“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all” – Oscar Wilde. It is a great quote, but some ideas are so dangerous that it might have been better if they had been stillborn. Take that time Mao Zedong got it in his head to exterminate all sparrows in China. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but it ended up contributing to a disaster that killed tens of millions. Following are thirty things about that and other bad ideas from history.
30. A Seemingly-Bright Idea That Turned Out to Be Not So Bright
When Mao Zedong’s communists seized control of China in 1949, they set out to restore the country’s standing and prestige after a stretch of weakness termed “The Century of Humiliations”. Doing so required massive and swift industrialization, to transform a backward agrarian society into a global powerhouse. Other countries had industrialized gradually and started with the accumulation of capital, then spent it on machinery. China had neither money nor time. Its population was rapidly outstripping the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for massive industrialization. So Mao decided to mobilize China’s vast population.
The idea was to use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery, of which China had little. Thus was born the Great Leap Forward in 1958, a revolutionary modernization campaign to leapfrog China from a peasant economy into an industrial giant. To kick off the modernization and increase efficiency, “The Four Pests Campaign” was launched, to exterminate flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows. Flies, mosquitoes, and rats spread diseases, and rats ate and ruined grains on top of that. Sparrows were included because they also ate grains and fruits. However, as seen below, exterminating them turned out to be a catastrophically bad idea.
29. The “Smash Sparrows Campaign” Brought the Birds to the Brink of Extinction
Chairman Mao’s government calculated that each sparrow ate about four pounds of grain per year, plus an indeterminate amount of fruits eaten or ruined by their pecking. Multiply that by hundreds of millions or billions of sparrows, and that is a whole lot of lost grain and fruits. So sparrows were designated as one of “Four Pests” slated for extermination, and a merciless eradication effort was launched against them. Birds were described as “public animals of capitalism“, and posters were plastered all across China, encouraging the masses to wipe out sparrows in particular. Millions of young and old, armed with sticks, stones, slingshots, and noisemakers, went after them with a will.
In what authorities designated the “Eliminate Sparrows” or “Smash Sparrows” campaign, the birds were slaughtered wherever they were found, on the ground, in trees or bushes, or in the air. Their nests were destroyed, their chicks killed, and their eggs smashed. To keep them from resting, organized groups loudly beat drums, gongs, pots and pans, until the tiny birds dropped dead from exhaustion. The relentless campaign brought sparrows to the brink of extinction – at which point it was realized, way too late, that the whole thing might have been a bad idea.
28. Maoist China Paid a High Price for The Chairman’s Failure to Understand or Respect Nature
The key to understanding the “Smash Sparrows Campaign” is the fact that Chairman Mao did not understand the natural world. In many ways, he actually despised nature and thought it should give way to human needs and wants. Notions such as living in harmony with the natural world and refraining from doing it harm were dismissed as backward spirituality and superstition that held people back, or decadent Western fru-fru. The Maoist worldview, which was inculcated among the masses via propaganda, indoctrination, repression, censorship, and utopian promises, actively pitted humans against nature.
Mao’s government repeatedly urged people to “conquer nature“, and in 1958, he famously declared: “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield the way“. In short, Mao was not exactly an environmentalist or conservationist. The idea that sparrows might have an important role in maintaining an ecological balance that benefited people was alien to him and his acolytes. Mao’s subjects paid a dear price for the Chairman’s failure to grasp that. As seen below, the sparrow extermination campaign contributed to the deaths of tens of millions.
27. By the Time Mao Realized that the Sparrow Extermination Campaign Was a Terrible Idea, it Was Too Late
Sparrows might eat grain and fruits, but they also eat insects – a whole lot of insects. Especially locusts, whose chief predator, the one that keeps their population in check, happens to be sparrows. Without sparrows, the locust population exploded, and they fell upon China’s crops in massive swarms that blanketed the sky and obscured the Sun. Rather than increase crop yields, the extermination of sparrows ended up substantially decreasing China’s available rice. In 1960, Mao ordered the removal of sparrows from the “Four Pests”, and had them replaced with bed bugs.
