Japan from the inside out

Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Fact is stranger than fiction

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 4, 2007

It’s a cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, but the book Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, and reviewed here by Andrew J. Nathan for the New Republic, turns that cliché back into a reality so strange that it renders fiction itself nearly pointless.


The Chinese themselves consider the Cultural Revolution to have been a “ten-year catastrophe” during which one official later said one hundred million people were killed, driven to suicide, beaten, convicted in “unjust, false, and erroneous cases,” “sent down,” or otherwise affected. To ensure that the reader treats that number as more than just a statistic, the authors include individual stories of the sort that only Orwell could attempt as fiction:

They quote from a series of three handwritten confessions by an interrogation victim who had to keep changing her story until she could satisfy her questioners that she had participated in a particular plot, even though she knew nothing about it. (In fact, the plot never existed.)

The authors describe the first four years of the ten-year period as:

a coup by Mao against the party: he calls up the masses to purge the leadership, then uses the army to demobilize the masses and puts his most loyal follower in the number two position.

This involved:

Party “work teams” (being) sent to “rectify” college campuses, Red Guards “smashing the four olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes), worker “rebels” “seizing power” in factories, Mao’s mobilization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress factional fighting, his “sending down” of the Red Guards to labor with the peasants, his purge of second-in-command and head of state Liu Shaoqi and other leaders, the paralysis of the party apparatus and government bureaucracies, the establishment of army-dominated “revolutionary committees” to take over the running of the country, and society-wide persecutions against imaginary enemies.

But then in the second half of the ten-year period:

Mao undoes the involvement of the military in politics, gets rid of his newly designated successor, unravels his purges of some party leaders to reinstate civilian rule, and pushes his personality cult and ideology over the edge of self-parody into destruction.

The question, why did Mao do it? naturally arises. The authors present idealism and a power struggle as two reasons and suggest a third possibility: insanity.

To explain his ideals, the authors say Mao was disappointed with the Soviets:

…which he believed had created a privileged bureaucratic class that abandoned revolutionary ideals…Elsewhere the authors say that “the Cultural Revolution had always been about the rearing of revolutionary successors,” and that Mao sought to “temper” his successors in the “surging waves” of the mass movement because he believed that human nature could be remolded through struggle. The masses, he believed, “had to liberate themselves.”

While this captivated the imagination of many student radicals in the West, few had any inkling of how the perpetual revolutionary conducted his personal life:

Li Zhisui, in his memoir of his life as Mao’s personal physician, exposed the self-indulgent way Mao lived: his multiple villas, private trains, and serial mistresses; his personal cruelty to everyone around him; and his lack of interest in the suffering of the masses.

If anyone wondered whom Kim Jong-il used as a personal model, perhaps that question has now been answered.

The authors reveal the little-known information that Mao was by 1965 largely a convenient symbol in his own country, and suggest he launched the Cultural Revolution to regain his power:

Mao had been forced to cede most of the levers of power in the Chinese party-state after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. As of 1965, he did not control career promotions in the party, the government, or the economic units. He did not control the propaganda apparatus…(n)or did Mao control the making or implementing of policy in economics, education, or other key areas — with the significant exception of foreign policy. By all appearances, Mao in 1965 was a safely stowed figurehead who could be brought out on occasion as a symbol by other leaders advancing their own agendas. But he was not satisfied with that role…

While these two explanations are certainly plausible, one must also admit the possibility that Mao was a lunatic who did it because he could get away with it, and because he enjoyed it. Consider:

  • “Mao purges Lin Biao, rehabilitates and then re-purges Deng Xiaoping, denies Zhou Enlai treatment for a fatal cancer, empowers his wife Jiang Qing and three radical colleagues to launch a series of oblique political campaigns against other leaders, and designates an ill-qualified new successor, Hua Guofeng, whose rule was to last only a couple of years past Mao’s death.
  • “Mao was given to…remarks such as that China would do fine even if two-thirds of its population died in a nuclear war, and that the universe would survive even if the Earth were destroyed…(t)hey report him as saying: “This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don’t you think?”…At one happy private occasion, Mao offered this toast: “To the unfolding of nationwide all-round civil war!””
  • “First he ordered local military units to “support the left,” then he ordered officers to undertake self-criticism for doing so. First he encouraged the leftist acolytes Wang Li, Guan Feng, and Qi Benyu to promote “dragging out a small handful in the military,” then he ordered their arrest for being too radical. Over and over MacFarquhar and Schoenhals show that no one understood what Mao wanted. “After the session, the minister of education … said to his colleagues, ‘Now I am very confused.'”

The Cultural Revolution may have died more than a quarter of a century ago, but troubling aspects still survive in contemporary China, despite the wishes of some who think otherwise. The authors point out:

At home, people are not allowed to commemorate Mao’s horrors, because the current leaders sustain their regime through the same internal secrecy and arbitrary repression that made the Cultural Revolution possible…. The dominant voices among independent intellectuals in China today belong not to liberal democrats and human rights activists, but to so-called neo-conservatives and neo-leftists who believe that even though Mao’s revolution failed (through a combination of his mistakes and Western cultural and economic subversion), the search for a distinctive Chinese model should continue.

Another contemporary cliché is that the 21st century will be the Chinese century. While there are many reasons to suspect that won’t happen, we should all hope that idea is a transient fiction rather than a fact on the cusp of realization.

2 Responses to “Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Fact is stranger than fiction”

  1. […] Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Fact is stranger than fiction « AMPONTAN […]

  2. tomojiro said

    Thanks ampontan. I thought after reading the Nathan review, that it could be very interesting, especially if you co-read with the controversial book by jung chen “Mao:the unknown history”.

    Thanks a lot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: