There's something appealing to me about the bleak and austere. I suppose it is my basically Stoic/Buddhist mindset and its emphasis on daily acknowledThere's something appealing to me about the bleak and austere. I suppose it is my basically Stoic/Buddhist mindset and its emphasis on daily acknowledgement of life's fleetingness--memento mori--that is the reason for this preference. I've been a keen reader of Shoah/Holocaust histories and memoirs: Primo Levi, of course, but also Lifton's The Nazi Doctors and Browning's Ordinary Men, about the Einsaatsgruppen, and much more. In time I moved on to Solzhenitsyn and the Russian Gulag. Now I'm in China in the political reeducation camps. My first excursion here was by way of Nien Cheng's incomparable Life and Death in Shanghai. That book starts in 1966, at the outset of the Mao's "Cultural Revolution."
Harry Wu's Bitter Winds starts earlier, during Mao's "Great Leap Forward." Mao was a megalomaniac whose ideological boorishness convulsed his nation causing the deaths of tens of million (Seventy million according to June Chang and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Untold Story.)
The Great Leap Forward was the Soviet-style collectivization of China's agricultural sector which produced the famine of 1958-61. Marxist/Leninist theory always had the profound undergirding of an absolute ignorance of market mechanisms. Of course, these mechanisms function whether one ignores them or not. When Mao and his henchmen ignored them he starved to death, just in this 3-year period, roughly (the figure is real but inexact) 40 million of his own countrymen and women.
Harry Wu was a kid in Catholic school in Shanghai in 1949 when the People's Liberation Army defeated Chang Kai Shek and the Nationalists. Harry's father, a rational person, a banker, who could not imagine the reign of wooden-headed ideologues that were about to descend on his nation, decided to stay when Mao took power. Big mistake. Harry's Catholic teachers, seeing the writing on the wall, fled.
In the interregnum, as the Communists took hold of the reins of power, Harry, a smart kid, read in the Party newspaper about his country's need for geologists to discover the raw materials for China's new industrialist future. He was accepted into a five-year program at a new Beijing institute. But academic work, which Harry was very good at, wasn't what was valued at school. What was valued was mindless reiterations of the Party line.
Harry became caught up in Mao's period of Party self-criticism known to us in the West as the "Hundred Flowers Campaign." ("Let a hundred flowers bloom," wrote the Great Helmsman, "and let a hundred schools of thought contend.") This was a trap to get people to incriminate themselves. Millions were so caught and Harry Wu was among them. He was jailed as a counter-revolutionary rightest. No, I'm not sure what that means either. To the Communists in power however it meant that Harry wasn't ideologically acceptable. It meant he had been born into a banker's family and as such was irrevocably tainted.
We in the West have a hard time understanding the Chinese reverence for family. Suffice it to say that millenia of Confucian familial culture, of ancestor worship, and strict adherence to paternal rule had now given way to an ideology in which family was to be jettisoned. Under Soviet-style Communism, which China was busily adopting, breaking from one's family in order to become a true socialist was encouraged. But even In the Soviet Union-- see Orlando Figes's The Whisperers-- the strides made in this direction were piecemeal. In China the neural-cultural hardwiring was too great. It was almost impossible for the average Chinese to discard family connections. Thus, individual "crimes" became family crimes. In Harry Wu's case--as in the cases of millions of other unfortunates--his family, his brothers, his sisters, his father, his step-mother-- suffered for Harry's crimes, which we in fact a reaction to his father's "crimes."
Poor Harry had come to adulthood in a setting, religious though it might be, which was based on reason. The Communist Party was not based on reason, and being so young in this new atmosphere of bootlicking ideologues, Harry could not learn to lie quickly enough. Sad to say, but his innocence, his inability to dissemble--Harry had been raised to speak the truth--doomed him. He spent the next 19 years undergoing an utterly stupid program of corrective labor. He almost starved to death a number of times. There are scenes of prisoners dropping like flies from starvation that are almost unbearably moving.
