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We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

An economy of “self-reliance”

“Self-reliance” was the slogan that guided China’s Cultural Revolution economy, reflecting both China’s isolation as a nation and Maoist desires to substitute abundant human labor for scarce capital as a strategy for economic development. China’s economy fared better than post-Mao reformers admitted, but it did not conform to typical developmental patterns; Chinese had low incomes but much higher literacy and life expectancy than such poverty usually suggests. China’s self-reliance joined an ideological Puritanism to restrict individual consumption for the sake of public investment. The Cultural Revolution initially disrupted the economy. But order returned to China’s cities after 1968, sending millions of Red Guards to work in the countryside, still home to 80 percent of the population. Although the economy grew significantly, the gap between city and countryside remained problematic. The Cultural Revolution was a last hurrah for distinctively Maoist economic initiatives. Yet Maoist investment in infrastructure and human capital provided an indispensible base for China’s subsequent economic opening to the outside world.

Poverty and economic growth
China was poor; the per capita income in 1978 was $859 in 2010 dollars. Yet it was relatively egalitarian. The revolution had diminished differences in wealth by eliminating the classes that lived most extravagantly. Rural landlords had been dispossessed through land reform. The extended lineage organizations that sustained their power were vastly weakened. Private capitalists lost control over their assets in a 1956 nationalization of property, although the state continued to pay off bonds issued in exchange.

The Cultural Revolution intensified the egalitarianism. Red Guards attacks on “bourgeois” life styles merely underscored existing state policies. Repeated restrictions upon small business created a profound shortage of consumer goods for everyone. In 1952 China had one restaurant for every 676 people; by 1978 there was only one for every 8,189. Ration coupons were needed to buy cotton cloth, grain, meat, fish, cooking oil, and eggs, frustrating some but discouraging hoarding and ensuring more equal access to scarce items. Bureaucratic rank replaced wealth in aiding access to goods and services. But except for the luxuries enjoyed by the very top leaders, the range of official privileges was restricted.

Manual work was celebrated in a land where gentlemen traditionally made a display of the exemption from physical labor by wearing long fingernails and long gowns. Maoists sought to soften China’s poverty through campaigns to “remember past bitterness,” in which older workers and peasants would meet to tell young audiences how they had suffered before 1949.

Should socialism be a framework for egalitarianism in consumption or should it be an engine for increasing production? It is difficult to be both at the same time. Socialist governments have labored to resolve or at least obscure this tension. Maoists, recognizing that China could still achieve only egalitarian poverty, elevated individual austerity and Spartan consumption into an ideal to free funds for greater public investment. The Cultural Revolutionaries often allocated these investments inefficiently; they presided over a planning regime that dismissed service sector needs, tolerated large regional gaps, and allowed only a slow rise in living standards.

Even so, the economy during the Cultural Revolution was not the disaster that is often described. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew nearly 6 percent annually, a slightly slower rate than during the earlier years of the People’s Republic but still a respectable performance. The figures appear low only by comparison to the post–Cultural Revolution boom economy. It is difficult to construe these figures as a catastrophe.

China’s Cultural Revolution growth rate stands up to comparison during the same period with two other poor Asian giants, India and Indonesia. All three nations faced similar problems and constraints in industrializing large agrarian societies. China grew somewhat less rapidly than Indonesia but about twice as fast as India. All three grew more slowly than Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These four smaller regions later became known as Asia’s “tigers” for their rapid growth (8–9 percent), following a formula that mixed foreign aid and investment with the export of consumer goods to wealthier nations. These small and briskly authoritarian states, with access to sea transport, integrated with ease into the growing international market for textiles, chemicals, and electronics for Western consumers.

The disorder of the Cultural Revolution’s first two years halted growth and even shrank the economy. As early as September 1966, top leaders tried to prevent rebel disruptions to the economy by demanding that everyone should “grasp revolution, promote production.” The dispersal of the Red Guards by 1968 was accompanied by the slogan “the working class must exercise leadership in everything,” when the restoration of Party authority led to two years of extraordinary growth. The remainder of the Cultural Revolution brought moderate, if uneven, increases, save for 1976, when political disruptions again contributed to a production decline.

