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Cultural Revolution

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 10 months ago

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)


While the Chinese Communist Party's pragmatists, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were deftly bringing back economic vitality, social stability, and relative literary and artistic freedom to a China reeling from the disastrous effects of the "Great Leap Forward," Mao Zedong sat in the background composing poems and fuming about China's path from socialism to communism. Unhappy with the increasing growth of bureaucratic elites in the Party and the subsequent growing lack of egalitarianism in China, and the absence of class struggle against such "revisionism," which had begun to take China down the "capitalist road," Mao set out to destroy the Party (at least all those in it opposed to his vision of China's future). Ten years after the Revolution began, the results could only be deemed catastrophic: 60 percent of the CCP purged, 400,000 dead, 700,000 framed and persecuted by Mao and his "Gang of Four," his closest henchmen led by his third wife, Jiang Qing. (John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), 387.) 


In 1964 Mao had become the target of a play by the distinguished Beijing historian and writer, Wu Han, which used historical allusion (back to Ming dynasty times) to indirectly criticize Mao for the Great Leap Forward and the famine it brought. In part of the allegorical play, the Ming official, Hui Rai, a defender of social and economic justice for the people, criticizes the Ming emperor and conservative ministers for the people's suffering during a time of famine. Here is an excerpt:










"You say the common people are tyrannized,

but do you know the gentry injures them?

Much is made at court of the gentry's oppression,

but do you know of the poverty

endured by the common people?

You pay lip service to the principle 

that the people are the roots of the state.

But officials still oppress the masses

while pretending to be virtuous men.

They act wildly as tigers

and deceive the emperor.

If your conscience bothers you

you know no peace by day or night."

(Wu Han, The Dismissal of Hui Rai From Office, as quoted in Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 569-70.) 













In reality, the "you" or the "emperor" in the poem is Mao. The virtuous official, Hai Rui, is none other than Minister of Defense, Peng Dehuai, who was disgraced by Mao during a Party conference at Lushan in 1959 after Peng had the temerity to tell Mao that the Great Leap Forward was causing more problems than helping the country.


Mao was determined to bring Wu Han to task and to reign in other writers and artists who displayed "bourgeois" tendencies, as opposed to "revolutionary zeal." That Mao was successful in this endeavor and more so in fomenting a revolution from below (using the masses, notably students) committed to spiritual regeneration over economic development and to class struggle to achieve social equality in China, was testimony to his power as both a rebel leader and an emperor for the times. His personality cult, rooted both in the people's fear and idolization, was not surprising. Jung Chang puts it well in her memoir, Wild Swans:


Mao, the emperor, fitted one of the patterns of Chinese history: the leader of a nationwide peasant uprising who swept away a rotten dynasty [in his case, the Nationalists] and became a wise new emperor exercising absolute authority. And, in a sense, Mao could be said to have earned his god-emperor status. He was responsible for ending the civil war and bringing peace and stability, which the Chinese yearned for---so much that they said "It's better to be a dog in peacetime than a human being in war." It was under Mao that China became a power to be reckoned with in the world, and many Chinese stopped feeling ashamed and humiliated at being Chinese, which meant a tremendous amount to them. In reality, Mao turned China back to the days of the Middle Kingdom and, with the help of the United States, to isolation from the world. He enabled Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside. Nonetheless, national pride was so important to the Chinese that much of the population was genuinely grateful to Mao, and did not find the cult of his personality offensive, at least not at first. The near total lack of access to information and the systematic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao's successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao and other leaders in the Communists' achievements. (Italics mine) (WS, 262.)


