Flowers for Mao
I have taken this title from a Leonard Cohen poetry collection called “Flowers for Hitler” that I’ve had in my possession since 1970! I haven’t thought about Mao for many years. I have a little green hat with a red star on it that I picked up in Chinatown many years ago as a curiosity, but it goes without saying, I have never worn it except as a joke to show to friends. But I’ve always thought of Mao with fondness and admiration for having kicked the Western powers out of the country and regaining China’s sovereignty after a 100 years of humiliation under the Western yoke.
I watched a 25 minute BBC documentary last night on the life of Mao, apparently the best bio. doc. on him on the net, and I came away feeling enlightened but rather depressed about his legacy and what he had done for China. The announcer spoke with just the right tone. He didn’t sound like he hated Mao or was hellbent on character assassination, or was angry. He was the BBC voice of reason. He was just giving us the facts. But something felt off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I shared the video with my husband because he always has a more clear-eyed view on these things than I seem to. He remembers people’s names instantly as well, which is another cause for me looking up to him. He is basically the oracle. But before I share what he had to say about the documentary, let me tell you what I knew about Mao and the situation in China from the 1930s onward before watching this documentary.
Mao was handsome and slim for only a brief time in his youth, like Churchill. He had four wives, the last one being an entertainer with the stage name Blue Apple. He could ride a horse. He swam across the Yangtze River in his early 70s to prove his virility (Although the fact he was with Blue Apple should have been enough!) He went on the “long march” to consolidate power. When he attained power in 1949 some of his policies didn’t work as planned. And that’s an understatement. He represented and fought for rural China, the peasants. He developed a culture of hero worship in the country. He gave China back its sovereignty.
Chiang Kai Shek was a slim, handsome man all his life. He could ride a horse. He married one of the wealthy Shanghai Soong sisters, renowned in the 1920s for their beauty. He had a nickname in the 1930s in Washington, “cash my cheque”. The United States were backing him, he was their man in China, and apparently always asking for more money. His army was 4 times the size of the Communist, Mao’s army, due to all that moola. And he still lost. He represented, apart from the hidden hand of the US, the Chinese moneyed class, landlords and business people in the cities. The desperately poor farmers in the countryside, 80 percent of the population, gave assistance to Mao’s communist troops in the form of a bed and food during the long march. They knew which side their bread was buttered on so they didn’t offer aid to Chiang KaiShek’s soldiers. When Chiang lost the long fight in 1949 he and his followers took much of the money and treasures of the country to Taiwan with them.
When the dust of victory settled, Mao, Jou EnLai and other officials grappled with the language issue. Should they adopt the Roman alphabet? They had a 10 percent literacy rate. The characters were too difficult to learn. They decided to simplify them, to keep their connection with the past. But they simplified them so much that their ancient classics can only be read, ironically, by the Japanese, who have retained the original characters in their writing system. But, everyone can read and write in today’s China.
Another issue was what to do with the surviving, 46 year old, last Ching dynasty emperor, Pu Yi. I have a soft spot for this weedy little stereotype of a Chinese man with round black glasses and slightly buck teeth, and so did Mao and the people around him. They didn’t want him dead, they wanted him as a shining example of reform. He was put in a re-education camp for several years where he was bullied when it became known who he was and it became obvious that he was almost incapable of getting dressed by himself or carrying or serving food without spilling it, not having done these things before. He ended up as a park gardener in Beijing. They even arranged a partner for him. They said, after all, an emperor needs a consort. They chose somebody’s unmarried middle-aged sister, an office worker, and he lived out his remaining years quite happily with her. But, what a roller-coaster ride of a life the poor man had! He spent his life yearning for the medieval palace splendor of his youth. His one true home. He told his jailers about his life in the palace, how from the age of 13 the eunuchs had brought a succession of palace maids to his room at night. When he found himself married off at 17 he left his bride sitting on the edge of the bed in her red dress and veil. She was a complete stranger, he said, the palace maids were his friends. But, he grew fond of his wife and in old age one of his happiest memories was riding around the streets of Beijing on a bicycle incognito with his beautiful bride on the back. But, enough about poor Pu Yi.
Perhaps Mao was good at being a revolutionary but once he got into power he didn’t actually know how to pull off his idea of modernizing the country, bringing it into the modern world. His ideas often seemed to bring disaster and the people closest to him were perhaps too afraid to offer their ideas. Also, a revolution is a violent thing. During the French Revolution there were aristocratic heads being chopped off to a large clapping, appreciative audience for three years straight! That’s a lot of dehumanizing violence. You say you want a revolution…
Seems like Deng Hsiao Ping, the man who came after him, was the one to open up China to the modern world. The documentary ends by saying that China is communist in name only now. It may not be strictly communist in rule, but the common people do have their opinions heard on the local level and so the government is responsive to the will of the people. And there is the traditional communist long-term planning, with 5 year plans. Corporations do not run the country.
In the end, we’re left with the terrible truth of there being a ton of human suffering during a large part of Mao’s rule. Was it all worth it to break free from Western powers? What would China be like now if “cash my cheque” would have won? The Philippines? Ultimately it doesn’t seem morally right (does it?) to have Caucasians running the entire world. Asia has a right to be Sovereign, as does Africa, The Middle East and everywhere else. The US encompasses 4.5 percent of the world’s population.
The documentary does say, and the modern psychoanalyzing was a nice touch and most likely true, we’re all human after all, that Mao was brutalized and traumatized by the intensity of the long-term violence thrown at him and his men by the West in their herculean efforts to keep control of China. He’d lost his wife and four year old son to the violence. That he was a different man at the end of it.
By 1953 he had so built up the Chinese army that they were able to beat back American troops in Korea and the US had to draw a line across the country, freeze the fighting, and accept defeat.
It was so many years ago now that I bought the Mao hat. I also bought “China Pictorial” on visits to Chinatown. It featured lovely images of pretty girls in the countryside smiling with rosy cheeks, picking cabbages . Now, even young people in China laugh at those old propaganda magazines and Mao’s little red book, the faded slogans painted on old barns. Mao’s chubby face benevolently gazing out onto ghost town streets.
The youth of China have left Mao behind. They’re interested in BTS and Korean dramas, like the rest of us. Matsuki’s assessment of the documentary Is that ultimately, there should be credit where credit is due. The East is red, and that’s only because of Mao.