Sunday, December 27, 2009

music in revolutionanry China

If we can broaden Western music to all kinds of arts, Mao gave a famous talk at Yan’an (在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话) long before the Communist took power, which decided the tone that art should serve the people. Since then, arts and politics have connected each other. It has remained as a goal or constrain for Chinese artists today.

During the Cultural Revolution, most Western composers and instruments were banned as they represented Western culture and bourgeoisie. But people still loved music and wouldn’t bother to use Western instruments in propaganda. As written in the book “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” a local cadre finds that a sent-down youth brings his violin, which should be confiscated. The young man lies that he can play a piece called “Mozart Miss Chairman Mao” (it’s actually a Mozart sonata), thus he keeps the violin and plays whenever he’s free.
I recommend the documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” ( shot in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution. It records Stern’s visit to China when he gave lessons to Chinese music students and performed in a concert. Besides music, the documentary presents more about the tragic influence of the Cultural Revolution to Chinese, especially Chinese musicians and music education.

Everything seems the opposite today. Many Chinese parents in the city send their kids to learn piano, no matter whether they like it. It’s not only for cultivating interests, but students can gain extra scores for school entrance if they pass certain degrees of piano playing. In the conservatories in the States, piano and violin are almost “Asian instruments,” as most Chinese students here in the Conservatory play piano.

one child policy

Westerners seem really care about the One Child Policy, which is an inevitable topic when talking about modern China. I’ve been asked so many times, “if you’re only allowed to have one child, what about TWINS?” I couldn’t help laughing, but you can get a sense of how awkward the policy is when facing common sense. On the one side, it sounds scary that a government has the power to control as detailed as how many children you can have in the name of for the better of the country; on the other side, it proves how powerless a policy can be when it confronts traditional values or even natural laws (like twins).

Besides explaining the policy being impossible to accomplish in the countryside, I always try to update the news that the policy is changing and has to change. Chinese scholars have been discussing since 2000, and here’s an article published on the Southern Weekly in 2008: There are a lot convincing statistics and worries from Chinese scholars, while the government still doesn’t move that much. It’s a problem we cannot wait, but everything comes slowly in China.

And for the question of twins, fortunately, the Chinese government is not that brutal to kill the other, so you can have twins, triplets or even quadruplets!

gender issue

I have the feeling that Westerners love talking about the gender issue, whereas in China people only mention the gender relationship on March 8th, the international women’s day. If you look at the school curriculum, I’m afraid no Chinese universities have a major in gender/women studies, at most under the sociology department, while among top American universities it’s hard to find one without this selection. As explained in the reading for today, it is a “male-dominated academy that has been paralysed by political pressures and the corrupt lures of both state power and the market (Perry & Selden, p. 179).”

Not widely discussed doesn’t mean no problem, but on the contrary, being silent is the problem. It forces women to express themselves through other ways, including suicide. In the documentary “China from the Inside,” it’s shocking yet not too surprising to hear that “China has one of the highest suicide rates for women in the world: 150,000 a year. One every four minutes.” It best exemplifies the character of Chinese women: bearing the unbearable. When Mao wrote on women suicide, he noticed, “the more society causes people to lose their hopes, then the more people in the society will commit suicide (Perry & Selden, p. 290).” Women not only need to keep up with their hopes, but actually support to change their socioeconomic positions.

state-owned industry reform

The reform of state-owned industry has lasted for a long time, but it’s still controversial and remains a headache for the country. The bigger size it is, the harder to change. For the agricultural reform, decollectivization and marketization worked. But for the industrial reform, especially for state-owned industry, we cannot decentralize it because of its nature, and we are not strong enough to marketize (in other words, to compete with international companies) or we cannot marketize it for national security reason (such as electricity and oil, even till today, there are only limited numbers of state-owned companies competing against each other). Thus the reform we tried for the state-owned industries was privatization – to change them into companies. As Lang Xianping criticized, it caused a huge lose of national properties, which now belong to individuals. In the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers from state-owned factories also created a social problem, and it’s hard to tell whether the society get recovered from it today.

