China: Blue Ants and Dangerous Reds

  • Why a very civilised Frenchmen called the Chinese ‘Blue Ants’.
  • How ‘Old China Hands’ in 1950 thought that the new Communist government would be as ineffective as the Kuomintang had been.
  • The amazing ignorance about ‘Red China’ found in 1950s USA.
  • Blood, Opium and Gunboats: how the West had messed up China before 1949.
  • The Amethyst Incident: when Gunboat Diplomacy ended

In Problems 24, I mentioned how the Chinese during Mao’s rule were often called ‘Blue Ants’ by mainstream writers in the West.  I traced the term back to a book entitled The Blue Ants: 600 Million Chinese under the Red Flag.  Despite the title, it is a lot more respectful of China and the Chinese Communists than most current Western books.  For all its faults, it is worth studying.

In the 1950s, even left-wing Europeans might openly express racist sentiments.  But they also saw the need for state power.  What you now have is a general ‘Coolheart’ attitude, in which the usefulness of political authority is dogmatically denied and the role of the state sneered at.

Robert Guillain, born in 1908, showed some sympathy for and understanding of East Asians.  His reports from Vietnam were collected and translated as Vietnam: The dirty war.  They were useful to the Left because he accurately described the hopelessly corruption of the Saigon regime.  But he also described the people of New China as ‘Blue Ants’ (Les Formise Bleu) in a book that bore the title 600 millions de Chinois sous le drapeau rouge.  The English version moved ‘Blue Ants’ to the main title, but is otherwise a fair translation.

Guillain in 1949 / 1950 had been expecting the victorious Communists to be as ineffective after their 1949 victory as the Kuomintang had been after their 1927 victory.  Going back in 1955, he found something else:

“First impressions at the frontier station: a remarkable change.  Places and people as clean as in a station in the Tyrol [in Austria]… Bare feet but no rags, no beggars, no dirt, meticulous cleanliness of everybody and everything.  Prosperous appearance of the Chinese workers…  And the old Chinese laugher was still in evidence.”[1]

“But there is no doubt about it: even the peasants I saw in the fields were usually better dressed than in the China of old.” (Ibid., pages 4-5.)

Does he say ‘how nice to see them clean, orderly, healthy, and happy!‘?  Of course not.  He’s a French intellectual, and so inclined to disapprove of life in general.  But the more a foreign society differs from a social universe that really ought to be centred on Paris, the stronger the disapproval.  Such people blame reality for failing to match their cherished notions of what it ought to be.  Sneer at those who are doing something to bring such a vision into being.

[1] Guillain, Robert.  The Blue Ants: 600 Million Chinese under the Red Flag.  Translated by Mervyn Savill.  London: Secker & Warburg 1957.  Page 3

From Problems magazine, issue 25.  To subscribe, see the Athol Books website.