Friday, October 30, 2009
For this year's National Day vacation, our target was Nanyang City in Henan Province. There are many historical sites from the Three-Kingdom period (220-280) in this area, one of them the famous Bowang Hill (博望坡).
The three of us – my husband and I, plus our friend Shen – drove from Haikou to Henan. Shen is a Three Kingdoms fan. As we approached Bowang Hill, our usually taciturn friend became amazingly voluble, stories flowing out from his mouth like a running river.
It is said that, shortly after Liu Bei's three courteous visits to Zhuge Liang's thatch hut won the heart of the great war strategist, Cao Cao led an army of 100,000 to attack them. Liu Bei had only a few thousand troops, and he placed all his hope on Zhuge Liang's help. The two discussed strategies alone all day, leaving out Liu Bei's two blood brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Guan and Zhang did not trust the new strategist and were upset by Liu Bei's intimacy with him. With such a big disparity in strength between the enemy's troops and theirs, they didn't believe there would be any way for Zhuge Liang to defeat Cao Cao. But they were, of course, wrong.
Shen explained to me that, at the time Bowang Hill was a rugged area full of bushes and old trees. Zhuge Liang lured Cao Cao's army up the hill, then started a fire all around them. Trapped, Cao's soldiers could neither advance nor retreat, and most were burned to death. Thus Zhuge Liang easily won the first battle after taking up his official post as Liu Bei's adviser.
My heart couldn't bear the burning scene and I said to Shen, This Mr. Zhuge was too insidious and cruel.
What do you know? Shen glared at me, That's called war strategy. Further more, Liu Bei was defending himself; it was Cao Cao, the invader, who was on the wrong side.
Even so, I said, Need he have burned so many men? That was hardly a green strategy either.
Shen was so angry he could only laugh. Lady, he said, That was a time of cold weapons, what else do you expect? Available strategies were nothing more than fire or water.
At the point we had reached Bowang Hill. We chose an ancient post road crossing the hill from north to south. The road was over five feet wide, and we had learned that it was on this section of the road Liu Bei's army had ambushed Cao Cao.
Unexpectedly, challenge began as soon as our car got on that road.
It wasn't a surprise that the ancient path had been changed to a concrete road, however even Zhuge Liang couldn't have guessed that 1800 years later it would become the villagers' drying square. It was the season for harvesting corn and canola, and the peasants dried the stalks on the road in order to use them as fuel. Those stalks didn't just occupy part of the road; they were piled over the entire road like small mountains everywhere.
We had to look for the lowest "peaks" for our car to pass. The plant stalks screeched under the wheels and scratched the windows, and our car crawled slower than an ant.
Seeing the sun was about to set, I asked my husband to find a different path. He sneered, Obviously you don't know where you are! I looked around and realized that we, like Cao Cao's army, were trapped in a situation in which neither advance nor retreat was viable. There wasn't even a place to turn around.
The villagers not only were unapologetic for the trouble they created for traffic, they held their wooden harrows tight and angrily stared at the cars, as if to say, Did you city people eat so much that you have to come to our drying ground to burst?
My husband advised me to accept fate. Let's just crawl as we can. If you don't behave, that man standing over there might light up the stalks and replay the Bowang Hill burning scene.
Shen lost patience and started to yell. I consoled him that we should soon see a big ancient tree, the sole witness remaining from the Bowang fire battle. Who knows whether that tree is real or fabricated for tourists? He shouted.
I got out of the car to ask a few peasants about the tree. They looked totally lost, unaware what their place had to do with Zhuge Liang. An old man pushing a bike passed by and asked, Are you looking for the Three-Kingdom sites? There's nothing left except a dead old tree. It's still several kilometers away, not worth all your trouble.
— So the Bowang Hill's fire battle was real?
— What a question! Of course it was real. The old generation all know clearly about it. In the fields we often dig out dirt that was burned black. The young people don't know because they are only interested in making money today. Old stories are useless to them.
— Why don't you locals take pride in the history and preserve the old sites?
