Letters from China

Letter Number 10

July 26, 1963

Dear friends,

China is called all kinds of names from all points of the compass. I shall not take the time or space to list the "Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness". I shall tell briefly, without cursing anyone, just why I came to China and what I found.


I was just over sixty when I first saw Yenan in 1946. I had known two great social systems. My first thirty years were spent in Western America where we fought for better forms of democracy, women's suffrage, labor's participation in politics, public ownership of utilities against the "Wall St. Octopus". I became a member of the Seattle School Board and later feature editor of the Seattle Union Record, a daily owned by the Central Labor Council. We seemed to win battles, but police attacks on "Reds" grew worse after the First World War.

In 1921 I went to Moscow, made my home there for nearly thirty years, married there, initiated and helped organize the first Moscow Daily News, was greatly stirred by the building of the first socialist state in the world in the five-year plans, wrote hundreds of articles about it and some fifteen books. Almost every year I went to America to lecture and make contacts with publishers; on these trips I stopped in other countries on the way. Thus I wrote "Spain in Arms, 1937" and saw China in revolution in 1925-27, and later in war with Japan. In August 1946, on my fifth trip through China, bound for my Moscow home but not in haste, since my husband had died in the war, I came to Yenan.

I spent the winter in Yenan, living in a "cave", a 12-by-20-foot room dug into a cliff, with arched walls of white-washed earth, stone-flagged floor and front of lattice filled in with paper windows. Can I explain why I wanted to stay forever? There were no luxuries and few comforts. There were people with keen minds, deep thoughts and a world view. I felt my own mind developing. I wrote later: "Never have I felt so close to the human power that builds the world as in that isolated, beleaguered Yenan."

Party officials worked long hours on meager food, in cold caves by dim lamps. But they worked without strain even under desultory bombing. Their confidence was not expressed in any boast that "the Communists will win". It was "the Chinese people will win and the Communists will lead as long as they serve the people".

The Chinese people, the people of the world, were the ultimate reference. "Go among the people", "Learn from the people" were the admonitions. Intellectuals and officials were always going off on long assignments among peasants. Lousy peasants--real lice, for I saw peasants fish them out and crack them--dropped in and stayed overnight in the caves of General Chu Teh and Chairman Mao Tse-tung. In twelve Yenan years the Chinese Communists had fitted themselves to the land, the rhythm of its seasons, the mood of its peasants. They were at home in the homes of the people, moving confidently without fear. Even when the enemy was advancing sixty miles away and Yenan was being evacuated, people took time to rejoice in the new fall of snow, "so good for the crops".

Two long talks I recall that have a meaning for today. The first was the afternoon with Mao Tse-tung on the hard earth terrace in front of the string of caves in which he lived and accommodated visiting peasants. We touched world affairs. At the time the U.S.A. had monopoly of the atom bomb and was using it to pressure Stalin with the "Baruch Plan", a "United Nations control" which would have given Washington dominance over the mineral resources and industrial complex of the U.S.S.R. The third world war was supposed imminent and only to be avoided by yielding to Washington. Mao told me that "U.S. imperialism" was using the "anti-Communist" slogan as a smoke-screen behind which it took over the colonies and possessions of its Allies. To attack the U.S.S.R. was final objective, but "not easy", and would be postponed until the U.S.A. won many lesser victories.

It was in this talk that Mao first developed the metaphor of the "paper tiger", a poetic way of stating an elementary principle of Marxism, that capitalism will inevitably disintegrate. All reactionaries, he said, are "paper tigers", terrible to look on but melting in the storms of history. He listed the Russian Tear, the German Hitler, Chiang Kai-shek, and even the atom bomb....All these were transient, only the people endure. Basically all power is with the people. "In the end the bomb will not destroy the people; the people will destroy the bomb." I was so impressed by these words that I used them later for a Christmas card.

