In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library. He wrote later:
“My office was so low that people avoided me. One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being. Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested. I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men. They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”
Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.
This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life. But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.
Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth. He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people. He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.
But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.
With how many people do you interact every week? How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?
And those are the ones you see! What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages? How big is the army that serves you invisibly? How many lives intersect with yours every day?
And what if one of them will become Mao?
There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing. The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil. It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.
But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil. He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet. And maybe, he need not have,
And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might? Might one of my brothers? My husband? Might I?
There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.
But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it? Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might? Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most. It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.
This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights. I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved. And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.
But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?
I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths. There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.
But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me. Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?
Featured image taken from Wikipedia.