Mao’s cheerleader

Han Suyin, who died last week, was a successful novelist I never heard of until I read this intriguing article on her role as an evangelist for Mao and the Cultural revolution. She denied the horrors of the Great Leap Forward’s famines and later admitted she “lied through her teeth” about it. Although she later turned against the Cultural Revolution as Jiang Qing fanned the flames that led to mass murder and hysteria, in the early years she never met a Red Guard she didn’t love.

In Han’s telling, the Red Guards—the paramilitary social movement of young fanatics—were “clean, well behaved and polite” youngsters who “learn democracy by applying democratic methods of reason and debate.” The army’s assumption of control over the government was “the continuation of the revolutionary tradition” and “the reassertion of ideological primacy over purely military ambitions.” The societal ferment also lent “an enormous spurt to production, to the development of productive forces along socialist lines.”

Still, even as she lavished praise on the Cultural Revolution she fully understood its dark side. She epitomized the concept of “useful idiot” but was in a class by herself; useful idiots often don’t know the truth and don’t look for it, lapping up the lies of the government. But she knew, and still she evangelized.

The closing lines of the article ring true:

Don’t imagine that there could never be another Han Suyin. Ambitious apologists for authoritarianism will certainly vie to take up her mantle. And who could blame them? Her works might appear odious to us now, but she had a very successful run.

Imagine that, ambitious shills for the party who enjoy personal gains for their sucking up to a government they know is doing terrible things. Do they really still exist?

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

I think there’s a distinction between embracing the aspects of China that work well and unconditionally embracing the Chinese system in its totality. To accuse someone who does the former of partaking in the latter is wholly unconducive to the real task at hand; that of improving Chinese governance and the Chinese peoples’ welfare.

November 9, 2012 @ 3:46 am | Comment

Also–the Xi back injury, yes, was related to someone throwing a chair across the room during a heated meeting regarding cleaning up debts accumulated by Chinese SOEs. Some of the… old families were angry that they, having been originally told to expend political influence in encouraging stimulus, were now being pilloried for irresponsible capital injections. Lots of accusations of favoritism going back and forth regarding who has to pay and who doesn’t.

November 9, 2012 @ 3:50 am | Comment

Most definitely, we know the shills exist. Look no further than the Eric Li and Shaun Rein types. The difference is that these guys no longer enjoy the bubble protection of yesteryear, and can fully expect to be raked over the coals mercilessly for every stupid thing they say.

That said, i agree with t-Co. Giving deserved praise (balanced with deserved criticism) would not be problematic.

November 9, 2012 @ 5:51 am | Comment

I am all for praising the CCP for the good it has done. But not for the CR or the GLF.

SKC, you read my mind about S. Rein.

November 9, 2012 @ 6:33 am | Comment

Race treason was the original sin that lead to all subsequent crimes. Being a half breed and a woman at that what more could be expected than shameless exotification of her alien half for her own benefit. She was no useful idiot, just a woman working to collect her silver shekels.

November 9, 2012 @ 7:33 am | Comment

Better half bred than in bred, eh Jing?

November 9, 2012 @ 9:36 am | Comment

Richard, part of the answer to your closing questions lies in success of ultra-hard liners making it into the highest sphere of Zhongnanhai: the thug who replaced Bo Xilai in Chongqing, Zhang Dejiang and equally repressive and thuggish Liu Yunshan. With these two criminals controlling media and propaganda you can kiss any of the meager (almost nonexistent) reforms goodbye. So, while they are not suck ups, per se, they are proteges of Jiang Zemin who just can’t seem to keep his nose out of the country’s affairs.

November 9, 2012 @ 11:48 am | Comment

Funny thing about Han Suyin was that she really became well-known for her novel, LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING, which was kind of controversial when it was published, I think because of the extramarital affair and all.

I do think she had some weird overcompensation thing going on that made her particularly vulnerable to seeking validation through idealizing a far from perfect revolution.

Her biography of Zhou Enlai is hagiography-o-riffic.

November 9, 2012 @ 5:42 pm | Comment

Don’t cry for her, Beijing. Lisa Carducci is still with you.

Recommended: Shirley MacLaine’s “You can get there from here”. How you can sleepwalk to an early 1970s Neverland for weeks without realizing that your environment is living in terror, and find it all so sweet.

Besides, she’s a good writer. Whatever you can say about the book – it isn’t boring.

November 9, 2012 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

Han Suyin was a superb writer. The complaint seems to be that she wasn’t a saint. She influenced a whole generation of non-Chinese Westerners when information about China was hard to come by. I was part of that generation, and at the time I read her with pleasure. As with Edgar Snow (“Red Star Over China”), influential for an even earlier Western generation, Han Suyin clearly came under the spell of Zhou Enlai, and was prepared to forgive, or even conceal a great deal for the sake of what seemed like a greater cause. Millions of Chinese people themselves did the same. They were not all hypocrites, and most of us, including instant armchair commentators, might not have “saved China” either if we had been actual actors in the drama. We can learn more by time-travelling our minds into the world of these historical characters and events than by making cheap comments about “shills”. None of this post is meant to endorse so-called communist control as it evolved in China, nor its present incarnation. If we can put aside the moral posturing, complex and contradictory personalities like Han Suyin’s are a fascinating study.

