‘Oh Dear, I Think I’m Becoming A God’: Vespasian and the Divine

Throughout his decade-long reign from AD 69 to 79, Vespasian actively refuted any claims of divinity and moves toward an imperial cult within the borders of Rome, but made little attempt to dispel divine worship of himself in the provinces in a bid to reinforce the central focus on Rome and the emperor as an individual to barbarian outsiders. Despite this lack of faith in his divine rule, Vespasian encouraged the existence of the imperial cult in the provinces, mirroring the moves of Augustus to solidify his reign following his controversial ascendency to imperial power through desperate civil war and affirmation by the army. Vespasian’s last words, rumoured to be ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god’ – proved the emperor’s humility towards his assumed divine rule even at the brink of death, despite all outside endeavours to prove otherwise.

The first emperor to hail from the equestrian Flavian dynasty, Vespasian could not adhere himself to the well-reported divine rule of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty, as his family were significantly obscure and possessed little acclaim. Worse still, his family originated from Gaul and the emperor spoke with a peasant’s accent, undeniably a provincial emperor with even less claim to Romanitas than his predecessors in need of divine ancestry. In attempts to attest to Vespasian’s divinity through other means, Tacitus claimed the prosperous affairs and ‘chance happenings’ of his life were omens sent to prove his divine right to rule. Vespasian was said to have possessed numen, which can be received by animals and inanimate objects, through Suetonius’ account of an ox which broke free of its yoke to burst into Vespasian’s dining room and bow its head at his feet, implying the process of freeing Rome from tyranny and submitting to a new welcome ruler. This sign of change heralded by supernatural events emerged frequently during Vespasian’s rule, such as the miraculous regrowth of a cypress tree on his grandfather’s estate after being entirely uprooted by no evident storm. Furthermore, Suetonius, however unreliably, also spoke of a stray dog which burst into Vespasian’s dining quarters and placed a severed hand at his feet, a sign to Roman society of divinity and inherent power. Vespasian himself, as quoted by Suetonius, reported of a dream before his succession that his family would come into good fortune when Nero has a tooth extracted, which happened the very next day. Having kept the personal astrologer Seleucus despite banishing astrologers from Rome, Tacitus suggests Vespasian was gradually influenced by these strange happenings surrounding his life and reign.

Regardless of the emperor’s resistance to imperial worship in the capital, the provincials sought to competitively recreate the centre of the Roman Empire to display their deference to Rome and its solitary figure of power. In an attempt to maintain his auctoritas within the empire’s provinces, which Tacitus claimed he was lacking, Vespasian’s visit to Alexandria in AD 69 witnessed his public performance of miracles in apparent collaboration with the god Serapis to maintain provincial loyalty, healing two Alexandrians, one blind and one lame, despite his own doubt in his divine power. Further to this, Vespasian reportedly had visions of an ethereal Alexandrian man Basildes proffering symbols of royalty such as crowns and loaves, miraculously affirmed through a mirage. Less questionable sources include ancient pottery discovered by the locals of the Peloponnese bearing a striking likeness to Vespasian, cementing local belief in the divine interventions that led to his ascendency to imperial power. Further to this, a wax tablet discovered in Herculaneum described the tutelary deities of Vespasian’s offspring, cementing provincial belief in Vespasian’s dynastical divinity.

Vespasian’s curiosity in the rumours that the gods were on his side during his lifetime led to the action of his son and heir Titus to pursue immediate posthumous deification of Vespasian. Titus established a cult institution in the name of his father through the construction of the Temple of Vespasian near the Tabularium at Pompeii purely out of homage to his father and his efforts during his reign, a move devoid of political intentions but likely not devoid of political interpretation.

Despite a personal aversion to deification, appeals to godly ancestry and the apparent slew of omens following him throughout his lifetime, Vespasian utilised provincial interests in his divine right to rule to maintain loyalty to the imperial centre in his living years, and spent less than a year in mortal death before his successor placed his name among the deified Julio-Claudian emperors.


Henderson, Bernard William, Five Roman Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, A.D. 69-117 (Cambridge, 1927).

Levick, Barbara, Vespasian (London, 1999).

Suetonius, Life of Vespasian.

Tacitus, Vespasian.

Scott, K., The Imperial Cult Under the Flavians (New York, 1975).

Augustus and Divine Imagery

Emperors in the Roman Empire would frequently manipulate their public image to convey their best aspects, whether fact or fantasized, and further their private imagery to cement private belief in himself as a righteous ruler, so much so that even they would fall into the deception themselves. The Emperor Augustus, known initially as Octavian, was well-regarded as the ‘saviour of Rome’, the princeps that brought Rome into their golden age of prosperity and restored the Roman Republic, and as such he was often portrayed as something of a god among mortals, sent to help the Roman Empire in its time of need. His achievements many, the reorganisation of the coinage ‘into a single precious-metal currency system’ and in his actions taken to ‘defeat the men “who butchered my father”’, Augustus portrayed himself as if he were ‘executor of a divine mission’ and claimed that ‘he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble’.

Augustus chose to be addressed differently during his rise to power and success to accrue nothing less than reverence from the Roman people. He was born Gaius Octavius from his biological father and later expanded to the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, as he was named Caesar’s son and heir by his will in 45 BC. The meaning of the name Augustus, which was bestowed upon him by the Senate on 16th January 27 BC, carried with it ideas of superhuman status, from the Latin ‘augere‘ meaning ‘to increase’, connected also with ‘augurium‘ and the religious connotations of augury, further linking Augustus into the realms of Romulus, the founder of Rome, ‘and elevated him beyond mortal limits’. In 27 BC, the Senate agreed to officially and legally recognise Julius Caesar as a god, cementing the legislative amendments he made in his time as dictator and subsequently condemning objections. In this move, Octavian ‘was now able to describe himself as divi filius – son of a god’, ignoring his adoption into the Caesar family tree, but ‘son of a new god and as such “holy” and venerable himself’. In his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus describes that laurels symbolic of his adoptive father were placed at his door that day, a shrub which also links to the god of music, Apollo, further cementing Augustus’ belief in his strong connections with the god. Appealing to his connections with Apollo, in October 28 BC, Augustus ‘dedicated a huge new Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill near his home’ to give thanks for the god’s assistance in his substantial victory at Actium, which is frequently described by poets as a decisive victory thanks to ‘Actian Apollo’s interventions. Augustus mentions this temple in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a signal of his pride in his achievements and a reminder to readers of his connection with the god.

In Roman civilisation, both members of high and low society would utilise the inscription on their graves to impart the story of their lives, however fabricated, from beyond the grave, to attract attention and worship from passers-by. Augustus’ inscription on The Monumentum Ancyranum, known as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, is described as ‘perhaps the most interesting and important inscription that has ever come to light’, a ‘dying statement of the founder of the Roman Principate’. Intended to be presented as two bronze tablets outside his mausoleum in the Campus Martius to the effect that masses of sightseers and worshippers would read them in passing for religious festivals and games, the best surviving copy was found on the walls of a presumed temple to Augustus and Rome at Ancyra, while a further copy was also discovered in the Greek colony of Apollonia which Augustus himself founded The document is one of three records that Augustus wrote to be read out in the senate after his death, and conveys in his own words Augustus’ views of his grand achievements for Rome, ‘extinguished civil war’ for one, and as such he details the honours bestowed upon him by the Senate . However extensive the information featured on the inscription, historians must remain aware that the purpose of such self-epitaphs are to form the reader’s perception of the life of that person as opposed to relaying accurate events.

