Friends picked this restaurant for a meal a while back. They had funny edited posters everywhere, mostly Mao Era propaganda stuff. Here’s a couple:
“Weird Al” Yankovic is promoting his latest album Mandatory Fun with two Chinese propaganda poster spoofs. One poster has Chinese. To find out what it says, mouseover the Chinese characters here or scroll down:
And here’s the other one:
Click the images for the original source.
We were more than a little stunned when we first came to China a few years ago and discovered that people, even young, educated people, had strong, positive feelings for Chairman Mao and his legacy. I thought we’d gotten used to it, but seeing these photos and slogans from the anti-Japan protests made me realize I’m still amazed at how, despite everything that was done in his name and on his orders — in living memory! — the Party has altered his legacy in the minds of the people. Click the link or the photos to see more pictures of Mao at the protests:
Mao comes back to life amid wide spread anti-Japan protests in China
A collection of riot photos: In Photos: China’s anti-Japan fury
More about Mao’s legacy, real and imagined:
- Why they still love Mao: “Liberation”
- Liberation (topic)
- Great Leap Forward (topic)
- Cultural Revolution (topic)
More about the Anti-Japan protests:
From China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr):
In the Cultural Revolution era we were even more passionate about writing big-character posters than people are today about writing blogs. The difference between the two genres is this: The posters tended to be tediously alike, basically just a rehash of articles from the People’s Daily, their text riddled with revolutionary rhetoric and empty slogans, blathering endlessly on and on. Blogs, on the other hand, take a multitude of forms — self-promoting or abusive, disclosing intimate details here and carried away by righteous indignation there, striking affected poses right and left — and they dwell on every topic under the sun, from society and politics to economics and history and goodness knows what else. But in one respect the two genres are the same: writing big-character posters during the Cultural Revolution and keeping a blog today are both designed to assert the value of one’s own existence. [p.63]
I can’t tell if the author really means to make that distinction between dà zì bào (大字报) and blogs, or if he’s just being sly and in fact means that blogs are also “just a rehash of articles from the People’s Daily, their text riddled with revolutionary rhetoric and empty slogans, blathering endlessly on and on.” It’s hard to tell during an American election year. Either way, admit it, bloggers. 40-something years ago, this was you:
Long live our invincible thoughts! :)
For more about propaganda, mostly of the Chinese variety, see our Propaganda topic.
The International Institute of Social History has a collection of Chinese propaganda posters with translations and explanations in three categories:
1. Early years (1949-1965);
2. Cultural Revolution (1966-1976);
3. Modernization (1977-1997).
You’ve maybe heard the name “Watchman Nee” before. That’s because he founded one of the largest Christian groups in Chinese history before dying in a Chinese labour camp. Here’s a summary of a longer article on him and his work, with a link to the PDF of the original article: Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China
A basic understanding of the place of Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Chinese history adds some helpful nuance to understanding the relationships between the Party, Chinese Christianity, the TSPM, and Chinese patriotism and anti-foreignism.
The recent tragic death of a toddler who was run over twice while eighteen passersby ignored her (all caught on camera) has scandalized China and provoked disturbing questions about the moral state of Chinese society. I suspect a significant part (though not all) of the answer to those questions is found in the legacy of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), which is brutally catalogued in the 2010 book Mao’s Great Famine. (Other, deeper cultural factors are explored here.)
Of the 45 million abnormal deaths during the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), one to three million were suicides and 2.5 million people died from beatings/torture. Most of the rest starved to death, though many were murdered outright, worked to death or deliberately starved. That was Mainland China, 1958-1962. It’s been called “one of the most deadly mass killings in human history” [pp.x-xi], and eventually led to the Cultural Revolution.
The stats above are the findings of Dutch historian Dr. Frank Dikötter in Mao’s Great Famine: the History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which claims more accurate statistics compiled from archive sources not previously available, and connects the dysfunction and decisions of the central government with their end results at the village and family level. Dikötter also connects the dots between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution at the political level and at street level, showing how the Cultural Revolution was rooted politically and historically in the Great Leap Forward, and that when it comes to the violence and abuse of the Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution actually invented very little. He pins the blame for the disaster on Mao and the central government and demonstrates how government policies greatly exacerbated so-called natural disasters like flooding (on which the excess deaths from the time period are officially blamed).
That all interests me, but what interests me even more is the experience of that generation of Chinese at a personal, family and village level, and how that might relate to the present. Particularly the impact the Great Leap Forward must have had on relationships and moral standards at the time, during the Cultural Revolution, and down to today. While this isn’t the focus of Dikötter’s book, in several instances Dikötter discusses the impact of forced collectivisation, the Party’s culture of violence, and mass starvation on relationships and morality.
[C]oercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. [p.x]
Mao… extend[ed] the military structure of the Party to all of society… Every aspect of society was organized along military lines… in a continuous revolution. These were not merely martial terms rhetorically deployed to heighten group cohesion. All the leaders were military men attuned to the rigours of warfare. They had spent twenty years fighting a guerrilla war in extreme conditions of deprivation… They glorified violence in which the end justified the means. In 1962, havng lost millions of people in his province, Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March, in which only one in ten had made it to the end: “We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone.”
The brute force with which the country had been conquered was now unleashed upon the economy — regardless of casualty figures… The country became a giant boot camp in which ordinary people no longer had a say in the tasks they were commanded to carry out… They had to follow orders, failing which they risked punishment. Whatever checks existed on violence — religion, law, community, family — were simply swept away. [pp.298-9]
In a moral universe in which means justified the ends, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged. [pp.102-3]
Despite the vision of social order the regime projected at home and abroad… So destructive was radical collectivization that that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan, secretly giving full scope to the profit motive that the Party tried to eliminate. As famine spread, the very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state… [T]hese phenomena were not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from coming to a complete standstill… Obfuscation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive… [p.xiv]
Collectivization forced everybody, at one point or another, to make grim moral compromises. Routine degradations thus went hand in hand with mass destruction. [p.xv]
Life in the countryside has always been tough in China, and strict observance of traditional notions of filial piety would simply have been beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest households before the communist takeover… But in most cases, before 1949, [the elderly] could count on a measure of care and dignity: their mere survival demanded respect.
Yet by the time of the Cultural Revolution a completely different set of values seemed to dominate, as young students tortured their teachers and Red Guards attacked elderly people. When did the moral universe turn upside down? While the Party was steeped in a culture of violence… the real watershed was the Great Leap Forward… [T]he people’s communes left children without their mothers, women without their husbands, and the elderly without relatives: these three family bonds were destroyed as the state was substituted for the family. As if this were not bad enough, collectivisation was followed by the agony of famine. As hunger stalked an already distressed social landscape, family cohesion unraveled further; starvation tested every tie to the limit. [p.263]
If that was the relational and moral world of your grandparents, which was reinforced again less than a decade later in the Cultural Revolution, wouldn’t you expect a society where injured toddlers are left to die in the road (to reference only one of a long list of examples)? Previously on this blog I’ve pointed out aspects of China’s pre-Liberation cultural heritage that encourage or at least enable the shocking, apparently amoral state of contemporary Chinese society. And I think that’s valid. But I also think it’s crucial to highlight the legacy of the Great Leap Forward in tearing apart the social and moral fabric of Chinese society (not to mention the decades of civil war and foreign invasion before that). With that as the immediate social and moral inheritance of today’s generations, and given the enabling cultural heritage, the stark mutual disregard for the basic welfare of fellow human beings, while not excusable, is certainly more understandable. Just reading this book, with its endless, gruesome train of anecdotes, is enough to kill off a small piece of your humanity — but what if you’d actually lived through it?
My parents were born in the mid-50s. That means they would have been young children during the Great Leap Forward and possibly old enough to remember some things. But Chinese who are now in their 60s and 70s certainly remember. It’s incredible to imagine that the old guys on the corner who introduced me to báijiǔ 白酒 and tried to teach me Chinese chess 象棋 lived through this, at least as children. Mainlanders’ general relationship to the state and its resources and the obvious lack of general participation in ‘civil society’ makes so much more sense after glimpsing what the grandparents experienced.
So I recommend the book, with the suggestion that you become aware of the criticisms noted in the wikipedia entry, and with the warning that the brutality catalogued in its pages — which goes far beyond the sheer numbers or the biological and social nature of famine and starvation to the almost incomprehensible animalistic abuse that became routine — will gnaw on your humanity.
- How can I be proud of my China if we are a nation of 1.4bn cold hearts? (The Guardian)
- Shocking Foshan incident reveals an unspoken illness at China’s core (The Guardian)
- Why Didn’t Peasants Riot During China’s Three-Year Famine? Part 1, Part 2 (Inside-Out China)
- About sharing the uglier sides of our China experience
- Judging China
- The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.1): examples
- The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2): explanations, excuses, & scapegoats
- (How to be a) Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3)
P.S. – I found these photos by doing a Google image search for 大跃进 (Great Leap Forward) and 超英赶美 (“Surpass Britain, Catch Up with America”). Many propaganda images from the era are explained at ChinesePosters.net here and here. Apparently the only images publicly available are propaganda photos and posters.
P.P.S – The cover photo of the book “incorporates a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.”
P.P.P.S – A great documentary by the same name (viewable here) does a good job of covering the basics.