A conversation on a little bit of everything – Party loyalty, Chinese world views, and Mao’s height

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.”


25 responses to “A conversation on a little bit of everything – Party loyalty, Chinese world views, and Mao’s height”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Don’t worry how short he was, he was China’s answer to Dan’l Boone. You remember how the song goes. Great post Tom.

  2. Chopstik says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a conversation on height in China, let alone Mao’s height in particular. I’ll have to ask around with some of my friends and see what sort of answers that question generates.

    Regarding your uncomfortable lunch conversation and follow-up, I don’t think that Chinese are any different than Americans (or any other nationality) in this regard. They see a Chinese rise as a good thing – particularly in light of the fact they feel surrounded by enemies and the desire to stand up to them (rightly or wrongly). Americans feel threatened by this rise because they have been a world-power for a while – most generations today have only known America as a superpower and do not like the idea of competition in that regard since the only relationship they can assign to a competing world power is that of the former Soviet Union. What results is a mutually antagonistic relationship between the two nations because (as normal) they each the view situation through their own narrow lens without regard for the other point of view. That is not to say that either is right (or wrong), merely that there are different points of view. For myself, when presented with these views by either side, I have tried to point out where some misconceptions are and to bridge that gap – sometimes more successfully than others. Unfortunately, for the more nationalistic, such ideas are often missed completely as they do not fit neatly within the constructs created by the state.

    Finally, regarding oil and Chinese ignorance of the situation in Darfur, they probably are aware but, as you point out, simply don’t care as they need the oil for their own continued growth. But, does the average person in the US care about the situation in Saudi Arabia (other than the “women can’t drive?!” mantra that seems to permeate their knowledge of Saudi Arabia) and its repressive policies on its own people or the situation in Venezuela (beyond that of the bombastic Hugo Chavez) and its businesses and people? They’ll scream and holler about no drilling in Alaska but show no similar remorse for the environment in the Middle East or any other oil-producing nation. So, before we in the West start casting stones on this subject, it might be worthwhile to view it through another lens.

  3. Jiang Yan says:

    I don’t know how tall was Mao, but I also searched some pics on internet, it seems like he was quite tall among men in China. (http://www.google.com/search?q=%E6%AF%9B%E6%B3%BD%E4%B8%9C%E6%9C%89%E5%A4%9A%E9%AB%98&hl=en&newwindow=1&gbv=2&biw=1280&bih=639&tbm=isch&ei=x7c2TsqQKsupsALynfWfCw&sa=N&start=20&ndsp=20)

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    At a gathering of my high school classmates on my visit in 2004, a guy asked me, rather aggressively, how I thought about American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. I had been travelling for days, had not followed news at all, had no idea what he was talking about, and I was like “What, what, what?” in the middle of loud noises swhirled around me. I must have looked rather nonchalent, for he launched a tirade against the Americans for their brutality, barbarianism and moral corruption. What struck me most, later on when I found out what this was all about, was the irony, or the corruptness, of his very indignation (infused directly by the state propaganda apparatus): Where is his indignation when, right around him, there are so much misery, injustice, and corruption, and when people’s fundamental rights are trampled all over the place? What about our very own chemistry teacher who was a “rightest”, suffered from life-long exclusion, abuse and humiliation in all imaginable manner? Until now, most of Chinese don’t think that is a problem they should be really, really, really mad about!

    What frightens me is that, how readily many intellectuals, who are often irked by the Party’s approach to things domestic and who don’t think they share the Party’s views at all, buy the narratives of the state propagada when it comes to the US. Not too long ago, I read an article, a 转贴, on a professor’s blog about how US has been, for decades, manipulating currency to exploit other countries for its own benefit. The article was written in a sensational, rousing style with no supporting materials for its claims. The professor who re-posted the article didn’t say who the author was and where the article came from. So I left a comment asking who the author was and where the article came from. Then I did a little homework myself. It turned out the article was widely available online, written by a general of PLA air force named Qiao Liang (乔良)who is the director of Strategy Teaching and Research at PLA Air Force Command College. But here is the real nugget of gold: He WAS a fiction writer before, god knows how, he became a general specilizing in strategy! Well, I digressed.

