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By Mark C. Jensen


The Montréal Review, December 2021


The films of Zhang Yimou gave many Westerners our first and most vivid impressions of life in twentieth century China.  The Frances Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg of Chinese filmmaking, Zhang started as a cinematographer in the early 1980s, and his love of the saturated colors of Kodachrome, then newly available in China, carried through his career. Red, especially.  Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) were novelistic works focusing on the difficult lives of peasants, especially women and children.  Raise the Red Lantern, which is on every critic’s list of all-time classics, made a star of Gong Li, in the role of a young woman sold by her family to become the third wife of a rich merchant in pre-Communist times.

Zhang’s multigenerational epic To Live (1994) carried on his themes of the powerlessness and resiliency of ordinary Chinese people, but in a very different political context:  from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory over the nationalist Guomindang in the Civil War of the 1940s, through the Great Leap Forward in the late ‘50s and the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.  In these dangerous and disorienting times, the characters declare, almost like an incantation, that they want “to live,” “to live a quiet life,” “to make it back alive,” to “live a good life.”  Despite the modesty of this goal, the family is literally disfigured, collateral damage of wartime and government incompetence.  They understand that they are “lucky to be alive.”

Fugui (played by Ge You), son of a wealthy landowner, gambles away the family’s beautiful home in the years before the revolution, and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) walks out.  Yet the loss, perversely, saves Fugui: the Communists publicly execute the man who won the house at the dice tables as a landlord.  The Communist army captures Fugui, a Guomindang conscript in the civil war, but his talent with traditional shadow puppets (an otherwise frivolous hobby) boosts the soldiers’ spirits, and later entitles him to claim that he participated in the revolution.  But these lucky breaks quickly come to an end.  During the Civil War, the couple’s first child, a daughter, becomes mute due to an untreated fever; in the Great Leap Forward, their young son, exhausted by overwork in the CCP’s wild industrialization drive, is killed in an accident involving the local party chief’s car; the daughter marries an improbably nice, young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, but she hemorrhages and dies in childbirth because all the experienced doctors have been purged.  The terrified young doctors even permit her husband to bring back the senior doctor, a class enemy who has been humiliated, beaten and starved by other Red Guards.  Attempting to revive the doctor, Fugui gives him too many pork buns and water, and he collapses due to bloating - - that is, improbably, due to overindulgence rather than the punishments of the Cultural Revolution. 

The film helped raised the curtain on the precarity of Chinese life under Communist rule, but it also it dealt very gently with terrible events. The family must surrender its pots and pans under the Great Leap’s absurd mandate to match British steel production, but they eat at a seemingly well-supplied communal kitchen.  In reality, millions starved.  (And for no purpose: even if it had met the targets, the country had no way to put that much steel to use.)  The film ends after the Cultural Revolution, with Fugui and Jiazhen visiting their children’s graves and, despite the tragedies, promising their grandson an ever-improving future: rather than oxen, he “will ride trains and planes.”

With its light touch, To Live might have passed the CCP censors if it had come out before the 1989 military crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, but authorities prohibited domestic release of the film in 1994. The hospital scene surely didn’t help. 


Besides the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc, the size and speed of China’s post-Mao, or post-Tiananmen Square, rise may be the greatest surprise ending of the Cold War era.  Especially considering its impoverished starting point, how can China already be challenging the US?  Why has its path been so different from those of the former Soviet Union or other very populous countries like India or Brazil?  There may be “a hundred schools of thought” on these questions, in the words Mao used to encourage free expression and open-mindedness for a few short weeks in 1957.1  China’s complexities stretch the capacity of history - - at least of Western history - - to describe it.

