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My Take
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 1:57am

Great minds not necessarily to be trusted

Why did some of the most brilliant minds of the last century become apologists for history's worst tyrannies? Today we cringe recalling the 1968 pronouncement of Chinese-born author Han Suyin, who died last Friday aged 95, that Mao Zedong was "the greatest man China has known".

In her time, she defended the Great Leap Forward, which induced the famine that has been described as the worst man-made disaster in history, and the Cultural Revolution, which even the Chinese Communist Party has now repudiated.

Perhaps it's not fair to judge her by what we know about Mao today, as many foreigners and fellow travellers besides Han regarded Mao as a great man then. But still, she cannot be completely absolved of a wilful blindness.

A doctor who could speak and write in Chinese, English and French, she had all the intellect she needed to see Mao's China for what it was, rather than what she hoped it would be.

Han is nowadays mostly remembered as the author of an autobiographical novel that inspired the 1950s Hollywood hit movie Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, starring William Holden and shot almost entirely in Hong Kong. But she wrote dozens of books, including two biographies of Mao and Zhou Enlai .

Just as Edgar Snow introduced Mao to the West before he came to power, Han's endorsement helped legitimise the Great Helmsman's rule for many Westerners even as he exercised supreme command and plunged the nation into chaos again and again.

She lived for a time in Malaysia and returned to China in 1956 to a hero's welcome. Zhou personally greeted her. Given her reception, there is no doubt that she had few opportunities to witness the full horrors of the Great Leap Forward.

In any case, she was not alone. The French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine and the philosopher Martin Heidegger idolised Adolf Hitler.

French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty defended Stalin's terrors - mere "pimples", in Merleau-Ponty's words, "on the face of totality".

All this shows that great intellectuals and artists have no monopoly on political wisdom. Rather, ordinary people with common sense may have far sounder judgment.


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This article is now closed to comments

A sobering reminder to those bequeathed with the title 'Great Mind' to not talk out of their asses or make sweeping statements without a clear grasp of the details.
I beg to disagree. Great men necessarily err on a great scale. A choice (for example, a war) made on the national level necessarily trickles down and produce havoc in the battle fields and lives of millions of individuals. Sometimes, a policy with the best of intentions resulted in disaster. Such is the Great Leap Forward, or Japan's decision to attack the Pearl Harbour in 1941. I or anyone would regret the great famine, but alas, famine was not intended or foreseen. I do not believe Mao encouraged the lower cadres to lie about production output. None of what you wrote diminished my respect for Han, Sartre, Martin Heidegger or Mao. I have far greater respect for these people than for many among Wall Street's financiers.
Their failures just taught me that extreme caution must be taken before the launch of any great program of action in the service of some grand ideals. (not that they had been thoughtless. The decision to intervene militarily in Korea 1950-53 resulted in 30,000 US deaths and easily 10 times that many for Chinese, was made after many days of deliberation by the Communist leadership). Tragedies are tragedies. There are times that we must lay down our lives for certain ideals. Human life is not just for mere physical survival.


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