Sunday 29 September 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The other day I went out for a run after a particularly hard day at work. I needed it. It had a been non-stop all day, busy from morning until late in the afternoon and despite cycling home, I felt that my body would thank me for the extra physical exertion. I was not wrong. I felt more invigorated after my seven-mile run. Moreover, at some point whilst jogging up a long and steep hill I began to think of the links that binds us humans together.

This reflection came on the back of a discussion I had heard on Radio Four that morning. The debate was about a new book about China’s supposed "Golden Age". An era that started in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. An era that also unleashed massive economic and social reforms. An era that brought us Mao Zedong. There were two people in the studio; one was the author of the book, a British man. The other one was a Chinese woman who had carried out interviews with people who had lived through those years. The British man argued that the Golden Era in China had never really happened. The woman countered his point with empirical evidence that it had.

Mao: did he really preside over a "Golden Age"?
At the same time I was thinking about the late Chinese leader, the image of Nelson Mandela flashed before my eyes. Maybe because the ex-president of South Africa has not been well in the last few months and at some point we thought that we would lose Madiba. Or maybe because I began to think of universal characteristics that connect people like Mao to Mandela. Not ordinary features like breathing, sleeping and defecating. We all share those. I was more interested in these two men’s similarities against their many different traits.

One similarity that came to my head straight away was their historical timing. Not that they had anything to do with it. I guess that history is sometimes arbitrary. Mandela’s timing was slow-burning (after all, he spent 27 years in jail), but that contributed towards having a more positive impact on its long-term goals. Mao’s timing was more fortuitous. The PRC came into being after a century of pillaging and ravaging in China. Mao found a population craving for change and willing to do anything to bring about stability. With this in mind it is not hard to understand why so many people heeded his call to Leap Forward.

But, is understanding Mao the same as condoning his atrocious acts? Are we not excusing evil behaviour when we attempt to look beyond the pile of dead bodies his dictatorship left behind? And if it’s evil, then is it not human?

As far as I know Mandela has never overseen the extermination of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his compatriots. I don’t even think he has ever ordered the execution of a fellow human being. It would be easy, but too simplistic in my opinion, to say that Mao Zedong was evil and Nelson Mandela is a good human being. To me the real difference, but, also similarity, paradoxically, is how they both used their inner self-worth and the cultural and spiritual factors, prevalent in their respective societies, to advance the socioeconomic cause of their countrywomen/men. Where their paths parted was on the methods they used. Mao sought to wipe out Chinese people’s individuality in order to turn it into a homogenous mass that served the interests of the new state and oligarchy. Mandela, on the other hand, wanted to wipe out the shadow that apartheid had long cast over black South Africans. He didn’t just want a fairer (or rather, fair) society, but also equal opportunities for all, black and white.

This might explain why China’s so-called Golden Age was followed by a dark period of famine and devastation. Whatever Mao’s achievements were, he forgot about empathy. And without empathy, the dignity of many Chinese took a blow. Mandela, on the other hand, wanted not just black people to empathise with other black people, but also white people to look at apartheid for what it was: a hideous system based on the supposed superiority of one race over another.

There is not right or wrong about my reflection today. Maybe you believe that Mao was right to do what he did and how he did it. Somehow, though, I have always felt when I read about his excesses, that the more you focus on the idea, the more you disregard your fellow humans and the links that bind us together.

© 2013

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. A thoughtful piece. How many other world leaders, past and present, can we consider good and evil?

    Hitler vs Churchill. Both men were prominent leaders in the 1940s and I lived through Hitler's attempts to quell and conquer England whilst Churchill urged us to 'never surrender'.

    Hitler was evil in his extermination of millions of Jewish people. All Nazi members were cruel and vile murderers who slavishly followed the Fuhrer's orders.

    Churchill was defiant and bold in his leadership. But was he, too, evil at times? Was it really necessary to obliterate Dresden by bombs? I don't think so. Was it just a revengeful act? Perhaps so.

    Throughout human history there are countless examples of 'evil' leaders. Perhaps the world will one day end because of these evil-doers; that capability is now here.

  2. I've just read a fascinating graphic novel called "A Chinese Life" by Li Kunwu. It offered me a totally different perspective on Mao, from the viewpoint of a man who was brought up to idolise Mao, and who had to face the reality of what Mao did wrong, and who now makes his way in today's modern world. I won't spoil it by telling you all about it but it suggested to me how how different the Chinese attitude is to a Western one, perhaps. And maybe we have something to learn from it. I think you might find it interesting?

  3. I would find it interesting, Jenny. Thanks for the suggestion. I did read Wild Swans a few year ago (reviewed on this blog, by the way) and found it captivating, but also very, very sad. Sometimes I had to stop reading in order to compose myself because I was choking up a bit.

    One of the reasons why I wrote this post was to address this question of "evil". Was Hitler "evil"? What he did was evil. He, and I hesitate to use this word but use it I must, was human. Like me, like many of the bloggers whose blogs I visit and read. That thought of Hitler being human repels me, I must admit. But I also have to accept it. For the sake of avoiding another Hitler, I have to accept it.