To appreciate China’s recent achievements, remember how profoundly its people suffered during Mao’s reign.  The brilliant revolutionary strategist failed abysmally at governing, quashed dissent in a manner eerily like that of his mentor, Josef Stalin, and left the country traumatized, divided, and economically and educationally impoverished at his death in 1976.  Many Chinese families, especially those accused of having privileged or intellectual backgrounds, had been ostracized, imprisoned or exiled.2  Economic incentives were abolished in favor of frequently changing political priorities.  And it is not the case that the Chinese people have forgotten, or become nostalgic for, the Cultural Revolution: a Chinese high school student, born long after, told me that the period was like living in North Korea today, and not in a good way.

A few Westerners got a glimpse of how bad things got, even in the most carefully managed settings.  Jan Wong of Montreal, granddaughter of Chinese emigrants and, like many ill-informed liberals, a self-described “Maoist,” became one of two Western exchange students at Beijing University in 1972.  The huge university, China’s Harvard, had only just reopened to a few hundred politically safe undergraduates, having been closed in the self-destructive frenzy of the Cultural Revolution.  Quite aside from the constant surveillance from classmates and the strictures of CCP-approved political education, Wong remembered that “as the daughter of a restaurateur, I never dreamed Chinese food could be so bad.”  At this flagship institution, “my classmates were so undernourished that they usually ate every scrap” of the unchanging offerings of “tasteless cornmeal mush with a teaspoonful of inedible salted vegetables” or “a sliver of pork fat mixed with stale cabbage.”  When one of these meals was left half-eaten, the canteen workers angrily objected that “the students are losing touch with their class backgrounds.”3  To paraphrase a common saying of the time, it’s no wonder they couldn’t send up the satellites.

Yet Mao’s legacy abides.  Writing in The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra recently suggested that the Cultural Revolution - - from which Mao’s successors swiftly distanced themselves - - provided a necessary demolition of Mao-era bureaucracy from which the current, capitalism- (and corruption-) friendly bureaucracy could emerge.  “China’s unique ‘model’ – a market economy supervised by a technocratic party-state - - could only have been erected on ground brutally levelled by Mao’s Cultural Revolution.”4  This brush-clearing is even said to help explain the different outcome in post-Cold War Russia, where the former Communist bureaucrats themselves became capitalism-speaking bigwigs in a seriously corrupt and monopolistic system, and have failed to free the country from dependence on mineral exports and cyberpiracy. 

But others see Mao as the source of the CCP’s power.  Its legitimacy – entitlement to govern – arose from the 1949 revolution and, unlike the Soviet Union, it had only one founding military and political leader.  Even though many contemporary Chinese consider the Mao era somewhat of an embarrassment, according to Howard French, “Maoism – built on the style and rhetoric of a paternalistic and all-powerful leader, whose personality cult keeps his benign visage in view at all times, with slogans that all citizens should be able to recite – remains such a potent tactic and resource that [current President Xi] cannot afford to dispense with it.”5   A quarter century earlier, Yale professor Jonathan Spence had written, in a similar vein, that by the early 1990s the “revolutionary” CCP had stepped into a dynastic role similar to that of the late Ming and Qing and even of their Nationalist arch-enemies, the Guomindang.6  The CCP’s power certainly hasn’t abated since then.


Zhang Yimou went on to make the historical action blockbusters Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  Hero is a magnificently photographed and multilayered story of a political assassin whose target is a brutal warlord.  In order to get close to his target, the assassin, Nameless (played by the heartthrob Jet Li), constructs an elaborate tale of his loyal efforts to eliminate other equally talented (and attractive) would-be assassins of the warlord.  But in the end, Nameless is persuaded that the warlord’s brutality is in service of the greater goal of ending the wars by unifying China - - indeed we learn that the warlord would become China’s first emperor.  Nameless abandons his quest in order to serve the greater good of unification, and for the same reason the warlord, the story’s real hero, has him killed anyway. 

Zhang could hardly have been unaware that Mao had long compared himself to that first Chinese emperor of the Qin dynasty, who had unified seven separate fiefdoms of the “Warring States” period in 221 BCE.  The Qin emperor also spent ruinously:  on an early version of the Great Wall and on his famous tomb of thousands of terra cotta warriors near modern Xi’an.  Though his dynasty crumbled after his death - - he had failed to plan for succession - - history has generally credited him for the enduring identity of a unified China.  The parallel with Mao’s reign would not have been lost on a Chinese audience.

