Category Archives: China

Impressions of “Death’s End,” by Cixin Liu

Death’s End by Cixin Liu is the third book in the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and a truly wonderful conclusion. Death’s End is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy. It is a wonderful complement to The Three-Body Problem, bringing back the scientific focus and tension and leaving behind the repetition of The Dark Forest As Three-Body implicitly examined the Drake Equation in depth, Death’s End does the same for dimensional projection. What seemed like irrelevant loose ends from The Dark Forest‘s emphasis on the importance of political commissars, such as the fates of the warships Bronze Age and Gravity, become into the main narrative. And, I suspect, it only failed to achieve a second Hugo award for the series because of politics.

Some quick words on the trilogy: The first book, The Three-Body Problem is perhaps the best “hard science fiction” book I have ever read — considering that is the genre of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Crichton, that is saying a lot. The second book, a direct sequel called The Dark Forest, is a disappointment. Cixin Liu is writing in a Communist country, and long speeches about the need for political commissars and sudden complete trust in the well meaning and efficient nature of governments implied the book was written to curry political favor. Death’s End is the final installment.

Death’s End explores the idea of dimensional projection, or what an object would seem to be in higher or lower dimensional space-time. This concept was introduced near the end of The Three-Body Problem, but it is the focus in Death’s End. Specific examples of projection or transposition in Death’s End include

  • Projection onto the surface of a black whole
  • Four-dimensional projection into three dimensions
  • Three dimensional projection into two dimensions
  • One time dimensional projection into two dimensions

Cixin Liu is not the first writer to explore dimensional unfolding, but he may be the best to do so in a science fiction context. Realism, the philosophical idea that true reality of an object is the completely folded state was explored by St. Thomas Aquinas. The horror writer Jon Padget does the same, using numerous folded or reduced-dimensional imagery to get the point across: the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist.

And in popular religious writing, dimensional transformation is the same thing that C.S. Lewis called transposition in The Weight of Glory. So for example in my impressions of Weight of Glory I wrote

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point.

But what Aquinas, Padget and Lewis explored by philosophy, horror, and apologetic, Cixin Liu does through hard science fiction. Relative frames of reference, gravitational waves and quantum entanglement, high and low gravity black holes, and string theory are all introduced in a fun and exciting way.

Each Three-Body book has a primary character who sets the theme. The Three-Body Problem is about Ye Wenjie, a young woman astrophysicist living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, and Wang Miao, an applied materials researcher in Beijing during modern times. The Dark Forest is about Luo Ji, a failed astrophysicist turned sociologists. Death’s End is about Cheng Xin, also a young woman astrophysicist.

Of the characters introduced in the series the only well developed and realistic character is Ye Wenjie. She is perhaps the most memorable character I read since Fire from the Sun, also about the Cultural Revolution. Cheng Xin, Death’s End‘s protagonist is almost Ye’s polar opposite — an archetype more than a complex character, she is repeatedly compared to the Virgin Mary as an ideal woman. Indeed, I suspect this is a reason that Death’s End, unlike Three-Body, did not win the Hugo Award. The days where a book about a Catholic monk could win that award are long gone due to an ongoing culture war in that community.

A fascinating article by the author, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction, is a must read. To give you a sense of the author’s thoughtfulness, I present these paragraphs from the piece below:

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction became a tool for popularizing scientific knowledge, and its main intended readers were children. Most of these stories put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques. Few of the novels ventured outside the orbit of Mars, and most stuck to the near future. In these works, science and technology were always presented as positive forces, and the technological future was always bright.

An interesting observation can be made when one surveys the science fiction published during this period. In the early years after the Communist Revolution, politics and revolutionary fervor infused every aspect of daily life, and the very air one breathed seemed filled with propaganda for Communist ideals. Given this context, one might have expected that science fiction would also be filled with descriptions of Communist utopias of the future. But, as a matter of fact, not a single work of this type can be found. There were practically no science fiction stories that featured Communism as the subject, not even simplistic sketches to promote the concept.

I read Death’s End in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem was a landmark for me. It is the longest novel I’ve read in a half decade, since John Derbyshire’s historical fiction Fire from the Sun. I’ve been away from fiction for a long time. Three Body Problem is a great way to return.

By genre, Three-Body is hard sci-fi, with philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and the religion. Structurally it is a combination of mystery (the modern-day scenes, beginning in Beijing and concluding in the Chinese countryside) and drama (historical scenes, with the reverse progression). It has a third thread, a narration of experience in a computer game, that ends up being critical to understanding both main threads.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember discussions on the “5th generation of war,” or 5GW — a type of war that is fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. The military action within Three-Body comprises all three kinds of 5GWinsurgent 5GW of a small armed group against a society, a state-within 5GW where a clique inside the host society attempts to transform it, and state-without 5GW where a government attacks a society.

