I’ve been listening to a new podcast lately- Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History– and its fascinating. It’s actually what reminded me of this story (and I’ll make this all relevant in a minute- I promise). I’ve been listening to his five part series (at about 90 minutes a part) on Genghis Khan and he keeps reiterating that many people currently regard Genghis Khan as a great leader and hero for uniting China and many other things. The millions that he killed and the raping and pillaging that he left behind everywhere he went is ignored and only the positives are remembered. (Of course this varies by region). Not only does the writing of history go to the winner- but then time makes the pain of the one (or many) dull in the minds of the people who only benefit from their pain in the long run.
Sidenote: The Khan series is a pretty long commitment when you haven’t listened before- I highly recommend show 48- Prophets of Doom for a shorter listen that is equally fascinating.
Back to Han Fei:
There was a point early on in her visit when Han Fei was telling us about her husband and showing us pictures of their wedding. She was sharing Chinese wedding traditions and the superstitions (her word) behind them. It was all very interesting- but it’s not the point of this story (I’m trying to keep myself from getting too sidetracked there).
She told us about her honeymoon as well. She and her husband for their honeymoon went to the birthplace of Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao was her husband’s hero- which sounds well and good when Han Fei tells stories about Chairman Mao. He sounded like George Washington, or Abe Lincoln, a hero in the foundation of China who is the father of their nation. Without him there would be no modern China. He was a great leader and a brilliant man…
Except that he killed millions, an estimated 40-70 million people, by starvation, forced labor and executions during his reign in his attempts to unify the country under communism. He did help propel China into a world superpower- but at a horrific cost. Han Fei and her husband were born about the same time that Mao died. They grew up in a China that largely benefited from Mao’s atrocities and one that was changing. One that was kinder and gentler to its people (especially those that lived in large cities like they did). A China in which regarded the killer of millions as a hero worthy of worship for little boys- who eventually grew into men who still referred to him as their hero.
I asked Han Fei about these stories after clarifying that she was talking about the same person that I thought she was- things that there was a lot of evidence for online- that perhaps he wasn’t completely altruistic- but he also did some things that were pretty horrific. She didn’t believe me. I tried to show her multiple sources- information that she could read but wouldn’t.
She insisted that Americans weren’t aware of the whole story. He wasn’t a monster but a hero- regardless of what any information said. She’d been taught differently her entire life in every Chinese history class she’d taken- so my information was clearly uninformed and incorrect. There was nothing that I could say that would change her mind- or even open her mind to the possibility that maybe she’d been taught from an extremely biased source and there might be some differences in what she’d learned. Not a single thing. She knew the correct story and I didn’t. She was Chinese and I was American- American history (and every other country’s history) was wrong and was anti-Chinese. End of story.
It wasn’t as frustrating as it may come across in that paragraph. It was really more of an amusement and a cause for me to think about it- maybe she was right. It was entirely possible (and very likely) that the stories I was reading were biased against Mao and the Chinese way of governing and that it wasn’t like the history of the US was as pure as I was led to believe in my education. But it didn’t seem likely that it was that black and white. There seemed to be a preponderance of evidence for Mao’s atrocities from many, many sources, sources that had nothing to gain and no axes to grind.
So a couple of months later when I started reading history about the foundation of the LDS church that was different than I’d learned I remembered my conversation about Chairman Mao with Han Fei. It was possible that I’d only heard one side of the story and if I opened my mind and read some information from sources other than the ‘biased victor’ then maybe I’d learn something. That I was capable of reading multiple sources and deciding for myself who had an axe to grind, something to gain, or was simply being academic in their writing.
I opened my mind to the possibility that maybe Joseph Smith wasn’t a perfect man who communed with God. But maybe he was a little more human than that. Maybe polygamy wasn’t inspired- but human desires. Maybe the hero worship of pioneer stories weren’t all glorious and faithful. Maybe the visions and miracles and such… weren’t.
It turned out that I was right.
Statue of young Mao in Changsha, the capital of Hunan