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Journey to the Forbidden China by Stephen W. Mosher (Free Press: $17.95; 180 pp.)

October 06, 1985|Frank Gibney | Gibney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute. He has written extensively about Japan and China. and

In 1979 and 1980 a young American anthropologist named Stephen Mosher spent a good bit of time doing field work in Southern China. One book, "Broken Earth," has already appeared as a result of his activity. In that account of village life, Mosher had many harsh things to say about Chinese government policy in the countryside, notably the campaign for forced abortions and sterilizations. Chinese protests over Mosher's writings disqualified him from further pursuit of his doctoral studies at Stanford--under circumstances that remain a matter of some controversy.

"Journey to the Forbidden China" is, however, a self-contained narrative. It is the story of a trip taken by Mosher and his Chinese driver from the coast, where he had been living in a Pearl River Delta village, into a progressively poorer interior. Mosher and Ming, driving their trusty Mazda van, went first through Kwangsi Province and then into Kweichow (I use the old Wade Giles spelling which Mosher uses, rather than the newer Pinyin approved by the People's Republic of China.)

Kweichow, Mosher tells us, has been called China's Switzerland. But this mountain country has none of Switzerland's prosperity. He quotes an old folk rhyme from his driver:

"There are not three feet level

In all of Kweichow,

And no one has more than

Three taels of silver."

Until his trip almost no foreigners had visited Kweichow in many decades. The Kweichow he saw was totally off the beaten track of recent visitors, China's poorest and possibly its most backward province. The farm implements and methods of cultivation were incredibly primitive, giving the visitor "a sense of traveling back in time" as Mosher points out, " . . . (to) an age in which simple devices of stone and wood were all that stood between man and nature."

The villain responsible for such neglect, Mosher finds, is the Communist Party. Mosher is justly indignant at how little had been done for people in this rural wasteland by a party which had come to power in 1949 with the support of the peasantry and professed itself to be in the vanguard of any movement that helped the peasants' standard of living. Only the local Communist cadres were willing to talk among the shy and partly aboriginal peoples of this area; and Mosher found his encounters with them almost universally unpleasant. The trip was ended rather unceremoniously when Mosher was told by local security officials that Kweichow was a "closed" province and escorted back to Canton. In Canton the officials who had first allowed him to take his trip were anxious to undo their mistake by pretending they had never given him permission at all.

As a travel record, the book is extremely interesting. Mosher's writing conveys a sense both of the remoteness and the awesome poverty of these tiny Chinese farming villages, still virtually untouched by ideology after 30 years of Communism. He is certainly right in noting the dire effects on people in the area of the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution.

Yet it seems unjust for him to leave the record as it was in 1980, at a time when Deng Xiaoping had only barely taken power and the new modernizations in rural areas were little more than edicts. In five years rural China has changed a great deal. I have not been to Kewichow or seen much in South China, but in the course of fairly constant visits since 1979, many of them in rural areas, I have been continually impressed by the rising standard of living, the growing supply of consumer goods, and the notably increases in agricultural production realized, since Deng gave relatively free reign to the Chinese peasant's instinct to free enterprise. And I am not talking about show-place "communes" either. (In fact, most of Mao Zedong commune organization has disappeared.) The rural areas have been the great successful landmark of Deng Ziaoping's "Four Modernizations" program. While unitary Communist Party domination and an unpleasant security apparatus remain in place--China has hardly turned into a Jeffersonian democracy--their power has been steadily diminishing.

The value of reading a book like this is the sense it gives of the huge obstacles in the way of really bettering the lot of China's billion people. On the minus side, however, the author does not seem interested at all in noting the vast progress that has been made in the five years since he left. Mosher's China of blacks and whites often seems as monochromatic as that of the communists he denounces.

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