It was too late. The locusts ate up so much grain that catastrophe ensued. Between the huge insect swarms, and the mismanagement, incompetence, and turmoil that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, the country was plunged into what came to be known as The Great Chinese Famine. By the time it was over, tens of millions had starved to death, with estimates going as high as 45 million fatalities. Eventually, after having all but wiped out China’s native population of sparrows, the Chinese government was forced to import 250,000 of the small birds from the Soviet Union to replenish its stock.
26. Duels Were So Popular in Renaissance Italy That Niche Dueling Devices Became All the Rage
During the Italian Renaissance, dueling was so popular that niche products were developed for specific types of duels, and when they were fought. The latter included lantern shields – small circular bucklers to which a lantern was attached – that were developed to duel at night, or in the early dawn hours when it was still dark outside. Lantern shields became all the rage in dueling circles. Indeed, they were so popular among the hip and violent – the violently hip, if you would – that they were included in dueling manuals of the period.
A leather flap covered the lantern, and when the user thought the moment was right, he threw the flap open. The idea was that the sudden light from the lantern would dazzle the opponent, and blind or otherwise impair his night vision. Some of the more sophisticated lantern shields, which could include built-in spikes, sword blades, and gauntlets, also had a mechanism for dimming or brightening the lamp’s light. It was a stylish and good-looking contraption that bestowed upon its bearer an air of elegance, urbane classiness, and refinement. However, as seen below, lantern shields had a drawback and a serious one at that.
25. Mixing Fire and Oil Mere Inches From a User’s Body Turned Out to be a Bad Idea
Lantern shields had a design defect that was inescapable, given the technology of the time. Batteries did not exist back then, so lanterns were lamps that produced light via a flame fueled by oil. The lantern had an oil storage compartment that allowed the flame to remain lit for hours on end. In short, lantern shields literally mixed fire and oil in extremely close proximity to the user’s body. They were strapped to the bearer’s arm, inches away from his face and torso.
When the lamp was jostled – something unavoidable since the purpose of a shield is to absorb blows when used defensively, and to bash opponents when used offensively – the oil could leak out or spill. With the lantern’s fuel compartment affixed to the shield, there was a strong possibility that the user’s shield-bearing arm, face, or body, would get drenched in flammable oil. Oil that could catch fire if it came in contact with the lantern’s flame. As a result, the lantern shield had a tendency to turn its users into human torches every now and then.
Today, it is widely accepted that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental malady caused by exposure to shocking events, such as the horrors of warfare. In World War I, what we now know as PTSD was known as shell shock – erroneously assumed to be caused by the blasts of exploding artillery shells – and was often accompanied by uncontrollable shaking and tics. Shell-shock was not well-understood by psychiatrists back then, and there was little sympathy for its sufferers who were often seen as cowardly, malingering, weak-willed soldiers.
Psychiatrists in Germany referred to shellshock sufferers as “Kriegs-Zitterer” (war tremblers) or “Kriegsneurotiker” (war neurotics). The shaking that often accompanied shellshock was seen as evidence of weakness and unmanliness. The era’s psychiatrists, and especially the German ones, strongly rejected the notion of giving any sort of benefit or payment to traumatized veterans. They attributed their suffering not to a medical cause, but to moral weakness. During the interwar years, they turned to a radical – and by then already controversial – idea to treat shellshock: electrocution.
23. In Hindsight, the Idea to Torture Away PTSD Might Not Have Been a Good One
The electroshock treatment of PTSD – or shell-shock as it was called back then – patients in Germany boiled down to torturing away the trauma. At its core, the idea was to overcome the remembered horrors of the war with even greater horrors in the here and now, by applying electric shocks to shell-shock sufferers’ genitals. To be fair to the German psychiatric profession of the interwar years, electric shock as a solution for shell shock was not an idea pioneered in Germany.
Still, although they were not the ones who came up with it, German psychiatrists took the idea and ran with it. Using electric shocks to treat shell-shock sufferers sprang from the fertile brain of English electro-physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for physiology in 1932. During WWI, he devised an electric shock treatment for shell-shocked soldiers. He reasoned that pain was necessary for a treatment that combined therapy with discipline because shell-shock sufferers were suspected of malingering.
