Wendy Liu was presented with the Humanist Pioneer award at the 69th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association on June 4, 2010. Introducing her was Dr. James Simpson, an agricultural economist and Washington State University professor who is also a founding member and a continuing trustee of the Humanist Institute. Dr. Simpson first met Wendy Liu through an op-ed she wrote on China that appeared in the Seattle Times. The two later became friends and discovered a shared humanist perspective. The following is adapted from her remarks in acceptance of the Humanist Pioneer award.
I would like to thank the American Humanist Association for honoring me with the 2010 Humanist Pioneer award.
Sometimes we get lucky. I certainly did. When I was writing the essays that comprise Everything I Understand about America I Learned in Chinese Proverbs (2009), especially those in which I discussed my worldview, I was a pretty lonely atheist. I didn’t have any knowledge about the American Humanist Association. And then I got to know Jim and, through him, this great organization, and now you, my new friends. I guess I said yes to the award mostly so I could be here today—not because I thought I deserved it. Indeed, I seriously wondered if the AHA was not making a mistake offering me this award or any award.
In one of my initial phone conversations with Lindsay Gemberling, AHA awards coordinator, she informed me about the organization and the award, and somehow we touched on how she got involved. She told me that she came from a religious family and came to have doubts and so on, and I wondered if that was the case with many in the organization; that to be an AHA member, you had to turn against the religion you were brought up with. But I didn’t do any of that. I was brought up an atheist. I had always been an atheist. How would I fit in with this group that had decided to give me the Humanist Pioneer award? I was thinking hard about it and really needed to convince myself that I belonged.
Then it occurred to me—I may have also grown up with a religion that I came to doubt. Except that it was a different kind of religion—a political religion, the religion of Chairman Mao Zedong who, for three decades, was China’s dictator and the head of the ruling communist party.
Of course you’ve heard about China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s (full name: Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution). It was a revolution not just against China’s traditional culture but against everything from Confucianism to free market capitalism, from Soviet revisionism to American imperialism. It established Mao Zedong Thought—the Chinese version of Marxism—as the guiding theory for China. Mao launched and directed the Cultural Revolution himself because he believed that China wasn’t socialist enough and that he had enemies inside the party and in the country who would try to push China toward capitalism. China is now becoming a capitalist country but that’s a different story.
With Mao as the absolute leader, the Cultural Revolution felt more like a religious or cult movement than a political or cultural one. Mao was omnipresent. His portrait was everywhere, in offices, classrooms, and homes, and his statue was in every public square, in front of all the government buildings, factories, and schools. Maoism was likewise omnipotent. He started and ended nationwide political movements, and turned millions of people’s lives upside down, deciding on a whim who were comrades and who were enemies, who should stay and who should go. Mao was also omniscient. Whatever he said was the truth and the “supreme instruction” to be followed to the letter, or to the character in the case of Chinese language. One word by Mao was said to be worth 10,000 by the rest.
And so, Mao became our god and his book, Quotations from Chairman Mao (or the Little Red Book), became a bible that everyone was required to have. Mao was described as the savior of the Chinese nation, the “reddest sun in people’s hearts” and referred to as great leader, great teacher, great commander, and great helmsman.
When you have a god, you also have ritual. In those years, for instance, everybody—workers, students, shop clerks—would stand in front of a Mao portrait in the morning, asking for guidance for the day and then in the evening reporting their day while asking forgiveness for any behavior or thought that might not have been up to the Chairman’s teachings or expectations.
At the middle school I attended there was a huge Mao painting at the entrance and we students arriving in the morning would stop in front of it. There was always a teacher or students leading the service. A quotation of Mao’s would be read aloud and followed by wishes for him, such as long, long life. Many people were truly devout, often overcome by emotions for Mao. One classmate fainted during an extended session of this kind in the classroom after telling us she’d had unworthy thoughts the previous day. But others were not so devout. Each day my teacher would walk by each desk to see if everybody had Mao’s Little Red Book with them, but somehow I didn’t have my copy one day and I didn’t have an excuse. So I said, “I’m sorry but I really carry Chairman Mao’s teachings in my heart,” which, fortunately for me, swayed my fairly lenient teacher.
The ritual, of course, was performed in many ways, especially in terms of Mao’s quotations. Those quotations were put in psalms and broadcast over loud speakers, sung in the gatherings, and of course written on big posters or directly on the wall—just everywhere. If somebody spoke at a meeting, they had to start with “Great Leader Chairman Mao said—” this or that and then they’d begin. We learned many of Mao’s quotations by heart and how to apply them to everyday situations. It was called “learning and practicing Mao in life.” Even after I started college, we still started class every day with Mao’s quotation written on the blackboard.
With such religion-like worship, the Chinese also suffered a type of religious persecution. If one person was labeled a counterrevolutionary, his or her whole family became a counterrevolutionary family and the children counterrevolutionary children. They would suffer discrimination in terms of jobs, education, and housing. Many, many families, including my own, experienced such a fate.
At the same time, you can imagine that, with this kind of political religion, life could also become ridiculous, or “religulous” as Bill Maher’s documentary suggested. There may not be a Religulous-styledocumentary about the Cultural Revolution but there were a number of collections of Cultural Revolution jokes. It must be a testament to the undefeatable and forever optimistic human spirit, or humanist spirit, that the Chinese could still find ways to laugh about their traumatic Cultural Revolution experience. Of course, the jokes weren’t really jokes but ridiculous, real-life stories.
One told of a man who was riding home on his bike after work and saw a sign in front of a store that said, “New arrival! Glow-in-the-dark Mao bust for sale.” He decided to go in and get one for his home. In those days, unlike now when everything is so over-packaged, there was no packaging. Not even a shopping bag for the Mao bust. The poor guy had his bare hands and a bare bike. So he found himself a piece of string. Where could you tie a bust if not around the neck? That’s what he did and, worse, he then hung the bust on the handle bar of the bike. By that, he committed the crime of insulting Mao’s image. People saw it, stopped, and reported him. He was taken away and labeled as an active counterrevolutionary.
There were many stories like that. For instance, someone tried to pin a newspaper clipping with Mao’s picture to the wall and pushed the thumbtacks too close to the likeness of the Chairman and got into trouble. Someone else accidentally dropped a Mao pin into the toilet and dug up the whole place to find it. There are so many of these silly and sad stories.
And so, recalling these experiences of the Cultural Revolution that I lived through in my youth, I became convinced that, yes, I did grow up with a religion, one that was even more pervasive and tyrannical than a regular religion. I came to have doubts and later became a non-believer or a humanist, worshipping no political god or religious god. And then I realized that I did belong.
June 4 marked the twenty-first anniversary of the day the People’s Liberation Army cleared Tiananmen Square of protesters in 1989. China is much freer now, freer than when I was growing up and freer than in 1989, but still not free enough to allow any commemoration of the Tiananmen Square protests in public. It may not require an effort to be a freethinker in China, but it’s not always easy to express your free thoughts. Let’s enjoy and celebrate ours. Thank you so much.