When I visited China in the comparatively open period before the 2008 Olympics - - its no-expense-spared opening ceremony staged by none other than director Zhang - - the country’s public narrative was distinctly proud and competitive, though tinged with some humility.  At the Shanghai Museum, a long wall paralleled the historical achievements and advances of the “West”, starting with Egypt, Greece, Rome, Constantinople, Western Europe and America (almost an afterthought), with those of China alone.  A few of the entries struck me as a little odd or exaggerated, but there was no arguing with the brilliance of the antiquities.  Its dynasties have come and gone, and sometimes fragmented, but in time a new identifiably Chinese empire has always emerged.

Chairman Mao was 70% good, our Chinese hosts and guides would observe, with amazing consistency, mainly because he ended 100 years of Chinese subservience to foreigners (waiguoren).  The Cultural Revolution was a mistake.  We must do more to combat pollution (and no kidding about that).  The forced displacement of residents from inner cities has caused some problems.  We have to catch up with Western technology, maybe in 50 years.  The menu of a self-consciously retro restaurant in Beijing winked at Mao-era slogans; paintings in a Shanghai art gallery parodied heroic images of the Great Leader.

But there was no masking the underlying ambition.  The scale of city building and the wild creativity of the architecture in Beijing and Shanghai made America look staid, even 15 years ago.  The government had preserved the elegant, turn-of-the-century European trading houses on the Bund in Shanghai, four-to-six story stone and mortar buildings on prime harbor real estate from the era when foreign powers held and governed the port on humiliating treaty terms.  Across the Huangpu River in Pudong, 100-story skyscrapers cast morning shadows on the Bund.  My family twice hosted high school students from Xi’an for a semester.  Our guests took the most challenging physics course in the local high school, while also surviving regular literature and history classes taught entirely in English and marveling at the amount of free time American teens – my kids – enjoyed. 

Also, when socializing with our Chinese friends and their families, I found it impossible to pick up a check at a restaurant.  In either country.


People can remember, and still move on.

It is possible that the primary explanation for China’s phoenix-like rise is simply that, after Mao’s death, the CCP under Deng Xiaoping simply did a better job finding a way out of the failure of communist economic planning.  Capable leadership is a rare enough thing.   That leadership, however, was also capable of ordering the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, which greatly discouraged uncomfortable questions and solidified hard-liner support.  “Let’s not bring up the past,” declares a character in To Live, perhaps echoing Deng’s admonition to “unite and look forward.”   Such unity rules out much Western-style entrepreneurship as well.  For better or worse, figures like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, whose companies are largely financed with public stock offerings, are impossible to imagine in China.  In November 2020, the government scotched the planned IPO of Jack Ma’s Ant Group, which would have been one of the biggest ever worldwide, just days in advance.7 Now it has turned to silencing popular celebrities, including the actresses Zhao Wei and Zheng Shuang, possibly to chill the emergence of politically active media figures along the lines of Bono, Brad Pitt, Ariana Grande, and even, I feel obliged to add, Donald Trump.8 

Yet limitations on freedoms have not thus far crippled the Chinese economy.  Deng and his successors have by all accounts delivered several hundred million people - - perhaps twice the population of the United States - - into a rising middle class, an achievement that must have earned a significant measure of gratitude and toleration of a few doctrinal inconsistencies.9

It’s also quite possible that China’s economic rise is due to structural factors having little to do with Deng’s policies or any political narrative.  Despite its vast size and population, China is extremely homogeneous:  according to its government reports, over 90% of the population is Han.10  Serious ethnic conflict has been limited to far western provinces, including Tibet and Xinjiang, where the government does still face serious problems.  The absence of ethnic tensions in China’s largest and richest cities is a huge advantage for the CCP as compared to the diversity of the US, Europe, Brazil and even Russia.

