March 2012

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Here at China Beat, of course, we spend a lot of time trolling the web for great commentary on China. If you follow us on Twitter (as over 3500 people do, which we really appreciate), you’ll get a daily rundown of the articles we find interesting. But in addition to tweeting individual story links, we wanted to call special attention to two new blogs and one reinvigorated podcast whose RSS feeds are worth grabbing:

The Economist recently launched a dedicated China section in its print magazine, the first time a country-specific section was added since 1942 (when the country under examination was the United States). To accompany the new section, the magazine has also set up Analects, a blog for its China correspondents. In addition to short posts on topics in the news (lately, the National People’s Congress and the increasingly convoluted Bo Xilai saga), Analects also ran a lengthy article by Gady Epstein on the history of Economist coverage of China, extending back to 1843. It’s a lively, enjoyable read in which Epstein carefully points out that China correspondents of the past got as much wrong as they did right (and vice versa).

• The other new China blog—very new, actually, as it just launched last Thursday—is Rectified.name, a group blog whose contributors include Jeremiah Jenne, Dave Lyons, Will Moss, Brendan O’Kane, and Chinese journalist YJ. Read an introduction to the site (and explanation of its name) here, then follow @rectifyname on Twitter. Notable posts so far include “The Game of Thrones Guide to the 2012 Transition” (Part I, Part II) and “I Apologize if Anyone Felt Killed,” on Mike Daisey’s non-apologetic apology to This American Life listeners.

• The Sinica Podcast, co-hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn, has been around since 2010 but has ramped things up lately, thus meriting its inclusion in this post. They now have a Sinica Twitter feed as well as a Facebook page to interact with listeners. Recent guests include a number of China Beatniks, such as Geremie Barmé, Jeff Wasserstrom, Paul French, and Rob Schmitz. As a bonus, each podcast ends with the hosts and guests offering reading (or viewing, or attending) recommendations—not always China-focused—that are always worth checking out.

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.

* * *

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

Stewart, Roderick and Sharon. Phoenix: The Life of Norman Bethune. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. xiii, 464 pp.

By David Webster

Millions of Chinese have memorized Mao Zedong’s 1939 lines “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” written soon after the Canadian surgeon’s death amidst the war against Japan. As a result, Bethune remains the best-known Canadian in China, still outstripping comedian Dashan (Mark Rowswell).1

“Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people,” Mao wrote, extolling Bethune’s “spirit of absolute selflessness.” If Bethune was pure selflessness and internationalist heroism after coming to China, it was only after arising phoenix-like from a selfish, dissolute life plagued by betrayal, self-aggrandizement, brushes with death and perhaps mental illness, according to the authors of a new biography.

Roderick and Sharon Stewart trace Bethune’s life from his youth in the small towns of Upper Canada to his death in the Shanxi-Hebei border area, the result of infection incurred while operating on a People’s Liberation Army fighter. The figure that emerges is heroic only in the sense that he finally found “my mission in life” (p. 294) once he arrived in China in 1938 to work as a battlefield surgeon.

Roderick Stewart’s interest in Bethune runs back to the 1960s, and he has published three previous biographies on aspects of Bethune’s life. This book, co-authored with his wife Sharon Stewart, draws on additional research in China, Canada, and Spain. With documentary sources drawn from almost a hundred different archives, it is unlikely to be surpassed in depth of research or attention to Bethune’s psyche.

His life, the Stewarts argue, “exhibits recurrent cycles of achievement and self-destruction—the pattern of the phoenix.” Brought up by a Protestant minister, his faith turned from religion to communism, and he was “driven throughout his life to act as a saviour” (p. 375). This did not prevent a history of bullying of comrades, his off-and-on wife, and periodic alcoholism.

The young Bethune was conservative and loyal to the British Empire. Family tradition has him the eighth man in Toronto to volunteer to fight in the First World War. At the same time, he rebelled against the strict Christian moral code of his parents, insisting on drinking liquor on his visits home—though he agreed to take his drinks into the bathroom to avoid corrupting others.

Bethune trained to become a surgeon. The poverty of many of his patients led him towards the political left—first to the social-democratic League for Social Reconstruction, Canada’s answer to the British Fabian Society (this partly out of attraction to the wife of one of the League’s founders, social activist Marian Dale Scott). After visiting the Soviet Union, he became a secret member of the Canadian Communist Party. Secrecy, the party hoped, would make him a more credible activist during the campaign to raise funds for Republican Spain as it fought fascist forces in the 1930s.

