Hammer and Paddle
Hammer and Paddle; drawing by David Levine

The Nixon-Chou summit cannot fail because both parties are in trouble. The fact that Chairman Mao has had to get rid of his number-two man twice in succession—Liu Shao-chi’i in 1968 and Lin Piao in 1971—suggests the opposite of calm omnipotence at the top in Peking. Mr. Nixon’s troubles at home and abroad seem commensurate. They all suggest a Sino-American detente, perhaps an entente, at least an increase of contact such as a hot line and news exchanges.

As we try to break out of cold-war attitudes, what is to be our image of revolutionary China? Mr. Nixon’s drift toward a Sino-American accord has been based on a revised picture of China as not dangerously expansionist after all, only a weak rival of Moscow absorbed in its domestic problems. Since our images of distant realities change so much faster than the realities could possibly change themselves, we are left with simple logical alternatives: either we are stupid about China now or we were stupid during those long years of cold war when our allies Britain and France were less so. Mr. Nixon’s inconsistency is not unlike Mao Tse-tung’s: either Mao was naïve to trust Liu and Lin for forty years or else he is rather silly to invoke the old Chinese idea that their policy deviation could only have been due to moral depravity. Nixon and Mao were once vociferous ideological opponents so that their meeting gives us a healthy skepticism about ideology in general.

Now comes a highly skilled team of three New York Times reporters who visited China in succession between last April and August. They report in effect that the Chinese Communist revolution seems to have been a success, a good thing on balance for the long-suffering Chinese people and no particular harm to us. While our two decades of suspicion and hostility toward China will wear off only slowly, those years seem from these reports to have been still another wasted investment in the take-no-chances kind of security policy, the hyperactive defense, which our technology makes so feasible. As James Reston wrote from Shanghai in August, “The Chinese attitudes and approach to life make one wonder why Washington was so worried about an aggressive and expansionist China. They are…more inward-looking than any major nation on earth…. Long before the United States tried to ‘contain’ China, they were self-contained, quite satisfied that they had enough land, resources, and people.”

The first Report from Red China (Holt, 1945) was written by Harrison Forman, one of the war correspondents allowed to visit Yenan in 1944. Forman felt then that Mao and his colleagues had a promising future. Twenty-six years later The New York Times Report from Red China confirms the idea. “Red China” is still in red on the dust jacket, for the benefit of oldsters who haven’t caught up with the Times’s foreign policy, but the People’s Republic is also mentioned in smaller type. The back jacket shows Scotty Reston and Chou En-lai seated side by side trading policies. Their exchange of August 9, filling twenty-six pages, is highly informative, unlike the nonreport of the twenty hours of Kissinger-Chou talks a month earlier.

This book is a persuasive argument for an independent press. It blends general conclusions with concrete illustrations in such brief compass that the reader is likely to forget the hours of careful observation and the informed comparisons that lie behind a paragraph. Tillman Durdin had fifteen years experience reporting on China before Mao came to power, and Seymour Topping saw China in World War II and after. His wife Audrey, who contributes ten of the eighty dispatches and most of the photographs, has the merit of being a daughter of the Canadian diplomat Chester Ronning and of having been in China in 1946-48 and again in 1966. Since Reston had previously talked with everybody’s leaders except the Chinese, one could hardly pick a better team for a quick appraisal.

Frank Ching, the editor, groups the dispatches into sections on Peking’s foreign policy, the transformation of China in general, “The Everyday Life of ‘Maoist Man,’ ” how China is governed (sort of), education and child-rearing, science and medicine, including the famous Reston appendectomy in Peking’s Anti-imperialist Hospital, as it was then called, and a few notes on “Culture after the Cultural Revolution.”

Tillman Durdin, comparing the new and the old like a Sinological Rip van Winkle, finds no sign of ancestor reverence or religious observances, no women using cosmetics, no old literature or drama, no gaudy weddings or funerals. “Even the manners and attitudes of the people seem changed…. People seem more direct and less polite.” Durdin reiterates that the international group of journalists that he traveled with “had no contacts with people except through interpreters on conducted tours to places regularly shown to foreigners.” On the other hand, Audrey Topping went with her father in May to his missionary birth-place Fancheng, in Hupeh province 175 miles northwest of Wuhan, and they found the population grown from 40,000 to 189,000 with some 200 factories large and small, and 38 middle schools with 13,000 students. A new China indeed.


