Foreigners approaching a North China village in the early 1930s met the barking of ill-fed dogs and the stares of children covered with flies. Villagers had skin and scalp sores due to poor nutrition. Their inbred civility was that of peasants who were conscious of the guest-host relationship but ignorant of the outer world. Typically their strips of dusty farmland had few trees and little water, which only came out of wells laboriously, bucket by bucket. The long years of Japanese invasion and Nationalist-Communist civil war down to 1949 brought no improvement in this essentially medieval situation.

Today the dogs and the flies are gone, rows of poplars and electric lines march across the flat North China landscape, electric pumps supply new irrigation ditches, and crops in the big fields are diversified and interplanted. The people seem healthy, well fed and articulate about their role as citizens of Chairman Mao's new China. Compared with 40 years ago the change in the countryside is miraculous, a revolution probably on the largest scale of all time. How did this happen and what are its implications for Americans?

First, we must correct the foreshortening created by the news and propaganda stress on Mao Tse-tung. The Chairman's portrait adorns most rooms, both public and private. There must be several billion likenesses of him in portraits and posters, busts and buttons. His sayings dominate the exhortations that ornament the landscape-big red or black characters on white village wails, or white on a red background in city parks and public buildings. But Mao is both a symbol and an inspiration. The work has been done by a whole people. The slogans may read "Long live our great leader Chairman Mao." But they also read "Let us use our own strength for regeneration," "Transform our fatherland." The Chairman is no more omnipresent than the Part)? and the people. A billion hands have planted and harvested the wheat and rice crops.

My strongest first impression in June 1972, in contrast with the deterioration of the 1930s and 1940s, is one of unity and homogeneity. The unity of slogan and standpoint, evident in the uniformity of verbal and written expression in all parts of the country (at least in the parts of six provinces that we visited), seems to be accepted as quite normal. I attribute this to a degree of homogeneity such as few other countries know. The Chinese have used one writing system and shared one culture for at least 3,000 years. Invasion in modern times has only heightened their sense of cultural identity, which is now far stronger than the European type of political nationalism. The Western nations arose as political units within the culture of Christendom and when their kind of nationalism spreads within a culture area, as, for example, in Latin America, it is far from an all-absorbing force. The Chinese realm, by contrast, is coterminous with the Chinese people's history, language, way of life and secular faith in Maoism. Given the relative unimportance of foreign trade, one can assert that in China more aspects of the society focus inward on the nation than is the case with any other people. Despite the diversity of racial types, of local dialects and traditions, the common denominator of being Chinese runs throughout most of the land and dwarfs any tendencies toward separatism or disunity. This is another way of stating the obvious fact that no other group of 750 million people has ever before held together as a political unit. This cohesion, of course, has been furthered by the Maoist monopoly of print and advertising, the Party committees at all levels, and the People's Liberation Army and security system. But all of these together are still superficial. In the last analysis China's homogeneity lies in the people themselves. It comes from their having lived together time out of mind in the same place.


The Chinese people's togetherness can be better appreciated by Westerners if we contrast it with our own diversity and expansiveness. China's capital city moved within a rather narrow orbit of Sian, Loyang, Kaifeng, Hangchow, Nanking and Peking while the center of Western civilization shifted from Athens to Rome, Paris, London and New York. European expansion by sea in the Mediterranean and Atlantic led after 1500 to migrations and colonies around the world, but this European explosion had no counterpart in China. There, the flowering of technology, roughly in the millennium from 1 to 1000 AD was marked by the great inventions such as paper, printing and porcelain and other achievements in engineering, military and nautical technology, but the effect was one of implosion more than explosion.

The resulting material superiority of the T'ang and Sung eras was accompanied by an advance in political-social technology marked by the introduction of the examination system to qualify for official service and the many devices and procedures of bureaucratic government. Out of the constant refinement of family and state organization, there eventually emerged the "gentry state" of the era roughly from 1400 to 1900, the very period when Europeans overran the earth and suffered the shock and inspiration that came from their explosion overseas.

