Shaking Hands with Chairman Mao

Four Biographical Approaches to Maoism

In the town of Haiyan on China’s Zhejiang coast, at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution a man returned from Beijing weeping tears of joy. He had, he said, shaken the hand of Mao Zedong. The man catapulted into the ranks of “local hero.” In the year that followed, the man did not once wash that right hand, and everyone in town who knew him made a point of shaking it. As Yu Hua, chronicler this hand saga, writes, the townspeople would tell their neighbors ecstatically, “I shook the hand that Chairman Mao has shaken.”[1]

As Yu grew up and exchanged stories about the Cultural Revolution with friends from across China’s vast swathe, he would often mention this man and his grimy hand. Curiously, many of these friends would also know of similar men with similar hands from their own home districts. Yu began to suspect that his man, and all the others, had simply made it up—that he had seen Mao in “the far , far distance as he stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and waved his hand in greeting. He dimly saw Mao’s hand and imagined himself shaking it—and when everyone in our town became convinced this had happened, he became convinced of it, too.”[2]

Yu’s autobiographical collection of essays, China in Ten Words, stays standing far, far away from Mao Zedong. It is a much different vantage point than that of three other histories of modern China as they, too, attempt to make sense of Maoism, but by joining Mao as he shakes hands with cadres, leaders, and revolutionaries. Maoism: A Global History, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, and Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century World each takes a different biographical approach to Maoism. Can standing with Mao reveal its soul?

Julia Lovell’s Maoism traces Maoist ideology from the past to the present, from China to the world. Her Maoism is a global phenomenon, but it begins, of course, with Mao. “What is Maoism?” Lovell asks in her opening chapter. To answer, she combines Mao’s most famous sayings from the emblematic “Little Red Book,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, with biographical anecdotes about Mao’s personality and philosophizing. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” explains the lesson Mao drew from the massacres of Chinese communists by Guomindang rival Chiang Kai-Shek in 1927.[3] It also explains Mao’s personal “attachment” to “normalized” political violence, which endeared Mao to “aspiring insurgents from California to Kolkata [who] worshipped him as the military colossus of the revolution.”[4]

In China, those insurgents would come from the countryside. “Several hundred million peasants … will rise like a fierce wind or tempest, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great will be able to suppress it … Revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao wrote.[5] This encapsulates Maoism’s break with orthodox Marxist theory and justified the cruelty of his mass campaigns and political purges. Read alongside Mao’s own peasant habits and stylings, described by Lovell in cherished detail, Maoism becomes a “rural religion” led by a peasant philosopher king who reveled in violence and terror.[6] “Women hold up half the sky,” meanwhile, demonstrates Mao’s practical nature rather than any truly held egalitarian idealism.[7] Mao deployed the rhetoric of gender equality to gain a mass following even as he mistreated his own wives and “[indulged] his taste for pretty young women,” proof of his mendacity.[8]

Lovell has other examples, but the thrust of each is that by combining Maoist aphorisms with biographical details—and especially prurient personal details—we can grasp Maoism in all its contradictions, “one of [Mao’s] own very favorite subjects.”[9] “To rebel is justified,” is quintessential Maoism, after all, and it expresses for Lovell the lifelong inspiration Mao found in the Monkey King of the classic novel Journey to the West. Mao shared his beloved Sun Wukong’s “havoc-wreaking instincts,”[10] and Mao’s fiction-reading habits, then, help explain the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, the near destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet split, comfort with nuclear Armageddon, and the export of Maoist lunacy to the rest of the world.[11] “Mao … defined chaotic inconsistency as dynamism,” Lovell writes. “Capriciousness is the final element that propelled Mao’s ideas across the world … inspiring insurgents the world over with his theory of ‘continuous revolution’ against authority.”[12]

The results of such an approach to Maoism—resting on the intersections Mao’s most contradictory philosophizing and his most oddball or distasteful personal qualities—are a focus on chaos, cruelty, and disaster in all that Mao touched. By standing with Mao atop Tiananmen or sitting with him at diplomatic summits in this way, Cold War history becomes one giant Maoist plot. Lovell watches Mao the Monkey King launch China into war against the Americans on the Korean Peninsula “as the self-proclaimed leader of the Asian revolution.”[13] She watches his “bid for leadership in the decolonizing world”[14] at Geneva and Bandung, inviting American antipathy by turning the world into a game of communism dominos by showing “what kind of threat to US interests Mao’s China would be.”[15] Lovell’s Mao renders even the United States passive.

