Monday, September 10, 2012

Mao Zedong -- Major Badass!

Chen Yi 1901 -1972, First Mayor of Maoist Shanghai

Last week I attended a marketing conference in Shanghai.  At this conference I heard a bright American female marketing executive quote approvingly from Chairman Mao Zedong.  "Women hold up half the sky," she reminded us.

Would this woman have quoted from Hitler in a presentation given in contemporary Berlin?  Would she have quoted from Stalin if giving a similar presentation in Moscow?  Both propositions seem rather unlikely.

Why is Mao Zedong accorded special treatment among the pantheon of dictators, not merely by Chinese communists, but by so many westerners?
Banned in China

Mao was, simply put, a major badass.   I read Mao: the Unknown Story by June Chang and Jon Halliday which took over 12 years for them to research.  I also had a chance several years ago to see June Chang make a presentation based on her book in London.  Here are the main conclusions I took from their work...

1) Mao's body count was higher than that of either Hitler or Stalin, claiming the lives of 70 million people.

2) Mao was Stalin's pupil, but the pupil exceeded the master.

3) Mao welcomed the Japanese occupation of China and cynically viewed the Second World War as an opportunity to weaken Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists.

4) Mao caused the greatest famine in world history in 1958-61 which claimed the lives of 38 million Chinese.

5) Mao ruthlessly pursued a course to expand his personal power in a bid to "control the world".  He launched aggressive military interventions in Korea, India and an invasion and occupation of Tibet that persists to this day.

6) Mao was more willing to embrace the notion of atomic warfare than any 20th century leader -- he was willing to rolling the thermonuclear dice.

7) Mao took a wrecking ball to thousands of years of Chinese civilization, destroying forever much of this nation's rich heritage.

In the new book, The Second World War, Anthony Beevor writes, "Chinese Communists, while they continued to hunt down 'enemies of the people', had hidden the totalitarian nature of their intended regime most skillfully from foreigners who visited their capital of Yenan.  The journalist Agnes Smedley, an admiring fellow traveller and  sometime Comintern agent, became deeply irrevocably convinced' that their principles 'are the principles that will guide and save China, that will give the greatest of impulses to the liberation of all subjected Asiatic nations, and bring to life a new human society.  the conviction in my own mind and heart gives me the greatest peace that I have ever know.'

Smedley, Theodore White and other influential American writers could not accept for a moment that Mao might turn out to be a far worse tyrant than Chiang Kai-shek.  The personality cult, the Great Leap Forward which killed more people than in the whole of the Second World War, the cruel madness of the Cultural Revolution ad the seventy million victims of a regime that was in many ways worse than Stalinism proved totally beyond their imagination."  The Second World War, Anthony Beevor, 2012, p. 778,

Commander K. in Shanghai on the Bund
Commander Kelly says, "Mao seems to still send a tingle up the leg of many on the left, but let's not forget that Mao was a major badass!"

PT Black really is an "old China hand" who I met recently in Shanghai.  He is an American marketing executive who works for Thoughtful Media ( has been living in China for over ten years and is fluent in Mandarin.  He read my post above and had these comments....

PT BLACK  "Your blog is well written and enjoyable. Especially like seeing the comments about your China trip....though your visa status is safe, as blogspot is of course blocked here in china. 

It's interesting what you write about Mao. His legacy is, to be polite, a complicated one. Even the official "party line" (which in China is literally a party line!) is highly critical of Mao, stemming primarily from recognition of the atrocities of his rule. He is accurately recognized as the figurative father of the country, but also is roundly criticized for "making mistakes" resulting in the deaths of tens if not hundreds of millions. oops. it is significant that he is no longer referenced in official works, nor even in high school textbooks. I believe the latest shanghai city history book for high school seniors only mentions his name once - at the very end of the book. He is mentioned in the context of lowering national flags, as in "we lower flags when an important leader dies, like Mao Zedong". That's the extent of his legacy - dead and buried. He is rarely, if ever, mentioned in political theory circles. 

One additional thought - Mao's legacy is heavily clouded by the atrocities of mismanagement and chaos that he unleashed and manipulated for his own political ends. That being said, in the realm of women's issues, he does deserve a more thorough look. his comment that "women hold up the half the sky" is not trivial - it set the stage for a massive reexamination of women's role in society. He came to power in a time when women had no political say, couldn't inherit property, had little medical care, received no education. They were separated from birth families and thrown into nasty household politics peppered by jealous first wives, concubines, institutionalized rape, and child marriage. they were sold as chattel. Depending on socioeconomic they were either forced into a lifetime of backbreaking work (while the men gambled and smoked opium) or locked up in salons as powerless gossips at their husbands' mercy, physically constrained by cruelly bound feet. The foot binding itself is mind blowing - the grandmothers of the women at that conference likely had their feet snapped in half and tied into eye-pleasing shapes, never healing, never walkable again. Male eroticists say the appeal was in the destabilized tottering, mincing step of the properly footbound women, though apparently the rotting smell of suppurating pus-soaked bandages became quite an turn-on for many men. 

