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Getting to Know You

As a solitary West German visitor who was afforded special opportunities, Mehnert traveled some 3,000 miles, hardly seeing another Westerner, and visited not only Canton, Shanghai, Hangchow, Nanking, and Peking, but also Sian, Yenan, Tachai in Shansi province, and certain model institutions. He pursued some questions, like the incentive system, relentlessly, and since his reports are not restricted like those of the Times to a few hundred words, his account is fuller and more penetrating. If the American journalists seem to outshine the State Department, they in turn are outdistanced by Klaus Mehnert. This is principally because his close familiarity with the Soviet system adds to his perspective on China. He is more versed in the ideological issues between the two communisms and can more readily see China in both Soviet and Maoist terms.

During one twenty-hour day in the famous Tachai village or “brigade” in Shansi, he found that among the 83 families and 420 persons there were 150 full-time workers, with 100 beasts of burden, 150 pigs, and 400 sheep on 53 acres of land. The countrywide slogan “Learn from Tachai!” which had brought in 4.5 million visitors, was inspired by their complete self-reliance in rebuilding their village after a flood catastrophe in 1963. By 1971 they had even set up a couple of electrically powered aerial tramways for transport up the loess terraces. Mehnert concluded that the secret of Tachai was simply “work, work, and more work”—not for money but for “the honor of Chairman Mao and our socialist fatherland.” Workers banked some savings but didn’t know the interest rate. Strong men got ten work points a day, strong women, being less muscular, got seven. But these were not day wages, daily bookkept, but salary levels set by discussion at an annual village assembly, taking due account of “political consciousness.”

Northeast of Peking Mehnert visited a May 7 cadre school, where city bureaucrats and intellectuals go to engage in physical labor and so get “closer to the masses.” Here were 1,255 men and women, cadres and cultural workers. The bare summary of this group’s reclaiming waste land, building wells and dwellings, setting up brick and metal can factories conveys a very bleak picture of inefficient hard work punctuated by Mao study and development of “revolutionary consciousness” by cleaning latrines and carting night soil. All this can be understood only if one envisages the immemorial ruling class prerogatives of the old Chinese literati, which were attacked in the Cultural Revolution and will no doubt have to be attacked again in many more revolutions still to come.

Mehnert finds Russia and China no longer comparable. One is industrialized and run by technicians, the other agrarian and anti-expert. He sees the USSR as a society now geared to individual achievement and consumption, China as a society geared to egalitarianism and production. Soviet hierarchy and bureaucratism contrast with Chinese decentralization and spontaneity. But the Soviet Union is becoming less ideological and more open to foreign contact, while China remains closed off, devoted to activist self-help and to Mao’s continuing revolutionary effort against the rise of new privilege. He doubts that the selfless Maoist man can soon be created. But he worries about “the ease with which the attitudes of the Chinese can be manipulated.” The cult of Mao, which he found ubiquitous a year ago, has of course already been reduced.

An acquaintance with the many past phases of China’s revolution is of course essential preparation for those phases yet to come. The apparently genuine social harmony within China in 1971 that impressed both Klaus Mehnert and the New York Times reporters was far to seek during 1966-69, when China was shut away from the outside world suffering the Mao-induced labor pains of the Cultural Revolution. This great upheaval was second in severity only to the early 1950s. What it was all about is still a matter of debate, but it is certain to be a primary subject of reminiscence, recrimination, and analysis for a long time to come. The Revenge of Heaven is a participant’s account which may fascinate you, if you have to read it, like evidence at a murder trial. We know the account must be partly true, but how much of it can we prudently accept? The young narrator is somewhere between an old life and a new one, evidently buffeted by considerations of personal security, pride, patriotism, disillusionment, and hope for commercial gain.

The pseudonymous Ken Ling or, in Chinese order, Ling Ken (“Lincoln”?) deposes that he became a Red Guard in July, 1966, played a leading role in Red Guard struggles for power in Amoy and Foochow, traveled to Shanghai, Tsingtao, Peking, the North-east, Taiyuan, Lanchow, and elsewhere in late 1966, and then for the rest of 1967 helped to lead one Amoy faction against another. After their resort to firearms in late 1967 began to produce serious casualties between these Red Guard factions, the leaders were finally hailed to Peking and deprived of power in February, 1968. Ling defected by swimming to a Quemoy outpost in July. In Taiwan he produced an account of half a million Chinese characters and spent over 300 hours in interviews with Ivan London’s research team, who now give us this book as an I-was-there story of the Cultural Revolution by a local leader in it.

A couple of funny things seem to have happened to Ling’s reminiscences on their way to publication. First, Mao and his ideological exhortations are denigrated throughout: the little red book is only a gimmick; seeing Mao is unimpressive; and the only question for the Red Guard leaders is whether they can use him more than he uses them. This of course flies in the face of a vast amount of evidence from European and other observers as to the ecstasy and fanaticism of the millions of Mao-inspired youth in the early phases of the Red Guard movement. Such extirpation of the idealistic central dynamic of the Cultural Revolution is, of course, what one would expect in a document from Taiwan, where the civil was is still, or was until recently, a sacred trust. Similarly, Ivan and Miriam London have not been known as procommunist propagandists.