China’s terribly low starting point at the end of Mao’s reign also contributed to its later success. As in post-World War II Western Europe and Japan, China’s vast, impoverished population and decimated infrastructure left huge economic demand.  Everything from food to construction to basic services needed improvement, and from there a second wave of demand for consumer goods arose: the “Eight Bigs” including a color television, refrigerator, washing machine, motorcycle, stereo, camera, electric fan and furniture set.11  And so on, into the internet age.  Economic aspirations also fueled demand for employment and cash wages, and millions relocated to cities designated for development, despite low wages, isolation and difficult working conditions.  When it became permissible to “look for money” (an ironic paraphrase of a Deng slogan), business leaders could be confident that domestic consumers and world markets would respond. 

China also benefitted, economically though not environmentally, from a gigantic “demographic dividend.” The CCP-inspired baby boom of the early 1960s became a huge cohort of young adults by the mid to late 1980s, who are only now nearing the end of their productive working lives.  Later population control measures - - the semi-official one child policy - - changed the ratio of workers to dependents (children and retirees) in a way that has thus far been extremely favorable to China.  The one-child policy, together with impact of education and wealth on urban childbearing, have kept the birth rate below replacement level.  These demographic advantages may turn into headwinds as the population ages - - the population is only now nearing its projected peak, and China can hardly count on immigration.

Finally, Chinese economic growth rates roughly parallel the earlier paths of its export-driven neighbors, the “Asian Tigers.”  (The Tigers followed Japan on this course, and have been followed by “Tiger Cubs,” such as Vietnam.)   The growth of regional trading partners is a huge boon in itself, of course, but the larger point is that China’s productivity gains from industrial and technological advances may also begin to level off.  The tree does not grow to the sky.12

Average Annual GDP Growth

Hong Kong


South Korea




















































While this growth has not come without problems, it is mostly very good news for China’s people.  It’s mostly good news for the rest of the world as well.  To the extent that China has been able to improve its citizens’ lives domestically, rather than exporting its problems (though some such exports are certainly occurring), China’s neighbors and others should be relieved.

Yet if we credit any combination of post-Mao policy, pent-up demand, demographics and trade, Mao’s regime was little more than an impediment to the country’s prosperity.   Like the Qin emperor in Hero, his place in the contemporary Chinese pantheon, the “70% good,” must come from something else.


Father Matteo Ricci dreamed of converting the Ming emperor Wanli to Christianity. 13  The Italian Jesuit priest devoted his career, from 1582 to his death in 1610, to establishing Christianity in China, the richest and, arguably, most powerful nation in the world.  Chinese authorities, suspicious of even small-scale activities of Portuguese traders and Japanese pirates, gradually allowed Ricci to move his mission from Macao to the ancient capital of Nanjing and finally to Beijing.  Both fluent and literate in Chinese, he contributed important scholarship by translating Western works in astronomy, mathematics and religion.  Chinese scholars admired Ricci’s book on Western notions of friendship, which they found harmonious with Confucian ideas.  He even converted some prominent individuals to Christianity.  But he never met Wanli, shielded behind layers of walls, guards and eunuchs in the Forbidden City. 

Europeans and Americans would continue to go to China with their own agendas.  We are still living with the consequences.  The British surely believed they were doing the Chinese a favor in offering to introduce their “ingenious articles” of manufacture, of which the Qing emperor Qianlong famously saw no need.14  Instead, from the Opium War of 1839-1842 to the Qing dynasty’s fall in 1911, the British and other powers forced China forced to concede to foreign occupation of “treaty ports” like Shanghai, the open preaching of Christianity, and the application of foreign law to foreigners, even if they committed murder.15  These intrusions spurred unrest in China; the government only suppressed the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) with the assistance of a coordinated expeditionary force from Japan, Russia, Britain, France and the US. 

