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Last Days Of Old China

In 1946, a young graduate student named David Kidd – all of 19 years old – arrived in Peking in time to witness a remarkable period in the nearly 6 millennia history of China; the fall of the last vestige of a society that had weathered internal warfare, isolation, corrupt dynasties, invasion from outside and the imperial ambitions of England, Germany, the U. S. and Japan. Kidd eventually taught English at a local university, married the daughter of a high government official, and enjoyed the prestige and privilege of living in a European enclave inside the “Forbidden City.

” As it was in Imperial Russia, the divide between a small privileged aristocracy and an exploited peasant working class became too great for the structure of Chinese society as it had existed to survive. Whether the communist regime that took its place – which perversely, has morphed into a hybrid of communist totalitarianism and unregulated, corporatist hypercapitalism with the worst characteristics of both – was an improvement is debatable. It is apparent however that David Kidd’s experiences represent a microcosm of what happens to a dominant ruling class in the face of forced, revolutionary change.

The Nationalist-Communist Civil War had actually been going on intermittently since 1927; the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation in 1937 interrupted it only temporarily, but full-scale hostilities commenced the year following Japan’s surrender to the U. S. The years of resistance to Japanese occupiers had left the Kuomintang under Chiang kai-Shek greatly weakened. In addition, many Chinese in the northern part of the country blamed the Kuomintang for not preventing the Japanese invasion and occupation in the first place.

In addition, Chiang kai-Shek further alienated the Chinese people by aligning himself with local warlords who had collaborated with the Japanese in his attempts to regain Manchuria from Mao Tse-Tung and his communist forces. By 1946, Soviet forces who had agreed to remain in Manchuria until Chiang kai-Shek could get troops into the region had dismantled the nation’s industries and shipped them back to Russia, leaving little in the way of an economic base.

Over the next several years, Chiang kai-Shek’s attempts to gain control from the communists played out like a tragic comedy as he made one error after another, and warfare dragged on in China’s northern provinces. It was during a temporary truce between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong that David Kidd arrived in Old Peking – then known as Beiping, or Peiping. That name meant “the North pacified,” implying that the warlord government that had earlier ruled the north was not the legitimate.

The city had been occupied by the Japanese and had been the seat of the Provisional Government of the Republic of China, which was little more than Tokyo’s puppet (Buchannan et. al. , 376). As in so many cities occupied by foreign invaders, those who could – particularly the privileged – did what they could to maintain some semblance of normalcy. The Lu family, into whom Kidd eventually married, represented this privileged class. Their acceptance of a daughter marrying a Westerner is noteworthy in a culture that was overall not keen on the idea of foreigners, particularly those of white European ancestry.

Like modern America, money was the great leveler: for those who had enough “green” and/or “gold,” whether one’s skin was white, yellow or black meant nothing. Like the family of Yuri Zhivago in pre-Revolutionary Moscow, the Lu family lived in a palatial mansion that had been held by their family for generations. To those who lived in tiny, run-down apartments and hovels with ten or more other individuals, this must have been untenable – and would certainly have been a reason to welcome the communists when they arrived.

Nonetheless, this ancient palatial mansion is described as being in a state of disrepair, continuing to deteriorate around them as Kidd joined the Lu family in 1948. It seems symbolic, in light of the almost tongue-in-cheek tone of the descriptions, of the rot from within of China’s old ruling class. Like so many other aristocracies that fell from their high estate in the course of the numerous revolutions and socio-political upheavals of the twentieth century, Beiping’s elite had grown complacent with a sense of entitlement – looking at the changes that were starting to happen all around them, yet failing to really “see” them.

For a young idealist, David Kidd apparently not only adores the Lu family, but the life of privilege they live (doubtless, he is today a major supporter of the Bush-Cheney agenda to replace America’s middle class with a population of serfs and peons under the heel and fist of a small, bloated oligarchy). He really cannot understand the point of view of those exploited classes that would seek the destruction of those who live off of their sweat and blood like the parasites they are.

Small wonder they welcome the communists when they arrive; despite Kidd’s sense of humor and pathos, one really comes to sympathize with those who labeled the Lu family as social and economic vampires and finally rose up and threw them off. It is also interesting that David Kidd seems blissfully unaware, as a young academic teaching in an exotic foreign university, of the movements taking place right there on the campuses of Beiping’s educational institutions.

If Kidd was not an idealist who could understand the rage underlying China’s long, institutional inequalities, many of his students were. In fact, the students and intellectuals comprised a major force within the communist revolution; Mao Zedong himself acknowledged that “the ranks of the revolution could not develop and the revolution could not triumph” without them, and was prepared to give them “hands-on” experience by having them work in the organization of the 90% of China’s population who were workers and peasants (Yick, 80).

Of course, the GMD, still nominally in charge of the country, were also aware of this; however, as economic conditions worsened (affecting all but the elite class with whom David Kidd was so in love), they pretty much lost the trust of the youth – as happens under any government when the economy starts to hurt those that actually make it operate (a lesson that today’s American GOP still fails to appreciate). By the time David Kidd was teaching his English classes, schools at every level in Beiping had students working for and supporting the communist party (81).

One can only imagine why Kidd failed to see or acknowledge what was happening right there in front of his face. The final straw came with the hyper-inflation of 1948, which spelled the doom of capitalism for China (at least until the “free-market” reforms that came much later). Marx was apparently correct in his view that capitalism would ultimately dig its own grave. To make matters worse, the Chinese people – much like Americans today – lived in a society in which nepotism and corruption ran rampant.

Four families controlled the economy and made fabulous fortunes by currency manipulations that Dick Cheney would envy. These four families declared that all Japanese property – which had been seized from its rightful Chinese owners to begin with – were now “property of the state. ” The original Chinese owners received no compensation for their losses; the Four Families made obscene profits with no investment nor risk (Buchanan et. al. , 378). In light of this, it is really quite difficult to have any sympathy for the Lu family when they are forced to sell their home.

In fact, it is much easier to feel that, reduced to the level of trying to survive under the new regime – which includes the Elder Sister having to manage a closed house of prostitution – the Lu family gets their rightful comeuppance. They were not mean-spirited or evil; in fact, despite the fact that David Kidd’s marriage did not last, he still enjoys a close relationship with the Lu family. Certainly this is a tribute to their fundamental goodness.

Nonetheless, they were members of a privileged class who enjoyed their high status, not by virtue of intelligence, goodness or wisdom, but simply because they were born to it, supported by the blood and sweat of others who did without much just so they could live in luxury. On one level, it is easy to appreciate David Kidd’s nostalgia for a way of life of which he was able to experience only the last four years; on the other hand, one is dismayed – even embarrassed – by his complete inability to understand the fact that the wealth he and his adoptive family enjoys comes at a terrible human cost.

It is something that the 30% of Americans who today still support the Bush Administration – primarily white males in three-piece suits with lots of money – still refuse to acknowledge. In a sense, however, one cannot really blame Kidd for his naive longings for a world that was inherently doomed to collapse. After all, he came from a country where 6% of the world’s population lives, yet consumes 25% of the world’s resources. It is to be expected that families such as Lu and the European and American expatriates living in Beijing at the time would be familiar and comfortable for him.It’s just a pity that he couldn’t really look beyond his own enclave.

Works Cited

Buchannan, Keith, Charles P. Fitzgerald and Colin A. Ronan. China: The Land And The People. (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1980) Kidd, David. Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China. (New York: NYRB Classics, 2003) Yick, Joseph. Making Urban Revolution in China:The CCP-GMD Struggle for Beiping’Tianjin, 1945-1949. (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1995)

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