Would you rather… Chinese Communists or Princess Barbies?

I’m co-hosting the preschool’s variety show/graduation ceremony this week. My job is to translate and say their host script in English. I can live with, “Children all have this beautiful desire in their hearts, to grow up and wear camouflage uniforms just like Uncle in the People’s Liberation Army, loving the Party, loving the country, and being a brave person!” But I think a small part of me will die inside when I have to say, “Look, everyone! Here comes Princess Barbie!”

Chinese propaganda poster jackpot!

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).

“Elect Good People to Do Good Things”

Mainlanders & their emperors

If we do ‘math with Chinese characteristics,’ then we can say it’s been “60 Glorious Years” since the end of China’s civil war and the beginning of the current dynasty. Here are some interesting reflections from two very different Mainlanders who’ve lived through it all.

A poor Chinese lantern maker, born in 1934:

In my lifetime, we’ve been through so many political movements. All national ones which were no concern of ours, like the 1954 Suppress the Counter-Revolutionaries, the 1957 Anti-Rightest movement, the Cultural Revolution, sending intellectual youth to remote country areas, stuff like that. But I never stopped making lanterns. I never though making revolution meant getting rid of festival traditions! I always thought the reason I was brave enough to carry on with my craft in secret was because I wasn’t educated, and had no idea what feudalism, capitalism and revisionism meant. I didn’t know about Party principles, or what the revolutionary Four News were meant to be. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand that. Most ordinary people had about as little education as I did. In fact, how many of those anti-everything revolutionaries with their movements for this and that understood what is was all about? Making revolution was just a pretext for people to settle private scores. If those movements really had been good for China, then we wouldn’t have been poor for so many years. People today wouldn’t be so fixated on money, and wouldn’t ignore traditional arts like they do. [pg. 220]

From an interview with an American-born Chinese female general, born in 1930, who worked 40 years in military education:

Xinran (the author): After the end of the feudal Qing dynasty, China never stopped changing — from Empire to Republic took just a few years, and the change from GMD to CCP also happened quickly. Especially in the cities, regime change was really rapid. It’s like you said, in Shanghai people’s political outlook changed in twenty-four hours. How is it possible, in your view, for ordinary people to cope with such rapid change?

General Phoebe: Ordinary people don’t care. You change the dynasty or the emperor, it’s all the same to us. We’ll follow any emperor, so long as you don’t stop us going about our business . . . I think they got used to things, and didn’t care. It’s “I’ll obey anyone, any authority, who’s good to me”.

Xinran: Political authority is like a god for an awful lot of ordinary Chinese.

General Phoebe: Authority is very important, not just for a nation, but also within the family. The patriarch of the great Chinese family is an authority who cannot be disobeyed by family members. A family without an authority figure will quickly disintegrate; the children and grand-children may scatter, and some will begin to fight between themselves. Within the family, the main head of the family is basically a ruler. If he or she is an enlightened and wise one, then they can deal with all family relationship problems, and guarantee that future generations have family rules to follow – rules which can make those family ties indissoluble and keep generations together. When that authority weakens, then other family members may involuntarily gravitate towards a new authority, and this may bring conflict in its wake. Interestingly enough, we can see the reappearance in national history of the traditional cultural consciousness of the great Chinese family, as the “cells” of family life penetrate the bone and marrow of the nation. [pg.282]

(Quoted from China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, a collection of extended personal interviews with members of China’s most fascinating generation.)

P.S. – This is more about people than politics. Please remember that in the comments.

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Why they still love Mao: “Liberation”

If you’ve ever wondered why so many Mainlanders still love Mao, this quote explains it more or less the same as our friends and teachers in Tianjin do (except our friends in Tianjin are less negative toward Mao).

An American-born Chinese female general, born in 1930, who worked 40 years in military education:

I feel that the Liberation of China in 1949 really was a fantastic event. And I include Mao Zedong in that. Even though Chairman Mao did a lot of wrong, and even committed crimes — I do acknowledge that. But we have to recognize Mao Zedong’s contribution to the revival of the Chinese nation as a whole. He was actually a great historical figure and his name will go down in the annals of history. He’s like the Emperor Qin Shi Hung Di, who burned books, buried Confucian scholars alive and tyrannized the people, but this can’t obscure his achievements in uniting China, setting up the legal code, developing commerce, and even building the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world. Mao Zedong gave the Chinese back their self-respect as a people after the Opium War, and that achievement can never be wiped out.

What does Liberation mean? The greatest liberation has been for the working people. Previously in China, workers and peasants had absolutely no status; now, they may still be poor, but it’s not the same. At least now, society and the media and officials have to show respect for them, whether they mean it or not, and they’re supposed to be the masters! Before Liberation, the expression “Chinese people” didn’t include them. The difference between then and now is really huge. That’s why I tell you we are the most fortunate generation, because we have seen with our own eyes the difference between before and after Liberation. We have seen the whole process — from war, starvation, poverty and unrest, to the imposition of order, our growing strength and the development of a humane society.

(Quoted from pg. 286 of China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran, a collection of interesting personal interviews with members of China’s most fascinating generation.)

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January’s propaganda: museum style (Tianjin Museum)

TianjinIncident.JPGYesterday we went to the spectacularly named Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆). It was built in 2004 to commemorate Tianjin’s 600th birthday, and focuses on Tianjin’s role in China’s modern history (from the first Opium War against the foreign imperialist aggressors in 1840 to Liberation in 1949).

The museum is well done, all bilingual and with the best (though not perfect) English I’ve seen so far in China. Two especially eye-catching displays are worth mentioning, because they give us a glimpse of the roles foreigners play in China’s historical narrative, and the prescribed view of the current general situation.

You may be wondering about the burning cross pictured above. The museum has a huge mural portraying Tianjin from 1840-1949, and this is a detail depicting the “Tianjin Incident,” which is called the “Tianjin Massacre” in the West. Rumours had apparently spread that the nuns, running an orphanage for sick and abandoned children, were actually eating the children. I suppose it’s not so crazy: strange people in strange clothes take great interest in children no one cares about, the children occasionally die in their care, lose the Eucharist somewhere in translation, and plop the whole situation in the middle of an intense historical context where anti-foreign sentiment is already running high. The situation was just waiting for a spark. Anyway, one thing led to another and the cathedral (pictured top centre), which we’ve seen in real life, was burned in 1870 by rioting locals. Over 20 nuns and priests, and almost double the number of local converts, were murdered. But the price of Western blood was high and France extracted heavy reparations, which, as you can see, China has not forgotten.

Western powers instigated the First Opium War (1839-42), which consequently forced southern China wide open to the mercy of Western economic interests (that’s how the British got Hong Kong). The Second Opium War (1856-60) was the same story in the north, and was fought on Tianjin’s doorstep.


The people of every nation spin their history, and China is no different, though they seem to spin their’s with a certain unapologetic flair we don’t often get in the West.

Here’s the Preface, verbatim, posted at the entrance to the exhibit:

Centermural.JPGThe past hundred years after the Opium War, the Chinese nation had undergone the semi-feudal and semi-colonial miserable experience. During this period, Tianjin historically became the forefront where Chinese and Western civilizations collided with each other. In the life-and-death struggle for the defense of the Chinese nation, Tianjin more than once became the main battlefield in the resistance against foreign invasion. Faced with the challenges of “free trade,” Tianjin blazed a trail to Chinese modernization the hard way, became the center of disseminating industrial civilization in North China, and began the historical journey proceeding from inland rivers to seas and oceans, and from the domestic ferry terminals to the integration with the world system.

The struggle and rise of Tianjin in modern times constituted the theme of the recent development and vicissitudes in China mirrored the two big problems China ran up against in modern times: national contradictions between China and foreign countries and the crisis arising from development at home, and epitomized the brilliant road the Chinese people took in modern times in safeguarding independence, pursuing freedom and greeting liberation.


dagufortsmall.jpgTianjin was founded 600 years ago, serving as the customs and trade port for Beijing. The Dagu forts, pictured immediately above, below, and right, were where foreign armies crushed the Chinese defenses and worked their way upriver to Tianjin, and eventually Beijing. The photo on the right shows the what was left of one of the Dagu forts after Allied Forces overran it during the Second Opium War. All the material I’ve seen so far on the Opium Wars includes this photo.


From a display panel:

Dagu1.JPGIn June 1840, in the flames and smoke of gunpowder of the Opium War, China was plunged into the abyss of semi-feudal and semi-colonial disasters in history. As a sea gateway to the capital, Tianjin became the first choice of Western powers for political blackmail and military attack against China, and therefore inevitably became the more forefront of resistance of the Chinese people against foreign invaders in modern history. The three heroic and stirring battles at Dagukou, the world-shocking Tianjin Incident, and the Boxer Uprising in 1900 which inflicted heavy blows on the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers, the battle for the defense of Laoxikai — all these showed to the world the spirit of the people of Tianjin to fight the aggressors to the last drop of thir blood.

LiberatedFuture.JPGAs you step out of a darker, grey, drab room of foreign occupation into a brighter, red room of military victory and patriotism, you approach the museum’s final display. You find yourself standing before a huge open doorway. On the other side you can look out over railing, before which stands a microphone just like the one Mao used to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 from atop the Gate of Heavenly peace (one local with us knew all the words by heart). But instead of seeing Tiananmen Square like you would expect, a red-toned Chinese landscape reaches into the distance over Great Wall-capped mountain ridges. I think they’re trying to make a point.