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Mao’s legacy defended, and famous swim decoded, for clueless academics

Originally published: The Saker on April 15, 2018 by Ramin Mazaheri (more by The Saker) (Posted Apr 17, 2018)

This is the 4th article in an 8-part series which compares old versus new Western scholarship on China. Here is the list of articles slated to be published, with hope that you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!

  1. Old vs. new scholarship on the continent of China—an 8-part series
  2. Daring to go beyond Western propaganda on the Great Leap Forwards famine
  3. When Chinese Trash saved the world: Western lies about the Cultural Revolution
  4. Mao’s legacy defended, and famous swim decoded, for clueless academics
  5. The Cultural Revolution’s solving of the urban-rural divide
  6. Once China got off drugs: The ideological path from opium to ‘liberal strongman’ Macron
  7. Prefer the 1% or the Party? Or: Why China wins
  8. China’s only danger: A ‘Generation X’ who thinks they aren’t communist

There is a great and hilarious story about Mao during the Cultural Revolution, which is relayed in the Western university-standard textbook, China: A New History by “the West’s doyen on China,” John King Fairbank.

In late 1965 the rumblings of the Cultural Revolution had begun, due to grumblings over corruption, revisionism (“taking the capitalist road,” selling out socialism, etc.) and the snooty technocratism of urbanites. The party, led by Mao, saw these trends as threats to the common good, the revolution, and the Party’s “Heavenly Mandate”—the millennia-old concept that China’s rulers are chosen by Heaven to rule, and that they must actually display this divinity via perfectly moral conduct and leadership—or else revolt is justified.

Mao, being the great progressive leader he was, was against these anti-socialist trends. But there was only so much he could do about it on his own. Mao had launched no less than seven anti-corruption campaigns since 1949, but to no avail: the problem was deeply embedded, and beyond the reach of one man–even if one assumes Mao to be the totalitarian “Mao the Terrible” the West portrays him as.

With decades of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist fighting clearly under threat from domestic reactionaries, in 1966 Mao supervised the Party’s May 16 Directive to state the threat clearly: “…they will seize political power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Decoded: the corrupt pro-capitalists will turn China into a West European (bourgeois) democracy.

And from a foreign policy perspective in 1966, a crisis was undoubtedly at China’s doorstep: the U.S. was massively invading Vietnam, and the largest communist party in the world not in power was being the victim of a literal genocide in Indonesia, with U.S. support. (Why is “genocide” only for ethnic/racial groups and not ideological groups?)

Other than making political statements to a Party which contained many cadres who were only concerned about increasing their profits, he had only one other recourse–popular opinion.

That was all preamble. This brings me to that great and hilarious story:

‘Crossing the great river’: to seize the moment you have to first understand the meaning

The retelling of Fairbanks:

In the second phase of the Cultural Revolution from August 1966 to January 1967 Chairman Mao was a great showman. The dutiful Liu Shaoqi, already doomed for destruction, was orchestrating the anti-revisionist movement among the party faithful. In July 1966 the Chinese public was electrified to learn that Mao had come north, pausing on the way to swim across the Yangzi. Since rural Chinese generally could not swim and few adventurers had ever tried the Yangzi this was like the news that Queen Elizabeth II had swum the Channel. He was obviously a paragon of athleticism capable of superhuman feats. (Photos showing his head on top of the water suggest Mao did not use a crawl, side stroke, backstroke, or breaststroke but swam in his own fashion standing upright in–not on–the water. He was clocked at an unusually fast speed.)

Hilarious! And written with maximum effort for humour, too! What the heck was Mao doing?! Those inscrutable Chinese–we’ll never figure them out! Mao was just being Mao–a capricious tyrant–but that one takes the cake! Elizabeth II swimming the Channel, LOL–good show!

It’s too bad that Fairbanks–one of the key American shapers of thought on China for decades–had no idea why such a move “electrified” China. Fairbanks implies that Mao’s demonstration was pure self-aggrandisement in the most Western-individualist, election campaigning of fashions: “I am so superhuman that I can crush all dissent–just watch me doggy-paddle over the Yangzi.

