Category Archives for "History"

Apr 09

In 1967, China was “distasteful–though intriguing” and off limits to American tourists

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History , Travel

Used book stores are treasure troves of interesting books full of insights into the past. When I see a bunch of magazines, books, and dusty records piled up outside a cluttered secondhand book store, I can never help myself to look.
So on Saturday, I discovered a 50 year old guidebook that claimed to tell about the whole world: the Encyclopedia of World Travel: Volume 2, published by Doubleday in 1967. (Volume 2 covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Volume 1 covers the Americas.)

1967 was one year after Mao Zedong began the violent class struggle that was the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” and 18 years after the Communists had founded the People’s Republic of China. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much foreign travel to China. In fact, most citizens of the United States and many other countries were generally not allowed to enter China until China was opened in the 1970’s.

So the description of China begins by stating, “Travel is discouraged in the Communist People’s Republic of China…

In fact, many of the adventurous who have tried to enter China in recent years have been jailed. Some Westerners who had lived in the country for decades before the Communists seized control are still in prison, including doctors, businessmen, and even missionary priests and nuns. The former Government, an arch foe of the Communists, retains its hold on nearby Formosa [Taiwan, in modern reference] and other offshore islands.

Though travel in China is impossible for the present, it is interesting to know in broad outline the high points of the travels of others who journeyed across this vast land not too many years ago.

travel discouraged

What were those high points of travel? The book gives a general outline of the well-known facts about China’s geography and ancient history that you will find in other guidebooks. Society developed along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. East and South China are the main population centers. The populations even then were large by American standards of 2017:

The population of Shanghai is over ten million. Peking has well over six million.

pop small

Now Shanghai’s population is over 20 million–24.1 million, according to China’s measure–and Beijing is 21 million. At the time, China’s population was majority rural. In 2012, China became majority urban.


hanghai was described as a place of “squalor” and distastefulness.

Only in old Shanghai, which is walled no longer, did travelers see a Chinese city as it was centuries ago. Much of it was and is distasteful–though intriguing–to all but the sophisticated traveler who has long since learned Chinese cities are not what motion pictures would have you believe. In China’s cities, squalor is common, poverty almost a way of life.

China was a poor country back then–with a GDP per capita of US$95–and some of the scenes in the street still today unnerve recently arrived tourists. But the description carries with it a whiff of the old Yellow Peril imagery of Chinese as dirty hordes indulging in opium and depravity.


n the realm of traditional culture, the book asserts that mainland China under the Maoist Communists had lost its traditions. If you want to see holidays like Spring Festival (New Year) and Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in “the grand old style,” you should visit Hong Kong and Formosa, “who carry on the traditions of their forefathers.”

chinese festivals not celebrated here

Indeed, the Communists attacked traditions during Mao’s rule. During the Cultural Revolution, “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas” were labeled and denounced as the “Four Olds.” Besides restricting the celebration of traditional festivals, under the Maoist leadership and incitement, the Red Guards stormed libraries, burned books and artwork, and smashed temples.

Since tourism has returned and brought with it a bounty, the Chinese government, however, has emphasized its ancient sites and culture, rebuilding ancient sites, some that had been lost for hundreds of years, and putting government money behind elaborate cultural events. In 2008, China added Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Festival), and Mid-Autumn Festival to its official schedule of national public holidays.

Mar 02

Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea , Society

It was one of the most important patriotic holidays in South Korea and also a heated period of political discord. March 1, 2017 was 98 years to the day Korean activists read a document they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, in an affront to Japanese colonialism, and two days after impeached president Park Geun-hye’s legal representative read a statement expressing “regret” on her behalf to the Constitutional Court hearing the case.
Having just arrived in Korea one week ago, I was thrust into the excitement. I went looking for an event to commemorate the March 1 Movement, and I found democracy asserting itself in all its ugliness and glory. People waved their own country’s flag, held signs calling the press “liars,” and defaced images of their political enemies, calling them “traitor,” “rubbish,” and “you’re not going to breath”—all without interference from the military police. In 1919, the Japanese killed thousands in the ensuing two months after the Koreans asserted their independence.

