Notes from China

About the Book

A journalistic tour de force, this wide-ranging collection by the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Stilwell and the American Experience in China is a classic in its own right.
During the summer of 1972—a few short months after Nixon’s legendary visit to China—master historian Barbara W. Tuchman made her own trip to that country, spending six weeks in eleven cities and a variety of rural settlements. The resulting reportage was one of the first evenhanded portrayals of Chinese culture that Americans had ever read.
Tuchman’s observations capture the people as they lived, from workers in the city and provincial party bosses to farmers, scientists, and educators. She demonstrates the breadth and scope of her expertise in discussing the alleviation of famine, misery, and exploitation; the distortion of cultural and historical inheritances into ubiquitous slogans; news media, schools, housing, and transportation; and Chairman Mao’s techniques for reasserting the Revolution. This edition also includes Tuchman’s “fascinating” (The New York Review of Books) essay, “If Mao Had Come to Washington in 1945”—a tantalizing piece of speculation on a proposed meeting between Mao and Roosevelt that would have changed the course of postwar history.
“Shrewdly observed . . . Tuchman enters another plea for coolness, intelligence and rationality in American Asian policies. One can hardly disagree.”—The New York Times Book Review
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Praise for Notes from China

“Shrewdly observed . . . Tuchman enters another plea for coolness, intelligence and rationality in American Asian policies. One can hardly disagree.”The New York Times Book Review
Read more

Notes from China


Standing Up

In a country where misery and want were the foundation of the social structure, famine was periodic, death from starvation common, disease pervasive, thievery normal, and graft and corruption taken for granted, the elimination of these conditions in Communist China is so striking that negative aspects of the new rule fade in relative importance. The dominant fact is that for China’s working class, which is to say over 80 percent of the world’s most populous country, the lid of exploitation has been lifted. While visible betterment varies widely between the major cities and the provinces, it is probably true to say of all areas that the working class, in whose interest China is now governed, have found a sense of purpose, self-­confidence, and dignity in the knowledge that they are the object of the state’s concern, not, as in the past, society’s victims.

The most obvious negative in the process is the mental monotone imposed upon the country. All thought, all ideas past, present, and future, not to mention the historic record, are twisted, manipulated, rolled out, and flattened into one, expressed in half a dozen slogans dinned incessantly and insistently into the heads of the public. As far as the life of the mind in China is concerned, its scope has rigid limits and its sound is a blaring, endlessly repeated single note, with effect (at least upon a Westerner) like the drip, drip, drip on the victim’s head of the ancient Chinese water torture—­if it had made a loud noise. The message is that “the People” are the motive force; that Marxism-­Leninism is universal truth, and that propelled by its principles and Chairman Mao’s thought, China’s working class can ultimately build Socialism, meaning well-­being for everyone. The goal lies ahead and can only be reached by keeping the Revolution green, that is by continually renewed contact with the masses.

Domestically it seems to work. I say “seems” throughout these notes cautiously and advisedly because ignorance of the language is a barrier equal to being deaf. A six-­week visitor under this handicap can offer conclusions as impressions only.

Perhaps too the transfer to collectivism has been made easier because China’s life was in some ways collective to begin with. Consider the kang, the built-­in wall-­to-­wall bed of north China on which, in the poorer homes, the whole family sleeps. With that in their background, collective adjustment is natural, not to say imperative.

In any event, from what we could see through eleven cities (Peking, Taiyuan, Yenan, Sian, Loyang, Chengchow, Wuhan, Nanking, Suchow, Shanghai, and Canton) and a variety of rural settlements, collective effort has made up China’s oldest lack—­enough food. Our reception at an agricultural commune in central Shansi included three or four heaping platters each of sliced tomatoes, fresh peaches, and sweetened stuffed dumplings made of glutinous rice (a substance to make a Western stomach quail) in far greater abundance than was required by the company. Admittedly this was laid on to impress the visitors (as was everything else we met in China), but the availability of such abundance to agricultural workers and their un-­hungry attitude toward it were simply not possible in the past when, as one member of the commune said, “The lower peasants could not even have the chaff of the rice to eat.”

Increased production, materially speaking, is what China’s revolution is all about. It refutes all the firm statements of economists and agronomists in the past that China’s arable land could not be augmented, nor the yield per unit of land be raised sufficiently to feed the expanding population. Both have been done, not by magic but because the people have been mobilized and motivated to do it—­by expropriation and redistribution of land permitting communal farming in large tracts instead of fractional plots, and by the knowledge that everything they do to make improvements will now benefit themselves not the landlord.

