October 25, 2019
Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
China: The far lands of the Orient, and perhaps the world’s oldest living civilization. However, the days of Huang He River Valley have evolved into something quite different than the previous centuries. 1949 saw the rise of communism in China, and the foundations and thinking of an individual named Mao Zedong would begin to affect the course of Chinese education, thinking, ideology, and culture. I first came to China in 2013. The first vivid memory I have of the country, other than the airport, is the array of hanging lights from the all the trees along Guangzhou’s Tian He Road (天河路), yet after six years in the world’s most populous nation, it becomes quite clear that the presence and direction of Chairman Mao (毛主席 Mao Zhuxi, Zhuxi meaning Chairman) is very present in not only education but in the thinking of Chinese daily life – a Maoist presence of thought.
As a teacher in China, I often discuss the differences between Chinese and American education. One of my students explained to me that Mao Zedong (毛泽东), the first president of the People’s Republic of China, was opposed to the humanities. He valued the hard sciences, engineering, and even disciplines such as physics. Mao’s biographer, Philip Short, wrote a detailed argument about how he claimed that this type of educational philosophy came to be.
Mao Zedong was born to a rather poor family, but his father was a strict disciplinarian, and even described as tyrannical (Short, 2000), yet Mao possessed a rebellious spirit by nature and developed a domineering attitude from an early age.
While the journey of Mao’s life is complex there are a certain set of criticisms that have evolved into the contemporary academic discussions on Chinese thought:
1. Treating human beings as statistics.
2. Viewing group identity as paramount.
3. The previously mentioned disregard for the humanities.
It is a harsh statement to accuse Mao Zedong of treating human beings as statistics, but it is a brutal reality that is employed by the powerful across many different nations and time periods from the writings of the Italian Giovanni Giammaria Ortes, who went on to influence Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham (Tarpley, 1996) to the Principles of Scientific Management used by Frederick Winslow Taylor to advise the Ford Motor Company, all of these examples share the concept of treating humans as numbers that can be rearranged. This is heavily relevant to a particular time in Chinese history known as the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), a plan to convert China from an agrarian economy to a massive industrial power (Short, 2000). The practice of private farming was prohibited and many farmers were forced to work in the steel industry, so that China could go on to compete with the economic forces of the British Empire. The nationalization of farming led to an inadequacy to produce food for the nation, thus the foundation of the Great Famine.
In Guangdong Province ( 广东省), there is a saying “The Cantonese eat everything,” meaning that any form of animal or edible plant can be consumed.This is a reference to the Great Famine when food was scarce, and it served as a necessity. When living in Guangdong Province, it is not uncommon to hear stories such as “My father also refused to eat sweet potatoes. As a kid, that was all he ate for three years.”
When it comes to political commentators in the Western World, there is almost a blame game that the liberal vs. conservative dynamic chooses to play. The left wingers proclaim that Mao Zhuxi was an authoritarian right wing controller, and the opposition claims that Mao was a left wing identity-centered communist (Peterson, 2018). It is a fair criticism to say that Chairman Mao promoted national identity over all else, a sort of always striving to the greater good of China, even if it meant the means were destructive. In Mandarin, the name given to the nation we know as China is Zhong Guo (中国 meaning Central Country). Perhaps a more honest perspective on the political leanings of Chairman Mao and the Maoist influence on contemporary thought is that the current People’s Republic of China views it as a central nation, one that incorporates the left and right political dynamics together. The two major divisions of western politics have blended together in China.
On the topic of education, the interactions of people from different nations around the world is impossible to avoid in China. The internet is censored with something commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall” of China. Websites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and thousands of others are blocked. These sites are associated with free expression and would give users the ability to share creative material and information that is critical of the government; however, as someone once told me “when the internet was created, it was not designed to be censored.” The interactions of ideas are difficult to contain or limit.
Education takes many different forms. There are the traditional methods that involve classroom learning and the methodologies of an instructor, but on the other hand, there exists a benefit in intercultural communication. In 1975, Mao Zedong met with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in what was called, “The Opening of China to the West,” but in reality by that time Mao Zedong was in the last full year of his life, and his cognitive faculties were not functioning properly (Short, 2000). Perhaps, the Maoist educational form has left a major impact on the citizens of China in the current day and age. The consequences of the Great Leap Forward, Great Famine, and Forced Industrialization are present in China’s ability to perform as a manufacturing power of the world. At the same time, the death toll resulting from the methods to achieve that economic status is impossible to record in a proper manner with estimates as low as 14 million and as high as 70 million (Short, 2000).
The ages of technological advancement and global interconnection are bringing strong challenges to the Maoist-centered ways of 1949-76. One of the components of government that China was never able to escape was corruption, and even on lighter terms, opposition to those in power. Mao died in 1976, and one his successors, President Deng Xiaoping, opened the nation to a rudimentary usage of free markets and trade (Cella, 2018). This should not have come as a surprise since the plan for the foundations of Maoist China were focused on the expansion of the industrial sector.
In the most general of terms, China still stands as a nation that is a far off land to the Western observer. The East of the East and the West of the West converge on a variety of issues surrounding trade, international business, and tourism. Yet in the near future, more and more individuals are coming toward to China, and the CGTN anchor Liu Xin declared in 2017 that the 19th Century saw the dominance of the British Empire, the 20th Century saw the rise of the United States, and the 21st Century shall be for everyone. Will that take place? Only time will tell. As for now, one can say that there has been a deviation from the economic practices put into place from Mao Zedong. This has almost certainly served as a benefit, but the academic, intellectual, and communicative effects of Maoist Chinese thought are very present in the interactions of Chinese daily life, running deep into the educational systems as well as interpersonal relations.
Cella, C. (2018) CCCT with Chris Cella. Chris Cella Channel.
Liu X. (2017). The Point with Liu Xin. China Global Television Network.
Peterson, J. (2018). Debating the Gender Pay Gap. BBC 4.
Short, P. (2000). Mao: The Man Who Made China. Tarius Publishing. Amazon Digital Services. LLC.
Tarply, W. (1970-96). Against Oligarchy: Essays and Speeches 1970-1996. ICLC.
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