"What is the strength of the imperialists?" he said. "It lies only in the unconsciousness of the people. The consciousness of the people is the basic question. Not explosives or weapons or atom bombs but the man who handles them. He is still to be educated." He doubted whether the atom bomb would again be used in warfare. Possibly "its great bursting over Hiroshima destroyed it. For the people of the world turned against it".


A second memorable talk was with Lu Ting-yi, head of propaganda, who gave several days to tell me the history of the Chinese Communist Party. To my surprise, much of it was a history of mistakes and what was learned from them. The Communists had spent two years discussing this in 1943-45 during the anti-Japanese war, in far-scattered units separated by Japanese lines. They had summed it up in April 1945 at their Seventh Party Congress, which forged the strategy for victory.

"The Chinese Communist Party was always heroic," said Lu, "but many mistakes were made by the leadership in getting experience. They were costly mistakes and they taught us to avoid such mistakes later." What especially struck me was that the Communists took responsibility for all the mistakes, no matter by whose advice or treason they came. They did not blame the collapse of the Great Revolution in 1927 on the advice of Borodin, the Russian High Adviser, or even on the treason of Chiang Kai-shek who massacred his Communist allies. They, the Communists, were responsible if they took the wrong advice or if they failed to estimate Chiang's nature and handle him accordingly.

This entire approach.was new to me. In America we were always "God's country", qualified to liberate and improve the world. In Russia there was always "the perfect system", spoiled till now by some personal devils. In China they "made mistakes", suffered by them, acknowledged and studied them, thus planned victory.

Here at last seemed credible history of the difficult advance of Man.


In March 1947, the Communists told me I must leave Yenan. They were evacuating their last capital and going into the hills where I was unable to go. Mao told me I might return "when we again have contact with the world". He thought it would be in about two years. He under-stated. In less than a year I met Chinese in Paris who told me the time was near for my return. "Events move faster than we thought." By autumn of 1948 I was in Moscow bound for China with a Chinese invitation to come to Manchuria and move south with the coming events. Five months I kept asking for my Soviet exit visa. Then, just as Chinese friends arrived who might secure my journey, the Russians arrested me as a "spy" and sent me out through Poland. Five days in jail I wondered what I had stepped on. I never knew.

Six years I lived in America; no Communists in the world would speak to me. Then Moscow "rehabilitated" me, by publishing that the charges had been "without grounds". Again an invitation came from China. This time it took three years' legal fight to get my American passport. I had it by spring of 1958. Ten years late!

I was 72 then, living in Los Angeles where I had more friends than anywhere else. I owned a town house, a summer lodge in the mountains, a winter cabin in the desert, a car and a driver's license to take myself about. I had income to live on for life. Should I go to China now?

I went to Moscow first, my second home for nearly thirty years. My husband's relatives urged me to stay. "Here you have always a home!" I was moved. I was even more moved when the Writers' Union made me their guest and sent me for a month to a Rest Home while they got back all the rubles I had lost at the deportation, and an order for a Moscow apartment again. "Would I care to choose it now?" I thanked them very sincerely but said: "Better wait till I return from Peking." Could Peking have the magic Yenan had? Could I adjust to Chinese life at 72? Two months later I told my Chinese friends: "This is not a criticism of any other country, neither the U.S.A. nor the U.S.S.R. But I think the Chinese know better than anyone the way for man. I want to learn and write." They found an apartment for me in the Peace Committee's compound.


In Peking I found the qualities that had drawn me to Yenan, but on wider scale. The keen minds and deep thoughts were operating now for a nation that held one-fourth of mankind. There was still the faith that ordinary men are greater than the powers of nature or the mechanisms of man's hands, and will master them all in the end. This was operating now to tame the rivers and rebuild the worn-out soils for one-fourth the people of earth. There was still the worldwide view. People came from a hundred nations to Peking and were received as equal partners in man's struggle to advance. They still held that victory depended not on the power of weapons but on awakening the consciousness of man.

