40 years later: Living with the unspeakable in China

John Pomfret, on the anniversary of one of society’s most depraved and barbaric social experiments of all time. Pomfret had the unique experience of living and studying in China only a few years after the nightmare ended, and enjoyed a bird’s-eye view into how it affected the lives of its victims and their families (who were, of course, victims as well).

Forty years ago this past August, the first killings were carried out to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Two educators in Nanjing and a high school principal in Beijing were the first victims of the Red Guards, the shock troops of Mao Zedong’s war against rivals in the Communist Party.

Over the following 10 years, 18 million city kids were dispatched to the countryside to hack out meager existences amid the peasantry. Millions of officials were purged and hundreds of thousands were executed. My college classmate at Nanjing University, Wu Xiaoqing, was the son of the two educators who were murdered in Nanjing; he was 11 when his parents died. When we studied together he had the nickname “Old Wu” because he seemed old before his time.

Today China’s juggernaut economy, freewheeling night life and sophisticated diplomacy make it seem a world away from the Communist Party-imposed madness of the 1960s. Wu’s life is an example. He’s a university professor, a published author and the father of a young woman who is preparing for college in Australia. No other country seems to have been so adept at avoiding the pitfalls — and erasing the memory — of its past.

Pomfret goes on to describe the horrors his friend Wu endured during the CR, including seeing his parents beaten to death, and how the experience affects him to this day. Pomfret’s closing observations reaffirm for me the difference between great reporters like himself, Joseph Kahn, Philip Pan, etc., who dare hold up a mirror to the faces of their hosts, and mediocre reporters who, brilliant and charming though they may be, bend over backwards to find excuses and deflect all criticisms with a fanciful trick (“yeah, but in America…”).

He did not march during the 1989 student protests that ended in the Tiananmen Square crackdown. And after the crackdown he was put at the head of a committee investigating professors in the history department of his university. In recent years, Wu was assigned to write a chapter in a high school history textbook about the Cultural Revolution. He tried to slip in some details about the horrors of the time, including a subtle critique of the systemic nature of the problem. But it was excised by a censor’s knife.

Wu is aware of the Faustian bargain he’s made to live — and live well — in the People’s Republic of China. It’s a bargain that millions of people like him in China’s growing middle class have made. They inhabit a system that many despise, but it’s also a system they believe they can’t live without. The cost of moving forward is forgetting the past, Old Wu would say, including the dream of bringing to justice the people who killed your parents.

China wants the 21st century to become the Chinese century, yet history has a way of sneaking up on countries, just as it does on people. The late Chinese writer Ba Jin lobbied hard in the last years of his life for a museum to commemorate the victims of the Cultural Revolution; it was never built. I asked Wu what he thought about such a museum. Forty years after the Cultural Revolution, he said, “China isn’t ready for it.”

It’s odd, that in so many other societies that committed sins against its own people and others, the way to move forward has been to acknowledge and examine the past, not to hide from it and thereby deny it. America’s support of slavery is the subject of countless books and plays and movies, as well as museums. We have Holocaust museums and Vietnam memorials and museums and numerous Native American museums and Cambodia has a Khmer Rouge museum…. Is China’s erasure of the CR and the self-imposed code of silent acceptance a healthy thing, or will its silence come back to haunt them? What does Pomfret mean when he writes that “history has a way of sneaking up on countries, just as it does on people”? And does his clear implication – that China’s history will hold it back from attaining the “China Century” for which it longs – have any grounding in reality? Serious questions for which any insights will be appreciated.

Update: I suddenly remembered that over a year ago I did write a post about a “Cultural Revolution museum” in China. Read the old post to see why it’s not a very serious effort.

The Discussion: 60 Comments

I just finished his book, “Chinese Lessons,” five minutes ago (literally), which is the best book I’ve read on China in a while.

A few points:

Most of the events you mentioned (slavery, native americans, etc.) occurred more than a century ago. About societies needing to deal with their pasts in order for them to thrive, see Japan.

The overriding impression from Pomfret’s book (and the Wu in the article figures prominently in the book) is that the moral and spiritual vacuum left by the CR and the “man-eat-man” capitalism that followed it will be tough for China to fill with shopping, nationalism, and hookers — even though it is trying its hardest to do just that. The book is more nuanced than that, but that is the underlying theme.

