Nov 24 2007
Among my favorite historical stories is the “War on the Sparrows,” which was declared in 1958 by the Maoist government of China.
The Communist Party sought to increase the agricultural yield of its peasant-farmers and identified what it believed to be the chief culprit: the millions of sparrows flitting around the countryside. One study claimed that each sparrow ate four pounds of grain per year, which amounted to hundreds of thousands of tons of lost grain.
The party declared that manual extermination would be the most efficient solution. On Dec. 13, the entire country was mobilized to wave red flags, bang gongs and generally harass the birds until they dropped dead from exhaustion or tiny cardiac arrests. Some sources estimate that 4 million birds died that day. One young man, Yang Seh-mun, was celebrated as a national hero for personally strangling 20,000 nestlings during the nights that followed the big day.
Two years later, a locust plague broke out and the sparrows, their natural enemies, were nowhere to be found. Crop harvests were decimated, and the sparrow eradication program became a byword for a governmental failure that was based on well-meaning symbolism rather than genuine actions that produced long-lasting benefits for actual people.
That story reminds me of what appears to be a universal human propensity to believe that sincere but ultimately empty gestures are the same as genuine actions.
Problems always arise when we substitute well-intentioned or even cynical symbolism over substance. In the case of the sparrows, the Maoists saw an opportunity to unite the people in a massive project that would instill nationalistic pride. For a time, the citizenry’s steps certainly must have carried a bit more swagger.
The truth, though, surfaced as it always does, and the hollow logic of the program was revealed as being, in fact, short-sighted and foolish. The program accomplished less than nothing; it took even more food out of people’s mouths.
Actually the article has nothing to do about smoking, however it does completely make sense in the area of banishing smokers because you’re scared of second hand smoke.
Continue reading “Look beyond symbols of holidays”