The author is an engineer who was born and lives in the People’s Republic of China — an officially atheist society. So the discussion of religion were especially intriguing. Buddhism seems to be disparaged, described (unlike Christianity) as not being person-centric, and with pilgrims who appear to be in a daze. By contrast St. Joseph’s Church is one of the landmarks of Beijing held out for special admiration. The definition of ‘God’ used by characters tends to be deistic (belief in an orderly universe created by a minimally involved God). The religious feeling and looked-for purification created by certain interactions in Three Body recalls the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.

Three Body problem reminds me of primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also similarity to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. That Hideous Strength is so similar to the mystery thread of Three Body Problem I wonder if it was intentional: the character known as the “the Commander” in Three Body is a composite of the Head and the Deputy Director in Strength. Like Fire from the Sun it is a beautiful and tragic look at the experience of Chinese youth who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Rainbbow Six contributes an interesting ecological narrative, while Red Mars is a clear inspiration in hard (or technically plausible) science fiction.

It was quite the treat to discover this book, a great mix of history, science, and fiction that ties into so many of my interests. No wonder it won the 2015 Hugo Award.

Now, on to the sequel…

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.

The Rise of the Communists and the Fall of the KMT

This week I read Strategy and the Chinese Civil War by my friend, Adam Elkus. The piece appeared in a special edition, “Strategic Misfortunes,” of Infinity Journal. IN a private communication, Adam told me the piece “dispense[s] with some of the CPP’s own myth-making,” which I agree with. It’s a fascinating article, and one that knee-caps the idea that Mao Zedong was particularly unusual in his knowledge of agrarian guerrilla warfare. (Mao certainly, however, was a fantastic self-promoter.)

KMT China Was A Failed State

I think I disagree with Elkus’s article in one area. Throughout the article Adam writes as if the KMT was an effective government; that is, as if China was not already a failed state by the time that Chiang Kaishek seized power. While this point does not problematize Elkus’ assertion that the rise of the Communists was result of KMT military failure, it should clarify that KMT military failure was primarily a result of KMT political failure, and not simply the result of a few bad strategic decisions.

In the rest of this post I want to take issue with several points of the KMT chronology laid out by Elkus, including

1. The “KMT” that ran mainland China between and 1949, and Taiwan from 1946-2000, is a successor to the “KMT” founded by Sun Yatsen in Beijing.
2. The KMT conducted a White Terror in mainland China in the 1920s
3. The KMT attempted to use the NRA to eliminate the Communist Party
4. The KMT embarked on the Strong Point offensive for primarily military, and not political, reasons

The [Chinese] KMT Was  Never A Secret Society


China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War motivated the Qing leaders to create a powerful and bureaucratic military organized around European lines with the aid of German advisers. The 1911 revolution was not won by mass mobilization; Sun Yat-Sen’s GMD was a secret society that focused its efforts on winning over intellectuals, economic elites, and soldiers in Qing military forces. Yuan Shikai, Marshal of the Qing’s forces, defected with his elite Beiyang Army to Sun’s side and tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels. A lack of political consensus over the structure and distribution of political power helped fragment the military balance and thus create the impetus for China’s infamous ‘warlord period’.

In Chinese histories there are two political parties known as “KMT,” which Adam calls “GMD.” The first, known in simplified hanzi as 國民黨 and literally translated as National People’s Party, was a reorganization of secret societies founded by Sun Yatsen for the purpose of overthrowing the Qing dynasty and institution an anti-Manchu race war in mainland Chinese. The others, sometimes known as the “KMT” or the “Chinese KMT,” known in traditional hanzi as 中國國民黨, and literally translated as the “China National People’s Party,” was founded by Sun Yatsen in 1919-1923 with Soviet Assistance (in nearly the same time and place and with nearly the same cast as the founding of the Communist Party), for the purpose of overthrowing the Beijing Government and reconquering the foreign concessions on Mainland China.

More seriously, the and its predecessors (the Revolutionary Alliance, the Revive China Society, etc) played only a marginal role in the collapse of the Qing. The Qing collapsed because of an outbreak of racial violence (including genocide) along Rwandan lines against the Manchu minority, combined with the military coup by the Yuan Shikai. Sun, the foreign face of the intervention, was not involved.

