On the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution

Mao Zedong is usually credited with developing a peasant basis for socialist revolutions, thereby breaking with the proletarian emphasis of the Russian Revolution. It may come as a surprise to find that Stalin emphasises again and again the agrarian nature of the Chinese Revolution. In 1927, Stalin wrote:

What, then, is to be done at this moment? The agrarian revolution in China must be broadened and deepened. Mass workers’ and peasants’ organisations of every kind must be created and strengthened—from trade-union councils and strike committees to peasant associations and peasant revolutionary committees—with a view to converting them, as the revolutionary movement grows and achieves success, into organisational and political bases for the future Soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies (Works, volume 9, p. 242).

To be sure, Stalin did see the agrarian revolution as a phase that would be followed by the leadership of the proletariat in the establishment of soviets. Mao ensured that the agrarian basis would remain the core of the Chinese Revolution.

But did Stalin attempt to dictate the progress of the Chinese Revolution, insisting on ideological and practical conformity? Not so, it seems. He argues strongly against an ‘artificially transplanted “Moscow Sovietisation”’ (p. 233). And he castigates those who ‘sincerely believe that the revolution in China can be directed, so to speak, by telegraph, on the basis of the universally recognised general principles of the Comintern, disregarding the national peculiarities of China’s economy, political system, culture, manners and customs, and traditions (p. 338).

Mao with peasants 02

Mao with peasants 03


Mao’s brain food: pork belly and soy sauce

Go to any Hunanese restaurant, or any Chinese restaurant in a foreign country, and you are likely to find ‘Chairman Mao’s Braised Pork’, or something with a similar name. It is well known that he loved to eat a dish of braised pork belly and soy sauce. Pork belly is, of course, one of the fattiest parts of the pig. Like most Hunanese, he believed that it boosted his brainpower, if not his physical capabilities. He insisted that he eat it as often as he could, even during his years in Beijing and against the strenuous advice of his physicians. Earlier, during the long civil war that led up to the revolution, he made sure he ate this dish before he went into combat. He did the same when he was about to enter political combat. He believed that he never lost a battle after a meal of braised pork.

Mao's dish

National Day in China: Declaration of the People’s Republic

1 October it is, when Mao Zedong declared in his Xiangtan (Hunan) accent the people’s republic.

Every year, Tiananmen Square is filled with tens of thousands of young people, who sleep in the square overnight so they are ready at daybreak to commemorate the event at a very simple flag-raising ceremony. Mao is clearly alive in the people’s republic today.

Mao’s personal five-year plan

Mao didn’t restrict the famous and much-debated ‘Five-Year Plans’ to the realm of economics. He also had a personal one, expressed in 1957:

I, too, have a five-year plan. I’d like to live for five more years. If I can live for another 15 years, I’d be completely content and satisfied. … However, there are unexpected storms in the skies, and people are likely to experience sudden reversals of fortune. This, too, is a matter of natural dialectics. If Confucius were still alive today – if someone who had lived more than two thousand years ago is still not dead – that would be awful, wouldn’t it? (The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, vol. 2, p. 777).

Of course, he died in 1976, so he lived 19 more years. He must have died more than completely content and satisfied …

Mao on intellectuals

The good chairman certainly has some great lines on intellectuals. For instance:

I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air and strut around, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in the world, then I’m at least number two’ … Right now there are some intellectuals who are floating around in the air. They are like fifteen buckets being used to get water from the well – with seven going up and eight going down. They can’t get up to the heavens and they can’t get down to the ground. They all just float around in the air. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976, vol. 2, pp. 611-12)

Mao the monk

Mao the monk? It may well have been the path he chose in life. Zhang Kundi, a young friend of Mao, tells of a 1917 hike in the mountains in Hunan, with regular swims in the Xiang River due to the heat. On the top of Zhaoshan (Zhao Mountain) was a monastery with two or three monks. The young friends were offered a bed for the night – one bed for all of them. But they stayed up and talked long into the night. At one point, Zhang Kundi relates:

Moved by the clear night, Mr. Peng told us about his long-cherished desire to be a monk and also said that, some years later, he would invite all of us to come and study on some famous mountain. Mr. Mao and I also have such a desire, but Mao’s desire is much stronger than mine. I, too, was moved at that time, and the lines came to me:

Wind blowing in the trees, music of the heavens

Desires and rewards cannot be perceived, and shed their forms

But I did not reveal them to my friends. It was deep night before we slept.

(Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, vol 1. pp. 138-39)

Reflections on China

The foreigner’s moment of transition is upon me: China is becoming familiar. This is a curious time, when much of what struck me on the first few visits starts to seem like normal. What was different is no longer so; what I once noticed I no longer do, since it is becoming part of everyday life. The downside is that I need to work harder to notice what I once did, to create that fiction of seeing for the first time. But the upside is that I am beginning to understand some aspects a little more deeply.

The first is a paradox, at least at first sight. China is at the same time more technologically advanced than any place on the planet and yet more traditional. The examples are multiple, including the highest rate of new technological inventions in the world (outstripping even places like silicon valley) or the development of an anti-aircraft-carrier missile that neutralises the key element of US military supremacy. But let me describe one such item in a little more detail. China has what is already the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains in the world, and the network is expanding rapidly. It may have borrowed the technology from Germany and France, but there only a few short lines operate with trains that run at over 300 kilometres per hour. As China extends its network over thousands and thousands of kilometres, it has developed the technology in its own way, so that now it is the global expert. The network is transforming travel in China in a way other countries can only imagine.

Yet China is deeply traditional. This is most noticeable in the rural villages, even in those close to the cities. Here people cook on wood fires, draw water from wells, use hand labour for farming and animals (mules) for traction. To be sure, they have motorised vehicles – of the ubiquitous three-wheeled type – but they often prefer the animals and their hands. With common rather than private property in land, they practice the age-old reallocation of land shares on a periodic basis. Need and capability are the criteria, depending on family size and capabilities.

I could cite other examples, such as attitudes to relationships, or assumptions regarding food, or the sense of what is important in life (spiritual as well as material), but the underlying paradox is one of the most advanced and yet most traditional societies one can find. However, a widespread sense persists in China that it remains backward, that it still has much catching-up to do to be equal with the ‘West’. I prefer to see it in terms of dialectical possibilities. As past experience shows, the places that feel as though they are still behind the rest usually find new ways to leap ahead. Call it dialectics if you will, but soon enough more and more people realise that backwardness is an advantage. It enables modes of creativity in which one realises that ‘catching up’ is not the path to follow. Instead, such backwardness produces new modes of thinking and acting that solve intractable problems elsewhere. Suddenly, what was once backward is now at the forefront. The fact that China has – as one person put it to me clearly – a very different social framework adds to that potential.

A second feature concerns perceptions of, or rather the production of, the ‘West’. This is a subtle term with many layers of meaning. Of course, the origins of the East-West distinction, as we know it, go back to the struggles between the Greek-speaking (east) and Latin-speaking (west) parts of the Christian Church. Dates for major festivals, doctrinal statements, church structures – these and more were part of the struggle. From this specific, small, and rather insignificant origin it has become a global distinction. But what does ‘West’ mean in China? Sometimes it refers strictly to Western Europe; at other times eastern Europe, the USA, North America as a whole, and even Japan are included; and at others it includes the whole world apart from China (which then embodies the East). Intrigued by these multiple senses, I often ask: what about Russia, is that Western? Some say yes, others say no, but few recognise that Russia is largely an Asian country. How about Eastern Europe – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia …? They are definitely Western. What about Africa? South America? Australia? Pacific Islands? Mostly people say they are not ‘Western’. Yet, just when I think I am getting close to the meaning of the term, to pinpoint what ‘West’ really means, it slips out of my grasp. So perhaps we need to ask a very different question: why do Chinese people need a subtle and slippery term like ‘the West’. It is crucial for the constant process of defining what China is, especially in the modern world. So the question should really be: what do Chinese people think the ‘West’ thinks about China?