Below see a picture of the bound foot. I enclose this as a blunt reminder of the reality of women's treatment in pre-Mao China. 

Chinese bound foot
Mao tackled this head-on, and his early and consistent support for women's equality is still felt in china today. Of course Mao doesn't deserve whole credit for this - Sun-Yat Sen helped, etc. But Mao  pushed for women's rights loudly and repeatedly, and instituted a wide range of rights in the Chinese constitution. there is much to discuss, much to criticize, and much that is 'lost in implementation', but the simple fact is that Mao baked women's rights into his new Chinese backbone, and the result has been a staggering growth in personal freedom and expression. It has not necessarily been linked to a collapse in family values by the way - in fact Mao himself never supported things like promiscuity or "population control". That came later. Mao himself was all for big families - his support for the proud mothers of lots of kids is partially responsible for the resource crush that led to the one child policy instituted after Mao's death. 
He thought women and men were different and had different roles, but were both equally worthy. This is a far cry from other Confucian cultures - just look at the numbers. 

In other "Confucian" cultures like Korea and japan women face tremendous obstacles in the workplace. The big chaebols dominate Korea's economy (LG, Samsung etc) yet fewer than 2% of their board members are women. from the NY Times: "Despite having the world’s 13th-largest economy, South Korea ranked 115th out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2009 index of gender equality.  Compared with other industrialized countries, highly educated women are poorly represented in the paid work force in South Korea, where Confucian-influenced tradition continues to give married women overriding responsibility for managing the household and raising children."

Compare this to China, where anywhere from 1/3 to 45% of  managers are women (numbers vary, plus I am skeptical of methodologies proposed here). It's still not easy to be a professional successful woman here, but consensus is that it's better here in China than in Japan, Korea, or even Taiwan.  The 2011 World Economic Forum  index of gender equality ranks China in 61st place (with the US at 17th, Japan at 99th, and Korea at 107.) That's a big deal. Incidentally, apparently Korea's move from 115 to 107 from 2009 to 2011 is mainly due to the slip in women's rights in places like Mali, Benin, and Nigeria, and the relative reshuffling as a result)

This is not accident. Amidst the chaos and murder of Mao's regime, he did accomplish powerful fundamental change in Chinese society - and in the case of women, it means the end of a life of forcibly bound feet and the beginning of a life of Manolo Blahniks. [insert ironic statement here]

To quote the Economist from last year (source:

"Women make up 49% of China's population and 46% of its labour force, a higher proportion than in many Western countries. In large part that is because Mao Zedong, who famously said that “women hold up half the sky”, saw them as a resource and launched a campaign to get them to work outside the home. China is generally reckoned to be more open to women than other East Asian countries, with Taiwan somewhat behind, South Korea further back and Japan the worst. And its women expect to be taken seriously; as one Chinese female investment banker in Beijing puts it, “we do not come across as deferential”. "

Just a thought from my side- I am all for criticizing Mao, but in this case, he deserves some credit as well. 

Hope you had a good trip, and the photos you took are great!

PT Black


Dear PT, 

I really appreciate your thoughtful response to my blog post.  I found it very illuminating and enlightening.

As a married man, I would never dispute the veracity or importance of Mao's statement that "Women hold up half the sky".  I concede also that Mao's attitudes may have had a salubrious effect on the role of women in contemporary Chinese society though, according to Jung Chang, his treatment of the women in his life was pretty disgusting.

A morally corrupt dictator is still capable of making interesting and sometimes even true statements.  Stalin said, "The Pope! How many divisions has he got?"  Hitler liked dogs and despised cigarettes; allowing for an occasional cigar, I would agree with Hitler on these points.

Mao said and wrote many interesting and quotable things.  I suspect that American revolutionaries such as Washington, Hamilton and Franklin would not dispute or been surprised by the notion that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" for example.

My point in my blog above was simply to point out that Mao is, for whatever reasons, treated differently from other dictators.  Today one can quote Mao in polite company to the society that he so brutally preyed upon, while this is not the case with Hitler in Germany or Stalin in Russia.  My post strove to explore why this is so.

Thanks very much for your insightful comments.  Please keep them coming!



Shanghai'd said...

Commander Kelly - thanks for the long quote!

Ah, i better see your core point now. I do agree with your observation that Mao is treated differently in today's China than Stalin is in today's Russia. That being said, the system, government and party that Mao founded are very much in power here to this today, unlike Germany or Russia.

It could be as simple as that - people can't say what they want to. It's also possible that people here have complex positive and negative feelings towards Mao - the very fact that his government is not only standing but thriving may contribute to that.

Keep up the good writing!

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