A second thing that happened to Ling’s reminiscences was the injection of an improbable and highly saccharine love story. One is reminded of the American translator adding a spurious boy-gets-girl ending to Lao She’s tragedy Rickshaw Boy (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945), which no doubt helped it to become a best seller in middle America. The Red Guard heroine is called Mei-mei, perhaps the commonest girl’s appellation in China since it means “little sister.” She is a genuine China doll—dainty, accomplished, upper-class, fastidious, and so wedded to the old morality that although she and Ling are madly in love and spend much time breaking up the “four olds” on all sides, in an atmosphere of general violence, rape, and mayhem, they never make it together. A real ideal dream girl, not of this world.

Again, any ex-resident of North China will wonder whether Ling was ever really there in the wintertime. He sounds like a southerner who has heard about freezing weather but has never felt it. For instance, marching out with other thousands to see Mao on November 26, 1966, he says he was issued as rations steamed buns (presumably man-t’ou) and “a small cluster of grapes”! It was cold, so cold that

…I put my hand into my pocket and felt two hard objects—the steamed buns, now frozen hard as rocks…. Our column began to break up, some to look for stones to crack the steamed buns…. We continued to race ahead. I began to sweat…. One of the marchers near us fainted. We helped him to the roadside and pressed ice on him to bring him back to consciousness.

This self-contradictory sequence is all on pages 169-70 and there are more like it.

However, it is indeed a poor worm can that isn’t of some use to history. Ling’s account of the Red Guards’ rise to power in Fukien, on his home ground where fanciful invention is not required by his script, has interesting elements of verisimilitude. When his group of 304 Amoy Eighth Middle School youngsters are refused truck transport to Foochow by the party committee, they start marching under strict self-orders not to eat or drink anything. By the time they have walked thirty-one kilometers in the hot sun and ten marchers have fainted, the party authorities feel obliged to send them on by truck. Later in the “8-29” fight (August 29) at Foochow, when this Amoy group, though outnumbered, challenges the party authorities, “the Foochow Red Guards adopted the tactic of ‘isolate and attack,’ ” and Ling is surrounded by six or seven girls who bite, scratch, or pinch him in thirty-seven places including amidships. The reader feels that Ling speaks from experience.

The Red Guard violence begins within the schools, where teachers are humiliated in dunce’s caps and incarcerated in a “black den” as “cow ghosts and snake demons,” using the metaphoric slogans of the day. A great deal of callous torture and obscenity is recounted, of the kind that ought to sell among fans of Mickey Spillane. We have little reason to doubt that China’s turmoil saw this kind of personal savagery, but when the Maoist rationale for it is strained out, it becomes mere violence for its own sake or, as the Soviets say, “hooliganism,” instead of violence in the name of virtue which others report as typical of the Cultural Revolution.

In the next phase the Red Guards break out into the public scene to smash the “four olds.” The Amoy Eighth Middle School team is subdivided into twenty-two small groups with names like “kill-the-tiger team” or “freeze-the-flies-to-death team.” They begin to rampage through the city under the sanction of Mao’s slogan “Rebellion is justified,” committing the excesses that were so well publicized and shocking at the time. Soon they escalate their aims to a third stage, aiming at power. They organize a fortress headquarters and its specialized functions, acquire jeeps, trucks, and loudspeakers, and eventually overthrow the party committee and take on some of the functions of local government. All this time the army stays on the sidelines and even the police do not defend themselves with gunfire. Finally the movement degenerates into pure factionalism, one organization against another, and they resort more and more to violence, until the military crack down and disband them.

This type of novelized autobiography in 400 pages of reconstructed acts and conversations, no matter how entertaining when well done, is the historian’s bête noire. How can one use it? A classic like William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (Vintage Books, 1966) acquires its credibility from being carefully constructed as a self-consistent piece of literature, evidently based on extensive notes taken with the help of Chinese interpreters at the time (which the United States Customs confiscated for some years), and backed up by the availability of the author, who is a non-pseudonymous, quite forthright, known quantity. The result checks rather well with the rest of our knowledge, and the author’s slant on things can be taken into account. The Revenge of Heaven lacks this quality, and aside from convincing us of the well-known Chinese capacity for factional feuding and the olfactory effect of urine and feces on the floor, it leaves us still uncertain what combination of factors really motivated the Red Guards.

Perhaps the contrast between today’s China and the Cultural Revolution period is no greater than the contrast between today’s America and the outraged turmoil here in the year that followed the Têt offensive of 1968. Perhaps not. But behind the Chinese and American oscillations of mood and attitude, which may be semiharmonious for the moment, possibly we can discern the long-term style of the old Chinese-American relationship: the expansive American partisanship for transoceanic causes has a natural affinity for the defensive Chinese capacity to receive and manipulate outsiders. Both peoples have pursued these respective roles for a long time. When properly in phase, they may fit together. But our greatest mistake would be to think the old benevolent patron-grateful client stereotype has any reality left in it. It never had much, and today, on balance, the people in Peking have nothing at all to thank us for.

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