For China this era never arrived. The Chinese people came into modern times with a strongly built ruling class, the network of gentry families schooled in the Confucian classical teachings of social status and order. Down to this century the Son of Heaven was supported by and in turn patronized a scholar class that rested mainly on landlordism and the privileges of officialdom. Scattered throughout the countryside, landlord-gentry families formed the local élite who managed affairs and dominated the society. They opposed adventuring abroad, and had no need of foreign trade or colonies overseas. Stretching so far from north to south, China was economically self-sufficient and preferred to remain so, a civilization unto herself.

This long history of self-containment leaves China today quite the opposite of the United States. We are a country of diverse peoples and cultural heritages, recently created by migration and given to continuing mobility on a massive scale (one in four Americans moves his home every year). It is not easy for us to imagine a community in which neighbors have usually lived side by side through several generations, nor can we envision a nation whose leadership is so genuinely isolationist in the literal sense of wanting to be left alone to work out its own problems in its own way.

A second impression is that China is still and will long remain an agrarian country. The people are almost too numerous to live in cities. In fact, many American suburbs are less densely populated than fertile sections of the Chinese countryside. Villages among the fields may hold 2,000 or 3,000 people per square mile. The agrarian bent of Chairman Mao, who disesteems city ways, is no accident but follows directly from his concern for the common people, who live by farming the land. The application of modern technology, developing richer soils and better crops, has been matched by a new attitude toward nature-conquest and mastery, instead of the old fatalism and superstition.

For example, the Shih-p'ing Brigade in Hsi-yang county, Shansi, has learned from its neighbor, the model Tachai Brigade, how to make eroded canyons into fields. The procedure is simply to hand-quarry local stone, transport it to the site and build a network of ten-foot-high stone tunnels two miles long running the length of the canyon floors. It only remains to tear down the canyon walls and fill in the floors to make broad level fields, from which flood waters in the rainy season can drain into the tunnels and harmlessly flow away. The arid terrain here is like eroded areas of Arkansas or Arizona that no American would ever try to farm. The expenditure of manpower over the Shansi landscape is quite beyond the American capacity to imagine or desire to emulate.

Third, the People's Republic under Mao, building on this homogeneous farming population, is now fully engaged in its own style of industrial revolution. While there are many big plants, the effort is to avoid the centralization of industrial growth, which would require an enormous transportation network to distribute centrally produced goods to so vast a consuming public. Instead, the stress is partly on local, small-scale production integrated with the collectivized farming communities. The Great Leap of 1958, for all its excessive and aborted hopes, catapulted farmers into small industries, A blacksmith forge grew into a foundry, which now with the help of electric power makes machinery. For Shansi farmers, who were probably the inventors of cast iron two thousand years ago, mining of coal and iron is no novelty. Casting of parts and assembling of triphammers, pumps, plows, and even lathes comes naturally. Meanwhile stonemasons vie with the brickmakers whose kilns dot the landscape. Food, and housing are local products, and cotton planting for textiles is widespread.

The decentralization of industry is indexed, by the tall chimneys in almost every rural landscape, as well as the big plants in out-of-the-way places, Truck traffic, another index, is quite marked on rural arteries. Decentralization fosters local self-sufficiency and so not only makes for a more balanced rural development but also has defensive value against air or missile attack. Like the network of evacuation tunnels that underlies much of Peking, and presumably other cities, this gives China a more confident defensive posture.

These impressions of nationwide balanced development among the people, in the endless countryside in which they live? naturally call for explanation. Flow has this great process of growth been started? How is it guided? Can it be controlled? Here one encounters the problem of ideology, which is the most difficult for an American observer to encompass.