The dichotomy of utopianism versus pragmatism may not be as absolute as some might have it. For all its egalitarian appearance, Cultural Revolutionary China retained a doggedly developmentalist agenda. Mao shared this agenda with his rival Liu Shaoqi and the policies of the Seventeen Years [1949-1966]. Similar developmentalism would be continued through Deng Xiaoping’s reform program. Despite differences in approach and emphasis, China’s leaders agreed that the state’s job was to make China rich and strong as quickly as possible.

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Industrial investment
Self-reliance encouraged regional autonomy, in part to cut transport costs. Nonetheless significant improvements strengthened the transportation infrastructure. In 1968 the Yangzi River Bridge opened at Nanjing. Completing this unfinished Soviet-aid project made it possible for the first time for rail traffic to cross China’s great river in East China, thus ending the need to move trains onto ferries. Beijing’s first subway line was completed in 1969. Thousands of new bridges and roads improved rural movement of materials and goods.

Rural industry became a dynamic part of the industrial sector, with new commune-based enterprises producing goods such as chemical fertilizer, farm implements, irrigation equipment, cement, electric motors, and hydroelectric power. These received significant state investment and tax exemptions. The township and village enterprises critical to post–Cultural Revolution reforms grew out of these rural industries.

Self-reliance has its green aspects. Poverty discourages waste, and consumption of local goods cuts transport pollution. But the Cultural Revolution’s relentless developmental agenda was hard on the environment, as self-reliance also pushed every community to grow grain, even where this was environmentally unsound. “Grain as the key link” was bad for grasslands, and the aquifers of the North China plain were seriously stressed. Lakes shrank as farmland was extended. Against this trend, forestation increased biomass in the 1970s. And the level of environmental damage, harmful as it was, worsened quickly after the Cultural Revolution, as Chinese developmentalism shifted to a market paradigm of rapid growth.

Given Maoist resistance to consumer goods, industrial development stressed heavy over light industry, such as clothing. Growth was respectable, but investments were often inefficient. The so-called “Third Front,” a secret, military-led industrialization program to build new factories deep in China’s interior, was a prime example (the First and Second Fronts were coastal and central lines of military defense). Many factories were built in caves or hidden among the mountains of the southwest.

This hidden economic base against American or Soviet attack required huge amounts of capital, which might have been better spent in other regions, where construction was cheaper and local skills more abundant. But coastal investment was vulnerable to possible American bombing or attacks from the Guomindang in Taiwan. Maoists also wanted to reward still-poor old revolutionary base areas for their past services and to spread industrial skills more evenly across the nation. Lesser, but still significant, Third Front factories were built nearer the coast, in the underdeveloped mountains of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. These also produced armaments, steel, and chemicals.

This defensive, sometimes paranoid aspect pervaded Cultural Revolution economic policy. Self-reliance was inspired by realistic anxiety of foreign invasion. At one point, the Party enjoined citizens to “dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere.” The idea was to withstand Soviet attacks on China’s transport system. Inadvertent unearthing of previously unknown archaeological artifacts was the immediate result. Lin Biao’s demise and the decline of military power dampened support for the isolationist Third Front. China’s reconciliation with the United States eventually finished it off.

In 1971, the year Lin Biao died, China’s total foreign trade reached a low point of 5 percent of GDP, but foreign trade tripled by 1975. With the end of the Third Front, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, with the backing of Mao Zedong, initiated a great shift in economic policy, marked by a decision to import eleven large-scale fertilizer plants from the West. Zhou Enlai’s speech announcing the “Four Modernizations” was a late Cultural Revolution venture. The economic transition from Mao to Deng actually began during the Cultural Revolution, not after, and it was more also gradual than the total rejection of Maoism that we normally hear about.

Without Maoist development, there would have been no Deng “miracle.” The Cultural Revolution foundations for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms included high literacy and good health, high-yield varieties of rice, and irrigation and transit projects built by all that Maoist labor. Industrial infrastructure may often have been created inefficiently, but it provided a heritage for subsequent growth. Deng inherited an economy free of debt to foreign countries. Maoist decentralization, plus the heavy blows of the Cultural Revolution against the bureaucracy, minimized the sort of economic entrenchment that blocked reforms in the Soviet Union.

Of course the post–Cultural Revolutionary reformers dealt with many inflexibilities as they privatized state firms, improved the supply of consumer goods, developed an aggressive foreign trade system, expanded the credit system, and moved beyond central planning. Maoist approaches reached a point of diminishing returns, in addition to their heavy political costs.

