around the bend with mao zedong

Sun, 26 Jan 97 19:22:23 CST

In 1965, Dr Li Zhisui, Mao Zedong's personal physician, was recruited
into what was called the Socialist Education Program. He and those Sent
Down with him were assigned to a destitute village in Zhejiang Province.
As presented by Dr Li, the Socialist Education Program was a wasteful
exercise whereby privileged city people, knowing nothing of agriculture
or village problems, were supposed to investigate rural party and state
mangagement, ostensibly to uncover graft, waste, and corruption; but this
was a delusion. As Dr Li presented it, the Socialist Education Program
amounted to an elaborate waste of time on both sides, as the city people
could not possibly learn enough about how villagers were living and working
to know if any abuses existed, let alone assess their significance, given
the disparity between the living standards of the city people and the poor-
beyond-all-imagination villagers.

Conspicuously standing out, among these seemingly equally miserable
villagers, according to Dr Li, was one wretch who worked at harder tasks,
and worked longer hours, than the other miserable people in the village.
He appeared to Dr Li so apathetic or psychically destroyed that he was
incapable of complaining about the obvious discrimination against him.
It turned out that he was, in terms of the Maoist system of hereditary
"social origins," a "landlord's son." This, says Dr Li, was the accidental
consequence of a legal fiction. The man's family had been on the very edge
of starvation, so had him, as a boy, fictively adopted by a landlord in
order to help ensure his sheer survival. Thus, having benefited from the
adoption merely to the extent of not having died of malnutrition, he was
morally tainted by reason of "class origin." In every village in China,
the people were assigned to categories such as landlord, rich peasant,
middle peasant, and poor peasant, in principle in terms of the labour
theory of value, ie, whether they were living off the labour of others,
supporting others by their labour, both, or neither. There were finer,
more marginal distinctions, such as "lower-middle peasant." As these
distinctions were hereditary, and had an impact on one's life chances,
including mobility prospects, marriageability, accessibility to officialdom,
admissibility into educational institutions, or any marginal increment of
invidious distinction or social privilege whatever, it was desirable,
perhaps imperative, to be classified as lowly, therewith morally highly,
as possible.

According to the Ming dynasty specialist Ray Huang, Zhu Yuanzhang, the
founder of the Ming, who began his career as a peasant guerrilla and ended
as an autocratic monarch who reigned 1368-1398, ordered erected in each
village pavilions bearing name-plaques of virtuous persons and evildoers.
As the whole tenor of the Ming social policy was in the direction of
hereditary occupational status, it is probable that, insofar as this piece
of legislation was enforced, it would have the effect of transmitting a
hereditary taint to those designated as village troublemakers and their
descendants after them.
Zhu Yuanzhang, as Dr Li Zhisui informs us, was so much Mao Zedong's role
model or idol that, when the Ming founder's persecutory manias were compared
(by Wu Han, an authority on the Ming Dynasty and biographer of Zhu Yuanzhang)
to the reactionary repression perpetrated by Mao Zedong's worst enemy, Chiang
Kai-Shek, Mao found complimentary things to say about Chiang Kai-Shek!

A problem of interpretation in modern history is thus opened up: What did
Mao Zedong know about the life and times of Zhu Yuanzhang, and when did he
know it? Dr Li was, himself, not interested in Ming dynasty history, but
was in effect ordered, as part of doing his job, to know something about
it in order to communicate with his patient, who was himself "obsessively
interested" in Ming history in general and the life of Zhu Yuanzhang in
particular. Here was a national leader whose experience of higher education
was confined to a spell of employment in the library of Beijing University
and elsewise hanging out around the intellectual luminaries involved in
the May Fourth Movement (of 1919) during the 1920s, whose members included
Chen Duxiu and other founders of the Chinese Communist Party. But no formal
academic work whatever. Yet he felt entitled to criticize Wu Han, China's
leading authority on Zhu Yuanzhang and Professor of History at Beijing
University, for "factual inaccuracies," according to Dr Li Zhisui.

The historical Zhu Yuanzhang was not merely born a peasant, like Mao
Zedong. He was likewise self-taught. If anything, he was even more prolific
as a writer than Mao himself. He took over a China reduced to silly putty,
depopulated by Bubonic Plague and further immiserated by warfare. He saw
himself as restoring Authentic Chinese Tradition following foreign (Mongol)
occupation and the moral corruption of commercialism run riot. It so happened
that the preexisting centers of Chinese international trade, industrial
production, and interregional commerce were rendered desolate by disease,
bankrupted by business collapse, and situated in the bailiwicks of political
enemies (eg, the formerly fabulously rich city of Suzhou, capital of a warlord
state whose conquered ruler, once dead, was pilloried for his sybaritic
lifestyle, including alleged ownership of a solid gold bathtub). The vested
interests of the "Song Economic Revolution" and its further development under
the Mongols went unrepresented or their representatives were dead or both.
The Chinese Tradition that Zhu Yuanzhang was restoring represented a
temporary aberration. Which got institutionalized, sent off in a different
developmental trajectory (ie, marketization without technical change) and
rigidified. The state personally created by Zhu Yuanzhang, according to
Ray Huang, was resistant to "social dislocation" due to technical innovation.
Such that, for example, the famous Upright or Model Official, Hai Rui
(1510-1587) was moved to prohibit the production of new consumer goods..
The Ming state was incapacitated for dealing with commerce all along the
line. In his amazingly researched book, Taxation and Finance in Sixteenth
Century China, 1971, Ray Huang even mentions a Ming customs official who,
when he had collected his annual tax quota in four months, thereafter
allowed commercial vessels to conduct business duty-free! Huang, in general,
demonstrates that, contrasted to the Song and Yuan regimes, the Ming
represented institutional and technical regression all along the line.

Tsai, in The Eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty, 1996, strongly hints at the
only possible response to the quite-literally Paranoid rigidities built
into the Ming system. Anything not specifically provided for in the Ming
Code required eunuchs, by law abject slaves of the Palace, to get it done.
In effect, Ming China was as ungovernable without eunuchs as the People's
Republic of China today is without the Party. With a mere sixteen thousand
to twenty thousand officials placed via the regular civil service (and not
counting the local clerical sub-bureaucracies), there were eighty thousand
to one hundred thousand eunuchs, with their hands in all imaginable state
activities, from Zheng He's Treasure Fleet to the secret political police
to supervision and control of the Ming pottery works. (The famous Ming vases
were not handicraft products. They were produced in huge kilns, by thousands
of wretchedly-paid industrial proletarians, in batches of ten thousand pieces
at a time. In 1602 the workers at the Suzhou kilns, supported by students
at Confucian academies, staged the largest industrial strike in history
hitherto, when one worker immolated himself by jumping into the gigantic

The Ming dynasty got what it deserved. In 1629, another year of widespread
Bubonic Plague, the would-be reforming last emperor of the dynasty cut the
costs of the Imperial Post, laying off hundreds of workers in backward
Shaanxi Province. The fired men, skilled horse-riders, turned bandits and
roamed at will from one jurisdiction to another. The forces of repression,
meanwhile, had concentrated on the persecution of religious sectarians such
as the White Lotus, whose insurrection in 1351 spelled doom for the Yuan
dynasty and gave Zhu Yuanzhang his start in guerrilla war. A White Lotus
rising in 1624 had been duly squashed with ease. But the bandits led by
Li Zicheng, at first believing in nothing, were immune to ideological
indoctrination as well as revolutionary motives. The latter did not appear
until shortly before the collapse of the regime, which turned out too easy
for the good of the revolutionaries themselves.

The historic task before Mao Zedong, "Socialism with Chinese Character-
istics," as he called it - the Constitution of the People's Republic still
enshrines "socialist spiritual civilization with Chinese Characteristics" -
was more complex. In principle, there was no socio-historical scope for
technical regression. Overtly, there was a West to be Caught Up With. Mao,
as of 1958, was out to "surpass Britain in fifteen years" in iron and steel
production. Yet this very slogan was associated with an episode of massive
and fantastic Luddism epitomized by so-called "backyard steel furnaces."
Dr Li Zhisui was astounded to see "kitchen knives melted down to make
kitchen knives." One recalls Ray Huang's critique of the Ming state for
manufacturing salt and small-change coinage ("copper cash") by the most
primitive techniques available. Mao glorified education with one hand,
destroyed it with the other. He divided the student bodies of universities
he had built into rival mobs of Red Guards "waving the Red Book to fight
the Red Book at each other, and indeed at many places, it was impossible
for even political sophisticates to tell who was who. Dr Li Zhisui constantly
uses the word "chaos," which in Chinese, *luan*, is more dreadful than in
English, and was uttered, says Dr Li, with relish by Mao himself. Back in
the fourteenth century, Zhu Yuanzhang had restored the Song civil service
examinations, suspended by the Mongols till 1315 (and then with quotas for
the four racial castes: 25% Mongols; 25% *semu*, Turks, Russians, etc; 25%
*hanren*, Northern Chinese; 25% *nanren*, Southern Chinese, ie, the economic-
core region). The new system had even higher standards and more intermediate
levels of competition for academic degrees than ever before. Which promptly
aroused the scorn of Zhu Yuanzhang for producing erudite incompetents who
could not get anything done. On top of this, elite society was terrorized
by political purges and reduced to rubble as fast as it was being rebuilt.
The conspiracy charges against Prime Minister Hu Weiyang and at least fifteen
thousand other people, with associated legislation of the death penalty for
advocating restoration of the office of Prime Minister (after the Strong
Prime Minister system had been a fixture of Chinese government since the
seventh or eighth centuries) was so closely parallel to the attack on Liu
Sahoqi and Dang Xiaoping, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, that the
parallel is impossible to avoid. Like Liu Shaoqi, Hu Weiyang was in some
sense Guilty, ie, of having politically opposed Mao Zedong/Zhu Yuanzhang,
though not of the specific charges (which ware outlandish).

