Joan Hinton (1921-2010)

On China Beat, Charles W. Hayford writes about the complicated life of Joan Hinton, who spent her best years on a state-run dairy farm in China:

In 2002, Rob Gifford of National Public Radio asked Hinton if she regretted either the hard times during the Cultural Revolution or the disappointment of the post-Mao reforms. No, she replied, with an incredulous, almost querulous laugh — she had taken part in the two greatest events of the 20th century, the invention of the atomic bomb and the Chinese Revolution. “Who could ask for anything more than that?”

These stories allowed us to see her as a curiosity, a feisty Rip Van Winkle who gave a juicy interview, with little mention of Mao’s actual politics.

Jonathan Mirsky would have none of this. Following Hinton’s death, his Wall Street Journal opinion piece was titled “Deifying Chairman Mao: Joan Hinton, atomic physicist and Hundred Percenter, idolized Chairman Mao and his actions until her death.” (June 21; subscription required). Mirsky groups her with other “deifiers”: Edgar Snow, who wrote Red Star Over China (1937) as a “message from Mao” and denied the famine reports when he returned in the late 1950s; John Service, a Foreign Service officer dispatched to Yan’an in 1944 (the WSJ says “1948,” surely a typo); and Sidney Rittenberg, one of the few foreigners admitted to the party. Mirsky asked: “What kept them from recanting?”

… the Hundred Percenters—or are they Three Hundred Percenters, as some have styled them?—were truly stranded in the often surreal Maoist world-view. They had to approve or excuse horrendous acts. That often inspired a fierce courage among the “foreign friends,” since they were Maoists by choice rather than birth. …

To look deeply within one’s self, to consider the tortures and deaths one had condoned could be shattering.