(Throughout this article I will reference to both parties simply as “KMT.” Elkus uses the term “GMD,” based on the pinyin transliteration of the name, that was never used at the time to refer to the KMT, and is only rarely used to refer to the Chinese KMT.)

The KMT Was Incapable of Conducting a White Terror

German influence may have been eventually eclipsed by the Soviets, but German ideas still figured strongly in GMD doctrine and operations. GMD and CCP political-military commanders both had military training in Europe and received training from Soviet advisers in the Whampoa Military Academy, before the White Terror suppression of CCP forces in Shanghai and beyond by the GMD that ended their putative alliance in the late 1920s. Both the GMD and the CCP adopted political commissar systems and were strongly influenced by the Soviet idea of the party army

Adam Elkus is not alone is calling the April 12 Incident a “White Terror,” but the term “White Terror” dramatically exaggerates the scale and competency of the KMT at the time.

Here is are some comparisons of other “White Terrors

  • April 12 Incident: 350 dead
  • Greek White Terror: 1,200 dead
  • Hungarian White Terror: 1,300 dead
  • Taiwanese White Terror: 3,500 dead
  • Bulgarian White Terror: 5,000 dead
  • German White Terror: 15,000 dead
  • Finnish White Terror: 20,000 dead
  • Russian White Terror: Tens of Thousands
  • Spanish White Terror: 200,000 dead

While the April 12 incident was aimed at destroying the urban wing Chinese Communist Party, the KMT had neither the capability or will to enforce a “terror.”

The KMT Allowed the Communists to Escape

The final encirclement campaign severely reduced the CCP base areas. The GMD’s aggressive pursuit of the Communist remnants during the torturous Long March destroyed nine tenths of CCP military power. Were it not for the onset of Japanese aggression, it is quite likely that the GMD would have completely destroyed the weakened CCP forces. The Second Sino-Japanese War not only provided breathing room for the CCP, but also allowed the CCP the opportunity to finally compete for political authority on a national scale. CCP forces infiltrated behind Japanese lines to organize the masses against the Japanese and build up a power base.

As in contemporary mainland China, the relationship between the Army, Party, and Government is ambiguous. As this is the only section of my post that deals primarily with military matters, I will refer to the armed-wing of the KMT’s State-Military-Party triarchy by its name at the time, the “National Revolutionary Army” or NRA.

The only area where Elkus succumbs to Communist myth-making is in two sentences, where Elkus claims

1. The National Revolutionary Army aggressively persued the remnants of the Chinese Soviet Republic. Thus, the collapse in Communist personnel from 86,000 to 7,000 in one year was because of successful attacks by the NRA on the CSR troops
2. The Japanese invasion for the major obstacle to the NRA destruction of the CSR in Yan’an

Both of these claims are incorrect.

First, the CSR military was composed of informally conscripted troops, the majority of whom defected as soon as they were able. The collapse of the CSR terror apparatus during the beginning of the long march thus began wave after wave of escapes, leaving the CSR to be composed exclusively of (a) a small group of fanatical believers and (b) warlords and fighters who had death sentences from the KMT that they were unable to negotiate away. The KMT’s decision to have the NRA allow the CSR forces to escape is in keeping with Sun-Tzu’s maxim to avoid a victory of annihilation, and instead allow one’s enemy a means of escape.

Second, the NRA was unable to destroy the Communists, not because of the Japanese, but because the NRA was a simply the strongest of many militias operating in mainland China at the time. The true battle was not military, but political. Rival claimants to KMT supremacy, such as the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yuxiang (and his confusingly named “KMA,” or Nationalist Army), Wang Jingwei (who may or may not have been the legitimate President of the Republic of China), and Song Qingling) (the ultra-hot widow of Sun Yatsen), and the father-and-son duo Zhang Zuolin and Zhang Xueliang (who kept Mussolini’s daughter as a mistress and later was powerful enough to kidnap Chiang Kaichek, eventually going on to the longest-serving political prisoner in recorded history) prevented Chiang and the KMT from being able to consider the liquidation of any one faction as either necessary or desirable.

The KMT Was Fighting For Bargaining Position, Not Victory

Thus, the GMD decided to embark on the Strong Point offensive, an attempt to destroy the CCP’s political apparatus to the west in Yan’an as well as the trapped CCP army in the east.[xxxi] The Strong Point offensive was based on the tenuous assumptions that the GMD had secured its conquered territory and could afford to shift its effort away from the northeast and northern theaters. It failed to finish off the CCP, even though it came close enough that the party headquarters in Yan’an were evacuated.[xxxii] By the end of the Strong Point offensive in 1947, the CCP still had its strategic base in the northeast, and the GMD had failed to fully pacify a single region or completely destroy the Communist mobile armies. The GMD’s strategic reserves were exhausted, and it lacked the resources to properly defend all of its gains. The GMD held the coastline and all of the major cities and railroads from Shaanxi to Shandong, but this counted for little as long as Communist armies remained intact.

The Strong Point offensive was founded on a political, and not military, assumption: that a partition of China was now inevitable. China in 1947 was believed to be divided by three large patrons, each with client regions

  • Britain, and her client Tibet and colony Nepal
  • Russia, and her clients Manchuria, Mongolia, East Turkestan
  • The US, and her client KMT, on the mainland and Taiwan

The KMT correctly concluded that it was inconceivable any of the major foreign powers would completely abandon all of their Chinese clients. Thus, national reunification was impossible. The KMT’s strategy at that point was to abandon attempts to reunify by force any area in the zone of a patron state, and instead attempt to consolidate the zone within the patronage of her patron, the US. The KMT also realized that time was not on its side: in the absence of a home-grown military solution, the large powers would likely partition China at the Yellow River.

Thus, the Strong Point’s assumption was not that the Communists had been defeated in Manchuria, but that the Communists were about to win a political victory everywhere north of the Yellow River unless the facts on the ground changed, rapidly.

Final Analysis

Elkus’s Strategy and the Chinese Civil War is a vital piece, in that it shatters the myth that Mao was a particularly insightful guerrilla leader, or that Communism was particularly attractive to the Chinese people in the 1930s and 1940s. It can be improved by further recognizing that the KMT, another Leninist Party, was likewise unpopular, ill-equipped, and indecisive.

Chiang, Mao, and Wang

Middle to late 20th century China was dominated by three men.

Wang Jingwei was the most educated. He spoke English with his friends, and went to graduate school oversees. Predictably, he cast in his lot with the Japanese.

Chiang Kaishek was an adolescent in a Japanese military academy. He was the first publicly known Chinese “Red,” famous for an early attack on the middle class in Canton. Predictably, he became famous fighting both the Japanese and the Communists, and was a pro-American leader.

Mao Zedong was a librarian who hated to travel. Into his old age he would quote classical poetry, and he spent the least time abroad of any of these men. Predictably, he launched the anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution and throw in his lote with the Soviet Union’s “internationalism.”

I begin this way because of a recent thread on Chicago Boyz, “CHINA-BURMA-INDIA: Remembering the Forgotten Theater of World War II” by onparkstreet. The discussion of this post revolved around two American Generals, Claire Chennault and Joseph Stillwell, who had dramatically impressions of Chiang Kaishek’s commitment to the American cause during the Second World War.

Chennault (whose wife was a Beijinger) believed that Chiang was a brilliant leader willing to take risks to drive back Imperial Japan and its client, the Nanjing Regime of Wang Jingwei. Stillwell (who spoke Chinese and lived in Beijing for four years during the 1920s) believed that Chiang was corrupt imbecile who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.

Both were half right. Chiang was a brilliant leader who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.

The reason for this is that Chiang, like Wang (But unlike Mao) was not a romantic fool. Chiang and Wang both quickly realized that China was so weak and divided that no Chinese faction could seriously influecne the fate of the great powers, but all were in danger of extinction. Therefore Chiang and Wang both bided there time and let fate have its way.

In this way, Chiang and Wang shared a perspective with Deng Xiaoping, who in his old age wrote to his senior followers:

Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership. Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.

Sickness took Wang Jingwei’s life in 1944. After Mao’s reckless pro-attack stance lead to the liquidation of the Communist Party in Hebie during Japan’s “Three-Alls” reprisal campaign, the Communists also took the defensive.

The fall of Japan spelled the end of the Wang Regime, but both the Communists and the KMT benefited from their defensive posture. Because cadres of both parties (the CCP and the KMT) and armies (the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, or NRA) were largely intact, both were able to radically remake post-war society following the establishment of the Communist Regime in Beijing and the KMT Regime in Taipei Regime in 1949.

Zhou Enlai, Josef Stalin, and Other Rightists

My friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz sent me an article describing Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake by James Palmer. Mr. Palmer, whose wife is Chinese, had previously written The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia .

I probably will not read this book, though the subject matter certainly is fascinating. I have mixed-experience with episode-based Chinese histories- I was really disappointed in Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. To give the book at least a semblance of a fair shake, though, I downloaded the preview for Death of Mao from the Kindle store…

The impression I get is someone who knows roughly as much as I do, writing a summary of it. My strong suspicion is that he’s reading the same basic set of secondary sources that I am. So unlike authors who dig into primary sources and reveal more about the world, it just seems like a tilted version of it.

