A few days ago, I picked up Red Azalea by Anchee Min. "Wow" is all I can say so far. Red Azalea is a chronicle of Min's experiences during China's Cultural Revolution. For those that don't know, the Cultural Revolution was (according to Wikipedia), "a violent mass movement that resulted in social, political, and economic upheaval in the People’s Republic of China starting in 1966 and ending officially with Mao's death in 1976. It resulted in nation-wide chaos and economic disarray and stagnation."
The Cultural Revolution was surely one of the most horrific time periods in the history of man. Mao Zedong at his absolute worst.
Min tells her story of being corrupted as a child and then being sent off to a work farm as a young woman. I haven't finished the book and am in the middle of her time on the work farm. The stories are just unbelievable. I can't even begin to describe the situations she faced.
The language Min uses is haunting. I can't find confirmation in the book or online, but I believe I read that Min wrote this in English after moving to America. I've been enchanted so far by her words. Her writing, in her second language, is just wonderful.
I'm going to highlight a passage from the book I found particularly interesting. It's from page 99:
Yan (a woman in Min's platoon) and I betrayed no intimacy in public. We silently washed each other's clothes and took trips to fill hot-water containers for each other. We became accustomed to each other's eye signals. Every couple of days we would go separately to meet at the brick factory. Yan would make excuses such as checking the quality of the day's work. I would take the thickest Mao book and my notebook and pretend to find a place to study by myself. We shuttled through the reeds, hand in hand. She would roll up a piece of reed to make a green trumpet. She told me to blow when she blew hers. We made music of the reeds, of the evening. We messed with each other's tones and laughed when the tone sounded like the cough of an old man.Now there is a lot going on in this passage. I particularly want to discuss the end of it.
Even when winter came, we continued to meet. Sitting by the bricks, Yan would practice her
erhu; I would just lie back and listen. We began to talk about everything, including the most forbidden subject - men.
Yan said that according to her mother, who hated her father, most men were evil. Mother said that she wouldn't ever have produced nine children with my father if she had not wanted to respond to the Party's call, "More population means more power."
I've written on my blog before that I always had a lot of fun learning Chinese idioms - aka. 成语. My teacher - 马老师 (Teacher Ma) - and I would often during our classes stray from the book I used and discuss a wide array of topics in Chinese. During those conversations, Teacher Ma, knowing that I liked idioms and four character phrases, would highlight certain phrases that I should know.
One day when discussing the former Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, I asked her for a few classic Mao lines. She gave me several, but only two have stuck with me to today.
One is 人定胜天 - rén dìng shèng tiān - which means "man's determination can conquer nature." Seeing some of the projects that Mao initiated during his time as China's leader - Beijing's underground city for one - it's easy to see why Mao had an affinity for this idiom.
The other Mao-ism that's stuck with me is 人多力量大 - rén duō lì liàng dà - which is the phrase Min wrote about in the passage above - "more population means more power."
I just did a bit of searching for some more info about this Mao quote. I'm not finding much in English. I found a bit in Chinese here. It's hard for me to translate the contents of this verbatim, but from what I gather, during the disastrous "Great Leap Forward" in the late 1950s, Mao promoted the idea that it was every good country man's duty to produce as many children as possible. That's the gist of Min's writing in the passage too.
In Mao's mind, China's already large population in the 1950s was one of the country's greatest assets and a possible equalizer with the rest of the world. Wanting to be a superpower, Mao encouraged Chinese people to have as many children as possible.
I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that this population growth encouraging is one of Mao's many failures. The most obvious results of the population boom under Mao was the "one child policy," which was introduced in 1978 and implemented in 1979. Mao died in 1976. To counteract what Beijing saw as one of China's most severe problems, the country, almost immediately after Mao's death, used population-control to reverse the fact China had too many people.
Is Mao's declaration and promotion of 人多力量大 the reason why China has 1.3 billion people today? I don't really think that one can say for certain. But looking at charts of China's population, one could argue that such edicts had an effect (Mao had population-growth campaigns in the mid-1950s):
Image from digitalsurvivors.com
On that second image, note that the population dip was due to starvation during the Great Leap Forward. Despite that blip, population was mostly going up at a pretty steady pace.
Whether historians can blame Mao for China's over-population or not, the promotion of 人多力量大 was, I think, misguided. China's population today, thirty years after harsh population controls were put in place, is still the root of many of China's domestic problems.