“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”

Hungry Soldiers — “团长, 我们饿死了” (Photos are of new recruits, not POWs)

An army too big!

No one knows with any certainty just how many Chinese soldiers – including “Warlord” forces – were drafted into the resistance armies during the 8+ years of the fighting against Japan within China’s borders.

Wartime censuses are always vague, collected to overstate offensive size, or minimalize reported losses, so we cannot get very far with the hodge-podge of “official” sources. Foreign estimates are perhaps more reliable because they are less political, and gauged to plan for aid down the road. But even then…

Vladimirov’s Yenan Diaries (p???) (185) gives a set of figures circulated in the Red Special Area in ( ), but they seem too small. The standing total at any one time is stated as 3.5 million, but of this 2 million are lost every year and have to be replaced, which of course diminishes the effectiveness of the whole. On this replacement basis, about 15 million were lost, by death, wounding, desertion and capture. Peattie et al, ed. puts (p 46) the latter count at “perhaps as many as” 10 million, which, on the same “flow” basis (2/3.5) puts the total at 5.5-6.0 million – which seems too big, though probably closer to the truth.
C:\Users\User\My JP documents\Website modules from dec 17 2010\Yenan and WWII military\blogessay excisions.doc
More recently published statistics for the province of Hunan suggest a planning total of 5 million, nominally therefore all dependent on the KMT governemnt and its allies for logistical support. ….
http://www.xiangxuecn.com 2013年12月13日 中国湘学网

Staple Food Supply to the KMT Army during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression-Taking Hunan Province and the 9th Zone for Example
汤水清 罗玉明 温 波 have more recently cited the figure of 5 million, which seems to confirm that the “paper” strength, used for what planning there was, TARGETTED a standing army of 5 million, the real number of effectives obviously being a lot less.

Either way, Central HQ’s ability to supply (or plan for the supply) of so many was never any where nearly adequate. Not only in ordnance, but in rations, the belly on which armies have always moved.

The Zhongzheng Rifle (1935): The gun that DIDN’T win the East….. but helped lose it

(left) 陈逸飞《黄河颂》Chen Yifei, Encomium to the Yellow River (1972),
oil on canvas 143 mm * 297 mm, CAFA: an 8RA soldier with a scavenged and repaired Hanyang 88 rifle: as a lookout/sharpshooter.
He might, if the enemy blunders, kill only one or two enemy from his position, but he will keep them off the roads and bridges, and will probably live after the fray. His training and his rifle will remain useful, if not to him, then to his unit. He will not dent the bullet supply. Much.

(right) German trained infantrymen of KMT elite unit carrying the “Zhongzheng” Rifle on the eve of the 1937 (2nd) battle of Shanghai- as defensive line re enforcement for the trenches. He will (statistically) kill or wound .25 Japanese before himself falling – probably even less – but he will reveal his unit/fortification to murderous artillery or air counter attack, and neither he nor his comrades-in-line will survive. All that training and expensive weaponry will be go for naught.

(Below): Comparison of the KMT vs CCP “party-brand” weaponries designed for political eclat: (1) three receiver-ring model-name plates from the KMT G-mo series (1935-44): Hanyang Arsenal (Hubei, relocated to Chongqing, 1943), Gong xian Arsenal (Hebei, 1935), and the mysterious “1933” (w swastika), possible a relabelled import) (2) a rare “Red” (non-8RA) model-name/plate from E Shandong (Jiaodong) “Arsenal”, 1947: a “Red” refurb from Shandong, a rebuild of the Hanyang 88.

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Red Smoke in the Yan’an Wilderness: Behind the Miracle of Nanniwan

N.B. (April 28, 2014) This essay says all I want to say, about how the 8th Route Army (in Yenan) financed itself and met its import (weapons) needs by growing and exporting opium, while ingeniously hinting that the surplus that paid for these imports was created ex nihilo by a “self-help” (zili gengsheng) campaign modelled after the Nanniwan mini-commune. But it remains inadequately edited – many paragraphs are out of order, and the flow of subjects needs one more cut and paste…. I’ve put it up even in this compromised state in the hope of getting reader feedback before the final rewrite. JP.