22. Military Authorities Thought PTSD Was a Form of Malingering, and Did Not Want to Reward It
We now know that adequate rest and relaxation are among the most effective means of treating PTSD. During WWI, however, shell-shock was often seen as a scam or attempt by cowards to con their way out of combat. As a result, military authorities were reluctant to “reward” shell-shocked soldiers – presumed to be malingering – with rest and relaxation. They saw that as a bad idea because it would encourage others to malinger and come down with shell-shock. The goal was to send shell-shocked soldiers back to the front as quickly as possible, so an unpleasant treatment such as electric shock was deemed an appropriate coercive therapy.
As devised by Edgar Adrian, electric shock for treating shell shock had three goals: suggestion, reeducation, and discipline. The focus was greater on the “discipline” part, to the point that shell-shock treatment often crossed the line into torture. As Adrian put it: “The current can be made extremely painful if it is necessary to supply the disciplinary element which must be invoked if the patient is one of those who prefer not to recover, and it can be made strong enough to break down the unconscious barriers to sensation in the most profound functional anesthesia“.
21. The Realization That Torture to Cure PTSD Was a Bad Idea Came Too Late for Thousands of Sufferers
It was widely accepted by both military and civilian psychiatrists during WWI – and for years afterward – that de facto torture was a good idea in treating shell shock. Dr. Edgar Douglas Adrian eventually had second thoughts about the treatment he had pioneered when he discovered that it did not prevent relapses. After the war, he came to realize that shell shock – by then renamed “war hysteria”, was more complex than initially thought. Adrian eventually understood that the physical shaking and tics often associated with shell shock were just some of the symptoms.
Insomnia, depression, headaches, and irritability were among the other symptoms. Adrian figured that electric shock was at best a partial solution, that could only remove some motor or sensitive symptoms, and often only temporarily. As he wrote about his new line of reasoning: “Obviously there is still something wrong and the removal of bodily symptom has not been enough“. Unfortunately, it was too late. By then torturing the shell-shock out of sufferers with electric shock was in wide practice, and the controversial treatment continued in use for many more years.
20. The Seemingly Minor Design Choice That Turned Out to be a Catastrophically Bad Idea
Even before the series of catastrophic 737 Max dulled Boeing’s shine, Airbus had been threatening to eclipse the American airplane manufacturing giant. However, until the recent 737 Max fiasco, things had been going great for Boeing for as long as anybody could remember. Throughout most of the commercial travel era, Boeing was the dominant player in passenger planes. Nonetheless, there was a time in the early 1950s when many reasonable people predicted that the future of passenger planes belonged to Britain’s de Havilland Aircraft Company, with Boeing a distant second.
The reason was the de Havilland Comet, history’s first commercial jet liner. Its prototype first flew in 1949, then Comets went into production and hit the market in 1952. Fast and sleek, with a pressurized cabin that was comfortable, relatively quiet, and featured large square windows, the Comet cut six hours of travel time between London and New York. It was the world’s most promising passenger plane. Then, it was discovered that a seemingly minor design choice had been a bad idea.
19. De Havilland Discovered That Going For Looks Instead of Functionality Was a Bad Idea
When de Havilland’s aeronautical engineers designed the Comet’s windows, they opted for large squares. There was no particular engineering or design basis for the decision: it was driven by aesthetics. Square windows simply looked better than the traditional round “porthole” style windows. It turned out to be a bad idea because – unfortunately for dozens of Comet passengers who died in a series of crashes – designers back then did not understand metal fatigue. Stresses piled up at the corners of the Comet’s square windows and caused catastrophic fuselage breaches mid-flight, which led to fatal crashes.
It took time to figure out the problem, because the Comets often broke apart at high altitudes and above water, so recovering the wreckage to examine it was difficult or impossible. Eventually, the problem was identified, and the entire Comet fleet was pulled out of service. De Havilland never recovered. While the Comet was being redesigned with round windows and thicker fuselages, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 hit the market and became hits with airliners. In hindsight, it turned out that opting for square windows was not just a run-of-the-mill bad idea, but a catastrophic idea that doomed the pioneering manufacturer.
18. Keeping a Major Gunpowder Factory in the Middle of a Capital City Turned Out to be a Bad Idea
Producing adequate stocks of gunpowder was vital to the security of Ming Dynasty China in the seventeenth century. So investing in major gunpowder works was a good idea on the part of the Ming government. However, building a major gunpowder work in a major city – especially in the Ming capital city – turned out to be a bad idea. That became clear on May 30, 1626, in the aftermath of what became known as the Great Tianqi Explosion, after the Ming Dynasty Tianqi Emperor during whose reign it occurred.
