China: History, Corpses, Ordinary Lives, Brothers, and Tibet

Dear Reader:

I continue reading about China in preparation for my upcoming trip.  I’m really enjoying this – similar to earlier in this blog when I dove deeply into an author, diving deeply into a broad topic instead.  This is a lot like writing a research paper when I was a college student and I missed that immersion into a new topic.  Actually, this is the best part: the reading!  While I enjoy writing in certain contexts, such as this blog, writing papers is the hard part and reading is the fun part.  Best of both worlds.

#64 (HC) Fairbanks and Goldman: China: A New History

I’m not quite done with this, it IS long (5000 years of history….).  But I’m still loving it.  I’m in the 20th Century now reading about World War II, Japan, and the battle between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Guomintang (who eventually leave for Taiwan).

Given how big and decentralized (in some respects) China is and was, even in the early 20th Century, I had been thinking, how did the CCP take hold of the country?  I had read books about this history more than 30 years ago and it is satisfying to return to it.  The answer of how it did lies with Mao and WWII.  Mao had close relations with Moscow for a long time (this changed in the 1960s when he broke from them) and initially adopted Stalinist communism.  But Mao was too smart to stick with a Soviet political ideology.  He realized that communism needed to adapt to the Chinese context and its deep culture and long political history and entrenched philosophy.

He figured out that, in contrast to Russia and Europe which had a significant percentage of its population working in urban factories, China did not.  Instead, it was by and large a rural peasant country and economy.  He therefore realized that a communist uprising would have to emerge from a peasant base, not an urban manufacturing worker base.  He also knew that the population segment oppressing this peasant base was “landlords” meaning the relatively well-off peasants who owned some land and leased it to poorer peasants.  Thus Mao built a philosophy around first co-opting these landlords and then turning the other peasants against them (thus you are always reading about the evils of landlords in histories of the Cultural Revolution).  Thus one of the things that Mao was ingenious at doing was adapting things to China.

The other key factor was the Japanese and World War II.  The CCP and the Guomintang had been at war with each other for much of the early 20th Century.  World War II and the horrific Japanese invasion gave them a common enemy.  As Japan fell and the US entered China, the US tried to bring both parties into cooperative relations.  They came together and made many meaningless promises to each other (meanwhile, the US was, of course, secretly backing the Guomintang) but as soon as the US left, they went back to war.  Meanwhile, Mao had mobilized and organized the peasants, particularly in certain parts of China, and was able to eventually overturn the Guomingtang (actually, I’m not quite that far yet).

#62 (HC) Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet by Alai

This was one of the books recommended by my student’s father who is a  literature professor in China (and I’ll be seeing him again later this month).  It is my favorite of the three and, and along with Bei Dao’s Waves and Chinese Lives (below) my favorites among the books about China that I have been reading.  It is the story of the idiot, the son of the second wife of a Tibetan chieftain around the time of the Communist revolution.  We never have a name for him other than “the Idiot.”  I enjoy books about very different (real) cultures, but not usually so much about war, fighting, violence, sex, of which there is a lot in this book.

But I really enjoyed this book and got caught up in the boy’s story.  Not surprisingly, it emerges that rather than being an idiot, the boy is actually very smart.  The story chronicles his rivalry with his half-brother (the son of the first wife and thus heir apparent) and his relationship with his father.  It is also the story of the shifting of political, economic and cultural winds in Tibet.  I can understand how this got published in China because it is fairly neutral about Chinese-Tibetan relations.  Mostly just sort of descriptive without taking an obvious stand.  In the course of reading the book, you learn a lot about Tibet during this era (Alai is Tibetan) and how a feudal area operated.  It is compellingly written and helps us to understand a very different world.

#66 (HC) Chinese Lives by Zhang and Sang

If you want to read just one book in order to understand China, this would be it.  The book is comprised of 75-80 interviews with people from all walks of life in the 1980s.  The interviews were conducted by two Chinese reporters.  The interviews are roughly organized around a theme into bigger sections (such as “Youth”).

The book is so compelling and beautifully written.  The interviews are really just aimed at getting people talking about their lives, their work, and their families.  It was published in China in the 1980s.  It is honest, but obviously, does not contain serious criticism of the government.  Although there is certainly discussion of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and other misguided Maoist initiatives (the 1980s was a period when it was newly OK to criticize these things).  I can’t imagine a book that would give you a better understanding of everyday Chinese than this.  Yes, it is a few decades old and things have changed a lot.  But this was at the beginning of that rapid change and gives us a window into what life was like before the west came back in.

