While I was in Huaxi another interesting topic came up which doesn’t have so much to do with this strange village, but reflects more broadly on China.
As we were walking through their hall of glorious history we noticed there were pictures of leaders from several foreign delegations on the wall. Two in particular seemed to be emphasized and we looked closer.
“It’s the king of Cambodia,” my co-worker’s husband said with a big grin, “He very much liked to visit Huaxi.”
I recognized the man in the second photo too, a small part of me was hoping we would just move on.
“And this,” her husband continued, “Is Po-er Pa-te.”
“Pol Pot?” I asked trying to make sure that this was something he really wanted to bring up.
He nodded his head vigorously. “You know, Pol Pot killed about 1/3 of his people in Cambodia,” I said.
“He was a very bad man,” my wife added.
“And he liked visiting Huaxi very much!” our friend continued.
Unfortunately in China this isn’t an isolated incident, and I feel like it has led to a number of foreigners losing some respect for China.
For example, in my hospital we have a large painting of Zhou Enlai visiting Africa; a trip which our hospital helped with. The hospital sees this as a way to show we contributed to China’s foreign affairs and helped the country gain more friends around the world. None of my Chinese coworkers seem to have any reservations about showing the painting to all our foreign guests.
However as I bring guests past the photo I often hear whispers of, “Is that really Idi Amin?”
I think this type of thing gives the impression that Chinese people are so cut off from history that they don’t know these relationships should be embarrassing. However, I think this view is too simplistic.
After further discussions with my co-worker’s husband it was very clear that he knew Pol Pot was an evil person. However, it seems to be that in Chinese thinking they have gotten very good at separating between the good parts of a person and the bad (perhaps through practice). This might be the best example of what people mean when they say Chinese people are “pragmatic”.
Perhaps in the West we are too sensitive about political correctness. When we see a picture of Pol Pot or Idi Amin we don’t see the person who inspired their countrymen and rallied their troops to win a revolution, we only see the end result.
For my Chinese readers, Westerners come to this same stumbling block when we think of Mao Zedong. We think of the hundreds of thousands that died during the famine, we imagine the Red Guard terrorizing their neighbors and waving their Little Red Books. These historical facts make it hard for us to see the way he helped women gain rights in Chinese society, or how he broke up hundreds of years of feudalistic landownership.
In the end I’m not saying these are people I would want enshrined in my own hometown, but I do think it’s important to remember there are very few things in China which happen out of ignorance. My co-worker’s husband was fully aware of the evils of Pol Pot, but he was proud that his village had been visited by a foreign leader, and to him, those two aspects were completely separate.