Also known as the Beijing Explosive Incident in Late Ming, the Wanggongchang Calamity, or the Wanggongchang Explosion, it was one of history’s worst industrial accidents. It occurred at the Wanggongchang Armory, about two miles from Beijing’s Forbidden Palace in Beijing – home of the Ming emperors and the seat of their government. The blast was so loud that it was heard beyond the Great Wall, about 100 miles away, and produced a “mushroom-shaped” cloud that hung over southwest Beijing. When the dust settled, half of the city was wrecked, and around 20,000 people were dead.
17. The Ming Administration Did Little to Protect its Capital from Gunpowder Factories Inside the City
The Wanggongchang Armory was one of half a dozen factories in the Beijing area that produced weapons and ammunition for the armies of Ming Dynasty China. The armories, which were operated and overseen by the Ministry of Public Works, were vital to Beijing’s security, and to the defense and military readiness of China. Around 70 to 80 people worked in Wanggonchang, where they manufactured arrows, swords, spears, cannons, and gunpowder. The latter were especially important because the importance of gunpowder and cannons had grown in recent years.
Ming armies at the time were locked into a steadily escalating arms race with the Manchus of today’s Manchuria. Cannons and an ample supply of gunpowder were key to keeping the Manchus out of China. The factories were built in Beijing, protected by the capitals’ thick and powerful walls, to keep them from falling into enemy hands. While much thought went into using the city to protect the gunpowder factories, little thought seems to have gone into protecting the city from the gunpowder factories if something went wrong. Beijing paid a heavy price for the failure to take such precautions.
16. A Catastrophe That Killed a Crown Prince, and Nearly Killed an Emperor
The Great Tianqi Explosion was preceded by a plume of smoke, which witnesses saw rising above Beijing’s Wanggongchang Armory around 10 AM on the morning of May 30th, 1626. It was followed a short while later by an immense explosion. People over a mile away heard a loud roaring rumble headed their way, followed by a giant dust cloud and tremors that shook houses. Then came a flash of light, followed by an enormous bang that, in the words of a contemporary witness: “shattered the sky and crumbled the earth“. The destruction was shocking.
The blast was so powerful that it sent a three-ton stone lion went sailing over the city walls. Huge trees were uprooted, flew into the air, and landed on the other side of Beijing. All that was left of the armory was a 21-foot-deep crater, and everything within one and a half square miles were destroyed. The streets were reduced to jumbles of debris and rubble, littered with bodies and body parts. The Tianqi Emperor barely escaped with his life, while the only guard who stayed by his side amidst the panic was killed by a falling tile. The seven-month-old Crown Prince Zhu Cijong, the emperor’s only living heir, died from the blast’s shock.
15. The Consequences of the Tianqi Explosion Went far Beyond the Immediate Loss of Life and Property
The Great Tianqi Explosion’s consequences went far beyond the immediate devastation and loss of life. Terrible as those were, they were only the tip of an iceberg of calamities that befell China and its ruling Ming Dynasty. The Wanggongchang Armory that had just gone up was one of China’s biggest weapons factories, and it held the country’s biggest arms and ammunition stockpile. The Ming military, already under increasing pressure from the Manchus, never recovered from the loss of weapons and munitions, or the loss of the manufacturing capacity to make more.
The catastrophe came at a time when Ming China was also struggling with domestic crises caused by widespread corruption, internal conflicts, and a series of natural disasters that triggered peasant rebellions. The dramatic Tianqi Explosion eclipsed those. In a superstitious era, it was seen as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruling Mings, and divine punishment for the emperor’s incompetence. All those factors came together to speed up the Ming decline and cause the dynasty’s collapse just eighteen years later when it was defeated and replaced by the Manchu, or Qing Dynasty. That chain of events began with the bad idea to build a dangerous factory in the heart of a capital city.
14. That Time a Doctor Discovered That Competitive Speed Surgery is a Bad Idea
Medical mishaps and mediocre doctors are, unfortunately, all too common. Indeed, thanks to negligent and incompetent doctors, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not the booming business it is today in the US. If not, lawyers would have had a field day suing him for an instance in which he killed three people during a single surgery. The kicker? Two of the people he got killed were not even his patients.
Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before anesthetics, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessened the odds of patients going into shock, and reduced the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection. The problem arose when Liston took that otherwise good idea and ruined it by going for speed surgery records at the expense of safety and the well-being of his patients.
13. Dr. Liston Set Surgery Speed Records, but Also Set the Record for the Most People Killed in a Single Surgery
Dr. Robert Liston was famous for being able to perform surgeries in a matter of seconds and amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. In what turned out to be a bad idea, he played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, with galleries surrounding operating rooms for observers to watch what was going on. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston often shouted to the audience “time me, gentlemen!” It became his catchphrase. Unsurprisingly, operating at such speeds meant that the odds of mishaps were high.
During one leg amputation surgery, Dr. Liston accidentally severed the fingers off the hand of an assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. The elderly spectator thought that he had been wounded, panicked, and suffered a fatal heart attack.
12. Yet Another Bad Maoist Idea: Poorly Planned Dams
The toxic fruits of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward continued to inflict misery upon the Chinese for many years, long after it was wrapped up. While the program was still a going concern, the Maoist government had what was on its face a good idea: build a series of dams, with the goal of retaining water, and providing hydroelectricity. They were built with the help of Soviet experts, but in what turned out to be a bad idea, costs and time were cut by cutting corners on safety – especially flood control safety.
A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of lacking communist zeal, and banished to the back of beyond. One of those dams was constructed at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan. It stood 387-feet-high and had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. The dam was rated to withstand “a thousand-year flood”, that is it was deemed safe against any flood other than one so severe that odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium. As seen below, it took considerably less than a millennium for such a flood to arrive.
11. Poor Communications Transformed What Might Have Been a Minor Disaster Into a Major Catastrophe
A dam strong enough to withstand anything but a fluke thousand-year flood was sound in theory. As it turned out, however, Chinese planners had either miscalculated what a thousand-year flood was, or Mao Zedong’s China was simply unlucky. Either way, in early August 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, stalled over the Banqiao Dam area, and produced flooding double the anticipated thousand-year-level maximum. Even then, what came to be known as The Banqiao Dam Disaster could have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications.
On August 6, 1975, with water levels rising in its reservoir because of Typhoon Nina, Banqiao’s officials requested authority to open the dam to relieve the pressure. They were turned down because of ongoing flooding downstream. In hindsight, that was not a good idea. The request was finally approved the following day, the 7th, but the telegram failed to reach Banqiao. In the early hours of August 8th, the water crested a foot above the dam’s wave protection wall, and it collapsed. The consequences were catastrophic.
The Banqiao Dam was one of 62 dams that collapsed because of Typhoon Nina. When it gave way, it released almost 16 billion cubic meters of water. They produced a wave 6.2 miles wide and 10 to 23 feet high, that rushed downstream at 31 miles an hour. It left a swath of devastation 9.3-miles-wide and 34-miles-long. The Banqiao Disaster was history’s worst structural failure. It unleashed the third deadliest flood ever, devastated 30 cities and counties, inundated 3 million acres, and destroyed almost 7 million houses. Over 10 million people were impacted, and the death toll might have been as high as 230,000.
The disaster occurred at the tail end of Mao’s regime and his Cultural Revolution – another bad idea that produced years of turmoil because Mao wanted to retain power by getting rival communist factions to fight each other, and leave him as arbitrator. The Chinese authorities did their best to hide the extent of the catastrophe. Solid information – or as solid as governmental information ever gets in China – did not emerge until the 1990s. The extent of the disaster finally came to light when a former Minister of Water Resources wrote a preface for a book, in which details were revealed for the first time.
9. The Middle Ages’ Most Tragic Star Crossed Lovers
The world’s most famous star-crossed lovers are probably Romeo and Juliet. However, they are not real people, but fictional characters, conceived in the imagination of William Shakespeare and brought to life by his quill. For real-life star-crossed lovers, perhaps none are more famous than Heloise and Abelard, two medieval scholars whose romance ended in pain and sorrow. A whole lot of sorrow, and especially whole a lot of pain, for the male half of the affair, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142).