The Soviets are not dealt with much differently. After Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin in 1956 and announcing “peaceful coexistence” with capitalist countries, Lovell follows Mao the peasant rebel to Moscow’s hotel rooms where we learn that “Mao was the sworn enemy of Russian food and toilets …  But it was above ideology that pushed these two powers apart,” not least because “Mao was addicted to … aspects of the Stalinist project” and thus considered Khrushchev “a bureaucrat turning his back on revolution through armed struggle.”[16] In response, Mao “did his utmost to generate conflict with both the USSR and the US”[17] by “deliberately manufacturing global quarrels in a way that was explicitly designed to challenge ‘peaceful coexistence’ and to style himself the world supremo of revolutionary troublemaking.”[18] Meanwhile the CCP enshrined and what Lovell terms “high Maoism” into its governance: mass politics and political struggle over all else. Mao’s love of chaos hurled China into the starvation and revolutionary madness in the 1960s. “Mao’s invisible hand” reached into Malaysia, into Indonesia, into Africa, Vietnam, and Cambodia, stirring up violence and anarchy there, too, to push forward continuous, global revolution. Local people themselves had little choice in the matter, nor did local conditions mean much in Lovell’s reading. It was Mao who invited mass murder in Indonesia, Mao who brought ultra-violent land reform to Vietnam and prolonged war with the Americans, and Mao who ensured the overthrow of Cambodia’s government accorded with the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Maoism perfected.[19] The goal, Lovell implies, was to take Cultural Revolution global, to make of the world a killing field.

Mao died with this revolution incomplete, but Maoism lives on in Peru, India, Nepal, and even in today’s China.[20] Although Lovell is quick to point out that “Mao-ish” China today is as much of a contradiction as s Mao himself, she finds hints of the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guard “sense of privilege and entitlement” in “the deep corruption of second-generation revolutionaries” and in China’s violent intolerance toward minorities and continued oppression of women.[21] See glimpses Mao in Deng Xiaoping’s brutal repression of the 1989 protests,[22] and in Xi Jinping’s “Maoist” personality cult and other methods for political control.[23] And the Monkey King’s capriciousness lives on in what she terms the CCP’s “adaptive, ‘guerrilla-style’ mode of policy making.”[24] Maoism, Lovell writes, will be with us for some time.

On that point, Sulmaan Khan may not disagree, even if his Haunted by Chaos contradicts many of Lovell’s central claims. Although Khan, like Lovell, stands with Mao at the Tiananmen gate, squats with him in the Yan’ an caves, and sits with him in the Party compound at Zhongnanhai, Khan’s Mao is no Sun Wukong bent on “continuous revolution.” Of Lovell’s selected aphorisms, “Practice is the sole criterion of truth,”[25] matters most. Khan’s approach to Maoism reveals a careful grand strategy aimed at putting a fractured China back together and keeping it safe. Maoism as strategy, not ideology.

Where Lovell only sees Mao act on the world, Khan sees the wide world around Mao as he grows from librarian to rebel to head of state—how geography, history, and hostility molded and constrained. Mao came of age, Khan emphasizes, in a world where China had been torn to pieces: Great China, Mao observed in 1920, was form, not reality. To be made whole, it would first have to be “smashed” and rebuilt as “many small China’s.”[26] Mao’s own small China was born in Jiangxi with the stitching together of his beloved soviet. It was nearly snuffed out as it fled with him on the Long March. It grew in the north during the civil war to encompass Beijing and then all of China. But it was always tenuous. Mao had seen Great China destroyed before.[27]

Along the way, Mao enfolded the peasantry into his update to Marxism, not out of some ideological drive, but because it made sense. “Win the peasants of China, wage the war that that victory allowed you, and you could create and defend a state,” Khan writes. “Those basic insights lay at the heart of the state Mao founded in 1931 … To be strong militarily, an insurgent army must be strong on politics; it needs friendly terrain and friendly people to wage guerrilla war with any success.”[28] Born of experience in Hunan, Mao knew that without mass support, his small China could not survive. Where Lovell’s Mao relishes in the violence of land reform, Khan’s Mao wields land reform as a calibrated tool with which to keep the peasants on his side. During the wars against Japan and the Guomindang, Mao told his compatriots:

“…that land reform should be carried out in areas to the enemy’s rear or where the enemy was being pursued, because seizing the great landlords’ property was the key to rousing the masses, which was what was needed for a people’s war. But the policy was to apply only to those great landlords who were traitors. And because the will of the people mattered, it followed that absent their agreement, there was no need to rush to seize property from middle-class traitors … Creating chaos would only help the enemy and isolate the CCP. ‘To the extent possible,’ as Mao put it, killing should be avoided. It was not that he was averse to killing; rather, killing unnecessarily would alienate the populace and undermine the larger goal of winning the civil war and securing the new state. When people carped that the economy had become capitalist, Mao fired back that it was not; it was a ‘new democratic economy.’”[29]

            Ideology, Kahn writes, was flexible—mere philosophizing, where words could mean whatever one wanted. Statecraft, on the other hand, required dealing with “more prosaic questions.”[30] This pragmatism, Khan argues, did not harden into the kind of dogmatic, one-size-fits-all approach suggested by Lovell, and so Khan reads Mao’s engagement with the world much differently. Rather than decades of troublemaking and meddling, the 1950s and 1960s are years of successful realpolitik. Geography and security, rather than ideology, drove Maoist foreign policy. Standing with Mao, Khan sees a weak China surrounded—and populated—by potential enemies, hemmed in at sea, and threatened from all directions.

Maoism grew out of this strategic insecurity, not just revolutionary fervor.[31] Insecurity drove Mao to fling millions of exhausted soldiers into Korea. It was too dangerous to allow the Americans to set up on China’s northeastern border and form an arc of aggression sweeping down to Taiwan and into Southeast Asia, where an array of US and Guomindang covert operations nipped at China’s underbelly. Lovell dismisses these concerns as “paranoia – brought on perhaps by too much reading about ‘man eating demons artfully disguised as kindly old people, beautiful young women, and adorable children’ in Journey to the West.”[32] But Mao believed in them (and they did exist, Khan emphasizes), and so China’s leadership at the Geneva Conference aimed to exorcise at least a few of those demons. “The whole, often unrecognized, point of Zhou’s efforts at Geneva had been to bring an end to the first Indochina war and, in doing so, to eliminate any excuse for a foreign military presence in China’s near abroad. Geneva was about so much more than getting recognition as a diplomatic player; it was China’s attempt to secure its backdoor,” Khan writes.[33] Strategy, not revolution.

Neither was the opening of the split with the Soviets ideological. “Khrushchev had, without warning, attacked one of communism’s holy saints, a saint who had been used to sanctify communism in China. If Stalin could be criticized today, Mao could be criticized tomorrow. The speech threatened the new order he had worked so hard to create.”[34] As the years progressed, Mao became convinced that a revisionist “Moscow was willing to barter away PRC national security.”[35] China had to secure its own interests by seeking friends in Tanzania, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, and to tip regional balances of power in places Indochina in its favor. This is not some “invisible hand,” as Lovell would have it, but old-fashioned diplomacy. And even as the split between China and the Soviets widened, Mao never stopped trying to find common ground, Khan argues. Khan’s Maoism, after all, is strategic pragmatism, and all-out antagonism is not good strategy.

That is not to say that Mao did not make mistakes. The shelling of Jinmen Island in 1958 may, in Khan’s view, have been meant to bring the Americans around to talks—not provoke them, as Lovell suggests—but it was still a strategic miscalculation that made life more difficult for China. The Great Leap Forward, formulated on Mao’s understanding that industrialization was key to security, resulted in mass death because Mao simply didn’t understand economics.[36] As for the maddest years of the Cultural Revolution when “Maoists popped up around the globe,”[37] Khan’s strategic view dims; he has no explanation for those years. “Mao Zedong had no idea of what he wanted: he was an old, confused man, who in his arrogance and confusion had unleashed forces that could not easily be stoppered again,” Khan writes.[38] But by the end of the 1960s, Mao’s foreign policy, at least, had regained its pragmatist footing, preparing the way for the rebalancing of global power with the American rapprochement and a return to diplomatic normalcy with China’s friends around the world. By the time Mao died in 1976, he had cemented together the many small China’s of his youth, and he had held it together. China had was more secure than it had been in more than a century.[39]

If there is a Maoist imprint on China, then, it is Mao’s enduring strategic vision: a pragmatic but imperfect politics that prioritizes geopolitical security through balance-of-power tactics and a hardnosed assessment of the conditions both outside China and within. Maoism from Mao’s death onward has meant containing chaos, not exporting it. This is a much different vision than the “guerilla-style,” land of contradictions posited by Lovell. Since Mao, each of China’s rulers have seen “China as a brittle entity, in a world that was fundamentally dangerous. Their main task was to protect it. … Of all the great powers, China is perhaps the one that has seen the fewest changes in its basic philosophy of international relations between the Cold War and post–Cold War eras. For China, in a way, the Cold War never really ended.”[40] For Khan, as with Lovell, Maoism remains with us.