The statue of Augustus of Prima Porta is a prime example of his public image of divinity and righteousness, displaying numerous ecclesiastical figures such as Apollo and Diana while also commemorating Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra with the presence of a Sphinx relief. Frequently depicted in statues such as the Prima Porta with a figure of Cupid riding a dolphin at his foot, Augustus attested to his divine right to the Roman throne of power through his connections with the son of Venus through his adopted father Julius Caesar. In striking comparison with passages of the Aeneid, the Prima Porta also displays Augustus’ strong links with Aeneas, his attire resembles Aeneas himself as he encouraged the surrender of a Roman eagle standard from the hands of a barbarian. His divine ancestor Aeneas often features in Augustus’ imagery in an attempt to confirm that his ascent to power in Rome had been organised by the gods for centuries. Depicted as a ‘god upon Earth’, Augustus is presented without a helmet and barefoot, an unlikely choice in preparation for the battlefield, but instead presents a god-like immortality to Augustus. Similar to the images we see on Augustan coinage, barbarians are pictured falling to their knees in the face of a mighty Augustan empire. The coinage that was distributed throughout Rome was more emotionally attached than it is to us today, the figures that appeared on its face were venerable guards of the individual’s monetary riches. On the face of an Augustan coin, the letters RPC, representative of rei publicae constitutendae, appear in a triangle similar to the symbol of Apollo, ‘whom he considered his personal tutelary deity’. The emperor is depicted on the face of the denarius as a strong link between Rome and the provinces, and their gratitude for Augustus’ actions towards the end of civil war and corruption was frequently bestowed in the form of ‘nearly divine honours’.

On the other hand, this idea of a revered emperor above all would have never gained ground had the populace of Rome and the provinces not bought into the idea themselves. Most of the divinity bestowed upon Augustus was beyond his control but a mere by-product of widespread public worship. During his lifetime, Augustus was considered a divine figure in the Roman world as a response to his epic achievements in the development of the Roman Empire, not the image he carved for himself in stone. Upon his return after the successful defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, ‘he entered Rome to a welcome fit for a semi-divine hero’, revered through religious chants and libations under Senate orders. Following this heroic victory against the alien Egyptian queen, Augustus had become ‘the one who effectively made and interpreted the laws’ and rebuked any contest to his claim of real power as the primus inter pares, the ‘first among equals’. The imperial cult forged around Augustus by the worshipping public acknowledged his ‘more than human greatness’ under a Greek model of individual worship which involved ‘thanks, praise, speeches, song, communal activities, monuments, and worship in seamless series’, that had been bestowed upon the Romans, ‘the most emphatic and precious ones being, in the end, no less than the due of Augustus’. Sharing this view, the renowned Roman poet Ovid would frequently depict Augustus as a deity, identifying Augustus with the god Jupiter, and subsequently giving us ‘a more detailed picture of emperor worship than any Augustan poet… or perhaps any Roman poet’.

However, what happened behind closed doors in a Roman Emperor’s lifetime would mostly stay behind closed doors until his death, and it was therefore at the emperor’s discretion how he desired to be viewed by his close friends, family and dinner acquaintances. In his private life, Augustus carried forward his belief in a link to Apollo, the god of music, having once arrived at a party dressed as Apollo and was seen ‘feasting amid new adulteries of the gods’ and consequently reprimanded for his reputation as ‘Apollo the Tormentor’ fuelled by his seemingly limitless extravagance and indulgence in his personal life. However, in most social circumstances it is documented that Augustus was down-to-earth and far from godlike in his sense of humour, self-deprecating and witty, and furthermore Augustus personally refused to be referred to under titles ‘such as dictator, king, and god’ and satisfied himself with the title of princeps, the leading citizen. With regards to the titles Augustus collected in his lifetime, in his early adulthood Octavian appealed to the religious side of Rome and was appointed to ‘the priestly college of pontifices’, although his career revolved around avoiding the attentions of local ladies who would otherwise compromise his chastity. Later in 12 BC, Augustus became pontifex maximus, the position of chief priest, symbolic of his dedication to revive religious temples and festivals, which Cooley claims ‘made him appear as a new Numa, second king of Rome, notable for his religious activities, as well as a Romulus’. As such, Augustus appeared in ’20 out of his 230 surviving portraits’ draped in a veil required for sacrificial events, the most notable appearing on the altar of Augustan Peace. The land on which the Ara Pacis Augustae stands, the Campus Martius, was a dedicated area purpose-built for Augustus worship where the symbols of his self-deification are most prominent. The Ara Pacis Augustae, constructed between 13 and 9 BC, demonstrates the official interpretation of Augustus as prescribed by the principate, not so much divine but primus inter pares and a mediator between mortals and gods, while still effectively maintaining a special relationship with the immortal realm, a casual relationship which Roman art at this point had not dared to explore.

Imagery that was far less mass-produced than that of the Prima Porta, such as cameos and statuettes, displayed the Augustus that the populace rarely saw. The Gemma Augustea arguably depicts Augustus with a ‘strained, ailing, yet ideal and noble face’, yet he appears holding Jupiter’s lituus to demonstrate that he has the ‘power to interpret the will of Jupiter and is therefore subordinate to the supreme god of the Roman pantheon’. His early biographer Suetonius discovered an alternate image of Octavian to the inherent divinity expressed in his public images, a bronze statuette of Gaius Octavius as a boy with the word ‘Thurinus‘ at its base, alluding to his questionable origins in the town of Thurii, noted as the home of a servant ropemaker. When this statuette was given to the Emperor Hadrian, however, he placed it among the shrine to household gods in his palace. Furthermore a mythmaker of his own life story, Augustus claims that the stories purporting to his toga of manhood, which fell apart at the seams and flowed around his ankles, was a foundation for his future command of the Senate that would too fall ‘at his feet’.

Augustus, more so in his public imagery, portrayed his view of his own undeniable ties with the realm of the gods through his adoptive father Caesar, revered by the Senate as a god, and also through his appeal to the widely accepted gods such as Apollo and Aeneas. However, the evidence of this self-portrait of god-like stature appears as a result of the divinity given to him by his people and provinces, as the saviour of Rome, the ‘one and only absolute ruler’.

Cooley, Alison E., Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary, Cambridge, 2009.
Guven, Suna, ‘Displaying the Res Gestae of Augustus: A Monument of Imperial Image for All’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 57 (1998), 30-45.
Hardy, E.G., The Monumentum Ancyranum, Oxford, 1923.
Holland, Louise Adams, ‘Aeneas-Augustus of Prima Porta’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 78 (1947), 276-284.
Holland, Richard, Augustus: Godfather of Europe, Stroud, 2004.
Macmullen, Ramsay, Romanization in the Time of Augustus, London, 2000.
Raaflaub, Kurt A. and Toher, Mark, Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, London, 1990.
Shotter, David, Augustus Caesar, London, 1991.
Vermeule, Cornelius, ‘Greek and Roman Gems’, Boston Museum Bulletin, 64 (1966), 18-35.

Winchester City Museum – Review

The City Museum, found at the heart of our very own Winchester, displays the city through the ages through the key archaeological and social findings from the local area, from a Roman skeleton complete with coffin nails, to a medieval toilet seat. As a volunteer at the museum, I might be quite biased, but only because I’ve loved the museum for years as an interesting, entertaining and inspiring collection.


