Ross Terrill: Mao Zedong and All That

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao (currently a bestseller in China), The New Chinese Empire, and Madam Mao.]

...In Shanghai, a high school textbook, History, painstakingly crafted a mile or two from the Expo site and launched at schools in 2006, suggested what reformers think should await the six-year-old. Here Chinese history is less conflicted and more “harmonious” (a tactful nod to President Hu Jintao’s favorite term for his governance) than in previous Chinese textbooks. There is less about political leaders, battles, and China’s past sufferings, more about technology, economic forces, religion, environment, and social behavior....

But, revealingly, History was canceled in 2007 and hurriedly replaced by a more politically correct and nationalistic text. Attacks on the book had rolled in from the left (“Bill Gates has replaced Mao Zedong,” “Where is Marxism?,” “Where is class struggle?”). Pathetically, Su defended himself: “Putting Chinese history together with world history under the banner ‘Civilization’ avoids much repetition.” But three years of pilot use and repeated prepublication consultations with Beijing did not save his textbook. Su remarked bitterly of his aborted child: “This must be the shortest life of any textbook in the six decades of the PRC.”

The hot potatoes of Mao and Chinese nationalism doomed History. It is not easy to discuss Mao, but it is unacceptable to omit him, especially if left-wingers are watching. Prosperous post-Mao China adjusts to the international community—or does it?...

The Su-Zhou textbook had asked excellent questions of the pupils at the end of each chapter. “Compare and assess the contribution of Arab, Chinese, and Ancient Greek cultures to modern science.” It introduced the 19th century not with Western imperialism against China, but with Western leaps in science and technology. It hailed inventions in electricity, mechanics, and other fields as “advancing mankind.” The account of Einstein spoke of this “American contribution to the age of nuclear energy.” The book was full of an excitement at the West’s modern progress conspicuously lacking, for example, in Howard Zinn’s dismal People’s History of the United States....

Hu Jintao on occasion dons a Mao tunic, cast aside years ago by most top Chinese leaders in favor of Western suit and tie, as if to draw a line between China and the “troubled” West. Someone (probably Hu) this year pushed Mao’s grandson, a man of few gifts and less charisma, to the rank of general in the military. Bo Xilai, the Communist party boss of Chongqing, a huge city in the southwest, seeking to crack down on crime and corruption, promoted what he called a “Red Storm” in Mao’s name. This ambitious young politician, whose father, Bo Yibo, was a senior figure in Chinese politics during the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an eye on the power struggles in Beijing, uses Mao songs and quotations to whip up public opinion against crooked cops and judges.

At the grassroots, Mao endures in abstract art galleries and sentimental pictures in farmers’ living rooms. Tourists to Mao’s former guerrilla war base of Jinggangshan toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. Some taxi drivers still hang a Mao portrait as a talisman on their steering wheel or stick it to a window to ward off accidents and traffic cops. In a Shanghai department store window I saw Mao serving as a mannequin for green silk pajamas. But all this trivializes evil. Germany has dealt seriously with Hitler, while China pushes Mao into folklore.

Debate over Mao and whether China’s current rise is a “Chinese story” or a “world historical story” involves the future as well as the past. If the 21st century is China’s under continuing Communist party rule (not very likely), Mao may endure in Chinese textbooks as a successful warrior and unifier, his failed social engineering glossed over. A six-year-old might say to his mother, “We heard about Mao in school today. Was he China’s George Washington?”

Should China continue to flourish but renounce Marxism (quite likely), Mao might be blamed for the entire Communist experiment on Chinese soil. China, with its rich tradition of political ideas, would declare it did not need to import Marx and Lenin in the first place. Europe’s Enlightenment philosophy and America’s technology were superior imports missed by Mao. World Expo-type events would draw the millions, not Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing. “Mao was a narrow man,” a boy might chirp in class....
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Arnold Shcherban - 8/16/2010

is to cross out Marxism as an economic, social and philosophical thought from the history of the Western civilization and its intellectual achievements.
Supreme "Europe’s Enlightenment philosophy and America’s technology" could not and still can't prevent, and most certainly did contribute (directly or indirectly) to, the huge socio-economic gap between haves and have nots all over Europe and America in 19th and the first half of the twentieth century.
Since then this gap has been slightly narrowed (some even say it's widened, especially, in the USA), but still reigns supreme.
History has never been and never will be (in spite of continuous human attempts coming from all directions)
a chronological listing and brief description of technological and carefully selected (based on the ideological affiliation of the authors) philosophical ideas, while ignoring the others, but it is every and any event or idea that significantly impacted the developments of human societies and nations.
In particular, the heritage of Mao's and "communist experiment" in China, though, perhaps, largely harmful to
China populus, has undoubtedly produced much good, such as superior public education and social benefits.
As far as the American technology argument is concerned, Mao's China would love to have it, but America had not been willing to share it with communist regimes, thus rendering that argument moot.