It wasn’t until 1945, with the Allied victory of World War II, that Korea finally was afforded independence from Japan. Then it was divided in half and has remained as such to this day. But while North Korea remains a one-party communist state, consistently landing in the bottom four countries int he world in rankings of political freedom and human rights, South Korea became a democracy in 1988, ending decades of repressive governance, and regularly experiences passionate protests and peaceful exchanges of political power.

Since it was reported that Park’s advisor, Choi Soon-sil, was involved in shaking down chaebols (Korean conglomerates), Korean streets have rocked with protests. By November, one month after the scandal was reported, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, and her disapproval rating 90 percent. On December 9, the legislature voted 234-56 for impeachment. Now the Constitutional Court is reportedly close to reaching a verdict on whether the impeachment will stand.
like china


didn’t go seeking out a pro-Park protest. I just happened to find it when I went to City Hall to see what was happening on March 1. Inside City Hall subway station, passengers exiting were carrying flags. The crowd pushing towards the exits made me feel like I was in China again. In the rush, I ended up in the midsts of masses waving flags to music and speeches and noticed the political connotations.

For someone who has 5 percent approval, the crowd seemed pretty large. (Voice of America cited reports of 200,000 people protesting at a pro-Park event in mid-February, and it may have been even larger on March 1. One of the anti-Park protests was pegged at 750,000.) Even amongst those aged 60 or older, the bulk of the pro-Park protesters, only 10 percent of seniors supported her in a December poll by Gallup Korea released just before she was impeached. For the age groups 19-29, 30-39, and 40-49, the percentage who supported her was 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
flags 4
view above
One woman I talked to said, “We believe the president is honest, and she is innocent.” Only Choi was guilty of crimes, she said. A man said he wasn’t there to support Park but rather to oppose what he said was an “illegal” impeachment. He also railed against what he felt was a biased judiciary. Then there were the many people carrying signs attacking the media for “lying.” A group calling itself the Patriotic Alliance to Protect Liberal Democracy posted a banner decrying the “rebellious impeachment” of the president and called the pro-impeachment protesters “instigators” who were “violating constitutional law.”

Park’s lawyers are arguing that the impeachment was illegal or improper for procedural and other reasons. A special prosecutor has named Park herself as a suspect for bribery, and 17 people have been referred for trial. In addition to political advisors, a number of professors and officials at Ewha Womans University, which allegedly gave Choi’s daughter special treatment, have been arrested. The Constitutional Court is made up of eight judges, all of whom have been appointed by two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park. (Ordinarily, it is nine judges, but one of the seats is empty because the judge’s term ended. Six judges must agree for the impeachment to be upheld.)
military man


ehind the individual political disputes lays a bigger issue cutting to the heart of Korean political divides. The Korean flags being waved along with American flags, the prevalence of marine veteran hats and military berets on mens’ heads, and the banners printed with portraits of Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, says it all.

Korea’s cultural and generational divides echo today. Conservatives still accuse liberals of having communist sympathies or even ties. Perhaps to counter the narrative of the “patriots,” pro-impeachment protesters waved Korean flags on March 1 with yellow ribbons for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the response to which Park’s critics claim Park was negligent in handling.

Conservatives say young liberals forget about the importance of America and the sacrifices of the soldiers who won South Korea’s freedom. But what of the continued reverence for Park Chung-hee?

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

Sure he presided over an industrialization program that put South Korea on the path to join the first world nations. But if conservatives accused liberals of forgetting the the cost of freedom, have conservatives forgot about all those dissidents arrested and tortured by Park’s regime? Have they forgotten about how Park rescinded the constitution and abolished freedom of speech, assembly, and the press? How his government monitored newsrooms and had critical journalists fired? How the Korean CIA under Park’s rule fabricated charges against activists and had them arrested and eight of them executed within 24 hours of the verdict? The director of the KCIA who assassinated Park, Kim Jae-kyu, said he killed him because of Park’s insistence on using any means necessary to violently suppress protests.