The People's Liberation Army (PLA) had always remained a strong supporter of Mao and his thought. When Mao appointed the general Lin Biao to be minister of defense in place of the sacked Peng DeHuai, the new minister worked to strengthen that support beyond the army to all Chinese people by creating a cult around a model soldier named Lei Feng, whose family had been victimized, first by the Japanese warmongers and then by the Guomindang. Lei Feng was an ordinary fellow possessed with extraordinary qualities. Humble, generous, compassionate, hard-working, and totally devoted to Mao every moment of every day--Lei Feng always carried around his "Little Red Book," the Quotations of Chairman Mao--he served as an inspiration for the masses to submit totally to Mao. He even died an ordinary death as an army soldier when a truck knocked over a pole onto his head. In his diary, Lei Feng supposedly wrote, 


The sources and roots of Lei Feng's spirit were Mao Zedong's thought and the teaching of the Party. He was keenly aware that "The more we study and the more deeply we delve into Chairman Mao's writings, the clearer our ideas will be, the broader our vision, the firmer out stand, and the more farsighted our views." He compared Mao Zedong's thought to food, to a soldier's weapon, to the steering wheel of a truck. He studied avidly and put all he learned into practice, ... . This was the basis why Lei Feng---an orphan in the old society---developed into a hero and a Communist fighter in the new society. ... Lei Feng was immortal. In the words of a poet:


 Death, do you boast that you have killed Lei Feng?

    In a hundred million hearts he still lives on.              



(Cheng and Lestz, The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 421.) 


If you are skeptical that Lei Feng did indeed write those words, you have a right to be. Concocted by PLA propagandists, they made great political theater, and the audience never blinked.


This short video will provide a sense of Lei Feng's "useful" appeal:


China's explosion of an atomic bomb in 1964 just two days after Khrushchev's clearly enhanced Mao's power and prestige. (Recall that the Soviet leader has reneged on a promise to deliver the bomb to China.) Mao had already decided that the USSR was moving away from communism towards capitalism; indeed he proceeded to label CCP leader Liu Shaoqi, "China's Khrushchev" in a successful effort to discredit him as a "revisionist" (as well as Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen) and prevent any return to pragmatic economic development.


Ever the showman, Mao instilled great faith, especially among the rural population, in the Cultural Revolution by demonstrating his athleticism and "superhuman" qualities by taking a swim across the Yangzi River in July, 1966 at age 72. The photo-op event might be compared to Queen Elizabeth's swimming across the English Channel in its impact. (Fairbank, 391)


 You can see Mao's "swim" in the Yangzi and its subsequent impact:


Mao's essential purpose in launching the Cultural Revolution, outlined in a document titled The Sixteen Points, was "to crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road," in all walks of life, but especially academia. A number of changes began to occur in schools across the country. Entrance to the best or "key" schools, such as the one that Jung Chang attended in Sichuan province, ceased to be based solely on merit and now included one's family background. School curricula started to resemble political indoctrination sessions as classical literature yielded to Maoist thought in importance. Lei Feng had trained hard to become a "champion grenade thrower" (after all, weren't the Americans about to help the Guomindang take over the mainland?) and urged women to "doff feminity and don military attire." (WS, 269).


Traditional teaching stopped, (universities and schools were closed until 1973) replaced by daily readings from Mao's "Little Red Book" and denunciation sessions of teachers and school administrators identified as capitalist-roaders. Many had been devoted Party members. Some were excellent teachers of Marxist philosophy. But class enemies had to be found and victimized. Mistakes did not trouble Mao. As he wrote, "Destroy first, and construction will look after itself." Indeed, 


One of his great heroes, General Tsao Tsao of the first century, had spoken an immortal line which Mao openly admired: "I would rather wrong all people under Heaven; and no one under Heaven must ever wrong me." The general proclaimed this when he discovered that he had murdered an elderly couple by mistake---the old man and woman, whom he had suspected of betraying him, had in fact saved his life. (WS, 277) 


Courageously, Jung Chang's mother refused to participate in demonizing teachers who were innocent people. And her father was concerned that he might become a scapegoat as well. Later his concerns would become justified.


To propel the class struggle forward, however, Mao needed "shock troops." Not surprisingly he turned to the students, told them that "To rebel is justified," and that they needed to fight class enemies. They willingly heeded his call and became "the Red Guards of Chairman Mao." That they were willing was not surprising as well. Just teenagers, they viewed Mao as a god and therefore were easily manipulated. Their ignorance of what exactly was going on and why helped lead to extraordinary irresponsible and sadistic behavior towards those in authority, including parents, teachers, the elderly, and Party members. 