I am often asked a question like this: what does the ‘West’ think of China? I usually point out that I do not come from the ‘West’ but from the ‘South’. But I also indicate what appears in the corporate media from time to time, indeed what general impressions are in the South Land (Terra Australis). China is still viewed with a mix of mystery and fear, both of which are based on ignorance. The mystery still has a good dose of the orientalism about it, which continues to haunt much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the ‘Forbidden City’ stands as a symbol of this mystery, especially in a country run by a ‘secretive’ Communist Party. So mystery folds easily into fear. Whether the ‘yellow peril’ of a bygone age in Australia when European whites were once the most numerous (now they are the minority), or China’s ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ rise that is on the minds of fading empires – fear is easy to generate, but especially so in the absence of knowledge. It remains true that people in China know more about the rest of the world than the rest knows of China; hence the ease with which the corporate media fills that space with a mix of fear and mystery, along with ignorance and misinformation. Indeed, I recall vividly my first arrival in China. No matter how much I sought to resist the near-universal images of China portrayed, I too was affected by them. Would I be followed by a secret policeman? What topics should I avoid? Would I be escorted carefully around the place so that I could not see ‘sensitive’ places? All of these preconceptions were simply destroyed. I experienced a near 180 degree reversal of my preconceptions.

Yet, the most significant impression took somewhat longer to build, a result of prolonged periods of living in China: it is the relief of being in a socialist democracy. At first, this experience is not so obvious, except that one begins to enjoy the absence of the inanities of bourgeois democracy – inaction as a result of parties focused on the opinion polls and elections, the to-and-fro of policies instituted only to be undone by the next bunch, the petty squabbles and character assassinations, the corruption that is inseparable from such a system, the absence of real and wide-ranging political debate, and the fact that the ‘parties’ in question are so similar to one another in seeking to gain ‘the middle ground’ that they are really factions of one pro-capitalist party. Far better to have the same party in government year after year – a necessity for the construction of socialism (although it is worth noting that China has more than 25 pro-socialist political parties involved in government).

The first sense of the difference of socialist democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ came from a curious angle. I began to notice that political debates were much more wide-ranging than those to which I had become accustomed. Everything was on the table and everyone had a passionate opinion. Was this a paradox of one-party rule, I wondered, which generates wider debate than a bourgeois democratic system? Since then I have realised the situation is more complex. Stability is the norm rather than the exception, which both allows decisions to be made and carried through, and produces the fascinating problem of long-term legitimacy. The government both fosters debate and listens closely, with many channels for gaining a sense of what people think. When it works well, this pattern of listening, processing, reformulating and sending out proposals for further considerations is what socialist democracy, or ‘democratic centralism’, is really about. And it needs to work well – although at times it does not – for a government that has been in power for a long time constantly needs to renew itself. Perhaps Chairman Mao sums it up best: ‘from the masses, to the masses’.

Mao on love

A youthful Mao Zedong had quite a bit to say on love, marriage and sexual desire. Let us begin with desire:

Whatever is natural is both true and real. Can something that is true and real fail to contribute to improving my life? Besides, my life and development ultimately depend on just such things. The desire to eat contributes to my life, sexual desire is good for my development, and both of these come from natural instincts … The conscience certainly always sees our appetite for food and sex for what they are. It is only at a particular time and place that the conscience will suggest restraining the impulses, as when the desire for food or sex becomes excessive. And then the conscience acts only to restrain or moderate the excess, certainly not to oppose or deny these desires …

The truly great person develops the original nature with which Nature endowed him, and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature. Everything that comes from outside his original nature, such as restraints and restrictions, is cast aside by the great motive power that is contained within his original nature. It is this motive power that is the strongest and truest reality, that is the spring that fulfils his character … The great actions of the hero are his own, are the expressions of his motive power, lofty and cleansing, relying on no precedent. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped (Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, vol. 1, pp. 255-57, 263-64).

Some of his reflections, especially in 1919, were prompted by the suicide of a Miss Zhao, who killed herself in the marriage sedan that was taking her to a wedding she did not want. One of these articles can be found here, but there are more than a dozen others. In ‘The Question of Love – Young People and Old People: Smash the Policy of Parental Arrangement’ (1919), Mao writes:

We have many different kinds of desires, such as the desire to eat, the desire for sex, the desire to play, the desire for fame, and the desire for power and influence (also called the desire to dominate), and so on. Of these, the desires for sex and food are fundamental, the former to maintain the ‘present’ and the latter to open up the ‘future’. Of these two desires, there is no absolute difference in the desire for food according to age. Sexual desire does, however, differ with age.

