Saturday, June 12, 2010

人多力量大 - More Population Means More Power

I took a break from my devouring of China-related books a few weeks ago. Instead of delving into non-fiction about the Middle Kingdom, I read Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Breaks of the Game is a chronicle of the '79-'80 Portland Trail Blazers and the commercialism of the NBA during that time period. Halberstam's book was a good read, but by the time I was finished, I was dying to get into another China book.

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.

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."
Now there is a lot going on in this passage. I particularly want to discuss the end of it.

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

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.


Anonymous said...

In a sad way, the population push is also the root for China's current success. Without the mass of people it would not be possible to have become the world's factory which I believe is the root for China's economic power.

I am always fascinated by the fact that Mao is still genuinely revered by the Chinese. To me he seemed like a terrible leader who proved hypocritical to many of his ideals about absolute power. He was responsible for the starvation deaths of millions during the Great Leap Forward, the destruction of so much art and history during the cultural revolution, and the suppression of many of China's greatest scholars.

The only reason I can come up with based on the feedback I have gotten from Chinese friends and my wife, is that Mao was a huge improvement over the recent past. As bad as Mao was, I heard horror stories about how things were just prior to Mao. A time when executions were performed for acts of adultery and prison sentences were handed out of the slightest of offenses.

I will give Mao credit though, he had a lot of cool sayings, even if they weren't all very well thought out. My personal favorite: “We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.”

Mark said...

There's no doubt that China's population does give it some "power." But I think that it could still function as the world's factory and be a major player going forward with a significantly smaller population (<1 billion). There are just too many people in China.

I think a lot of Mao's popularity today is due to him "defeating the Japanese and getting them out of China." This is also tied in with China's staunch anti-Japanese sentiment.

Officially, Deng Xiaoping said that Mao was "70% right and 30% wrong." Interestingly, Alan Greenspan also voluntarily joined this 70%/30% group.

I've talked with young Chinese people about Mao before. I don't sense there is a lot of passion one way or the other about him. They don't seem particularly ashamed or upset about things like the Cultural Revolution. But at the same time, there is no lionizing of him either.

Most young Chinese people I've encountered are relatively apolitical. But if I had to pick a leader they can connect with, I think that young people are more revering of Deng's "to get rich is glorious" ideas than any of Mao's.

Mark said...

Just found a discussion of Mao by a bunch of really smart dudes here. Am listening to it now.

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, I think it was the Russians that got Japan out of China. But then again, with the incredible free flow of information in China, I'm sure Mao was able to paint the picture the way he wanted it.

I agree with your last two paragraphs wholeheartedly. When I went over I was expecting to get into some interesting political discussions, the young and the old I spoke with had no interest. The "I'm just old one hundred names, what can I do" mentality seemed pervasive. Actually, I think I breathed an internal sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to discuss politics in China.

John Lau said...

Mao did double population. In fact the rate of China's population growth during Mao's time was about three to four times as great as the three decades leading up to 1949.

Mao added more people to China's population than in the entire century leading up to 1949.

But this, contrary to your implication, was not by edict.

All the demographic studies show that China's fertility declined overall during Mao's time. The most authoritative studies are by Judith Banister (the doyen of China demographic studies).

In fact at no stage in the history of the PRC were fertility rates ever higher than they were just before the communists took power.

So we have this situation. Declining fertility, and an explosive increase in the Chinese population.

What accounts for this?

Logically speaking there can only be one explanation. A dramatic fall in mortality rates. This of course was accompanied by the most incredible increase in life expectancy in documented history, with life expectancy almost doubling from 34 in 1949 to 66 in 1976, the year of Mao's death. In fact in 1976, Chinese life expectancy was already higher than what India's life expectancy is today.

Here is an excellent graphic showing fertility and life expectancy for the US, China, and India since 1950.

The fact is Mao's public health policies saved more lives than any other government policy in all of human history.

Based on the number of lives Mao's policies saved (in spite of the GLF disaster) Mao probably qualifies as the greatest humanitarian in all of human history.

Here are two recent studies on Mao's great humanitarian achievements, one a Stanford study, the other a Harvard study:

Mao and life expectancy (Stanford)

Harvard study on how Maoist China laid the foundation for Deng's economic reforms of 30 years ago - a healthy and literate population (for a developing nation):

Peter Chinn said...

I am confused. Why would anyone think the Chinese or Russians drove the Japanese out of China. Realistically, the United States' all-out war with Japan across the Pacific drove them back to the Japanese islands.