The book is a harrowing read. It was co-written with American Carolyn Wakeman after Harry was released and managed to get away to the U.S. Later he went back with Ed Bradley of CBS's "60 Minutes" in order to gather footage for an exposé on China's use of prison labor in the manufacture of export products. What we in the West know today about China's long use of slave labor we owe to Harry Wu, this book, and his groundbreaking television journalism.
Highly recommended, but grim, not for the faint of heart or those living sheltered lives.
An fascinating window on Imperial Qing China in the words of Emperor K'ang-Hsi (reigned 1661-1722). I've never read anything like it. To think that auAn fascinating window on Imperial Qing China in the words of Emperor K'ang-Hsi (reigned 1661-1722). I've never read anything like it. To think that author Spence created this "memoir" by assembling disparate fragments. The result is a dazzling continuous whole. Outstanding and highly recommended. ...more
This is a treat. The narrative is thin but consistent. Waley gives us excerpts from several Chinese-language sources about the nefarious doings of theThis is a treat. The narrative is thin but consistent. Waley gives us excerpts from several Chinese-language sources about the nefarious doings of the British. The first and the longest is the diary of Lin Tse-hsü, the famous Commissioner Lin, who, at the behest of the Qing emperor Tao-kuang (or Daoguang) sought to destroy the opium trade in China. An impossibility, of course, in a nation with such an endless unguarded coast. But Lin gave it his all. When about halfway through Lin's diary we read of the Emperor' insistence that Lin complete his task (again, an impossible one) so he can take up the reigns of a governorship in another part of China, we realize he is doomed. In time, when he can't deliver, he is investigated though not tried, and reduced in rank. It's sad to see the Chinese of the 1840s trying to respond militarily to the British. There is no command and control, no training, no planning. Lin's section, the longest, verges on a character study. It's fascinating. Subsequent diaries, one by Pei Ch'ing-ch'iao, a young man of no rank but with a gung-ho father, gives us the Chinese military's Keystones Cops-like response to British arms under General I-Ching. It would be laughable were it not so tragic. Further diaries include Chu Chih-yün's, a poet who lived near the Grand Canal outside the walls of Chinkiang, ninety miles up the Yangtze estuary. He tells us of the British encroachment on that town and "the horror, the horror," experienced by the residents. It's hard to believe Niall Ferguson now wants us to look on the gentle side of empire. Just think of all the wonderful things it gave to the world, he says. Ok, like what, bureaucracy? See Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons of Global Power. Sorry, Niall. That won't square the Brits with China. Besides, the Chinese were already known for their own homegrown style of administration back when the British were still crawling from the sea on vestigial limbs. It simply strikes one dumb to think that the Brits thought it their right to sell opium to the Chinese, thus creating a vast class of addicts, something of course never permitted in Merry England. Highly recommended....more
I think lawyers, prosecutors, investigators of all kinds, as well as writers, litterateurs, critics, and academics would like this book. It's about seI think lawyers, prosecutors, investigators of all kinds, as well as writers, litterateurs, critics, and academics would like this book. It's about sedition in imperial China In the early 18th century. But It's also about the astonishingly literary investigative procedures of the day. It is not a thriller, more a documentary. It can be a little dry at times. Recommended....more
I remember trying to read a volume of sutras which were the official translations from the Pali. It was so disappointing. Repetitive and abstruce, uttI remember trying to read a volume of sutras which were the official translations from the Pali. It was so disappointing. Repetitive and abstruce, utterly unreadable in fact. I will admit that this was in part my fault. I didn't know the literature as well then. My knowledge is still virtually schematic, but I've come across a few good bibliographies in Armstrong and elsewhere that have led me to the present volume. It is a thoughtful, semi-coherent translation of two sutras from the Sanskrit: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. The commentary is on target. (Except for the 10 pages or so of the Diamond Sutra when Conze offers no commentary at all, so impenetrable is the original text; this is just one way in which Conze seems careful to avoid discursive redoubts where there might be needless wheel spinning.) In other words, the book is well edited. My only word of caution would be to prepare yourself for the full out use of paradox. For a Westerner paradox can be frustrating. The text does ultimately make sense, but you may need to undergo multiple patient readings before it yields fully its charms. The process of reading such books, I have found, is like osmosis. One must immerse oneself in the text, and slowly the understanding of no-understanding comes about. But this book is mostly about how classical Buddhism was taught for many hundreds of years. For more direct access to the core of a streamlined form of American Buddhism that I have found transformative, I strongly recommend Pema Chödrön's books, especially Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times....more
I can recommend three excellent books on the late 20th-century Chinese experience. The first is Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai. This memoir bI can recommend three excellent books on the late 20th-century Chinese experience. The first is Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai. This memoir begins with Cheng’s victimization by the state at the onset of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in 1966. Harry Wu's Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag starts earlier, just after the Communist victory and takeover of 1949. Wu’s book is very good, but it does not rise to the literary level of Cheng’s. Wu’s mission was to expose the horrendous policy of slave labor as a means of increasing China’s foreign exchange, and his book succeeds admirably in that respect while giving us his own story of near-death starvation and political persecution.