Abelard was born into minor French nobility in Brittany, and he exhibited a love of learning at a young age that marked him for a life of scholarship. His father encouraged him to study the liberal arts, and by his early twenties, Abelard was famous for his debating skills, particularly in philosophy. Like some super smart people, however, he also gained a reputation for arrogance. By 1115 Abelard was an accomplished theologian, the master of Notre Dame, and a canon in the archdiocese that included Paris. That was when he ran into Heloise d’Argenteuil (circa 1095 – 1164), and had what turned out to be a bad idea of seducing her.
8. A Scholar’s Seemingly Bright Idea to Worm His Way Into His Lover’s House Under Her Guardian’s Nose
Heloise lived in the precincts of Notre Dame under the care of her uncle and guardian, a secular canon named Fulbert. A rarity in an age when few women were afforded an education, she mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and gained renown for her knowledge of classical studies. To get close to her, Abelard cast about for a way to worm his way into Fulbert’s household. He approached Heloise’s uncle, claimed that he could not afford a place of his own, and offered to tutor his niece instead of pay rent. Fulbert agreed, tutor and pupil soon hit it off, and in 1115, Heloise and Abelard began an affair.
It was torrid, and given their circumstance, the duo were too blinded by their passion to pay sufficient heed to the risks involved. Heloise lived in convent but snuck out, or he snuck in, whenever possible. They got physical and got it on whenever and wherever they could, and made love in gardens at night, in her convent cell, in the convent’s kitchens, and in her uncle and guardian’s bedroom. She eventually got pregnant, so Abelard arranged for her to visit his family in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son.
7. Too Late, Abelard Discovered That Boasting of His Conquest Was a Bad Idea
Unfortunately for Abelard and Heloise – but especially unfortunate for him – his arrogance betrayed him: he boasted of his conquest. Word got back to Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle and guardian, and things took a turn for the worst. To appease her uncle, the duo got secretly married. However, when Fulbert disclosed the marriage, Heloise denied it in an attempt to protect her husband’s career. To protect her from her uncle, Abelard sent her to a convent, where she pretended to be a nun. Fulbert saw that as an attempt by Abelard to bury the scandal by forcing Heloise to become a nun.
Heloise’s enraged guardian set out to make Abelard pay for defiling his niece. So he hired some thugs to break into Abelard’s room one night, where they beat him up, then castrated him. After recovering from his injuries, Abelard became a monk and retired to a monastery. He cajoled Heloise, who was reluctant to become a Bride of Christ, into becoming a nun for real. Eventually, Abelard got over the trauma and resumed lecturing and writing. Heloise became prioress of her convent, and the duo spent the rest of their lives writing each other letters.
6. The Suffering Inflicted by Mao Was Just a Part of China’s Suffering in the Twentieth Century
The preceding entries on Mao’s screw-ups, with one bad idea from the Chairman following another, barely capture just how tragic the twentieth century was for China. Mao did a number on the Chinese in the second half of that century, but things had been bad in the first half as well. First, there was a foreign invasion to crush the Boxer Rebellion. Then came a revolution that overthrew the imperial rule, only to replace it with decades of warlord anarchy. Then came civil war between nationalists and communists. All of that took place against a backdrop of natural disasters that killed millions.
Things were made worse by a Japanese invasion that killed millions more Chinese before World War II had even begun. China ended up on WWII’s winning side, but things did not improve when the conflict ended. The civil war resumed and went into high gear, and ended in a communist victory. Once the communists took over, Mao adopted idiotic policies – from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution – that killed tens of millions of Chinese. Then in July 1976, as an aging Mao’s hold on power began to loosen – he died a few months later – China was rocked by the twentieth century’s deadliest earthquake.
5. Mao’s Brainstorms Did Not Cause All of China’s Twentieth Century Suffering, But They Were Responsible for a Big Chunk of It
By the 1970s, Maoism had dealt China setback after setback. As seen above, Mao thought that revolutionary zeal could substitute for proper planning, and even rational thinking. The result was a series of debacles such as the poorly named Great Leap Forward, which actually ended up setting China back, and killed tens of millions. Then came Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which again assumed that revolutionary zeal and people power – in this case, the power of young fanatical people – could propel China into modernity and prosperity.