September 7, 2006 @ 1:57 am | Comment

I’m with you, 88. And I knew Japan would come up in the very first comment. But despite the Yasukuni insanity and the revisionsts who run the museum (and many, many other Japanese revisionists), from what I’ve read there has been a fair amount of introspection over what they did in WWII – maybe not enough and maybe at times half-hearted, but certainly way more than China’s ever done with the CR.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:04 am | Comment

About Japan, I wasn’t referring to Yasukuni and apology issues as much as the collective amnesia/victim mentality the Japanese are famous for when it comes to certain historical periods.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:15 am | Comment

I agree – the conclusion to that article is incredibly incisive and it sums up a lot of the paradoxes of China.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:47 am | Comment

Coming to terms with the past may be a pre-requisite for advancing into the future… but then again it may not be.

The chattering class might like to think that an unexamined life will bite us in the future.

But will it? It might bite the sensibilities of the chattering class but for the masses, they might just get on with it, and they have every right to.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:24 am | Comment

“It might bite the sensibilities of the chattering class but for the masses, they might just get on with it, and they have every right to.”

Labian, if you had been making that comment about Japanese crimes in China on a Chinese forum, you would have been ripped to pieces in a very violent melee.

Either victims and their families deserve a proper apology/their suffering openly discussed, or they don’t. It’s my experience that people that want the Cultural Revolution hidden away from popular discussion also insist that the Japanese war never be “forgotten” and always taught 100%.

So what do you support? A whitewash of Japan’s past actions, or open discussion of the Cultural Revolution?

September 7, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

I’m agnostic on the subject of “coming to terms” with history and somehow achieving some sort of cleansed state through public psycho-drama.

There is such a thing as private shame, a much more powerful acknowledgment of history and suffering.

Is historical suffering suddenly undone now that everyone has a group hug and a nice chat about historical misdeeds?

Do we need a cathartis, hold hands and sing kumbayaa?

If there is a Cultural Revolution museum, can 20 something Chinese then go shopping and karaoke guilt free?

There is a Western myth that the Chinese know little about their own history. This is the logical conclusion that a Westerner will draw because of the stoicism that private shame engenders. The Chinese understand the Cultural Revolution down to their very core which isn’t for Western consumption. But we have a public face that is.

It’s a huge burden to carry, admittedly, but the nation, for the time being, has chosen to carry it…. right or wrong.

September 7, 2006 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

I agree with most of what Pomfret said there, except for his phrase about “history…sneaking up” on people or on countries.

No. History never sneaks up on anyone, and history never “overtakes” anyone. Because, what history really is, is consciousness of the remembered past. And that kind of consciousness never “sneaks up” on anyone. History never comes to anyone except those who are willing to face it.

No. What DOES happen – and what Pomfret was trying to find the words for, and he failed to find the right words for it – what DOES happen, is the ultimate and inevitable corruption and decay and death of all lies, and of anything and everything which is built on lies.

“History” will not “sneak up” on China. And I wish that it would, and we should all wish that it would. Because “History” is honest, truthful consciousness of the remembered past. And if THAT ever comes to China, it will be a purely good thing which will do China nothing but good.
Because truthfulness is always, always a categorical good. And in the long run, it leads to prosperity too.

No, Pomfret was entirely wrong when he used that phrase about “history” “sneaking up” on China. We should only hope that it would happen. China would become a far better place if History – meaning truthful consciousness of the remembered past – ever made deep marks on China. Nothing but Good could ever come from that. Because truthfulness – which is PRECISELY what all real history is – is an absolute good. And all good things stem from it, including Science and technology and (sustainable) economic development.

But what WILL “sneak up” on China – and this is what Pomfret, even with all of his extraordinary genius, is not quite YET able to understand – what WILL “sneak up” on China, is the inevitable corruption and death of anything and everything which is built on lies.

And it really is inevitable. China’s currently apparent “economic development” will not be sustainable in the long term, because at this time, China is not willing to face the truth about its history.

Some might say that this is not a “practical” or “scientific” way to predict China’s future. Oh, but yes it is. All of Human History proves this inevitable law, that any and all Human endeavours which are based on a foundation of lies (like the Communist Party is), inevitably fail, in the long run.

Please forgive me for repeating these words by Mohandas Gandhi, which I have cited several times before on this blog. I think this is an appropriate time for me to cite them again, because his words support what I have written above, about the INEVITABLE corruption and death of any and all institutions which are built on lies, like the Chinese Communist Party is, and thus the Communist Party is doomed to die:
Gandhi said:

“When I despair…I remember that all through history…there have been murderers and tyrants,
and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fail. Think of it: always.”

