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HST271

Week 12: Exploration Packet 2

 This week’s reading was especially interesting to me since I am planning on majoring in International Relations. So being able to analyze Chinese history through that lens in addition to the usual historical perspective was quite enjoyable! With this in mind, it was interesting to read the toasts that Nixon and Zhou Enlai gave at the banquet on February 25th, 1972. Specifically, the continuous and (ostensibly) subtle references that the two kept making to their ideologies. For example, Nixon mentioning that American journalists and press have the “right to speak for themselves and that no one in government can speak for them”, as well as his reference to “…the determination of the Chinese people to retain their independence throughout their long history.” Zhou also made similar (if slightly more subtle) remakes, mentioning the fact that China was “deeply convinced that the strength of the people is powerful” and his belief that “the general trend of the world is definitely towards light and not darkness”, a nod to the Marxist view that history will eventually lead to the greatest “light” of all: an entirely classless society.

This also brought to mind liberalism in international relations (which, by the way, is not the same as political liberalism), which adheres to a progressive view of history. This is, in essence, the idea that human society is projected to go ever upwards and that humanity can only become better with each passing century. While I highly doubt that Zhou held to a liberal view of international relations, I still find it to be another fascinating parallel between the Chinese and the Americans. This is mainly because of Henry Kissinger’s view of international relations heavily favored realism, which oftentimes opposes liberalism. For example, a realist view of history would be cyclical rather than progressive, meaning that history is bound to repeat itself forever and that, partly due to this, the international system is an eternal struggle for stability and power. So again, the ideological spilt between the two nations is on display. As I mentioned, I do not think that this was the message Zhou intended to get across with that line, but it still showcases just how different the countries (and leaders in charge of the countries) were, even unintentionally. Although Nixon and Mao put on quite the show of pretending that their friendly talks had overcome any differences that the two nations might have had, it will be interesting to see how that relationship will play out in the coming weeks of this class.

Works Cited

Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai, “Toasts at a Banquet Honoring the Premier“, February 25, 1972

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HST271

Show and Tell Project 4: Born Red Response Paper

The first thing I noticed about the Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution reading was how hard the author’s life was from the very start. Gao Yuan was born in the village of  “Yizhen” (in the preface Gao mentions that most village names he mentioned have been altered) in the year 1952. Gao Yuan lived there with his mother, father, grandfather, and five siblings, of which he was the second oldest. As he was growing up, China entered the period of its Great Leap Forward. According to Gao, the reaction of the people at first was excitement. Finally, they said, China would become a truly Communist society. Gao’s family even donated their pots and metal to the steel furnace that the town handcrafted. However, as we learned, the Great Leap Forward ended up being a failure, causing the horrific suffering and death of millions of Chinese people. From the years 1960 to 1962, Gao writes that he remembers eating ground-up corn cobs, tree bark, and even bugs just to have something in his belly. The entire village was in the same situation as Gao and his family, so much so that many were selling their extremely valuable heirlooms for mere pennies. Gao’s grandfather was able to buy a Ming Dynasty-era incense burner for only 50 fen, the same price as one persimmon.

Gao’s recollections of his village and family during this time reminded me of what we learned that China as a whole was experiencing. Both Yizhen and China were very optimistic and excited for the Great Leap Forward to happen. Both were willing to make sacrifices for the cause, Gao and his family in the form of their metal donations and China in the form of their homemade backyard furnaces. However, both parties were met with bitter disappointment and terrible consequences via extreme food shortages and poverty. It is so awful that all of those innocent people had to experience those terrible conditions when their only ‘crime’ (so to speak) was being hopeful and working towards what they viewed to be a better future.

Unfortunately, that better future was far from appearing, even after the end of the Great Leap Forward. Gao continues his story, recounting how he was enrolled in a middle school soon after the close of the Great Leap Forward (around 1964-1965). Gao remembers the classmates he met and the teachers he befriended, particularly a teacher named Li. For a while, it seemed that Gao was relatively happy and comfortable in his situation. However, the paranoia and terror of the Cultural Revolution soon began to leach into his school. When essays were published in several newspapers criticizing the Communist government, Gao and his classmates were tasked with creating large posters denouncing the three authors (also known as the Three Family Village) and those associated with them. Slogans that they wrote included “Down with the Three Family Village!”, “Smash the black gang!”, “Down with the antisocialist cabal!”, and “Carry the revolution through to the end!” They ended up spending multiple days on this project, covering their entire campus in their work. Another incident that occurred not long after involved a picture of Chairman Mao, who one student claimed was mocking him as it depicted him with only one ear. This caused other students to see anti-Communist messages everywhere, with some saying that they found a snake painted onto a portrait of Lenin and others sure that a picture of Mao had a sword hanging over his head. Both of these things turned out to be false, with the former being nothing but a shadow and the latter revealing itself to be a painted beam. However, the suspicious attitudes of the teachers and students at Gao’s school were basically the mood of the whole nation.

Reading this part of the book really helped to put the reading that I did for my blog post into perspective. Although it still boggles my mind that literal school children could commit the horrible acts that they did, it was good to read the context for how they got to the point they did. In my mind, I had this image of normal children immediately becoming violent and dangerous almost overnight, whereas the reality was that the situation had a much slower build up. In fact, it seems that this build up was mainly orchestrated by the teachers at the school. This was especially interesting to me, as I had been very curious as to where the students had been getting the motivation and information to do the things they did. However, I am not at all trying to say that what happened to the teachers was somehow deserved. The Cultural Revolution had a horrible impact on all those involved, regardless of their age, rank, or social status. The fear and terror that permeated Chinese society during this time was crippling to the entire society and victimized millions upon millions of terrified, innocent people.

Works Cited

Gao, Yuan. Born Red : A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987

Notes: I read from chapter 1 to chapter 11

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HST271

Week 11: Exploration Packet 3

The first thing that I noticed as I was reading through chapter 5 of the book Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution was just how young Gao Yuan (the author) and his peers were when the events in the book were taking place. In the section of the book that I read, Gao Yuan recounts the acts of violence that he and his classmates committed against their teachers. Suspecting that they were bourgeois, students took on the roles of “prosecutor, judge, and police” against their teachers. However, according to Gao Yuan, “No defense was allowed”, and once the students deemed their superiors to be guilty in some way, punishment immediately followed. Techniques for ‘correction’ included forcing the teachers to wear humiliating slogan boards, cut off their hair, or, worst of all, make them get into the “jet-plane position”. This, according to Gao Yuan, was when “Two people would stand on each side of the accused, push him to his knees, pull his head back by the hair, and hold his arms out in back like airplane wings. We tried it on each other and found it caused great strain on the back and neck.” To justify all of the terrible things that they were doing, the students claimed that the Americans and Nationalists committed much greater atrocities against the Communists during the war. Therefore, in their minds, the punishment that they were giving their teachers was much less severe than what had been done during the war.

As previously mentioned, what shocked me most about this reading was just how young the students doing these terrible things really were. Although I knew that Gao Yuan was a teenager while these events were taking place, I assumed that he was in late high school. However, a quick Google search revealed that he was actually in middle school during this time. Within the book, Gao Yuan also mentioned that “One group of first-graders made a cap of sorghum stalks as high as a two-story building for their homeroom teacher; they had to support it with long poles as they marched him around.” The torment that the teachers were experiencing became so bad that one of them actually committed suicide. It is mind-boggling to me that children of such a young age would do such horrible things to their teachers. Even if the ages that children entered middle school and first grade were different during that time, I cannot imagine that the students at Gao Yuan’s school were that old. It brought to mind the closing lines from Diary of a Madman, where the main character proclaims that the uncorrupted children will the saviors of society. It seems that in the case of the Cultural Revolution, it was the corrupted children that brought about the downfall of society.

Works Cited

Gao, Yuan. Born Red : A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987