Bethune chafed under these restrictions and under party discipline, and sought adventure and service in the Spanish Civil War, the international left’s great cause of the 1930s. There, he created a mobile blood transfusion unit designed to operate near the battlefield, but was removed from his post by the Canadian Communist Party over his heavy drinking, womanizing and misuse of donations for such purposes as buying himself monogrammed shirts in Paris. The Spanish authorities refused to permit him re-entry into the country, though this was kept quiet because of his value as a passionate speaker and fundraiser in Canada. The Bethune who left Spain, never to be permitted back, was a flawed hero at best.

More importantly, he was a man desperately in search of a mission, a cause where he could serve communism and his own thirst for adventure. The desire to aid Communist China, besieged by imperial Japan, combined with “the opiate of action” (p. 268) to draw Bethune across the Pacific. Phoenix tells the story of Bethune in China in five detailed chapters. Bethune was able to convince the US and Canadian Communist Parties to jointly sponsor a small medical mission of himself and two others—neither of whom he could get along with for long. One called him “nothing but a bloody missionary” (p. 264) while a missionary doctor who worked side by side on surgeries with Bethune commented: “The Angel Gabriel couldn’t get along with Norman Bethune. He’s a horrible man” (p. 295).

Meeting Mao, Zhu De, and other lions of Chinese communism left Bethune inspired by their ascetic and whole-hearted commitment to the cause (and flattered when Mao remarked that he resembled Lenin). On the other hand, he saw desperate medical conditions, to which he reacted with “his usual combination of compassion and rage” (p. 287). Shouting at local people was the first reaction; working to build more effective and sanitary treatment his second. Bethune embraced the life of a local partisan, refusing extra rations and giving much of his food to others, sacrificing personal comforts of any sort, and over-working himself in ways that risked his health. He created medical mobile units able to operate with great effectiveness close to combat, and this added to his growing legend.

It was entirely characteristic, then, that Bethune died because his finger became infected during an operation in which he used no gloves, and that he continued to operate even knowing his hand was infected. His legend was such, the Stewarts argue, that no one dared stop him and save his life by amputating. A New Zealand journalist perhaps summed it up best: “he wanted to be a hero or a martyr of the Revolution, at any cost” (p. 258). In his China work in 1939-39 and in his death, perhaps, Bethune earned both.

1. In 2011, 68% of Chinese surveyed knew Bethune, while 29% knew Dashan and others trailed far behind. Yuchao Zhu, “Making Sense of Canada’s Public Image in China,” paper presented at conference on “Canada-China Relations: past, present and future,” University of Regina, October 2011.

David Webster is Assistant Professor of International Relations and Asian Studies at the University of Regina.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By Xujun Eberlein

A longer version of this essay appears at Inside-Out China.

In the wake of Bo Xilai’s sudden downfall, shortly after what could be called an online carnival among China watchers—probably more in celebration of a rare, real-life political drama than anything else—international media is changing its tune and beginning to paint a more sympathetic image of Bo than previously reported, by focusing on Chinese people’s love of him. Reuters, for example, has a report titled “In China’s Chongqing, dismay over downfall of Bo Xilai” that quotes a working “stick man” (棒棒军, a porter-for-hire) who praises Bo as “a good man” that “made life a lot better here.” The Telegraph‘s Malcolm Moore (the intrepid reporter who brought Wukan to the world’s attention) even went so far as to call Bo “one of the most loved” officials in China.

Those reports, however, can be misleading if not balanced by a variety of opinions or careful analysis.

China is the most populous country in the world, and Chongqing is the most populous metropolis in China. With that many people, one can find any and all kinds of opinions among them, certainly including the ones quoted above. But when we assess Chinese public opinion about a leader, a crucial factor that should never be forgotten is the opacity of China’s politics. Under this condition, there is only so much one can read into either love or hatred of a leader by the masses. Mao was the most loved in the 1950s and 60s, but it was Mao’s policies that caused tens of millions of deaths during that period. Deng Xiaoping was one of the most hated during the Cultural Revolution (as “China’s second biggest capitalist roader”), but he went on to make China richer with his “reform and opening” policies. As I wrote in a dual book review of Mao’s Great Famine and Tombstone, an information blackout during the 1959-61 famine had caused millions of peasants to quietly die with no complaints about Mao and the Communist Party. Today, the Internet has greatly increased information accessibility (often in the form of rumors), but that is still largely beyond people at the bottom of the society who struggle to make a daily living, people like the “stick men.”