That makes no sense at all.

Time and again Mao’s swim is reported by Westerners as being “loaded with symbolism for the Chinese people,” but I have never seen the symbolism actually explained.

That is too bad, because what this story does prove is just how close Mao was with the public and how he spoke their language; why the public adored him (still do and always will); and why he was such a People-trusting, People-liberating democrat.

Beyond political ‘theater’ & into the realm of political religiosity

This was the meaning Fairbanks missed and which many of the People of China did not:

The ethical book of the Chinese is the I Ching, the “Book of Change”, which is the world’s oldest book in the world for a reason: it can be foolishly used as a divination tool–just as opening the Koran to a random page is used to “give advice” to some Muslims–but the I Ching is truly a master guidebook of human and Heaven-based morality.

Briefly, the I Ching examines 64 ethical, personal and social concepts, conditions and states. One meditates at length on a range of concepts–“Mutual Influence”, “Bringing Together”, “Darkness”, “Proceeding Humbly”, “Not Yet Fulfilled”, etc.–and the book discusses their true meaning, how they progress in stages and how they interrelate with other concepts.

Indeed, the interrelatedness of this first-ever binary system reaches a sort of “Social String Theory” level of unity, and with social morality & divine guidance omnipresent (though not Abrahamic, of course). By studying the I Ching one can see how, when and why these 64 ethical concepts / opportunities are appropriate (or not), and also get instruction on how they are likely to change–change being the only constant in this mortal world.

In this book is occasionally a phrase: “Favorable to cross great rivers.”

When the I Ching reads that it is “Favorable to cross great rivers”–that means it is the right time to dare the greatest of undertakings. Indeed, this sentence reflects the maximum amount of good and luck possible—it’s the best possible news, and means Heaven above could not look upon you or your plans more favourably.

I Ching judgments can be negative, neutral, slightly favourable, etc. If it reads “Not favourable to cross great rivers”, it means–stop what you are doing and don’t try it.

But nothing is better than “Favorable to cross great rivers.” It means: “take courage, Heaven smiles upon you, you are just, you are in tune with ethics, in tune with the Tao (a Chinese concept very similar to the Holy Spirit), humanity and nature,” etc.

So for Mao to literally cross the great river in July 1966 was to emphatically, physically tell all the Chinese People: “Join me in daring this great undertaking of the Cultural Revolution. Cross the great river now–in real life.”

When one is thus able to look at Mao’s swim through the eyes of a Chinese person and can fully understand the cultural context, as well as the historical/political context, then we finally see how it could have “electrified” China: For the Chinese, it is truly as if he had re-enacted a scene from the Bible.

The only way I could compare it for Iranians is thusly: In order to defend Iran’s sovereign right to a nuclear energy program, Supreme Leader Khamenei travels to Karbala, Iraq, and has a boxing match with Mike Tyson. (if you don’t understand this please don’t pretend to tell me that you know Iran, our religion, and our culture.) I’m sure Iranians are smirking, not because of Khamenei’s advanced age and the absurdity of such a fight, but because they know exactly what I mean: This would be a reenactment of the glorious and assured annihilation–thus the martyrdom–of Imam Ali, which inspires all Shia as much as the suffering of Jesus does for Christians (even more in 2018, I would say, as the annual multi-million pilgrimages to Karbala show and which Western media certainly does NOT want to show).

To explain it to the French: In order to demand the reversal of Brexit, neoliberal Macron goes to Rouen and fields media questions as he’s tied to a stake. For the Americans: acquiescing to Russophobia, Trump invites Putin over for diplomatic talks, but then personally captains a ship across the Potomac to surprisingly capture the Russian leader, like George Washington.

Did Mao know what he was doing? As the son of a rich farmer he went to school, where he was undoubtedly instructed in the Chinese classics, as education centered around them. Mao also knew that other educated people were similarly instructed in the I Ching. The only question which I cannot definitely answer, as I have never been embedded in Chinese popular culture, is: how likely is it that the average person have been familiar with the sayings of the Chinese classics and the I Ching?

