To Survive is Victory: One Man’s Struggle to Forge a New China 1918-1980

By Ping Lin

The story of one remarkable and man and his family who remains committed to the ideals of the original revolution despite decades of persecution, torture and imprisonment.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Review of To Survive Is Victory By Ian Tucker

These haunting yet life-affirming memoirs have lingered in my mind longer than any other book of the past few decades.

Sometimes the smallest window offers the clearest view. Untainted by official accounts, undaunted by its place in a much bigger picture, To Survive Is Victory unfurls 20th century China through the eyes of an "ordinary" man from Yunan, both dreamer and doer, lover and fighter, a little-known hero of the people, betrothed to and betrayed by the Communist Party over six decades of momentous change.

Many people aspire and inspire. Lin Xiangbei, now 102, aspired longer and inspired deeper; improving the lives of thousands with his caring principles, intellect and practical skills. 

He was a true believer within the first generation of Chinese "socialists", as his raw account from his birth in 1918 to "retirement" in 1980 reveals. After communism sprouted in the 1920s, Xiangbei was among the hordes of eager volunteers essential to leader Mao Zedong's military and political plans, eventually leading to civil war victory and communist power from 1949, establishing the People's Republic of China.

Recruited as an undercover agent, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Xiangbei's tale is how courage and ideals took over his everyday life, as normal people became incredible and incredible circumstances became normal.

China's transformation needed men and women devoted enough to put their vision of equality above even their love for partners and family. In this context, Xiangbei's gripping journey of hope and hardship, endurance and reward, shames and trivialises many of today's political squabbles and personalities, unveiling the shining best and shocking worst of humanity: comradeship and spirit unshaken by deprivation, killings and injustice.


Writing from pain and often with beauty, Xiangbei weaves in famous and remarkable characters, like the communist hero "Double Gun Woman", to reveal his joys and sacrifices amid arguably the greatest social, political and economic change of any nation in modern times.

Chairman Mao's Anti-Rightist campaign, peaking from 1957 to 1959, purged an estimated 550,000, not just alleged pro-capitalists, anti-socialist intellectuals and those judged too left-wing, but also, most cruelly, model communists like Xiangbei, who were seemingly targeted for no other reasons than jealousy, greed and naked ambition. Some victims were even selected virtually at random so that officials could fill arbitrary quotas for state "traitors". 


Mao's so-called Great Leap Forward, of 1958 to 1962, led to tens of millions dying in the Great Chinese famine, with a crude transition from agricultural economy to socialist society through rapid but often shoddy and sham industrialisation. Soon afterwards came the decade-long Cultural Revolution up to Mao's death in 1976, aimed at entrenching communism still further by purging any remaining capitalists and traditionalists. But this Maoist revamp stagnated China economically and further isolated the country internationally. 


Xiangbei's years of torment, and sometimes physical torture, form the darkest yet most illuminating chapters of his story; human life at its rawest, the section of the book most difficult to read but hardest to put down. 


Remarkably, though, Xiangbei’s words suggest he never wavered from his convictions, even when the purity of his socialist dream was violated by the brutal reality, including persecution by the Red Guards and rife corruption. He was driven as much by fundamental faith in his party as he was by the fight to keep his family from the worst ravages of hunger and degradation. Yet such inner conflict and outer turmoil never appeared to dim the light of his beliefs, while his resourcefulness in helping prisoners and neighbours enhance their living conditions won him reverence from thousands.  

Finally, after many appeals, and personal tragedies, such as the death of his partner Ninjun, Xiangbei was restored to the communist party in 1978. He has since enjoyed the type of calm and peaceful family life he rarely had before, just as China itself has opened up to the world, via social and economic reforms.

But for me one of the book's most touching moments comes in the epilogue, as Ping, the youngest of Xiangbei's five daughters, explains why his written story ended four decades ago. She wrote: "Father doesn't want to say any more. He has had enough of the pain some of his memories cause him." A sad, stark yet hopefully liberating statement, with a simple straightforwardness that symbolizes much of his memoirs.

If you already know the story of China's communist rise, and prefer your history through the eyes of an "every-person", then "To Survive is Victory" comes firmly recommended. Equally, if you enjoy a different type of "love" story, roaming across a landscape of epic events, then this might well be for you. Translated elegantly by Ping, it is an autobiography of a quiet man that deserves to be shouted about.

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