September 7, 2006 @ 2:25 pm | Comment

Ivan, you write passionately and I wish that is how the world really works.

But it’s not.

And we deal with it.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:33 pm | Comment

The question of historical memory is tricky because it involves not just abstract concepts such as ‘states’ or ‘nations,’ but because, as in the case of the GPCR, the past can be for many people quite personal.

We show a documentary on the GPCR each year to our lower-division Chinese history survey. In one interview a prim woman in her 40s sits in her stylish Beijing apartment and tells a story about how when she was a girl during the GPCR, a group of her friends were going to go to the home of their school principal in the night to ‘struggle with him.’ According to her, she arrived late, to find that her friends had beaten the old man to death. She asks the camera, what would I have done if I had been there, too? Would I have beaten the man also?

Events such as slavery become History for many reasons, separation by time can play a part. So can the way the story is told. Germans can criticize their past atrocities as the work of ‘Nazis.’ Americans can view slavery as the ‘peculiar institution’ of a defeated group of plantation owners. These are psychological fixes that allow people today to “overcome” the atrocities of our ancestors.

But for many Chinese, the past events of the GPCR are quite present. These memories play a role in the decisions that people make in their daily lives, including the decision, by some, to forget that which they would rather not remember.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

PS, without naming any names (because I will respect Richard’s recent request to refrain from personal feuds), my above comment, citing Gandhi, is directed very personally at each and every Communist Party member who reads it. You all know who you are.

Your Communist Party is doomed to die and to disappear into the trash-can of history, as an inevitable law of History.

And it will happen in your lifetime. The only question is whether, and how, you will deal with it when the time comes. We can only hope that a Chinese equivalent of Gorbachev will arise soon, to guide China through the death of its Communist Party in a peaceful way. Because the time is running out for China to find a peaceful and orderly way out of its Communist Dictatorship, which is doomed to die very soon.
We can only hope that China will find a Chinese Gorbachev, very soon, because the clock ran out for China’s Communist Party back in 1989, and now China is 17 years overdue to begin a peaceful and orderly transition away from the Communist Party dictatorship.

At this time, ever day that passes, is one more day late, one more day overdue, for China to do what it should have done when Communism died in 1989.

September 7, 2006 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

“Laban”, thank you for your remark to me.

You’re partly mistaken.

It’s true that for the most part, the world works in very evil ways, which should ALMOST drive us to despair.

But then, every now and then, this world receives a Moses, or a Buddha, or a Jesus, or a Muhammed, who refuse to despair, and they bring many nations back to their senses and they revive the hope and love of life and of beauty and of truth, which is the natural state of Man.

Thanks for your bit of praise for me, Laban, but no thanks for your suggestion of cynical despair.
The historical record has proved that there are always – always – good and PRACTICAL reasons to reject cynicism, and to reject despair.

Moses. Buddha. Jesus. Muhammed. Not to mention legions of other lesser prophets who reminded us how and why Hope is very real, and how, at its best, the Human Spirit really is just barely lower than the Angels.

(PS, sorry, Richard, should I revert back to my aggressive mode now, so that some other commenters can email you to tell you to delete my “offensive” and “unserious” comments? Yes I’m being sarcastic, in a friendly way…. ๐Ÿ™‚

September 7, 2006 @ 3:15 pm | Comment

Ivan,

You sound like me when I was a Peace Corps volunteer 10 years ago.

Now I work on Wall Street and sound very different.

Good luck to you.

September 7, 2006 @ 3:27 pm | Comment

>>is directed very personally at each and every Communist Party member who reads it.

I would say half of the party members I know hate the system and are looking forward to the day when “their party” can be replaced by a better system. Most of them also happen to feel, however, that today is not that day, for a host of reasons. Really, directing a statement like this at “party members” doesn’t make a lot of sense, imho.

September 7, 2006 @ 4:12 pm | Comment

Laban,

Thanks, from one man who knows what it’s like to yearn for just a BIT of thanks for such thankless tasks as you did in the Peace Corps, to another.

Thank you, so much, for your remark to me and for the almost thankless service which you did in the Peace Corps. Oh I know all too well, how thankless it is.

So I say, thank you.