The West lost any chance for a post-Qing reset on May 4, 1919.  Despite President Wilson’s rhetoric of “self-determination,” World War I peace negotiators in Paris awarded Germany’s Asian interests to Japan, delivering China’s Shandong province into the hands of an aggressive regional rival.  This was both terrifying, as Japan had already reduced neighboring Korea to a colony, and politically toxic within China.  It was a huge missed opportunity as well.  The nationalist Guomindang party had long advocated for a Western-style republican form of government, and its founder Sun Yat-Sen, had received a Christian missionary education in Hawai’i in the 1880s.16   But after May 4, the Guomindang could not afford to align with Western powers; it joined the newly formed CCP in working with Soviet advisers and in promoting deeply anti-imperialist policies.17

Americans overwhelmingly supported an isolationist foreign policy, believing they could stay out of another World War.  Most thought of China, if at all, as mired in poverty and in need of aid.  Pearl Buck, daughter of missionaries, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning international bestseller The Good Earth (1931) about a peasant family’s stoic endurance of hardship and political turmoil - - themes that later resonated in Zhang Yimou’s films.  But despite their good works, Western missionaries, and expats posted to China, including Buck, still occupied privileged positions and endured anti-foreign violence. 

US government policy toward China was shaped by the “China Lobby,” led by former Christian missionaries or their children.18  Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines, was the Hearst or Murdoch of his generation; Representative Walter Judd of Minnesota was the intellectual leader of an important bloc in Congress.  To their credit, the China Lobby advocated against anti-Asian racism in the US and an overly Eurocentric foreign policy.  But they used their power toward a single political outcome.  They lavished praise and attention on nominally Christian Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek and his elegant Wellesley-educated wife Madame Chiang (Soong Mei-ling), without regard to the weakness, corruption and brutality of Chiang’s coalition.  Chiang or his wife appeared on the cover of Luce’s Time magazine at least a dozen times from 1927 through 1955.

US leaders followed this line for years.  The Guomindang and CCP both pledged to fight the Japanese invaders during World War II, but the US poured military and financial aid solely to Chiang’s government, despite almost constant frustration with Chiang’s preference to avoid conflict.  The US continued to support the Guomindang in its civil war with the CCP after 1945.  But the Truman administration could see no end to it, and a year of mediation led by the universally respected envoy General George Marshall led to nothing.19  One episode encapsulates American frustration with the ineffectiveness of Chiang’s armies.  In late 1948, Wellington Koo, Chiang’s ambassador to Washington, asked President Truman for more aid, without knowing that 32 Guomindang divisions with American-supplied equipment had just surrendered to Communist forces near Xuzhou.  Truman, who did know, declined the invitation.20 

When Chiang’s government fell to CCP forces in 1949, disbelief in the US was followed by domestic retribution against the Truman administration.  “Who lost China?” Republican leaders demanded, as though it were an overseas possession.  This episode only served to feed the era’s feverish suspicions of communist infiltration. Senator Joseph McCarthy made his infamous (and baseless) claim that he had the names of 205 communists in the US State Department, on February 9, 1950, barely four months after Mao’s triumphant entry in Beijing.

The effect of the Republicans’ political attack lasted a generation.  US leaders could not afford to lose face domestically by backing away from Chiang’s rump Republic of China on the island of Taiwan, and to this day the US devotes enormous economic and military resources to the island’s defense.  (The ROC’s economic success and transition to democracy has raised the stakes:  Evan Osnos of the New Yorker recently called Taiwan “the landmine at the center of the [US-China] relationship.”21)  Perhaps worse, the US would not recognize the government that actually ruled China.  For decades, “Red China” was not a place Americans could travel, was not admitted to the United Nations, did not participate in the Olympics.   Finally, the fear of communist domination of smaller neighbors, which President Eisenhower had belittlingly described as “the falling domino principle,” 22  helped justify America’s ultimately tragic intervention in Vietnam. 