#78 (HC) The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

This book is somewhat parallel to Chinese Lives although the interviews were conducted in the early 2000s by Liao Yiwu, a dissident and artist who has spent time in jail at the behest of the Chinese government.  It is comprised of many interviews with different people.  The difference is that all the people Liao interviews are from the margins of life.  They include a human trafficker and a corpse walker (a professional mourner whose job could include walking a corpse home from some distance).  The interviewees include prostitutes and drug addicts, etc.  I’m not as excited about reading about this slice of humanity.  But it is interesting.  And it is refreshing to read Liao giving the human trafficker a “what for” – basically telling him that what he did is heinous.  It is also interesting reading how a human trafficker justifies doing this “work.”

#68 Brothers by Da Chen

I had read one of Da Chen’s other books: Colors of the Mountain and enjoyed it.  The earlier book is your standard history of the Cultural Revolution and its horrors for Chinese intellectuals (or just basically smart people or, really, almost everybody).  I am a wee bit tired of reading about the Cultural Revolution.  Since reading Bette Bao Lord’s 1964 Eighth Moon the story of her sister who got left behind in China, I’ve pretty much “gotten” what happened.  The story really doesn’t change much.  It is that basically anyone: landlord, kid who got As, kid who got Ds and crossed the wrong person, peasant who crossed the wrong person, man with one duck more than his neighbor, etc etc. was subject to beatings; murder; loss of family, home, profession and property; and/or shipping to the countryside to ladle human manure onto cabbage rows.  After one or ten years, they either settled there or returned to their home towns: stronger, weaker, insane, sociopathic, or powerful.

I’ve come to realize that the Cultural Revolution was like World War II to Europe, and probably especially to England, Germany, and France and some other countries.  When I lived in Norway in the 1970s I was shocked at how fixated people of a certain age were on WWII (Norway was occupied by Germany).  You see something similar with Britain, although I think it has died down a bit.  In other words, the Cultural Revolution was huge cataclysm which changed the universe, especially for intellectuals (I’m not saying this is true of WWII in quite the same way).  And Chinese artists, intellectuals, and writers are still grappling with this history.  Of course, in the 1980s and 90s they were suddenly newly able to tell the story.  But I’m starting to yearn for additional stories.  I’m therefore not eager to dive into any of my books that are primarily this story.  Happily, I have a number that are different.  OK, so Da Chen’s other book was one of these Cultural Revolution histories, a good one, but that very familiar story.

Brothers  is not.  It is the story of half brothers who are sons of one of the most powerful men (and families) in China.  One is a bastard, born as his mother committed suicide.  The other is a highly privileged Beijing kid of the 1960s and 70s.  It is a book of intrigue and one that shows how the twist of birth can take brothers in two very different directions.  I won’t give out too many plot points because it is a bit of a thriller, but I highly recommend it.

I acquired two more books:

81) Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason (K) (Mystery)

82) The Score (Parker Novels) Richard Stark and John Banville (K) Mystery

The first is by an author I’m interested in reading and it was on sale (2.99, I think) so I bought it.  The second was free from University of Chicago Press. Every month the press offers a free ebook.  I just say yes, get it, and I usually don’t count it toward my 20 this year.  I have some convoluted justification for this that I’m not worrying too much about (maybe mostly that I don’t presently have any desire to read the vast majority of these books, I assume that they are pretty “good” which is not necessarily to say “interesting” and they are free).  But this was is a mystery, so I figured I’d acquire it and plan to read it.  I guess I’m at six out of my max 20 this year…  With about 1.5 months gone by this is a faster rate of acquisition than planned.  So, I’ll have to slow down.  However, I want to emphasize that I’ve slowed down my rate of acquisition drastically (this is about 10% of my normal rate) AND I’ve spent very little on these books…  maybe only about $10 total for all six books.  And I’ve gotten back into the habit of reading paper books.  And I’ve worked my way through a lot of my books.  So, this experiment in blogging rather than buying is DEFINITELY working.

And that’s it for now!

Happy Reading, Ruby


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