But does it? Rebecca Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century is the most traditionally biographical of these histories. Karl, too, walks with Mao and stands with Mao. But rather than treating Mao as the ideological cipher through which to understand global Maoism or identifying Mao as the architect of the PRC’s grand strategy, Karl attempts to re-root Mao in his time and place. It “takes Mao Zedong and his era—in Chinese and in global terms—seriously.”[41] For Karl, Maoism died with Mao.

Karl stands at Mao’s birth in the family house in the Hunan’s Shaoshan village in December of 1893, as China is beginning to break into all of Mao’s “small China’s.” She follows him through his peasant upbringing, his education, and his radicalization amid the student movements of 1919 and the 1920s. Karl reaches further back in history than either Lovell or Khan, which allows us to see a growing and changing Mao—not just the Chairman—and to experience a changing and chaotic China through fresher eyes. We are with Mao in his earliest attempts at organizing among spontaneous peasant uprisings in the 1920 and awakens to the potential of a revolutionary peasantry. By 1927, Mao’s “Report of an Investigation of the Hunan Peasant Movement” lays out tenets of Maoism: peasant violence against landlords and the state is not “terrible” but necessary for “the establishment of a new democratic order,” because a revolution, after all, is “not a dinner party .. it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle … a revolution is an act of violence whereby one class overthrows the power of the other.”[42]

This is, however, not violence for violence sake. It is necessary, Mao writes, because the Chinese peasant was subjected to the domination of not only the state, but also of the clan and of superstition. The Chinese woman was further dominated by masculinity. These “four thick ropes” embodied the feudal-patriarchal system that crippled the Chinese people of Mao’s era; to unleash them from oppression, those ropes must be ripped apart, he believed.[43] The CCP must unite with the peasants or be left behind. Here was Mao the nobody, studying a specific intersection of history and society, and formulating the basis of his Marxist revisionism from down low, rather than from on high. The people lead, and the bureaucrats follow.

 Karl takes Mao’s time-bound theorizing more seriously than his philosophizing. Mao Zedong Thought, formed in the 1930s by Mao’s experiences organizing and fighting among the peasants, was “a simultaneous interpretation of Chinese history and China’s present through Marxist categories and the interpretation of Marxist categories through the specific historical situation in China,” Karl writes.[44] Mass revolutionary consciousness and mass activity formed the nucleus of Maoism. “There is no concept of politics in Maoism divorced from mass politics … [it] cannot be abstracted from everyday life, engaged in only by distant elites.”[45] Only the masses could drive forward the global revolution against imperialism and fascist-capitalism, first by liberating the Chinese nation from its semi-colonized state, then by creating a new nation and a new culture.[46] “This new culture would be guided by a new type of Marxism, which drew simultaneously from general Marxist theory and also from the particularly Chinese historical conditions of its creation. This new culture would produce a new China.”[47]

This belief in the revolutionary potential of the masses led to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, the split with the Soviets, and a Maoist war on the CCP itself. By the early 1960s, Mao targeted bureaucracy, sclerotic and revisionist, as the primary enemy of the masses and “new China.” The Moscow bureaucrats had long been Mao’s antagonists, and one advantage of Karl’s longer viewpoint is her cataloguing of the decades of deception and betrayals, small and large, by Stalin’s Soviet Union.[48] The rupture of the late 1950s was nothing new nor Maoist troublemaking. It was a culmination of decades, freed from Stalin’s towering presence and sharped by Mao’s transnational attack on bureaucracy. To complete their revolution, the masses must be free of both Soviet and CCP interference. This frontal assault on bureaucracy was outlined most clearly in a 1957 speech where Mao pronounced that there was a contradiction between “the leadership and the led:”

“The implications were staggering … First, Mao implied, the Party was now … thoroughly divorced from the society it ruled. It was a force above rather than a force of the people. It had lost its claims to revolutionarionariness. Second Mao placed himself conspicuously outside the Party on the side of the people, from whence he and they could criticize the Party. This gave the impetus the Mao cult. Third … in proclaiming a contradiction between the leadership and the led, Mao seemed to be advocating popular struggle against the Party. He had transposed class struggle within society into a struggle between Party and society.”[49]

