虚实之间: 20世纪大陆谣言研究

Wandering between Illusion and Reality: on Rumors in 1950s Mainland China

Book Reviews

Li Ruojian 李若建

Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2011

Reviewed by Yumeng Wang (Nankai University/Harvard-Yenching Institute)

Li Ruojian’s 虚实之间: 20世纪大陆谣言研究 (Wandering between Illusion and Reality: on Rumors in 1950s Mainland China) is a detailed, innovative, and intriguing work. It analyses several popular rumors in Mainland China during the 1950s. The book includes six chapters. Besides the introduction and conclusion, the other four chapters each examine one kind of rumor.

The second chapter focuses on the rumor of a water monster with the appearance of a hairy man (毛人水怪), which the author claims was the most widespread rumor in twentieth century China. First appearing in 1946 in Jiangsu Province, the rumor lasted for more than a decade among the Huai River basin and part of the Yangtze River area. The largest outbreak was from 1953 to 1954. It was widely believed that the government sent out the monster to get the eyes, hearts, nipples, and testicles of people to supply the Soviet Union‘s production of atomic bombs. The author theorizes that the emergence of this rumor was related to traditional collective memory about water monsters as well as massive water projects in the area in the 1950s. The civil war, flood, and water projects all led to vast levels of migration, which played an important role in the spread of the rumor. The author argues that the rumor reflected the conflict between government officers and ordinary people, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union, as well as the fear of war and the atomic bomb. Such rumors led people to panic, causing the government to severely punish those spreading them. In its propaganda, the government portrayed the “enemies of the people” (such as landlords, businessmen, and Nationalist Party spies) as intentionally starting the rumors.

In chapter 3, the author examines the rumor of castration, called “ge dan” 割蛋 in Chinese (“ge” meaning cut, “dan” referring to testes). In the summer of 1950, in Northern China, a rumor was spread that Chairman Mao sent out men disguised as monks, businessmen, and peasants to steal men’s testicles, women’s breasts and uteruses as well as children’s intestines to supply the Soviet Union with atomic bomb-making materials. In Chinese, the word for bomb (dan弹) has the same pronunciation as a word for testicles (dan蛋). As the rumor set off panic among people, the government blamed a Daoist organization, Yiguan Dao (一贯道), for starting the rumor, and some of its members were arrested and executed. The author suggests that in general the rumors were most pervasive in poorer areas that were not fully under control by the new regime. On the one hand, the fear of being dissected, especially castration, has long been embedded in Chinese culture. There were individuals who made their living by castrating livestock. In traditional China, castration was used as punishment and there were also a number of eunuchs who served in the royal palace. On the other hand, the fear was also induced by several major changes in Chinese society at that time, such as the ban of Yiguan Dao, the land revolution, and the Korean War. The author observes that two political incidents may have also contributed: Chairman Mao’s visit to the Soviet Union, and a petition campaign which asked people to sign in support of banning nuclear weapons. It was likely that many people signed without understanding the campaign’s true purpose, and this gave birth to the rumor. The rumor also showed distinct anti-government and anti-Soviet political leanings among the people.

Chapter 4 discusses the rumor of ‘divine water’ or medication, which spread from 1953 to 1957. According to many people, divine water or medication was considered to be a “magic bullet.” However, to the government, these were superstitions and threats to its control. The author attributes the popularity of this rumor to widely held folk beliefs in China, which can be classified as a diffused religion rather than as a systematic one. Compared to the latter, diffused religion was more diverse and harder to control. In Chinese history, there has been a political tradition of suppressing such folk beliefs. In addition, this rumor indicated the conflict between the values of the common people and that of the government, which advocated science. The government suppressed the rumor by arresting a large number of clergy. Through these actions, the government enforced its control over society.

In chapter 5, the author explores rumors of poisoning in the 1950s. The fear of being poisoned had been a long-standing fear in Chinese society. Rumors of Westerners and Japanese poisoning Chinese were widespread in modern China. And both the Communist Party (CCP) and Nationalist Party defamed each other for carrying out poisonings. In the 1950s, government propaganda frequently accused the “enemies of the people” of conducting poisonings, which induced fear amongst the people. The government took such “poisoning cases” seriously, which may have led to a large number of wrongful convictions. It was likely that most incidents were actually due to ingesting bad food and polluted water rather than deliberate poisoning.