I’d always thought Cheng's book unassailable. But now I’m going to raise Red Azalea to a level equal with it. Red Azalea takes apart the Chinese Communist experience with much the same rigorous assurance shown by Cheng, but its approach, its style, is quite different.
Red Azalea is a hypnotic book. It was written by a native-Chinese speaker who decided to use the writing of her memoir as her means of learning English. She studied English independently on coming to America, too, which was said to have included regular viewings of "Sesame Street." Yet when I think of how hard the task of writing is in any language, when I think of how far Min has had to come, her achievement bowls me over. How did she do It? As we read we begin to sense how. Min possesses a powerful mind, and this was both her ball and chain, as well as the reason for her survival.
Naturally, no quasi-rational thinker could possibly live contentedly under such tyranny. Mao — insidiously — used children to carry out the national calamity known as the "Cultural Revolution." No one else in his and Madame Mao's view was ideologically pure enough. At the time Min was an impressionable young girl. Her formative years outside the home were filled by ranting, wooden-headed ideologues who would soon set her — and millions of youngsters like her — loose on the “revisionist elements” and “capitalist sprouts” of Chinese society.
The memoir's first in-depth scene shows a Party secretary by the name of Chain, a mindless political cog, leading a "struggle meeting" against Min's beloved teacher, Autumn Leaves. Min can't be 12 here. Autumn Leaves's crime? Why, being born in the U.S. and teaching the subversive texts of Hans Christen Andersen. The teacher, an innocent of Chinese-American parentage, whose father loved China so much that he sent his only daughter back to the old country to be part of the great national resurgence, is manhandled by goons for being a "foreign spy" and forced to admit crimes which are nothing more than the calumnies of idiotic apparatchiks like Party Secretary Chain. One senses that the Autumn Leaves incident was in some sense the author's intellectual awakening. After this event, in which she was made to vociferously condemn her favorite teacher, she turns against the system.
Next we leap to age 18 or so, when Min was sent to Red Fire Farm, a collective farm on the Soviet model, near the East China Sea. Among those she meets there is Little Green, a beautiful, young woman who loves many of the things young women often love: makeup, nail polish, clothing, etc. The hours at Red Fire Farm are brutal: 5 am to 9 pm. The Party secretary is Yan, a woman with a massive physique who is legendary for her ability to haul great loads all day like an ox. Late in the wee hours one night Min and her barracks-mates are awakened and told to get their weapons and gear. Yan then leads her “soldiers” on a belly-crawl to a nearby stand of bamboo. Here sounds of sexual gratification fill the air. "Now," Yan shouts, and at that instant all the young women snap on flashlights. There we see the bare-assed Little Green inflagrante delicto with a local man. "Rapist," shouts Yan, "rapist." Little Green, the victim, is whisked away. In short order the man is executed. In the coming weeks, Little Green goes insane. Her hygiene declines radically. When she returns to the farm from the asylum she is as "big as a bear," presumably from medication, her great beauty destroyed.
Now, unaccountably, or so Min feels, she finds her own sexuality asserting itself. It puzzles her. Amid this amorphous desire, she finds herself drawn to the workhorse Yan who is also her superior. She knows Yan is to blame for Little Green's ruin, and she holds this against her, yet she cannot suppress her admiration for the woman. What follows are two beautiful stretches of portraiture. The first is of Comrade Lu, Yan's second in command, and a spewer of Maoist homilies. The other is of Yan herself. Yan lacks Lu's gift of revolutionary gab and suffers for it. Lu, who wants to bump Yan from her post, taunts her until Yan's inarticulateness explodes in curses. Apparatchik Lu sleeps with a skull which she kisses goodnight at lights out. Such are the head games and displays of Marxist-Leninist spunk that some of these revolutionaries adopt.
When Yan confesses her love for Leopard Lee, a young man running a nearby collective, Min writes letters in Yan's name and also serves as go between. But Lee isn't interested and doesn’t reply. Long discussions ensue between Min and Yan as to why this might be. Perhaps he's busy, or, like Yan, simply not gifted with the pen. Their discussions intensify. They pull their sleeping rolls next to each other under the same mosquito net. With their minds bent toward the problem of Leopard Lee, they do not see their own growing physical attraction for each other. This is beautifully done. A mutual affection overcomes them almost unawares, and the reader wonders if he might not also be experiencing something akin to their own delight when they finally discover each other.
I usually dislike sex in literature for the simple reason that it isn't sex but text, a poor approximation of sexual experience. Almost always sex scenes seem grafted on in literature, like an excrescence, interrupting the flow of the story. Min’s great achievement has been to make the lovemaking an integral part of the development of her characters. She produces erotic passages that I have read and reread, and yet I cannot see how they were done. There seems to be no artifice. Min’s writing has the flatness of Wu and his cowriter, Carolyn Wakeman, but Min possesses a lyrical gift as well so her English sings. I wondered if this was not simply what happens when the Chinese pictograph becomes English. For Min’s writing, especially in the early sections, produces a lightly rhythmic, almost percussive effect. I've read many translations from the Chinese, and the works of many speakers like Ha Jin writing in English, and Min's achievement is unlike anything I’ve ever come across. It is either genius or some form of naïve mastery.
At this point in the narrative something fantastic happens. One day a car appears at the farm while Min and Yan and others are slaving in the fields. A retinue of five or six people emerge in crisp uniforms with clipboards. They’re clearly from a higher Party echelon, an elite one. It turns out they are scouts searching for the raw talent who will ultimately play the role of the great Chinese female revolutionary, Red Azalea. At first it feels like a Hollywood story arc has been plunked down in the midst of the wretched collective farm. I confess I worried that the book would now turn into a familiar rags to riches tale, that we would now follow Min on her triumphal progress. (Min was eventually spirited off to America by Joan Chen, a fine actress perhaps best known for her work in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.) That, thankfully, doesn't happen.
When Min returns to Shanghai, her hometown, where she will complete the competition for the role of Red Azalea at a local film studio, the deceit and political backstabbing reach new lows. Min is viewed as the ideal peasant type to play Red Azalea, the politically correct choice. The others thus fear her “ideological” purity and quickly move to smear her as a “capitalist sprout" and “revisionist element.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet marshaled against her is an older actress, Soviet Wong, who studied acting long ago in Moscow, but whose style is now too polished and professional — too Western — and so she is out of favor. Her machinations, her base cruelty and underhandedness astounds the reader and makes the skull-kissing Lu seem a veritable girl scout.
Now we come to the most extraordinary part of the book. I don’t want to say too much about it. This closing section centers on Min’s growing relationship with the man known as the Supervisor. I was dazzled by Min’s interchanges with the Supervisor, who was part of Madame Mao’s — Jiang Qing’s — Beijing circle. Suffice it to say that the language of sexual desire and longing she used so effectively when describing her earlier relationship with Yan becomes, perhaps because of her improved English, almost exponentially more intense. The way their love has to hide itself away here, the way it has to go underground because of the Supervisor’s high political standing, approaches the tragic.
Red Azalea is a masterpiece of emotional honesty. One never sees where it’s going. I will read it again — and perhaps again. For admirers of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai it is essential reading. Prepare yourselves, some of you, the lucky ones, for an extraordinary literary experience....more
Ha Jin is subtle. He doesn't beat us over the head with an overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. So the non-Chinese reader can be a little lostHa Jin is subtle. He doesn't beat us over the head with an overview of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. So the non-Chinese reader can be a little lost here without that background. (The best preparation I can think of is Nien Cheng's magnificent Life and Death in Shanghai.) The Cultural Revolution was a world turned upside down. Anyone subject to foreign influences---intellectuals, officials, students, artists and dissidents---were labeled "rightists" or "counterrevolutionaries." They were humiliated, imprisoned, demoted and fired from their positions. They were sent to labor and re-education camps where they were tortured and killed. The impact on the lives of innocent Chinese is almost beyond imagination. In their biography, Mao, authors Chang and Halliday claim that 70 million Chinese were killed by Mao in peacetime due to his various wrong-headed policies.
In the case of the novel's Professor Yang, it is clear that his life has been utterly destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, and that the stroke he has 12 years later is merely its long term result. Sent to a re-education camp during the period--roughly 1966-76--Yang drifts away from his wife, who takes up with another man to get by in Chinese society. Yang may understand the practicality of that move on some level, but after the stroke, when we come upon him in the hospital, out pours all his humiliation and invective in an almost nonstop torrent of abuse. Narrator Jian, Yang's student, watches over him while arrangements are made for Yang's family members to care for him. During this time he pieces together the tragedy of his teacher's life, and he becomes determined not to repeat it. He realizes his own life must change after a last minute trip to Tiananmen Square. It is 1989, just before the Red Army cracks down on the the student movement. Ha Jin presents the reader with a pattern: Prof. Yang's life destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, and now the threat of Tiananmen on narrator Jian's, who becomes hunted as a "counterrevolutionary." The cycle of history repeats itself. Jian admits:
I saw China in the form of an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself. Insatiable, she had eaten many tender lives before, was gobbling up new flesh and blood now, and would surely swallow more. Unable to suppress the horrible vision, all day I said to myself, 'China is an old bitch that eats her own puppies!' How my head throbbed, and how my heart writhed and shuddered! With the commotion of two nights ago still in my ears, I feared I was going to lose my mind.
Thus Jian becomes one of the "crazed," too. There are, Jin implies, millions like him. China has learned nothing from its own past since it possesses no genuine tradition of historical inquiry. In the Santayanan sense then it is doomed to repeat its worst mistakes. But Jian sees the pattern, and he is determined not to be devoured....more
Notes 1. The book is about the rise of one Hong Xiuquan in the mid-19th century China to become leader of the Christian millenarian sect that caused thNotes 1. The book is about the rise of one Hong Xiuquan in the mid-19th century China to become leader of the Christian millenarian sect that caused the Taiping Rebellion.
2. The book for me really begins with the excellent overview of the pantheistic religious traditions prevalent in Hong Xiuquan's home district of Hua, about forty miles north of Canton. This is no doubt the ignorance against which Hong will rant in furture chapters.
3. For some reason, perhaps because it's hardwired into me by generations of forebears who were devoutly Christian, the eschatalogical impulse fascinates me and has prompted the reading of a number of books about the phenomenon. Especially recommended is Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium. See my review.
4. What I find fascinating is the common elements that each of these millenarian movements have. These include but are not limited to: (1) disfavor with the current government; (2) iconoclasm, or destruction of the symbols and structures of other religions, invariably seen as corrupt, if not demonic; (3) armed response to threats, real and perceived; (4) direct connection with God and Jesus through entranced "channelers."
5. In addition to Cohn (above), see Backlands: The Canudos Rebellion by Euclida Da Cunha, in Penguin, about Antonio Conselhiero, another charismatic millenarian, active in rural Brazil in the late 19th century who was ultimately brought down by a genocidal campaign of the Brazilian government....more