The basic fact is that Marxism, which grew out of the European experience, has a considerable degree of resonance within the Chinese experience. First of all, the bulwark of the old order in imperial China down to 1911 was the landlord-gentry ruling class, a composite of landowners, scholars, officials and merchants whose rule had been ordained and sanctioned by two millennia of the Confucian classical teachings. In its day, the Confucian hierarchy of status, by which age dominated youth, men dominated women, and the literate few ruled over the illiterate peasantry, had given ancient Chinese society an initial strength and high culture. By the twentieth century, of course, the indoctrinated gentry élite was an anachronism, no longer capable of leadership in a shattered rural society. The old ruling class became the great target of the Revolution, and the gravest charge against the deposed chief of state, Liu Shao-ch'i, is in effect that he attempted to revive it in a new form. Stories of exploitation-the sufferings of women sold into household slavery, the struggles of the landless to survive-form the substance of a great saga. "Before Liberation" figures as a hell on earth far more vivid than the milder insecurities of the Great Depression which underlay FDR's four presidencies. "Since Liberation" has been Light after Darkness; to call the old order feudalism makes elementary sense.

China's other great evil, of course, has been foreign invasion, not only in the nineteenth century from the West but repeatedly from Inner Asia, where mounted archers of Turkish and Mongol tribes had been an intermittent menace ever since the founding of the empire. Dynasties set up by these non- Chinese invaders ruled parts of North China from the tenth century until finally all China was conquered and ruled, first by the Mongols of the twelfth century and later by the Manchus from 1644 to 1912. Foreign invasion is almost as old as Confucianism, and modern armies of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States have appeared on Chinese soil against this age-old background. To speak of imperialism as a world menace has seemed simply the beginning of wisdom, especially since the invaders of China often made their peace with the Chinese ruling class at the expense of the people. The Marxist-Leninist analysis of the twin evils of feudalism and imperialism supporting each other thus makes excellent sense to any Chinese patriot.

This leaves the American people, who have been spared both the exploitation of ruling landlords and the conquest of foreign invaders, rather like a world minority. In our favored virgin land we have lacked the national experience so many other, older peoples have had. The exploitation of man by man, which is the essence of class struggle, has been less in America because man has used machines to exploit abundant nature. The great exception was black slavery. As for foreign invaders, we have not even been bombed. (If we had, we might have been less acquiescent, since 1965, in a national policy of bombing.)

The Chinese, with whom we are trying once again to be friends, will not help our self-comprehension because like any great people they are fervently convinced of the correctness of their worldview. The Maoist revolution is on the whole the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in many centuries. At least, most Chinese seem now to believe so, and it will be hard to prove it otherwise. Since Maoism, including Marxism- Leninism, has got results inside the country, its validity abroad stands to reason. An America in which only six percent of the people are farmers, and 50 percent are neither farmers nor laborers but in tertiary or service industries, may be a new postindustrial phenomenon in which class struggle has been diffused into something else. But the Chinese still believe class struggle makes history here, as it has done for them. This ideological gap will be the greater because the Chinese self-confidence now matches the American. Newly articulate, they are ready to tell us how things are and must be in the world.

Moreover, under Mao the Chinese Revolution has become not only an advance in the industrial arts creating a new technology and a new class structure, but also a far-reaching moral crusade to change the very human Chinese personality in the direction of self-sacrifice and serving others. Where the old Confucian gentry élite was trained to put family duties first, the new cadre-managers are imbued with a secular faith in Mao's teachings and service to the people as a whole. This is a spur to the selfless coöperation and collective effort that have transformed Chinese life in a short two decades. Personal services for the traveler still abound in trains, hostels and eating places, but in place of tipping they are to be acknowledged by a handshake, person to person. All prices are fixed and the old medieval haggling is gone. Getting the better of others is no longer a national pastime nor is face any longer so esteemed.

