“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)

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.

The Vladimirov Yenan Diaries: a Not-so-Hoodwinkable View of Mao and the Special Area, 1942-45

The book whose cover (title illustration) warns us off about the Yenan utopia was translated from the (obviously) censored diaries left by Peter Vladimirov (Пётр Парфёнович Владимиров); real name, Pyotr Parfenovich Vlasov, Russian: Пётр Парфёнович Власов; 1905 – 10 September 1953), whose same-day notes on things seen and heard more or less in real time it collects. (May 1942-Sept. 1945). It can be very boring to read: he was not a simple Tass correspondent but a Comintern operative charged with vetting Mao and his underlings as appropriate (or not) partners for/in Soviet maneuvering for post-War Asia. Charged as it were with filing daily (actually nightly) radio reports back to Moscow – reports that are not minutes of conversations but almost hearsay – he overreports, and repeats his cullings to the point of ennui for the reader. Most of what he has to say concerns his “spook’, Kang Sheng, who oversaw intelligence operations against the Party’s two principal enemies, the Japanese and the Kuomintang, as well as potential opponents of Mao within the Party. Since the period covered saw the gradual nudging out of former Internationalists (Wang Ming et al.), Vladimirov as a Comintern agent was naturally kept under the glass for signs of covert sympathy with Wang who was Mao’s great ideological animus. So reading his notes is rather similar to reading Arthur Koestler or Franz Kafka. One can almost feel him moving from paranoia to madness.

But not all of the suspiciousness of his narrative derives from his own anxieties: they derive equally from the oldstyle palace maneuverings of Mao and his (even then) devious wife, who would never gotten anywhere without her husband’s inability or disinterest in matters daily and follow-through.

As the famous photo of 1943 shows, Mao truly preferred playing Sage and Teacher to taking responsibility for hard decisions, and keeping track as he made (or didn’t make) them. So as the dreamy (self-centered) “Chairman” gazes off into the distance, his wife and factotum glares straight at the camera: an actress very much concerned with what her audience is thinking. And not embarrassed to show it. Even more reminiscent of the imperial court. Mao seems to prefer cloistered space, where he can overwhelm his visitor much as the hauteur of the court intimated foreign emissaries – hence so much time spent in the “Date Garden” villa, appropriated from a long forgotten local moneybags

Mao and his Nanny

The “Date Garden”