Asking whether the reforms really began in 1971 instead of 1978 is not a silly question. Deng Xiaoping insisted on the 1978 date, as he needed to make all of the Cultural Revolution decade look bad (including those policies that he implemented) in order to justify some of the nastiness that accompanied the turn to market reforms. Moreover, beyond China, neoliberalism has enjoyed a generation of ceaseless propaganda telling us that the market is the only way to organize human affairs. This obscures seeing that the trajectory of “post-Mao” reforms began in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

We’ve previously blogged about Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions, a series that now runs to over three hundred titles. The books offer readers a quick overview of topics ranging from the meaning of life to folk music, covering major issues and key arguments in a lively and accessible manner (and a slim, pocket-sized volume). We, of course, take special notice when China-related VSIs come along, and were excited to see two new titles join the lineup: The Cultural Revolution, written by political scientist Richard Kraus, and Chinese Literature, authored by Smith College professor Sabina Knight. We’re pleased to feature excerpts from both books today at China Beat.

The four masterworks of the Ming dynasty

Depicting the Han dynasty’s fall and the rise of three warring kingdoms (early third century), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國志演義 enacts material from historical sources. (The term translated here as “romance,” yanyi 演義, literally means “elaboration of meaning.”) Beginning as a fourteenth-century manuscript, the novel, first published in 1522, was revised by generations of writer-editors and is most commonly read in Mao Zonggang’s 毛宗崗 (1632–1709) version with commentary (1679). The novel has inspired elaborate filmic adaptations, including CCTV’s 1994 blockbuster series of eighty-four, hourlong episodes. The television series was China’s most costly to date, featured a cast of 400,000 and drew a record audience of 1.2 billion viewers worldwide.

Mixing simple classical narration with more colloquial dialogue, the novel’s 120 chapters give it epic length and feel. By integrating so much popular history into one long saga, the novel reinforces the notion that history follows larger patterns. Individuals, the plot implies, exercise but limited power within the workings of history’s moral order, a perspective articulated in Mao Zonggang’s preface: “Under heaven, grand affairs long divided must be reunited, and those long united must divide.”

In dramatizing historical events, the novel nonetheless powerfully depicts the characters’ personal struggles, making its heroes oft invoked archetypes for commentary about intrigue, villainy, and politics. Against the moody, ruthless poet-ruler Cao Cao, king of Wei, the novel pits Liu Bei, king of Shu-Han, and his two sworn brothers, the courageous but conceited general Guan Yu and the imperious and short-tempered Zhang Fei. Their ill-fated dream of reunifying the empire gains strength when Liu recruits the Daoist sage Zhuge Liang. At the decisive Battle at Red Cliffs, Zhuge summons southeastern winds to fan fires that rout Cao Cao’s forces, a victory sealing the tripartition of the country.

Though the novel presents Liu as the rightful heir to restore a united Han empire, his personal loyalties make him vulnerable to headstrong decisions. And because Zhuge must bow to Liu’s choices, his resourcefulness has limited effect. For all his Confucian loyalty, Zhuge cannot dissuade Liu from pursuing personal revenge. And despite Zhuge’s scruples about commitment, after Liu’s blind vengeance results in his own death and the kingdom is clearly lost, Zhuge faithfully serves Liu’s feckless son.

The novel’s emphasis on moral retribution may reinforce beliefs in historical cycles, but the upshot is less clear. Does the novel suggest that though it may take centuries, cycles of union and disunion will ultimately restore virtuous rulers? Or might the novel’s portrayal of history’s cycles shed irony on ideals of dynastic order? As a famous line from the novel reminds us, “The pursuit of goals lies in humans, but accomplishment lies with heaven.”