If missionaries and Republicans clung unrealistically to the dream of a Christian China, many Western leftists of the late 1960s venerated “Maoism.” Some, like Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, really did mean to foment something like a revolution.  Others, like the Rolling Stones and the actor Shirley MacLaine, had less to complain about, and little idea what Mao was really doing.23  Instead their attitude was largely a piece of their anti-Vietnam war activism:  if Mao was OK, a communist victory might not be so bad for the Vietnamese.  (It would in fact be very bad for the Vietnamese; so too was the war.)  In the end, Mao veneration showed that the left, too, had a huge blind spot about China.  After the truth emerged, there would be no defenders of the Cultural Revolution.

In a nesting series of ironies, Republican President Richard Nixon, another Luce favorite who had hurled the American “loss” of China in the face of Democratic opponents for twenty years, eventually “played the China card” with his 1972 diplomatic visit.  His intent was to worry the Soviet leadership and to facilitate an “honorable” peace in Vietnam (and to distract the public from the Watergate scandal).  The opening of this new relationship, beginning with an enormously appealing match between the national table tennis teams, proved to be the most popular achievement of his presidency.  But no lasting peace was reached in Vietnam, and few, if any, in the US fully understood that Nixon was elevating Mao’s regime while the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still going on. 

Then again, Father Ricci spent almost his entire career in China and never gained more than a partial picture.


In China’s 2500-year history, Mao’s harsh reign could be seen as a short chapter, his domestic misrule perhaps outweighed by his resetting troubled relationships with foreign powers, including Russia.   Moreover, China played many roles during that time: as a counterexample to Marxist-Leninist theory; as the leader and inspiration for the anti-colonial movement in the Third World; as a direct participant in the Korean War; as an imagined Lost Cause that drove American politicians, almost reflexively, to make grave mistakes; as an exporter of labor and culture throughout Asia and the Americas; and as the most populous nation on the planet, ever.

Indeed, contemporary Chinese may view the Cold War as a US-Soviet sideshow – frequent standoffs, few casualties – or a laughable misnomer given the nonstop shooting in East Asia.  China or one of its immediate neighbors were involved in hot wars almost continuously from the late 1920s through the early 1980s.  After the end of World War II and the long Chinese civil war, the US and other western powers actively participated in wars causing millions of deaths in Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1946-54 and 1960-1975) and Cambodia (1972-1978), and intervened in a counterrevolution in Indonesia (1965).  The Americans’ domestic morality play may have been unmoored from reality, but it had real effects:  it gave Mao real reason to remain isolated, and that isolation allowed Mao’s disastrous policies to persist.

Mao also viewed the Soviet Union with suspicion, despite their long strategic alliance dating back to the May Fourth movement.  The CCP’s resiliency when the Soviet Union itself collapsed can in part be traced to Mao’s stubborn independence, further legitimizing the CCP’s hold on power. 

After the CCP’s 1949 victory, Mao occupied the roles of both Lenin, founder and theorist, and Stalin, war leader and state builder.  He was also like a younger sibling trying to emulate his brothers’ achievements while striving for recognition of his own success.  Of necessity, Mao had created a new path to communism based on the rural peasantry rather than industrial workers, an example of great interest to other pre-industrialized countries colonized by Western powers.  This made Soviet leaders uneasy, because Mao had stretched Marxist/Leninist dialectical theory, which held that economies had to reap the benefits of industrialization before advancing to socialism, nearly to the breaking point.  If communism was the solution in these wildly different cases, was it anything more than a justification for revolution?  As the Soviet leaders realized, when given a real choice, voters in industrialized countries had never chosen communism. Mao’s rural path to communism might wind up being more important than Lenin’s. 

An initial period of close cooperation with the USSR, when China desperately needed recognition and economic aid it could not get anywhere else, lasted only into the mid-1950s: through the Korean War, the “French War” in Vietnam and the conference of non-aligned (“Third World”) countries at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955.  The Soviet Union allowed China to send a top-level delegation to Bandung, but nervously:  the conferees organized around the idea of opposing colonialism, including alignment with either the US or the USSR.  Most of the resentment was directed to America’s western European allies, with the US as a lesser offender.  But due to the Soviet domination of eastern Europe and incorporation of Muslim-majority “republics” from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, the USSR came in for its share of criticism.