I think we can say with confidence: “At least somewhat familiar,” no? Grow up in the West and you will be familiar with Biblical sayings even if you aren’t Christian. It is universally reported that the swim somehow galvanised the nation, and I doubt it was the view of an old man doing the doggy-paddle. In a perpetual question in semiotics: why this, and not that? I.e., why not climb a mountain to “electrify” the people, or chop down a cherry tree, or save a lamb? You certainly can’t argue with the results–we can only try to explain them.

And yet Fairbank–the China scholar best-known to the U.S. public and academia alike–clearly had no idea of what Mao was doing, what it represented, and why it was inspirational. Fairbank clearly had not even read the I Ching, perhaps the single most important foundation of Chinese culture, despite being Harvard University’s first-ever China “scholar.” That is a recipe for terrible scholarship, terrible teaching and ignorant-but-arrogant students.

It is a scholarship which is typical of the West, and which was debunked so superbly by Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is scholars who don’t go to foreign lands to learn and respect the local culture–they go there to proselytise their own ideas and to return with stories which confirm the standard stereotypes, almost as if they had never been there at all. Just as those who used to be called “Oriental scholars” never read the Koran, I highly doubt that Fairbank’s knowledge of China extended beyond the superficial and beyond what was useful for him as an American.

So there is little wonder, to one who understands the cultural significance, how China did not erupt in delirious, sweet, modern–and violent–revolution against reactionary forces shortly after the swim. The swim was Mao’s obviously successful attempt to get the People inspired, and to reassure the People that (some of) their leadership was on their side, and on the side of preserving the popular revolution the nation worked so hard to install.

There are other facts and anecdotes of history to relate to defend Mao, but I chose this one because it illustrates how Fairbank and the Westerners who have studied for China, and have given us our “wisdom” of Mao’s alleged tyranny, actually have very little comprehension of the Chinese soul. Their scholarship exists to defend their own ideas, not to understand the amazing qualities of other cultures, and are genuine only in their reactionary anti-socialism, And yet these are the people who inform today’s students, journalists and citizenry in the West.

But new scholars, such as Jeff J. Brown and his superb, factual account of Chinese history since 1949, China is Communist, Dammit, wades unapologetically into the tidal wave of Western disapproval to deliver a history which is actually sympathetic to Chinese people.

I could have continued giving more and more facts and statistics to prove that Mao’s tenure greatly benefitted the average person–how long do you have?–because there are many. Thankfully, unlike when I was growing up, they are now actually available on the internet for all to find.

Instead of using statistics, I thought this anecdote showed just how pathetically lost, how uninterested, how much lack of soul the people informing the West on China really have had. Unlike Brown, establishment scholars on China are not trying at all to learn from, to understand, or to defend the Chinese people–they are trying to trying to conquer it culturally. If that fails—then to conquer it militarily.

To prove my objectivity: A Chinese person is better qualified to verify the relationship between Mao’s swim and the I Ching. But what if they haven’t read the Chinese classics? I have talked to two handfuls of Chinese people I know and none have read them–all are under 40 years old–and therefore they are not qualified to make this verification. This hypothesis thus remains for the Chinese to verify but I say the circumstantial evidence is weighty: just because I have not seen this hypothesis elsewhere, that only confirms that very few people have read the Chinese classics, and analysed them in a political sense, and written about that analysis in a Western language.

Fairbank did not do this, even though it was his charge to do exactly that. Hopefully some Chinese political scholar can confirm my theory but how many of them read English? Such is the slow pace of cultural globalisation / awareness, but the internet is speeding these things up, as this article shows.

Rehabilitating Mao is unlikely—there is no will to change in the West

John Lennon had it right: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / you ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.”

Why, because few people in the 1960s in the West were truly political (excepting African-Americans). Obviously nearly nearly none were dedicated revolutionaries because the West had zero revolutions. They looked to minstrels like the Beatles to lead a Revolution–but their famous song “Revolution” is clearly designed to appropriate the word away from the political sphere: the lyrics are not just apolitical but 100% anti-politics.