    That is the kernel of my reflection today. Jogging up that hill the other evening and thinking of Mao I had this sudden image of Mandela and how Mao and Mandela, both statesmen in different times, were related to each other through their common human bond. Yet, there are people who would hesitate to make that connection because they would insist that Mao was the evil statesman whilst Mandela was the good one.

    This is an inconclusive topic to which I will come back some other time.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  4. It depends on what side of the fence one rests on I guess. until all can wise up and break down the walls, good vs evil will always be, in most every case, depending on what is done for or against you. But then the more evil, even if good for you, the more crap that will come along later.

  5. Una buena reflexión y comparación has hecho a pesar del día que tuviste te dio la inspiración de ello, yo cuando salgo andar siempre me vienen ideas en la mente pero menos importantes que las tuyas.
    Te diré que cuando estuve en China me sorprendió los retratos de Mao que se veían por todas partes, en los comercios, casas y demás.
    Un abrazo.

  6. without love, what does anything matter? without empathy and understanding....for me the two of them represent two very different choices in how we approach and see the world....

  7. Some interesting relections - thanks for the music! Greetings from Nice....

  8. As the daughter of a German Jew, and as someone who sometimes suffers with too much empathy (but wouldn't give it up) this post resonates. Strongly.
    I am uncomfortable with anyone who can not see shades of grey. I don't believe that any person is all black or all white (to use the common shorthand for good and evil). Some actions though decidedly are one or the other.
    We humans are complex, and not always admirable.

  9. Good or evil will depend on which side one is! It's acceptable if done and acted upon sincerely. Sometimes one needs to be bad to be good.

    But politics itself is a spoiler. It gets a lot of other variables into the fray. A hidden agenda tips the scale. So one can't be sure who is the evil one and who is not! Great thoughts CIL!


  10. From my point of view, there are some people who commit evil acts for a variety of reasons: To gain power, to obtain money, to take revenge, for instance. Then, there are people who commit evil acts because they enjoy doing so and take some vicarious thrill from doing so. Those in first group I would call evil humans. Members of the second group I would call inhuman creatures because there is something within them which is not present in most people.

    I do not know enough about Mao to categorize him (although I would assume he falls into the first group), but there can be no legitimate justification in my mind for evil acts by those in either group. My conclusion would be that the ends cannot be used to justify the means when either evil or inhumanity is part of the formula.

    The tricky part is defining evil. Just like the concept of "torture," definitions will vary among people and a legal standard must be adopted.

    I would love to discuss this topic in a group setting.

  11. Interesting post... As with Fram, it would make a good topic for a group discussion... few people are all good or bad, and it is a tragedy that many people start out with noble goals and up so evil

  12. A very thought-provoking post. I'm generally of the opinion that no-one sets out with the intention of being evil, that you simply couldn't live with yourself if you were a comic book bad guy without a motivation that you *think* is just (although it can seemingly be very easy to slip into corruption and unethical practices, especially from a position of power). I'm interested in Jenny's book suggestion, as well; I too found Wild Swans fascinating and horrifying.

  13. One thing that horrifies me about people categorized as evil is their rabid tunnel-visioned belief in their causes. The heat of their fervor destroys everything in its path, and even if the end goal is in itself "righteous", the ends do NOT justify the means. The true measure of a man is whether his chosen path uplifts, betters, and inspires the people around him... or destroys them.

  14. For me, Mao and Mandela are poles apart.. Even though he did manage to feed China and give most people jobs, I believe his attitude was completely different to Mandela's, who actually made forgiving the enemy a policy.

  15. I always think in Mandela like and special and brave man and still I think so, and Mao well would be really long talk about him, I was in school in times Mao was admired by some of my teachers, but really Im not.
    Like Brian I think a world without love is nothings and Im not talking about you believe in God or not.
    Is something special to make more human a man and someimes I think maybe is posible have a better world. This is Nelson mandela for me:)

  16. they couldn't be more different and their view on life couldn't be more different...i wish we had more mandela's in this world...

  17. So interesting how certain ages produce such memorable people. Of course, they were very dramatic times--all times are dramatic--but these were very dramatic. I think your point about empathy is very well-taken.

    I understand the physical exertion point. Agh! Take care, and thanks for your thoughtful pieces. k.

  18. I have always had such empathy with Nelson Mandela. I perceive him as one of the most enlightened human beings who has ever lived.
    How I wish there many more people like him in the would certainly be a much better place if there were!
    Comparing good and evil though...well that is treading on deceptive ground in my opinion. No-one is all good or all evil. There are too many shades of grey in between. Fanaticism can lead to self-deception, that in turn promotes the ability to commit evil acts. Tolerance and more liberal thinking are desperately needed in our time I think. But where to start? I guess we can only live in hope that those in power will see the light before it is too late.

    ps I loved the music. Really brightened up my day.
    Many thanks :)

  19. I appreciate Mandela all the more when contrasted to Mao. It would be hard to include the Cultural Revolution in the Golden Age. China was way ahead of Europe in the past in terms of culture and art. I'd like to see the freedom that has been extended to Hong Kong spread to mainland China.

    Interesting thoughts while jogging - you should do that more often!

  20. lol, my morning coffe is mostly accompanied by science magazines. :)



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