All this may make for a more direct and explicit conflict of Sino-American interests and values. Instead of the indirect manipulation of foreign invaders from a position of weakness, the People's Republic is committed to egalitarian relations between sovereign states and peoples. Taiwan epitomizes this issue, for many Americans would now find it desirable to develop contact with Peking without abandoning TaipeL Since Chiang Kai-shek is still the avowed and deadly enemy of the new order, the "two Chinas" issue is emotionally supercharged and prëempts every discussion in which well-meaning Americans seek contact within their individual fields. Their coming to China is currently limited by the supply of interpreters, among other things, while sending Chinese specialists to visit the United States is inhibited by the presence of a Nationalist embassy in Washington and an American embassy in Taipei instead of Peking. While this impasse continues, the only makeshift may be for Americans and Chinese to meet in third countries like Canada which have embassies of the People's Republic. Yet there is plainly an urgent need to build up a new generation of Chinese who are America specialists, just as our own China specialists urgently need experience in China.

What then are we to conclude about the U.S.-China policy since 1949? The Truman-Marshall-Acheson disengagement from the Chinese civil war in 1949-50 was wisdom. MacArthur's push for the Yalu in late 1950 was folly. Only Stalin, perhaps, profited from the Sino-American war in Korea. The ensuing Dullesian cold war against Peking in the 1950s was fundamentally mistaken and unnecessary, based on an utter misconception of Chinese history and the Chinese Revolution. Only the Nixon visit could get us beyond this quagmire of errors, and we still have a long way to go to reach firm ground.


Future relations will require an acceptance of differences, and hence, conflicts of principles and interests. The American post-industrial society will be committed to nurturing individual specialists who will try both through the division of labor and their own expertise to harness technology for humane purposes. In the United States the higher scholarship must rise still higher with the greatest diversity, initiative and autonomy. China is at a very different level of technology, where the electric pump and lathe have just arrived and the modern descendant of the McCormick reaper has not yet entered the hand-sown wheat fields. Production of goods, not services, is still the consuming passion, and neither the cinema nor travel nor television has as yet absorbed much leisure time. China will not copy the American automobile civilization but will create a new balance of man and machine in her own way.

Meanwhile China's higher scholarship, judging by six universities briefly visited, is just in the process of recuperation from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which closed the universities for four to five years and subjected their faculties to class struggle. This is a chapter about which little is known, though speculation has been rife.

To begin with, most of China's modern scholars after 1949 were participants in the outer international world, where many of them had been trained, and this in itself had the effect of setting them apart from the peasantry who formed the bulk of the People. But in the Revolution they were cursed with a double stigma because they were also the modern successors of the old Confucian literati, who had been a major arm of the old ruling class. Untainted peasant youths could easily view them as the product of both feudalism and imperialism.

The modern scholars' expertise was, of course, needed by the new régime, especially at first, but their status lacked the sanction which has attached to individual conscience and freedom of thought and investigation in the Western tradition. Old China's scholars, if they did not make the grade as officials themselves, generally remained appendages or stipendiary ornaments of the official class. While the modern universities had often asserted faculty autonomy, it was not a deeply rooted institution. As patriots, moreover, the Western-trained scholars who stayed with the Revolution in 1949 could not but be impressed by its enormous accomplishments. For all these reasons they more readily subjected themselves to the arduous self-criticism and remolding of class standpoint which eventually became the touchstone for their intellectual reintegration as part of the new China.

The Cultural Revolution, which would be better called by its full title as a "great revolution to establish a propertyless class culture," naturally meant many different things to many different people. The stress and even violence of 1966-69 have now been succeeded, in the aftermath or consolidation phase of this vast movement, by a sense of relaxation and euphoria that makes 1972 a happy time to be in China. If one may evaluate so large and recent an event, it seems to have been a second round of China's transformation, more penetrating and thorough than the thought- remolding efforts of the 1950s. One major aim was to forestall the tendency to create a new ruling class, apparatus and all, which under organization- men like Liu Shao-ch'i might have combined the worst features of both the Soviet and the Chinese traditions. At any rate the Cultural Revolution sought to put the process of change into the hands of the People, who were mainly villagers, under the necessary guidance of a new leadership purged of bureaucratic evils and the hankering after special status and privileges.