A second Ming masterpiece, Water Margin 水滸傳 (a.k.a. Outlaws of the Marsh, ca. 1550) portrays a gang of 108 hard-drinking, audacious bandits from the early twelfth century. The thirty-six main heroes come from all walks of life, driven to banditry by indignation over government corruption, vengeance, coercion by other outlaws, or in the case of the generous yet ruthless leader Song Jiang, a wife’s betrayal. Rich in realistic details of martial arts, claims of friendship, and appetites, the novel climaxes with a grand banquet when the band reaches the preordained number of 108 (including three women). In the name of righteousness, these loyal outlaws steal from the wealthy, defeat government troops, negotiate their own amnesty, and then defend the Song dynasty against rebels. But they show innocent children and women no mercy, and graphic descriptions of massacres, flaying, and cannibalism have led some scholars to decry the heroes’ sadism. Gang mentality rules, enforced by a harsh code based above all on revenge and misogyny. Hating women for their weakness and lust, the bandits view sexual abstinence as a sign of machismo, and the killing of women for adultery as a sign of brotherhood.

More thoroughly colloquial than Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin ’s heavy use of stock phrases and popular songs made the novel accessible to more readers, and raised the stakes for commentators seeking to control the novel’s social effects. Readers debate whether the novel celebrates peasant rebellion, or offers a cautionary fable about the sinister terror of gang mentality. (Since multiple authors and editors crafted the novel, it may not have a consistent ideology.) Even if they idolize the novel’s rebellious adventurers, it is hard for readers not to come away chastened by the destruction and chaos that ensue when vengeance is untempered by Confucian morals.

Such novels evolved through processes of accretion, and, as with the rewriting of poems, scholars often appropriated earlier versions for ideological purposes. To enhance both didactic and commercial value, major novels were typically published with “how to read” essays and interlinear, marginal, and chapter commentaries that tended to impose Confucian interpretations. (When necessary, inconsistencies would be explained as hints to read more carefully.) Highlighting natural patterns, ethical acts and consequences, and the workings of retribution, critics and editors also addressed Buddhist and Daoist themes, as well as strengths and weaknesses of structure, style, and pacing.

By treating fiction as serious literature worthy of exegesis, these commentaries radically expanded the scope of literary theory, previously devoted almost exclusively to poetry. Some editors also substantially altered their material, as Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 (1608–61) did in abridging a 120-chapter version of Water Margin to 70 chapters (1641). Divergent commentaries led to serious debates, as in the case of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Whereas some interpret the novel’s portrayal of bravery and loyalty as promoting these cherished Ming values, others see the characters’ fateful overconfidence as subtly critiquing Ming imperial propaganda.

Possibly the most retold East Asian classic, Journey to the West 西遊記 (1592) satirizes social ills through recrafting the tale of the historical monk Xuanzang’s (596–664) perilous pilgrimage to India. Developed out of the monk’s travelogue, biographies, prosimetric legends, and dramas, the hundred-chapter adventure novel (possibly by Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩, ca. 1500–82) is nonetheless more unified than earlier novels. Abandoned in infancy after a bandit abducts and rapes his widowed mother, the Xuanzang of the novel is plagued by fears and anxieties. But he ultimately triumphs, bringing back and translating three canons of Buddhist sutras (the “Three Baskets” of his other name, Tripitaka).

The picaresque novel endows the dutiful but apprehensive monk with four superhuman companions: a clever but impetuous monkey, a lustful pig, a “Sand Monk,” and a white horse. Most important is Monkey, whose full name means “the Monkey Awakened to Emptiness,” and whose early life opens the novel. Clever and resourceful, he is, like the human mind, wild and restless until controlled through Buddhist discipline. A popular hero later reincarnated in countless cartoons, films, television series, and video games, Monkey frequently rescues the group with his magical transforming rod. Yet his ill-focused energies risk everyone’s safety but for Xuanzang’s control.

Read as allegory, Xuanzang is a spiritual seeker, Monkey his heart-mind, the white horse his will, Pigsy his bodily desires, and Sand Monk his connection to the earth. The journey represents the cultivation of the heart-mind, and the novel’s perils and monsters stand for distortions that obscure the path to Enlightenment. Scholars debate the degree of irony in the novel’s presentation of spiritual quest. Is it an epic or a mock-epic? Does it champion Buddhist salvation or advocate for synthesizing Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist beliefs?