— What's there to be proud of? Zhuge Liang, he wasn't even a Bowang person. Spending money on a few broken old walls is not as useful as building a temple to burn incense, don't you think? All we peasants want is to farm well, and have a temple to pray for good weather. It's just a little inconvenience for you city people to come down and play during our busy season, right?
Thus we never got to see the tree, or any relic from the Three Kingdoms time at Bowang Hill .
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
In recent weeks, the news that
In August, I wrote in this space a post titled Chongqing's Judicial Chief Shot off Horse, about the arrest of Wen Qiang, a long time police boss and newly appointed judicial chief. I just read another Chinese report about the investigation of Wen's crimes, with astonishing anecdotes that don't come up in the English reports, and I thought I should share one of those with you.
Among the huge amount of wealth Wen Qiang acquired for being the umbrella for gang crimes and local government corruption is a luxurious villa worth over 30 million Yuan (about US$ 4.4 million), located in the scenic area of Wulong. Wen did not spend a penny on it: a local official gave him the land as a gift, and a developer built him the villa as a gift.
In the villa's yard is a stone monument weighing over one ton. In the front of the monument are carved four characters in seal script: 福兮祸兮, which can be translated to "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity." The phrase comes from Lao Tzu's famous line, "In calamity lies fortune, in fortune lurks calamity" ("祸兮福之所倚，福兮祸之所伏"). On the stone's back is carved 永安宫 ("Yong'an Palace"). The base is a turtle with a snake wound on its back, two animals that symbolize "fortune" and "calamity" respectively.
It is an unusual looking stone, but Wen Qiang had no clue as to its origin. Neither did the police investigators who found it after Wen's arrest. Experts of cultural relics were called to appraise it, and that brought out the story.
During the Three Kingdom period, in year 222, Liu Bei, the emperor of the Shu Kingdom, anxious to avenge his blood brother Guan Yu's death, brought an army 200,000 strong to attack the Eastern Wu Kingdom, despite Zhuge Liang's advice against doing so. The consequence was that nearly all of Liu Bei's army was destroyed by an 800-mile fire set by
The original stone monument is still at the site of the Yong'an Palace, located in
The stone Wen Qiang got was a replica. The person who gave him the "gift" had told him that the turtle and snake represent emperors and their highest court officials; only such important people could have the monument at their residence; and "Chief Wen is exactly such an important official in today's
It is reported that, after the investigators relayed the ancient story to Wen Qiang, he mocked himself by saying that his calamity today had been foretold by the "Oh Fortune Oh Calamity" stone when he received it five years ago. Now in detainment, he keeps saying to his guards "It's good to be an ordinary person. Ordinary is fortune."Well, his regrets came a tad too late.
Wen Qiang's trial has not started yet. It will certainly be interesting. It is good that Wen Qiang is down, but a more important investigation is still needed into the nature of the soil that nourishes wide-spread gang crimes and police corruption in
Monday, October 12, 2009
Because of their political unity with the Soviets, the Chinese Communists took a restrained approach at the time, neither openly opposing nor contributing to the student movement. Meanwhile, the Nationalists used the murder to damage the Communists. The Nationalist officials running my mother’s school required everyone to participate, she told me, threatening to expel those who hung back.
This time, my mother was no longer a mere participant. She became a leader and an organizer at her school, fighting on campus against the officials who tried to block the news of Shen Chung's rape, and protesting American troops on Chongqing's streets. She did this because of her "righteous hatred toward injustice and violence," as she proudly put it during my interview. Curiously, she didn’t note her political naïveté here. She was unaware of the heavy involvement of Communists in facilitating this later demonstration, but they were watching her, and she was soon recruited.
In fact, all her close friends who actively participated in the "Shen Chung Incident" demonstration were recruited and later joined the Communist Party. Organizing student movements was a most effective way for the underground Communists to discover new blood. To many young patriots at the time, the Communist Party’s anti-American position was exactly what attracted them to join, as it had become clear that the Nationalist government wanted to keep American forces in the country for support in fighting China’s civil war. In a sense, the American military activities in post-war China helped cultivate massive future cadres for the Chinese Communists.
(A slightly shorter version of this piece was originally posted on WOMEN = BOOKS, the Blog for the Women's Review of Books, with the title "Déjà Vu: A Surprising Link from Author to Reviewer.")
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Raised on hot and tingling peppers, tempered by relentless harsh winters with no central heating, my
This makes the lack of protests during the three-year famine more puzzling. Local characteristics notwithstanding, at the point of life-and-death, even the herbivorous rabbit will bite.
Some might attribute the "peaceful" deaths to the government's tight control and the peasants' fear of retribution. That line of reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny. In the 1950s and 60s,
Historically, when there was more than one way to die, Chinese peasants did not hesitate to choose rebellion. The famous Chen Sheng uprising that destroyed the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) was a good example. Chen Sheng and other peasants were being escorted to a military post as compelled recruits, when days of rain delayed their trip. The punishment for missing the deadline was said to be beheading. Chen Sheng said to his fellow recruits, "It's death either way, why not die for a big cause?" His calling was echoed by all. They killed the two escorting officers, "chopped down trees to arm the soldiers, and hoisted their banner on a bamboo pole." That is the first peasant uprising on written record, followed by numerous others in every dynasty during disastrous times.
The tradition ceased in the Mao era. Again, this can't be simply explained by fear. The peasants loved Mao. It was Mao who took the land from the old-society's land owners and gave it to them. When Mao died in September 1976, I was a sent-down student in the countryside. The villagers cried sorrowfully, which made me feel guilty for my dry eyes. A decade after Mao's death, in the mid-1980s, my American husband, Bob, rode a bike through rural
As for the local officials, in the 1950s-60s, party members and cadres were required to "be the first to eat bitterness and the last to enjoy life." Mao had believed that wealth was the cause of corruption, and the way to keep corruption at bay within the ruling party was to keep everyone equally poor. He apparently took Confucius's edification, that "the head of a state need not be concerned lest his people be poor, but only lest there be ill-portioned distribution among them" (不患寡而患不均) to an extreme.
In those years, from elementary school on, children were taught to "build up the country through arduous struggle and frugality." Nationalism and idealism were high, and making personal sacrifices for the country did not need much mobilization. A slogan that excited everyone then was "Surpass
That was why the peasants could not see whom, or what, to blame for the famine. In the grassroots government, the commune and village cadres ate – or did not eat – the same as the peasants. So did the cadres sent-down from the district, like my mother and Mr. Chen. Though there indeed existed an urban-rural gap, across the visible community equality prevailed. It was a collective poverty; no one was rich or corrupted enough to become a target for mass protests.
They did not realize, however, that corruption does not have to involve money. Mao's practice of maintaining collective poverty did keep embezzlement at bay, especially at the grassroots government level. But beyond the peasants' sight, corruption took a different form, as exemplified by what Sichuan's then-governor Li Jingquan did to accelerate the peasants' starvation: blocking famine information from the central government, inflating grain production statistics to cover up the disaster, transporting large amounts of grains to Beijing and Shanghai despite Sichuan itself suffered severe food shortages…
The internet was still in the remote future then, and the provincial courtyard was too far away. The peasants had no way to know what Li Jingquan did. The grassroots cadres like my parents and Mr. Chen didn't either. Not even the central government knew what their trusted
In January 1962, during a congress of seven thousand government officials from the county level up, a
After that congress, Li's crime remained unknown to the public, until the Cultural Revolution began in summer 1966. The rebelling Red Guards, while destroying every level of government, dug up Li's history and denounced him as the number one "capitalist roader" in the province. The facts of what he did during the famine years were listed on "big character posters" and put up on urban walls everywhere, but peasants in the countryside remained largely uninformed. When I was in middle school in early 1970s, we often had sessions to "recall the bitter past and think of the sweet today," in order to enhance our concept of "class struggle." The school would invite a poor peasant to vent his grievances against a land owner of the "old society," referring to the pre-communist regime. In one of the sessions, an old peasant invited by my school was asked to tell us his bitterest experience, and he immediately began to cry over his suffering during the "three difficult years" – the official term for the famine period starting in 1959. The teacher who was chairing the meeting got confused and asked who he was complaining against, and the peasant was agape, unable to name a name. Quickly he was taken away.