By addressing a novel and interesting topic, this work has made contributions to our understanding of Chinese society in the 1950s. Though sounding absurd to today’s people, these rumors reflect the real feelings of people who are often hidden in the grand historical narratives. In the eyes of the author, the emergence of these rumors was embedded in collective memories of the past, but they were also the products of social and political changes. In the formation of rumors, political discourse and ideology played an important role. What the author interprets from these rumors is a resentment towards the new regime. In the reign of the CCP, political power began to reach grassroots society, and many people were not prepared to accept this kind of strict control. Furthermore, the work style of many officers was arbitrary and violent which generated hostility among people. The rumor of a “magic bullet” was also related to the lack of medical care for the masses. When the government tried to interfere, dissatisfaction regarding social inequality could be detected. To provide one example from the book, when an officer of the government was found to be putting excrement into a “divine” spring, people expressed strong resentment. A man hit the officer and scolded him, saying “when you get sick, you have free medical care, when we get sick, we don’t have any medication or money, what can we do without divine water?”  (p.158)

In addition, the government coped with such rumors through high-handed suppression, blaming those already labeled as “enemies of the people.” In a mass panic about poisoning, it was always disadvantaged groups (such as beggars and vagrants) who were suspected and eventually punished. (p. 168) The author also notes that unlike in Europe, where suspected wizards and witches belonged to the local community, those under suspicion in China were all outsiders. The author goes on to reflect that the best way to put down a rumor was not through suppression but rather by disclosing information.

There are parts of this work that can be improved upon. In different sections of the second and third chapters, the author repeatedly discusses the content and background of certain rumors, and it is difficult to sort out the intended meaning between each part. Additionally, the author examines the rumors of the water monster and castration in great length, while other chapters dedicated to the rumors of divine water and poisoning are not as equally detailed.

In the preface, the author discusses whether it is appropriate to use the term “yaoyan” 谣言, which refers to a false rumor. Although the author notes that this term implies a value judgement, he still chooses to use the term. In my opinion, this causes some problems. Nowadays the majority of people have a basic background in scientific knowledge, so it may be easy for them to discern these rumors as fabricated and absurd. However, to many people from the past, these rumors were real, and this was the reason why they were widely spread at that time. If we presuppose they are false, we may find it hard to relate to the experience and way of thinking of people in the past.

We should also be aware that there was a process of “beliefs” being defined as false rumor. The author, being aware of this, analyzes the hegemonic discourse in this process. However, the author tries to explain what really happened based on official accounts, without explaining why we should believe the word of the government in these cases. Besides, the author draws a link between the popularity of rumors and the relatively loose control of the government. For example, he asserts that the reason why the rumors were so widespread in 1953 and 1957 was due to the CCP’s relatively weak control over society during those two years. But could it be possible that the rumors remained widespread throughout the entire period and were only highlighted in those two years by the government?

Moreover, though great effort has been put into discussing the relationship between rumors and politics, I believe it is still not enough. As this book has suggested, most hearsay was defined as false rumors by the government. Not only did the government charge these rumors as false, but they also gave authoritative explanations of the stories, which served their own interests. Meanwhile, the communist regime itself spread many rumors in Mao’s era. For example, from 1952 on, the government launched patriotic sanitation campaigns to cope with the so-called “germ war” initiated by the United States against China. It was propagandized that the US had released germ-carrying insects throughout China, along with air-dropped flyers and supplies. It was not clear whether the government genuinely believe this or if it was a propaganda tactic. Though the accusations lacked evidence, it was still upheld in official historical writings. We can tell this rumor, in fact, shared the same logic as many other rumors, especially that of poisonings. It showed insecurity and fear of being murdered by “others,” which echoed the discourse of class struggle. Though having realized this, the author explicitly points out that rumors spread by the government are not the focus of the book. In this book, a rumor is defined exclusively as information obtained through unofficial resources. However, we should still ask what influence these ‘official’ rumors had on other rumors started by the common people. How did the reaction of the government influence the rumors? It is worth mentioning that unlike the other three kinds of rumors addressed in this book, the rumor of poisoning was not labeled as a false rumor by the government. Instead, they fueled such rumors and charged the “enemies of the people” with conducting the crimes.

Another issue that the author does not make clear is the difference between the city and countryside. In chapters 2, 3, and 4, it seems that the analysis is mainly based on the countryside. But did the same rumors spread in cities? What was the difference?

While this book deals with the modern period, it also inspires us to think about rumors throughout history. As the author suggests, governors in Imperial China also viewed folk beliefs as superstition and tried to ban them. What was the influence of this political tradition on the actions of the Communist government? Moreover, what was unique about attitudes toward rumors in the reign of the CCP? Were rumors a more serious problem than before, and why?