I sat down to lunch a few days ago with my co-workers and the hospital president. For some reason, when I had been watching “The Founding of the Party” (a recent propaganda film), a single line had jumped out at me that needed further exploration. The line was “Brother Mao, you are so tall.”
So I started asking co-workers how tall Mao had been, their answer shocked me. Not only did everyone seem to have an answer, but they claimed he was over 1.8m tall (5’10″+). When I had seen Mao’s body though the thing that had struck me most was how small he seemed compared to his almost mythic stature (even accounting for the fact that he has been dead for ~40 years).
I have lived in China now for 4 years, which is more than enough time to realize that 1.8m here is far above average height today (1.65m for men). Also factoring in probable malnutrition in childhood, which is still common in rural China, and 1.8m starts to sound fairly legendary.
Online I ended up finding close to a dozen photos that showed Mao was just barely taller than his wife at the time, and fairly average when compared to his comrades. My co-workers however could not accept this. “All of the first generation of leaders were very tall” one of them told me. But it wasn’t just one middle-aged Chinese co-worker who refused to accept my evidence, it was all of them.
So far I’ve asked close to a dozen people about Mao’s height, it seems that people over 35 are unaffected by my photos. Party orthodoxy seems to trump even physical evidence to the contrary.
At another lunch the topic of the US debt crisis came up, which I tried to avoid with a joke “On behalf of the American people, I’d like to thank all of you for giving us so much money.” My co-workers laughed, and it seemed as if the conversation would revert back to the usual topic of how to send their children abroad for college. This time I wasn’t so lucky.
“You could thank us by keeping out of the South China sea issue,” the president said. I tried to claim that I knew little about this issue, and hoped it would go away. “You agree with the CCP, right?” he pressed, “Maybe you should join the party?”
“Oh, I’ve heard that’s very difficult for foreigners, and I don’t know if they let Christians join” I said in an effort to deflect the question, but the conversation seemed to be stuck on this topic.
It was one of the most uncomfortable lunches I had attended to date, and in China that is saying a lot. I couldn’t have been more relieved when the watermelon plate arrived, and we were finally dismissed for the afternoon rest.
On returning to the office one of my two co-workers asked why it was that Americans were so afraid of China and it’s modernizing military. I tried explaining that for the most part we just don’t know what China’s rise means yet, and that change always makes people nervous. Then they pushed a little, “But America is in many wars right now for oil.”
“And China supports the gov’t of Sudan that killed hundreds of thousands of its own people so that it can access their oil (further reading before you leave an angry comment),” I replied. The Chinese gov’t has failed to acknowledge that anything has happened in Darfur, and has worked to cover up its own involvement in the conflict.
I knew what they would say, “China does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries,” but surely my co-workers personally did not support this genocide. How could they? We lived in Nanjing, and were surrounded by reminders of the Japanese atrocities, some of which occurred not more than a few hundred feet from where we were sitting. The older co-worker insisted, “Even if Chinese people knew what was happening, they wouldn’t care. We need the oil.”