We hear a lot these days about the revival of Confucianism in China. Some argue that it will bring something like political meritocracy and moral leadership to the PRC. But these outcomes are fairly remote, obstructed as they are by powerful institutional structures and incentives to maintain the power, and perquisites of the ruling party. The system is not meritocratic, it is fundamentally corrupt and in need of reform. But examples of a more immeidate embrace of Confucian values are more readily at hand. An outstanding example is the Yang Jisheng and his impressive book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962.
It is an extraordinary and painstaking volume. Yang amasses reams of documents and reports and testimony, carefully piecing together the painful loss of millions and millions (36 million unnatural deaths - p. 430) of people due to CCP-made starvation during the "Great Leap Forward." The American edition of the book (the Chinese edition was even longer and more detailed) alternates between chapters on particular provinces, where the story delves into chlling specifics on political violence, hunger, death, cannibalism, and chapters that step back an analyze the structural and historic causes on the horror. It is true tour de force.
What makes it Confucian is its introduction, where Yang recounts his witnessing of his own father (really his uncle who raised him as a son) dying of starvation. It was April, 1959. He was called home from school:
Upon entering our home, I found utter destitution; there was not a grain of rice, nothing edible whatsoever, and not even water in the vat. Immobilized by starvation, how would my father have had the strength to fetch water? (4)
His father was by then beyond hope and he died three days later. Yang, only 19 at the time, could not then see - as so many of his countrymen could not see - the larger poltiical context:
I grieved deeply over my father's death, but never thought to blame the government. I harbored no doubts regarding the party's propaganda about the accomplishments of the "Great Leap Forward" or the advantages of the people's communes. I believed that what was happening in my home village was isolated, and that my father's death was merely on family's tragedy....(7)
This is a vexing question: how did the regime survive after bringing so much suffering and death to China? Why didn't people rise up and overthrow the power-holders who had killed so many? Of course, starving people are too weak to revolt. But, beyond that, the CCP maintain a monopoly on the means of communication, such that many, many people shared Yang's understanding: the problems were local, not systemic. The party also found scapegoats, as Yang goes on to detail in other chapters. Certain local officials were blamed for ideological and policy errors. Some were punished, evene executed; others transferred far away from the counties where they had taken food from desperately hungry people. Those higher up in the political system, the provincial and central authorities who pressed the famine onto the people, and Mao himself, were shielded from any blame. Perhaps the real tragedy is that the massive evasion and deception, hiding the true reality of the national disaster from Chinese people and the world, worked. The Party was able to shirk its responsibility for, as the introduction to Yang's book describes it, the "worst famine in human history."
It was only after an adulthood of growing skepticism, and especially an epiphany after the massacre in Beijing on June 4th 1989, that Yang came to realize that the history and causes of the Great Famine had to be documented and told. And he was motivated in that task by the memory of his father. The book, he says, stands as a tombstone for his father:
In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father' s death and to reflect more profoundly on his life....I thought that even though I was not a high official, I would erect for my father a tombstone grander than any of those others.... My father's tombstone had to be erected not on the ground, but in my heart. A tombstone in the heart could never be demolished or trampled underfoot.
I did erect a tombstone for my father, in my heart, and this book is made up of the words I carved into that tombstone....(12)
These are the words of a filial son, a man determined to redeem the memory of his father. He carves the words in his heart, which Mencius tells us is the core of our moral being. If you are looking for ways in which a Confucian sensibility is manifest in China today, Yang Jisheng's book is the best starting place.
And that book also reminds us of just how deeply inhumane Mao Zedong was. There is a chilling passage in chapter two. It recounts a meeting, the second session of the eighth national congress, where Mao gave a speech, urging on the move toward ever more irresponsible agricultural policy, laying the political groundwork for the famine to come. Lin Biao, a sycophantic general, mentioned the name of the murderous first Qin emperor, and Mao responded:
What was Qin Shihuang? He only buried 460 scholars, but we buried 46,000 scholars. During the suppression of counterrevolutionaries, didn't we kill some counterrevolutionary intellectuals? I've discussed this with advocates of democracy: "You call us Qin Shihuang as an insult, but we've surpassed Qin Shihuang a hundredfold." Some people curse us as dictators like Qin Shihuang. We must categorically accept this as factually accurate. Unfortunately, you haven't said enough and leave it to us to say the rest for you.
Mao was proud of killing his countrymen at a rate greater than Qin. And he would kill many, many more. It is small wonder that as the news of starvation returned in 1959, Mao "willfully ignored" the suffering. He did not care; he was inhumane, more concerned about ideological purity and political power than with the livelihood of the people.
Yang's book thus gives us a sharp contrast: the work of a filial son that reveals the full meaure of a depraved ruler's iniquity. The son's care for his parents shines with Confucian virtue, while Mao's baleful masoluem, and the Party that still venerates him, stands as a cold and powerful obstacle to genuine moral revival in China.