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The Real Mao

Dreamt 2006/7/9 and 2006/7/11 by Wayan


I dream I'm at school, in an airless little room. My classmates are mostly Chinese girls wearing traditional, formal silk coats with embroidered dragons. Our teaching assistant is wearing one too. I'm not. Is it some holiday I don't know about?

In comes a substitute teacher, a white guy. He talks briefly to our TA, who answers in her strong Chinese accent. But then he says "...since you're Japanese..." She's so clearly Chinese that I'm amazed. Not just her accent AND costume, she doesn't even look Japanese--has that solid John Lennon look of a northern Han.

This guy must be from outa town. Way outa town. From somewhere with no Asians at all. Where "they're all Japs to me"...

The TA looks embarrassed--reluctant to contradict a teacher, even a sub. So I speak up for her! Announce loudly "I am Chinese". My classmates turn and look at me, surprised.

The teacher says "But the rest of you are Japanese." He doesn't sound hostile... just a fool who wants to be right about something. Now my classmates' looks turn sympathetic as I repeat louder "I am CHINESE." Am I speaking for all of them now too?

When I'm one of the few in class who isn't Chinese. I speak Mandarin of course, but I'm a white boy. So why did I say that?

Wait, I'm QUOTING. During World War 2, "I AM CHINESE" was printed on a million buttons! When being Japanese or even Japanese-American got you beat up or jailed, lots of people (including some Japanese-Americans) wore I AM CHINESE buttons.

OK, I'm quoting. Still... why? I feel like some inner self spoke up--someone I don't know! I don't understand.

Not that I'm complaining. Some of the hottest girls in class, who used to ignore me, are suddenly smiling at me in agreement. Seeing me. It's just that... now I'm not quite sure I see the real me. Am I Chinese, but blind to it? What's going on here?



I don't do as the dream suggests. I delay calling anyone, doing anything social. I try, but can't. Instead I pace uneasily around the house, until a book leaps into my hand--from a stack of library books one of my housemates checked out. It's Mao by Jung Chang. She's interviewed or researched absolutely everyone who knew him--down to the guy who did his laundry. Their revelations sicken me; I get queasy and can't eat. But I can't stop reading.

Mao brutally betrays friends, family, comrades, the peasants he supposedly championed. A guiltless sociopath who serenely lies and murders. Though Jung Chang clearly loathes him, it's hard to call her biased--she's put together such a damning, comprehensive case despite official whitewashing and intimidation. Such consistent evil! And not only his own; without strong early support from Stalin, he'd never have clawed his way into power. Nor would he have made it without passive, reluctant complicity by many who knew he was a monster but saw no safe way to oppose him.

But part of it just seems like luck, too. So many small changes could have prevented his rise, and saved millions of lives. But he led a charmed life, outlasting Hitler and Stalin, his only rivals for history's mass-murder crown since Jenghiz Khan.

Why does luck favor these scumbags? It's not just random, though I know many religious people define Hell as the absence of a loving God. But this is worse: a merely absent God could let the occasional Gandhi or Lincoln live, and kill off a few Hitlers and Maos. But the more history I read, the more I'm convinced we don't just create hell on earth for ourselves. The worst always happens, the worst always rule. It ain't even random--the world seems rigged for Maos.

Why? If I had to come up with a spiritual lesson here, it'd be that we're being tested--tested to destruction. Life's a school with a merciless program--piling on enough heat and pressure to make diamonds of our lumpish, coaly souls. I bet souls tempered in these holocausts are strong indeed. Whoopee.

If I sound sour, it's because I know I wouldn't have lasted a week near this bastard.

As I go to sleep, I'm still wondering--it doesn't seem like coincidence that my dreams referred so strongly to China's suffering during the Japanese occupation. I think the dream was preparing me emotionally for the horror of the book.


Today I read about Mao's middle and later years. Just as appalling as his beginnings. Other Chinese warlords were devious and even vicious, but not genocidal totalitarians.

Or druglords. Mao was! He financed his operations by selling opium. Poisoned the peasants he claimed to be freeing!

He got his rival Zhang Guotai sent off on a doomed expedition; out of 20,000 men, only 400 returned. No problem! Mao's men buried them alive.

Then Mao poisoned his next rival, slowly, carefully, deliberately--against Stalin's direct orders, too.

To ruin a third rival, he stirred up a fight between the Nationalists and the New 4th Army that he knew his side would lose, killing thousands of comrades... but eliminating his REAL enemy: a better Communist leader.