I will cite no statistics on increased yield because I cannot judge their reliability, but in this summer’s drought in north China with day after relentless day of no rain and of temperatures over 100, when one sees fresh water being pumped in life-­giving gushes from irrigation channels, and sees surrounding fields green, vegetables ripening, and seedling crops sprouting instead of withering, one needs no statistics. In the old days this year’s drought would have been lethal. The great Miyun Dam and Reservoir northeast of Peking, the pumping stations and sedimentation plants along the Yellow River that have at last harnessed “China’s Sorrow,” and similar projects constructed elsewhere under the new regime, besides providing hydroelectric power, have brought drought, flood, and famine under control. The result provides the agricultural surplus which, paid in kind to the state as a form of tax, supplies the capital for expansion of industry—­the other of the two legs on which the new China walks.

In human terms the process has produced a new person—­the worker from the ranks who can become manager of the enterprise. It is true that such people do not bear sole responsibility. They function in committee in a three-­in-­one arrangement of workers, technicians, and “cadres” or representatives of the Government. Even so, in their straightforward look-­you-­in-­the-­eye greeting, their poise and self-­respect, they are impressive, none more so than the woman Vice-­Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee of the Szu Tzi Ching (Evergreen) Commune outside Peking.

Quiet, composed, and supremely assured, with bobbed hair, neat overblouse, loose trousers, and a big silver wristwatch, she knew every aspect of the operation: the crop rotation, marketing, fertilizing, spraying, trucking, livestock, the schools, clinics, and family lives of a commune of 6,000 acres and 41,000 people, formerly scattered in hopeless division in 138 villages. Born in a family in the “poor peasant” category, that is, hired or tenant farmers without land of their own, she was now playing a competent role where formerly she had no stake. Her colleague in charge of the orchards, a rough peasant with stubble of beard and sweat towel around his neck, had the same assured air, as did the girl supervisor of the pigsties. Both shook hands with confident equality and exhibited their domains with pride (each ripening peach on the trees was individually bagged and each pig had its own pen).

Their counterparts in industry—­like the shop foreman whose intense pride is almost tangible as he watches a finished tractor leave the assembly plant—­are equally forthright and precise, in notable contrast to civil servants who, being more vulnerable to the swings and switchbacks of official policy, try to be utterly orthodox and noncommittal to the point of speechlessness.

Obviously the commune and tractor plant were selected showplaces, but the fact that they exist at all and are managed in part by their workers is a piece of one of the greatest bootstrap operations in history. There have been harsh costs and there are negative aspects, but in these worker-­managers China has visibly, to quote who else but the Chairman, “stood up.”


The People

Who are “the People,” the subject and object of every political slogan in China? According to Chairman Mao’s definition, “the People” are all who support the Revolution (dutifully said to be 90 to 95 percent). The remainder, consisting of “class enemies,” “bad elements,” and counterrevolutionaries, are merely Citizens. This strikes me as a murky Thought, not one of the Chairman’s best, or else a poor translation, but since it is the official translation, it will have to stand. Theoretically and ideally, then, the People are a mystic whole (leaving aside the bad elements), but in practice class origin is determining.

Workers, peasants, and soldiers are automatically People (although sometimes they are exhorted to “learn from the People,” which is confusing) as is anyone of “poor and lower middle peasant” or other working-­class family. Those who come from landlord, rich peasant, merchant-­capitalist, or bourgeois origin are automatically out, or at least not full members of society until they have proved by deed and attitude that they have repudiated their class values and wholeheartedly adopted Chairman Mao’s “correct revolutionary line” of service to the People. What this requires in outward conformity for those with inner reservations can only be conjectured.

The masses (and for China the word is appropriate in a descriptive, not necessarily Marxist, sense), pedaling unhurriedly to work on their millions of bicycles through the city streets, filling the now public parks of the Imperial City and Summer Palace, crowding a department store or a museum exhibit of People’s Art, queueing at cooked food shops for a meal in a bowl, appear quite at ease. The economic security of food, paid work, and old-­age pension is a great relaxer of tension, and this appears in faces and manner. China has never been in a hurry, and the pace, even in factory work, is still easygoing. There is no sense of pressure or tension in the air.