The three galleries inside the museum depict the city at the height of the key periods in its development from the capital city of England to the cathedral city it remains. The Roman gallery on the top floor, entitled Venta Belgarum after the city’s name of the period, depicts the city through the Roman finds from the area, the most notable being the intact mosaic found in Sparsholt which dominates the gallery. An interactive light-up display depicts the developing landscape of the city due to the Roman alterations to the River Itchen, which used to flow straight down what is now known as Winchester High Street.


The key thing to remember as you walk through the galleries is that even if you don’t know the city too well, most of the displays are transferable and could well represent the circumstances and living standards in other areas of the country, but it’s also great to see the beautifully historic city around us adapting to social and economic change.

IMG_3196Keep an eye out for Gunni, the Anglo-Saxon whose burial can be found in the Wintanceaster gallery alongside the medieval Moot horn, which is said to have been heard from as far away as St Catherine’s Hill when it was blown at the Westgate. While the Anglo-Saxons and the Middle Ages have never been my strong point, this gallery along with every other displays the city’s development during the period in a straightforward manner that appeals to visitors no matter what age or interests. While you take a walk around the museum, you might wonder where the Tudor era fits in – it doesn’t, because Winchester Museums’ collections for this period are situated in the Westgate Museum, which is definitely worth a visit if you have an interest in the era and particularly, the dissolution of the monasteries which impacted Winchester.

IMG_3191The ground floor welcomes the more recent history of the city known as Winchester, beginning with the 1800s and closing at T Foster and Sons, the tobacconists. As a volunteer, I spend most of my time behind the counter and have learnt a great deal about the shop and its rich history. Established in 1871, Thomas Foster’s shop once showcased and distributed pipe tobacco and ready-rolled cigarettes to customers at 34 High Street. Just over a century later and the shop’s second owner, Stanley Cobb, passed away and the shop was rebuilt within the walls of the City Museum in 1980, preserving every detail down to the mahogany counter constructed from tobacco shipping crates. The displays of cigars and cigarettes ranging from the old favourites Players and Marlboro to the more obscure Abdullah and Perfectos make for an eye-opening cross-section of the history of smoking and the glamour before the health warnings.

While most museums cater to a more mature, intellectual audience, City Museum devotes itself to keeping children happy, with two different Lego play areas and numerous relevant activity stations on each floor. I have to admit, even I haven’t worked out how to complete some of them yet! The most appealing activity for children appears to be the dress-up stations, where visitors can try on outfits fitting for the period each gallery focuses on, from togas to Edwardian servant suits.

With free admission and amazing displays backed up with a friendly atmosphere, I couldn’t ask for more from a museum – even if I do say so myself.


Manchukuo: Master of Puppets

Forged by relentless Japanese military takeover on 15th September 1932, the new state of Manchukuo was not built to last. Born in the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria, the state existed under elementary independence of its colonial master, which installed the puppet emperor Mr Henry Puyi. In response to the view of their ‘manifest destiny’ to expand and reform areas of their neighbouring Asian lands, Japan set its sights on Manchuria decades before the eventual takeover, believing the province to be within their natural sphere for expansion as Manchuria remained one of the few Chinese provinces to maintain its own dynastic independence from the ruling of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.

Fulfilling Japan’s desire to secure raw materials and supplies for her own population alongside an exclusive market for her manufactured products, Manchukuo quickly became worth the risk. With fertile land and 34 million ready and willing workers, to improve its industrial output, the province’s largely unharvested gold, iron ore and coal resources attracted Japanese attention not only for her own uses, but also as a means of starving China of the necessary natural reserves to ultimately become an efficient rival machine. Alongside such natural potential, Manchukuo also satisfied a significant man-made Japanese requirement, as its vast lands would accommodate the ever-growing Japanese population that the mainland struggled to house, and also provide a secure homeland for the Japanese migrants already living in Manchuria. Japan’s imperial improvements for Manchukuo included a road building programme, which expected 4,000km of new routes by June 1934 and a merge of telegraph, telephone and radio services to easily and efficiently regulate communications within the state.

Following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 which was publicly displayed to Japanese audiences as a Chinese uprising, the Japanese felt a collective sense of superiority over the disrespectful Chinese people who would be tamed by Japan through its initial step to pacify Manchuria. Throughout the establishment of the new state, Japan’s view of an inferior and ill-equipped Chinese race frequently made itself known, most notably through propaganda warning the population of Manchukuo of the ‘barbarian people’ across the borders that were waiting to strike on the province if it were to lie dormant and vulnerable much longer without Japanese rule. The invasion frequently intended to broaden Japanese power within China with a view, albeit grand, to transforming the nation into a Japanese colony as a whole. The Japanese government stated that through Manchukuo, they would be saving China from decades of playing second fiddle to the Soviet Union, effectively being bullied into submission by the communist state, as well as effectively blocking Chiang Kai-shek from reforming north-east Asia. Acting as a mainland anchor for Japanese security, Manchukuo became Japan’s shield from the threats of Western imperialism, Soviet communism and consequently Chinese communism.

The primary aim of the creation of the state of Manchukuo was to utilise the existing Manchuria railroad, with Japanese power assumption over the system almost instantly as a method of bridging the gap between China and Japan’s colony of Korea while simultaneously opening opportunities for further expansion in the direction of Mongolia. Three decades prior to the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan was strategically working to forge the South Manchurian railroads to their advantage with the aim of eventual entire control. By 1933, Japan’s armies were forging the foundations of an ‘enduring economic and strategic organisation to meet the Empire’s needs’ through the control of Manchuria’s northbound rail links to transport the wealth of harvested natural resources on Chinese land to its desired locations. The new railroad management scheme in March 1933 promised to promote the well-being of the Japan-Manchukuo relationship for defence purposes only, alongside the efficient restructuring of the railways to eliminate futile Chinese opposition, ensuring the full repayment of reparations owed to Japanese interests, specifically the South Manchuria Railway. The railroads were organised more efficiently by Japan in the first two years of the takeover than it had ever been arranged under the previous Chang regime. In 1934, Japan made a promise to install 4,000km of new tracks in the coming decade as a means of transporting their troops to the Russian front with ease. The South Manchurian Railway established in 1935 was considered the ‘economic spearhead of Japan’s expansion in China’ and emphasised the great importance of haste in taking action to hold back communism in the Soviet Union and China.

Japan obtained a valuable lesson from the creation of Manchukuo in its initial attempt to economically control their new independent nation entirely through state capitalism and banning the zaibatsu from participating in growing its economy, however these were fundamental players in forging a grassroots economy, consequently stifling Manchukuo’s finances. Locating its birth in 1932 in the midst of global depression and the 5.9 billion yen cost of establishing Manchukuo between the years of 1932 and 1941, initial fears were expressed that Manchukuo would cause more harm than good. The Japanese intended on organising their new independent state in a way to achieve ‘a self-sufficient economic unit’ in comparison with its own, through an outright expression of a desire to belong in a world of total war through its imminent industrial prowess. Within its first year, Manchukuo defied expectations of failure by consistently making progress in the initial years, particularly in the direction of financial improvement with the establishment of its own national bank on June 15 1932 which distributed a new coin monetary system as opposed to the previous worthless notes. The Manchukuo yuan, based on the silver standard, restored monetary stability and was welcomed by farmers and merchants who were suffering under the Chang dynasty, receiving too little in payment for their high-priced soy beans. In the spring of 1933, Manchukuo launched an economic program to tie the loose ends created by the new state, preventing the monopolization of the plentiful natural resources in the region by any one class, controlling the state’s economic activities from above, and ensuring the employment of foreign skills and experience through encouraging foreign investments. Two concepts of economic governance were used in Manchukuo, with a combination of state-managed economic development using the neighbouring Soviet as a model and a self-sufficient production sphere or ‘bloc economy’. An unexpected but welcome side effect of the economic improvements was the reduction in poverty among natives which quelled anti-imperialist protest, opening Manchukuo to unquestioned Japanese rule.