The rest of Mao’s life would be dominated by this struggle, Karl argues, as the belief in the energy of the masses dragged China into still-born revolution. When starvation stalked the land during Great Leap, Mao warned party leaders that if they tried to halt the communization, “I will go to the countryside and lead the peasants to overthrow the government.”[50] Although that crisis backfooted Mao, he would do just that in 1966, calling on the masses of the Cultural Revolution to “bombard the headquarters” in order to “restore to the people the revolutionary momentum seized from them by Party bureaucrats … cleansing the Party of these usurpers. If this meant destroying the Party to save it, he was prepared to do so.”[51]

Mao failed the masses. By as early as the end of 1967, the state apparatus was rebuilt, and the Party began its comeback. As Mao declared victory against bureaucracy in 1969, Karl writes, “it had already become clear that those who had engaged in it with passion and conviction that the promise of mass politics in command had been betrayed. The ‘victory’ turned out to be for the Party alone.[52] And that has been the story of China since: Victory for the Party. Unlike Khan, who sees in Deng Xiaoping’s reforms a clever reformulation of Maoist strategic thinking, Karl sees only repudiation. Deng may have couched reform Maoist terms, but they were “shorn of their political and revolutionary meaning.”[53] After Mao’s death, the Tiananmen massacre, and Deng’s southern tour “politics are monopolized by state and Party procedures, while economics and social development are monopolized by market-defined success.”[54] Whatever Lovell says, Maoism— born from Mao’s experiences, rooted in history, and expressed in a belief in the people to make a new culture and a new China—is dead.

Although there are overlaps in these three biographical portraits of Maoism, they are hard to reconcile. By approaching Maoism through Mao’s eminently exportable aphorisms and earthy, if abhorrent, personal conduct, Lovell grasps the appeal Maoism held for revolutionaries the world over. By steering the ship of state alongside the Great Helmsman, Khan peers through his eyes at a fragmented and dangerous world and a China aching to be made safe and whole. And by swimming among the tides of peasant revolution, Karl glimpses Mao’s vision for a new China, freed from the ropes of historical oppression. These are the fruits of these conflicting biographical approaches to Maoism.

But there are limitations, too. Lovell, in particular, stands too close to Mao, and in doing so loses context by granting her subject far too much power. Lovell’s vision is limited. Local conditions fade out, and important actors flit only in the peripheral. Mao acts, and the world is shaped. Lovell’s approach also leads to a kind of voyeurism, gaze locked on Mao’s petty tyrannies and shortcomings of character. It is perhaps a trap of tackling “isms” through biography, and it is one Lovell falls deeply into. Khan is on firmer ground, fastening his gaze, instead, on Mao’s strategic decisions—an appropriate and powerful lens in trying to understand the workings of the state Mao headed. Mao acts here, too, but his actions are constrained by the world he inhabits and by his limited role in it. Karl, too, emphasizes context, circumstances, and historical contingency, which keep Mao in her work from becoming a revolutionary caricature. Mao was a creature of his time, which is something both she and Khan remember.

But is each of these historians, like Yu Hua’s Maoist handshaker, simply imagining themselves standing next to Mao on Tiananmen? Can Maoism be understood by inhabiting the life and mind of its namesake? There is another vantage point to consider: that of the handshakers as they stood on the Tiananmen square, among the masses.

Yu’s China in Ten Words is not, ostensibly, about Maoism. It is, rather, an attempt to explain China today. It is a different kind of biographical approach, one of autobiographical vignettes, most of them from the Cultural Revolution. Mao himself is never present, but he looms large, nonetheless. For Yu, the history of the PRC is one of Mao’s ‘continuous revolution.’ The Great Leap Forward never ended, Yu writes, as we see in China’s “frenzy to construct airports, harbors, highways, and other such large-scale public works. … impractical, extravagant, and duplicate initiatives are common, and they are pursued as vigorously as a revolutionary campaign.”[55] The post-Deng developmental model, meanwhile, is not Karl’s rejection of Mao, but is “saturated with revolutionary violence of the Cultural Revolution type.” Local discontent boils up against the forces of bureaucracy as bulldozers crush neighborhoods and city police beat street hawkers and smash their modest livelihoods.[56] Yu’s lived China is more textured than Lovell, Khan, or Karl’s, full of both joy and tragedy, love and cruelty, revolutions and reform. And in that China, the main actors are the masses who, when one stands beside Mao and above them, merely blur into the background.

