I remember my climb up one of China‘s sacred mountains, Tai Shan. It was here that Chinese emperors would journey at least once in their lives. The mountain, although not particularly high, is frequently shrouded in mist. Carried on a palanquin, the emperor sat facing east, waiting from the shroud to lift and reveal the rising sun.
While the mountain top is no longer confined to royalty and it is no longer sacred, it is the goal of many to climb the long staircase and ride the cable car to the summit to watch, in awe, the opening clouds make way for a glimpse of the sunrise.
In 1978, the time of my visit, many elderly, including women whose feet in generations past had been bound into gnarled claws, ascended slowly to make the journey to the edge of the earth.
Recognizing Tai Shan’s attraction, the Chinese government decided to build a hotel not far from the top. So side-by-side with the tourists climbing, there were laborers hauling heavy rocks for construction. Across their backs they placed bamboo poles and at either end were massive stones to go into the new building. The workers ran the steps to make their wages. Because they were shirtless I could see that nearly all of their backs were purple with deep bruises.
This is what it takes, I thought, to create another’s comfort; this is what some must do in order to earn enough to eat. Despite the years of communism, the laborers’ lot was still hardly different from that of the coolie or slave.
I think about this remembering that in the 19th century the labor problem was defined as the major social problem facing the world. The problem is still with us, as we know from news about deaths by fire in a Bangladesh garment factory or worker suicides in plants that make parts for computers in China. Children dig through garbage piles for scraps to use in Paraguay (see an inspiring video about instruments made from garbage at http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151279562307432&set=vb.759907431&type=2&theater, men die digging coal in the US. Someone cleans the offal at slaughtering houses and removes diseased turkey carcasses at poultry farms.
Labor is central to the human experience and how we respond to those who perform the most menial and dangerous work that makes our lives easier requires moral imagination and will.
For all practical purposes Marxism is dead, even in China, but the problems that gave birth to it have not died. Work is dangerous for many and pay is paltry and the work they do is support a life-style to which they can only aspire..
Perhaps we need to examine afresh the programs set about more than a century ago by social reformers. That there has yet to be adequate responses to the problem of labor is not cause for despair but a call to challenge.