Mario Miclat: The light that dimmed and China

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Mario Miclat, distinguished Diliman writer and political science and history professor, passed away last week. He was 71. He is survived by his wife, Alma Cruz, herself a writer, and his daughter Banaue, an opera singer and accomplished stage actress. His other daughter, Maningning, used to visit me. She was writing Chinese poetry, some of which she recited; she wanted me to recognize the lyricism which, try as I did, I couldn’t. We talked about English poetry and how it has influenced her poetry and at some length Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios.

Mario’s passing is a major loss to Philippine academe and to the country as a whole, for Mario was also a public intellectual of sterling character. Mario has written several books, fiction and nonfiction, which won him national awards. He was born in Marikina but grew up in Olongapo while his wife Alma Cruz grew up in Bataan. They met at the University of the Philippines where both were drawn to the Communist Party. They were married when they were already active rebels.

In 1971 when Marcos lifted Habeas Corpus, a group of Diliman activist fled to China. Mario and Alma were in this group. They stayed there for 15 years, specially cared for by the Chinese government. Both worked at Radio Peking, airing a 30-minute program three times a day; both also learned Mandarin.

Of their stay in China, Mario wrote two books, a fictionalized narrative of their life, “Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions,” and a semi-travel book with perceptive observations of life and places in China. It is a family album of photographs of Chinese landmarks like Tiananmen Square. As a novel, “Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions” adroitly weaves Chinese history and events into the plot of the novel, giving it historical context and contemporaneity – a master stroke worthy of great writer.

My conversations with Mario were candid and enlightening; I was intensely interested in China’s massive land reform, the communes and the Cultural Revolution. It was Mao’s great effort to reshape China and make revolution perpetual – a socio cultural experiment that in the end brought chaos and famine. To my mind, however, the Cultural Revolution was yet another test not just for the Chinese people but the flexibility and durability of their civilization.

As a scholar, Mario probed into how the society coalesced and moved, their interaction with the foreigners was circumscribed by the fact that, like all foreigners, they were in special enclaves.

After the fall of Marcos in 1986, Mario hurried back to Manila where then UP president Edgardo Angara welcomed him and gave him a job. He finished his MA, his PhD and became Dean of the Asian Center. Recalling the early days of the NPA, Mario flatly said that Jose Maria Sison was no leader. He pretended to work but was actually living like a sybarite while the cadres slaved. Mario said Sison’s hands were dirty with blood.

Mario’s wife, Alma, told me that her husband had finished another novel; she wanted me to see it. I am sure, like his other books, it is written with great care and attention to detail, the hallmark of the scholar. Mario’s books, fiction or nonfiction are not dull; they are solidly authentic.

And what about Chinese intransigence today, now – the deceptively creeping grab of Philippine territory and crippling of our sovereignty? This is now our foremost foreign affairs problem and the objective reality is that we do not have the military might to confront China. We are not, however, completely helpless; diplomacy is on top of the means so we can defend ourselves. We have bridges to China. And men like Mario Miclat and, among his colleagues, Chito Sta. Romana, who is now our ambassador in Beijing, and yes, the many Chinese Filipinos of goodwill like Carlos Chan. We need to know China more and send more of our students there to study the sciences, Chinese medicine.

Mario and his group were, in a sense, very fortunate to be in China when that country was in the throes of epic change. The revolution was one, rather the construction or destruction, that had begun China’s evolution, causing so much tragedy at the behest of a single leader, illustrating how dangerous political power can be if it resides in just one person.

The difference is that neither the emperors nor Mao were as powerful as Xi Jinping.

Let us look closely now at China’s phenomenal growth, how a powerful state led by robber barons masterminded that grown, motivated by anger at Western imperialism but is actually a broad reach for its own empire itself. Like American imperialism, its forward surge is unstoppable. In a sense, China has adopted the American model which, as Pope Francis said, leads to the destruction of the world. Unlimited greed that needs to be curtailed by limited growth, we see its devastating effects now in climate change. Truly, our problems, the very grievous ones that threaten all of us, are universal – this climate change, this pandemic and similar plagues yet to come.

Marx was right when he appealed for “workers of the world to unite.” It’s not just the symbolic chains of labor we stand to lose but ironically the world we live in.

I pray that as China becomes even more powerful, it recovers its ancient ideal of harmony so that it will temper its nationalism and reclaim its Marxist roots and for us to let go of our longtime animosity to Marxist tenets. Study Marx more deeply and realize its conclusions are very Christian. The Communists betrayed them. The flame had merely dimmed, it’ll burn bright still.

Now, let us go back to Mario – yes, he is gone but there are so many like him who remain hopeful that the Revolution we have been hoping for – inspite of its derailment by the communists, will yet come, not with China perhaps as its leader, not tomorrow, but after tomorrow. What is it in this world that promises this certitude?


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