Not much "personal adjustment" was needed. Chinese are also wise in daily details of life and work. They had planted me in a tree-grown compound, centrally located, with several buildings in which some fifty Chinese and half a dozen foreigners from five continents lived and worked on problems of world peace. None of them interfered with my work of writing what I chose, but all supplied contacts and intelligent talk. I had no housekeeping cares; a housekeeper, cook, and handy-man looked after the four apartments in one large house. A score of adorable children lived in the yard, expanding to fifty at week-ends, when the full-time kindergarten contingent came home. All of them called me "grandma" but never intruded unless I invited. Thus I had social life at all levels but privacy when I chose. The only comparable life I had had in America was in Hull House or similar social centers; it was a kind of life I always liked.

I found myself growing younger, healthier, even better-tempered. I wrote four books in the first three years, a record never touched before. I went to Tibet--the only American woman who ever saw Lhasa, climbed the thirteen floors of the Potala Palace to the roof, saw the freeing of the serfs and the beginning of land reform. This increase in working ability I attribute partly to the stimulus Peking offers as a world capital, and partly to the courtesies of personal life in China, especially given to old age. I shrink now at the thought of travelling in the West, where old women are a dime a dozen, pushed about by everyone. In China "Old Lady" is a title!


In Peking as in Yenan, efforts are made to keep leadership close to the people, for the awakened consciousness of the people is the great source of power. New techniques for this are continually devised. Students from primary school through universities spend considerable periods working on farms or in factories to keep in touch with the people's life. Office workers and civil servants do the same. My secretary takes a month each year, usually a few days at a time, to hoe corn or harvest wheat where needed. Central Committee members and high officials too old for physical work, are expected to spend four months a year away from their offices in travelling the country.

Mao Tse-tung set the example in 1958, when he resigned as chief of state in order to be free from routine duties and have time to meet the people by travelling around the country. This is still his practise.

"Learning from mistakes" is a universal practise now. Any geological or medical team that returns from a field trip, or any other group that completes a task, at once holds discussion to criticize the work. Criticisms are basic and drastic. Nobody is supposed to take personal offence. Each person, in fact, is expected to criticize himself. Everyone, without exception, is supposed to try to improve himself towards becoming the kind of person that can live under Communism. For Communism is not held to depend solely on economic forms and on productivity, but on the consciousness of men.

If I ask Chinese friends today what is the chief problem, the chances are that they will not say "agriculture", or "industrialization" but "Socialist Education". How to keep the revolutionary spirit alive when the men who made the revolution pass? How to fight the tendency of all men and all revolutions to back-slide?


One becomes aware of a widening circle of loyalties, in which the greater includes and supersedes the less. An individual is judged by how he serves the community, but the community is expected to cherish the lives and talents of its individuals. The community in turn serves not only itself but the country. China herself must put the interests of the Socialist Camp above her own interests as a nation; this was the reason given for not exposing the details of Khrushchov's severe economic crack-down in 1960. The Socialist Camp, however, does not exist for its own enrichment but to serve the world's peoples. So, when questions of the peace and progress of the world's peoples are concerned, Chinese speak out, even against other members of the Socialist Camp.

China keeps her revolutionary spirit alive not only by contacts of leaders with workers and peasants, but also by sharing the struggles of oppressed peoples and nations the world over. From many lands they come to Peking, especially from peoples in Asia, Africa, Latin America, in revolt against imperialist oppression, seeking knowledge and aid. China shares with them her own experience and learns in turn from them. China always considers this exchange a two-way street. The socialist lands, by their existence and experience, assist the colonial peoples' struggle for liberation; this struggle of colonial peoples against imperialism is a main force disintegrating imperialism and thus saving the socialist lands. They are thus equal allies in the onward march of man.

Any struggle in any part of the world that checks and defeats imperialism is seen by China as a force for world progress and a defense for world peace. This is the doctrinal point most at issue today. Are the Algerians, the South Vietnamese, the Angolans a force for world peace even if, in resisting imperialist aggression, they are driven to acts of war? China says flatly: "Yes!" Many people say the reverse and urge the "peaceful road to socialism". Others vacillate, and think the Algerians "excusable" but not a "force for peace". Many in the West fear that even a small war--some even think a strike--can escalate into world war.

Such people call China "belligerent", "against peaceful coexistence", "inciting war". Such charges are lies. The only statement Mao released for publication from his long talk with Edgar Snow two years ago said: "We do not want war. We hold that war should not be used as a means to settle disputes between nations." China developed the "five principles of coexistence" before Khrushchov came to power and has followed them in her dealings with capitalist nations. Her boundary agreements with Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia were generous; Pakistan boasted that China gave her "most of the fertile lands".

Nor is China against negotiations, even with imperialists; she has often urged an "Atom-free Zone" by negotiation with all the Asian and Pacific nations, including the United States. But Chinese do not believe that any such treaties are "guaranteed" by the signature of the imperialists or by any good-will on their part. Only the constant pressure of the peoples will guarantee treaties; this pressure against imperialism must continue until imperialism is brought down. Only thus can world peace be finally secure.

The "peace forces" mentioned in the 1957 and 1960 Moscow Declaration and Statement, include the socialist lands, the national liberation movements, the workers' movements in capitalist lands and the general peace movements. This was jointly agreed by the Communist Parties of the world. But points at issue have come to me in letters. "Many peace movements refuse to denounce U.S. imperialism lest they alienate people," writes one. "The chief fear is that any revolution that uses arms may bring on nuclear war," writes another.

To this I reply that "any peace movement" depends on the "consciousness" of its members. Men in Britain who march against Polaris bases are marching against U.S. imperialism, but may not entirely realize it; their leaders should tell them. If the leaders deceive them into trusting Kennedy, they are going backward. China's position has been many times given, most recently in joint statement of chiefs of state of China and North Korea, June 23:

"Today there can be no struggle for peace without a struggle against U.S. imperialism, the main force of aggression and war".

Many people in the West think China does not realize the terrible nature of nuclear war, and treats it lightly. Mao has several times replied to foreign visitors that if he thought he could induce the imperialists to refrain from nuclear war by showing fear of it, he would at once tell the Chinese to be very much afraid; but he felt this would provoke rather than deter an imperialist strike.

In this context I recall Mao's statements in Yenan, at a time when many Western experts forecast nuclear war within ten years. Seventeen years have passed and in this time the Chinese liberated one-fourth of mankind, and Ho Chi Minh defeated the French in Indo-China and revolutions succeeded in Korea, Cuba, Algeria. These revolutions changed the balance of world power, saved the U.S.S.R. from its long "capitalist encirclement", tripled the population of the socialist nations and opened the way for national liberation movements in three continents.

ALL THESE REVOLUTIONS were won against an imperialism that wielded the nuclear bombs and threatened many times to use them.

Would the world be safer and more peaceful today if China had yielded in 1950 to MacArthur's atomic blackmail, and let the U.S. forces pass through Manchuria against the U.S.S.R.? Or if Ho Chi Minh had lifted the siege of Dien Bien Phu when Dulles twice offered the A-Bomb to France? Or if Algerians had obeyed the French Communists who urged the "peaceful road"? Or if Cubans had feared to provoke the H-Bombs only 90 miles away?


There were many "perfect targets". But a bomb dropped on Havana might have lost all Latin America to the United States. And bombs on populous Shanghai or beautiful ancient Peking or the Yellow River dykes, might well have "lost Asia". Seventeen years ago Mao said: "The people of the world turned against it." Is there not in this some truth? The people of the world are only partly conscious but they know enough to hate the nuclear bombs. When they are fully conscious, they will know how to end them. Is it not then true that "the basic question is the consciousness of the people"? To confuse the people's consciousness is the deadly sin.

Mao once said: "Humanity is only in its infancy." When it is full grown, what will it make of our world?