September 7, 2006 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

I agree with 88 that there are a lot of party members that are good people waiting for change, but I believe that great things will happen when the BETTER members of the party step forward and change things. Good people sit around and wait. Great people stand up and demand change happen. Heroes go and make it happen.

September 7, 2006 @ 4:27 pm | Comment

To “88”,

You say that “most of them” (most of the Communist Party members) “feel that “today is not that day” to be replaced by a better system.

Ah, yeah. And will you be honest enough to admit WHY most of them feel that way?

It’s because of the venal and selfish privileges which all Chinese Communist Party members enjoy as members of the Communist Party.

You say that “half” of them “look forward” to a day when their Party (hey, why don’t you just say it’s name, its dirty and shameful name, the Communist Party) “can be replaced by a better system.”

But what are they doing about it?

Almost nothing.

Because their privileges are all in the pockets of the filthy, dirty, lying, murderous Communist Party. The main reason why those “half” of the Communists are doing nothing to move China away from the Communist Party dictatorship, is because the Communist Party owns them and it owns all of their (mostly unearned and undeserved) privileges.

So, don’t you dare suggest that it “doesn’t make sense” to launch a challenge (yes even an insulting one, which they have richly earned) at ALL members of the Communist Party.

It started as a criminal organisation which rejected the very idea of the rule of law. And as long as it claims the right to be a one-party dictatorship, whose VERY FOUNDATIONS are an EXPRESS REJECTION of the rule of law and of any kind of transcendent morality – as long as that is the case (as it is today), then yes, all, ALL Communist Party members deserve shame and reproach, shame, SHAME and reproach, unless and until they get off of their asses and make some REAL efforts to end the Communist Party dictatorship.

Unless and until any Communist Party members do that ACTIVELY, then I say they all, ALL deserve shame, as criminals.

The least any of them could do would be to renounce their party membership. Or else to make active efforts to PUSH for an end to Communist Party dictatorship. But if any Communist Party members refrain from doing either of those things, WHILE they still enjoy the privileges of Communist Party membership, then they are just criminals, dishonourable people who deserve to be shamed and, ideally, sent to prison.

The Communist Party began as a criminal organisation which rejected the very idea of the rule of law. Thus, any and all Communist Party members are criminals, unless they PUSH for an end to the Communist Party Dictatorship, or else renounce their membership.

As the great American former slave and anti-slavery abolitionist, Frederick Douglass said, in opposition to those who wanted to “compromise” with slavery, he said:

“…all else is intrigue.”

September 7, 2006 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

I’m interested in J. from the Granite Studio’s opinion.

“Events such as slavery become History for many reasons, separation by time can play a part. So can the way the story is told. Germans can criticize their past atrocities as the work of ‘Nazis.’ Americans can view slavery as the ‘peculiar institution’ of a defeated group of plantation owners. These are psychological fixes that allow people today to “overcome” the atrocities of our ancestors. ”

So is history just bunk if a psychological escape is so easy? And if it is, what’s the harm?

September 7, 2006 @ 4:46 pm | Comment

Laban said:

There is a Western myth that the Chinese know little about their own history. This is the logical conclusion that a Westerner will draw because of the stoicism that private shame engenders. The Chinese understand the Cultural Revolution down to their very core which isn’t for Western consumption. But we have a public face that is.

Doesn’t the same hold true for the Japanese, who also hide private shame behind a public stoic face?

September 7, 2006 @ 5:15 pm | Comment

Laban,

Go back and read my several preceding comments.

Henry Ford was the one who said, “History is bunk.”
And Hitler agreed with him about that. (Hitler loved automobiles, too, and yes that DOES mean something. Go and sit quietly for a while and think about it, if you’re able to clear out the late-modern gunk from your mind. My assessment of you is that you won’t quite get the connection between Ford and Hitler for a few more years.)

In answer to the question which you (stupidly) asked of J-granite-studio (presumably because you sense some accord with his sophomoric mind), let me answer it: There is NO “psychological escape” from History, because History is precisely a way of thought which considers and RE-considers the remembered past.

Thus, a “psychological escape from history” is meaningless, except insofar as it refers to a refusal to think at all.

Get it?

I don’t think you do, not yet. The fact that you asked such a shallow and sophomoric mind like J-Granite etc to answer this question, shows me that you still have a hell of a lot to learn before you can even begin to think about history in any
new way.