It was another bad Maoist idea, and like the rest of the Chairman’s bad ideas, it inflicted even more chaos and suffering upon the Chinese. By 1976, Mao, who by then accurately reflected his regime and brand of communism, was a debilitated and dying old man. However, he and his hardcore followers still believed that Maoist revolutionary zeal – Mao Zedong Thought – could work miracles. Maoist revolutionary zeal extended to a Chinese system of earthquake prediction that was touted as infallible. As seen below, it was not.
4. “Socialist Science” Turned Out to be Another Bad Maoist Idea
The belief in “socialist science” was another bad idea among many that took hold in China during the Cultural Revolution. It was basically wishful thinking – or magical thinking if you would – wrapped up in socialist big words and slogans. The belief in socialist science extended to a belief in a Chinese scientific system for earthquake prediction, whose accuracy was questionable at best. In 1975, the system actually did provide a timely warning of an upcoming earthquake. That allowed for preventative measures that led to a remarkably low death toll. As subsequent events proved, however, it was just a fluke.
The country’s earthquake prediction system was held up as an example of the superiority of Chinese communism under Mao. Questioning that was to question Mao, and questioning Mao was-ill advised. Like other things touted by Mao’s regime as indicators of its superiority, belief in the earthquake prediction system had nothing to do with science and facts. Not that facts mattered much to Mao and his followers, who routinely dismissed contrary evidence as fake news. Instead, belief in China’s earthquake prediction system became a litmus test to separate “true party liners” from “right-wing deviationists”.
In 1976, socialist science and China’s earthquake prediction system ran into reality in Tangshan, a coal mining and industrial city about 70 miles east of Beijing. In late July that year, people in and around the city noticed that there was some weird stuff going on. Chicken refused to eat. Rats were spotted running in panicked packs in daylight. The water level in wells rose and fell. On the evening of July 27th, and through the early morning hours of the 28th, fireballs and flashes of colored lights were seen.
Such phenomena were strange, but people still had work to do and lives to live. So in the early morning hours of July 28, 1976, most of Tangshan’s residents were sound asleep, resting from the previous day’s toil, and recharging for the toil of the day to come. Then at 3:42 AM, disaster struck in the form of a massive earthquake, that registered between 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter Scale. It lasted for less than half a minute – 23 seconds, to be exact. As seen below, that was plenty of time to inflict a catastrophe.
During the 23-second-duration of the Tangshan Earthquake, nine out of ten buildings in the city were destroyed. Because almost everybody was asleep in their beds – in homes that were decidedly not earthquake-resistant – the death toll was horrific. Stunned survivors crawled out of their homes, many of them naked, covered only in blood and dust. The seismic upheaval started fires, set off explosives in the city’s factories, spilled toxic chemicals, and released poisonous gasses. Water and electricity were cut off, while road and rail links were severed.
Between the initial earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, an estimated 655,000 people were killed, and another 700,000 were seriously injured. The Chinese government was not prepared for such a tragic event. 100,000 soldiers, 30,000 medical personnel, and another 30,000 construction workers were mobilized, and ordered to Tangshan to assist with rescue and recovery. However, just getting them there proved to be a challenge. With road and rail links to the region severely damaged or destroyed, rescuers had to walk to get there. Some of them covered almost 200 miles on foot.
1. Aptly, Mao Capped His Rule With Another Bad Idea: Decline Foreign Assistance With Rescue Efforts
When rescuers finally reached Tangshan, many of them lacked the training for pulling survivors out of the rubble. The work of the few who knew what they were doing was hampered by the absence of effective oversight to coordinate their efforts. To make matters worse, Mao’s government had another bad idea: rely exclusively on Chinese rescuers. It was couched in terms of self-reliance, but in reality, the government was too embarrassed to let outsiders witness the incompetence of its response, so it refused all offers of foreign assistance. As a result, during the crucial first few days after the disaster, many died from lack of adequate care.
The vaunted Chinese earthquake prediction system, the epitome of “socialist science” touted by Mao and his acolytes, had not predicted the Tangshan disaster. The complete lack of warning, combined with a horrific death toll in the hundreds of thousands, was hard to ignore. It was a stark failure that demonstrated to all – even if none dared say so – that the claims of the superiority of Maoist methods and socialist science were ludicrous. It was against that backdrop of yet another demonstrable failure that an aged and ailing Mao went into his final decline, and died a month and a half later, on September 9, 1976.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading