When Mao took over China in 1949, the country was in a shambles.

Chiang Kai Shek had taken all the gold from China, along with as much of it's cultural treasure as he could get his hands on.  Nearly 170 tons in fact.  and to make matters worse, China's so called "pal", Russia was busy raping Manchuria of all its industrial might.  Ever wonder why the Soviet Union was so "eager" to help out America at the end of the war?  Now you know why.

Indeed, the Russian Army would not leave China upon its entry in 1945 for a decade afterwards.  It's a little known fact that major cities today such as Dalian were occupied by a foreign power for several years after the surrender of Japan.  Mao had to "ask" in order for Stalin to agree to their eventual removal.

Agricultural production was thirty percent below its prewar level.

As I write this the exchange rate for the RMB is 6.7 rmb for one USD.  In 1949 one USD traded for 23 million yuan.

What about China's infrastructure?

China had none.  No  paved highway sytem.  The only railways were connected to coastal cities.  The vast hinterland of China was simply....empty.  No organized electricity grid.  When I first arrived in China in the early nineties power outages were not only planned but lasted for hours.  Only my university dorm kept its power on, along of course with the "Foreign Experts" building, ie where the foreign teachers lived.

Poverty was at 95% in1949.

To make matters worse, the first thing China did was go in debt to Mother Russia for $300 million.  China was bad off.  So why not make it even worse by going to war with America! You know, the most powerful country in the world, so badass it had in effect not only bankrolled Stalin, and kept Britain afloat, but defeated both Germany and Japan at the same time.  Yeah, let's go to war with that guy!

So they did.

Remember, no normal rational person in my view would have done this. 

I will not argue hindsight. That is not fair. Chinese People universally despise North Korea, and would drop NK in a moment if Beijing would simply give it more than a second thought.   However, the fear China uses again and again is simple;  Let North Korea fall and refugees will flood across.  Ok. Fair enough.  However, the unspoken fear is that American combat divisions will simply race up to the border and dig in. 

China has somehow convinced itself that America is willing to spend untold sums of money to do just that.  Or maybe China has simply started to believe the rhetoric itself has spouted since before I was born.

To this day I'm amazed one person and one person alone could have so decided the fate of many.  Aiding the North Koreans in 1950.  The Korean War did not turn out well for China.  It did for South Korea, though.

Alas, my point by now I hope is clear.  China was in dire straits.  It was broke, partially occupied by the Red Army, and with no Asian friends.  On top of all this, North Korea soon became China’s foster child.

Yet there was one problem keeping China back, holding it down greater than any of the above.   The vast majority of Chinese People were simply illiterate. That is, they could not read their own language.  The damn characters, devised over thousands of years, were simply too complicated. 

China's own culture was keeping it down.  Not American infantry divisions, not the Soviet Red Army, rather China's own written language.  One's inability to read was of course a major predictor of poverty.  A barrier to innovation.  Even China's peasants needed to read and write!

To solve its poverty, China simply had to to look within.  No amount of Soviet aid would do. No new bridges, not more bullets, not another speech from Mao.  The Chinese simply had to be able to read and write their own language.

And they couldn't. 

My question is this:  If China's illiteracy rate was so damn high, why was its percentage of global GNP so historically high?  For century upon century, China's economy dominated not only Asia, but was the largest global economy as well.  China wishes to reclaim this past glory of course, but perhaps we will make that into another post someday.

China's system of meritocracy helped, ie the scholar exams that took place over the course of a millennia attracted the best and brightest.  These were China’s Imperial Exams  And helped alleviate, if not downright hide China's inability as a whole to read or write.  Imagine the China of 1950 not being able to read Mao’s great poems?  Or his articles! 

As a Confucian Trait, China also looked down upon doing business.  There was no real commercial class within China.  Indeed, everyone farmed, and the one percenters, if you will, ran the country.    

It really wasn't until the Qing was well within its downward spiral, with the English Barbarian at the door, that China only then began to look within, for sources of both its backwardness, and solutions for improvement.  Unfortunately, as with today, China's inability to reflect, is still its bane. 

Indeed, a quote from Lu Xun online reads,

If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die".


Give credit where credit is due.  The Communist Party, and Mao in particular, supported the push to literacy.(read my poetry!)   People often say that Communism can only succeed in less literate countries(Russia, Vietnam....North Korea...China), as the people being less educated are easy to manipulate.

(Was it not in Cambodia, the first people Pol Pot killed were the teachers?)

Still, while China realized early on Chinese characters were simply too complicated,  the first mass simplification only took place in 1956.  

A traditional character might look like but be changed to .  Easier right?

The most famous change of course was from 國。

Of course today Hong Kong still insists on driving its kids crazy with the classical characters.  As does Japan.  Those two places still turned out well though, right?  The overall literacy rate for China today is stated around 95%, but honestly, while that might be true down to the third tier city level, I find that stat highly suspect.  Still, as with all things Chinese today, one must look how far China has come, not where it is now.  I would indeed argue, due to homogeneity and adherence to centralized education, China's literacy rate is certainly higher than America's in many cities today.  

Over the course of several generations, most Chinese, while they claim to be able to "read" classic Chinese, cannot write it very well, and find it uncomfortable.  Something to hang on the wall.....and that's about it.


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