It is Yu’s biographical approach—not of Mao but of those, like himself, far, far away—that gives us the widest vista from which to make sense of Maoism. Yu watched warring Red Guard factions toss each other from roofs, and he listened to the school-age Maoist soldiery spins tales of their trains travels across China. Yu who wrote Big Character Posters denouncing his teachers, and he beamed after dreaming that Mao had tousled his hair. Maoism is where it belongs: with the people. Despite the tragicomedy of those eras, Yu senses “that Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng’s open-door reforms have given China’s grassroots two huge opportunities: the first to press for a redistribution of political power and the second to press for a redistribution of economic power.”[57] A people’s revolution, continuous after all.

Yu’s is a mass approach to Maoism. And it suggests that, perhaps, the best way to understand Maoism is in the biographies of China’s Maoists. To do otherwise, may be to risk imagining that we, too, are shaking hands with Chairman Mao.

[1] Yu Hua, “China in Ten Words” (Pantheon Books, New York: 2011), 30.
[2] Ibid, 30.
[3] Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (Vintage Books, New York: 2019), 26-31.
[4] Ibid, 31.
[5] Ibid, 32.
[6] Ibid, 34.
[7] Ibid, 37-40.
[8] Ibid, 39.
[9] Ibid, 58.
[10] Ibid, 54.
[11] Ibid, 54-57
[12] Ibid, 58-59.
[13] Ibid, 109
[14] Ibid, 53.
[15] Ibid, 90.
[16] Ibid, 130-131.
[17] Ibid, 132.
[18] Ibid, 132.
[19] See Lovell, Chapter 5 about Indonesia and Chapter 7 for discussion of Vietnam and Cambodia.
[20] Lovell, Chapter 9 covers Peru’s Shining Path rebellion, Chapter 10, Maoist guerrilla’s in India, and Chapter 11 Maoism in contemporary Nepal.
[21] Ibid, 440.
[22] Ibid, 430.
[23] Ibid, 443-444.
[24] Ibid, 465.
[25] Ibid, 35.
[26] Sulmaan Khan, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 2018), 8.
[27] Khan, Chapter 1 deals with Mao’s strategy before the founding of the PRC.
[28] Ibid, 11.
[29] Ibid, 25 and 32.
[30] Ibid, 26.
[31] Khan, Chapter 2 addresses the PRC’s strategy under Mao.
[32] Lovell, 55.
[33] Khan,70.
[34] Ibid, 67.
[35] Ibid, 113.
[36] Ibid, 110.
[37] Ibid, 112.
[38] Ibid,.
[39] Ibid, 125-126.
[40] Ibid, 3.
[41] Rebecca Karl, Mao Zedong and Twentieth-Century China: A Concise History (Duke University Press, Durham: 2010).
[42] Ibid, 31-32.
[43] Karl, 32.
[44] Karl, 53
[45] Karl, 58
[46] Karl, 61.
[47] Ibid, 61.
[48] And there were many, beginning with the Soviet support for the GMD and the unified front, forced upon the communists by Stalin, that set them up for the 1927 massacre. By as early as 1935, Mao was working to end the CCP’s dependence on Moscow and the Comintern.  
[49] Karl, 95.
[50] Ibid, 108.
[51] Ibid, 118.
[52] Ibid, 134.
[53] Ibid, 168.
[54] Karl, 181.
[55] Yu, 118.
[56] Ibid, 126.
[57] Ibid, 180.


Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, We’ve All…

Hanoi, Vietnam – February 16, 2018

It is Larry’s second trip to Vietnam, if you don’t count the first one.

Larry did not spend his recent 70th birthday here. He did spend his 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays here, on that first trip, the one he doesn’t count.

It is my first trip to Vietnam, and it is New Year’s Day, the beginning of Tet, a holiday known to Americans mostly because of the eponymous battle fought in this country exactly 50 years ago. The Viet Cong sacked Saigon, then, including the American Embassy, Hue, and other major cities in an attack that stunned both the American and South Vietnamese. In response, the B-52s of the U.S. Air Force bombed the cities into shards.

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” U.S. Major Peter Arnett said.

Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides died in the fighting. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing. Hundreds of thousands lost everything.

That was Larry’s first trip.

This Tet is not like that Tet. It is quiet in the streets this morning, the, perhaps, one day of the year when Vietnamese get up late, having celebrated late into the night after fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. Houses were cleaned, debts were settled, rice wine was swallowed. Even the police partied. Shortly after midnight a patrol  had pulled up in front of my hostel, shouted some things at the foreigners smoking out front, shot a tube of confetti, threw the spent tube out the back of the truck, and drove off, leaving the cannon and the rainbow river of sparkling paper lying in the lane.

