11 Juli 2006

book reviews: "Gao Village" & "Some of Us"

(This is more a quick recommendation than a comprehensive review.  I neglected writing this for a while, I finished reading these a over a month ago, so I forget some of their details.  Whether you've read the books yet or not, feel free to comment or message me, including if you have questions about the authors' positions on various things or other contents of the books I've left out.  And go read them, they're not that long.)

These books are similar so I put 'em in the same blog entry.  Both are written recently by Chinese academics who grew up during the Mao period.  They are neither Maoist nor anti-Maoist, but honestly trying to analyse the truth of what happened during that incredibly important period of history.  They have the benefits of having both the status of first-hand experience of the events, as well as the standards of academic scholars.  For a contemporary Maoist perspective (which includes acknowledging & analysing the real errors as well as celebrating advances & exposing lies) check out Set The Record Straight.

Gao Village by Gao C.F. "Mobo"

Mr Gao (everyone from Gao village has the family name Gao by the way) was an average peasant in rural Jiangxi province during most of the Mao years.  He liked & did well in school, becoming a "barefoot teacher" & eventually was able to go on to university when the exams were abolished & students were let in on the basis of [low] class, community need, & desire (as opposed to the exams which favoured the higher classes because of their priviledge to study under the old society as well as having more free time & better-educated parents to help).  He was involved in the Red Guard student movement, for a short time & not as a leader.  He currently is a professor in Australia. He made special trips back to his village for writing this book, interviewing many people & doing lots of research to supplement his own decades-old personal memories.  The bulk of this book is about the Mao era, but it has a brief chapter on pre-1949 times, & quite a bit on the new capitalist period (1977-now).  Also it is completely focused on Gao village as a case study, though broader issues come up & are discussed (he does a wonderful job of weighing the pluses & minuses of this approach in the intro, by the way).

Two things stand out most about this book.  First, his heart is solidly with the general masses of people.  Second, he is honest, straightforward, & has a wonderful academic method (of science rather than hot air).  He squarely states the facts, that the Mao era was the best ever in China's history.  Not perfect, but way better than anything before or since.  Also, it was moving forward.  This is what I always emphasise to people.  No, it was not a utopia -- but things were getting better, the situation was improving by leaps (with of course stumbling blocks & small backsteps along the way), until the overthrow by Deng Xiaoping & co., whereupon it got worse again.  Again Mr Gao is very non-partisan about all this, talking in neutral tones about some of the good side-effects about the new period of commune dismantlement & migrant labour.

Another highlight of this book is its treatment of clan politics, how this aspect of village life has sustained its influence (which is a negative, unfair influence on communities' & individuals' lives) throughout.  During the Mao period it was more hidden (even the author was subjectively unaware of its continued existence, though in hindsight & by talking with others it became obvious how it benefitted & harmed him at various points).  And once socialism was thrown away, it is much more open, even to the point of armed battles between clans & villages, which the government does nothing about.

In fact much of the negative aspects of the Mao era, in a rural place like Gao village at least, are attributed to this continued power of clans, tradition, & other leftovers from "the old society" (feudalism & semi-capitalism).  For instance, the reason he didn't really get into the Red Guard movement much is that he felt most of the participants were not genuine, that you advanced in leadership based on personal connections, that conflicts were created & dealt with on a surface & flashy level, etc.  Many of the victims (and to be clear, these victims lost status, not lives) in Gao village were targeted for ulterior motives such as to settle a score over an extra-marital affair (or being related to someone who did that!).  And there's one of the tricky things about giving power to the people -- they won't do it right all the time, especially with tens of thousands of years of class society's inertia pushing them in certain directions.  One thing the author cites is that under socialism & new democracy, the main thing is majority rule, to do what most people want.  Well that lets big villages & clans bully smaller ones.  Although there were mechanisms to prevent this, it happened anyway a lot.  For example some dams were built taking much of Gao village's irrigation water away & giving it to Xu village (which is much larger, & thus with elections etc is where much of the area's leadership was from).  This problem grew exponentially in effect when the whole cooperative system of socialism was dismantled.  In fact it is to the point that small Gao village children are brutalised on their way to & from school by older kids from dominant villages & clans (at the bidding & influence of their parents no doubt), which of course leads to less Gao villagers actually going to school, especially girls.  And let's not forget that they only have to leave their village for school because most schools have been closed by the new capitalist regime, under the excuse of "quality not quantity", in other words a few elite schools in the cities & not even elementary schools for much of the countryside.

