“Honest history is hard to do in China, given the determination of Beijing to put forward a historical narrative that presents an essentially benevolent Communist Party guiding China from weakness to strength and occasionally going astray through no fault of its own”.
– James Palmer, “The Death of Mao”
As a self-proclaimed “China observer”, I’ve had my share of reading elaborate accounts of this fascinating country’s turbulent past. Some have been biographical accounts, written with the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution as their backdrops. Others have been gone further back in history, highlighting, among others, Zheng He’s voyages and the Opium War.
But none of them beat James Palmer’s The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China in terms of readability (is that even a word). Anyways, it was a pleasure to read this gem of an account, which narrates the year 1976 in China’s modern history. A year when the much beloved Premier Zhou Enlai died; Chairman Mao Zedong laid helplessly on his deathbed (he would also die in 1976); the Cultural Revolution was a national wound that kept on being reopened; the infighting among the political elite reached its apex; and Deng Xiaoping re-entered politics;
It was the year when earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit the small, industrial town of Tangshan in Hebei Province, killing around 650,000 people. People who lived through the tragedy remembered the earth moving as if attacked by an atomic bomb; not one, not two or three, but four hundred Hiroshimas.
To say the least, 1976 felt like a cursed year for many Chinese people. The mandate of heaven seemed to have run out on Mao, as China was on the brink of political collapse. Economic wise, the country was a basket case, after purges spread economic inefficiency, killed many of China’s bright minds, and destroyed the people’s competitiveness.
In general, the people were tired of the violence and propaganda of the political elite. While Jiang Qing (Mao’s ultra-leftist wife) watched imported movies daily, the people were hungry, unsheltered, afraid, down, and beaten. The Tangshan earthquake, which was also felt strongly in Beijing, was a nail on Mao’s coffin, even as he was still gasping for his last ounce of air.
Obviously, this book is not only about the earthquake. Yes, there are photos of the destruction. Palmer also described the scenes during and after the earth shook. But it was just enough. Not too much tugging at the heart strings or gory descriptions of the impact of the quake. What James Palmer did was to tell the story of China in those days with the earthquake tragedy at its center.
Many things were elaborated, including the monstrosity of the Cultural Revolution; how it came about and how its excesses scarred the Chinese population for years to come. The book also talks about Zhou Enlai, the venerable leader loved by the people. “The other leader” who worked diligently while Mao built a modern empire on the blood, sweat, and tears of the Chinese proletariats. And of course, it talks about Tangshan, as symbol of how life was in a city neither as big as nor as near to Beijing, but constantly affected by the follies of the political elite in the country’s capital.
The book also highlights the “problem” with the writing of history in Chinese books. Honestly, I have never had the pleasure of reading about Chinese history from books usually given out to students; my Mandarin is nowhere at the level to comprehend such thick texts. But I could imagine the events and perspectives that may have been left out in order to paint a rosy picture of the government, and most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party. I lived through Indonesia’s New Order era, and I know very well previous attempts to re-write Indonesia’s history according to the preferences of Suharto and his clique.
The Tangshan earthquake is often remembered in China as a moment of grief. The Chinese history books may put up pictures of the PLA working hand-in-hand with the local people to help survivors. But the truth is that Beijing’s unwillingness to accept international assistance demonstrated the government’s lack of empathy. It showed that while the propaganda of the Party continued to eschew the fight for the people, in actuality the people were suffering from policies after another hammered down by the political elite.
The Tangshan earthquake was a moment when the death of so many people underlined the ineptness of the government at the time, thus ushering the desire for changes to happen. Palmer described a bit of this towards the end book, as if setting the stage for analyses on present-day Chinese politics by other “China observers”. I, for one, am thankful of Palmer’s narration, as I try to understand more and more about this country where I may be spending more time in the future.