So this morning is quiet. The coffee shops and pho stands mostly keep their shutters down and only a few motorbikes hum through the alleys. At Hoan Kiem lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, people stroll across the aching stretch of red wood that links the shore to the temple island. I stand up from trying to snatch their likenesses from the morning mist.

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

“Did you get a good one?” someone behind me asks in American. And there Larry is, gray ponytail fluttering, smile tucked behind the points of his mustache. He is leaning on a shiny wooden cane.

We talk first, of course, about the weather, which in Hanoi is much warmer than it is his home in Juneau, Alaska, which itself is much warmer than it used to be. The snowblower he and his friend bought this year, well, they’ve only used it once. These days, the rain gets to the snow before he can. Larry’s wife, 16 years his junior, thinks that’s funny. She’s a workaholic executive in Juneau, and Larry knows the time difference by heart so he can text her every morning from Hanoi to chide her that it’s time to get out of the office.

Larry’s wife wanted to go to Africa this year, but Larry said he’s too old now to run away from rhinos.

“Where do you want to go?” she’d asked.

“I think I want to find the perfect bowl of pho,” he said.

And so he’s back in Vietnam, this time by himself, rather than with his wife and rather than with an army of other American boys.

The first time Larry came to Hanoi, about a decade ago, he’d gotten the shakes. He never planned to come Vietnam, not ever again after that uncounted first time. His wife had been planning a trip to Thailand with a jaunt into Vietnam and he’d stay in Thailand and wait, but then plans changed. The trip would be all Vietnam, instead.

Ah, what the hell, he’d thought and decided to go along. Then, as the plane descended into Hanoi the shaking started. He almost couldn’t get off the plane.

“I knew they’d hate me, after what we’d done to them,” he said.

The airport in Hanoi reeks of confusion and frustration, knots of foreigners trying to sort out their visas. It was worse 10 years ago, Larry says. He milled around trying to understand the chaos when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.

The vomit green uniform, topped with that red star hat, hadn’t changed much since the  the last time Larry was here. The AK-47 slung across the man’s shoulder hadn’t changed much, either. Larry wanted to turn the floor the color of the uniform.

“Passport,” the man with the gun said. Larry knew what was going to happen. He handed it over with a trembling hand.

“American,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. “Come with me.”

This was it, Larry, thought as he followed. This was a big, big mistake. The soldier led Larry to the front of the immigration queue. As he passed, people bowed.

“American,” they said, smiling. It wasn’t a question.

Something was different about Vietnam, Larry realized. It was a realizations he’s come to again and again.

One thing hadn’t changed, though: the smell.

“As soon as I stepped out of the cab into the Old Quarter, bam, I was right back. It smelled the same,” Larry said. “There something about that olfactory memory, it never goes away.”

The smell. Hanoi is a city of things in millions: people, food stalls, motorbikes. A dash of cinnamon and anise, a slab roasting beef and onions, a plate of fresh herbs, a liter of gasoline. Mix it together and let it simmer, like the broth of the city’s most famous dish, and you get the smell.

It pervades the Old Quarter, as if the raucous, twisting alleyways were one giant pho stall during the lunchtime rush.

“If I didn’t have a wife, I’d never leave,” Larry says.

He loves that food stall more than anywhere on earth — and seen the earth he has — so much so that in the last few days he’s walked it back and forth until he couldn’t walk anymore. Bad hip, he says nodding sideways. Hence the new cane.

“Do things when you have the chance, that way when you can’t do them any more, you won’t regret it,” he says, then mimes picking up a pail of water with the hand that isn’t resting on the cane. “When people ask me what’s on my bucket list I say ‘My bucket’s already pretty full.’ I’ll tell you another thing: Don’t go to the grave healthy and safe; go screaming up to the edge, tip right in and say ‘That was a hell of a ride.'”

These days Larry doesn’t do much screaming, though, and that’s OK. He’s content to spend his mornings walking the lake, looking for students, who are always happy to practice their English and teach him more about Vietnam. Sometimes he heads into the Old Quarter searching for that perfect bowl of pho, and sometimes strolls the French Quarter to sip on the country’s famed coffee — strong and sweet, often with condensed milk — and gaze up at the jarring Hanoi skyline.

In Hanoi’s dynastic days, the crown levied property taxes based on the width of the storefront. So the vendors and homeowners built “tube houses”, narrow and really long, like gigantic square pipes. In recent decades Hanoi’s tube houses have also shot skyward, some as many as seven or eight stories, and have tacked on facades that look vaguely French, Chinese or both.

