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Thursday, October 27, 2005

looking at the whole figure is not soft-pedalling mass murder

A.W. View, from his post from yesterday on this site, is shocked that Nicholas Kristof could possibly have anything positive to say about Chairman Mao in his New York Times review of Mao: The Unknown Story.

I can't read the full review since I don't want to register at the NYT, but it sounds like Kristof doesn't dispute that Mao was a monstrous mass murderer. Why is it not correct to point out any good things Mao may have achieved? Was Mao pure evil, incapable of accomplishing anything constructive?

I may completely disagree with Kristof if I knew what he believes were Mao's good points, but for myself, I believe that Mao accomplished at least a couple of good things (and by no means do I believe this in any way absolves him of mass murder).

Firstly, the development of a common spoken Chinese language, i.e. Mandarin Chinese, was an excellent means to promote communication and interaction among the far-flung people of China, who shared a common written language but spoke widely differing dialects. This was a long-term goal, of course - the peasant farmers didn't drop their plows and take a crash-course in Mandarin, but the young were taught in Mandarin and most educated people in China today speak both Mandarin as well as their local dialect.

Secondly, the development of a simplified set of characters made the Chinese written language much easier to learn, and certainly led to an increased rate of literacy. As a perhaps unintended side benefit, it also made it easier for foreigners to learn Chinese, especially relevant today as Chinese language classes are attracting more and more American students (See here.)

And no, as a libertarian I don't believe governments should force any sort of language program on anybody, but the creation of the Mandarin spoken language as well as the simplified character set were worthy ideas in their own right, and Mao was instrumental in both projects.

As a related example, although I despise communism in all its forms, I do believe that the Communist party in China did some relative good in the beginning. In light of the brutality imposed on the Chinese people by the invading Japanese, it is not unreasonable that the Chinese would embrace the communists, who treated them far better than the KMT and offered them some protection from the Japanese thugs. See this ealier post I made on this site.

My main point in making this post is to dispute the idea that we can't rightly discuss both the negative and positive qualities of historical figures (or movements, for that matter), even if those negative qualities include mass murder. By not looking at the historical figure in his entirety, both good and bad, we run the risk of misunderstanding history itself, including, for example, why a historical figure became immensely popular. If I ever find out exactly what Kristof considers Mao's positive qualities, I may disagree with him to a fault, but I don't dispute his right to consider the whole character of Mao.

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