The expression of sexual desire, generally speaking, is love. Young people see the question of love as being very important, while old men don’t think it’s worth worrying about … Only in China is this question put to one side. When I was young, I saw many people getting married. I asked them what they were up to. They all replied that a person takes a wife to have someone to make tea, cook, raise pigs, chase away the dogs, spin, and weave. At this time I asked, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to hire a servant? It wasn’t until later that I heard that people got married ‘to carry on the family line.’ This left me still perplexed. … Society does not regard love as being important, and thus, except for the slave’s work of making tea, cooking, and so on, marriage is nothing but that base life of fleshly desire. (What we call sexual desire, or love, involves not only the physiological satisfaction of fleshly desire, but the satisfaction of a higher order of desires – spiritual desires and the desire for social intercourse.) … In short, capitalism and love are in conflict with one another. Old men are in conflict with love. Thus there is a tight bond between old men and capitalism, and the only good friends of love are young people (Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949, vol. 1, pp. 439-40).

More directly in relation to the suicide of Miss Zhao, he write in ‘Smash the Matchmaker System’ (1919):

Speaking of this thing called a matchmaker, this is another cheap trick of Chinese society. Chinese society contains a great many cheap tricks. Things like those literary essays, imperial examinations, local bandits, and bureaucrats are all nothing but a bunch of cheap tricks. The same is true of things like exorcizing devils, sacrifices to appease the gods, dragon lanterns, lion dances, and even doctors treating patients, teachers teaching classes, and men and women getting married. A society like that of China should really be called a society of cheap tricks. The trick called marriage is connected with the problem of men and women, and also gives birth to a bunch of smaller games, such as “crawling in the dust,” “robbing the sister-in-law,” “raising the hero,” “fighting the wind,” “wearing a green bandana,” “making the genie jump,” and so on. But as regards marriage, standing above all these little tricks, so that it may in all conscience be called the “ultimate cheap trick,” is that three-headed six-armed ubiquitous demon, the “matchmaker.”

The Chinese matchmaker has the following strange features: the basic philosophy is “successfully dragging them together”; each marriage is at least 80 per cent lies; the “gods” and the “eight talismans” are their protecting characters.

In China it is said that the major power over marriage is in the hands of the parents. In actuality, although the parents are nominally the ones in control, they do not really make the decision. It is in fact the matchmaker who has decision-making power … For this kind of matchmaker the first thing is to have the basic philosophy of “successfully dragging them together.” Going around selling both parties on the idea that she genuinely wants the marriage to be a success, the matchmaker always says forcefully, you two families must make up your own minds. In fact, however, after all her badgering, even parents with iron ears have long since become limp rags … That matchmaker thinks that if she can’t get the couples together it is her own fault. In the event that they do come together, and the two parties go from “unmarried” to “married,” she will have a meritorious deed to her credit. At the bottom of such a philosophy of dragging people together, one thing is indispensable: “telling lies.” Since the two families of the man and woman are not close to one another, there are many things that they do not know about each other, and the girl is locked away in the inner chambers, making it even more difficult to find out about her. So the matchmaker rambles on, making up all kinds of stories, so that on hearing them, both sets of parents will be happy. A marriage contract is written up on a sheet of paper, and thus the affair is concluded. As a result, it is frequently the case that after the marriage, the two turn out to be completely incompatible … Some even go so far as the substitute another bridegroom, or switch the bride. This constitutes a “match between unmatchables,” and not just “a few little lies.” Totally incompatible marriages in which the matchmaker has simply dragged the couple together and then lets out a futile fart to the heavens (country people call a lie a “futile fart”) practically fill Chinese society.

And why is it that one never hears of the man or the woman picking a quarrel with the matchmaker, or that of all the lawsuits in the courts, one rarely hears one against “the old man of the moon”? On the contrary, such people get off scot-free, with money in their pockets from the fee for their services. Why is this? Thanks to the blessings of the “gods” and the “eight characters,” the responsibility is placed on the supernatural.