In terms of state-owned industry, I thought of a movie earlier this year, called “24 City.” It focuses on a military factory with its luminous past and fading present. You can see how government policies changed since 1950’s, and how they affected the factory and its workers, relatives and the small world it constructed. The movie looks like a documentary, which is a collection of several interviews, but actually some actors are mixed into it with other real workers. Through these personal perspectives, you can get a sense of how their lives have intervened with the factory. People are very attached to the factory, the place they were born, they grew up, and they worked for their whole lives (I saw it when I was in France, but I don’t know if there’s a copy with English subtitle).

All under Heaven

To answer whether there’s anything “socialist” left after the reforms, we need to clarify the major trends of the reforms. As shown in the documentary “All under Heaven,” we could see the process of decollectivization and marketization, which basically turned back to the time before those radical Maoist reforms. In this sense, the “socialist” experiments were gone. However, the “socialist” political structure was still there. Farmers still worried whether the policy would change again, as they have never been constant. Local cadres still need to balance between the government orders and local wealth, just as the one in the documentary said “to play tricks.” Besides these political elements, all traditional cultures, values and rituals sustained, as they did for thousands of years. It’s such a precious documentary to hear what Chinese farmers really thought about the reforms and their life changes. They were practical, frank and never lie. The documentary was shot in such a transiting time (1979-1981), which gave us a glimpse of what has been changed (back) through the reforms, and what has remained through all times.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tibet & Xinjiang

On March 14th 2008, several months before the Beijing Olympics, the Tibet incident happened. Simultaneously, Chinese and Western media reported completely opposite stories, leaving people to discover who was expressing the truth. On the mainland, Dalai Lama was placed as the back stage leader of the incident, and his followers were trying to separate Tibet out of China through riots on streets. In Western countries, the incident was described as a peaceful demonstration shut down by violent Chinese police. Both sides proved their claims by presenting photos of burned cars and shops, but claims as to who was responsible varied greatly.

At that time, I was at Ithaca, a town for exile Tibetans in the States. Dalai Lama even visited the year before. After the incident, some exile Tibetans went on demonstration at the downtown. I was also talking with a Tibetan employee on campus about the incident. He disliked the Chinese government for sure, but he didn’t believe what the U.S. media was saying either, since Americans didn’t know what’s really happening there, but simply love the idea of “free Tibet.” He felt Tibetan people were asking for more autonomy, rather than separation from China.
For Chinese, people believe that Tibet has been a part of China for a long time, as we could make a long list of examples how each dynasty related to Tibet throughout history, and it’s impossible to separate Tibet from the rest. For Westerners, Tibet was invaded and taken brutally by People’s Republic of China, no matter how many connections Tibet had had with other dynasties before.

I went to Tibet in 2006, right after the opening of the train from Beijing to Lasa. Besides the stunning beauty, I was impressed by the central government’s contribution to Tibet, as all the highways were built by the central government, which was totally different from other provinces. The newly constructed train station was unbelievably luxurious, just like an airport.

On July 5th this year, a similar incident happened in Xinjiang. It was a terrifying attack at the center city of Urumqi, resulting in nearly 200 people’s death, including both Han Chinese and Uyghur people. Chinese government learned their lesson from the Tibet incident, as they reacted more openly to media, as least put them in the position to let people know what was happening in Xinjiang. But the same as the previous time, voices from China and elsewhere were still in contrast. While trying to figure out who is distorting the truth, many Chinese were correcting misinterpretation by Western media online, but nobody questioned Chinese media, or such kind of voice was never heard.


In terms of things hadn’t been changed, as Blecher wrote, “the Dengist leadership adhered to the same Leninist principles of democratic centralism and the party’s political monopoly within the state and over society.” As long as people remembered how the government dealt with the June Fourth Incident, it would remind us how hard to reform political institutions, though it’s called a structural reform period and leaders were determined to change from the Maoist period.

But there were many actual changes, which at least made hope and optimism alive. I believe the most important one was the thought liberation, which emphasized on practice and being pragmatic. At that time, not only leaders, but most Chinese felt that we must get away from class struggle or non-stop fighting in ideology. When the editorial of People’s Daily came out with the saying “practice is the sole criterion of truth (实践是检验真理的唯一标准),” people knew that the change was coming. It’s just like a second spring to China, pushing it back to a normal track.

The change of attitude from above definitely contributed to the economic reforms. Since everything depended on practice, all methods could be used, regardless of their ideological labels. With an effective method, hard-working people, and national or collective ownership, it wouldn’t be too big a surprise for the economic boom.

Zhang Chunqiao and his bourgeois right

Zhang first became known by the public because of his article on bourgeois right, “Destroy the Ideas of Bourgeois Legal Ownership.” (In Chinese, bourgeois right and bourgeois legal ownership is the same thing.) He argued the core thought of bourgeois right is hierarchical system, which contributes to the principle “to each according to one’s work,” instead of “to each according to one’s need.” Mao noticed and praised the article, which was published soon on “People’s Daily.” Zhang became a top official in Shanghai afterwards.

But in 1975, when Zhang published the article “On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeois,” Deng raised problems in the article to Mao, who later criticized the “gang of four” at a central political committee meeting. In the article, Zhang seemed to be “politically correct,” as it stuck with the struggle between proletarian and bourgeois, and the ownership of people. He tended to label all political enemies as bourgeois and exaggerate potential bourgeois elements. Looking backwards of history, the reality of China was still way far away from bourgeois and capitalism, as it shows today dramatically. Fortunately, he was not the one who grabbed the power at the end, or it would be terrible to think China with on-going class struggle and ideological fight.

Line Struggle & Class Struggle

Class struggle (阶级斗争) became a very familiar term once the Communist took power, and Mao warned people not to forget class struggle, which should be reminded every year, every month, and even every day. In 1962, Mao raised another specific struggle, as he said, “there still exist class, class contradiction, and class struggle; and that also existent is the struggle between socialism and capitalism and the danger of a comeback of capitalism.” The latter is the line struggle (路线斗争).

The leaders of two lines were not clear at first, as “Mao felt that the forces of capitalism operated primarily in the form of unreconstructed consciousness among certain strata.” As the time developed, the party leadership was stratified on the issues like land reform, socialization in 1951-1956, response to the condemnation of Stalinism, the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes. Mao sensed “some comrades” (which he never exactly pointed out, but everyone else knew who he’s referring to) were “taking the capitalist road.”

In 1965, Mao used his favorite method of class struggle while “identifying the class enemy as people in positions of authority in the Party who take the capitalist road (走资本主义道路当权派, 简称走资派),” who were actually Mao’s political enemy. Thus he combined the class struggle and line struggle, as Blecher wrote, “class struggle was to be undertaken, in which ‘capitalist roaders’ would be attacked in a broad mass movement.” In other words, Mao tried to eliminate his line struggle opponents, Liu and Deng, through class struggle with mass support on Mao’s side.

Later in the Cultural Revolution, the whole society joined in the “game.” People fought against each other in the name of class struggle, and people put their enemies to the other line. All those political terms acted as excuses for a group to punish the other group, as Mao set a good example ahead.

Two Co-ops

When I heard of Oberlin’s Co-ops, I thought it’s such a great idea for students to own their dorms and dining. It’s not only much cheaper than school owned things, but students are in charge of everything they eat and live. However, I never connect Oberlin’s Co-ops to the ones we had in modern Chinese history. How could it be the same thing, at least sharing the same name? If you ask Chinese peasants, they might have very complicated feelings about the Co-ops. It might be a good idea, but the consequences it led to afterwards were not pleasant at all.

I was searching what Chinese scholars think about the Agriculture Production Co-op Movement, and interestingly, I found some very different ideas. They argue the direct reason accelerating the movement was the government unified grain purchase, which destructed the economic structure and market network originally existed in Chinese countryside. Through the process, local cadres paid the most efforts, but such expense was never taken into consideration when the central government made up the decision. It certainly caused peasants’ anti-sentiments, and Xinhua news agency reported (only to officials) that many places had peasants’ suicides. In order to pull through the purchase since 1953, the government started the Co-ops, which took away all surplus products from peasants and private market was no longer necessary. The speed of transition was super fast: for 90% of Chinese peasants, it only took a year from individuals to higher-stage Co-ops, most without experiencing the so-called MATs or LAPCs.
Here’s the link to the article, written by Zhang Ming, a Chinese politics professor.

