“Red” Poppies and Nanniwan: A Second Look

(Caption illustrations: poppy fields in Salachi, Suiyuan, as photographed by Robert Larimore Pendleton, 1931-2, American Geographical Society Library)
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Boosted by the patient researches of Chen Yung-fa (Taiwan, Academia Sinica), a scholarly but also amateur wave of accusations have run riot over the last 10-odd years about the planting and marketing of opium in the Maoist Wartime base areas of Shanxi/Shaanxi/Suiyuan. Not that there is by now any doubt remaining that the Yenan “High Command”, probably including Mao and certainly his chief political commissar Ren Bishi, gave a green light to systematic poppy cultivation early in 1942. Nor can there be any doubt why: the Special Area (Shen-Gan-Ning) and the adjacent Base Area (晋绥, or Shanxi-Suiyuan) needed hard currency to buy military- and cadre- use goods unavailable in the “Yenan” and nearby perimeters, and the only way they could (quickly anyway) gain that asset was by exporting an equally “hard” commodity, whose acceptance was as (or more) universal than any paper money (KMT or Japanese/Manchukuo), but which also carried a very high value-to-weight ratio, making its physical transport – aka smuggling – logistically straightforward.

The whole thing is of course disillusioning, to say the least, and wonderful ammunition for those (inside as well as outside of the PRC) who – and there are many- have backed away from the mythologies of Mao I (the Jiangxi Soviet/Long March), Mao II (the claim of victory against the Japanese in North China) and of course Mao III (the Great Leap Forward and the GPCR). Although of course there was well before this set of discoveries much prior evidence of false heroics and economic Potemkinism.

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