20 April 2008

BrainwashingA word that seems to be cropping quite a bit lately from both Chinese and non-Chinese quarters has been “brainwashing”. The Merriam Webster and American Heritage dictionaries give the etymology xi nao (洗脑), the English word first appearing in 1950.

In the book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing”, Robert Jay Lifton cites the writings of the American journalist Edward Hunter first used it “as a translation of the colloquialism “hsi nao” (literally, “wash brain”), which he quoted from Chinese informants who described its use following the Chinese takeover.” The term was later applied to indoctrination techniques in other parts of the world. Hunter was a propaganda specialist for the OSS during World War II, and collected a great deal of Chinese propaganda material, which is now available in the Chinese Pamphlets e-collection at the Center for Research Libraries. The Oxford English Dictionary says the first appearance of the word was in an article by Hunter for The New Leader in 1950, while Wikipedia cites an article by Hunter in the Miami Daily News the same year titled “‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party”.

In the years that followed, “brainwashing” got alot of play to explain defection among American POWs in the Korean War, and that in turn later became part of the premise of “The Manchurian Candidate”.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that xinao was an official phrase in the Chinese government, but referred to what is typical translated as “thought reform”, or 思想改造 (sixiang gaizao), which referred to the re-education of the intelligentsia and educated after 1949. Official history says that thought reform started in 1951, but according to one Chinese blogger, the roots can be traced back to 1950 (when Hunter first heard the term xinao referring to political re-education) in Mao Zedong’s speeches at the Second Meeting of the 1st CPPCC National Committee, when he exhorted intellectuals to use their free time to study Marx-Leninism, educate the masses and engage in self-criticism. An English version of the speech, “Be A True Revolutionary”, does not appear to mention intellectuals or holidays, but does quote Mao Zedong saying “Towards the people, on the contrary, it uses the method of democracy and not of compulsion, that is, it must necessarily let them take part in political activity and does not compel them to do this or that but uses the method of democracy to educate and persuade. Such education is self-education for the people, and its basic method is criticism and self-criticism. I hope that this method will be used by all the nationalities, democratic classes, democratic parties, people’s organizations and patriotic democrats in the country.”

The blogger quotes Mao Zedong speaking at the 3rd Plenary of the 7th Central Committee of the CCP, which can also be found on Xinhua, “对知识分子要办各种训练班,办军政大学、革命大学。要使用他们,同时对他们进行改造.” “Intellectuals need to do every kind of training, military education, revolutionary education. They need to be utilized, and at the same time reformed.” Most likely these campaigns, which the following year would solidify as “thought reform”, were the ones Hunter’s informant was referring to when he used the term “brainwash”.

In contemporary China, “xinao” is a bit of a curious word. It is often used precisely as we would use it in the West, right now across the Internet in reference to CNN, or more loosely when author Wang Shuo called the 80s generation brainwashed by Hong Kong and Taiwan pop culture. Numerous stories appear talking about pyramid schemes “brainwashing” people into scams. But then there are the political campaigns mentioned online, such as “City and Rural Party Branches Hand in Hand”, which says that in tackling rural poverty, material donations are not enough but city and rural party members must go to each others areas to “brainwash” and “liberate their thinking”. [突出抓好思想共建。共建不能只是停留在给钱给物的层面上,更要抓好党的建设,解放思想,要组织城市党员进村入户,组织结对村党员进城洗脑,按“一加一模式”结对帮扶贫困党员和贫困户。]

Other instances often use the term brainwash positively (and in quotation marks suggesting its sorta slang) when referring to educating cadres, human resources (no quotation marks), public anti-corruption campaigns and to describe (again, positively) the controversial remarks of Professor Zheng Qiang (郑强), who railed against defects in the Chinese education in a speech in Jiangsu, saying “the higher your test scores, the more disabled you are”, early education overloads students, English education at a university level leads to students who only understands “English with a Sichuan accent”, and other thought provoking stuff.

The term xinao then, seems to have two lives in China. One is the sort of contemporary usage familiar to English speakers, as a negative term for indoctrination and people in China, where the word and concept originated, is now applying it to others, while the other xinao continues to be a term for a kind of “thought reform”, though now applied positively as a buzzword to things like Six Sigma training. Heh. I’ve lost count of the levels of irony at play here.

Photo courtesy of BCostin, under Creative Commons (Flickr)

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