Contested Era, Blossoming Memory: Reconsidering the Early 1950s in the Present PRC

In walking around Chinese book markets, perusing Chinese newspapers, talking to Chinese scholars and intellectuals, and just plain thinking here in the PRC, the remarkable fact emerges of the enormous gap between what is printed and discussed here and how we talk about it back in the West.

In other words, there are some thorny themes being worked out here in the PRC that seem to have totally escaped commentary by Western scholars and pundits.  Perhaps readers will indulge me as I describe a tiny salient of what is going on, and what is perpetually going on, on the immense canvas of historical debate in the PRC.

A recent blossoming of popular writing about Lin Biao on the mainland seems geared to reevaluating this central (but rarely publicly reappraised) figure. Lin Biao takes part in the revolutionary narrative at various crucial points: he commanded the massive northeastern front in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), was the shadow ideological helmsman of the People’s Liberation Army of the early and radical Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), and ended up as the would-be coup leader whose body, along with that of his wife and son, was discovered in the wreckage of a “crashed” Chinese airplane on its way to Mongolia/the USSR in 1971.

The irrepressible translators at have in the past undertaken some excellent discussion of Cultural Revolution-themed (and Anti-Rightist Campaign!) publications in the PRC, but as I remain behind the Great Firewall, these are not at my fingertips at present.

For their part, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal seem hardly overly concerned with Chinese history, skewing news coverage as news organizations do, toward the modern.  By contrast, the German press seems slightly better attuned to — or at least can still sell papers writing about — what is called “Erinnerrungspolitik,” or the politics of memory.  Although the best paper in Germany, Munich’s Suddeutscher Zeitung has its gaps, at least the SdZ yesterday carried this appraisal of the Korean War, describing the changes triggered by the Chinese entry into the conflict now just over 60 years ago.

Perhaps for Germans living in a country where 84- and 85- year olds are still occasionally newly wounded by unexploded American ordinance from the Second World War, as occurred yesterday, or where the Japanese government is investing dollars into new Hiroshima monuments has had some impact, or perhaps the living memory of national division and the relative freshness of the Cold War as lived experience in Germany brings one back more easily to the ways that China controls and represses its various past achievements of violence and failings of the Confucian humanitarian impulse.

Though it hardly resembles the through-going German “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (Struggle over the past)” another theme that is emerging with renewed vigor from Chinese presses in the last two or three years is the struggle for law and order (and the repression of “reactionaries,” small capitalists, supposed Guomindang agents, and other enemies of the Republic) in the earliest years of the PRC.

Multiple examples are described in the Party sources as valorous, including a battle in Chongqing on February 13, 1950, the day before the Sino-Soviet Alliance was signed in Moscow.  This county-level conflict alone took the lives of 100 communist soldiers.  This and other efforts all over western China were not merely tiny “mopping-up” operations but often fully pitched battles on territory which Mao’s October 1 1949 declaration from Tiananmen four months and a week earlier had done little to functionally “liberate.”

It seems likely that I am going to continue to publish on this theme as it played out and inflected the earliest years of CCP administration in northeast China, especially among ethnic Koreans.  (In fact, a final “clean up operation” of my own against some proofs of my forthcoming Korean Studies article sparked the present essay, even though blogging has no measurable impact on my scholarly statistics.)  But back to Western China…

Given that Chiang Kai-shek only left Chengdu on December 8, 1949, and that the process of what one scholar calls “saturating, controlling and institutionalizing frontier space” was particularly difficult and violent for the PLA in Sichuan in early 1950, it might bear asking how the process of frontier consolidation played out in eastern Tibet later that year.

Although it’s hardly a fair parallel to make (and I would argue myself against reading genocidal imperatives to either the PLA in Tibet or the Japanese Imperial Army south of the Great Wall), if the Japanese army’s horrific approach to Nanking in late 1937 had negative implications for the occupied population of Nanking, might not a greater appreciation for the violent repression of “bandits” in the Chinese southwest and in Sichuan in late 1950 specifically give us something of a new vantage point through which to view the PLA’s broaching of force as it moved several months later from Sichuan towards Chamdo in the eastern Tibetan plateau?

In other words, bandits are bandits, no matter their ethnicity, and it seems hardly likely that the PLA took the lesson of hundreds of casualties in Sichuan lightly, or the need to resort to force in the process of consolidation in 1950.  More studies of combat trauma and its effects, in any case, seem really quite necessary for we scholars to undertake when it comes to the Chinese Civil War and its multiple appendages in Korea, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Of course, official efforts to valorize the “repression of counter-revolutionaries” in the early 1950s as a movement congruent with contemporary China’s obsession with law and order have not come without counter-commemoration, such as this online effort (以镇反名义杀害的部分抗日国军将领名单) which describes a large number of anti-Japanese officers and generals formerly of the Chinese National Army who were purged and murdered during the same movements in the early 1950s.  This is something akin to the Stalinist purges and murders of General Staff members in the late 1930s, but is rarely if ever broached in the fervent commemorations of either the War of Resistance (into whose belly I will be myself be residing in Chongqing next weekend) or the early years of the PRC.  Sacrifices multiple.

Finally, we see that commemorations of the Korean War are also coming under fire (and are allowed to be vented) in the PRC.  Clearly a directive went out from the Propaganda Ministry to even the most “liberal” organs of the mainland press to feature statist Korean War commemorations on their covers last month.  Thus Southern Weekend / 南方周末(often described as “reformist”) gets front page bromides about old-timers making corrections to Korean War casualty lists in Sichuan and cadre traveling around the country from the Museum to Resist America and Aid Korea in Dandong.

We also get big commemorative series of more than 60 pages in Sanlian Shenghuo / 三连生活 (hardly a “reformist” magazine, but as a product of one of the better intellectual presses in Shanghai/Beijing, as decent an organ as any for globally-minded Chinese who do not wish to leap upon the dirty truck bed of Huanqiu Shibao nationalism) which feature long extracts from CCP-issued official biographies of Army general and Korea field commander Peng Dehuai.   But at the same time, a detailed and critical Phoenix News story on China’s ambivalent relationship with North Korea — including disclosures of much wider violence and criminal activity stemming from the DPRK side of the border than is normally reported —  got wide play on the Chinese internet, and stayed up on the Tiexue BBS with a new title “China’s ‘Blood Alliance’ with North Korea is a Huge Joke on the Chinese People.”

Revolution, counter-revolution, kill the counter-revolutionaries.

Commemorate, and counter-commemorate, but do not silence the counter-commemorators.  If a hundred flowers can bloom from a hundred hundred thousand tombs of the epoch (and when one adds Mao’s own admission of 700,000 executions of “enemies of the people” to the now-official 158,010 Chinese deaths from the Korean War, that is about what we get), then perhaps the violent extremes and the political-military-social whiplash of the early 1950s may be said to have some positive legacy for the present age.

Selected Related Essays:

Adam Cathcart, “On Potsdam’s ‘Hiroshima Plaza,’” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 7, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Creating the Glass Man: Hiroshima Anniversary,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “December 7 in Chongqing,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, December 7, 2009.


  1. I think the Civil War in Southwest China is in need of more attention. Who knew that Guangxi was not liberated until December 11, 1949, or Yunnan not until February 24, 1950?! And even then, ‘liberation’ did not always mean that a complete victory had been achieved…

    1. Chuck, as per that topic, in the Tibetology Research Center Library at Sichuan U. today I found a new publication today that made me think of you on the subject of Zhang Jingwu, who was the CCP’s main man in Tibet in the early 1950s consolidation phase…

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