The general impression of these highly qualified observers is of a people now mostly young and certainly self-confident, well organized and intently at work on community problems of material production, health, literacy, and technological improvement. The old core cities are shabby, the new factory suburbs very plain but more livable, the villages the main focus of concern. There Maoism is making the peasant into a citizen, politically active and responsible. Transport is still back in the railway, bus, and bicycle age. Public health programs use Western and Chinese medicine and try to reach the village masses, eliminate disease, and slow down population growth. The economic effort is to keep industry decentralized and to manufacture consumer goods as far as possible at the commune level. Building on the old market areas of groups of villages in the countryside, the present village production teams and brigades within a commune aim at local self-sufficiency as part of China’s general self-sufficiency. What was Mr. Dulles so worried about?

Before we reduce China to a non-problem let us remember that Red Guards sacked the British embassy in Peking less than five years ago, at a time when we had felt it our national interest to put 500,000 troops into South Vietnam, partly to save it from those “billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons.” Unless our capacity for uptight stupidity has miraculously left us, when may we expect our next shift of view? How soon may either the Chinese or the Americans, or both, go on a crusading rampage again, in their respective national styles, dissipating the relatively relaxed euphoria of 1971?

A residual ambivalence underlies our post-cold-war view of China. How come these same Chinese could be such bad guys in the 1950s and such good guys today? This shift of view springs partly from our own capacity to swing from one to another interpretation of foreign reality. Our grip on reality in distant places beyond direct observation is of course weakened by the way we feel. At any given time the “truth” about China is in our heads, a notoriously unsafe repository for so valuable a commodity. The reporter is part of his report, like the historian of his history.

Ambivalence is compounded in the China case by the fact of cultural differences, a fact easier to announce than to grasp. In short, China’s long stay-at-home history and medieval flowering in material and social technology, as well as the unhappy necessity to modernize by borrowing, rather than as we did by inventing, have all created a world of values and traditions, aims and means, very different from ours. Valued in the Chinese peasant’s (not the intellectual’s) terms, the revolution has been a magnificent achievement, not just by Mao Tse-tung, who if he had never been born might have had a stand-in, but by several hundred millions of the Chinese people.

For Americans, however, the Chinese revolution hardly offers a model to follow; its methods don’t scratch us where we itch. Reston felt “constantly reminded here of what American life must have been like on the frontier a century ago…. This country is engaged in one vast cooperative barn-raising…. They remind us of our own simpler agrarian past.” This is appealing but carries little message for the American future. Evidently our two civilizations will continue to co-exist, one extolling civil liberties and the other self-sacrifice, one denouncing the police state and the other individualism. Neither the teachings of Mao Tse-tung nor those of Frank Shakespeare of the USIS can be expected to sweep both rice-paddy China and automobilized America into a homogenized new world. Americans will continue to believe in expansion—whether we call it the conversion of the world in this generation or free enterprise putting men on the moon—and the Chinese, who invented ancestor worship, bureaucracy, and the examination system so long ago, will continue to put their faith in social organization.

A firsthand appreciation of these cultural differences and before-and-after contrasts is what puts the New York Times reporters so far ahead of the United States Government in its effort to appraise China’s present realities. The counterparts of the Times’s Durdin are the China Foreign Service officers whom Mr. Nixon led the way in purging twenty years ago—men like John Carter Vincent, O. Edmund Clubb, John Paton Davies, John Stewart Service, who had they not resigned or been dropped in mid-career could give the White House today a useful perspective not derived from studies of Europe. Since shifting to academia, Mr. Clubb has published two major works on China’s modern history, the last of which, China and Russia, The Great Game (Columbia University Press, 1971), puts Sino-Soviet relations today into the context of the long and complex relationship between the two empires.


Mr. Davies’s memoirs are in press, and Mr. Service recently published an illuminating analysis of the brief honeymoon period of first contact at Yenan in 1944, The American Papers: Some Problems in the History of U.S.-China Relations (Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1971), when Mao and Chou raised the possibility of a working relationship with the United States: in January, 1945, they even asked about coming to see FDR to plan the details of military cooperation against Japan. Grateful as we may be for these works of historical hindsight, it would be even more gratifying to have one of the authors on our team in Peking during the week of February 21. It is safe to say, for example, that no one of these officers, had he been asked in 1965, would have accepted the thesis that Asians can be judiciously bombed to the conference table.

While Durdin and the Toppings can give us before and after appraisals, the German journalist Klaus Mehnert offers a before-during-and-after view in addition to a Sino-Soviet comparison. Mehnert is in fact uniquely quadri-cultural. Born in Moscow of German parents, he spent the early 1930s in Russia, the later 1930s in Berkeley and Honolulu, marrying an American, and the early 1940s in Shanghai editing a journal. He had seen China first in 1929 and 1936, and returned again in 1957. In 1971, through the aid of his friend Prince Sihanouk, he spent a month traveling through fourteen provinces early in the year before the ping-pong breakthrough.

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.

This Issue

February 24, 1972