The most chilling aspect of The Private Life of Chairman Mao is Dr Li
Zhisui's account of himself descending into a state of Clinical Paranoia,
having as aforementioned commenced his medical career in a posture of utterly
detached scientific objectivity. Yet, as the Cultural Revolution proceeds,
we find him quoting himself or recalling his own thoughts as the very image
of the Raving Paranoid, feverishly Plotting Against those whom he honestly
belived were feverishly Plotting Against him, and quite possibly were. One
finds here confirmation of the proposition that the ideological representation
of social reality, or what goes by the name of Reality in common speech, is
ultimately guaranteed by force, which is ultimately the control of the means
of violence. Speaking of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, Wang Dongxing, Commander of
the Central Guards, and the most level-headed character in the book, next
to Dr Li himself, tells Dr Li, "You realize, she's out there somewhere,
plotting to get you." Then, when Wang Dongxing engineers the arrest of the
Gang of Four, the spell is broken.

One gains the vivid impression, from The Private Life of Chairman Mao,
that Mao Zedong was above all a student of the psychology of the human being
as Conspiratorial Animal. Exactly after the fashion set by his role model,
as cited in John W. Dardess, Confucianism and Autocracy, Columbia, 1983; Zhu
Yuanzhang is quoted verbatim, at length, detecting political enemies according
to such symptoms as, eg, the yes-man who always agrees with you; the yes-man
who attempts to ward off suspicion by disagreeing with you over minor, fairly
peripheral matters, and so on.

Doubtless some of the above parallels are overdrawn, but who now can be
sure. As I said, it is not known what Mao knew about Zhu Yuanzhang and when
he knew it. And the historical parallel of both men finding China in a putty-
like condition. Also, both of them Paranoids by inclination and makeup.
Charles O. Hucker, following scholarly niceties, concluded about Zhu
Yuanzhang, "F.W. Mote has called him 'the most bloodthirsty butcher in
Chinese history.'" That was published in 1978, in The Ming Dynasty: Its
History and Institutions. Mao was already dead, but nobody yet knew where
all the bodies, pardon the expression, were buried.

It is difficult to imagine the culture of an entire society being forcibly
detached from objective reality altogether. Since, after all, people must
eat. But tens of millions of people in China failed to do just that during
the Three Bad Years, 1958-1961. If it be true that ideological delusions on
this order of magnitude may be fabricated, what must be the normal human
condition of existence. We need not invoke the memory of Rwanda in 1994;
but neither should we get complacent.

It was not merely the reading of Dr Li Zhisui's The Private Life of
Chairman Mao, nor even that plus the known parallelism of Mao Zedong with
Zhu Yuanzhang. It's all that *and* the known, from explicit descriptions by
Dr Li Zhisui, of the *role modelling* of one upon the other, that sent me
around the bend. The effect, spread over a couple of weeks, or more, I would
call "fully comparable to LSD," and worse, since the known historical facts
do not wear off. I managed, quite frankly, to reach the psychic state wherein
the very *belief in objective social reality* came to seem a mere childish
superstition, perseverated in out of mindless compulsions. But I *know* that
is wrong. I have *objective* social science knowledge to the effect that the
foregoing position is insupportable. I *must reject* such an extreme position.

Something is now always going to say, *Oh*?

And that Something is always going to have a point.

Daniel A. Foss