Category Archives: Chinese History

1962 poster published by Xinhua entitled, "A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office."

Kennedy’s Aggression is Meeting with Growing Revulsion: 1962 Poster

Kennedy’s Aggression is Meeting with Growing Revulsion: 1962

by Scott D. Seligman 

China didn’t have a lot of friends in 1962. For a host of reasons, it had already split with the Soviet Union, which had drifted away from Stalinist orthodoxy under Premier Nikita Khrushchev and had begun to advocate peaceful coexistence with capitalist countries. Chairman Mao Zedong had condemned “Soviet revisionism” and challenged Russia’s traditional leadership of the world communist movement, reaching out to emerging countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and attempting to position the PRC as their champion.

Nor did China have any use for the capitalist West. “On the question of how to deal with imperialism and all reactionaries,” the People’s Daily asserted in that year, “the Chinese Communist Party has always maintained that one should despise them strategically but take full account of them tactically.” And by the early 1960s, Beijing was taking full account of a litany of American transgressions, some of which were hitting quite close to home.

The PRC had clashed with the United States in the Taiwan Strait in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the Seventh Fleet to aid the Nationalist government in its defense of the offshore islands of Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu). And when President John F. Kennedy escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, China began arming the North Vietnamese. Everywhere Mao looked, America seemed to be pursuing interests antithetical to those espoused by China.

China’s gripes with the Kennedy Administration as of March, 1962 were neatly catalogued in a vintage Xinhua News Agency poster I found in a Beijing open-air market.

1962 poster published by Xinhua entitled, "A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office."
1962 poster published by Xinhua entitled, “A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office.”

A simple line drawing entitled, “A Look at John F. Kennedy After a Year in Office,” it depicts JFK as a sort of human scale, balancing a stack of documents labeled “empty talk of peace,” “peace” and “disarmament” in one hand against a plateful of missiles labeled “military buildup” and “more military buildup” in the other. Here’s my translation of this relic from a bygone era:

“The Kennedy administration took office a year ago, and in military, political and economic affairs it has done what the Eisenhower administration did not dare to do. In the United States, the Kennedy administration has built up the military to its highest count in peacetime. In Latin America, Asia and Africa, it has actively pursued aggressive, warlike policies and neo-colonialism, igniting conflict everywhere. The Kennedy administration has attempted to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, expanded the civil war in Laos, caused the collapse of patriotic nationalist forces in the Congo, continued the ongoing war in West Berlin and is currently stepping up its offensive in South Vietnam.

“However, Kennedy’s aggression is meeting with growing revulsion. As people around the world understand the Kennedy administration more clearly, ferocious opposition to its imperialistic policies of aggression and warmongering is breaking out all over.”

Although the PRC and the United States had no formal diplomatic ties in the 1960s, the two sides did communicate through bilateral, ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva and Warsaw throughout the decade. But tensions remained high until ping pong diplomacy and President Richard M. Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China signaled willingness on the part of both nations to put ideology aside and launch a new era of normalized relations.


Scott D. Seligman is a writer, a historian and a retired corporate executive. He is the author of The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, Three Tough Chinamen and Chinese Business Etiquette, and co-author of the best-selling Cultural Revolution Cookbook and Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. He lives in Washington, DC.


Happy Learn from Lei Feng Day!

On this date in 1963, Mao Zedong launched the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign, which is great because the most important lesson I’ve learned from Lei Feng is to look out for falling telephone poles, but maybe I’m not the target audience.

In case you missed it (or have recently been hit on the head by a large wooden object) Lei Feng was a young soldier in the PLA whose selfless devotion to his brother troops, to the people, and especially to Mao Zedong and his country, made him a role model for young Chinese. If you want to think of him as a cross between a boy scout, GI Joe, and “Opie” from the old Andy Griffith Show, go ahead I won’t stop you.

How did he die, you might ask?

Fighting the dastardly American imperialists? No.

Sneaking across the Himalayas to beat back Indian encroachment into the Motherland? Not really.

Mortal combat with Soviet spies? Not so much.

He was directing one his fellow soldiers to back up a truck (Possible last words: “Dao! Dao! Dao! Ooomph…) when the truck knocked down a telephone pole right on top of poor Lei Feng.

After his death, Lei Feng’s Diary was, erm, discovered and lo and behold it turns out that he was quite the young man: always helping others, assisting old ladies, living a frugal life, darning socks for his platoon mates and of course diligently studying Mao Zedong thought.

It was almost too good to believe.

Actually, it was too good to be believed.

“Learn from Lei Feng” exhibits sprang up like mushrooms through the PRC, moving tributes to exhort the people to follow Comrade Lei Feng’s example. Generations of students in China have ‘learned from Lei Feng’ starting at a young age, even as the soldier’s image has been updated and revised to suit the times and political climate. (Lei Feng the homeowner. Lei Feng the entrepreneur. Lei Feng in an Audi A6 clutching a man purse. Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.)

The fact that the diary was fictitious and a product of the propaganda department doesn’t necessarily rob Lei Feng of his significance. It’s nice to be nice to others, and as political campaigns go, urging people to help each other and be frugal definitely has its merits.