Well I won't go through a blow-by-blow of the whole book.  I had some disagreements with some of his conclusions, & (as is common) the parts on the Hua Guofeng period were rather murky & indecisive.  But much of the shortcomings in terms of not seeing the bigger picture & so on are actually acknowledged by the author himself, that this is what happens when you do a case study basically.  Overall it is a great book, I recommend it to everyone.  It is honest, intellectually sound, & on the side of the masses of people.  Folks who are accustomed to the typical story about Maoist China (horror & starvation & all that) will be able to hear a refutation of that in level-headed, proof-filled terms that is a combination of both personal experience & qualified research.  Maoist revolutionaries will be able to find out about some of the shortcomings, & be certain that what they are reading is true.  (After all, even if Jung Chang said a couple true things how could you tell amidst all the bullshit?)  And one last thing, it's easy to read.  It's somewhat "academic", but not unintelligable Chomsky-type jargon -- you can tell it's an average guy writing this, & when he uses academic or China-specific terminology he lets you know what it means.

Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era by Zhong Xueping, Wang Zheng, Bai Di, et al

And with this book we see how the other half lived.  This book is a compilation of short memoirs by women who grew up during the Cultural Revolution.  It is in chronological order of oldest to youngest, so some were in their late teens whilst others were just little kids during the GPCR (late '60s to early '70s).  All are city folk of middle to upper class origin, some of communist parentage and some not.  The book was motivated to be published by these women, who are also all currently academics in the West, feeling the "odd one out" as they listened & read the horror-story type memoirs of the GPCR [Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution].  These women have fond memories of that time, overall, & found each other & decided to set the record straight that doom & gloom is simply not all that went on then.

A highlight is many of their recollections of being "sent down", or going to the countryside with the goal of both helping the peasantry as well as learning from them.  In fact a couple of them volunteered for it, not under pressure but genuinely, in one case against pressure (she was younger than most participants).  Even the couple who didn't like it didn't see it as a punishment.  Many view it as the high point of their lives so far.

This book is much more personal than Gao Village, & as it is also by women, it deals with issues such as learning gender roles (or not), growing up & issues of love & sexuality, marriage, & more.  Many of these things were up for debate in society at large, changing even the language such as being a "youth" vs a "girl" or a "woman".

Overall I didn't personally like this book as much as Mr Gao's.  Especially having read that one first with all its description of rural hardships (even with the improvements under Mao), the immediate reaction to some of the middle class city folks' complaints is like "who cares, it all pales in comparison".  Especially a couple of them seemed at first out of place as they were more subjectively anti-GPCR.  But compared to what's out there with Wild Swans & Red Violin & all the rest, even those chapters with an overall negative view of the era are good.  I say this because they are honest.  Also, across the board & without exception, the authors note that women were much more equal during the Mao period.  Women were able to achieve more, & they were able to be in leadership positions at all levels of society, & they were able to just walk around without being degraded, & in a genuine way too, not just a superficial "this is what's p.c. on t.v." type of way either.

On a nitpicky note, some of the authors use the normal style of family name first, then individual name while others reverse it to English style.  As they do this not just with their names, but everyone -- except famous people like Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai etc, it gets rather annoying and confusing.  (By the way I've listed all the authors in this blog entry Chinese-style [& "Mobo" is a nickname], so when you're looking for it at the bookstore/library/online, "Gao" & "Zhong" are the surnames to look under.)

Anyway this book is really a must-read.  Given the variety you will like & dislike some of the chapters no matter what.  But it is extemely important that these women are asserting themselves basically to say: "I'm not delusional, I know what I lived & I know from study that I'm not the only one.  This is what happened, deal with it."

Regarding such an intense period of class struggle, of course some will have a negative & some will have a positive view of it.  And of course, especially when the bourgeoisie (capitalists) win out, there will be all kinds of lies & distortions.  But we should also not just wish for, but expect there to be honest voices from various perspectives.  When those voices make themselves heard, listen to them.

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