Chairman Mao and the Sparrows
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 11, 2001
By 1958, the Chinese Communist Party had been in power for almost nine years. The Nationalists under Chaing Kai-shek had been routed and driven off the mainland; internal enemies had been quelled; China had its first unified government in perhaps a hundred years. Now, Chairman Mao Tse-tung decreed, it was time for a “Great Leap Forward”, time for China to catch up economically with the more advanced West by launching great campaigns to modernize industry and agriculture.
Not content with controlling only human society and behavior, the Chinese Communists set their sites on controlling Nature itself. One of the first and most ambitious volleys in this “Great Leap Forward” was to be the “War on the four Pests”: rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows are all to be eliminated, throughout China’s countryside.
“Why sparrows?” you may ask. I mean, one can understand getting rid of mosquitoes. Same with rats, I suppose—they’re filthy little critters. And lice… nobody likes lice… least of all, school nurses. Butsparrows? What’s so wrong with sparrows that Chairman Mao and the Communists thought they needed to be eliminated?
Well, you see, sparrows eat grain. And if a sparrow comes across a kernel of grain that you’ve just planted in the ground, he (or she, I suppose) will swoop down and gobble it up even before you’ve had a chance to say “Long live Chairman Mao! Down with U.S. Imperialism!” This was especially wearisome to Chinese farmers, who would scatter their seed in furrows, only to have to stand back helplessly as huge swarms of sparrows would then descend upon their fields and make off with most of it.
So, the Chairman said, let’s eliminate the sparrows along with the mosquitoes, rats, and lice—and thus, usher in a great new golden age for the Chinese peasantry!
But how do you get rid of all those sparrows—thousands, millions, of them? Shoot them? That would take forever; it would waste a whole lot of valuable ammunition (that could probably be better used on human counter revolutionaries and other “enemies”, perhaps); and it would leave the fields littered with spent rifle cartridges. Could you poison them? But how do you poison the sparrows, without also poisoning the grain they want to eat? How about setting traps to catch them? Can you imagine how many traps you’d have to set to catch millions and millions of sparrows? Well, how can it be done then?
The Chinese Communists decided, after all, we’ve got millions and millions of peasants, too—So why not rely on them to rid the countryside of sparrows? Their plan went like this: You get everyone in the village together, and everybody goes out to the fields where the sparrows are. Then, you get everybody to run around, banging drums and pots and pans, and screaming, and making as much noise as possible. So that after fifteen minutes or so, the sparrows will be too terrified to land, and will just keep circling around the fields, over and over again, endlessly—till, finally, they drop from the skies in exhaustion, dead upon the ground.
That was the plan, back in 1958, and it worked—very, very effectively. Soon, villages were littered with thousands and thousands of dead sparrows. Pictures were taken of proud villagers in front of twenty-or-thirty-foot high mountains of sparrow carcasses. All in the name of the revolution, of course! The genius of Chairman Mao had once again proven the unassailable superiority of Communism.
Or had it? What were the results, the consequences, of the war against the sparrows?
The first season, with no pesky sparrows around to steal all that grain, the harvest was pretty good, significantly above the year before. Hurray for Communism, everybody shouted.
But then, a not-so-funny thing happened. Indeed, a very tragic thing happened. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it’s that if you mess around with the food chain, you’re asking for trouble. Somehow, the Chinese Communist agricultural officials had overlooked the fact that sparrows don’t only eat grain—they eat insects, as well. Especially locusts. With no sparrows around any more, suddenly the major check on the locust population had been removed. By the second growing season after the “anti sparrow campaign” began, China witnessed the worst locust infestation in its history. In some places, the cloud of locusts was so thick that it blotted out the sunlight; locusts settled across the fields of Northern China from one end to the other, devouring crops. Grain yields plummeted throughout the country.
Soon, because of the locusts and because of other insane ideas of the “Great Leap Forward”, China was plunged into famine. Between 1959 and 1961, it is estimated, approximately 30 million people died of starvation in the Chinese countryside—due to a number of factors, but chief among them, Chairman Mao’s “war on the sparrows”.
Now, as we look back on this tragic chapter in modern history, it might be tempting to feel just a tinge of self-satisfaction. After all, it wasn’t we—or our government, or our leaders, or our economic system—which was to blame for this insane fiasco. We didn’t declare war on the sparrows; the Chinese Communists did. “We’re smarter than that,” we might tell ourselves. Better than that. “It couldn’t happen here.”
Indeed, I think it is doubtful whether such large-scale ecological lunacy could have occurred here in America, even at the same time period in the 1950s. I think there would have been more warning signals sent out from the scientific community and the agricultural industry, even if the U.S. government had decreed something similar. (“Sparrows eat insects, too,” they would have said. “Don’t forget about the locusts.”) A more diversified, decentralized political or economic system is better able to filter out lame-brained ideas better than one (like Communism) where all decisions are made dictatorially, by central authorities.
But lest we bask too securely in the glow of self-satisfaction, let’s remember that our society, too, has seen its share of technological and ecological fiascoes, which could have been avoided had their been just a bit more wisdom thrown into the mad mix of making a buck.
The Challenger disaster-- Three Mile Island—the Exxon Valdez—Love Canal—all resulted from human hubris and arrogance and downright stupidity taking the place of common sense and caution and careful discernment of the facts at hand.