So, today let us all learn from Lei Feng: Help your fellow citizens, assist the elderly whenever possible, and, for goodness sake, watch out for large falling objects.

Originally published March 5, 2010

Image courtesy of Stefan Landsberger’s website



On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

Last week, an op-ed published by the China News Service referred to outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke as a “banana.” It was, I suspect, meant to be satirical, and was a crude take-off on a famous essay written by Mao Zedong to celebrate the departure of another US ambassador, John Leighton Stuart.

The article was in bad taste and it brimmed with the kind of chickenshit pettiness that characterizes the more strident wings of the Chinese state media.

The term “banana” is an offensive term, especially when directed at an US Ambassador, but I’m not going to dwell on the epithet. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been called that. In fact, I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racist epithet.

As Mike Wilbon said on PTI last week when discussing the NFL’s decision to ban another provocative epithet from the football playing field, “Tony Kornheiser is my good friend of 35 years but he doesn’t get a vote in this.”

I’ll let others better qualified than I discuss the nature of that particular term.

But crude or not, the use of the term was just the most glaring example of how the writer of this essay completely fails to grasp a concept central to Chinese history: Cultural hybridity.

What somebody looks like, their DNA, their genotype, is of course irrelevant to somebody’s cultural make-up.

“Ethnicity,” “Race,” “Culture,” are all shifting and unstable ideas…except in China. Here ethnicity, race, culture are fixed constants. Hence, Xinjiang has always been “Chinese.” History books speak of a “Han” race which dates back millennia. Or, as in the case of Ambassador Locke, if you look Chinese, you must be—at heart—Chinese.

As Kaiser Kuo wrote as part of an excellent and insightful discussion on the subject at China File:

The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

But looked at another way, Chinese history is filled with cultural hybrids and liminal figures. In his 2012 book Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, Norwegian historian Od Arne Westad argues that cultural hybrids, those figures with the ability to operate in both East and West, were central to the development of a modern China.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine recent Chinese history without the likes of Sun Yat-sen (born in Guangdong, educated in Hawaii), Hu Shi (educated in the United States), or Chen Duxiu (educated in Japan). Overseas Chinese communities  made the first sizable private investments in developing China’s industrial and commercial sector. Many of the same overseas merchants, who often became wealthy despite native mistrust and hostility toward the Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, Malaya, and California, funded Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.

Then there is Robert Hart, who was the head of the Maritime Customs Bureau for the Qing Empire for nearly a half-century beginning in 1863. Born in Northern Ireland, a place not without its own tricky terrain of identity, Hart operated a hybrid organization with both foreign and Chinese staff, often acting against the interests of his fellow foreign nationals in his service to the dynasty.*

Even those foreign nationals angry at Hart for having ‘gone native’ were often at a loss as to their own identity. British historian Robert Bickers and others have written about the “Shanghailanders” of the 19th century who saw their community as something separate from their home nations, all the while maintaining their superiority distinctiveness regarding the local “Shanghainese.”

Perhaps the greatest cultural hybrids were the Manchus (Yes, I can find a way to work the Manchus into just about any argument). The early Manchu rulers grafted foreign notions of Central Asian empire onto a Chinese state and in so doing were able to expand that state into something much larger than any previous “Chinese” Empire.  They did so as well without losing their own identity, even as markers of that identity gradually gave way to local ways of living.

Even today, cultural hybrids fill important roles in China’s academic, business, and artistic worlds. There are Chinese educated abroad. ABCs “returning” to a place they’ve never been. White dudes from NH teaching in a Chinese university. African migrants seeking a place to settle down.

There was a recent video celebrating Beijinger’s ability to be “Happy” even when having to take slow, shallow breaths under a polluted sky. What struck me was how diverse Beijing appeared in the video. Obviously, Chinese still outnumber foreigners, but what do those terms even mean? If identity isn’t fixed, isn’t it possible we all exist on some kind of sliding scale of hybridity?

And yet, as the op-ed crudely lampooning Ambassador Locke shows, and Kaiser alludes to, hybridity is also something which is still misunderstood and feared. 汉奸 hanjian (“race traitor”) is a common epithet used against Chinese who take a nuanced stand in regards to Chinese government policy, those Chinese who marry or date outside their race, or anybody who fails to live up to the most calcified idea of what it means to be “Chinese.”

In the same post above, Kaiser makes the fair point that foreigners are not immune from this. The vitriol given to Mark “Da Shan” Roswell for appearing too cozy with the Chinese establishment is but one example of a modern-day Robert Hart.

Gary Locke was an excellent ambassador for the United States. He was also an excellent example of somebody who, in a global world, showing what it means to transcend narrow national identities. Some are searching for roots a world away from where they are born born, some are searching for homes far away from our roots.

Those who cling to narrow and fixed notions of identity often do so for their own narrow reasons.  Liminal figures who have always been at the center of momentous change. Maybe that’s why repressive regimes seem so paranoid about those who don’t fit in any  neat little box of identity.


*Although it should be noted that Hart himself never quite got over his multiple identity crises. He ditched his Chinese mistress and their children in favor of a “proper” British wife midway through his career. Eventually, one of his Anglo-Chinese children ended up suing him.