So the "nice peasants" in the countryside accepted their fate quietly, apparently believing that the "emperor" in
In a nutshell, the appearance of equality (= collective poverty), the lack of information, and the tradition of Chinese' faith in wise emperors, had all contributed to the "peaceful" mass deaths during the three-year famine. Today, the first two conditions are diminishing, which at least partially explains the rapid rise of mass protests in recent years. As for the third, it still exists, and it is too soon to judge its present impact.
An additional observation: now as in the 1960s,
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
A great question, and I'm glad it has finally come up, though it would be nice to have someone Chinese ask it. For years I have wondered why I never heard anyone raise the issue, as if nothing were unusual about 30 million peasants passively starving to death without putting up so much as a fight.
From 1959 to 1961, ten million of the starvation deaths occurred in my home province,
Puzzlingly, there were no riots during that period. Not even small revolts. There were individual complaints and "guai hua" (怪话), but that was pretty much it. Why didn't the peasants, the largest social group whose numerous uprisings were the primary forces pushing feudal
This was the primary question I had in mind when I interviewed Mr. Chen three years ago. I was writing a memoir about my parents' past, and it turned out the famine years were a key period in their life together. At the time, my mother was a grassroots government cadre sent down to the countryside as punishment for her "rightist thoughts." Mr. Chen had been her colleague and friend in the local government. They both closely witnessed the famine.
The following is an excerpt of the interview in translation, which I hope will shed some light on
Thursday, October 1, 2009
What he said wasn't really wrong, but he missed the main factor. During the disastrous ten years from 1966 to 1976, peasants had kept farming and providing food for the nation. Because of this, despite the chaos and paralysis of the state apparatus, urban food shortages were not nearly as severe as in the "three-year famine" period (1959-61). I remember food rationing in my childhood during the Cultural Revolution, and how each family was forced to take a portion of "coarse grain" such as corn to supplement rice the "fine grain." I also remember meat rationing and my craving for pork dishes, but we did not starve. Not even close. Thanks to the hard-working peasants -- those are the people that have shouldered China's crises time and again.
The comparison between the two periods bookending the 1960s is especially worth noting for Sichuan, my home province nicknamed "the country of heaven," which suffered the most during the 1959-61 famine. The famine killed about 30 million people nationwide, and one third of the "abnormal deaths" were in Sichuan.
At the time, Sichuan's governor was Li Jingquan, a close friend of Deng Xiaoping (who was also from Sichuan). After the rural famine began, Li blocked information from the central government. Meanwhile, he inflated Sichuan's grain production statistics to please Mao and cover up the disaster. What he did was much the same as Madoff’s representations of double-digit returns on bogus investment funds, the difference being the scale of damage, as well as the motivation: not money but power. Consequentially, unaware of Sichuan's real situation, Beijing ordered Li to transport large amounts of grain to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while Sichuan's starvation deaths escalated. Even after the nation-wide famine finally came to an end in late 1961, Sichuan continued to have starvation deaths in 1962. Li's famous words were, "China is so big, which dynasty didn't have people starve to death?"
Ironically, the only time Li Jingquan was punished for his crime was during the Cultural Revolution. He was "struggled" by the Red Guards numerous times. His family suffered even more: his wife committed suicide, and a son was beaten to death. But Li himself returned to power after that movement and died of old age, with a glorious obituary on the lid of his coffin.
So, at least for people in Sichuan, one other reason we had avoided starvation during the Cultural Revolution might be because Li Jingquan was pulled off the horse by the lawless Red Guards. Just a glimpse into how complex and contradictory history often is.