Since matchmakers are as bad as all this, when in the future we think about marriage reform, it is imperative that we immediately do away with the matchmaker system. Vocabulary such as “matchmaker” and “the old man of the moon” must be expunged from dictionaries of the Chinese language. With the establishment of a new marriage system, provided only that the man and woman both know in their hearts that they have a deep and mutual affection for each other they should be fully able to mate freely … The thing called the matchmaker should be hurled beyond the highest heavens and forever forgotten (Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949, pp. 442-44).

Finally, a love poem, which was written after an argument with his first wife, Yang Kaihui.

A wave of the hand, and the moment of parting has come.

Harder to bear is facing each other dolefully,

Bitter feelings voiced once more.

Wrath looks out of your eyes and brows,

On the verge of tears, you hold them back.

We know our misunderstanding sprang from that last letter.

Let it roll away like clouds and mist,

For who in this world is as close as you and I?

Can Heaven fathom our human maladies?

I wonder.

This morning frost lies heavy on the road to East Gate,

The waning moon lights up the pond’ and half the sky

How cold, how desolate!

One wail of the steam whistle has shattered my heart,

Now I shall roam alone to the uttermost ends of the earth.

Let us strive to sever those threads of grief and anger,

Let it be as though the sheer cliffs of Mount Kunlun collapsed,

And as though a typhoon swept through the whole universe.

Let us be once again two birds flying side by side,

Soaring high as the clouds

(Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949, Volume 2, pp. 195-96).

A Respectful Notice from the Cultural Book Society to the Gentleman Who Has Bought This Book (Mao Zedong)

In 1920, Mao and his friends established the Cultural Book Society in Hunan. This was to be – through spreading new modes of thought – one part of a larger effort to establish an independent state of Hunan. In each of the books sold, the following notice was placed.

A Respectful Notice from the Cultural Book Society to the Gentleman Who Has Bought This Book

The fact that you, sir, have purchased this book will undoubtedly have a great influence on the progress of your thought, and on that we wish to congratulate you. If, after you have read this book, your unslakeable thirst for knowledge inclines you to buy a few more books to peruse, we invite you, sir, either to come once more to our society to purchase them, or to do so by correspondence. We are prepared to welcome you!

The items which our society has for sale have undergone a rigorous process of selection. They consist exclusively of comparatively valuable new publications (We want nothing to do with stale and outdated thought.) … Our goal is that the thought of everyone in Hunan should progress as yours has done, so as to bring about the emergence of a new culture …

We are profoundly mortified that our abilities are too meagre to shoulder the great responsibility of propagating culture, and we hope that superior men of goodwill from all walks of life will grant us their assistance. If you, sir, can help us by taking the trouble to introduce us by word of mouth, we shall be extremely grateful …

We wish you, sir, continued good health.

Colleagues of the Cultural Book Society

56 Chaozong Streetm Changsha

Built on Islets of Sand: Mao on China’s Problem (1920)

One of the features I have begun to notice about Chinese intellectual life is that it is inherently engaged with social and political problems. Often, a scholar will identify what is regarded as the core problem of China as a whole and then seek a solution (of all 1.3 billion people). The identification of the problem and indeed the solution may change, but the form of scholarship remains. I am told this is deeply Confucian. Mao is no exception, as in this lyrical piece from 1920 when he was engaged in the project to reconstruct his home province of Hunan as a separate state.

Buildings constructed on islets of sand will collapse even before they are completed. The twenty-four dynasties of China may be regarded as twenty-four buildings built on islets of sand, every one of which collapsed precisely because not one of them had a foundation. The four-thousand-year-old China is merely an empty frame. All the activities of its many politicians and all the scholarship of its many scholars have been just sketches painted on this empty frame … Thus, our ancient and civilized country with its four thousand years of history has never really been a country at all. The country is merely an empty frame with absolutely nothing inside. It might be said that there were people, but the people were scattered. It is a pity that ‘a sheet of loose sand’ does indeed describe them!

Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, p. 579.