Numerous sequels and midquels added to the novel’s influence and fame. Like its parent novel, Supplement to Journey to the West 西遊補 (1641) offers a trenchant social satire combined with a masterful Buddhist allegory about the ways passions ( 情 qing ) can imprison the heart. Ensnarled by Mackerel ( 鯖 qing, a homophone for passion) in a series of hallucinations, Monkey broadens his perspective to see the nature of desire, its delusions, and his own conditioned tendencies. As he does, the point of view shifts from his perspective to more omniscient narration, just one of several consciously crafted literary techniques. Short by the standards of the time, this sixteen-chapter midquel features a Tower of Myriad Mirrors, a group of space-walkers chiseling a hole in the firmament, and other surreal elements that make the novel ripe for psychoanalytic readings as dreamwork on anxiety. Another supplement, the Later Journey to the West 後西遊記 (1715) tells of the heroes’ pilgrimage to a mountain with seventytwo pits of demons’ temptations, all ultimately related to the seven emotions and six desires. (Pigsy falls prey to flattery, and Monkey to ambition.)

The last of the four Ming-dynasty masterpieces, The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅 (literally Gold, Vase, Plum , 1618), notorious for its sexual passages, colorfully portrays a community obsessed with money, status, and sensual indulgence. One of the earliest novels of manners, its attention to social settings, roles, and expectations shows how class mores and conditioning determine individual feelings and behaviors. Within the novel’s hundred chapters, six wives compete for the attentions of the unscrupulous drug merchant and influence peddler Ximen Qing. The novel borrows its setting, Qing, his concubine Golden Lotus, and several other characters from an episode in Water Margin, but its parody frees the novel from the mythic frameworks that characterize that work, Three Kingdoms, and Journey. Now desire itself motivates the action. And though set in the twelfth century, the domestic drama is situated within an exhaustively detailed sixteenth-century milieu.

By delaying the bandit Wu Song’s revenge against his adulterous sister-in-law and her lover for murdering his elder brother, the novel allows Qing to sow the seeds of his own destruction. (Legend has it that a traditionalist author wrote the novel to pursue a vendetta against the corrupt son of the man who executed his father.) After Qing’s affair with his neighbor Ping’er (the Vase of the title) results in her husband’s death, Qing combines their properties to construct an ostentatious garden to showcase his wealth and station. Though Qing is himself functionally illiterate, his garden “study” has all the trappings of literati culture. Yet his indiscriminate display of overnumerous paintings betrays his poor taste, and the political machinations and debauchery that ensue there reveal his philistine pretensions. After Ping’er becomes Qing’s clear favorite, the resentful Lotus spies on them copulating in a garden pavilion and learns of Ping’er’s pregnancy. Later that day Qing uses Lotus’s footbindings to spread-eagle her in the garden’s notorious grape arbor, then inebriates and ravishes her, and the chastened Lotus returns to her room with just one of her slippers.

Though less focused on explicit sex than Li Yu’s 李漁 (1611–80) comic-erotic The Carnal Prayer Mat 肉蒲團 (1657), the novel’s graphic sadomasochistic passages explore lust’s power to corrupt, the insatiability of desire, and the pain of power exchanges. After the jealous Lotus causes the death of Ping’er’s son, and Ping’er dies of grief, Lotus uses aphrodisiacs from an Indian monk to lure Qing to die through sexual overexertion. “Be judicious in your use of these remedies,” the monk counsels Qing, but this caution only piques Qing’s licentiousness. After Qing’s excesses precipitate his death, his entourage of manipulative social climbers can do little but eulogize their departed patron, and his son by his principal wife, born at the moment of his death, becomes a monk.

For many commentators, these workings of retribution offer sustained lessons in Buddhist and Confucian ethics. For some, the novel’s juxtapositions of heterogeneous elements (earlier songs, Buddhist stories, dramas, and novels) result in ironic moral critique. Following the model of the Confucian Great Learning, Qing’s moral failings not only sow disorder in his household but also contribute to larger social decline and the dynasty’s political collapse. Commentators often attribute such a coherent design to a single author, although it might also result from plural authorship. And what may be ironic distance on the characters’ stereotypical worldviews might protest rather than uphold Confucian practices.

Though many modern leftist scholars claim that such vernacular works reflected the masses, most of the best fiction was literati fiction. From the seventeenth century on, novels tended to rewrite, parody, and subvert earlier works in a kind of literary game.

© 2011 Oxford University Press, USA

By Stephen R. Platt

A big new China book to hit shelves in recent weeks is Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, written by University of Massachusetts, Amherst historian Stephen Platt. Platt places the Taiping Rebellion in a global context, emphasizing its importance to American and European observers of the conflict, whose economic ties to China made them keenly interested in the country’s domestic situation. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom also offers new insights into how the Taiping Rebellion tied into Chinese internal politics, particularly the ways in which the Taiping rebels sought to justify their planned overthrow of the Manchu Qing rulers on ethnic grounds. In the excerpt below, Platt describes how foreigners pieced together small bits of information about the early Taiping Rebellion to offer their own interpretations of what the conflict signaled for China—and the world

The Preacher’s Assistant

Hong Kong in 1852 was a diseased and watery place, a rocky island off the southern shore of the Qing Empire where the inhabitants lived in dread of what one described as “the miasma set free from the ground which was everywhere being turned up.” A small British settlement sat between the mountains and the bay, but the emerald and sapphire glory of the scene belied the darkness below the surface. Leaving the concentration of godowns, military barracks, and trading firms along the colony’s nostalgically named central streets (The Queen’s Road, Wellington Street, Hollywood Road), one could find the grandest vistas in the gravel paths that led up the coast into the hills, but the European settlement soon gave way to scattered Chinese houses among fields growing rice and sweet potatoes unchanged in the decade since the British took the island as their prize in the Opium War. Some of the wealthier merchants had built opulent mansions in those hills, with terraced gardens commanding a view of the harbor and town. But as though their builders had strayed too far from the protection of the settlement, the inhabitants of those houses sickened and died. Marked as “homes of fever or death,” the ghostly manors sat silent and abandoned, their empty gaze passing judgment on the settlers below.

One of those settlers was Theodore Hamberg, a young Swedish missionary with a thin chinstrap beard that set off his delicate, nearly effeminate features. He was blessed with a lovely voice, and in his youth in Stockholm he had sung together with Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.” But while Lind went on to conquer the opera halls of Europe and America, bringing suitors such as Frédéric Chopin and Hans Christian Andersen to their knees along the way, Hamberg’s life took an entirely different path. His strong tenor found its destined outlet in preaching, and in 1847 he left his native Sweden to sail to the opposite end of the world, to this malarial colony of Hong Kong, with the sole purpose of bringing the Chinese to their knees after a different fashion.

Theodore Hamberg might well have lived his life in obscurity, for his proudest accomplishments meant little to anyone beyond a small circle of Protestant missionaries. He was one of the first Europeans in his generation to brave the Chinese countryside, leaving the relative safety of Hong Kong to preach in a village outside the Chinese trading port of Canton a hundred miles up the Pearl River (though for health reasons he finally returned to the colony). He was also the first to learn to speak the dialect of the Hakka, or “guest people”—a gypsy minority thickly populous in south China. All of that might have meant little to anyone in the world outside except that one day in the late spring of 1852, one of his converts from the countryside brought a guest to meet him, a short, round-faced Hakka named Hong Rengan who had a remarkable story to tell.

The strangest thing about this Hakka, Hamberg recalled from their first meeting, was how much he already seemed to know about God and Jesus despite the fact that he hailed from well beyond the narrow reach of the Hong Kong missionaries. Hamberg listened with curiosity as Hong Rengan gave a baffling account of the events leading to his arrival in Hong Kong. He spoke of visions and battles, armies and congregations of believers, a heavenly prophet from among the Hakkas. He had, or at least so he claimed, been hunted by the agents of the Qing dynasty and had lived in disguise under an assumed name. He had been kidnapped, had escaped, and had lived for four days in the forest, six days in a cave. None of it made much sense, though, and Hamberg confessed, “I could form no clear conception of the whole matter.” Not knowing what to make of the story, he asked Hong Rengan to write it down, which he did, and then—though Hamberg had expected him to stay for baptism—he left without explanation. Hamberg put the sheets of paper with Hong Rengan’s story into his desk and turned his mind to other matters. He would think little of them again for nearly a year, until the spring of 1853 when the news came that Nanjing had fallen in a torrent of blood, and Hamberg realized that the strange events sketched out in Hong Rengan’s tale meant more than he had ever imagined.

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By James Palmer

When the Tangshan Earthquake hit northern China on July 28, 1976, the country was in the midst of a tumultuous year that would grow even more chaotic with Mao’s death less than two months later. In retrospect, the massive earthquake has been viewed as a sign of trouble to come and a signal that major changes were on the horizon. In his new book, Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, James Palmer delves into the history of 1976, tracing the developments of that pivotal year for all in China, from the leaders residing within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the coal miners of Tangshan who saw their city leveled and nearly a quarter of a million people killed by the quake. In the excerpt below, Palmer describes life in provincial but industrious Tangshan before the earthquake hit.

Yu Xuebing was one of the seven black elements, and she wasn’t happy about it. Her family had been branded as class enemies a long time ago, during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s, and the label had stuck. Being ‘black’ made it hard for her to find boys willing to go out with her–and although she was only fourteen in 1976, she liked boys. And if they weren’t too scared of her family’s reputation, they tended to like her.

Unusually, she was an only child, with elderly parents; her mother was already sixty. She had four cousins, though, who in the Chinese fashion she called sisters and brothers. Space was cramped in their house, so quite often they slept over at hers.

Her family had been harassed in the last ten years, because they had once been rich. In the 1950s they had even owned a private car, which at the time was about equivalent to owning your own yacht. Her uncle, however, had got drunk and driven it into a ditch in the early sixties. Nobody in the county had been able to fix it, and it was left to rust by the side of their house.

In the early years of the Cultural Revolution, her uncle had been driven mad after being dragged out of his home for daily public criticism and beatings. Some of her relatives were in Taiwan now, having fled in 1949; her father sometimes wished aloud that he had gone with them.

During the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, Yu had lived in constant fear. She was only a small child at the time, but she picked up on the terror of the adults around her. She was disturbed by pictures of Liu Shaoqi’s wife being humiliated in public, since the same was happening to her family. The local Red Guards broke into their house several times, looking for signs of bourgeois wealth that they could steal. They stripped the floorboards and the roof for hiding places, and came away with a gold bracelet, a gold ring and 90 yuan. They also took the family’s precious sewing machine. After Deng’s rectification of 1974, power in the village shifted, and her family was compensated for the lost cash, but they never saw the jewelry again.

Yu lived in a small village about a dozen miles outside Tangshan, with thirty-three other families. The road was still lined with crude effigies of Lin Biao, put up there in mockery after his ‘flight’ to Mongolia, along with more recent political slogans like ‘Earnestly study the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat’. For her, Tangshan was the city–it had a cinema, a library, a theatre, even a university. Going there was a rare treat. To outsiders, though, Tangshan was a backwater, overshadowed not only by Beijing but by the neighboring city of Tianjin, an hour’s train ride away.

Tangshan was indeed a backwater, but it was also a powerhouse of heavy industry, nicknamed the ‘Coal Capital’ of China. Tangshanese coal drove Chinese industry, which was recovering strongly after years of decline. The first railway in China, only 7 km long, had been built in Tangshan to haul coal. Tangshan was still a major producer of rolling stock for China’s ever-expanding rail system.

It was a mining town, founded with British and Belgian money in 1877 to exploit the massive coal deposits nearby. They, like other foreign powers, had even won the right to station troops there after the Boxer Rebellion, though only the Japanese ended up sending soldiers there. After the foundation of the PRC, nationalisation had transformed the mines from an outpost of colonial power into a symbol of the new China’s industrial might.

The Kailuan mining complex, China’s first coal company, produced 5 per cent of the whole country’s coal. It had been designed by Herbert Hoover, later to be US president, during his stint as a mining engineer in China. Tangshanese liked to boast that, with about a million people, they were only a thousandth of the population of China, but produced a hundredth of the output. Economically, a single Tangshanese factory worker or miner was worth ten farmers. Pictures of new Tangshan industrial plants were among the first propaganda images produced by the PRC.

The city centre was on a low-lying plateau. Like most of Hebei, it was dry land, and in the spring winds choked the air with sand and dust. A few miles from the centre the hills started, scored with quarries and vast slag heaps that formed an eerie grey desert. Heavy trucks trundled across worn roads, bearing Tangshan’s coal to fuel the cities and steel factories of northern China.

Tangshanese prided themselves on being direct, blunt-spoken and strong. The workers of 1976 had been children during the grinding famine of the Great Leap Forward, and their growth had been stunted by malnutrition and starvation. Medical records from the Kailuan mines show an average height of only 1.57 metres, or just under 5 ft 2 in.