But there you go. And at this point I’m tempted to start name dropping, to indicate just where and how I learned history, and how and why I uderstand it in ways which – it’s obvious to me – you’re just not able to at this time. Eh, but if I did, it would just be a waste of breath, not to mention some other complications.

If you can’t understand what I’ve said in the above comments, you’re not ready for anything more subtle or complicated.

I think you won’t be ready to start thinking about history for a long time. Your recent comments indicate that you’re still stuck somewhere in….well, wait a few years and maybe you might become ready to hear more. But it’s obvious to me that you’re not ready yet.

You’re just not ready yet. And no that’s not obscurantist. That’s a very careful and calculated assessment of how much you’re able to understand at this time.

September 7, 2006 @ 5:22 pm | Comment

1) >>You say that “most of them” (most of the Communist Party members)

Well, let’s be…accurate. No, I didn’t say that. I said most of the party members whom I know.

2) >>And will you be honest enough to admit WHY most of them feel that way?

Sure. Most Chinese have seen enough politically inspired chaos to last several lifetimes: the Great Leap Backwards, the Cultural Revolution, 6–4, just to mention a few items. So most Chinese are not willing to risk their own lives, their families lives, or their newly garnered middle-class existence in the chaos that would surely follow the overthrow/collapse of the CCP. Party members, as members of the elite, have the most to lose if the system collapses; of that there is no question. However, that doesn’t mean no one in the party wants change. They want controlled change.

3) >.(hey, why don’t you just say it’s name, its dirty and shameful name, the Communist Party) ”

I wrote “their party” because most of the party members whom I know are not true believers; they are either cynical or ambitious ($$) or both. Membership often has very little to do with politics or worldview per se.

4) But what are they doing about it?

You mean about the communist party being in control or about the communist party being evil, corrupt, and “communist?” Most in the party are enriching themselves and their relatives. Survey the past 5,000 years of Chinese history and let me know how unusual that is. Chinese society today is corrupt through and through (by Western standards, anyway) — the CR has a lot to do with that. This may be the result of the party’s handiwork, but eliminating the party today will not magically heal those wounds.

4) >>So, don’t you dare suggest…

The next few paragraphs are somewhat hysterical rants. Shame, shame, shame, blah, blah, blah.

5)>>The least any of them could do would be to renounce their party membership. Or else to make active efforts to PUSH for an end to Communist Party dictatorship

So renouncing their party membership will accomplish what? Some within the party have been pushing for reform incrementally — with great success in the economic sphere, very little in the political — but committing a noble and pointless suicide will accomplish even less.

Most Chinese – party members or not – have good reasons for preferring the present corrupt system, in which they at least have the prospect of escaping decades of bark-eating poverty, over the chaos and uncertainty of the collapse/overthrow of the current system. It is easy to sit in another country with no experience of the past 50 years of madness (CCP-induced or not) and tell people to risk their lives and their families, prison or death, for “principles.” Chinese are more practical, and especially today, jaded and cynical about political solutions.

6) >>”compromise” with slavery

Again, easy to tell people to be pure idealists when you are risking nothing — and when most of the Chinese have seen similar “uncompromising” idealists in the past beat their parents to death and force them to eat shit or run students over with tanks. That may not be fair to Mr. Douglas, but that is how that plays out in the Chinese psyche.

Finally, there are no good options in China right now. There is no magic solution. Most are willing to plod along and hope that things get better. You can condemn people for not manning the barricades, but others have tried that in the recent past and accomplished little.

September 7, 2006 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

Germans can criticize their past atrocities as the work of ‘Nazis.’ Americans can view slavery as the ‘peculiar institution’ of a defeated group of plantation owners.

German-American Sabine Reichel shattered the German people’s attempts to distance themselves from the atrocities in her book What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”

The oppression of African-Americans continued after the abolition of slavery. Chapters on Jim Crow and the KKK in US history book may feature a photo of an African-American man dangling from a tree branch, surrounded by a crowd of sneering whites dressed in ordinary working-class clothes. Such photos force us to confront the horrific violence of racism in our country.

There is a Western myth that the Chinese know little about their own history.

Never heard of that myth, Laban. I and virtually every other Westerner who has lived in China know that the Chinese are aware of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, which left no village untouched. Chinese friends shared with me stories of relatives and neighbors who were beaten and/or incarcerated, whose bodies display souvenirs of their horrific experiences.