The supporters of Park Chung-hee’s daughter can protest the Constitutional Court now, but only because of the sacrifices of so many activists who risked life and freedom to protest Syngman Rhee, Park and Chun Doo-hwan. As one sign at the rally said, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Rhee, the other man on the banner of great Korean leaders conservatives venerate, took power in 1945 after years in exile as an independence activist. He manipulated his way into the American’s favor and kept the Soviets from unifying Korea under communism. He led Korea through the Korean War, but he used coercion to keep himself and his allies in power by arresting opposition legislators and rigging elections. He had to flee back to the U.S. in 1960 after ordering a crackdown that resulted in the police killing protesters.

The Korean War may have ended six decades ago, but just this past month North Korea tested yet another nuclear missile and murdered its dictator’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-Nam. The U.S.-produced THAAD missile defense system Park’s government agreed to host is a flashpoint today, with much of the opposition opposing its deployment. They say it will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with the North as well as with China. Chulhong Kim, a Korean Liberty Party (Park’s party) activist and theology professor at a Presbyterian college, accused the opposition of supporting a “pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights” agenda.


ational security is one of the main reasons anybody still supports Park. 15 percent of respondents who approved of Park in the December survey cited “diplomacy / international relations” and 13 percent cited “North Korea / security policy,” the two leading reasons. The rhetoric against the left by many on the right can indeed be unhinged, but some on Korea’s far left really do harbor sympathetic feelings, and even more defend the rights of those who harbor sympathetic feelings.

Talking about North Korea, some activists and writers living here—and this speaks to a strain of the global left, as well—will say things like, “What degree of that [information about North Korea] is American propaganda? Because, as you know, America tries to demonize countries that it finds a danger to its self interest. … A lot of people don’t understand that it was the North Koreans who were trying to kick the Americans’ asses out of here. They were the ones trying to kick the new imperialists out of here. But you don’t read it that way.”

South Korea, more than almost any country in the world today, proves that democracy is more complex than can be condensed into one-sentence slogans and absolutist maxims. Voltaire didn’t live in post-war Germany or South Korea. Here, “anti-government” revolutionary activity is still illegal under the National Security Act, a law that some progressives want repealed. Here, the government occasionally restricts South Korean speech to the North by balloon drop, and the leading progressive party has tried to pass a law make balloon drops harder.

At end, if one wants to defend to the death anyone’s right to say anything, they have to defend that person’s right and ability to live in a free and open society. Citizens of South Vietnam didn’t have that right. Neither did those who died on the streets of Seoul and Gwangju in 1919, 1960, or 1980.



School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

UPDATE: Park was removed from office on March 11 in a unanimous decision. I visited the victory celebration by the anti-Park protesters and shared photos.

”Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of ‘regret’,” AFP/The Straits Times
”What now for Park’s impeachment trial?,” The Korea Herald
”Park impeachment ruling expected in mid-March,” Nikkei Asian Review
”South Korea Impeachment Drama Enters Final Act,” Brian Padden, VOA News
”South Korean Far-Right Rises Up to Defend Impeached President,” Brian Padden, VOA News
Protesters hold weekly rally against impeached Park, Yonhap News
”Is Constitutional Court stacked in Park’s favor?,” The Korea Herald

Visiting Chonnam University – Day 10

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea Trip 2016 , New Writing

Yesterday I arrived in Gwangju to revisit the sites of the historic Gwangju Uprising of 1980 against military rule. On my first day here, I followed the May 18 Road to see where and how the uprising started out of student protests at Chonnam University.

I wrote about it in detail at Kim Chi Bytes, one of the top South Korean blogs, where I am now a contributor. In part:

Chonnam National University is credited with being where the events of the Gwangju Uprising actually started, and it’s where the first May 15 Road trail starts. When the students arrived on the morning of May 18, the day after martial law was declared over the entire country, they were met with paratroopers and told the university was closed. Students across the country, along with about two dozen opposition lawmakers, including Gwangju local and future democratically-elected president Kim Dae-Jung. According to the May 18 Memorial Foundation, the paratroopers “unconditionally beat the students who were being observed in study in a library.”

As the news spread, more began coming to the university to resist martial law. By mid-morning, about 300-500 students had gathered by the gate in contrast to 30 paratroopers. Yoon Sang-won, then a student at Chonnam, writes that the students chanted, “Soldiers controlled by political commanders, return to your army post.” Other chants by the fifty students who sat down included, “End martial law!” and “Withdraw the order to close the universities!” according to Gwangju News.

The paratroopers warned, according to the account by Na Kahn-chae in South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising, “If you do not return home immediately, you will be dispersed by force.” Students began throwing stones, and the paratroopers attacked. But the students were eventually able to move their protests throughout the city by the afternoon and march to the train station.

The spirit of student protest seems to be alive and well at Chonnam today. Banners hanging from trees voice opposition to THAAD, a missile defense system the government bought from the U.S., and support for students’ academic freedom.

Read the full post here: Visiting the Place Where the Gwangju Uprising Started

Aug 06

Tyranny is all the same: How South Korea and Vietnam whitewash their history – Day 8

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea Trip 2016

Water torture, beatings, pins placed under one’s fingernails… Those were some of the torture methods carried out at the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul. In the basement of the complex, which is now a museum, visitors can see a display of a mannequins hung upside down with water being poured over their faces, and of prisoners waiting in a walled room where they would hear screams from other prisoners being tortured next door.

Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan and occupied from 1910-45. After 1945, the exhibition at the Seodaemun Prison Museum mostly ends but for a few vague notes that the prison remained in use until 1987. Nonetheless, the exhibitions on display might give us an idea of what took place in the prison–and other Korean prisons–between 1945 and 1987.

“The mission received evidence that the following kinds of torture had been used against individuals in Korean prisons:
i. water torture–cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube.

iv. beatings–particularly to the soles of the feet.
v. being hung from the ceiling and spun around.
vi. having a ball-point pen placed between the fingers…

xiii. intimidation by the use of screams from adjoining rooms.”

That’s from a report produced by Amnesty International based on a 1975 trip to South Korea. Seodaemun isn’t mentioned by name, nor is any other prison, but human rights abuses and political repression were the norm in South Korea for most of the years up until its democratization in 1987.

Compare and contrast Seodaemun Prison’s text with that of 1975 U.S. Congressional testimony on South Korean human rights issues:

Press Freedom

“Shortwave Broadcasting Listening Incident

This was an incident where groups … working at the broadcasting station propaganda the ‘Chongqing Broadcasting’ and ‘Voice of America’, made by the Korean Provisional Government [in exile], to the public. However they were detected by the Japanese imperialists in December, 1942. As a result, a total of 150 people were arrested and imprisoned.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

“A handful (four) of top liberal reporters were fired. … One hundred forty men and women, including all the 1 day announcers of the radio station, and most of the producers, took over the presses and the radio on the eighth of March and held them in an attempt to save the one free voice in South Korea. These brave men and women held out until predawn, March 17, when a goon squad broke into the building and drove all the strikers into the street. … Each morning they gather in silent protest… …They pass out a mimeographed ‘True Dong A Il Bo’ stating their case and a little of the truth about current affairs. On April 29, I was there to see the chief of police of Seoul arrive and deliver the third and final warning to the silent and unmoving line of men and women. They would be arrested if they came back.” – Reverend James P. Sinnott, Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, testimony before Congress, 1975


“There are some records regarding various torture methods. One such example can be described as ‘airplane torture’ in which a person’s hands and feet were tied back while being suspended in midair from an airplane. ‘Water torture’ was also used.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

“Torture is frequently used by law-enforcement agencies both in an attempt to extract false confessions and as a tactic of intimidation. The methods of torture comprise, inter alla, (a) water torture-cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube, (b) electrical torture, often in conjunction with water torture, to sentivie parts of the body such as the toes and genitals, (c) the beating of persons tied hand and foot and suspended from the ceiling, (d) deprivation of sleep for prolonged periods–one case up to 15 days.” – Amnesty International report inserted into Congressional testimony, 1975

Brief Mention of Dissidents at Museum

“After the restoration of national independence Seodaemun Prison was a historical symbol of Korea’s democratization movement until it was moved to another area in 1987. The victims from the tumultuous political events manipulated by the dictatorship along with the students, laborer and democratization activists who fought against the despotic regime were imprisoned, tortured or died here.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

(The display elaborates somewhat in Korean)

Continue reading

May 20

Propaganda posters of the Mao era and a propaganda clock

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the May 16 notification in 1966, which summarized Mao’s thoughts and led to the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos, attacks on intellect and culture, and state-sanctioned violence that China has never fully come to grips with.

While visiting Xuzhou, a city in northern Jiangsu, as part of the “Foreigners’ View of Jiangsu” series, which invites foreigners in China on tours around the province, we visited an interesting museum at Wolongquan Ecological Museum Park, which displayed Mao-era propaganda posters and items of daily life. I begin this introduction with an old fashioned clock just because it includes Cultural Revolution slogans.

In the yellow text on red stripes at the bottom, it says,

Long live immaculate Mao Zedong thought!
Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the Chinese Communist Party!
Long live the Great Cultural Revolution of the Proletariat! Revolution isn’t a crime

The clock was among many in a large room full of clocks:

Besides clocks, there were also a lot of propaganda posters from a time span including the 50’s and 60’s:

Many of the posters evoked the anti-American sentiment of the time. Mao Zedong thought of the world divided into “three worlds.” Unlike the Western theory, the world wasn’t divided between capitalist (U.S. and its allies) and communist (the Soviets and their allies), but rather between exploiter countries (both the U.S. and U.S.S.R.), in-between countries (Canada, Japan), and the exploited (China, India, Africa, most of Asia). Deng Xiaoqing expressed that view to the United Nations in 1974, but the idea of China uniting with other poor nations preceded it.

Other posters from 1951 expressed the deep scars of the early years of the Cold War. One poster shows Chinese soldiers shooting American planes down in flames in Korea, and another equates the United States with Nazis. (Note the swastika morphed with the dollar sign.)
Ironically, the poster takes credit for the Communist Chinese having defeated both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany while at the same time lauding its success at relegating the Nationalist Chinese to the verge of defeat. The Nationalists, however, (to say nothing of the obvious case of the Americans) did most of the fighting against the Japanese on the Chinese side.

Oct 08

The Impact of the “Worker, Peasant, and Soldier Students” on China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History

From 1970-77, admissions to universities in China were based on class background, not qualifications, as I wrote about in my article on the history of the “worker, peasant, and soldier students” campaign.

The impact of that campaign still holds some influence on views towards education in China. One is support for the gao kao college entrance exam. While many (including myself, including Chinese people) criticize the exam, which students focus on for their final year of high school, for fostering a culture of rote learning and arguably hurting creativity, many of the same Chinese critics also praise the exam at the same time for ensuring fairness. While I have pointed to some problems with that line of thought, it is true that the exam lets everyone be evaluated against each other on the same test (even if some people get extra points for various reasons, or have benefits based on their place of birth).

Civil service tests, which tested scholars for service to the emperor, have a long history in China, and the gao kao was implemented before the end of the Cultural Revolution, so it is by no means the only reason people support the gao kao, but the fact that college admissions were so recently based entirely on political and class-based discrimination, rather than merit, lends some to support the gao kao as a merit-based test with a level playing field.