A stocky build was ideal for mining, and there was a strong Stakhanovite cult among the miners, with exceptionally productive workers receiving special bonuses, and a powerful sense of comradeship among the work gangs. Chinese miners had a long history of fierce leftist politics. In the first stages of the Cultural Revolution, the miners had formed their own revolutionary committees. The last five years had seen many ‘model workers’ drafted into politics or sent to universities to ‘instruct the educated youth’.

About a quarter of the city was given over to heavy industry, mostly in the eastern mining district. The whole city covered about fifty square kilometres, and most people lived in one-storey houses, with thick load-bearing walls made of brick or stone. They often had heavy concrete roofs made of cast-offs from the mines. It was a style of building pioneered by the British as workers’ housing. They had carried out seismological surveys of the planned mining area and found fault lines, but none serious enough, in their evaluation, to warrant putting up structures built to survive earthquakes. Only the houses and offices of the foreign staff were solid enough to withstand a severe quake.

Even after the foreigners left, newcomers to the mines had copied the buildings around them, throwing up weakly built, insecure houses, the roofs held up by heavy metal rods. In the fifties, new buildings, including multi-storey dormitories to house factory workers and university students, were thrown up with equal carelessness and speed.

Although regulations on earthquake-resistant building had been issued nationally in 1953, they weren’t enforced. In the early years of the PRC, construction was modelled on the ‘fraternal advice’ given by the Soviet Union. The taller new buildings, like the official hotels and university dormitories, were built using plans provided by the Soviets, as were some of the factories. As in other Chinese cities, a couple of hundred Russians had been stationed in Tangshan in the fifties as technical advisors and overseers of the aid the USSR was supplying at the time. There would prove to be a marked difference in the survivability between the buildings the Soviets directly supervised and those put together on Soviet blueprints, but with inexperienced Chinese architects.

Excerpted from Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, by James Palmer (Basic Books, 2012).

By Jonathan Campbell

An excerpt and then some from Campell’s new book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw Books). Learn more about Campbell and his work on Chinese rock and roll at his website.

Yaogun, or rock and roll, started in May, 1986, when Cui Jian, then a twenty-four year-old trumpet player and pop singer, sang “Nothing to My Name” at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, and on the television sets of the nation watching at home. But not much is known about the context of that performance.

It is important to recognize that though Cui Jian’s hit song emerged, basically, from a vacuum, the deep mark upon the nation that “Nothing to My Name” left was the result of Cui first being let into the tongsu [popular music] house he proceeded to set alight. For reasons obvious to those familiar with Cui’s yaogun output, he is not eager to delve deeply into his early days in the pop world. “Back then,” he said, referring to the days when he sang other people’s pop, “was my introduction to music in general. Late 1985 was my introduction to rock.” But he was enjoying himself. “From when I was small, I only thought about doing music. At the time, I liked it.” He wasn’t too particular, back in the early days, about what type of music he was playing or hearing, just as long as he was making music. In addition to songs penned by the official pop world, he sang a number of Western hits, all the while blowing a trumpet in the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble (now called the Beijing Symphony Orchestra). “Whatever kind of music was okay by me. But what we could hear was limited.”

His earliest recordings are rarely mentioned and seem to have been erased from his canon; 1989’s Rock and Roll on the New Long March is considered his real debut. Other recordings – with his band, Seven-Ply Board; with the pop-singer collective the Hundred Stars; as a solo artist doing Chinese versions of Western pop; or albums like Vagabond’s Return – are not what people have in mind when they invoke the Great One’s name, but they are an essential part of not only Cui’s story, but of yaogun in general, showing the state of affairs for rockers and rockers-to-be in the mid-eighties. Cui’s pre-Long March output featured songs written by Cui with lyrics provided by others and combined, in an extremely fractious manner, with a kitchen sink’s worth of musical tools, from straight-up acoustic guitar picking through to the then-brand-new musical technologies. The soft-pop strains bring to mind less rock legend than tongsu singer and of the influence of Teresa Teng, the Carpenters and Kenny Rogers. Certainly Cui’s signature singing style was present early on, with strained vocals that might be hinting as much at philosophical trouble as they point to trouble in his mid-section, and is noteworthy in the lack of the sugary-sweetness of his tongsu counterparts. The material may be far from what one expects of a rock legend, but it contributed to Cui garnering, if you’ll forgive the pun, a Name. “By 1986 I could tell that I was famous,” he said. In May of 1986, he became infamous too.

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