Many in the 1960s sure postured like revolutionaries, though. My impression is that their main goal was to “make it” with the opposite sex, and that is really not something revolutionary in human history.

The irony is that if Lennon understood Mao–if Lennon had grasped the goal of the Cultural Revolution, which I related in the previous article of this series–he would have seen that Mao’s 1960s anti-establishment, anti-corrupt “middle aged / old people” view, his slogans like “It Is Right To Rebel”, was incredibly rock and roll!

Politically, the fault is not with Mao, but with Lennon. Lennon is a typical Western political & spiritual nihilist, after all.

In his song “God”, Lennon says he believes in nothing, including the I Ching, even listing it before the Bible. He also doesn’t believe in people, ideas or methods: he only believes in himself. “I believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality”.

So Lennon believed in individualism and his romantic love—that’s nice, for him.

Lennon concludes by opining that “the dream is over”—and that he, “was the dream weaver”. The literal meaning for Lennon the ‘60s icon seems clear—or perhaps he was giving us a Hindu-inspired “life is a dream” idea. Lennon finishes by saying that, in 1970, “You just have to carry on / the dream is over”. This reminds us today of the slogan “Keep calm and carry on” which swept England doing the 2009 financial crisis, a paean to their wilfully-blind conservatism which will not countenance even the idea of discussing the idea of changing the status quo regardless of any crisis.

What’s sure is that, culturally, Lennon led the way for the West, and in 1970 he presaged their descent into total individualism & nihilism instead of maintaining his own cultural revolution.

So when it comes to Lennon and Mao: whom is the man of the People, the social revolutionary and the ethicist, and whom is merely another self-centred ego-freak? Whom is the man of social change, and whom is the status quo man urging everyone not to even bother trying? The answer is clear, and it is certainly the opposite of the West’s mainstream belief.

Indeed, who would have thought that drug-using minstrels would ultimately get bored by worldly, wonkish, societal issues? Maybe the West can next turn to a heroin-using jazz drummer for advice on urban planning models, hmmm?

If you want to hear some raw guitar and a great singing voice–one may turn to Lennon; but the incredible thing is that Westerners turn to him for political guidance.

Should we defend Mao?

No, it will make us look uncool, and the John Lennons of the world will call us “squares”.

The bad news is: you are certainly a square if you have read this far!

Seriously: Yes, we should, mainly to humbly acknowledge the superior judgement of the Chinese people. The Chinese People defend Mao, and that should be enough for leftists worldwide.

It is arrogance which refuses to defer to the judgement of locals, because unless you deeply know their culture, language, history, have lived there extensively, etc., it is pure arrogance to pass judgement on their key cultural matters. That is why I openly admitted the limitations of my interpretations of Chinese popular culture regarding my “Mao swim & I Ching” hypothesis.

Popular approval is a nearly infallible judge, no? Castro, Khomeini, Ho Chi Minh, Sankara, Mao–all are universally loved in their home countries. Pol Pot, for example, is a leftist leader who is not revered by Cambodians so it’s not as if all leftists are loved (Pol Pot was a rabid xenophobe, and thus not a true leftist). Libya is also a bit split on the legacy of Khadaffi, who certainly must appear better in retrospect.

Therefore, we must defend Mao, because we must defend the judgment of the Chinese people; to do otherwise is to claim that more than 1 billion people are incapable of thinking clearly. If 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, how can 1 billion Mao fans?

I think that Fairbank, even if he actually did talk to average Chinese people about Mao, was never willing to honestly report their opinion.

Brown, however, has talked to “thousands” of Chinese people over his decades living there. He says that, while they criticise aspects of the Communist Party:

But through it all, I can safely say that about 98% of the Chinese I’ve talked to like Mao and what he did for China. His image adorns taxi cabs, like an amulet of St. Christopher, to ward off accidents. He is on walls of privately owned offices, businesses, restaurants–these are private, not government. They are citizens who have decided to show their admiration for the man, on their own. He’s everywhere. How can this be in the face of relentless demonization by Western media, educators, historians and politicians?