Japan’s economic management of Manchukuo combined methods of state capitalism with national socialism, which merged ‘the advantages of public ownership and private management’, was considered a revolutionary approach that brought suggestions that Manchukuo marked a stage of Japanese colonialism where Japan tried and tested its economic theories in its new state, as Young compares it to a ‘laboratory’, and would then export the successful policies back home to be implemented. Japan’s imperial expansion into Chinese territory unintentionally brought a number of appealing promises to the Chinese people of Manchuria, specifically the offer of prosperity through such successful economic risks, which ‘means more to Chinese than political choice’, allowing Japan a free reign to complete control. Addressing the trading ‘Open Door’ in Manchukuo’s economic situation, Timperley’s contemporary article argues that ‘the door may be open but there are too many Japanese crowding the threshold for anybody else to be able to get even a look in’ as Japan expressed no desire to share Manchukuo’s wealth with foreign traders or even native Chinese. Through pushing aside Western competition with radically cheap prices that Britain and America could not possibly hope to rival, Japan assumed its rightful monopoly over its new state’s economic advancement. However, the speed at which Manchukuo succeeded economically brought suspicions of the legality of their actions, with goods smuggled into Manchukuo from Dairen avoiding export charges.

Japan’s subliminal control of the supposed central Manchukuo government blurred the meaning of independence for its new colony, with Japanese officials in power over the Manchukuo administration and Mr Henry Puyi and his ‘phantom cabinet’ answering to Japan at every turn. Manchukuo instantly declared itself independent of China, therefore snubbing the League of Nations designed to protect nations from such violations of national rights that Japan exceeded through its takeover. Manchukuo gradually became an efficient state through the effective mobilisation of the Japanese and Manchurian population in military, political, economic and cultural outputs, such as the Manchukuo Army, to evoke a sense of belonging and patriotism to the motherland Japan in the new state. The ‘revolution of 1932’ soon became the ‘restoration of 1932’, as outside views quickly realised the Japanese invasion had undoubtedly improved the region’s output in its first year. However, with all its successes, Manchukuo faced an unrelenting internal problem of banditry and the maintenance of order in a new state born out of the chaos and corruption of the previous Chang dynasty. While the independent state of Manchukuo was short-lived, arguments remain that the province of Manchuria was always independent, as China had never governed Manchuria and the Manchu dynasty never ruled China.

Manchukuo, the ‘child of conflict’ was handed over to European control following Japan’s crippling defeat at the close of the Second World War, and as a consequence suffered economic collapse and national distress, suggesting the Japanese occupation and governance significantly stabilised its Chinese colony, proving that Manchukuo was largely a risk worth taking.


‘As to Recognizing Manchukuo’, World Affairs (1932) 73-75.

‘Japan’s Railway Control in Manchuria’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 294.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Japan and the Open Door in Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1933) 54-63.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Future of American Trade with Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1940) 138-143.

Fenby, Jonathan, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost (London, 2003).

Harries, Meirion, Soldiers Of The Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York, 1991).

Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989). (Hunter, 1989).

Kushner, Barak, The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda (Honolulu, 2006). (Kushner, 2006).

Pyle, Kenneth B., The Making of Modern Japan (Lexington, 1978). (Pyle, 1978).

Timperley, H.J., ‘Japan in Manchukuo’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 295-305.

Young, Louise, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (California, 1999).

Formosa – The Beauty and the Beast

Uncrowded, untouched and uncivilised, Ilha Formosa was somewhat hurriedly entitled the ‘Beautiful Island’ by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century, yet aboriginally named Taiwan by its Asian neighbours. The island may have seemed beautiful to seafarers accustomed to the Canton River, but historians document Formosa’s fertile landscape, native medicinal plants and abundant sulphur supplies with less vigour than their descriptions of its unwelcoming, grotesquely tattooed aborigines with no written language or civilised culture. Formosa’s history is steeped in tales of pirate-infested waters and widespread malaria, making it a No-Man’s Land rarely frequented by marauders, and this fearful image of Formosa only intensified as its Asian neighbours assumed their colonial powers over the island.

Formosa has swapped hands numerous times in its past, leaving its native tribes with a void of identity and in constant fear of attack and upheaval. The earliest known settlers on the island, the Longkius tribe, present since before Christ, were ousted in the sixth century by Malay invaders, the descendants of whom reside in the mountainous regions of the island to this day. The island remained unrecognised by its Asian neighbours for a thousand years following the Malays’ refusal to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in the seventh century. During this time, Formosa’s relations with China were fraught with sieges and tentative conflict, and the island consequently became a formidable pirate lair, a hive of underhand trade between the conflicted empires of Japan and China, until its eventual recognition by China in 1682.

In an attempt to prize the Pescadores isles from the Chinese grasp, the Dutch invasion of Asia began with the cession of Formosa in 1623. However this takeover was short-lived as a new generation of Chinese Ming loyalists reinstated their interest in the island and consequently gained control forty years later. Formosa’s largely ineffective and neglectful subjugation at China’s hands in the following two centuries robbed the island of its native peace, leaving the weaker native tribe Pepo-whan ‘barbarians of the plains’ to reside in the south and merge with their conquerors, while the wild Che-whan ‘savages’ evacuated north for the mountains. Law and order were lost, seemingly irretrievably, on the island as the Chinese invaders frequently fought amongst themselves and the natives, provoking the Chinese statement that on Formosa there was “every three years disorder, and every five years a rebellion”. The unrelenting social degradation left sailors in the surrounding waters fearful of becoming stranded on the island and facing certain death at the hands of the natives, as the period of 1840 to 1895 saw the losses of eighty ships and two thousand lives to the clutches of Formosa. The deaths of fifty-four Ryukyuan fishermen on Formosan waters in 1871 were blamed by the Japanese on the vicious aborigines in a move to gain the Ryukyu islands as a colony, and this consequently sparked an international drive to quell Formosa’s unrest. British, German and American efforts combined to calm the island, but it was a gentle yet firm Japanese expedition to the southern tribes in 1874 that began the process of re-civilisation, and consequently set Japanese colonial desires on Formosa.

Following the defeat of China in the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, Formosa was signed over to Japanese imperialism with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, and as a result the island became an important component of the Japanese colonial machine in the years before the Second World War as Japan’s ‘first outright possession’. For a brief period, the island was declared independent as the Republic of Formosa and at first offered to Great Britain, but within six months the island was occupied by Japanese troops by October 1895. Once Japan gained the Formosan people’s trust, however, the assimilation of the Japanese colony began with the installation of the Japanese general Gentaro as Formosan governor. While Japan seemed contented with the occupation and order of the civilised areas of Formosa within six years of its takeover, its unrelenting desire for the mountains inhabited by the natives was meant only to harvest the landscape’s resources unopposed by the aborigines. Occupying troops took a military stance against the ‘savages’ at a high cost of lives on both sides, using wire fencing and Guard Lines to section off occupied territories, although this move largely failed due to the ingenuity of the tribesmen to overcome such restraints. Invading militia would frequently use technology such as aeroplanes and, on one recorded occasion, bombs to intimidate the aborigines into obedience.