In the Kindle preview there’s a line about Mao torturing Zhou by denying him western medicine. Every party of this sentence is correct, except the word “by,” which should be an “and” — Mao did not use or trust western medicine, and this doubtless contributed to his own painful last few years. Like many Chinese he seems to have been personally scared by it. It’s possible to be an evil sadist and still distrust doctors.

A more serious criticism in the except concerns Zhou himself. Palmer is obviously heavily influenced by Zhou Enlai: Last Perfect Revolutionary,” written by former official Party Historian Gao Wenqian (who smuggled his own notes out of China, to re-write the book that he had written at the direction of the Party earlier). But he takes Zhou-bashing too far, and in doing so completely missing how Zhou was able to wield such power.

Palmer says that Zhou probably saved more historical sites than individuals. This strikes me as crazy. Literally every biography I’ve written of anyone who even touched power in this period includes a discussion of Zhou personally influencing events to the benefit of the person being biographied. Here’s a couple:

  • Chiang Kaishek had been Zhou’s superior at Whampoa (“China’s West Point”), where Chiang was Chancellor and Zhou was in charge of the Political Department. Later, after Chiang had been kidnapped near Xi’an and given to Mao, Mao (correctly) argued that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and therefore Chiang should be killed. Zhou delayed long enough for Stalin to become personally involved, thus sparing Chiang’s life and returning him to power.
  • Chiang Chingkuo was a student in the Soviet Union, applying to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, While there he was writing a serious of pro-Soviet anti-Chiang Kaishek editorials in the student/party newspaper of Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. While Visiting, Zhou spoke to him: “You should not criticize Chiang Kaishek. Even if he is a counter-revolutionary, he is your father.” Chiang Chingkuo went on to be the President in Taiwan.
  • In his autobiography, Ji Chaozhu relates how Zhou inexplicably, and out-of-character, exploded him at a meeting, going into detail about his failures as an interpreter in recent events, and publicly booting him from a high-profile diplomatic trip to Malaysia. Zhou himself mysterious was ill the day of the flight, and also couldn’t go. The plane was destroyed in mid-air by a KMT-placed bomb.
  • In his autobiography, Sidney Rittenberg (who was the only US Citizen to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and spent half of his time in the PRC in solitary confinement for various imagined crimes) describes how during an investigation into him, Zhou wrote a letter describing how Mr. Rittenberg engaged in “very serious and costly mistakes.” Rittenberg explains this probably saved his life — in the Communist legal system, “mistakes” concern intra-party matters, while “crimes” are against the Revolution. Mistakes can be corrected; criminals are shot.

Now, Gao’s biography of Zhou, Last Perfect Revolutionary, effectively argues that Zhou was not a disembodied saint, going around the country doing good. Rather, he was working very hard, and very diligently, at building an incredibly large political patronage and support network. The examples given above tie into each other, and show how patronage can have serious dividends (esp. if Chiang Chingkuo tipped off Zhou to the bomb on the plane!)

Zhou Enlai was an emotionally stable version of Josef Stalin. Like Stalin, his objective was wielding personally power through a modern bureaucratic state built on a technically sound but basically illiberal educational system. Like Stalin, Zhou was personally charismatic. Unlike Stalin, Zhou did not believe he was surrounded by invisible enemies (Mao may have helped with this — he was in the room with one extraordinarily visible enemy). What Marx called the “Asiatic Mode of Production” was what Stalin and Zhou would build across Eurasia– a centralized, bureaucratic, essentially statist state focused on maintaining the power elite through an educated Rightist mandarin class as opposed to fighting any Revolution.

From Mao’s perspective, Josef Stalin and Zhou Enlai were both Rightists, interested in establishing a Bureaucracy and leveraging the forces of production to buy-off social unrest. Mao, who found Rightists more predictable and less idealisitc than Leftists, was very comfortable working with right-wing leaders (Stalin, Nixon) and parties (the U.K Conservative Party, and the West German Christian Democratic Union) abroad for precisely this reason.

Mao “rode the tiger,” leveraging domestic rightists (like Deng Xiaoping, a Leninist, and Zhou Enlai, a Stalinist) to build up enough power to overthrow everything old and hateful about China in one blow — he tried this once during the Great Leap Forward, and again during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Mao failed twice. Zhou won. Deng won. The rightists won.

The tiger of Rightism that Mao rode kept him alive and in power, but as Mao told Nixon, his lasting influence might be limited to a few farms outside Beijing.

The government in China today is as basically Rightist as it was 150, or 1,500, years ago.

And China is more powerful for it.

Review of “Fire from the Sun,” by John Derbyshire

“O God of Progress, have you degraded and forgot us?”
Sufjan Stevens

“Do you want to make me hate you?”
French Teen Idol

Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Moving. One-thousand pages.

Fire from the Sun is the best historical fiction I’ve read in more than a decade, since Aztec, by Gary Jennings. . Extrapolating forward, this means there will only be a handful of books in that genre as good, as memorable, or as important before I die, if I make it into old age. Given the quality of this book, that seems fair.

I remember when Fire from the Sun came out, more than a decade ago. I remember reading this post, and quickly being intimidated by the number of volumes required (3!, more than $100 at the time) to read the book. So I put it off until the author, John Derbyshire, made the news for something completely different, and saw that Fire from the Sun was available in an affordable and easy-to-carry Kindle edition.

Fire From the Sun begins in south-west China in 1965, the last year of China’s “long 1950s” (1949-1965) and the year before the Cultural Revolution. As I was in tears the last hour of reading the book, it’s not surprising I find the beginning incredibly moving, looking at it again:

Chapter 1
New Costumes at the Swimming Pool
We Have Friends All Over the World!

The first time Weilin ever saw foreigners, ”real foreigners, not just National Minorities or Chinese people from another province”was at the swimming pool in South Lake Park.

The scope of Fire from the Sun is incredible, and incorporates multiple stories and perspectives of the period. If you’ve seen Chinese cinema of the period, the following themes from famous movies are also reflected in Fire from the Sun. 24 City, From Mao to Mozart, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Summer Palace, and Mao’s Last Dancer have clear parallels to the adventures in the book. Non-fiction readers of The Man Who Stayed Behind or I Choose China will recognize the descriptions of Beijing and other towns.

It struck me after finishing Fire from the Sun that the main characters are symbolic of the yellow earth / blue sea debate — though in complex and unexpected ways. In other words, what is the true China: Beijing or Hong Kong? Finishing a work this massive, the first day was spent thinking of the characters and all they went through. With a little more time to think of the book, though, the symbolism behind the story is just as meaningful. But it was the characters that made me cry.

Derbyshire uses the book’s thousand pages to emphasize the patterns behind behavior. This is perhaps most obvious given the two incidents involving different pedophiles, one of which paints the predators in a ghastly light, the other very sympathetically. Additionally, the sees surrounding the Tiananmen Massacre, both involving students being shot and soldiers being burned alive, emphasize how terrible that tragedy was. The same variations on a theme, the same drawing out of the substantial reality under the happenstances, are woven meticulously through the book.

I read Fire from the Sun on the Kindle edition.

Review of “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra F. Vogel

I have tried to understand China by reading about her political economy and her history. Among others, I have read histories (in order of birth) of

The biography of Deng I read, however, essentially stopped at him taking power. As such it provided a good early biography, but was silent on later events. Therefore I asked what the best up-to-date biography of Deng Xiaoping. I got an answer, and I read it.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is an insightful, thought-provoking, and disappointing book. I am glad I read it. I give it four stars.

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is the first detailed, western-written book on high level personal politics during the post-Mao era. There’s much that’s new in this book, and it changes the way that I understand the factions of the post-Mao era.

The book makes clear that the high-level leadership team of the People’s Republic saw the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as symptomatic of where one-man rule would take personality. That is, the the problem of Mao Zedong was not that Mao was alive, or even in leadership, but that he had acquired so much power among so many elements that it was impossible to stop him until after tens of millions of people died. This makes sense: in recent European politics, Vladimir Meciar was an important democratically elected leader of Slovakia while Slobodan Milosevic was a war criminal who died in prison: the difference between them was the systems they ruled in, rather than their temperament or personality style.

Given that, Deng’s work in displacing Hua Guofeng — China’s Gerald Ford — was more involved than I had thought. It was not merely the question of “opening” China v. keeping China closed, as Hua had begun engagement with both the west and the communist bloc. Rather, members of Deng’s own generation (including Chen Yun and Ye Jianying) sought to keep Hua in power precisely because he was week. What’s even most surprising is that Deng’s first designated successor, Hu Yaobang, also missed the Hua years.