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    Or, should I say, “in all UNimaginable manners?” I know a woman whose father was renowned scientist who died during the Cultural Revolution: Mao’s rebels hammered a nail–the kind of nail for nailing logs together–into his skull!

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Read “China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation” by Xinran Xue. She travelled the world and all over China to compile older generation’s personal histories during the last 50 years. She wanted to record these people before they died. Her mother told her she was mad as all Chinese know someone who suffered or did bad things during the Cultural Revolution. And they don’t speak about it! Xinran lives in UK now and I think her books are banned in China.

  7. I know of Mao’s height from my Uncle Dougie, who was a kind of ‘friend’ of Maos back in the 1920s or something. The man’s Shangtungnese – they’re not exactly a tall lot. Madam Tussaud’s in London has a good wax statue of Mao with the correct height – about mine (5 feet 9 or 175cm).

    As to China in Africa, well, it seems to me that those who know, they know and don’t care. Those who don’t, wouldn’t know to care. It’s just fact of life in China, where sinocentricity is even stronger today than it was in my day.

    I will say one thing, though, about the Cultural Revolution in my own small way. When the political chaos was at their height in 1970-73, I sometimes come back to Hong Kong on holidays. We had a second home in Taipo district in New Territories at the time, with the Taipo River (which, alas, no longer exists) running through the back gardens/grounds. I had occasion to see corpses with their hands tied to the back really, really tight with metal wire drifting down the river all 30 kilometres or more from the mainland. All of the corpses I’ve seen had a bullet hole at the back of the head or a couple more somewhere on the body, courtesy of the PLA border militia. I sometimes had to help Ah Pui and/or Ah Yung (our groundsmen) to fish out the corpses, rang the police, who then rang up the fire services to clamp free the wires on the corpses. One doesn’t forget those savage images and memories (and the smell!) quite so easily then.

    So, to me, this business of orthodoxy trumping physical evidence and actual memories in the (mainland) Chinese mindset doesn’t surprise me one bit. So the increased degree of sinocentricity that I’ve seen in the PRC (which even my PRC and Hong Kong friends agree it’s hard to miss) just adds to the selective memory and selective perspective of our cousins across the border here.

    Just my twopence.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      thenakedlistener: That’s a hell of a lot more than just your twopence worth. It’s incredibly sad. You describe it so vividly. Young people in China do not have any real comprehension of the suffering of the older generation. There is no open discussion of recent history. Instead there is this increased degree of sinocentricity that you are conscious of. Sinocentricity is a word which is perfect for this limiting trait.

      • Yes, it really is very sad, and I’m sorry to have seen it (or maybe not, as the case may be). Hong Kong is travelling down the same road: schools here used to glance over some of the more inconvenient parts of modern Chinese history, but teachers and books do a fairly decent job at giving the whole picture. Today, school history just try to avoid even British colonial history in Hong Kong (which, I remind people, was only 13-14 years ago).

        What is even more saddening to me is to hear university tutors in their early 30s spewing out various ‘facts’ and prognostications about the Cultural Revolution (among other things that bear little resemblance to the memories of those who lived through those times (mostly the mainlanders who swam 25-50 miles to get to Hong Kong) or witnessed the chaos from Hong Kong knowing full well there were 150,000 PLA troops over the border.

    • xiaozhoucoldsea says:

      The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against them,they crush those beneath them. —–Emily Bronte
      The Chinese slaves are just suffering from Stockholm syndrome severely.
      A question out of this topic:is your avatar the british deceased singer Nick Drake

      • The Stockholm syndrome is a different kettle of fish, but I get what you mean. And, no, my avatar is not of Nick Drake – it’s myself. But you’re the first to say that. Amazing, somebody here actually knows who Nick Drake was!