The result is a city that looks as if someone handed a toddler a set of Lego’s designed by a cocaine-addled, out-of-work architect with delusions of artistic grandeur and let the child go to town.

Larry’s made a lot of friends already on his two trips to Hanoi, even if some of his conversations happen only in pantomime. He’s going out to a village with one friend next week (he hopes someone will speak a bit of English to avoid one really long game of charades), and the hotel staff even asks him to watch the desk while they run errands.

“I’m not just a tourist anymore,” he says. “I came down this morning and they said ‘No one eats alone on New Year’s Day,'” he says. He shared their New Year’s breakfast. In a country whose culture very much still revolves around the Confucian centrality of family, there’s not much higher honor.

Through his chats next to the lake, Larry no longer fears how people will react when they learn he’s American and that once, that uncounted time he came to Vietnam, he came here to kill.

“They say ‘Nobody cares anymore; that was our grandparents.’,” Larry says, then laughs. “But I’m the grandparent!”

So they know, Larry says, the grandparents know.

Next week he’s arranged a meeting with a few of those grandparents — Vietnamese veterans of the American War — to talk. I don’t ask Larry what they will talk about. I’m not sure he knows. I do know he wants them to understand the fear he felt during that first trip to Vietnam in 1965 and the fear he felt on what he sees as his first trip 50 years later. I think that he wants, somehow, through shared experience communicated in gestures and translators, to try to atone for something.

“They kicked our asses,” Larry says, and I add the French and the Chinese to his list while he nods. “When I got back, I started reading about Ho Chi Minh. I probably read everything he wrote. We were wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a hero. For a country that is supposed to be about freedom and democracy, when they asked for it, we wouldn’t even let them have it.”

Uncle Ho rests here.

Uncle Ho rests here.

Because Larry is still trying to understand how the people of this country could embrace him the way they have even after what he and his country did to them.

“I was 20 years old when I left this place,” Larry says. “There aren’t too many of us left.  When I walk around here and I see someone my age and they see me, we just know.”

Boats in Three Acts – Jinmen

January 21, 2018 – Jinmen, Taiwan

I ran to break my 20 before the bus rumbled off toward the train station. I would not pay 20 yuan for the 1 yuan bus fare so I sprinted past the trucks where slack-faced men heaved crates or gray, wriggling, water-squirting shrimp out of the truck interiors and into stacks on the street hoping to find a market or a stall.

It was 9:15 a.m. If the bus made it to the train station by 10:15, we could get the 11 o’clock train to Xiamen, where we could get the 1:30 p.m. ferry to Taiwan’s Jinmen Island by 2:15. The nice relaxing boat ride to a nice relaxing tropical island was still salvageable, with a little added transportation and a bit of extra money.

Fuzhou at least has a cool train station.

Fuzhou at least has a cool train station.

We made it to customs just in time for the ferry. My friend breezed through. They scanned my passport. Then scanned it again. Then called a second immigration officer over to scan it a third time. Then they called the supervisor. Then they took my passport away and asked me to stand on the side and wait. My friend never looked back, I lost sight of her, and I got scared.

I waited five minutes, then almost 10. The ferry started to board. At last, the scowling supervisor brought my passport back. Sometime in the past I’d folded the front page, and it would no longer scan. But they stamped me out of China, and I hustled to the ferry, hoping they’d let me into Taiwan and I wouldn’t end up stuck on the ferry dock for the rest of my life, unable to enter either country–or get anywhere else.

I did get in. Relaxation at last! We entered Taiwan, changed 300 yuan to Taiwanese dollars, and walked around the corner to rent a motor scooter. We explained our situation and our plan to take the last ferry of the day back to Xiamen.  We would take the 5:30 ferry. Could we bring the scooter back at 5?

“No,” the clerks said.

“We’ll pay for the whole day, no problem.”

“No,” they said, one of them arching her eyebrows. “The last ferry and the one before that and the one before that are already booked. If you want to get back to Xiamen at all, you need to go buy a ticket. Now!”

Mao and Qiang


We’d been on Jinmen about 10 minutes. By the time we reached the front of the ticket line, we’d been there 30. We had just enough time to eat a bowl of noodles at the gift shop, drink a Taiwan Beer next to the parking lot, and, since the currency exchange had closed in those 30 minutes, try to get rid of some of the 1300 dollars I’d exchanged.

By the time we got back on the boat, we’d gotten to spend about an hour in Taiwan. And I still had one more boat lurking in the future.

Eleven hundred Taiwanese dollars still dwell in my wallet.