September 7, 2006 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

Sonagi:

So may the private knowledge be sufficient? For now.

Wait 30 years and most Cultural Revolution participants will be long gone and future generations can say, “Never again!” while looking at pictures in books.

And everyone can go shopping and watch MTV like nothing evr happened. After all, I never scalped an Injun…

September 7, 2006 @ 5:56 pm | Comment

“Henry Ford was the one who said, ‘History is bunk.’ And Hitler agreed with him about that.”

It sure didn’t take long for Ivan to prove Godwin’s Law.

His rants are kind of distracting when I’m really trying to learn something.

September 7, 2006 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

“Henry Ford was the one who said, ‘History is bunk.’ And Hitler agreed with him about that.”

It sure didn’t take long for Ivan to prove Godwin’s Law.

His rants are kind of distracting when I’m really trying to learn something.

September 7, 2006 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

Simply alluding to Hitler is not what Godwin’s law is about. It’s about comparing those you are arguing against to Hitler. Making a reference to Hitler is perfectly fair and often appropriate – he is, after all, like Jesus, an archetype.

September 7, 2006 @ 6:08 pm | Comment

Laban said:

“The Chinese understand the Cultural Revolution down to their very core which isn’t for Western consumption.”

One minute you’re waxing on about Chinese people’s profound understanding of the Cultural Revolution, and then later on, you say this:

“Wait 30 years and most Cultural Revolution participants will be long gone and future generations can say, “Never again!” while looking at pictures in books.

And everyone can go shopping and watch MTV like nothing evr happened. After all, I never scalped an Injun…”

If the Chinese understanding of the Cultural Revolution “down to their core” is doomed to disappear in a generation, then perhaps it’s not enough to carry private shame behind a stoic face. That is why books like Pomfrets’, which document real-life experiences of those who lived through the Cultural Revolution, are invaluable.

September 7, 2006 @ 6:44 pm | Comment

Other societies who’ve supposedly delt with their history really just waited it out. So why hold China to a higher standard?

I don’t doubt the value of Pomfret’s book as historical record, I’m just not sure his implications are correct.

The 28 year CAGR GDP growth has been over 9%. That’s a pretty good run and who knows if it will continue but 28 years is a long time. Another 28 years and its all in the past… like plantations and the Iraq War.

September 7, 2006 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

No one’s holding China to a higher standard. You’ve got a victim mentality. I hold the US to the same standard, and Japan and every other country. The difference is, those other countries have a realtively free media that force people to consider thier pasts, whether the government wants them to or not.

Your last paragraph about GDP growth – that’s Pomfret’s entire point. As long as we make money, we don’t have to do any introspection. We can black out dark times and just pretend they never happened.

September 7, 2006 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

The point may be correct as distasteful as it may seem.

“As long as we make money, we don’t have to do any introspection. We can black out dark times and just pretend they never happened.”

How many Americans really want to acknowledge that their $12 trillion economy was made possible by genocide?

There’s a strange moral assurance that Westerners carry around because they live in a democracy – which is great – but it’s unearned and a legacy inherited from… well you figure it out.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:02 pm | Comment

>>How many Americans really want to acknowledge that their $12 trillion economy was made possible by genocide?

Well, every American history class I took from high school on stressed this very point — if by “genocide” you mean stealing the land from native Americans. So I’m not sure what you were getting at here…

September 7, 2006 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

88, did you give any land back?

Or was just acknowledging it enough?

September 7, 2006 @ 8:17 pm | Comment

Laban,

What is the point you are trying to make? Because I don’t see it. If you are saying that Americans aren’t aware of the fact that the US was built by stealing land from and killing native Americans, you are simply wrong. Most American history courses (esp. at the college level) in the US are courses in victimology — the parade of victims in the American past — indians, slaves, women, etc. Not to mention movies, books, etc.

>88, did you give any land back?

Did I? No. The American government did give the few who were left reservations (well, forced them on to reservations, which they later built casinos on because of their unique legal status).

Again, I’m not sure how this relates to China. Most people are ignorant of the past, whatever country they are from.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

Laban’s revealing a rather shocking level of ignorance about what Americans learn. The reason Indian reservations are allowed their gambling casinos and are treated with different laws than the rest of America is all part of our “reparations” policy for the horrible wrongs we incurred against the Native Americans more than a century ago. All Americans learn about this if they go through the public school system. We don’t think about it every waking minute – life goes on, and we all get consumed in our own affairs. but that is part of our consciousness and we all draw lessons from it. I don’t expect the Chinese to carry the CR around thier necks like an albatross. But they should all understand it fully, and know what can happen when people surrender their critical faculties to sloganeering and personality cults.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:34 pm | Comment

88, did you give any land back?