A foreigner feels safe (though not comfortable) walking alone anywhere at any time—­if he can put up with attracting crowds of intense starers. In the countryside and provincial cities he also attracts smiles and spontaneous hand-clapping and almost never a scowl, for the Chinese are an agreeable and normally friendly people. Mrs. Chang Si-­lan, a tiny spry lady in black whose two-­room home (for a family of eight) we visited in a factory compound, welcomed us with such genuine delight that we fell into instant communication. It appeared that she and I were the same age: I pointed to my gray hair while hers was still black; she pointed to her absent teeth while I still had mine. She pressed us to sit beside her on the kang, passed cigarettes, and compared grandchildren. On Mrs. Chang’s level the Chinese do not insist on talking in ritual fatuities.

“Decorum” is the word for the masses in the capital. Even more notable, in comparison to former times, is their remarkable appearance of health and well-­being, though more so in Peking than in the provinces. The running nose of children, that endemic companion of poverty, has vanished, at least in the main cities. There are no cripples, no beggars, no open sores or disease, although hawking and spitting (outside Peking) are as bad as ever. Even Mao Tse-­tung Thought has found no formula to prevail over that.

Opium-­smoking, prostitution, and venereal disease have proved easier to eradicate, and according to claims have been wiped out. I cannot vouch for the claim but I can say that any overt interest in sex is simply nonexistent. When the subject came up in conversation with one female interpreter, it produced a grimace of disgust as if we had mentioned a cockroach, and the same expression contorted the face of a doctor of mental health when he was asked about perversions and homosexuality. “We don’t have this in China,” he replied succinctly.

At a military barracks we visited outside Nanking I noticed no provision for families. The state pays for an officer’s home leave or for visits by his family to the post, I was told, but apart from that he does without a wife’s companionship. After an officer has served fifteen years and “has a good record,” he may apply to have his family live with him. To make sure I had this piece of startling information right, it was repeated for me and confirmed as true for the Army as a whole (although I suspect regional commands vary). When I ventured the comment that this must be a very monastic life, the officer replied, “We consider it a very happy life to live and work with our friends and comrades of the great proletarian People’s Liberation Army.” That is the way they really talk. (It should be added that the PLA has played a genuinely constructive role in the state which, considering the past role of soldiery in Chinese society, is a revolution in itself; but that is another matter.)

At a May 7th Cadre School deep in the country where bureaucrats and professionals come for a six-­month term to be “re-­educated” through manual labor, the experience was also celibate. Although they dislike any reference to the question, the Committee was willing to say that their members were too busy with field labor, brick-­making, and building (which in fact was hard real work, not leaf-­raking) to worry about their sex life. Sex was sublimated in the “struggle for production” and for renewed “revolutionary consciousness.” It was the stock answer to be expected, but it is quite possible it may also be true. Whatever the truth, it is evident that in the new society the sex impulse has been pushed deep below the visible surface.

The effect on the family life of the “cadre” class is cooling. (This ubiquitous and absurd word, pronounced “cadder” by Chinese-­speaking English—­gan bou in Chinese—­is as basic in Communist usage as “peasant.” Originally adopted to mean a government or party bureaucrat, it now loosely covers anyone in an administrative, professional, intellectual, or white-­collar job, in short, everyone who is not worker, peasant, or soldier. There is a sharp distinction between lower-­echelon cadres called “staff members” and the upper-­echelon “leading cadre” who is a person in a position of authority: a minister, bureau chief, manager, director, or head of any organization, except that in theory no one is head because everything is run by committee. The “leading cadre” in each case is Vice-­Chairman of the relevant Revolutionary Committee. Perhaps in deference to Number One, a chairman is either nonexistent or never appears.)

As regards family life, many of the cadre class are now confining themselves to one child or two and appear to maintain a rather detached marital relationship. Two of the various escorts who accompanied us at different places and who had working wives or husbands, sent their four-­year-­old children to boarding kindergarten from which the child comes home only for the one-­day weekend. The first of these parents explained airily that “a child at home can be a nuisance, you know.” A third had a more surprising solution: her four-­year-­old son was cared for at home by what she first described as a “roommate,” and only at my evident bewilderment reluctantly confessed was a housemaid! I felt myself dangerously in the presence of Revisionism.

This attitude has not yet spread downward, for in the life of the streets, which is the life of the masses, babies and small children are cared for and carried around by brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents (in particular the grandfather); not in the backpack arrangement with head nodding used by the Japanese but cradled in a front-­carry which is certainly less efficient but more affectionate.

About the Author

Barbara W. Tuchman
Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmermann Telegram and international fame with The Guns of August—a huge bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Bible and Sword, The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience in China (for which Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize), Notes from China, A Distant Mirror, Practicing History, The March of Folly, and The First Salute. More by Barbara W. Tuchman
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