With a restored infrastructure and a boosted economy through the improvement of tea, rice and sugar production, Japan brought the civilised areas of Formosa an element of prosperity eventually, but the benefits offered to the natives were purely incidental, as Japan utilised Formosa for the advancement of the Japanese mainland security. Kominka movements were introduced on the island to advance the island’s assimilation by effectively eradicating traces of the native culture and identity to be replaced by Japanese equivalents, the most notable being the official use of the Japanese language. As a consequence, Japanese rule largely restored law and order to the island by 1920 following the island’s turbulent piratical history, making Formosa its most prosperous colony by 1927, yet despite its successful transformation, it remained a distinctly remote island from the mainland as most of the island’s economic trade took place in Japan, and as such, the island lacked tourist appeal both for Japanese and European visitors.

At the point of Formosa’s return to Chinese hands due to Japan’s Second World War defeat in 1945, 8 million Han Chinese nationals had migrated to the independent provincial island, a figure which would later include the population of the Chinese nationalist party who had been forced to retreat to the island after communist victory in 1949. Manned by Chiang Kai-shek, Formosa remained a largely contented single-party state under the Kuomintang for forty years, making a defiant stand as a symbol of Chinese freedom in the twentieth century aside from the strictly governed mainland, taking its rightful place in the free world orbit.

Formosa’s turbulent history of piracy and subjugation transformed the once ‘beautiful island’ into a No-Man’s Land, becoming home to millions of Chinese immigrants from the mainland and consequently outnumbering the inhospitable natives. While at first glance Taiwan would seem an inconsequential addition to her Asian neighbours’ colonial collections, it was Taiwan’s bountiful resources and unindustrialised landscape, complete with the challenge of overcoming the savages in the mountains, that kept them coming back for more.


‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 2 (1893) 441-443.
De Bunsen, E. H., ‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 70 (1927) 266-285.
Hornbeck, Stanley K., ‘Formosa’, World Affairs, 118 (1955) 2.
Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989).
Steere, J. B., ‘Formosa’, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 6 (1874) 302-334.

Victors of Circumstance – The Rise of Chinese Communism

The Chinese Communist Party, formally born in 1921 and reinvigorated by the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949, succeeded not only out of its political ingenuity and advances, but also through the failures and shortcomings of its competitors and enemies. Mao’s inspirational rhetoric on 1st October 1949 claimed that with the reign of the People’s Republic of China, the old China had died and New China was born, and with his dramatic social revolution in the face of dire socio-economic conditions and pleas to nationalism following the destruction of the Sino-Japanese war, it is clear how the CCP gained extraordinary public support throughout the Chinese nation. However, the widespread public disillusionment with the failures of the Nationalist party, the Guomindang, led them to support the only political opponent as the ultimate protest vote.

Historians are in general agreement that the communists succeeded from their own actions, but are divided on which actions secured their victory in 1949. It is widely agreed that the Sino-Japanese war played a crucial role in the mobilization of the Chinese people towards the communist party, simply through appealing to Chinese nationalism, which had taken a crippling blow as a result of the bloodshed witnessed by Nanjing in 1937, putting the Chinese in an extremely vulnerable and threatened position under the Japanese. The war seemingly defined China as a reinvigorated country and supplied them with the military unification they so desperately required to mobilise and unite the population. At the outbreak of war in 1937, the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang formed a second attempt at a United Front, where ‘the CCP agreed to abandon its radical land reform policy in favour of one of rent reduction’ to keep the peace. However, relations soon grew sour with communist expansion to the north and resulted in a return to hostilities, but the peaceful years had allowed the communists to grow significantly in influential territory and numbers, while their power as ‘heroic resisters against fascism’ had been witnessed by foreign visitors to Yan’an in that time. In 1941, the rectification movement saw the student faction’s last stand, which aided the communist movement’s political leadership by Mao and his theologies that sparked the movement. The communist party successfully implemented methods to enforce political orthodoxy such as self-criticism and written confessions which became key to future movements led by Mao, the majority of which succeeded through this technique which, through public admittance, gained sympathy and unwavering support.

The most attractive element of the communist party was their appeal to peasants and workers alike, launching workers’ strikes, local uprisings and army mutinies in February 1930. Mao Zedong prioritised the importance of social revolution under communism, and emphasised peasants education on matters such as government and politics, creating people’s councils in villages which invited all adults to vote regardless of class, while subsequently encouraging sub-associations to represent women and young people in local governments. To the population, Mao and the communists were appealing to them as no party had before. The party achieved their goals through the peasantry who had been their best defence against the Japanese in the years before, and sought to appease them through acting both ‘for the sake of the peasantry’ and ‘on the side of the peasantry’, the latter of which had proved more successful.

The communists succeeded as a party as well as a triumphant political victor through persistence and strong leadership. Under the control of Mao Zedong, his policies and determination as shown specifically in the 1940s shows a defiance in the party which may not have succeeded in his absence. Mao, a charismatic and defiant character with communism coursing through his veins, lay his priorities with the peasantry, the foundations for a powerful political control. In the face of opposition by the Guomindang which withdrew funding for communist troops and economically blockaded communist-controlled areas, drastically reducing CCP controlled population by 19 million between 1940 and 1942, Mao refused to accept defeat. He administered Border Regions to mobilise the communist populations, increasing industrial production, reducing militia and in turn reducing government expenses and encouraging peasant-led co-operative trades, much to the approval of members of all classes, having previously become disillusioned with the Guomindang who had slowly alienated students, as shown in the May 4th Movement of 1919 by intellectuals and the urban bourgeoisie. Spectacular movements such as these brought wide-eyed attention from the watching Chinese population, demonstrating that the CCP were far from weak, and could hold their own in conflicts with the Nationalists.

In the face of ‘the final extermination’ at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek in 1925, Mao’s defiance and refusal to accept defeat led to his return to Hunan where he gathered peasant support and consequently launched the Autumn Harvest Uprising, however largely unsuccessful, this bought the CCP most of Kiangsi province territory to fund what would be renowned as The Long March from 1934 to 1935. The 6,000 mile journey brought a positive reception from communities they passed through due to the communists’ respectful behaviour unrivalled by the Nationalists. However embroidered with mythical tales of heroic bravery in the face of adversity, for example the Luting Bridge of chains and fire, the realistic race of the communist forces against the Guomindang from Kiangsi province to the Shensi province marked the loss of 270,000 communist lives, but also a milestone in the party’s development as a formidable political and military enemy, the crux of their struggle for eventual victory. The historian Johnson elaborates that, alongside the militia, the emphasis on guerilla warfare in Mao’s approaches advanced the support of the communist party, in Mao’s words ‘because guerilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation’. The CCP emerged well-equipped to capitalise on the Sino-Japanese war following a decade of guerilla warfare development while the Guomindang emerged war-weary and exhausted.