In 2007, China Daily published an article that made the case:

One of my cousins, who was a top student at a well known Beijing high school in the early 1960s, received high scores on his entrance examinations, but his father had been stigmatized as a “rightist” in 1957.

As a result, my cousin was denied university education.

Determining whether or not a student could be admitted to university based on irrelevant standards denied many talented youth from receiving the higher education they deserved, but the exams were otherwise fair.

During the political upheaval of the “cultural revolution” , the college entrance exam was replaced with a recommendation scheme, which placed irrelevancies, such as a student’s family’s political background, before the applicant’s academic ability.

The exam system is so entrenched it is even used for assigning students to high schools. While there was corruption and relationship-seeking involved in getting people into college “through the backdoor” during the Cultural Revolution, that practice hasn’t been eliminated with testing either. Chinese use relationships for almost all aspects of life. They can also try to get their children assigned to a better high school by networking with their friends or relatives who are in a position to open back doors.

Oct 08

The “Worker, Peasant, and Soldier Students” Program at Nanjing University

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History

After the Cultural Revolution started universities closed their doors to new students. It wasn’t until years later that they began admitting students again—but those students were “workers, peasants, and soldiers” chosen on the basis of class discrimination rather than qualifications. Even those lucky few, however, never got proper educations from the politicized education system Maoism imposed.

This is the story of how the “worker, peasant, and soldier students” campaign worked at Nanjing University, as told by Nanjing University 100 Years of Rich History, a Chinese-language history of the school published by Nanjing University Publishing House.

In 1966, with the Cultural Revolution, the gao kao college entrance exam system was suspended along with admissions. It was said that the test favored bourgeois city dwellers. It wasn’t until June 1970 that the first major universities, Beijing University and Tsinghua University (also in Beijing), began preparations to reopen that year. On April 28, 1972, Nanjing University welcomed its first class of “worker, peasant, and soldier students.” 1,005 were invited, and 995 enrolled in classes, studying 26 majors. From 1972-77, 4,007 “workers, peasants, and soldiers” attended Nanjing University.

Students were chosen on the basis of “good political thought, healthy body, around 20 years of age, and being a worker, poor farmer, or People’s Liberation Army soldier or youth cadre with a level of cultural development equivalent to middle school of higher.” “Educated youths” who had gone “down to the countryside” (上山下乡) to work the fields and “learn from the peasants” were also supposed to be given consideration. But in August 1973, of the 2,149 students at Nanjing University, just 3 came from “exploiting class” households.

Some of the “workers, peasants, and soldiers” chosen were chosen on the basis of relationships, having entered “through the backdoor” (走后门). Zhong Zhimin, a second-year student at Nanjing University (the program was three years) dropped out of college in protest, writing an open letter on September 28, 1973 that said: “I am one of the students who got in through the back door. At my constant insistence, father called the military district cadres department and urged them to nominate me.”

People’s Daily published his report on January 11, 1974, and some other students who benefited from relationships also resigned from school.

Those who did get accepted had low intellectual standards and low educational attainment on average, prompting Nanjing University to start teaching basic skills in remedial classes, including “elementary level math.” This program was criticized by ideologues as a counterrevolutionary “revisionist educational road” designed to restore the old power bases.

One famous example of an unqualified student was Zhang Tiesheng, from Liaoning. He was held up by the Maoist Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, as a national hero after being recommended and submitting a mostly blank test paper in 1973 and was nonetheless accepted to a prestigious university. Instead of filling in the blanks he wrote a long missive extolling himself for working on the farm rather than spending time studying. After Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, he was arrested in 1976 on charges of supporting the Gang of Four as they tried to hang onto power. He recently made the news again these past two years by making a fortune with an IPO.

The classes the “worker, peasant, and soldier students” did take were heavily politicized. Mao’s writings were used as “the basic material for political study.” Students spent months on farms and at factories, even though most of them had come from those places. Arts students spent 3 months each school year away from school.