Among its many other aspects, this second revolution tried to nip in the bud the old evils of the privileged ruling-class outlook by making the universities into places where reliable village youths can be given special training of a sort they can take back to boost village production and enhance rural life. The old liberal arts tradition that had lingered on for want of something better has been denigrated as mere book-learning divorced from practice, while entrance examinations that would favor the children of literate families have been supplanted by a system of nomination from production units (after a middle-school graduate has done two years of practical work), followed by party screening and university acceptance. The new system is professedly experimental and in transition. But it points up the dilemma: how to train farm and city craftsmen in technology and yet at the same time recreate a modern system of higher scholarship such as the late twentieth century requires.

Here is where time squeezes the Chinese revolutionaries, for the rather simple formulae of nineteenth-century Marxism-Leninism are not likely to be adequate for the increasingly gray problems of a century later. Yet Maoism- on the whole-has met the needs of a China transforming herself in isolation, and, in a society so devoted to rational suasion as the civilized way, the official ideology will remain all-important. One can hope that Chairman Mao, like other great leaders, has put forth enough generalities to be quotable for almost any purpose. But the contradiction remains: a philosophy of class struggle for mass liberation, now utilized to bring an agrarian people into modern life, does not lend itself easily to specialized scholarship and the professional autonomy which modern expertise requires. The inevitable demand for specialized knowledge may become confused or even connected with the dreaded revival of special privilege for a new ruling class divorced from the people.

One current preventive of such a tendency is the May Seventh Cadre School (or farm) to which white-collar personnel, administrators and educators regularly repair in rotation for a spell of farm work and Mao study. Certainly this brings the professor closer to understanding the villager, but it remains to be seen whether university faculties (where classes are now intermingled with production) can on this basis ever catch up with the breakneck growth of modern learning.


What may be the new China's contribution to the international world of the future? Each outsider since Marco Polo has offered his bit, and this one is no exception. The great ingredient of Chinese life that diminishes with distance and is hard to experience through study only from the outside, is the human warmth of personal contact. Chinese live very much together. They have for the most part always lived in this world, little concerned for an afterlife, skeptical of personal immortality, and not inclined to sacrifice people for alleged principles. Fanaticism, to be sure, breaks into their history of popular rebellion, but religious martyrdom bulks rather small.

The personal quality of China's government is evident if one compares the very human aura of Chairman Mao's thought as a final arbiter with the rather impersonal legal concepts of the American Constitution. Mao's thought rests on the ancient assumption that man is an instractable moral animal, that rational exhortation can improve his conduct, and that leadership consists in showing him by precept and example the right way to proceed. Politics and morality are thus intertwined, not separable as they have been in the West at least since Machiavelli, and China's rural industrialization is at the same time a moral crusade for a correct class attitude.

Policy thus remains intensely personal. Loyalty to a leader is inseparable from loyalty to his program. Since political conduct is a manifestation of moral character, it turns out that a man with a thoroughly "bad" policy, like Liu Shao-ch'i, was, necessarily, a thoroughly bad man. For the outside observer the fact that Liu was made chief of state seems highly anomalous. If one so evil rose so high, it is a serious reflection on someone or something. Nevertheless, in current Chinese thinking the idea that, for all his failings or evil deeds, Liu might have been loyal to the cause as he conceived it, in the posture of a loyal opposition, seems repugnant and inadmissible.

Applied to foreign contacts, this personal approach seeks in foreigners not "mutual understanding" (as the keystone of international comity is usually phrased in the West) but "friendship." This may be preferable, for it implies not merely an analysis of common problems but affirmative action. The nuance here involved may be illustrated in the difference between a "friendly understanding" (which may be temporary) and an "understanding friend" (who may be longer lasting). In any case, Americans may find in China's collective life today an ingredient of personal moral concern for one's neighbor that has a lesson for us all.