Oy. There goes any hopes of meaningful discussion.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:36 pm | Comment

The point is that the past could be more or less bunk as Henry Ford would say because people, outside of the chattering class, don’t care.

Because sometimes the horrors of the past are just so monstrous that facing them would require… well, the dismantling of the entire US economy/politcal system. Or would “Dances With Wolves” with Kevin Costner do just fine?

What can we do with the past that matters? Would a Cultural Revolution movie starring Zhang Ziyi satisfy your historical sensibilities? Or do you want to see all 50 something Chinese citizens have another round of self criticism?

What do you want? A competition of I’ve faced my history more than you’ve faced yours?

Brainless consumerism will be the salvation of mankind. You might not like it, but it worked for America.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

Laban,

Like most Americans of all races, my ancestry is mixed – Irish, English, and German. Shall I cut off my arms and ship them to Germany, cut off my legs and ‘return’ them England and then ‘repatriate’ the remainder to Ireland? My distant ancestors were Europeans, but I am not. I was born in the US.

You ask if we Americans have given any land back to Native Americans while China has been carrying on an active program of resettling Han Chinese in minority regions.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

The point is that the past could be more or less bunk as Henry Ford would say because people, outside of the chattering class, don’t care.

Not true. I live in a part of the south that was a fierce battleground during the Civil War. The area is dotted with memorials, and there are annual re-enactments of battles.

The Koreans and the Chinese have been squabbling over who are the rightful cultural descendants of the old Goguryo kingdom. It isn’t just about cultural bragging rights, but legitimizing land claims. The Koreans worry that China is using the Goguryo project as historical justification for carving out a chunk of North Korea as a buffer zone should the regime collapse.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:51 pm | Comment

I lived in Michigan for 4 years. How many people of the Michigan tribe did I know? 0

I lived in Onadaga County for 1 year. How many people of the Onadaga tribe did I know? 0

I live in Manhattan for 5 year. How many people of the Manhattan tribe do I know? 0

So a little patch of land with a casino does the trick?

There is affirmative action in China for ethnic minorities and an exemption from the 1 child policy. Maybe they should be allowed to build casinos too.

So Westerners get pretty testy when unsavory aspects of their past get dredged up…

September 7, 2006 @ 8:51 pm | Comment

Laban,

It is slightly ironic that you are using historical arguments to dismiss history as bunk. You only know what Henry Ford said or what Americans did to native Americans because of the existence of a discipline called “history.” Someone once said, “All knowledge is historical knowledge.” Someone else said, “Time is the theif that steals the truth away.” If knowledge and truth have any bearing on our present lives, then history matters.

>>Brainless consumerism will be the salvation of mankind. You might not like it, but it worked for America.

I think it is a little more complex than that. Consumerism is a by-product. But it would be pointless to even attempt to argue this point (or almost any other point outside of a mathematical system) if history is bunk and doesn’t matter.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:56 pm | Comment

88, I am really delighted to see you commenting here. Now brace yourself for the the next curveball as Laban ignores your points and tries again, Philip Cunningham-style, to prove how America is even worse that China.

September 7, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

Obviously, you didn’t live in Michigan long enough to know that there is a huge OJIBWAY reservation in central Michigan.

Affirmative action for minorities in China? B*D, we’ve had affirmative action for almost 40 years. Native Americans and Canadian First Nations enjoy far more autonomy than the misnamed autonomous regions and prefectures in China.

Chinese are pretty sensitive about the issue of western settlements…

September 7, 2006 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

I’m actually agnostic on the subject.

I think that there is a possibility, based on evidence from many many societies, that history may not… can not be delt with and we just have to live with compromises and contradictions.

And the Cultural Revolution may be one of those instances. I actually think it is not. In 30 years, it will be in all the history books and there with be a Youtube docu-drama on it starring Wang Leehom.

September 7, 2006 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

BTW, Laban, where else in Michigan did you live besides that little dot on the map known as Onodaga?