They were expected not only to learn but also to control the universities. As a history of Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing Normal University Record, 1902-1992 states: “[T]he role of the worker, peasant, and soldier students was to ‘attend university, look after university, and use Mao Zedong thought to transform university’ (上大学,管大学,用毛泽东思想改造大学).”

“This put the teachers in the position of being reformed and overturned the normal teacher-student relationship, causing the quality of education to drop substantially, and at the same time retarding the worker, peasant, and soldier students’ personal growth and development,” the history continues.

Yet most students were appreciative of the precious time they had for real education, the Nanjing University history contends. “The vast majority of worker, peasant, and soldier students already hated how the ‘Cultural Revolution’ delayed and wasted their youth.”

See More: The Impact of the Worker, Peasant, Soldier Students Movement on Chinese Thought

Jul 17

Merchants Praying to Chairman Mao for Riches

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , History , Travel

IMG_4289 copyWhile I was in the courtyard of Mao Zedong’s childhood home, a tourist from Anhui asked if I “worshipped” the man. No, I said, do you? She said yes. At some shops nearby, people even burnt incense at the feet of large Mao statues. In Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, some people still view him as more than a man.

After seeing his house, I walked into a large corridor of hawkers selling Mao statues (appropriately golden), tee shirts, pins, and other merchandise. Hawkers yelled for people to buy their wares. It was a hot day, so I bought water for the inflated price of 5 yuan, 1.5 times more than it costs outside of a tourist area.


The prayers of the shop owners when they placed the incense must have been for wealth. At Mao Zedong Square, many companies even left flowers for him, and a woman who recently opened a hotel walked around him three times, bowing her head and hoping for the hotel is a success that earns her family a lot of money.

I thought about the 5 yuan water as I ate dinner at Mao Jia Restaurant, a famous chain originating in Shaoshan in 1987. Mao once said, “Serve the people,” and the quote was printed on all the wait staff’s tee shirts with Mao’s face. The quote can be modified to say, “Serve the People’s Currency,” as the yuan is also called “People’s Currency” (RMB – 人民币) in Chinese.

At Mao Jia Restaurant, I ordered “cut pepper fish head” (剁椒鱼头), a famous Hunan dish. Maybe they overheard me talking on the phone, telling the above story about my day to a friend, because they later brought me complimentary dishes of pork braised in brown sauce (红烧肉), Mao’s favorite dish, and Chinese spinach. They apparently took the real quote seriously.


If you come to Shaoshan, you will see Mao when you arrive. His portrait adorns the outside of the train station and the inside of the bus station. His legacy has done much to help the tourism economy of Shaoshan. One tour guide estimated there were about 500 people employed as tour guides there.

Shaoshan Train Station

Shaoshan Train Station

The man on one hundred dollar bills (and indeed all denominations of one yuan or more) once said, “It is a very good thing, and a significant one too, to exterminate the bourgeoisie and capitalism in China.”

Chinese people are resourceful with their deities. Even if they don’t believe in Buddhism, many non-believers will still bow their heads and pray at Buddhist temples. Chinese religion, to quote what Matt Damon’s character in the Dogma boardroom scene said about voodoo, “is a fascinating practice. No real doctrine of faith to speak of, more an arrangement of superstitions.” The golden statue reigns.

Jun 27

Xujiahui Church in the Cultural Revolution

By Mitchell Blatt | History

In 1966, the Xujiahui Church (St. Ignatius Cathedral) displayed Mao’s image over the front door. The Cultural Revolution had just started, and Red Guard students were tearing down historical and cultural anti-revolutionary relics. On August 23, they arrived at the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Xujiahui district of Shanghai and attacked the church. Elements of the exterior were torn down. Propaganda slogans were put up. The congregation was told they couldn’t believe in both Mao and Jesus and labeled “cow, monster, snake, gods,” (牛鬼蛇神), a term for “bad characters” used during the time, and marched in the street wearing signs. This history is laid out in the book “Folk Images, Volume 4” (《民间影像,第四辑》), a compilation of 20th century Chinese events published by Tongji University Publishing.