Historian Jonathan Spence sheds more light on the level of pent-up frustration China's youth brought with them in 1966:


For years the young had been called on to lead lives of revolutionary sacrifice, sexual restraint, and absolute obedience to the state, all under conditions of perpetual supervision. They were repressed, angry, and aware of their powerlessness. They eagerly seized on the order to throw off all restraint, and the natural targets were those who seemed responsible for their cramped lives. To them Mao stood above this fray, all-wise and all-knowing. (Spence, 576) 


The Red Guards mainly came from two groups: those students who came from "intellectual" families and who attended the best schools earning high exam scores, and those who Mao's Legacies were not as strong as students, but whose parents were Party officials, thus giving them a solid "class background." The distinctions often provoked factional disagreements and violence so much so that by July of 1968, the PLA had to be called in to stop the chaos. (Recent scholarship suggests the factionalism among Red Guards in Beijing was more about rivalries between the two major universities in the city. (See a book by the sociologist Andrew Walder entitled Frustrated Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement, Harvard University Press.) The army took over the responsibility of carrying the revolution forward while the kids were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Before that occurred, however, the young Red Guards managed to wreak great destruction in both lives and property.


Mao had charged his Red Guards with smashing the four olds: "old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits." His wife, Jiang Qing told high school Red Guards, "We do not advocate beating people, but beating people is no big deal." (as quoted in Mirsky, "How Reds Smashed Reds," NYReview of Books, 11/11/10) They heeded the call with great fanaticism. Jung Chang writes,


They [the Guards] raided people's houses, smashed their antiques, tore up paintings and works of calligraphy. Bonfires were lit to consume books. Very soon nearly all treasures in private collections were destroyed. Many writers and artists committed suicide after being cruelly beaten and humiliated [if they had not been beaten to death already] and being forced to witness their work being burned to ashes. Museums were raided. Palaces, temples, ancient tombs, statues, pagodas, city walls--anything "old" was pillaged. (WS, 284)


Ironically the works of the deceased Lu Xun were spared because they were viewed by Mao and Madame Mao as models of revolutionary literature. Perhaps they both needed to re-read Lu's short story, "Kong Yiji," in which the author decried the miserable way Chinese were treating Kong and by extension each other around 1920. Four decades later, thousands of Chinese were imprisoned in solitary confinement and millions, including Jung Chang's father, were sent down to the hinterlands for "re-education" doing hard labor.


Young people were divided into three groups: "reds," "blacks," and "grays." Where one was placed depended on his or her's family background. Jung Chang describes the categories:


The "reds" were from the families of "workers, peasants, revolutionary officials, revolutionary officers, and revolutionary martyrs." The "blacks" were those with parents classified as "landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, and rightists." The "grays" came from ambiguous families such as shop assistants and clerks. In my year, all pupils ought to have been "reds" because of the screening in the enrollment. But the pressure of the Cultural Revolution meant that some villains had to be found. As a result, more than half a dozen became "grays" or "blacks." (WS, 294) 


One of these unfortunate students was a 17-year old girl who had attempted suicide. Jung Chang relates the depressing tale:


Before the Cultural Revolution, she had been ... a model in studying Chairman Mao's works and learning from Lei Feng. She had done many good deeds like washing her comrades' clothes and cleaning out toilets, and frequently gave talks to the school about how loyally she followed Mao's teachings. ... But now, suddenly, she had been categorized as a "black." Her father ... worked for the municipal government and was a Party member. But some of her classmates who found her a "pain," and whose fathers were in higher positions decided she should be a "black." In the last couple of days, she had been  ... forced to pull grass out the sports ground. To humiliate her, her classmates had shaved her beautiful black hair, leaving her head grotesquely bald. On that evening, the "reds" in her form had been giving her and the other victims an insulting lecture. ... The "reds" slapped her and told her she was not fit to talk about her loyalty to Mao because she was a class enemy. She ran to the window and threw herself out. (WS, 296) 


The following two YouTube clips convey a sense of the purpose and impact of the Cultural Revolution:




One of the welcome though not immediate consequences of the Cultural Revolution was the courageous publication of many books that could be collectively described as the "literature of the wounded." Precisely because these authors wanted to insure that China should never suffer another such upheaval, these works unsparingly told of the suffering and provocation of the Chinese people, as well as their compliance and worse, sadistic treatment of their own, throughout the time period 1966-76, but especially the first four years.