Reading Government Papers

I enjoy reading those government papers, which are great primary resources. When learning history in China, I never had the thought to see these authentic works, but now I’m glad to read the original materials of what I’ve learned before and know where do there come from. I tried to find the respective Chinese documents and read, which is easier and makes more sense to me. The English translation always seems funny somehow, especially some ideological terms Chinese politicians loved to use.

Among these papers, Mao’s works are the most interesting and important ones, since he used a lot slangs to make himself understood, and others had to follow his thoughts, at least in accordance with him. Mao usually made a list in his writings, which sound very logical. Mao liked to use philosophy in his articles, which he believed it’s Marxism.

But ironically, what’s written on papers was usually not what he did in reality, if not completely opposite. Such as today’s reading, “On the Ten Major Relationships (论十大关系),” he tried to be balanced in each relationship, but it was not the case in practice, not only at that time, even today some of the relationships are hard to deal with. Mao was a combination of poet and politician, and inevitably, he’s more idealistic than practical.

longevity of China’s agrarianism

The extraordinary longevity of China’s agrarianism might be explained in three terms: politically, no matter which dynasty or emperor was on stage, they all tried to control everything. “The landlords, state officials and scholars were bound together in a complex web of mutually reinforcing roles and self-interest (p.8).” Thus the power and abundant resources were upheld, instead of distributing to locals or the public; economically, traditional China followed a pattern of natural and self-sufficient economy, which feeds everything on its own but not encouraging exchange with the outside world; and culturally, the traditional Chinese thought of emphasizing on agriculture while deemphasizing on commerce was well recognized throughout each dynasty, first written into policy since Shang Yang Reforms in Qin dynasty.

The question says “it never makes a breakthrough into industrialization,” but I would argue Chinese industrialization was delayed, extended and just not as crisp as in other countries. Actually, in late Ming dynasty, the “sprouts of capitalism” emerged in southern coast area, which might be China’s first step to enter industrialization, yet doomed to fail due to the above reasons and the changing of dynasty. Then was the “self-strengthening” movement in the 1860s, when several local figures tried to introduce Western industry to Chinese people without much support from the emperor. Such attempt also happened in early 20th century and 20’s to 30’s, unfortunately none of them fully developed.

William Hinton

The first time I started reading “Fanshen,” I was so glad that everything’s connected! I’ve seen and loved Carma Hinton’s documentaries for a long time (especially the Morning Sun and the Tiananmen), and just found out William Hinton is her father! No wonder they both did a great job telling the other side of the world what was really happening in China. I’ve also noticed the “Long Bow Group” as always a contributor to those documentaries, and just figured out that name came out of the town William Hinton visited and wrote on! As I was reading the Chinese version of the book translated by Carma Hinton, I never felt it was written by an American, not only because the translation is perfect, but all details are down to earth and very real. For the class, while we’re reading mostly theories, “Fanshen” seems more enjoyable and fresh.

Surprising Chinese History

Maybe it’s the reason that I’ve been studying Chinese history over and over again since middle school, all those dramatic shifts don’t seem surprising any more. To the opposite, I found more similarities between different historical events. Such as those students in June Fourth, their patriotism, idealism and irrational behaviors might be traced back to May Fourth movement in 1919, or even 1895 when some civil examination candidates expressed their opposition to the treaty of Shimonoseki to the Qing emperor. Or when reading the history of Soviet Union, I was terrified by how identical those tragedies happened in both countries. If traditional China recycled itself by changing dynasties and emperors, who know whether modern China is just entering into another cycle? Talking of June Fourth, everyone wishes it will never ever happen again. However, it’s neither the first, unfortunately, nor the last in long terms. History tends to repeat itself if we don’t learn from our past.