September 7, 2006 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

BTW, Laban, where else in Michigan did you live besides that little dot on the map known as Onodaga, and what the heck were you doing out there in the boonies?

September 7, 2006 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

I lived in East Lansing actually.

Onadaga County I’m referring to is in New York (Syracuse is the city).

September 7, 2006 @ 9:09 pm | Comment

Student at MSU? I was born in Lansing and grew up in nearby Williamston.

September 7, 2006 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

Father did grad school at MSU.

I chased ground squirrels.

September 7, 2006 @ 9:14 pm | Comment

On that humorous note, I’m signing off to go to bed.

September 7, 2006 @ 9:18 pm | Comment

Yeah, me too

September 7, 2006 @ 9:20 pm | Comment

Ivan,

Could you start namedropping please? Because your views on the formation of the CCP are quite unique. I’d be interested to know where you studied.

I’m sure I, and others, have much to learn from somebody so well-read.

The question is of course: Are you here willing to be a teacher or just to show-off?

September 7, 2006 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

BTW: Hitler/Henry Ford ain’t exactly news. For those interested, check out Ludecke (1937) and Hanfstaengl (1957) for early references to the connection.

September 7, 2006 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

“Chinese Lessons” is truly a super book. I was listening to Pomfret on NPR this morning and even sat in my car for an extra ten minutes after parking it, but had to get out for a meeting before I got a chance to ask Pomfret the exact question you pose: Will China’s history and/or its failure to confront it cause deep problems today and tomorrow. I guess the book compels that question.

Sometimes cliches become cliches becuase they are so accurate …. those who ignore history …..

September 7, 2006 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

Ivan,

On second thought, I read a few of your old posts over breakfast and got quite a chuckle. You’re a real stitch, keep doing what you’re doing, man. Don’t. Ever. Change.

Best.

September 8, 2006 @ 2:16 am | Comment

This is an interesting thread. I think Laban tied some self righteous folks into knots.

So why is this off limits:

“88, did you give any land back?

Oy. There goes any hopes of meaningful discussion.”

Same reason Taiwan and Xinjiang are off limits for some people?

Mirror mirror on the wall, Americans are the fairest ones of all… not…

I knew a Laban at Cornell. I was friends with Andy and Sue, not sure if you remember me. Are you in New York? I am.

September 9, 2006 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

You thought that was a fair and serious question, whether someone personally gave land back? Okay…

September 9, 2006 @ 8:56 pm | Comment

The difference between these reservations and xinjiang/taiwan/tibet/etc.. is that at any given time, a referandum for independence could be held for any area of america (including these indian reservations), and nobody would be punished, and frankly independence COULD happen, if the majority vote won. I’ve yet to hear of Hawaiian independence activists being arrested or oppressed politically(yes, there are hawaiian independence activists). In fact, I actually support a seperate California, for instance (just as long as they keep paying taxes, we really need them;)). Can the same be said of areas in China? No, because the CCP is terrified of the fact that some people might not actually WANT to be part of their middle kingdom. Communist China has yet to learn the simple truth that the individual is more important than the nation.

September 10, 2006 @ 1:55 pm | Comment

That’s pretty weak. Trying to compare America’s treatment of its natives favorably to China’s treatment of it’s unruly population.

Like trying to prove that pondscum is less stinky than a manure pile.

The American Indian population has been all but wiped out and anything that’s left is politically diluted and economically dependent. They had independence movement (or resistance if you will) over the last 300-500 years and lost.

September 10, 2006 @ 7:30 pm | Comment

But that’s neither here nor there (plenty of Native American bulletin boards around).

Let’s try to get back to discussing China, the CR, and whether a reckoning with history is needed

September 10, 2006 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

To say Mao started CR to get rid of his political enemies is an absurd simplification of his motive. Mao once said he only accomplished 2 things in his life : found PRC and cultural revolution. If CR was just another political conflict, he wouldn’t think so highly of it, after all, he defeated even more powerful enemies in his life. Besides, he has a million other ways to achieve that goal, just look at how he purged the party of top-ranking official before CR. I find Mao’s political career and vision bear resemblance to that of the first emperor of Ming dynasty, they were both born farmers, the lowest class in China, and rose to the top through bloody civil war, they both had deep distrust of the bureaucratic system and did massive cleansing (read killing) , they both wanted to creat a agrarian utopia under a authoritarian system, and they both failed.

September 11, 2006 @ 5:49 pm | Comment

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