November 10, 2012 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

At least Han Suyin — unlike some Beijing apologists I know — was genuinely horrified at the Tiananmen Square massacre. Her views DID evolve.

November 10, 2012 @ 5:52 pm | Comment

I’m glad her views did evolve, but for many years she operated as a shill, whether she knew it or now.

most of us, including instant armchair commentators, might not have “saved China” either if we had been actual actors in the drama.

I want to think most of us wouldn’t, in her own words, “lie through our teeth” to help cover up the horrors of the Great Leap Forward. That’s what I call being a shill, even if there was much more to who she was than that. I do agree, she is a fascinating study.

November 11, 2012 @ 4:07 am | Comment

Contrary to what you guys think, I’m actually a supporter of ‘universal values’. I am adamently opposed to the CCP party-line of

‘each country must choose the political system most appropriate for itself, and the Socialism with Chinese characteristics is appropriate for China because of special conditions of China.’

I’m very very opposed to the above.

I admit that ‘socialism with chinese characterics’ is good for China, but it is also good for the United States, good for any country. I also admit that Western democracy is bad for China, but it is also bad for the United States, bad for any country.

I support everything the CCP does, except for that. I think ‘Socialism with Chinese characterics’ is a universally applicable system, applicable to the US, to Africa, to Latin America, to Europe, to Antarctica. And CCP should try to implement it across the globe, so the world’s people can be as happy as the Chinese people.

November 12, 2012 @ 1:44 am | Comment

As Simon Leys points out in a withering 1980 critique of Elizabeth Comber (aka Han Suyin), she was not just a cheerleader for Mao, but for anyone in a position of power in China. She backed Chiang, then Mao, the gang of Four and then Deng. She was a Han nationalist who pronounced what was best for the long-suffering ordinary people of China on the basis of occasional escorted tours of the country. She could then retreat to the comfort of her overseas home and pen more praise for the works of whoever was in power, immune to the terrible consequences visited upon resident Chinese writers who dared to observe anything deviated from the accepted line.

http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1980nov-00079

November 12, 2012 @ 2:52 am | Comment

If you haven’t seen “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” you really should. It’s the kind of film that could only have been made in 1950s America. Growing up in Hong Kong, it was one of my favorites. If you think that American’s don’t understand China now, you should have a look – it hardly seems possible, but we understood even less back then. Progress.

Dressing up white people to look like Asians. Funny as hell. Every time the character Han Suyin (played by actress Jennifer Jones from Oklahoma) refers to herself as Eurasian, I crack up. The scenes of family life in China are precious.

November 12, 2012 @ 3:15 am | Comment

To #13,
LOL. You might actually want to consider the recent trend with authoritarian regimes, and how they’ve been overrun. The CCP in China is actually part of an ever-shrinking circle of authoritarian regimes world-wide. Me, I’d be quite happy to see that trend continue. If you think the CCP system is going to be garnering supporters far and wide, you really need a healthy dose of reality-check.

November 12, 2012 @ 6:52 am | Comment

The Clock is just a sarcastic troll, pay him no heed.

As for Han Suyin (and cultural figures in general) evaluating them on the basis of their political views is unproductive, regardless of whether we are criticizing them for being insufficiently pro-democracy or persecuting them for not toeing the Party line.

Ars gratia artis should be the guiding maxim here…

November 12, 2012 @ 7:02 am | Comment

As for Han Suyin (and cultural figures in general) evaluating them on the basis of their political views is unproductive

I doubt that even a literary critic can leave political leanings (or cheerleading) completely out of the account. Besides, many authors play a role as public intellectuals, too. Can’t see why their views should go uncommented.

November 12, 2012 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

Sorry, completely O/T…

But just read a news story about a woman in Arizona who ran over her husband with her car because he didn’t vote. She was dismayed because Obama had won, and blamed her husband in part because he didn’t vote.

Now, i know rednecks and Republicans are people too, but holy smokes. I’m all for people exercising their democratic voting rights, but jeez lady, Romney carried Arizona…

Sometimes, it’s as though American exceptionalism has taken on a new face, and is headed in a less glamorous direction.

November 14, 2012 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

If there was an America Daily with me as an editorialist, I’d know how to spin this:

It’s very tragic, but this shows us that a vote really counts in America. Thank you for the lesson, Arizona.

November 14, 2012 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

A slight tangent, but…. suckers are still being born every minute:
http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3632894.htm

November 14, 2012 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

@Slim
More on our Luscius Angela here http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/13/china-congress-just-beautiful

November 15, 2012 @ 4:49 am | Comment

Yes, for an old Fabian rag, The Guardians daily reportage of this “event” has been outstanding.

November 15, 2012 @ 5:02 am | Comment

She ran him over not just for not voting, but for also complainig about the election results. But, it is very nice of you to acknowledge the humanity of people with whom you disagree. Quite the step up. (Sarcasm intened)

November 18, 2012 @ 12:56 am | Comment

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