The historian John Roberts details that, among support in the countryside and the takeover of China’s main cities, the success of the CCP can be accredited to their victory in Manchuria. In 1948, Manchuria was the first state to accept the communist approach, following a vigorous battle since 1945 for ownership between the GMD and the communists, vying to claim the most developed industrial region in China since the Japanese invasion left behind an impressive infrastructure. The communist party had offered the countryside a revolutionary land reform that was to be expanded in 1950 following their victory. Taxes and services provided by the peasants in terms of food, labour and military industry would be repaid in land and other forms of wealth confiscated from the old elite. Despite the contentment of the civilians, however, the Guomindang returned armed and the consequent bloody Manchurian campaign took a drastic toll on Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, primarily through casualties and large numbers of desertions to the communist party in Lin Bao’s Fourth Field Army. Following this unanimous defeat assisted also by the rallying of northern Chinese peasants against the Guomindang, Chiang Kai-shek and his two million troops were forced to retreat from the mainland to Taiwan. While this would be assumed as a communist victory, the Guomindang did not disintegrate entirely despite the successes of communism.

Alongside the communists’ advantages were the Guomindang’s shortcomings which helped elevate the CCP to power in 1949. The Guomindang had remained untrustworthy in the eyes of the public for some time, as the May 4th Movement of 1919 demonstrated. Considered the first mass public movement of modern Chinese history, the movement brought to light public concerns with the Guomindang government’s plans for the future of the nation. The peasant population had been unsettled by the GMD’s compromises with intellectuals on who should be taxed and how, followed by the military conscription and heavy taxes brought into effect, the Nationalist government slowly lost its life force and public backing. Upon Sun Yat-sen’s death and Chiang Kai-shek’s consequent control in 1925, the Guomindang turned against their communist allies and sought to subdue the party, commencing the ‘final extermination’ of communist territories. The Guomindang’s response to the Sino-Japanese war further discredited their governing tactics in the eyes of the peasants as the opposing party that did not support Chinese foreign superiority and ultimate independence. Rampant inflation hindered the public’s trust, primarily the middle classes, in the Guomindang’s control of the economy. Having grown exhausted from incessant conflicts, Guomindang members had corrupted the party from the inside, and as a consequence financial scandals gradually lost the party its favour, losing both the party and its armies the will to rule, as opposed to the communists’ unwavering morale and incorruptible structure.

A debate raised by Wasserstrom questions whether there was even a revolution when the communists came to power in 1949, suggesting the drastic developments in Chinese society following the formation of the People’s Republic of China could not be directly or indirectly attributed to Mao’s victory. Wasserstrom also suggests that the changes brought forward by the communist victory would have been supported and implemented by their opponents in the GMD without such drastic methods, for example the complete eradication of the waning influence of foreign imperialism which led to the re-establishment of a central government control over Chinese territory, which was welcomed by the population after almost a hundred years of partial sovereignty and political state division. This in turn brought the reinstatement of domestic peace and agreement following years of civil warfare and overseas conflicts, and, closer to home, the work force was more than twice the size it had previously remained. Mao’s insistence on educational expansion brought literacy to all echelons of Chinese society, plus the drastically required improvements in public healthcare which consequently led to a growth in population. All aspects of Chinese society at the time were expanding, improving and moving forward with the age of the New China as Mao promised.

By 1947, the CCP had mobilised to advance on Beijing in January 1949, and by October, the Gate of Heavenly Peace begged an audience for Mao Zedong’s proclamation of ‘the birth of the new People’s Republic of China and to declare that China had stood up’, announcing the communist victory with a promise of nationalist rejuvenation and ultimate Chinese independence. While communism marched to victory in 1949, the party’s continued existence to this day stands as an effective memorial to their successes of that year. As a result of their encouragement of popular political protests which earned the population much-needed government alterations, attractive policies such as land reform appealing to every echelon of society, and their strategic territory occupations, the Chinese Communist Party earned its successes but its ultimate victory can be strongly attributed to the long-term failures of the opposing Nationalist government.


Davin, Delia, Mao Zedong (Gloucestershire, 1997).
Eastman, Lloyd E., Seeds Of Destruction: Nationalist China In War And Revolution (California, 2002).
Goldston, Robert, The Long March (London, 1972).
Johnson, Chalmers A., Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (California, 1962).
Karl, Rebecca E., Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World (London, 2010).
Mackerras, Colin, China In Transformation 1900-1949 (New York, 1998).
Moise, Edwin E., Modern China: A History (Harlow, 1986).
Pepper, Suzanne, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 (London, 1978).
Roberts, J.A.G., Modern China: An Illustrated History (Gloucestershire, 2000).
Sheridan, James E., China In Disintegration: The Republican Era In Chinese History 1912-1949 (New York, 1975).
Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches (London, 2003).

Man Must Conquer Nature: Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Environment

Any explanation of the environmental problems of the world we live in falls short without a mention of China, be it climate change, ozone depletion or over-exploitation of natural resources. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s was an adventurous attempt to ‘conquer’ nature through human intervention, combining the repression of fellow humans with the repression of nature’s course. However, documentation of environmental changes during this ‘war against nature’ is sparse, and the sources that exist are often semi fictionalised to understate the truth of the damage that Mao’s Cultural Revolution inflicted upon the environment. Maoist thought suggested that the human race were fundamentally distinct from the natural world, and as such humans should mobilise to overcome the obstacles that nature places in their way.

Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia
Three Gorges Dam, photo from Wikipedia

Make The River Yield The Way

Mao put forward a defiant philosophy in 1958 – ‘make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way’. China’s mission to conquer nature was carried out with military efficiency and accuracy, with families separated and entire towns dissolved in the name of a stronger China. The country’s water conservancy projects intended to keep up with the progress of the Soviet Union, and stated they only needed a further two years to catch up with Britain. The construction of the Red Flag Canal saw more earth moved in a single week in 1959 than the total moved to create the entire Panama Canal.

The hydraulic engineer Huang Wanli wrote that only 23 large and medium dams existed in China before the new government arrived in 1949, a figure which shot to 80,000 in the following 40 years, 2,976 of which had collapsed under nature’s strain. Wanli strongly opposed the plans to construct the Three Gorges Dam on the monstrous Yangtze River, predicting that the dam’s mechanisms would become blocked by the river’s natural siltation process, resulting in extreme flooding and devastation, but he was silenced. Marking the start of China’s boundless mission to control floods and install hydro-electric revolutionary projects which would eventually generate enough energy to power the entire of China, the dam was built regardless, and sure enough, the flooding and ecosystem damage that followed brought more financial damage and devastation than the government could have anticipated. The effects of widespread dam-building and well-digging, such as salinization and alkalinization of water tables are still felt by Chinese to this day in their quality of water and land conditions.

With Many People, Strength Is Great

The government prioritised production that would be maximised by the great population numbers, yet few government officials thought of the consequences. Public propaganda pushed the population in the direction of producing more children to boost the country’s military strength and consequent survival on the world stage. By 1952, all contraceptive devices disappeared from the market, mothers were rewarded with more ration coupons each time they produced a baby and celebrated as ‘mother heroes’ that were saving the country from war defeat. With the blame falling directly at Mao Zedong’s door, the slogan ‘with many people, strength is great’ rang across China since the communist party began. In 1954, Mao claimed that even with nuclear weapons, America could never wipe out China’s 9 million km of territory and 600 million strong population. The figure itself stunned the leadership who had left population numbers unsupervised since the communist success, and Mao later commented that there were so many Chinese people, it would soon be necessary to stand in line to take a walk.

