When Lee wrote Farewell My Concubine, massive political changes were taking place in the world, many of which stemmed from events that took place after the end of World War II, in 1945. The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan ended the war, but it also ushered in the atomic age. After these demonstrations, several countries, including the Soviet Union, rushed to create and test their own atomic bombs. As tensions between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States increased, the American government began a policy of backing smaller foreign countries that were in danger of being overthrown by communism. The resulting tension between the Soviet Union and the United States—and between communism and democracy in general—was labeled the Cold War. Although much of the period was technically spent in peacetime, the pervasive feeling of suspicion and paranoia that was generated by this clash of superpowers made many feel that they were fighting a war. Although the peak years of the Cold War were over by the 1960s, America’s fight against communism in foreign countries continued late into the twentieth century, and China, as a communist-ruled country, was viewed as one of the largest threats to democracy.
Yet, while China’s communist policies during Chairman Mao’s rule were destructive to many citizens, China’s associations with the Soviet Union steadily degraded in the second half of the twentieth century, a split that weakened the strength of the communist bloc nations. In the late 1980s, a few years before Lee’s book was published, the pro-democracy movement gained speed and a number of Eastern European nations such as Poland and Czechoslovakia established democratic governments. These developments took place with Soviet approval, largely due to the efforts of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who worked throughout his rule to convert the Soviet political system to a democracy, a bold move for a leader who was part of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party.
One of the most dramatic and symbolic events that signaled the weakening of communism and the rise of democracy was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The massive wall was first built to prevent East Germans from escaping to West Germany, an increasing trend that had threatened to weaken the East German state. By the 1980s this barrier, which had been hastily constructed in the beginning, had become a massive structure and a symbol of the divide between democracy and communism, West and East. In October 1989 East Germany’s communist leadership was overthrown. The next month, the new East German leaders opened the barrier. The decline of communism quickly gained speed in the next few years, and in late 1991 the communist Soviet Union collapsed and was reformed into fifteen independent nations, including a democratic Russia.
While Russia had turned to democracy, however, China was still a communist country. As the book details, life under Chairman Mao’s communist rule was harsh and unpredictable. Following his death and the subsequent overthrow of the Gang of Four in the late 1970s, the Communist Party in China resolved to clarify the political situation. While Mao was condemned for his dictator-like rule, the new party leaders still believed that Mao’s social philosophies, known collectively as Mao Zedong Thought, should be followed. Under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, a leader who had been exiled during the Cultural Revolution, various aspects of communism and capitalism were combined in an effort to build China into a global economic power. Some of these steps, on the surface at least, gave hope to some that Deng Xiaoping was a new kind of leader and that China could eventually be a true democracy. Prodemocracy protests by students and others gained momentum, but were often quashed when the government arrested the activists. In 1989 these tensions came to a head in Tiananmen Square in Beijing (Peking). Following the death of Hu Yaobang, a party secretary...
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