Mao soon felt betrayed when Khrushchev denounced the excesses of the Stalin era in a Politburo speech in early 1956.  Khrushchev was soon forced to back away from this glimmer of reform, sending the Red Army to put down the Hungarian independence movement in October of the same year.  But his speech created problems for Mao because he had so closely and loyally sought to follow Stalin’s example.  Now Mao had a job keeping his own party under control and out of the hands of those free-thinking Soviets.  His renewed fear of political threats led to two more terrible decades for the Chinese people. 

Yet it was the more advanced, more internationally engaged Soviets who fell.  The Soviet Union was burdened by an ethnically diverse empire it could not afford to maintain; an unsustainably expensive arms race with the US; an economy hampered, like that of Saudi Arabia, by its dependency on volatile petroleum exports; and an aging and declining population.  China, in contrast, had no empire and few natural resource exports, a huge, young and ethnically homogeneous population and an inherited history of pre-industrial capitalism.  Rather than colonial possessions to manage, it had expatriate populations to keep up with.


If Mao’s positive legacy consists mainly in nationalism, the eviction of imperialists and revival of traditional suspicion of outsiders - - all of which is understandably valuable to the autocratic Xi regime - - the inspiration for future reforms may need to come from Chinese sources. 

China does not, to its current leaders’ regret, have a monopoly on Chinese culture, high or popular, because it has long been an exporter of Chinese people.  In the recent Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, a beautiful and brilliant second-generation Chinese American, a tenured professor of economics at NYU at the apparent age of about 27, does not know, despite her field of study, that her fiancé is the scion of the richest of Asia’s nouveau-riche families.  Swept many time zones away from the “salmonella and despair” of JFK airport to his family’s glitzy enclave in Singapore, our heroine encounters and, at the last minute, draws her fiancé back from his glamorous and icy mother.  In a China-meets-Jane-Austen kind of way, we learn that his mom had never been fully accepted in her own husband’s family and was determined to assure that the movie’s heroine didn’t get a better deal.  In a very American twist, however, the couple, with the help of her up-by-her-bootstraps single mom and some wacky American pals, goes back to New York, breaking free of the traditional Chinese expectation that brides take care of their husbands’ families.  Whew! 

Perhaps not coincidentally, the groom’s mother is played by the elegant Michelle Yeoh, who has a migration story of her own.  Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, Yeoh is fluent in Malay and English.  She reportedly had to learn her Cantonese lines phonetically for her international breakout role in Ang Lee’s gorgeous, indeed Zhang-worthy, martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Chinese Americans have long worked in Hollywood, of course.  Tyrus Wong arrived with his father at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, in 1916 at the age of nine. (The US was not admitting Chinese women, lest they start families.)  He found a way to attend art school in Los Angeles and got a job as a junior illustrator at Disney.  There a senior executive somewhat surreptitiously advanced his Asian-inspired design concepts for the thematic backgrounds of Bambi (1942).  Look past the big-eyed animal characters: the layered colors and sweeping brushstrokes of forest and sky backgrounds set the emotional tone of each scene.24  

A wave of ethnic Chinese auteurs, contemporaries of Zhang Yimou working outside China, later brought Chinese stories to the international scene.  Wayne Wang (b. Hong Kong, 1949) made his first film Chan Is Missing (1982) on a shoestring budget in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  One of Chan’s themes is the discord between families of earlier immigrants, almost all from southern China, who identified with the nationalist Republic of China, and more recent arrivals from the gradually opening People’s Republic.   Wang later became famous for The Joy Luck Club (1993), his adaptation of the Amy Tan’s multigenerational novel about a Chinese immigrant family. 