An economist wrote in 1957 that the Chinese overpopulation was soon going to take its toll on the environment, yet this warning fell on deaf ears, and he was accused of supporting the suffering that came with a capitalist approach to government, and he was eventually forced out of his job. That year, the government took family planning measures to import contraception and allow birth control methods, but the action had been taken too late. The one child policy introduced in 1979 has still not saved China from this grave mistake, and to this day the country is still paying a fine price to reduce the drastic population numbers.

With Company They Grow Easily, When They Grow Together They Will Be Comfortable

Imported ‘scientific’ theories turned traditional rural customs on their heads and in 1958, farmers participated in great competition to beat each others’ grain yields, casting aside sustainable harvesting and common sense in an effort to reshape the nonhuman world. China had transformed nature to the point that the earth was producing more grain than could possibly be harvested and stored. Farmers were instructed to plough deeper than ever and plant crops closer to each other as a means of transforming the very soil to respond quicker and more efficiently, and the grain suffocated under the strain, rotting and contaminating the entire field. The Great Leap Forward instructed farmers to launch a direct attack upon the wild sparrows that had been apparently eating too much grain and reducing productivity, launching a mass cull of an innocent species.

Professor Hou Guangjun, a Sichuan teacher who offered ideas for ‘natural nonploughing’ to promote a revolutionary non-invasive approach to agriculture in the early 1950s, was targeted once the Great Leap began, on the grounds his ideas were counter-productive. If his methods had been adopted nationwide, lives would have been spared and land would have remained healthy for generations.

Greater, Faster, Better, More Economical

September 1958 saw the entire country mobilised to smelt steel and iron to meet impossibly high productivity targets, with villages constructing their own ‘backyard furnaces’ to sacrifice their own tools for the smelting of 10,700,000 tonnes of essentially wasted steel, which could not be forged into anything useful. By the close of 1958, 100 million peasants, one in six Chinese, participated under the gleaming promises of a Chinese utopia for all, beginning with the smelting of useful steel to create new tools. Relentless exertion and exhaustion in fear of falling behind on productivity targets or being seen by neighbours as lazy caused the deaths of countless numbers, including children. The pressure to produce a greater amount faster and better than one’s neighbours became too much. Forests were inevitably destroyed by the relentless need to fuel the furnaces, which naturally led to geographical erosion, desertification and climate change across China which transformed once healthy land into barren, unproductive earth. Some forests were never to return, as research in the late 1980s stated forested areas now claimed only 8 percent of Chinese land, down from 13 percent in 1949.

By the winter of 1958, the combination of both exerted harvest efforts and pointless steelworks resulted in the greatest man-made famine in history. The number of lives lost is uncertain, although historians estimate from 23 million to as much as 42 million from famine alone.

Get Grain From The Mountaintops, Get Grain From The Lakes

Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist
Dazhai terraces, photo from: Virtual Tourist

Under a policy of dogmatic uniformity, peasants were encouraged to remould the landscape, regardless of their geographical location and the specific needs of their land, so that land in the north looked and responded identically to land in the south. Across the nation, Chinese were called upon to recreate the example of Dazhai, a commune that left behind the devastation of natural disasters through self-reliance, refusing state compensations of grain while also promising to contribute its own significant figure of grain to the state. Through conquering nature by hand, Dazhai forged hills into stepped landscapes to maximise production potential. However, terracing of sloped land forced deforestation, and brought with it it erosion, sedimentation and ecosystem corrosion, while the transformation of lakes negatively impacted climates and forced widespread flooding. China’s landscape still suffers today from the irreparable damage of terraced slopes, yet these striking horizons appear as picturesque tourist attractions.

China’s misinformed past since the rise of communism in 1949 has irreparably impacted its climate and land conditions, and while China battles on, the nation will never forget the Cultural Revolution. It is impossible to determine the exact number of lives claimed by the Cultural Revolution in its entirety, but the natural as well as human devastation of the grand philosophy of Maoist thought is undeniable.


Elvin, Mark, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (London, 1973).

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, 2001).

Zhao Ziyang – The Tiananmen Catalyst

Photo from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/16791/Zhao-Ziyang-in-1984

The ideological black sheep of the Chinese Communist Party during the 1980s, Zhao Ziyang was ultimately held in view by the party as a significant cause of the Tiananmen Square protests that led to the massacre of June 3rd and 4th 1989, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of students, labourers and Beijing citizens.

Born on 17th October 1919, Zhao Xiuye’s wealthy landlord father was murdered in the process of land reforms undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. However, Zhao confirmed his support of the party’s cause in joining the Communist Youth League in 1932 and progressed to party membership just five years later. Following the death of Mao and the subsequent power struggle resulting in Deng Xiaoping’s takeover, new agricultural reforms to paper over the cracks began in 1979 in the province of Sichuan, where Zhao Ziyang was provincial party secretary. That year, Zhao was rewarded for his achievements in the successful implementation of the reforms, accepting a promotion to Politburo membership in September. Zhao was promoted to vice premier in April 1980 and replaced Hua Guofeng as premier of the State Council 6 months later. This dramatic succession through the ranks was to foreshadow the speed at which Zhao was to be dropped from the party less than a decade later.

The political hierarchy constructed around Premier Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was built through an intense shared opposition to Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution that claimed millions of Chinese lives in the 1950s. Deng surrounded himself with a faction of rehabilitated cadres who had felt the direct effects of the revolution, but they were a diverse and conflicting group who rarely saw eye to eye. Zhao Ziyang was particularly deserted, an economic pragmatist who found a strong sympathy for the student population, just as Mao had before him. Zhao became Deng Xiaoping’s protégé through his time in the party, standing in the liberal reformist corner of Deng’s ‘practice faction’ alongside Chen Yun, both of whom were concerned with the maintenance of central administrative control, however the two rarely found similarities beyond that. Zhao evolved into the active opposite of Chen in that he developed a drastically experimental and defiant approach to his political interests, as opposed to Chen’s docile personality. Zhao also definitively failed to appeal to Hu Yaobang, expressing a preference for the input methods of reform socialism that the party had been enacting since 1949. Despite his sympathy towards the student movements, Zhao found himself significantly intolerant of the media, journalists and writers who took certain liberties with the information they held, the contrast to Hu Yaobang’s acceptance.

The days that precluded the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4th 1989 were to hammer the nails into Zhao Ziyang’s political coffin. Zhao was known for speaking out against the widespread corruption and embezzlement that fraught the party’s mobilisation, and as such sympathised with the student factions during the Beijing Spring of 1989. The controversial Tiananmen Papers solidify the suspicion that Zhao Ziyang supported the student causes against the majority wishes of the party, explaining that backing the students would in turn advance the party’s reforms after a period of political stagnation.

