Book Review: Two American Lives and China’s Long March to Freedom


Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits
By Dao-yuan Chou
Edited by Juliet de Lima-Sison
Published by IBON Foundation Inc.
466 pages

MANILA — The new book Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits by Dao-yuan Chou could not have burst upon the Philippine scene at a more appropriate time.

“This year, 2009, would have been the 60th anniversary of socialist revolution and construction by the Chinese people had Deng Xiaoping not reversed this revolutionary process more than 30 years ago after the death of Mao Zedong to put China and the Chinese people on the road to capitalism and the global superhighway of US-led monopoly capitalism,” the book’s editor, Juliet de Lima-Sison, says in her foreword.

This year, Sison further points out, also marks the 60th wedding anniversary of the subjects of this book: American couple Sid Engst and Joan Hinton, who each at some point in their lives turned their backs on the allure of their First-World lives and cast their lot with the Chinese people and their struggle for social liberation.

This is thus a proper time for taking stock of what has happened since the Chinese won their revolution in 1949, as well as for taking a look at two extraordinary American lives whose stories are being presented to the world in deep detail for the first time. Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits is quite a definitive contribution in this area.

Apart from these, the present is a time of crisis, a time when, due to the failures of the neoliberal paradigm, people are searching for answers and are once more taking a look at the possibilities of the socialist alternative. Books like Dao-yuan’s are especially relevant at a point like this in history.

Dao-yuan has something of the storyteller in her and this comes to the fore in the narrative. While the transitions could have been less abrupt in several parts of the book and there are some areas which may have been unintentionally glossed over in the editing process, one cannot miss the engaging and often poignant story in the book. Even if you have not personally met the protagonists and antagonists in this narrative, you can almost feel them breathing in these pages.

It is the story of a farmer from upstate New York and an atomic physicist from Vermont, both of whom had come of age during the Great Depression.

As persons who had grown up during that difficult period in American history, Engst and Hinton had both acquired an openness to progressive ideas. This progressive mindset would, for both of them, later lead to an interest in learning about what was happening in China especially in the three years following the end of the Second World War.

From being spectators, Engst and Hinton would find themselves neck-deep in the Chinese people’s revolutionary armed struggle. After the victory in 1949, they would spend a great deal of their lives taking part in China’s socialist construction.

The book encapsulates Engst and Hinton’s struggles as Americans who had devoted their lives to the emancipation of another people: the dangerous treks through the hills of northern China, the day-to-day challenges at the iron factory in Shaanxi and the dairy farm near Xi’an, the fierce polemical and political struggles in the heat of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s, and, finally, the ascent of Deng Xiaoping and the beginning of China’s journey down the road of capitalism. Their story is thus often interspersed with accounts of crucial periods in the last six decades of Chinese history.

Dao-yuan, a Chinese-American who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has accomplished the feat of taking an impartial look at the history of China from the 1949 victory of the revolution to its revisionist turn – a remarkable achievement especially when we consider that this period in Chinese history is one that is often mired in an emotional exchange of accusations and counter-accusations.

Mao Zedong, long demonized especially by Western propaganda, is shown in this book to have been the kind of leader who had an open mind about criticism and who exercised his authority in a constructive manner. Deng Xiaoping, declared a “hero” by a magazine of international repute several years ago, is exposed as a careerist and a tyrant.

The strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of the Chinese Communist Party are presented within their respective contexts and the book does not resort to blaming all the failings of the Chinese revolution on Mao alone as most Western scholarship has opted to do.

In the end, the book makes it clear that the socialist experiment in China failed not because socialism is doomed to fail – contrary to what capitalism’s ideologues still insist even in this time of crisis – but because there were unscrupulous leaders within China’s own revolutionary movement who derailed it.

The story nonetheless closes on an optimistic note, an expression of faith in the capacity of the Chinese people.

Dao-yuan writes:

“The beauty of that pot of Chinese herbs… is that the boiling action was set in motion a long time ago, over flames that Joan and Sid and all the old revolutionary comrades helped stoke. And if there’s anything that has proven consistent in the wide breadth of Chinese history, it’s that heaven will not help those at the top once the steam starts to rise.”

Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits tells us the story of two Americans who are exemplars of international solidarity. It also brings to us new details of China’s period of socialist revolution and construction, and offers new insights into the possibilities of a paradigm that had been dismissed as a failed experiment but which is now once more beckoning to the world’s peoples. (

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