The way we are taught history in schools is enough to put a whole class to sleep in a heartbeat. Don’t get me wrong. You may find many interactive classes, but teachers usually want you to remember things that matter the least — for instance, dates. Here and there, you may find a teacher who is touched by the spirit of John Keating (Robin Williams) from the Dead Poets Society. But they are like needles in a haystack.
If you are an avid reader, blessed with the inner eye that gives you an immersive experience better than any theatre, when you read books, you may find some history books much more enjoyable than fiction. I say some because the skills of the storyteller also matter. I am also assuming, of course, that the damage done to your imaginative mind by our rote learning-based education system is not so extensive that all history may remind you of hockey commentary from the eighties, where all Samiullah and Kaleemullah seemed to do was to pass the ball to each other.
If you want to read the most fascinating histories, I will humbly recommend that you begin by reading the stories of the nations that have mainly remained on the peripheries of our imagination for one reason or another: of Russia, America and the Far East. Mainly because too much went on in these countries and regions. And also, there is enough documented social and economic history to give court historians a run for their money.
I referred to the Far East because I don’t know how else to approach the three nations in particular, in awe of whom I have spent a lifetime. China, Japan and Korea (Koreas now) have always had a tough time getting along with each other, but man, once you start reading up, you learn that there is enough there to fall in love at once.
Today I want to offer two morsels of cautionary tales from the history of China. But before I do, let us spell out a few caveats. These two examples, while being highly dramatic, are by no means representative samples of China’s history. Two, while the protagonists or, for want of a better word, anti-protagonists in these cases are both females, don’t let them colour your perception of my view of women leaders. I believe that throughout history when they have exercised direct power, women have usually proven to be better rulers than men. The entropy we are addressing in this piece has little to do with gender and more with the misguided outlooks and misperceptions about the direction of history of these two individuals.
I wonder how many of you are familiar with the name of Empress Dowager Cixi? Here is how Wikipedia introduces her: “Born Yehe Nara Xingzhen (29 November 1835 — 15 November 1908), of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan, (she) was a Chinese noblewoman, concubine and later regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908.” Because, unlike many in the royal household, she could read and write Chinese, she won the emperor’s confidence. She later gave birth to the emperor’s only surviving son, who would succeed him in just five years. On his deathbed, the dying emperor would appoint eight regents. But as her son ascended the throne, she manoeuvred them out of power through breathtaking palace intrigues. But that is not the main focus of our study. In the twilight of the Manchu-led dynasty, when it was plain that the monarchy could not survive without reforms, she systematically frustrated the attempts by her young son and his successors to modernise the rule in the name of tradition. She even accelerated the dynasty’s demise by cutting deals with the movers and shakers of the Boxer uprising against Western influence. Of course, most of it was done to strengthen her grip on power, but this proved to be the ultimate undoing of the very cause she professed to defend.
Our second story is about Madame Mao. Wikipedia entry says this: “Jiang Qing (19 March 1914 — 14 May 1991), also known as Madame Mao, was a Chinese communist revolutionary, actress, and major political figure during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). She was the fourth wife of Mao Zedong.”
Many China watchers consider “the hundred years of national humiliation” (1839-1949) as the singular most crucial historical chain of events that defined today’s Chinese trajectory. I respectfully disagree. The horrors of that century were primarily perpetrated by foreigners, mainly the Europeans and the Japanese. The two chapters that stand out to me are The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. The former because it shows what happens when centralisation runs amok. The latter because it left behind deep scars of division. In the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao played a central role as the patron saint of the Red Guard, the ragtag group of violent youths. Her film career had prepared her to play the part of the one-person censorship board of the country. Her emphasis on revolutionary values was undercut by her private consumption of the Western culture, kept away from the prying eyes of the masses. In the name of revolution, she used the Guard to settle old scores. Deng Xiaoping, Zou Enlai (whose adopted children were kidnapped and brutally murdered) and even the People’s Liberation Army all faced vicious attacks. Her outsized role continued until the death of Chairman Mao when she was arrested as a part of the detested Gang of Four and imprisoned. She remained in jail until 1991, when she died by suicide. Fortunately for China, Deng Xiaoping started a series of reforms which stemmed the decay in time and launched the country on the path of greatness.
What lessons do we learn from the above two stories? Proximity to power can be as lethal as power itself. People who oppose reforms and want to stick to old values often do so at the cost of national well-being and end up causing immense suffering. I will also venture to say that if proximity to power is as deadly as power itself, there should be some structure that fulfils the purpose of checks and balances. And people who abuse their proximity to power often market it as a step taken for the sake of ideological purity and the greater good, but usually, they end up enriching and empowering themselves. When unchecked and unstructured, this access to power creates an unearned shortcut open to too much abuse, causing entropy.
Go through the past few years of our history and tell me, does any of it ring a bell? Do you see any similarities with the recent cases of the rise and fall of our leaders?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2023.