Wild Swans represents one of the best of these memoirs in part because of its thorough analysis. In one part of her assessment of the Cultural Revolution, Jung Chang both condemns Mao and acknowledges the role that ordinary people played in carrying out the Chairman's commands:


[Mao] ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred. ... The greatest horror of the Cultural Revolution ... was carried out by the population collectively. (WS, 496)


With at least a million victims during the Cultural Revolution, it is worth remembering how horrific, culturally speaking, public humiliation could be for the those Chinese identified as targets for persecution. Historian John King Fairbank asserts that for the Chinese, "so sensitive to peer-group esteem, to be beaten and humiliated in public before a jeering crowd, including colleagues and old friends, was like having one's skin taken off. Generally the victim felt guilty, as anyone may under attack, but especially because they had felt such loyalty and had so venerated Mao and the party." (Fairbank, 402) No one had been more loyal than Jung Chang's father, who chose to "remonstrate" with Mao by sending a letter to him, and who had to suffer such brutal indignity and hypocrisy bringing about his early death in 1975. His first public humiliation had occurred during Mao's 1942 Rectification campaign in Yanan. The ugly pattern Mao had set culminated with the Cultural Revolution. 


So why did so many Chinese treat so many countrymen so sadistically or simply act as bystanders to such treatment? One big reason certainly had to be fear of noncompliance with Mao's and the Party's edicts. The consequences to the individual and extended family and generations to come would have been enormous. Even some of the persecuted, such as the prominent journalist, Liu Binyan, felt paralyzed to challenge what was happening, as he comments, "After years of persecution, I began to convince myself, between Mao and myself, there could only be one wrong, and since he was beyond wrong, it could only be me." (as quoted in, Jonathan Mirsky, "Literature of the Wounded," NY Review of Books, 3/5/92) Another reason for the kind of behavior that the writer Lu Xun would have bemoaned if alive was the desire that many had to settle scores and take revenge on those (and their families) who they felt had wronged them. Of course, this had nothing to do with fulfilling Mao's ideal of an egalitarian society. 


While Mao had his socialistic ideals for Chinese society, he like the emperors of the past, feared a conspiracy that might be brewing among the intellectuals, who consequently were viewed as potential class enemies and traitors. State control was paramount, and rulers of the past were frequently suspicious that dissenting bureaucrats and other scholar-officials were simply pretending to be loyal; after all there were great risks in being openly disloyal and critical of the emperor's policies, which were supposedly designed to maintain harmony in the land. Thus without any loyal opposition, the emperor worried about what might be happening behind his back (with good reason, as many secret societies did form). When he became paranoid about the threat to state control, he would abandon the "virtuous" response (wen) and settle matters with the "command" side (wu). We might view Mao's behavior during his entire "rule", and especially during the Cultural Revolution, similarly. (Fairbank, 403)


When Premier Zhou Enlai died of cancer on April 5, 1976, there was a great outpouring of grief across China and in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Three months later, a mammoth earthquake killed 500,000 people east of Beijing. In the spirit of correlative cosmology, the natural disaster did not bode well for the ruling dynasty and its last emperor. Only two months later, Mao, then too sick to continue in power, died, and the "Gang of Four" (his wife and three other Party officials trying to perpetuate Mao's Cultural Revolution) were arrested and bound for trial. After some shuffling for power, the pragmatic veteran of the Long March, Deng Xiaoping, won the day in 1978. Changes were afoot, at least some changes.




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