In more recent days, perhaps there is some humility to be drawn from the experience of a small group of religious fanatics being able to, simultaneously, hijack four American jetliners and fly three of them into critically important structures, killing thousands of people.
Someone, surely, should have foreseen the consequences (and it’s easy to point fingers, I know, but these are questions we have to struggle with as a people in the light of September 11th)—of what was a laughable, privatized airport security system which pays people barely above minimum wage to do critically-important, life-or-death work, with almost no training whatsoever.
Someone, surely, should have foreseen the consequences of arming to the teeth a group of Muslim fanatics in Afghanistan—of clearing the way to power for the Taliban (whose sole qualification making them our “allies” was that, well, they weren’t Communists). Our government conveniently “overlooked” the fact (in the same way that Chairman Mao and his henchmen “overlooked” the fact that sparrows eat insects and locusts) that the Taliban’s anti-Western ideas were never far beneath the surface, that they were dedicated from day one to installing a fanatical Islamist regime in Afghanistan, which boded nothing but ill for those who were women (whom they exploited and abused fearfully, and forced to cover their faces), or were Hindus (whom the Taliban forced to wear yellow stars—sound familiar?), or were Buddhists (whose millennia-old statues were destroyed), or who liked music (all of which was banned by the islamo-fascists in Kabul—all music-- not just Western music [I mean: if the Taliban just wanted to smash a few Brittany Spears records, who would object? But soon, they were even raiding their own national libraries and destroying the texts of their own ancient folk songs, and throwing their own musicians into prison].
Yet, the Taliban—our “allies” ten years ago (as was Osama Bin Laden)—have now turned into a swarm of locusts, and have their Stinger missiles trained on our troops and aircraft (not too effectively, it seems, Allah be praised!). All because, you see, someone who should have been was not paying attention to those “unintended consequences” which will always arise to bite us in the backside if we’re not careful.
Of course, we can’t guard against all unintended consequences, nor do we want to. Life is a mystery, not a crossword puzzle. Life is full of simply awesome surprises—and a life worth living is one which always knows that there are new adventures, new surprises, always around the corner:
In the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible we read:
“By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones, and those who have knowledge than those who have strength…”
But where, in the course of human events, is the house of wisdom located? How do we keep the jam session of life from becoming just a mere cacophony of noise—the untrammeled and free dance of life from becoming just so many peasants running madly around the fields, banging pots and pans, till our spirits drop to Earth exhausted? How do make sure the “unintended consequences” that will (inevitably) arise further our human sojourn, rather than limit it—that they bless us with serendipity, rather than curse us with tragedy—that they yield beautiful music and an abundant harvest, rather than a plague of locusts and famine of our bodies, our minds, or our spirits?
“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding” Job asks God.
Of course, our “heavenly home” can never be constructed fully in this imperfect human realm. There is no such thing as a Utopia in the annals of human history; indeed, human history has been sadly littered by those who thought they could build utopias on Earth. Like Mao and his gang. Or Stalin. Or Hitler. Or the Taliban. There will always be folly along the way of our human journey. The best we can do is to try to learn from history, listen to the stories of those who have before us, and do the best we can by trying to discern seven guiding stars in all of our relations:
These are the seven virtues I would offer as our salvation today, in this world grown small, this world grown suddenly cold and chill, this world which now needs the hope of faith more than ever:
Humility: The overriding knowing that we did not weave the web of life, but are but strands in it, that we human ones are but strands in the web, and that what we do to the sparrows, we do to ourselves.
Patience: The deep inner knowing that nothing worth doing is achieved in one lifetime, and that therefore, we are sustained by what we hope. It is knowing, too, that hope is the knowledge that things will turn out, in the short run, the way we want them, but that what we are doing, right now, makes sense and has meaning.
Compassion: Not just for our human brothers and sisters, but for all living creatures. “His eye in on the sparrow, and I know he watches me,” the old Southern Baptist hymn goes. We should love others as ourselves, for others are but our larger selves.
Flexibility: It is the tree that has learned to bend that will best withstand the storm. It is the tree which has learned to bend which will, in time, put down the strongest roots and bless the earth most truly.
Justice: “Do unto others are you would have them do unto you…” Do you think it’s a mere “coincidence” that every one of the great religions of the world has some variation on that theme in its teachings? I don’t. Maybe that teaching is there because it makes sense, because it is true.
Finally, Mindfulness. A sense of living in the moment, but not living for the moment. Mindfulness is the deep knowledge that in the seed is planted the future of the tree, that in this moment is entwined all history that ever was, and all that is to be.
Our Native American forebears used to consider the ramifications of their decisions down to the Seventh Generation: They would try to discern how their actions would affect the lives of those who came after them, down to the Seventh Generation.
It is a variation on that kind of ethic that our dangerous world needs today. If this Earth is to survive (especially if it is to survive as more than a household of terror and fear), it will need sons and daughters who have deeply imbued an ethic of interdependence—an ethic of love for all peoples, and for all creatures great and small.
This is the greater reality in which we live:
The ways in which we bless or curse one another—indeed, how we treat all species of creation—will return to bless or to curse us—and those who will inherit this Earth from us—in the days and years which lie ahead.