Yenan (famously described by a Western reporter as "I have seen the future, and it works") was really half fraud, a set of showcase villages for naive reporters, and half gulag--even international volunteers were made prisoners, and Chinese who tried to leave were simply killed. All the techniques used in the Cultural Revolution were already used, personally instigated by Mao. Informers, lack of privacy, self-criticism sessions designed to stifle free speech, leaders in luxury as followers starve... it was much like North Korea today--and had a similar defection level, despite the risks of flight.

His later life--the orgies and other imperial excesses, his killing thousands in the Cultural Revolution... it seems almost mild after the millions killed in the war years and the famines.

It almost makes me sorry for Jiang Qing and others around Mao who show such a Mao-ish cruelty during this period. They all went through his brainwashing program in Yenan; their crimes may partly be due to sheer trauma, for the survivors of Yenan that Jung Chang interviewed had lifelong nightmares and fears. Like child abusers who were themselves abused, I wonder if they can be considered fully responsible.

His utter amorality, cynicism, viciousness and paranoia--it all echoes his patron, Stalin, without whose money and guns Mao wouldn't have survived. The Nationalists were beating Mao--they had far more popular support. But, and this is a surprise to me, Mao had American help, too. The US quietly sent Mao support, same as Stalin did! Foreign capitalists and communists contributed to Mao's rise. The ultimate irony! Mao claimed he freed China from foreign exploitation, but foreign powers put him on the Imperial Throne. Mao's a neocolonial monster.

All in all, one of the most disturbing histories I've read--and one of the most unexpected.


I'm in the house my grandfather built in Seattle. But it's radically changed. The bathrooms have no privacy. I'm on the toilet when an uncle uses the urinal in the kitchen (one of Grampa's charming innovations. The beer goes in, the beer goes out) and we can see each other through a window between kitchen and bathroom. There's a shutter on the kitchen side, but none in the bathroom. Anyone can peer in who wants to. Terrible design--thanks, Grampa! Good carpenter, bad architect.

Later, I'm showing the house to a woman I know. Find another bathroom, much fancier, on a rounded tonguelike balcony, glass-walled. Great view, and it saved space in the main bedroom, but again no privacy at all. Everyone in Seattle can watch you shit! I also notice the whole balcony shakes--flimsy!

Now I'm in a car, in a hilly town, up on a marine terrace. An old Asian guy is driving us. We're following verbal directions given me over the phone days ago. I know our goal is close, but the street names don't match what I was told. Maybe we could rename them after Chinese Zodiac--then they'd be in an order, so you could find an address without a map. But... Rat Street, Pig Street... Cock Street! No, I don't think those would be popular. And only Chinese people would know the sequence anyway.

As we reach the far edge of the plateau, I realize we've gone too far, need to double back. I tell the driver "Turn." He ignores me and goes another block. I get louder: "Turn here!" Again he ignores me. The road starts down a little canyon. As it dwindles to a gravel track, I yell "TURN... AROUND... NOW!" At last he does, slowly, zigzagging at a wide spot.

Strange place. Low stone walls, recently built, though they look like an attempt to imitate CCC work from the Great Depression, as if we're entering a national park. Maybe we are; it's a scenic canyon. But we have to turn back, we need to meet someone back up top.

As we return, we pass under a graceful arched bridge. But down here, cavernous foundations and columns--feverish construction, as mansions go up. A big sign makes it clear this will be housing for a big fast-food corporation! Pretty lavish for that. But despite the scale, underneath it's still just... company barracks.



Sorry, no spectacular dream-magic this time. Oh, a touch of prediction perhaps, in that first dream. I didn't know I was going to stumble on that book, or that it'd take over my life for three days. But that dream may have just been priming me to pull Mao off the shelf and read it.

Dreams and the conscious aren't always at odds. Here, my dreams prepare me emotionally for a harrowing book, then basically confirm the lessons I learned. No big corrections or revelations--at least, not compared to those in the book! Really, I typed this one up for nondream reasons:

Few people seem to have even heard of Jung Chang's brilliant, savage book--and as reforming the current Chinese government grows more urgent, it grows vital to know the root of its dysfunction. For she chronicles a history so dire that those raised in democracies or even corrupt autocracies may have trouble grasping the fear and trauma behind Chinese policy. So many issues just can't be questioned, or even brought up, or even thought of... the buried memories of an abused child. Under the shining towers of New China, the caves and graves of Yenan.

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