Protest music comes in various shapes, some not obviously protestant in character. “Nostalgia” protest is the kind of backing away that I grew up with/on: Seeger, Baez, Dylan (in part). Words come from a song reframed (or reclaimed) from folk ballad, as does the melodic outline. But there is no jolting into dissidence, or blackness, certainly not of the sort that hip-hop and rap (now the main protest vehicles) offer. There need not be blame, even: just a call for recognition of sorrow and pain wrongfully pushed aside from history. Or a hymn of faith that, read in context, decries (but only by implication) a promise of yore unfulfilled, while regathering the faith that it might yet be honored. “Walls of Redwing”, “Eleanor Rigby”. Perhaps the best single nostalgic protest song ever written has no anger at all, only sadness: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, a song of mourning for the Tennessee hillcountry so badly smashed up during the Civil War. “We shall Overcome” exemplifies the promise unredeemed variety of nostalgic protest (nostprot) – first written as or from a gospel (“spiritual”) hymn, eventually
recalled over time and space to express a sadness over promises unfulfilled, but also becoming an oath of faith during the Civil Rights Movement: a prayer that the singing voices may yet see those promises kept.

It seemed a template that might be right for early 21st century”young” China, struggling as it is with environmental ruin and the pulverizing of older milieu and slower ways. Save that only the post-teen or “young adult” listener can recall (in retrospect) a past promise or hope (nostalgia) for any kind of Red utopia or its collapse (Land Reform, the Communes, etc.) , whereas China’s post 1990 “rock” audience is deafeningly, crudely young on stage. They cannot live without noisy light and, memory-crushing sound (in their search for oblivion), whereas as nost-prot demands, or demands to “create”. a memory “as if”.

But there IS one now very definitely nost-prot song that hit the nail on the head, and continues to. It is in counterpoint to (though it shares the name) of the N. China folksong “Nanniwan” and the music of the “Increase Production Campaign” (Dashengchan yundong) of 1942 that it highlights but rebuffs if ever so subtly, I was unaware that there was anything of this nostalgic protest genre in Chinese “pop”. But that changed when I heard Cui Jian sing Nanniwan in his own, sort’a 1960s mock-nostalgic (poker faced) way. This is a style (or least stylist) that fades quickly from the Chinese mass media, but obviously it was at one point at the razor’s edge. From the moment of its first performance or not long after, it was banned- though of course the “underground” of post-1989 guaranteed that it continued to be “heard”. The censure of course only added to the popularity (notoriety). Which is why as a cultural monument it deserves scrutiny – and of course rewards it too.

But why this song in particular offended the kulturkrats is still not clear. Is it perhaps because it decontexted? In the orthodox performance version it was paired with the sledgehammer song “Greatly Increase Production” (dashengchan), also a folk “song” nostalgic of the way rural construction gangs sang haozi as they worked, and finished with a very famous scene of a row of peasant women spinning cotton thread en masse. It was a social history of sorts, an early depiction of the Commune, producing and then celebrating. But “work” (production) is not in Cui Jian’s “remembrance” of Yenan. Nanniwan is but a short paean to flowers, the “work” element pushed away – because it was so embedded with lies?

Blogsite respondents focus on the way it seemed to desacralize a Old Red favorite, all the more infuriating since the favorite in question was enshrined in the Party Epic “East in Red”, as performed by perhaps the truest Dolly Parton of Ol Red Opry, Guo Lanying. But another response one hears is that it morally embarrassed those in power “On the Mainland” (as viewed from Taiwan). 因为大陆这边心虚啊. Made them feel guilty. http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/6762193.html?qbl=relate_question_4. Still others feel that even the reasons themselves are literally unspeakable; that we’ll never know.

One blogster registers the consensus: Ha! This is the silenced song that made (Cui) a political issue. I (We?) have no true understanding of what the problem was. But because of this background issue and because of its suppression, it has come to be a demand-performance item in every one of Cui Jian’s concerts. It reinforces my feeling that Cui Jian need feel no shame at being called “The Father of Chinese Rock”. A true artist!” 哈哈,这就是把崔健推上政治的封口浪尖的那首歌!本来对他没什么了解,不过就看了这首歌的背景还有被封杀后这首歌成为了崔健在所有演唱会上的保留曲目,让我觉得崔健不愧是中国摇滚之父!艺术家!

Not much can be intuited about the problem-aticity even by a line to line comparison of the orthodox and deviant form of the song’s delivery. The words are the same, even the tune is the same. If there is a clue it is external to the performance, it something known (suspected) by the audiences but not explicitly discussed, perhaps not even discussable for lack of materials or testimony.