The central event of Deng’s term may have bene the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, which Vogel discusses both directly and obliquely. Vogel, who calls it the “Tiananmen Tragedy,” draws a direct comparison to the Tiananmen Incident of 1976. The ’76 events at Tiananmen Square (closer in time to the ’89 events than the ’89 events are to us) was a mass protest against the rule of the aging Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four by workers, students, and cadres. Like the ’89 events, the ’76 events had as their proximate cause the death of a beloved leader who had been persecuted by the Surpeme Leader (Zhou Enlai by Mao Zedong, Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping).

For those looking for ominous parallels, the leadership team in charge of China during the ’76 protests were dead or in prison within six months.

Of course there were differences: the ’89 protests were larger in scale, and the government’s reaction was more violent. Indeed, confirming my earlier suspsicions after read wikileaks cables, Vogel states that the government lost control of Beijing out to the Third Ring Road – a 30 mile beltway around Beijing.  (For comparison, the DC Beltway is 64 miles long.)

For the most part, Vogel does an excellent job in his discussion of the events. Vogel criticizes the notion that the protestors were primarily interested in democracy as a form of government. Rather, Vogel interprets the protests were organized against inflation, against totalitarianism, and against anti-bureacraticism.

Zhao Ziyang, Deng’s designated successor at the time the protests began (and who would spend the rest of his life under house arrest, secreting dictating his memoirs), blamed his own policies for leading to inflation as a primary cause. The role of inflation as a cause of social stress is well known, and the fight over inflation may be a especailly important in Chinese politics.

Additioanlly, China in 1989 was still a totalitarian regime for educated youths. Vogel’s writing here is clear, so I’ll just quote from it:

But in 1989, with a shortage of trained graduates in key industries and government offices, government policy still mandated that graduates be assigned their jobs. Since one’s job assignment was based in part on what the political guides who lived with the students wrote in the “little reports” in each student’s secret records, the political guides became the symbol of government surveillance. The political guides were rarely as well educated as the students on whom they were reporting; some were suspected of favoritism and flaunted their authority to influence a student’s future. Many cosmopolitan, independent-minded students detested the constant worry about pleasing them. “Freedom,” to them, meant eliminating these political guides and being able to choose their jobs and careers on their own.

This focus on individual liberty was exacerbated by the fact that “intellectuals” (those with at least a high school education) were the primary losers of the economic reforms of the early and mid 1980s. While local entrepreneurs were providing jobs, creating goods, and revolutionizing the countryside, the decline of the regulatory state combined with the totalitarian control of city life to create an explosive situation:

Party and government workers, state enterprise employees, and others with fixed salaries were furious to see rich private businesspeople flaunting their material wealth and driving market prices higher, threatening the ability of salaried workers to pay for their basic food and clothing needs. The problem was exacerbated by corruption: township and village enterprise workers were enriching themselves by siphoning off needed materials and funds from state and public enterprises; independent entrepreneurs were making fortunes, in part due to government loopholes; and “profiteering officials” were finding ways to use society’s goods to line their own pockets as the incomes of law-abiding officials stagnated.6 Migrants beginning to stream into the cities also contributed to the inflation problem.

As post-1989 say an end to rapid inflation, and end to totalitarianism, and the establishment of a modern regulatory state, perhaps the Tiananmen Protestors were successful in their objectives?

If the protestors were successful, one would expect the man who opposed them to have failed, and Deng Xiaoping might have. To me this is the biggest revelation of this book: Deng was shut out of government as completely post-Tiananmen as Mao had been post-Great Leap Forward. Just as biographies of Mao have to wonder when the best time for him to retire would have been, a good argument can be made that Deng should have stepped down in 1987.

High-level officials either saw the Tiananmen incident as an example of a bumbled overreaction, the consequences of bad policies, or both. Hu Yaobang had used earlier student protests of 1987 as a method of cementing his own popularity with the party and the people. If Deng had allowed this transition to take place, he could have maintained primary in a system where the next ruler was a close long-term companion with similar views. Indeed, the only official who seems actually in favor of it is Li Peng (the adopted son of Zhou Enlai who argued for a crackdown at the time), who appears to be so out of China’s leadership he had his diaries published by a the same company that published Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs! (Vogel also mentions that since the time of the protests, the terms used for it in the government have evolved from Counterrevolutionary Riot, to Riot, to Mass Disturbance, to Event, implying a slow “reversing of the verdicts”).

The other stand-out figure from the 1987 protests was Jiang Zemin, who met protesting students in front of a “mass audience.” When he was heckled, Jiang invited the hecklers to the stage to criticize him directly. After they did so, Jiang emphasized that democracy is a result of the development in society, and in English stated that the essence of democracy in America was:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Jiang reciting the Gettysburg Address in English wasn’t just a cheap parlor trick: it simultaneously demonstrated a serious understanding of what democracy looks like while also emphasizing that building a society in a process driven by “intellectuals” (thus emphasizing the critical role of students and the bureaucracy in Chinese civilization) as opposed to mass movements.

