Cultural Revolution

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The Cultural Revolution, formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a violent sociopolitical movement in Mainland China from 1966 until Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Launched by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and founder of the People's Republic of China (PRC), its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. During the cultural revolution, political dissidents of the revolution were censored and prosecuted. In addition, many elements of China’s history, such as statues, were destroyed. The Revolution marked Mao's return to the central position of power in China after a period of less radical leadership to recover from the failures of the Great Leap Forward, which caused the Great Chinese Famine only five years prior.

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  • China, despite many imperfections in its economic and political system, has been the most rapidly growing nation of the past three decades. Chinese poverty until Mao Zedong's death had nothing to do with Chinese culture; it was due to the disastrous way Mao organized the economy and conducted politics. In the 1950s, he promoted the Great Leap Forward, a drastic industrialization policy that led to mass starvation and famine. In the 1960s, he propagated the Cultural Revolution, which led to the mass persecution of intellectuals and educated people—anyone whose party loyalty might be doubted. This again led to terror and a huge waste of the society’s talent and resources. In the same way, current Chinese growth has nothing to do with Chinese values or changes in Chinese culture; it results from a process of economic transformation unleashed by the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, who, after Mao Zedong's death, gradually abandoned socialist economic policies and institutions, first in agriculture and then in industry.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail (2012), Chap. 2 : Theories that Don't Work
  • The violent phase of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1969, deeply marked Chinese society. In addition to the estimated half a million people who died from torture, beatings and forced suicide, thousands more were brutalized as a result of the frenzied activities of Red Guard factions who inflicted untold physical and psychological damage. Young people raised without the supervision of parents who had been sent away for re-education lived hand to mouth on the fringes of society. Those whose elders returned from years of hard labour witnessed the enormous physical and psychological toll, from which some never recovered. Many young people who inflicted the humiliating verbal abuse and public beatings on neighbours and former teachers in the name of the revolution would later hear the CCP’s apology to some of their victims, leaving the former Red Guards to reflect on why they had been urged to commit such outrages on people who were now deemed to be innocent of all charges against them. For a whole generation, the realization that their loyalties earned them only manual labour jobs in rural China and that their supposed ‘counter-revolutionary’ targets were exonerated contributed to changing attitudes toward the Party and its ageing leadership.
    Economically, the country also suffered. Because the major struggles were in urban areas, production fell as workers spent their time in political struggle. Agricultural production in many areas also dropped, and income stagnated. One of the few positive developments was that the urban turmoil brought opportunities for small town and village enterprises, which produced necessities such as chemical fertilizer and small consumer goods that city factories, absorbed with political activity, failed to supply. Overall, however, Mao’s plans for a strong economic and military state in his own lifetime suffered yet another major setback as the Cultural Revolution finally drew to a close.
    All of this generated a new cynicism about the CCP and Mao’s revolution. Because the times required it, ordinary Chinese became adept at attending meetings and saying little; at hiding all real feelings and guessing what the local leadership wanted them to say and do. ‘Politically correct’ slogans and jargon were the order of the day. Even formerly stalwart members reexamined their long-held views. Although the majority of the people who suffered during the movement were ultimately rehabilitated and readmitted to the Party ranks, the cynicism remained.
    • Linda Benson, China Since 1949 (2016), Chap. 4 : The radical Maoist phase, 1958–76
  • But the past, however much we may rebel against and seek to repudiate it, is not easily exorcised. The history of this century provides two striking examples of attempts to do just that, to abolish the past and make a new start.
    The first was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, the second the communist revolution in Mainland China culminating in the establishment of the Communist China in 1949. Each was made at an incalculable cost in human suffering, not only in the initial seizure of power, and civil war, but in the second revolutions – Stalin's collectivization of agriculture and purges in the 1930s, Mao's Cultural Revolution and purges in the 1960s. The communist leaders had foreseen that there would be resistance to the changes they sought to impose on the Russian and Chinese peoples. They had made up their minds to use the most ruthless means to suppress it and to make the break with the past decisive. But the result was the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of liberating the masses and energizing them to create a new world, they cowed and alienated them. The methods they used had no less destructive an effect on the communist leadership itself, corrupting and distorting the revolution to a degree from which neither party was able to free itself. Far from abolishing the past, an ostensibly revolutionary regime – in practice, highly conservative – added an additional layer of history which made the task of adapting to change much more difficult.
    In the reform period, the 1980s, when I first visited Mainland China, President Li Xiannian (like Deng Xiao Ping, a veteran of Mao's Long March) told a group of us in private conversation that the mistake they had made was 'working against the grain of Chinese history'. In future, he added, they would work with it. In the ten years since, however, this is precisely what the Chinese Communist leadership, more and more isolated from the Chinese people, has shown itself incapable of doing – in contrast to the pragmatic and dynamic development of a potential rival alternative, the free enterprise version of the Chinese future in the southern province of Guangdong.
    • Alan Bullock, "Has History ceased to be relevant?", The Historian 43 (1994)
  • Internal party politics and Mao’s ideology of continuous class struggle ensured that the Cultural Revolution was even more radical in ideology than the Great Leap Forward. To preserve the purity of socialism, protecting it from capitalist encroachment on the one side and feudalist erosion on the other, Mao’s Red Guards – mostly high school students and other teenagers – were urged to destroy all institutions and artifacts bequeathed from the past. These were condemned as the “four olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. As a result, temples, books, paintings, and other cultural relics were burned and demolished. During the second half of the 1960s, the only books available to readers in China were the collected works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, and a few books designated by the government to show off the triumph of socialism. All other books were banned and all libraries were closed. Teachers and professors, particularly those who returned from abroad, were subject to humiliation and abuse, resulting in many deaths and suicides. Education suffered heavily as academic learning became a target of derision and parody. “Knowledge is useless” was a popular slogan. Since most of the educated elites were denounced and many imprisoned as “rightists,” knowledge itself became an often deadly political liability. At this time, all economic contact with Japan and the West was cut off and the Chinese economy was further isolated from modern technology. The brutal attack on Chinese cultural traditions, both physically and intellectually, was probably the most ironic and tragic feature of the Cultural Revolution. Its radical anti-traditionalism and extreme examples of cultural self-negation and self-destruction – which amounted to nothing less than total de-Sinification – were probably unprecedented in human history. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, when China was almost defenseless in the face of western economic, military, and cultural ascendancy, Chinese intellectuals had become increasingly critical of their own cultural heritage. But their critique of Chinese culture was always mediated by their deep emotional attachment to the very object of their attacks. Raised under socialism, most Red Guards had little respect for, and certainly no attachment to, their own cultural traditions. Juvenile rebellion was clothed in revolutionary precepts, flaring into widespread violence and becoming a deadly political weapon against the existing political system and cultural order. The political and intellectual establishments were its two major victims.
    Preoccupied with the class struggle, which was deemed a constant and insidious threat to the survival of socialism, Mao let radical politics dictate economic management. Mao’s subjugation of the economy to politics led to another round of economic decentralization during the Cultural Revolution, as he declared war on the central bureaucracy. Economic decentralization was probably the most important, but little recognized, factor in sheltering the economy from political turmoil during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, even though China was racked by widespread political violence during the Cultural Revolution, the economy did not suffer as serious a blow as it had during the Great Leap Forward. Except for the first three years of the Cultural Revolution, when the economy was severely disrupted, production was able to grow faster than the population, even as fertility rates peaked between 1969 and 1972. With a continuing bias against consumer goods, however, the economy remained driven by state-centered investment projects and the living conditions for most Chinese remained stagnant or even deteriorated. With little improvement in welfare, a growing population, and a continuous call for class struggle, more and more people became disillusioned and began to ask themselves, “Is this the socialism we fought so hard for?”
    At the same time, the Party and state apparatus suffered unprecedented damage. Unlike the Great Leap Forward when the political elites were largely sheltered from the disaster, the Party veterans were squarely at the center of the political struggle during the Cultural Revolution. The whole political structure and administrative machine was severely weakened. A rigid, centralized bureaucracy staffed with strictly disciplined but dispirited bureaucrats, which had been a defining feature of Stalinism, was certainly not among the assets Mao bequeathed to his successors. China, no doubt, remained a socialist economy – no private property or free market was allowed. But the Chinese economy had much less central planning than the name socialism might suggest.
    In the West, Chinese socialism was, and probably still is, commonly perceived as more or less a copy of what was practiced in the Soviet Union. Since China was largely cut off from the rest of the world during much of Mao’s time, little information was available about Mao’s China. The outside world thus got to know China through the label of socialism rather than through the reality on the ground. China was seen from the angle of Stalinism and misunderstandings were bound to arise.
    • Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist (2012), Chap. 1 : China at the Death of Mao
  • I should remind you that Chairman Mao dedicated most of his life to China, that he saved the party and the revolution in their most critical moments, that, in short, his contribution was so great that, without him, the Chinese people would have had a much harder time finding the right path out of the darkness. We also shouldn't forget that it was Chairman Mao who combined the teachings of Marx and Lenin with the realities of Chinese history—that it was he who applied those principles, creatively, not only to politics but to philosophy, art, literature, and military strategy. Yes, before the 1960s—or, better, up until the late 1950s—some of Chairman Mao's ideas were, for the most part, correct. Furthermore, many of his principles brought us victory and allowed us to gain power. Then, unfortunately, in the last few years of his life, he committed many grave errors—the Cultural Revolution, above all. And much disgrace was brought upon the party, the country, the people.
  • Mao set about ensnaring his enemies with the precision of a trapper. But once the stage was set and the Cultural Revolution erupted in the summer of 1966, it took on a life of its own, with unintended consequences that even the most consummate strategist could not have anticipated. Mao wished to purge the higher echelons of power, so he could hardly rely on the party machine to get the job done. He turned to young, radical students instead, some of them no older than fourteen, giving them license to denounce all authority and 'bombard the headquarters'. But party officials had honed their survival skills during decades of political infighting, and few were about to be outflanked by a group of screaming, self-righteous Red Guards. Many deflected the violence away from themselves by encouraging the youngsters to raid the homes of class enemies, stigmatized as social outcasts. Some cadres even managed to organize their own Red Guards, all in the name of Mao Zedong Thought and the Cultural Revolution. In the parlance of the time, they 'raised the red flag in order to fight the red flag'. The Red Guards started fighting each other, divided over who the true 'capitalist roaders' inside the party were. In some places, party activists and factory workers rallied in support of their besieged leaders.
    In response, the Chairman urged the population at large to join the revolution, calling on all to 'seize power' and overthrow the ‘bourgeois power holders’. The result was a social explosion on an unprecedented scale, as every pent-up frustration caused by years of communist rule was released. There was no lack of people who harbored grievances against party officials. But the ‘revolutionary masses’, instead of neatly sweeping away all followers of the ‘bourgeois reactionary line’, also became divided, as different factions jostled for power and started fighting each other. Mao used the people during the Cultural Revolution; but, equally, many people manipulated the campaign to pursue their own goals.
    By January 1967 the chaos was such that the army intervened, seeking to push through the revolution and bring the situation under control by supporting the ‘true proletarian left’. As different military leaders supported different factions, all of them equally certain they represented the true voice of Mao Zedong, the country slid into civil war.
    Still, the Chairman prevailed. He was cold and calculating, but also erratic, whimsical and fitful, thriving in willed chaos. He improvised, bending and breaking millions along the way. He may not have been in control, but he was always in charge, relishing a game in which he could constantly rewrite the rules. Periodically he stepped in to rescue a loyal follower or, contrariwise, to throw a close colleague to the wolves. A mere utterance of his decided the fates of countless people, as he declared one or another faction to be ‘counter-revolutionary’. His verdict could change overnight, feeding a seemingly endless cycle of violence in which people scrambled to prove their loyalty to the Chairman.
    • Frank Dikotter, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016), Preface
  • During the Cultural Revolution, people were “rebelling,” whereas before that people were "making revolution." However, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, people avoided talking about rebelling, or simply forgot that part of history. Everyone has become a victim of that great catastrophe known as the Cultural Revolution and has forgotten that before disaster fell upon their own heads, they, too, were to some extent the assailants. The history of the Cultural Revolution is thus being continually revised. It is best that you do not try to write a history, but only to look back upon your own experiences.
  • The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution failed for different reasons. First, the discontents of the younger generation whom Mao mobilized proved to be far more furious than he had supposed, and the young were soon joined by other alienated groups, of which the most important were the millions of casual (as opposed to established) workers in State industry. Second, the threatened Party leaders fought back by force and fraud, most obviously through the creation of sham Red Guard organizations. The resulting chaos ensured that the Party’s authority was eventually restored by the PLA, with the support of Mao himself.
    Yet neither of these campaigns proved to have been entirely futile. It is seldom recognized that the ideological condemnations of senior Party leaders published by the Red Guards were almost always accompanied and illustrated by condemnation of the policies of those they opposed. These indictments in policy terms, put together, show that one of the objects of the Cultural Revolution was to re-establish the Great Leap strategy, shorn of the excesses which had prejudiced it. And in 1970, Mao's commune and brigade enterprises, the heart and soul of the strategy, were re-established. This time they succeeded. By the time Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 they had become indispensable and were soon to become the fastest growing sector of the economy, expanding at rates of up to 33 per cent per annum.
    • Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000 (2nd ed., 2002), Chap. 17 : The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, II
  • The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched when Mao said: 'To rebel is justified.' That instruction was not forgotten, but many of those active in the Red Guard movement realized that the objects of cultural revolution could only be realized if rebellion led to the establishment of the rule of law and of democratic procedures. The first result was the Li-Yi-Zhe poster. The second was the 1978–9 Democracy Wall protest. From then on, through the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 to the present day, former Red Guards have led the only part of the democratic movement in China seriously concerned to mobilize all classes to achieve democracy from below. Moreover, Mao’s conviction that the system of comprehensive central economic command was the main source of privilege and the abuse of power became the shibboleth of the democratic movement.
    In this sense, Mao built better than he knew. He himself, both in the Great Leap and in the Cultural Revolution, drew back from the brink; committed in the last resort to the idea of the necessity of a Leninist ‘vanguard party’, he was reluctant to discipline the offending cadres in the Leap, and in the Cultural Revolution he drew back from supporting Paris-Commune-type government. However, the forces he released—former Red Guards committed to real democratization, and an economic system which created millions of new centers of economic decision-making outside the system of central planning— strengthened the preconditions for future democratization.
    • Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000 (2nd ed., 2002), Chap. 17 : The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, II
  • Fundamentalist socialists, however, have believed a far higher degree of social equality to be both possible and desirable, and have even, at times, endorsed a theory of absolute equality. A key goal of Marxism (see p. 75) has therefore been the abolition of the class system brought about by the collectivization of productive wealth. Perhaps the most famous experiment in such radical egalitarianism took place in Mainland China, under the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966–69). During this period, not only did militant Red Guards attack ‘capitalist roaders’ and denounce wage differentials and all forms of privilege and hierarchy, but even competitive sports like football were banned. Supporters of equality of outcome, whether in its moderate or radical sense, usually argue that it is the most vital form of equality, since, without it, other forms of equality are a sham. Equal legal and civil rights are, for example, of little benefit to citizens who do not possess a secure job, a decent wage, a roof over their head and so on. Moreover, the doctrine of equal opportunities is commonly used to defend material inequalities by creating the myth that these reflect ‘natural’ rather than ‘social’ factors. Although defenders of social equality rarely call on the concept of ‘natural’ equality, they commonly argue that differences among human beings more often result from unequal treatment by society than they do from unequal natural endowment.
    • Andrew Heywood, Political Theory: An Introduction (4th ed., 2015), Chap. 10 : Equality, Social Justice and Welfare
  • The Cultural Revolution swept up all of China. So many people suffered that it is difficult to count the number of victims accurately. This is all the more true of the persecutors. Yet few reflect and apologize. The terror of the Red Guards, the armed fights between the rebellious sects, the teams established to “cleanse” the social classes, and all the bloody massacres are simply left to rot in China’s memory. The official ban blocks reflection, but human weakness and careerist self-interest among those who participated buttresses the official ban.
  • Mao died aspiring to exterminate Chinese culture. His Cultural Revolution alone killed as many as two million people, shattered traditions, uprooted spiritual and ethical values, and tore apart family ties and communal loyalties. People who experienced it seal off the memory, for the pain, worse than a bullet to the heart, overwhelms souls.
    Worst of all, Mao’s crimes against civilization, unlike those of, say, Hitler, are ongoing. The Communist Party still uses his brainwashing methods, and his legacy continues to be officially revered. His portrait and body remain on display in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and his face appears on banknotes in the wallet of every Chinese, many of whom saw parents, children, and other loved ones die under his knife.
  • Mao's 1949 revolution had been termed the “Liberation” by the party, but it fitted the Chinese people into a procrustean bed of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, popular liberation finally did begin to flourish. The humiliation of party cadres high and low destroyed the authority of the CCP in the eyes of the Chinese people, who took to heart the Maoist message of daring to think, speak, and act. Today, all over China, people protest what they consider to be unjust treatment by corrupt officials. The Cultural Revolution was truly the watershed in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
    But the Cultural Revolution was also a watershed in Chinese modern history. For well over a century, since the Opium War of 1839–1842, the Chinese had struggled with how to modernize while preserving their integrity as a people and a culture. The slogan that gained currency in the mid-nineteenth century was “Chinese learning for the essence, Western learning for practical use.” But early in the twentieth century, Chinese learning crumbled. Confucianism was abandoned as state ideology; the 2,000-year-old imperial Confucian state gave way to a republic; Confucianism as a social philosophy came under attack from intellectuals as inegalitarian and paternalistic. The nature of the Chinese “essence” became unclear.
    In its place, the CCP offered Marxism-Leninism, a foreign “essence” as totalist in its reach as Confucianism, which promised and, under Mao, delivered success. But by the late 1950s, Mao had tired of aping foreigners. The GLF was his first attempt to find a distinctive Chinese road. By the mid-1960s, he could justify his distaste for the Soviet model with the specter of revisionism. The Cultural Revolution was declaredly Mao’s attempt to vaccinate his people against the Soviet disease. But more importantly, it was his last best effort to define and perpetuate a distinct Chinese essence in the modern world. His was truly the last stand of Chinese conservatism.
    The chaos, killing, and, at the end, the stagnation of the Cultural Revolution—which together had cost China well over a year’s worth of national income—led Deng to abandon this vain search for a Chinese version of modernity that had preoccupied the nation’s politicians and intellectuals for well over a century. China had to jump on the bandwagon of successful Western-style modernization that had proved so effective on Taiwan and elsewhere in East Asia. The Cultural Revolution became the economic and social watershed of modern Chinese history.
    • Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution (2008), Conclusion
  • Mao then rose from guerrilla chief in the late 1920s to a party leader in the mid-1930s on the Long March, the flight of the C.C.P. from the southeast to the northwest to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s attacks. This was an epic event in Communist annals because it took a year, covered some 6,000 miles and reduced the 85,000 who had set out to a mere 8,000 by the time they reached the northwest. He absorbed two lessons: All power grew out of the barrel of a gun; and most of the time peasants were very difficult to organize because they had fields to tend and families to feed.
    From the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, Mao played his tiger role. He led an increasingly strong and efficient party and army that survived the anti-Japanese war and then defeated Chiang and the K.M.T. in the civil war of the late 1940s. From 1949 until 1956, Mao presided over the installation of the Communist dictatorship in China, rooting out all opposition, real or imagined, and transforming the ownership of the means of production from private hands to socialist control.
    It was then that he dabbled in the monkey business for the first time. From the point of view of a dutiful C.C.P. cadre, “monkey business” could be defined as any measure that would disrupt the party’s standard operating procedures. Cadres did not appreciate it when Mao in 1956 exhorted intellectuals to “Let a hundred flowers bloom” and a year later again encouraged intellectuals to criticize the conduct of the party. As members of the ruling elite, the cadres resented being criticized, and Mao, having promised that the criticisms would only be like a light rain, quickly wound up the campaigns when they turned into a typhoon, and purged the critics.
    Mao truly became the monkey king by starting the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to dispel the “miasmal mist” of Soviet-style “revisionism” from the C.C.P. Now, it was the youth of China, not the peasants, who were to be his agents of destruction, as major party and government departments were trashed and their officials humiliated and purged.
    For Mao, the Cultural Revolution ended in 1969 with the appointment of a new, and hopefully more revolutionary, leadership. But though he had dealt the age-old bureaucratic system of China a terrible blow, he knew that it could rise again from the ashes. He always emphasized that China would have to experience regular Cultural Revolutions.
    • Roderick MacFarquhar, "How Mao Molded Communism to Create a New China", The New York Times (Oct. 23, 2017)
  • “人生七十古来稀”,我八十多了,人老总想后事。中国有句古话叫“盖棺定论”,我虽未 “盖棺”也快了,总可以定论吧!我一生干了两件事:一是与蒋介石斗了那么几十年,把他 赶到那么几个海岛上去了;抗战八年,把日本人请回老家去了。对这些事持异议的人不多,只有 那么几个人,在我耳边叽叽喳喳,无非是让我及早收回那几个海岛罢了。另一件事你们都知道, 就是发动文化大革命。这事拥护的人不多,反对的人不少。这两件事没有完,这笔“遗产”得交 给下一代。怎么交?和平交不成就动荡中交,搞不好就得“血雨腥风”了 。你们怎么办?只 有天知道。
    • Since ancient times, it has been rare for a man to live to seventy. I am now more than eighty. In my old age I have thought often of death. In China it is said, “You can judge a man only after they close the lid of his coffin.” Although my “coffin lid” is not yet closed, it will happen soon, so it is a time to sum up. During my life I have accomplished two things. First, over the course of several decades, I fought against Chiang Kai-shek and chased him to the islands. During eight years of the war against Japan, I requested that the Japanese soldiers return home. We conquered Beijing and ultimately seized the Forbidden City. There are few people who do not acknowledge this. And there are only a few people who buzz into my ears that I should retake these islands quickly. The second thing you all know about. This is the launching of the Great Cultural Revolution. There are not many who support it, and not a few who oppose it. Both of these tasks are unfinished. This “legacy” must be handed down to the next generation. How should that be done? If it can’t be done peacefully, then it must be done via shock tactics. If we really do not engage in this, then “the wind and rain will turn red with blood.” How will you deal with this? Only Heaven knows.
      • Mao Zedong, June 15, 1976. Quoted in Mao: The Real Story (2012) by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine
  • Controversies over the nature and results of the Cultural Revolution will rage for many years to come, and it will be decades before its full history can be written with any reasonable degree of accuracy and understanding. Yet the "decade of catastrophe" obviously cannot be ignored in the interim, nor can the events of the era be conveniently dismissed as "the ten lost years." For not only was the Cultural Revolution the historical culmination of Maoism and the Maoist era, but the experiences of the time continue to dominate the political consciousness of many Chinese in the post-Mao era. An attempt to write even a brief preliminary account is a formidable task not only because of the political passions the Cultural Revolution necessarily arouses but also because of the moral and historical dilemmas it poses. There is no period in China's long history so complex and contradictory or so lacking in historical precedents, no other period where all historical analogies fail. Rarely has any society revealed itself so openly with all its contradictions and scars, and rarely have events unfolded in ways so strange, tortuous, and bizarre. Few episodes in modern history are filled with so many ironies and paradoxes, plagued by such deep incongruities between means and ends, and marred by so large a gulf between intentions and results.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 17 : The Concept of the Cultural Revolution
  • Yet unity was to prove an elusive goal, and the nature of the victory was difficult to define. The Cultural Revolution had begun with a wholesale attack on the Communist Party; it ended with the resurrection of the Party in its orthodox Leninist form, albeit shorn of Mao's more prominent opponents. In 1966-67 a massive popular movement had flourished on the basis of the principle that "the masses must liberate themselves"; by 1969 the mass movement had disintegrated, and selected remnants of it had been absorbed by old bureaucratic apparatuses.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 18 : The Cultural Revolution 1966-69
  • The most obvious result of the Cultural Revolution, and perforce the starting point for any evaluation of the upheaval and its consequences, is that it took a fearsome toll of human lives. Of the number killed, no official count was taken at the time. Such official figures as have emerged from the post-Mao regime are fragmentary at best. The estimates of outside observers vary greatly; depending on the political proclivities of the observer. But even official statistics, however incomplete and scattered, suggest killings on a massive scale.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 19 : Social Results of the Cultural Revolution
  • The persecution of intellectuals and cadres has been widely publicized both within and outside China. It is less well known that while virtually all factions involved in the Cultural Revolution engaged in violence and committed atrocities in what became a seemingly endless cycle of violence and revenge, the greatest atrocities and a heavy share of the killings appear to have been the work of the PLA, especially in the general repression of radical Red Guard and workers' organizations in the summer of 1968. It is hardly surprising that this should have been the case when an armed, organized military force was given (or assumed) a free hand to rid the country of an anarchistic and poorly armed popular movement whose members had perhaps taken too literally the Maoist slogan "Dare to rebel."
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 19 : Social Results of the Cultural Revolution
  • Only when the Cultural Revolution was waning in the cities in 1966-69 was the movement extended to the countryside. There were political and social conflicts in the villages, but they were relatively benign in comparison to the struggles that had racked the cities. The situation varied enormously from region to region and from village to village. Some villages split into political factions, mimicking those in the cities or in nearby middle schools, but the divisions of ten were based more on old clan and neighborhood differences than on political ones. In many areas there was an intensification of class antagonisms, but this usually involved "poor and lower-middle peasant associations" reenacting old hatreds against former landlords and rich peasants, based on the memory of class divisions that had long ago ceased to exist. One result was of ten the persecution of individuals stigmatized with "bad" class labels, but it was hardly the "life and death" class struggle depicted in the official press. In the countryside, as Richard Kraus has pointed out, there was a particularly strong tendency to translate old class designations into new caste categories.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 19 : Social Results of the Cultural Revolution
  • The great failure of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not that it did not bring fundamental social changes. In conditions of economic scarcity, any attempt to radically transform the existing division of labor and abolish class distinctions surely would have resulted in economic chaos and social regression. The real failure of the Cultural Revolution was that it did not produce democratic political institutions that might have permitted the working population to acquire control over the means of production and eventually, as they developed modem productive forces, bring about their own socioeconomic emancipation and the emancipation of society as a whole.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 19 : Social Results of the Cultural Revolution
  • The Cultural Revolution not only failed to produce permanent institutions of popular self-government but also failed to resolve the more immediate problems of political succession. One of the original aims of the Cultural Revolution was to "train revolutionary successors." But in the summer of 1968, when Mao summoned Red Guard leaders to his "proletarian headquarters" to inform them that the time had come to end their rebellions (and then dispatched most of their followers to the countryside), it was an admission that the young generation had failed the political test. Nor did the Cultural Revolution yield an answer to the short-term question of political succession at the top-in effect, the question of who would (or who possibly could) succeed Mao. If the masses were politically quiet after 1968, that was not the case in the Politburo, where the unresolved issues of the Cultural Revolution were to erupt into fierce political struggles in the 1970s and throw its participants into a Byzantine world of political intrigue.
    • Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and after: a history of the People's Republic (3rd ed., 1999), Chap. 19 : Social Results of the Cultural Revolution
  • Yang’s explanation for many events during the Cultural Revolution, including ritualistic vows of fealty to Mao, is “totalitarianism”. It is repeated a number of times. It is a cool word to say, but the Cultural Revolution was anything but totalitarianism. It might have been started by Mao (although I will explain later that Yang never tells us why) but while totalitarianism is absence of agency by individuals, the Cultural Revolution was the opposite: millions of individuals had agency. They had too much of it. The Cultural Revolution was not totalitarianism, but its very reverse: Hobbesian world where everyone fought everyone else. The most tragic revelation about the Cultural Revolution (an observation that Yang does not make) is that it shows us what the withdrawal of the state and government does: it reveals human nature at its worst. Without state’s monopoly on violence, we would simply go out fighting each other. Forever. Imagine the United States, when suddenly the President, Congress, all politicians, judges, and police simply decide to go home and never return to their jobs. Within a week, the country would be in a “Cultural Revolution”. (Actually, with Katrina, it took less than a week for New Orleans to descend into the “Cultural Revolution”.) China during the Cultural Revolution was not Stalinism redux, but Libya today.
    Under totalitarian regimes, every individual, spontaneous action is proscribed. Writing on your own a letter of support to Stalin was as likely to land you in jail as writing a letter criticizing Stalin. Not so under the chaos of the Cultural Revolutions: everyone wrote big-character posters, organized rallies, attacked “traitors”, called themselves a follower of “Mao Zedong’s line”. It is just that nobody knew what that line was today or what it might become tomorrow. Neither did Mao.
    But if not totalitarianism, was it autocracy? That too is difficult to justify in standard terms. Mao did not rule like an autocrat; he ruled like a God; which meant that he appeared just from to time, when needed. Yang shows that Mao, uninterested in management of the country and the economy, and even in foreign affairs, simply delegated all of day-to-day running of the country to various people, mostly to Zhou Enlai. But even saying “delegated” is an exaggeration. Mao just ignored the running of the country, and whoever managed to get to it, did. If, in this management, “the delegate” did something that eventually displeased Mao, he could end up dismissed, expelled from the party, wearing a dunce hat, being driven to suicide or pushed by mob from a tall building. But Mao’s ruling style was not the style of a usual autocrat. Mao was neither a Stalin who worked 12 hours per day and personally authorized (or ordered) executions during the Great Terror, nor a Hitler with his obsessive control of every detail. People were persecuted or killed without Mao having had the slightest idea what is happening to them. In daily affairs of government, Mao’s involvement was significantly less than, for example, the involvement of Joe Biden, Angela Merkel, let alone that of an autocrat like Vladimir Putin. He would disappear for weeks, sometimes for months; would come to Beijing without his “closest collaborators” being aware of it. We do not even seem to know how Mao was spending his days: was he writing poetry, editing Central Committee’s communiques, sleeping, having long meals, sharing bed with mistresses—but whatever he was doing he was not running the government in the way governments are commonly run by autocrats.
    Perhaps the closest parallel that we have is the power of a prophet (Weber’s charismatic power?). The prophet does not need to show up dally—perhaps it is even better for him than he does not. But prophets are not normally prototypes of autocratic leaders.
  • Some of those in the outside world who were most unfriendly to the Communist regime were heartened by such information, as they had been in the early 1960s about the true state of affairs (Chiang Kai-shek is said to have wished to have launched an invasion from Taiwan but to have been restrained by the Americans), but the damage was for the most part successfully concealed by censorship and propaganda. Soon, too, Mao began again to seek to regain his ascendancy. He was obsessed with the wish to justify the Great Leap Forward and to punish those whom he saw as having thwarted it, and thus to have betrayed him. One weapon he deployed against them was criticizing events in the USSR since Stalin’s death. Mao thought that a loosening of the iron grip of dictatorship there, modest though it was, had opened the path for corruption and compromise in bureaucracy and party alike. The fear that something similar might happen if discipline were relaxed in China helped Mao to promote the ‘Cultural Revolution’, which tore asunder country and party between 1966 and 1969. Millions were imprisoned, deprived of their jobs or purged. Close to a million died.
    The Cultural Revolution was another setback for those who wanted to modernize China. During these years, the cult of Mao and his personal prestige were revitalized and reasserted, but senior party members, bureaucrats and intellectuals were harried; universities were closed and physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to change traditional attitudes. The young were the main instruments of persecution. The country was turned upside-down by ‘Red Guards’, who terrorized their seniors in every walk of life. Opportunists struggled to join them before themselves being destroyed by the young. At last even Mao himself began to show signs that he thought things had gone too far. New party cadres were installed and a congress confirmed his leadership, but he had again failed. The army in the end restored order, often at the cost, this time, of the students.
    Yet the Red Guards’ enthusiasm had been real, and the ostentatious moral preoccupations that surfaced in this still in some ways mysterious episode remain striking. Mao’s motives in launching it were no doubt mixed. Besides seeking vengeance on those who had brought about the abandonment of the Great Leap Forward, he appears really to have felt a danger that the revolution might congeal and lose the moral élan that had carried it so far. In seeking to protect it, old ideas had to go, and so did the remnants of foreign influence in China. Society, government and economy were to be driven by ideology, in isolation from the rest of the world if necessary. The traditional prestige of intellectuals and scholars still embodied the old order, just as the examination system had done as the century began. The ‘demotion’ and demonization of intellectuals was urged as a necessary consequence of making a new China. Similarly, attacks on family authority were not merely attempts by a suspicious regime to encourage informers and disloyalty, but attempts to break the most conservative of all Chinese institutions. The emancipation of women and propaganda to discourage early marriage had dimensions going beyond ‘progressive’ feminist ideas or population control; they were an assault on the past such as no other revolution had ever made, for in China the past meant a role for women far inferior to anything to be found in pre-revolutionary America, France or even Russia. The attacks on party leaders, which accused them of flirtation with Confucian ideas, were much more than jibes; they could not have been paralleled in the West, where for centuries there was no past so solidly entrenched to reject. Even if the Cultural Revolution had very little to do with modernization, it opened the way for the new by destroying the old.
    But rejection of the past is only half the story. More than 2,000 years of continuity stretching back to the Qin and Han, and perhaps further also, shaped Chinese Communism. One clue is the role of authority in it. For all its cost and cruelty, that revolution was a heroic endeavour, matched in scale only by such gigantic upheavals as the spread of Islam, or Europe’s assault on the world in early modern times. Yet it was different from those upheavals because it was at least in intention centrally controlled and directed. It is a paradox of the Chinese revolution that it has rested on popular fervour, but is unimaginable without conscious direction from a state inheriting all the mysterious prestige of the traditional bearers of the Mandate of Heaven. Chinese tradition respects authority and gives it a moral endorsement that has long been hard to find in the West. No more than any other great state could China shake off its history, and as a result Communist government achieved a paradoxically conservative appearance. No great nation had for so long driven home to its peoples the lessons that the individual matters less than the collective whole, that authority could rightfully command the services of millions at any cost to themselves in order to carry out great works for the good of the state, that authority is unquestionable so long as it is exercised for the common good. The notion of opposition is distasteful to many Chinese because it suggests social disruption; that implies the rejection of the kind of revolution involved in the adoption of western individualism, though not of Chinese individualism or collective radicalism.
    • J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad, The Penguin History of the World (6th ed., 2014), Book 8 : Our Own Time, 2 : The Cold War World
  • One communist country went through a destruction of collusions for collective action that was equivalent to the organizational destruction in Germany and Japan. This was China during the cultural revolution. For whatever reasons, Mao started a revolution against his own upper-level and middle- level subordinates—the red mandarins. He decimated the very administrators and managers on which his economy depended. Only the military was spared. The immediate result was extreme instability and administrative chaos: the economic performance of the Chinese economy during the cultural revolution was much worse than in other communist countries. A longer-run result was that, when Mao died, there were not nearly as many well-entrenched coteries of administrators as in the Soviet Union and the European communist states.
    So when Deng and the other pragmatists defeated Mao's widow and the rest of the "gang of four" shortly after Mao's death, there were few industries, enterprises, or coteries of administrators whose insider lobbying could undermine Deng's market-oriented reforms. Deng was presumably also helped because virtually everyone was glad to see the end of the chaos. The encompassing interest of Deng, the new pragmatic autocrat, prevailed, largely because the cultural revolution had destroyed the narrowly entrenched interests with a stake in the status quo.
    Deng could do what Gorbachev and the other European communist reformers could not do: win out over the countless cliques engaged in covert collective action and other insider lobbies. The lion's share of the then-poor Chinese economy—agriculture—was promptly put under an individual responsibility market system. Other market-oriented reforms followed. The result, as we know, was rapid economic growth: output has often increased at 10 percent or more per year. This difference between China and the European countries that were communist, but had no cultural revolution, is precisely consistent with the argument offered here.
    • Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity (2000), Chap. 9 : Implications for the Transition
  • It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mao’s contributions to China after 1956 were unsuccessful by his own standards and destructive in ways that he surely did not imagine. During both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the destructive aspects of Mao’s initiatives far outweighed any outcomes that could be construed as positive. The Cultural Revolution succeeded in its agenda of destroying the structure of China’s party-state, and in sidelining the many officials who might have harbored inner doubts about Mao’s vision, but it created nothing lasting in its place. During the Cultural Revolution Mao tried repeatedly to put a positive face on each unexpected and unwanted development, asserting that out of disorder a greater order would eventually be born. But the public celebrations of the “great victories” of the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by the escalating intensity of the cult of Mao, all turned out to be as hollow as Mao’s earlier insistence that the accomplishments of the Great Leap were “nine fingers” and the shortcomings “one finger.” As Mao’s health failed during his final two years, he appeared to resign himself to the fact that his legacy was far from assured, and that powerful forces in the leadership and in society at large were arrayed against it.
    • Andrew G. Walder, China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed (2015), p. 319
  • For each participant, the Cultural Revolution meant something different. For many, it was an attempt to realize political ideals: socialism, equality, a responsive modern state, or rule by the people. For Party leaders, it was largely a struggle for personal power. For most youths, it was a period of traveling and politicking. Many managed to sit on the sidelines, taking cover until the storm cleared. The perceived meaning of this event could change at different times like a kaleidoscope, even for a single person. Yet an overarching significance of the Cultural Revolution for most people, no matter what else it meant, lay in seemingly arbitrary violence. Many Chinese now feel that such destructive chaos should never be allowed to occur again.
    • Lynn T. White III, Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China's Cultural Revolution (1989). Chap. 12 : Conclusion: Causes and Lessons of the Tragedy
  • In 1966 and the nine years that followed, nearly every person in China became embroiled to some extent in the Cultural Revolution, an experience that left a permanent mark on the lives, fates, and souls of every participant. Even more profound was the movement’s effect on China’s politics, economy, and society.
    Mao Zedong originally expected the Cultural Revolution to last for at most three years. But as it proceeded, many unanticipated situations emerged. Mao never imagined the complete loss of control in August 1967 that would compel him to abandon some of the Cultural Revolution’s staunchest supporters. He never imagined the irreconcilable struggle within the military ranks in 1968 would oblige him to cast away another group of allies. He hoped that the Ninth Party Congress would lead to a stage of “struggle-criticism-transformation,” never envisioning that a rift between him and Lin Biao would culminate in Lin Biao’s shocking escape attempt and death in 1971. Right from the outset, repeated collisions derailed the Cultural Revolution from its initial objectives and left participants stranded. After the Lin Biao incident, Mao hoped to return the Cultural Revolution to its original direction, but by then the movement had lost public support and people had begun fastening their hopeful gazes on Zhou Enlai. That made Zhou the new target of Mao’s revolution. One new problem followed another, and new errors were deployed to correct those that had come before. The Cultural Revolution was a ten-year process of feeling for rocks while crossing a river, and may have lasted even longer if Mao hadn’t died in 1976.
    The Cultural Revolution was like a riptide resulting from the interaction of multiple forces, with each wave of turbulence swallowing up a new batch of victims and creating a new group of “enemies.” As the impetus of the Cultural Revolution faltered before growing resistance and the withdrawal of increasing numbers of people to the sidelines, the waves gradually ebbed until the Cultural Revolution failed and was thoroughly repudiated.
    With each surge of setbacks and struggles, ordinary people were churned and pummeled in abject misery, while Mao, at a far remove, boldly proclaimed, “Look, the world is turning upside down!” I’ve used this expression as the title of my book to indicate the extent of this turmoil and suffering.
    The roots of the Cultural Revolution have to be sought in the system that existed in the seventeen years before it began, in the prevailing ideology, and in the road Mao maintained at that time.
    • Yang Jisheng, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (2016), translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian

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