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The Book of the Week is “Out of the Gobi, My Story of China and America” by Weijian Shan, published in 2019. This volume richly detailed the hardships faced by ordinary Chinese people from the 1950’s onward.
Born in 1953, the author spent most of his childhood in Beijing. As is well known, the Communist dictator Mao Tse-tung finally achieved nationwide dominance over the Nationalist (allegedly democratic, but still horribly corrupt) Chiang Kai-shek at the dawn of the 1950’s. (For additional info on how Communism is different from Socialism and Capitalism, see the bottom portion of this blog’s post, “The Last Idealist”). Mao proceeded to do grave damage to his country, causing the deaths of millions from starvation and financial disaster (among other causes).
Beginning in 1965, Mao declared there would be a new world order in his country, in the form of a Cultural Revolution. One of many goings-on during this period was burning, destruction or confiscation of all books except for those by the authors Marx (Karl, not Groucho), Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
The evil West’s bourgeois lifestyle was violently stamped out by Mao’s private police force, the Red Guard (which consisted of mostly young, armed and dangerous radical hooligans– sociopathic sadists), which brainwashed schoolkids of all ages, up to university level, to make Revolution. They destroyed the statue of the Venus de Milo, and denounced the Russian classical novels. A couple of years later, chaos reigned, but Mao was still in control.
In autumn 1966, at thirteen years old, the author was brainwashed by the youth movement to go on a fact-finding mission in the countryside. The government did away with entrance examinations, and in fact, all formal schooling. For about three weeks, the author and his peers traveled around by trains, buses and on foot to personally witness the Revolution. At one point, they went on a hike in the mountains, retracing the steps of the Red Army. Their travel expenses were paid for, but the conditions were quite primitive.
Into 1967, upon orders handed down by Mao, the youths protested against Capitalism in a way roughly equivalent to “Occupy Wall Street” but they got bored. They were neither studying nor working. For, a few years prior, the dictator had successfully thrown the country into disarray, forcing the closure of not only all schools, but bookstores, libraries, parks, movie theaters and houses of worship.
Thousands of people disappeared, were abducted from their homes– to be jailed, tortured, killed, for so much as speaking, writing or acting in the least way, critical of the government. In the environment of fear and force, they were under pressure to tattle on others before they themselves were punished.
Schools in the author’s area finally did reopen in autumn 1968, but education was still lacking. The author’s “Worker-Peasant-Soldier Middle School” (grades nine and ten– after what would be American grammar school) had no textbooks but students were drilled only on Mao’s propaganda.
In the summer of 1969, Mao realized it was time to change tack by sending young people to the countryside, as they had been making trouble in the cities long enough. He kept them busy by inspiring them to do hard manual labor, and study revolutionary thought. The kids truly tried their hardest– they were blindly obedient to the cause of defending their motherland against Soviet aggression. In autumn 1969, the whole nation went crazy constructing air-raid shelters and tunnels.
The author was sent to the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. Again, conditions were extremely primitive. He and his fellows got military training. However, due to a weapons shortage, another platoon was chosen to receive (outdated, Soviet-made) submachine guns. None of the company leaders had any experience in battle, but they inspired passion in their subordinates, anyway. Under the blazing summer sun, there were vicious mosquitoes. It was freezing in winter.
The author described his physical and psychological suffering of the next several years, as his group strove to complete a series of months or years-long agricultural and infrastructure projects that actually produced a net negative effect on food production and quality of life.
In 1979, the United States resumed formal diplomatic relations with China. People in China queued up for hours and hours for all kinds of consumer goods. The author, by then a recent university graduate, reveled in his new lap of luxury– he had time to read for hours and hours, had enough to eat, and got a hot shower once a week.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information on: the author’s experiences in China from the 1950’s into the 1980’s (which involved a slew of health hazards) including but was far from limited to:
- all his hard manual labor and psychological trauma;
- his short stint as a medical “doctor” in 1971;
- how he enjoyed the benefits of a student exchange program in the 1980’s; and
- his troubles with the INS (hint– “… a mistake in the new letter: the date by which we had to leave the country was left blank… the INS had somehow lost our file…”).
This substantial volume reveals why, politically, economically, culturally and socially, and in quality of life– overall, China is still many decades behind America (never mind the propagandists who claim that China is allegedly becoming an economic powerhouse and will someday overtake the U.S.).