* * *

I myself come from the West and inherit its fears. I am never quite so confident as the Chinese. When I think of the billions of money spent for expert lying in foreign offices, general staffs and propaganda organs of imperialism, of the stockpiles of nuclear bombs that can many times "overkill" the population of our planet, and of men's tendencies to national and racial hates and to just plain back-sliding, I wonder if humanity will grow up fast enough to save itself from death.

But I know that the first essential to survival is to believe that you can survive. And next, to identify the enemy and to know your own mistakes and strength. And I take heart from the fact that the Pentagon, which boasts that it can "overkill" the planet, has not yet been able to take Korea or Cuba or Viet Nam or Laos, because of the complex pressures that get in the way. So the Chinese may be right in thinking that, as men grow steadily more conscious, they will master the forces of nature and the mechanisms of men's hands--even H-Bombs--and the nature of man himself by the ordinary human powers of reason, courage, labor and collective struggle. At any rate the Chinese work at it. And that was why I came to China at the age of 72.

Sartre said it shorter and better when he came in 1955-56 and spoke on the Peking radio, in words that came to me through two translations to this effect: "I come from a West that is increasingly concerned with the thought of Death; I find here 50 million people entirely taken with the idea of Life. This has brought something new into my own life. I shall never be the same as before." Many people can say this. I am one.




The belief that man can conquer nature was the force behind the "Big Leap" in 1958, and led to amazing achievements. Today Chinese are remaking lands and waters on a vast scale. They have taken an ancient land, with soil worn out by centuries of double-cropping and erosion, where much rain comes at wrong times and rivers run wild. They are terracing hills, driving back sand-dunes, watering deserts, washing out saline and alkali flats, draining thousand-year-old swamps, planting trees by the scores of millions. This is in every part of China, in news every week.

One sample came to attention this summer when Kwangtung Province gave aid to the great city of Kongkong which, as NY Times May 23 reported, was "gasping for water" because of a long dry spell. "Restaurants limited customers to half a glass of water, consumers were rationed to four hours in four days, farmers wrote off their rice crops, and industry faced shutdown". The Chinese Chamber of Commerce and trade unions in Hongkong asked aid from the adjacent province Kwangtung, which already supplies Hongkong with five billion gallons a year from Shumchun Reservoir, built in 1961. Kwangtung, though hit by the same eight months drought, offered an additional 4.4 million gallons daily from Canton water mains or "other convenient sources".

How did this once poverty-stricken province get better water reserves than the millionaires of the Hongkong Peak? The communes built 1,000 reservoirs and 33 irrigation systems since 1958. They had therefore reserves of 4.6 BILLION TONS from last summer's rains, and were able to irrigate 90 percent of their planned early rice crops besides having surplus for Hongkong.

I visited one of their irrigation systems last spring and was struck by its way of financing. The Youth Canal provides irrigation for over 400,000 acres on the drought ridden Leichow Peninsula. Its reservoir, begun in 1958, holds a billion tons of water; its main canal is navigable, over 100 miles long. The manager said that the cost to the state was relatively low because "the local communes donated SIXTY MILLION LABOR-DAYS" to reservoir and main canal, aside from the smaller trenches dug on their own lands. The West calls it "slave labor"; the peasants call it "investing labor to save labor forever". The district leaders told each commune of the project, how much water each would get and what labor-days would be their "share of work". They all discussed it and agreed, glad to get irrigation without paying any money but only giving labor in slack season.

Today their annual "water fee" is only 35 to 60 cents per acre for costs of repairs and handling. Such projects under capitalism--even the TVA in America--charge water fees that include amortization and interest on high labor costs as well as profits on materials. The Youth Canal never "capitalized" those sixty million labor-days; the peasants built it for themselves, improving their own land forever, never to be taxed or repaid.

This was what Chinese call "awakening the consciousness" of the Kwangtung peasants. A mighty force!