China's government by exemplary moral men, not laws, puts a heavy burden on the Party members and cadres (kan-pu, activists) who form the network of authority and leadership. Like the ideal Confucians of an earlier time, they should be the first to be concerned and the last to be content. One problem ahead is how this still rather thin stratum of management can not only survive the temptations of power but also foster a higher learning that by its nature will inevitably tend to remove itself from their control. Already the customary esteem for book learning, in the land where books were invented, is manifest in the hunger for print-new books and reprints draw long queues of buyers and are out of stock almost immediately.


Such problems suggest the infeasibility of all-out Sino-American contact The old days of tourism will not come again. China's Revolution must continue in a restricted environment, not open to things that many Americans may want to offer. Foreigners injected into this homogeneous world are elements of potential disorder, especially if they come from a still acquisitive society of bourgeois individualism. As outsiders they are guests, and both politeness and security require that they be escorted and their speech translated. Carried in automobiles, all of which belong to the state, and accompanied by a necessary entourage, they are about as inconspicuous as the Prince of Wales on a weekend. How could it be otherwise if foreign visitors are to be shown infinitely detailed processes of production on the spot in the villages? They can get there only by being attached to the established organization,

The American people were fated to come into contact with the Chinese people just as the old order fell upon evil days. Their relations suffered from the fact that in retrospect the two peoples developed very different views of what their relationship had been. The Americans saw themselves as demanding in China only most-favored-nation treatment, the same as any other foreign power, but from the point of view of modern Chinese patriots this made the Americans part and parcel of the humiliating unequal treaty system set up by Britain after the Opium War.

In the early twentieth century the American missionary, educational, medical and relief work in China, supported with great good will by a broad segment of the American public, seemed to these supporters to be good works of high altruism, accompanied by friendly feelings and coöperation between the two peoples. As the Chinese revolutionary movement got under way, however, the American establishment and institutions in China were considered part of the conservative old order that must be swept away. As foreigners in China the Americans, to be sure, could foster and support social and economic reforms but they were incapable of joining in a national, political revolution.

Just at this point, after 1941, the American government became for the first time directly and deeply involved in China's domestic affairs, The result was a disaster, for American activity was now guided not by a primary concern for the Chinese people but by a primary concern for the American national interest, first to defeat Japan using China as a base, second to counter Soviet influence by nurturing a non-Communist China. Since the Chinese Communist Party was already the leader of the great revolution, the United States wound up in the 1950s intervening against it in support of the Nationalists after they had already been defeated except on Taiwan.

It is too easy in an age of hopeful negotiation in the 1970s to look back and decry a preceding age of bitter confrontation in the 1950s. It is not enough to deplore or condemn, the recent cold war. We must also understand it, and from both sides. In America the cold-war attitude of indiscriminate feeling and commitment against "communism" was inspired largely no doubt by fear of the totalitarian police state, whether Nazi or Stalinist, and of its threat to rights of property and the civil liberties of each person. Compounded by the insecurities of the nuclear age of warfare, among other things, our performance in the McCarthy era showed us fearful at home as well as abroad. In our active search for defense and stability we developed a policy of containment and isolation of China which was based more on fear than on reason.

On the Chinese side the 1950s saw an overwhelming emphasis on the reorganization and regeneration of national life with little stress on foreign affairs, The great task was, as it still is, at home. The imperialist image of the American containment policy was utilized to encourage the virtue of self-sufficiency. And hence the new China was built in comparative isolation, especially after the open Soviet break in 1960. As the Chinese see it, today the American record in Asia since 1946, and particularly in Vietnam since 1965, serves only to confirm the idea that we are imperialist aggressors. Indeed, this idea has spread around the world and among ourselves.

From this record, which everyone must balance out for himself, it seems to me difficult not to conclude that the Chinese, despite their blind spots, have the better of the argument, If their highly organized and moralistic efforts at regeneration are to be stigmatized as regimentation, then we must ask whether our own unregimented efforts are equally adequate to our far different needs and circumstances.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now