People will say: it’s because the Chinese government blocks the truth about Mao–oh, if only they could hear our pure Western voices!

Such a response, again, inaccurately and arrogantly implies that the West knows Chinese history and culture better than the Chinese themselves. The government has openly stated that Mao was “70% right and 30% wrong”, so it’s not as if there is an all-dominating, state-sponsored cult of personality.

Beyond respecting obviously better-informed local opinion–a point which most treat as secondary–I almost refuse to have the “Mao was evil” conversation for more than 15 seconds. I give 15 seconds because I was raised to be polite.

  • To equivocate Mao with Hitler is to equivocate two people who fought against each other—it’s inherently absurd.
  • To claim Mao was as bad as Japanese fascists or American capitalists is also to equivocate groups with sharply different belief systems and goals.
  • To claim Mao is worse or as bad as American, French & English leaders who terminated millions while Mao tried to defend those millions from these foreign invasions, is absurd.

In 1978, two years after Mao’s died, China’s Gini coefficient (the most commonly used measurement of inequality) was a sparkling 0.16. The lowest score is currently 0.25 (Finland). It’s fair to say that Mao’s single most-important goal was to create an equal society: he succeeded better than almost anyone, ever.

So I’m done with that one, and quickly.

Mighty Mao was never the West’s to take away, and he’ll never leave

The West’s discussion of Mao–along with the Great Leap Forward’s famine and the Cultural Revolution–is based on ignorance, arrogance and the political nihilism of failed “revolutionaries” and hardened reactionaries.

To repeat, for hard statistics about the socio-economic improvement for the average Chinese person during Mao’s stewardship (and not just since Deng’s reforms) you can buy Brown’s book. Brown explains how Mao overcome a blockade worse than Iran’s to produce massive growth with equality—Mao clearly had his cake and ate it too, and with his fellow citizens!

But, as cynical Lennon shows, it was always difficult for the West to grasp the moral and ethical nation-inspiring and nation-building revolution Mao personified: they took two very different paths. What is so typically Western is that they insist on pulling China onto their toll road, instead of being content to live and let live in mutual peace.

Lennon famously said that Elvis died when he joined the army, but that’s not true: Elvis died when he joined Hollywood after his discharge, and was no longer a great musician but just another phony actor. When did Lennon die as a revolutionary? I can’t say for sure, but his dismissal of Mao is a good place to start.

No one is going to say Lennon did not succeed wildly in his chosen field, but how long can the judgment of Fairbank and other top Western “scholars” endure when we can so easily prove how they did not respect or understand Chinese culture?

Even though it is fundamental for understanding China, nobody cares about Confucianism in the West–all you will hear about is its yin, feminine, passive counterpart–Daoism. Plenty of Daoism books in the local Western bookstore, for sure–how many on Confucianism? I guess yang, masculine, creative, dynamic, propagating Confucianism doesn’t go well with acid trips ,or high-intensity pharmaceutical drugs?

I’m not surprised that Communist Party is back to promoting Confucianism–the I Ching is not banned in China–and I’m not surprised they prefer it over Daoism, which says, “Cross the great river? What for? What river? Is this thing on?”

(Clearly I’m even worse scholar of Daoism than I am of Confucianism.)

I’m not amazed that the Western media views Mao as “100% wrong”: The West has been an imperialist, extremist, racist culture for 500 years, and a rabidly anti-socialist one for 100 years.

But I am surprised that Western leftists don’t defend Mao even 30%. Their main problem is: they have not bought books like Brown’s because books like Brown’s simply did not exist until very, very recently. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, a book like Brown’s would have gotten you jailed in the West, or worse. The internet is changing this, and that cannot be stopped—only slowed.

Kudos to Brown and eternal kudos to Mao, for being as right and as brave as any of the top politicians of the 20th century.

And no apologies if my picture of Chairman Mao ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow. I know it’s gonna be alright. For China, at least.

Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the U.S., and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.