives.

There’s humour in this book, but it’s too long to read on an e-reader. It gets just four stars from me, but someone with a hardback copy might give it five.