Xujiahui church in August 1966, with Jesus torn down and replaced with Mao.

Xujiahui church in August 1966, with Jesus torn down and replaced with Mao. (Source: “Folk Images, Volume 4,” Tongji University Publishing.


This year, I visited the St. Ignatius Cathedral during a trip to Shanghai. It looks like nothing happened. An article in the L.A. Times says that the Red Guards also smashed all the stained glass windows and that the church was used as a granary during the rest of the Cultural Revolution. The new stained glass windows, the L.A. Times reported, weren’t completed until the past decade.


None of that history is reported at the church itself. Tourists just take pictures, admire the inside, and read a sign that explains “the difference between Catholicism and Christianity” (“天主教与基督教有什么区别”). The sign explains the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

The district around the church has lots of old schools and other relics, old libraries and observatories. Xujiahui is named after the Xu family of Xu Guangqi, a wealthy scholar and Catholic convert who lived from 1562-1633. Xu worked with Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to translate books. Eventually their family donated the land for the church to be built. The large cathedral was built in 1910 after smaller churches resided there in the 1800’s.

Mar 21

Sidney Rittenberg and Communists’ Confusion About What “Democracy” Is

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Literature

During the campaigns of the Chinese Communist Party prior to the Cultural Revolution, Sidney Rittenberg recommended innocent people be forced into labor camps, unquestionably supporting the Party. During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg happily yelled at innocent people and spread propaganda supporting the dictatorship of Mao.

Reading his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, it is interesting to see why he supported the violent, conformist, closed-minded movement that was the Cultural Revolution: Because that’s what “democracy” and “freedom” is, according to his understanding of Communism at the time.

In Rittenberg’s view, as described in his memoir, the Cultural Revolution was the masses rebelling against the party. The Red Guards attacked party leaders, shackled them, put them into criticism sessions, and such. Of course, it was all being directed by Mao. Rittenberg supported the dictatorship of one, rather than the dictatorship of the Party:

It was Mao’s guidelines for the Cultural Revolution… This, I thought, was a program for the end of party dictatorship. (315)

Later on page 315, Rittenberg described how, “The party told us what to think,” and what would happen when the party is no longer telling us what to think and chaos ensues? Just follow Mao’s line, which he handily described in his guidelines.

All at once, there was no one to trust, no one to tell us what to do, how to think, whom to like, what to believe. We all had to think for ourselves, to decide was this good, was this right, was this revolutionary. Did it follow Mao’s teachings? (316)

In the space of two sentences, Rittenberg said “We had to think for ourselves,” then that they had to follow Mao’s teachings. Clearly, then, there was someone–just one person–to tell them what to do.

Rittenberg lauded the Cultural Revolution as a means for bringing about a democratic system involving the masses, but on page 317, he describes the story of a girl who was elected leader of her school’s Cultural Revolution Committee and overthrown by Mao’s wife.

But when Jiang Qing [Mao’s wife] declared the rebel radical minority the true revolutionaries, Morning Dove’s Cultural Revolution Committee collapsed.

The Man Who Stayed Behind documents the perplexing logical gymnastics and cognitive dissonance required of the Communists throughout history of China, worst of all during the Cultural Revolution. For page after page, Rittenberg describes how the Cultural Revolution will bring about democracy and civil rights while he is watching innocent people shackled, yelled at, and attacked by mobs. The Cultural Revolution would bring about freedom of expression, all while people who were not capitalists were accused of being capitalist class enemies and not given any right to respond. It would be a non-violent revolution, but the Red Guards would murder and torture people they thought disagreed with Mao. Forget even being theoretically allowed to disagree in such a movement that was about freedom and democracy.

It should serve as a warning, too, to anyone who wants to advance “non-violent” revolution through violent means, and to anyone who draws lines among ideological comrades between the so-called “establishment” and “base.”