Although Zhao and comrade Hu Yaobang had failed to agree on many political occasions, which was often a result of their competition to take over the party following Deng Xiaoping, Zhao’s eulogy at Hu’s funeral on 22nd April 1989 described his comrade as ‘a great Marxist’, words which were met with unrest among party officials. The ceremony attracted 100,000 onlookers, most of whom were students who began demonstrations immediately following the ceremony, demanding an audience with government officials on their qualms against the corruption and economic chaos caused by the party in recent years. The party responded with an agreement to end the mourning period for Hu Yaobang prematurely, a decision which was opposed only by Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li and a small handful of others. Zhao promptly left for an arranged visit to North Korea the following day, and in his absence the party stirred against his increasingly bold activities. Confirming their concerns, upon his return Zhao headed directly for an audience with Deng Xiaoping to convey his disagreement with the party’s responses to the students, with his particular objection directed towards the April 26th editorial published in the People’s Daily which denounced the student movements as ‘turmoil’ that the party felt compelled to suppress with the implementation of martial law, condemning the suppression of the movements as ‘unwise’. Deng, in the name of prioritising stability, allowed Zhao to attempt his softer approach should the students push further. On May 4th, Zhao publicly announced that he believed the students were simply demanding that the party should correct their malpractices, in the hope that an announcement of the party’s calm reception of the demands would in turn calm the movements, yet this further strengthened them in revealing the clear divisions in opinions amongst the party leaders, which was exactly the students’ purpose for protest in the first place. As time passed rapidly in the student unrest, the students demands changed too fast for the party to respond in time and to an acceptable standard, as such the cracks appeared to show at an alarming rate. Zhao’s desertion was most prominent in his proposals made at the May 16th meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, offering to retract the April 26th editorial and establish an investigatory organisation to look into party corruption, a proposal which was voted down four to one, even by Zhao’s oldest ally Hu Qili. It would soon be proved that the committee did not overwhelmingly dismiss Zhao’s proposals, but turned the concept of an audit on all private business companies into an audit on Zhao and the students instead.

It was on May 17th that Zhao personally acknowledged the patriotism with which the students moved and subsequently promised no reprisals if they called an end to the disruptions. Zhao was seen reaching out to hunger strikers, stating that ‘there is no fundamental conflict of interests’ between the party and the students, but his words fell on deaf ears and consequent confrontations with his mentor Deng led Zhao to offer his resignation, which was swiftly rejected as a public signal of a divide within the party that would provoke the volatile students further. Directly after the meeting, Zhao asked to be driven to Tiananmen Square, and through a megaphone he acted his last as general secretary, informing the congregated hunger strikers: ‘we’ve come too late’, Li Peng’s martial law had been given the go-ahead.

On the night of June 3rd 1989, protests broke out in Tiananmen Square alongside other university cities. People’s Liberation Army tanks surrounded the activists, consisting of docile students, enraged labourers and Beijing citizens. The first fatal shots were fired at 10:45pm under orders to clear Tiananmen Square by dawn the next day or face the threat of military reprimand, and the final shots fired just before 5:00am. The government would officially declare 6 PLA soldier fatalities and 1,114 injuries as the people fought back with makeshift weapons, whereas there is no existing reliable figure of civilian casualties but it is assumed to be in the hundreds.

Accused of neglecting the Party elders and Deng Xiaoping in particular through “surrendering to the bourgeoisie”, Zhao was exiled from the Party through the Fourth Plenum in late June and placed under house arrest. Zhao Ziyang died under close observation in Beijing in 2005, and was denied the funerary rites owed to communist party members. In an attempt to subdue a social and political fire, Zhao’s efforts simply directly stoked the flames, with fatal consequences.


Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping (New Jersey, 1994)

John Gittings, The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Oxford, 2006)

Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers (London, 2001)

A Not-So-Brief History of Makeup

As a makeup enthusiast myself, I’ve always been curious about where the trends began and why we started applying liquids and powders, potions and concoctions, to improve our faces.

A commonplace feature in the everyday woman’s morning routine, you could be forgiven for assuming that makeup and cosmetic enhancement are mere products of postmodern social insecurities. However, you’ll be pleased to know we’re not the only generation to view makeup as an essential to enhance our lives, and while we interpret this enrichment in a vastly different way, the principle remains the same – wanting to look different. From the geisha of Japan to the infamous Elizabeth Taylor look of Cleopatra, makeup has been a vital development of both female and male culture.

Both men and women in ancient Egypt often used eye paint, made from kohl, to accentuate their eyes in an almond shape, as we find evident on Pharaohs funerary masks and sarcophagi. Kohl was a mixture of crushed almonds, antimony, ash, ochre, malachite and copper, materials renowned for their strong pigmentation and healing properties, as kohl was also thought to improve eyesight and act as a barrier against optical ailments and glare from the blinding desert sun. A combination of copper and ore pigment named mesdemet was introduced around 4,000 BC to be worn around the eye to accentuate and attract attention. Also, dyes were formulated from henna and rouge to alter the appearance of hair, skin and nails, for both cosmetic and health purposes. Around 10,000 BC even creams to prevent stretch marks and wrinkles were available to those wishing to improve their chances of a good afterlife by perfecting their current life.

A thousand years later, the Greeks and Chinese associated whiter faces with purity, and as such put rice powder and white lead to use on their skin. In ancient Greece, a form of eyeshadow developed under the name ‘fucus’ because of the prominent green and blue pigments formed by powdered malachite and lapis lazuli. The Chinese utilised their cosmetics to determine social class, the wrong shade of red nail dye could make the biggest difference. An extreme cosmetic improvement we’ve thankfully grown out of is the Chinese way of painting their teeth black and gold dating from 1500 BC. Across the sea in 11th century Japan, girls were using crushed flower petals, rice flours and even bird droppings to beautify the eyes. Wiser cultures, however, would adapt edible materials for beautification that were readily available to all, for example the Greek use of berries to heighten lip and cheek pigmentation.

The Roman world initially objected to the trends coming in from across the Mediterranean as superficial and vain, and even used sacred Egyptian oils for sexual purposes to stain the reputation. However, after an influx of plagues, they began to consider the medicinal uses of makeup in order to ward off the bad spirits, just as they had witnessed Iraqi people painting their faces to keep the evil eye at bay. Butter and barley powder were improvised as a spot prevention mixture around 100 AD, and the age of the Roman baths saw in the age of purifying mud baths.

During the Middle Ages, the Church condemned cosmetics as breeding grounds for vanity, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, medieval England maintained the vision that pale skin represented purity, therefore women would often use egg whites on their faces, and as such a resource was widely available, the effects could be felt by many echelons of society. In comparison, the Renaissance period saw the introduction of less readily accessible ingredients, such as arsenic and mercury, in hindsight the most dangerous materials to adhere to ones skin. While the Middle Ages saw the golden age of dyed red hair, the 1500s brought the angelic qualities of bleached blonde hair to public prominence.

Alongside public consumption for personal gains, the theatrical application of cosmetics was the most prolific use under the reign of Queen Victoria, who formally denounced makeup as vulgar and as such theatrical use was the only acceptable means. That is, until the 1900s, where women visited beauty salons in secrecy to avoid others knowing they required products to preserve their youthful looks. While health has remained a significant factor in the use of cosmetics in the past, it has been documented that women used young boy’s urine or ox blood to reduce the appearance of freckles.

The question of a postmodern society’s recent obsession with appearance crumbles in light of this extensive evidence. Whether it be medical or purely cosmetic, society’s priorities can be determined by their dependence on makeup and the reasons behind it.


  1. http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/a-brief-history-of-makeup/
  2. http://www.webmd.com/healthy-beauty/guide/history-makeup
  3. http://www.essence-of-mineral-makeup.com/eye-shadow-history.html
  4. http://idealbeautyacademy.net/the-history-of-makeup/