If Deng had selected Jiang as a future replacement earlier, he could have started the Jiang administration earlier and cemented the role of the modern regulatory state.

Vogel cites the old Chinese saying, “the Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow,” in the context of the Tiananmen protests. It is interesting to think of the great impact that the Soviet Union had one Chinese thinkers. Vogel states that Deng Xiaoping was in the class and same study group as Chiang Ching-kuo. At the time they were studying in Moscow, Russia had moved from War Communism (central planning) to the New Economic Policy, intended to be the first stage of socialism (market-based reforms aimed at increased production). The reforms that Deng and Chiang completely revolutionaized daily life, based on a Soviet model that in the USSR had been killed by Stalin. Indeed, Vogel observes the trend of the Communist Party to re-establish continuity with the Xinhai Revolutionary era, when the Communist Party operated on the directions of Moscow in a United Front with KMT.

Vogel’s amazing work is nearly ruined, however, by his almost random lapses into ridiculous propaganda. My impression after reading this book is that he does this to flatter specific soureces. This is most obvious at the beginning and end of the book, where the Deng hagiography is greatest

“He possessed the natural poise of a former wartime military commander.”

“He made it clear that he did not represent on locality, one faction, or one group of friends.”

But it occurs most often when Vogel is speaking generally, and so a careful reader can ignore it. Sometimes the text is coded, such as this reference to Mao Zedong (in which “errors” are mistakes within the party, and are explicitly not “crimes”):

In his later years Mao was to commit devastating errors, yet he remained a brilliant political leader with deep insight and bold strategies.

And this reference to Lin Biao, which seems internally inconsistent. Is Lin a hypochondriac, is he suffering from a head injury, or he is suffering from PTSD? These options seem mutually exclusive:

Lin Biao, a reclusive hypochondriac after his head injury in World War II…

Chiang Ching-kuo is often the target of Vogel. Whether in this sentence, which is so beyond wrong it is stupid:

When he was informed of Deng’s proposal, however, Chiang Ching-kuo was defiant: he repeated his intention to increase the military budget, build up his fighting forces, and eventually retake the mainland.

to the repeating of insults:

Deng explained that Chiang Ching-kuo could be extremely cocky.

to an Orwellian erasing of history. For instance, in the discussion surrounding this photo:

Vogel notes that Li Peng was with Zhou Enlai at Tiananmen Square. He completely ignores the identify of the first facing straight into the camera: Wen Jiabao (China’s current Prime Minister).

As Vogel does not let these propagandistic statements guide the narrative, the simplest explanation seems to be that he is repeating lines given to him by sources, in hopes of flattering those sources and gaining access to more information later.

This disappointing note is perhaps shared by the similarly hagiographic: The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, It weakens an otherwise great narrative and forces the reader to be very cautious about what the author’s agenda is.

So Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is an insightful, thought-provoking, and aggravating book. Recommended!

100 years and 1 day

If a Qing strategist saw the outline map of China as it now stood, what would be his impressions?

He would first notice that Outer Mongolia had been cut-off. He would guess this was Russia’s doing (correctly), and that Outer Mongolia was most likely a Russian province (incorrect) under the Czar (also incorrect).

He would be struck that the ‘lost’ lands of Taiwan and Korea were as they had been in 1911, assume both were still controlled by Japan (incorrect) and that this remarkable stability of frontiers had meant that somehow Japan and China had avoided more wars (also incorrect).

He might ask if it was significant there was no areas carved out for foreign concessions or colonies — if we honestly answered ‘none are shown because there are none,’ he would assume that China must have prioritized defense of the coast over the territorial integrity of the interior (correct). Thinking of the stable Japanese frontier, he would assume that Japan had acted as an offshore balancer (incorrect).

For Japan to have acted to balance Russia against Europe, the 100 years after 1911 must have been catastrophic for Europe (correct), gloriously stable for Japan (incorrect), and successful for Russia (incorrect).

If he had inquired where the capital was, and we replied “Beijing,” he would have been absolutely correct: “Capitals only change when a frontier needs to be controlled. If one Emperor both lost Mongolia and moved the capital to Beijing, then he must have belived Russia to be our greatest threat.”

This might make him reconsider the nature of the eastern frontier, and if the evaporation of the colonies but the permanance of the loss of Korea nad Taiwan meant Japan had been partitioned by Russia and another, stronger power…