I have been talking to fellow townsfolk throughout Bo’s tenure in Chongqing, both in person during my visits and via phone and email. One thing I notice—though this is not to claim that my sample set is statistically significant—is that the more access to information people have, the more negative their opinions of Bo are. (The “stick man” quoted by the Reuters report above provides collateral evidence to my observation—he “said he could not read and did not watch television.”) Age also mattered, with people who had experienced the Cultural Revolution tending to be more suspicious of Bo.

Others’ attitudes toward Bo went through a change after the “crackdown on gangsters” campaign began. I noted this in February, 2010, in a blog post titled “Turning Winds in Chongqing’s Crackdown.” I am one of those who changed.

Watching my hometown from afar, my first impression of Bo Xilai was rather good. In November 2008, Chongqing’s taxi drivers went on strike, the first such occurrence in Communist China. I followed this event online as closely as I could, and was worried that a bloody repression might be inevitable. At the time, Bo had held his post as Chongqing Party chief for less than a year. He was in Beijing when the strike started on a Monday; meanwhile, Chongqing’s official media reported arrests of cab drivers. On Thursday, however, after Bo returned to Chongqing, he held a three-hour long televised meeting with representatives of the taxi drivers and citizens to discuss their requests.  He appeared fair and open-minded, telling the drivers that their demands were legitimate and their problems would be attended to. He gained their trust and the strike ended peacefully. As I wrote at the time, I was very impressed. I still remember the relief I felt for my townsmen. I thought that Bo was different, and that he might make a difference for Chongqing—perhaps for China, too.

A year later, when the “crackdown on gangsters” began, the taxi strike was deemed to have been organized by “mafia.” I visit my home city often and I knew the predicament of the cab drivers was real—so that verdict was enough for me to be alarmed. Where had the sympathetic Bo gone? What was the real purpose of the “crackdown”?

Today I continue to wonder what role the taxi strike played in Bo’s decision to start a Cultural Revolution-style campaign, and what he had really felt inside when he appeared as a sympathetic listener to the strikers.

Initially, the crackdown made a positive impression on me as well—like the general public, I was eager to see the corrupt punished. The irony is, later I would be as shocked by the death sentence of Wen Qiang, Chongqing’s police chief preceding Wang Lijun, as I was pleased by Wen’s arrest at first.

Then came the official attempt to overturn the verdict of the taxi strike. Then came the Li Zhuang case. Then came a dozen death sentences and executions in quick succession—a batch execution, really, with a concentration not seen since the heyday of the Cultural Revolution.

An ex-judge I met last year questioned the legality of Chongqing’s crackdown. “There is no such a term as ‘mafia’ or ‘gangsters’ in China’s criminal law,” he told me.

* * *

Another thing I want to mention here is this: on March 8th, during the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, Bo Xilai gave a press conference that attracted a big crowd of journalists; lots of questions were asked and answered, but no one brought up the disappearance of a Chongqing delegation member, Zhang Mingyu. Zhang was taken by force from his Beijing residence by Chongqing police, believed to have been sent by Bo Xilai. Zhang’s lawyer tried to reach out to media and netizens through microblogs. I saw reports of Zhang’s disappearance on March 7th and tweeted about it with a bit of shock—this was happening during the NPC, which is supposed to be China’s highest legislative meeting. Would anybody inquire about a violation of the basic rights of its own delegates?

A few foreign media outlets reported Zhang’s lawyer’s calls for help on March 7th. After that, Zhang, and his name, were no longer seen anywhere, as if he had vanished or never even existed. For a week, I searched for his name on the Chinese internet every day. Nothing.

Until March 15th, that is, the day Bo Xilai’s removal was announced. A friend who knew I was concerned with Zhang’s fate sent me a link to a VOC report on Zhang’s release.

He was lucky. Another Chongqing citizen, Fang Hong, disappeared two years ago after calling Bo Xilai “shit,” and was never seen or heard from again.

It is thinking about the helplessness of individuals like those that brings fear to me. I write things like this essay—will I disappear one day when visiting Chongqing? Bo’s departure has made me feel safer.

I have seen Bo Xilai characterized as a Western-style politician, which I find amusing. Bo is a product of China’s political system, pure and simple. His education was Mao worship and he has not transcended it; his ideas are all out of old playbooks; his suffering in his youth—years of unjust imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution—seems to have only made him more cynical and cruel.

China’s political system needs to be reformed in order to prevent bigger crises. So where is the hope? If nobody coming out of the system I grew up in could carve a new path forward, we will probably need to wait for those who grew up after the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution had subsided. Alas, that is a generation raised on crony-capitalism and rampant corruption. Such is the dilemma.

Xujun Eberlein is the author of an award-winning story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, and the blog Inside-Out China.

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