Cosmopolitan communities in Asia have contributed even more.  Wong Kar-Wai (b. Shanghai, 1958) was at the vanguard of the Hong Kong New Wave, from As Tears Go By (1988) through his most beloved film, the noirish romance In the Mood for Love (2000).  Before the international blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee (b. Taiwan, 1954), broke through with the contemporary comedy Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994); Lee has also worked well beyond Chinese stories, and made, for example Life of Pi (2012), Brokeback Mountain (2005)and the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility (1995).  Steven Chow (b. Hong Kong, 1962) has made over-the-top martial arts comedies like Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2005) - - the kinds of movies where the winning soccer goal tunnels under the length of the field. 

This is not simply to tell a feel-good story about Chinese emigrants: they have long been treated badly in their adopted countries; their presence has, on the other hand, sometimes sharply disadvantaged others, for example in Singapore and Indonesia.  The point is that Chinese culture thrives in many places outside China.  Mainland Chinese can learn of the achievements of their overseas contemporaries, through the internet and family connections, as East Berliners surreptitiously learned what was happening on the west side of the wall.  But the difference is that prominent expatriate Chinese communities are so widely dispersed:  Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, California, New York, Vancouver.   The CCP is smart enough to pay attention to the competition, but right now it seems to be betting that economic success and heavy censorship will forestall the need for more political or expressive openness.  Ironically, the CCP’s recent move to suppress popular celebrities in China may only highlight the freedom enjoyed by artists of the diaspora.

As a corollary, perhaps the most effective way for the US and others to encourage Chinese government reform would be to continue to welcome the overseas Chinese and foster their successes.  Recent attacks and harassment of Asian-Americans in the US are not just illegal but idiotic, pointlessly feeding the CCP’s xenophobia and providing excuses for its oppression at home. 


Mark C. Jensen is an attorney and writer who lives in  Cambridge, Massachusetts. He holds an AB in Mathematics from Dartmouth College and a JD from Duke University School of Law, and is of counsel with Nutter, McLennen & Fish of Boston. He writes regularly about the history and culture of the Cold War.


1 Jonathan Spence, “The Search for Modern China,” (Norton, 1990) p. 570 (“Spence”).

2 Many Chinese memoirists have recounted Mao era struggles, for example Jung Chiang’s Wild Swans.  For other examples, see Pankaj Mishra, “Struggle Sessions,” The New Yorker, February 1, 2021 (“Mishra”). 

3 Jan Wong, “Red China Blues” (Anchor, 1996), pp. 46, 49-50.

4 Mishra.

5 Howard W. French, “Mao’s Shadow”, New York Review of Books, March 12, 2020 (reviewing “Maoism: A Global History” by Julia Lovell (Knopf) and “China’s New Red Guards” by Jude Blanchette (Oxford)) (“French”).

6 Spence, pp. 746-7.

7 “China Halts Ant Group’s Blockbuster IPO”, New York Times, November 3, 2020.

8 “Chinese Culture Is Raucous.  The Authorities Want to Change That.” New York Times, August 27, 2021.

9  Alan Piazza, “Poverty and Living Standards Since 1949” at oxfordbiographies.com (citing World Bank figures); Indermit Gill, “Deep Sixing Poverty in China,” January 25, 2021, viewed at brookings.edu.

10 The 2010 Chinese government census showed that about 92% of the population is ethnic Han.  https://guides.lib.unc.edu/china_ethnic/statistics, viewed September 16, 2021.

11 Spence, p. 733.

12 Rates calculated from Chinese government GDP figures recorded on Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis website, accessed April 13, 2021.

13 This account is based on Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin, 1984). 

14 Spence, p. 122.

15 Spence, pp. 158-161, 179-181.

16 Spence, p. 227.

17 Id., pp. 336-338.

18 See David Halberstam, “The Coldest Winter” (Hyperion, 2007), 239-247 (“Halberstam”).

19 Spence, pp. 487-490.

20 Halberstam, pp. 249-250.

21 Evan Osnos, “Fight Fight, Talk Talk,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2020.

22 Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War (Oxford, 2008), p. 48.

23 French; Mishra.

24 Wong’s story is told in the documentary film Tyrus (2016).


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