  8. It’s typical. When you’ve been fed one way of thinking your whole life (CCP’s agenda) then you’re doomed to buy into it forever. You should have asked the hard questions and brought up the invasion of Tibet, wars with India and Vietnam and meddling in Korea. Like a boss.

  9. Hua Qiao says:

    Hello Tom. Welcome back.
    I kind of got hooked by your conundrum on Mao’s height. Looking at photos of Nixon and Mao along with others of Kissinger and Mao, I’d say Mao is 5-7″. In the photos, Nixon looks a good 4″ above Mao. By most accounts, Nixon was 5-11.5″. Kissinger who is 5′-9″ also looks down on Mao by about 2″.
    No way is he 5-9″ or 5′-10″.

    • Perhaps not by the time Mao was with Nixon or Kissinger. People shrink down as they grew older. Considering the hardships that Mao had during the wartime years and the various other abuses he did to himself afterwrads, shrinking two inches isn’t bad going actually. I myself shrank down a full inch over the past 10 years, mainly because of working too many nights.

      • Hua Qiao says:

        Possibly. But there are also old photos circa 1950 or so of Mao (Mao would be late 50’s)and Kruschev. Kruschev was 5-3″ and it is hard to believe that Mao is 7 to 8″ taller.

        I hear you about shrinking an inch. Me too.

      • Yeah, kinda hard to think Mao was taller. But my Uncle Dougie knew him personally and that’s where I heard the 5 foot 9 thing from (Uncle D was 6 foot 1). Uncle D also told us that Mao’s family originally came from Shantung, and moved and lived in Hunan for two generations before Mao was born. But Uncle D was careful to say there’s no way to verify this claim. So there.

        And I hope your losing an inch in height wasn’t because of working nights.

  10. Hua Qiao says:

    I would have told the boss, the South China sea is international maritime seaway. All vessels have right of passage as long as they are 12 miles outside of China’s coast. The US and anyone else has a right to be there, special economic zone notwithstanding.
    As to China’s claim over the various islands, Diao Yu, the Spratly and Paracel Islands, the US interest is only peaceful negotiation and resolution, not by the intimidation that China has employed lately. We have friends and alliances dating back many years and we will not back away from supporting those relationships simply because China woke up and realized there is oil in the South China sea and wants to push everyone out.

    Dittos to Beaufortninja on the invasion comments. You all should read the 17 point agreement of 1953 supposedly documenting the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. Stunning

  11. Yaxue C. says:

    I haven’t watched “The Founding of the Party” and will not be watching, but Mao’s height aside, it’s plain stupid for anyone to say “Brother Mao, you are so tall” and to insinuate the idea that being tall (which is not even the case) and being great have some correlation. It’s mind boggling to see how much stupidity, obsequiousness and vulgarity on display everyday and everywhere.

  12. Yaxue C. says:

    Brush up on my math skill (method not for use by NASA):

    Calculation of Mao’s height (Unit: cm) according to this picture (http://pic.people.com.cn/GB/150448/150460/171435/10285486.html) :
    169.5cm (Kiang’s height as recorded at the Japanese military academy he attended, and I tend to have faith in the Japanese fussiness) + 4.0 cm (it’s been said that Kiang wore heels to amend his height, but I think it’s very hard for them to exceed 4.0cm without looking ungainly) + 1.5cm (let’s bring Mao’s foot close together and straighten him up) + 3.0cm (Mao’s is visibly taller than Kiang, and let’s just say it looks like 3cm or so)


  13. roamsnow says:

    Never join the CCP party!
    “Brother Mao, you are so tall.” implies that Mao is a very respected man, and this’s the point!

    • Tom says:

      But at some point being a respected man was no longer enough for party historians, and they decided to inflate his stature.

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  17. CP says:

    Jung Chan said Mao was 6 feet in her very unflattering biography of him. Also, photos in the book clearly showed him to be much taller than most Chinese people around him and not much shorter, if at all, than Westerners. Mao’s height is probably the only thing I can defend about him.

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