The Sherpa: victims of their own success?

Today I would like to provide you with some details about the Sherpa, one of the ethnic minorities living in republican China- around 2600 live in the People’s Republic of China, and there is a total of approximately 180.000 Sherpa in the world. The word Sherpa means people from the East, which makes reference to the area they live in. Most of the Sherpa live in the Himalayas, although they are starting to suffer the effects of migration attempting to obtain a better life. The Sherpas are presumed to have originally been a nomadic culture. It seems likely that the left their home lands in the Khan region in the 16th century for the Nepalese area due to warfare, hence why their language, despite being Tibetan, is not like that of the rest of the Nepalese society. The 18th century presence of the British in Daarjelin attracted the attention of many Sherpa, who offered their services to the Empire for seasonal employment and a chance of better income into their households. This was a very important factor in the development of what nowadays is the Sherpas best known activity: professional mountaineering.

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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

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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.