Open Essay

The Making of Modern China: Return to Mao

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His latest book is India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45
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The Cultural Revolution in China

ON 5 AUGUST 1968, Chairman Mao sent a basket of mangoes to the workers of the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The mangoes had been gifted to the Chairman by the visiting foreign minister of Pakistan. The Pakistanis would never have imagined that their mangoes would make history. The next day, newspapers reported the elation of the workers in the propaganda outfit. Many readers of the People’s Daily realised that the mangoes were a warning to the student ‘Red Guards’ to fall in with the disciplinary measures of the propaganda team. Just in case the message eluded its audience, the newspapers carried an article expounding the theoretical rationale titled ‘The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership in Everything’. The Red Guards were leashed firmly in their kennels: the Chairman had suspended the Cultural Revolution.

This interlude in the revolution had occurred just two years after Mao himself had egged on the students to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Now, as he sought to tamp down their frenzy, the tumult was unabated. This pause in the revolution showcased the peculiar amalgam of ideology and idolatry that characterised the Cultural Revolution. In the next few days, propaganda teams were sent to schools and universities all over the country to educate students about the new ‘line’. At the same time, a wave of mango mania washed over China. At Tsinghua, one of the sacramental mangoes was pickled in formaldehyde and put up for display to adoring crowds. Plastic and wax mangoes sprouted across the country, including in places near the Siberian border where all workers had to make a trip in minus 30≤ Celsius to pay obeisance to the icon. Soon, there were mangoes everywhere: badges and boxes, mugs and trays, quilts and cushion covers. Giant mangoes floated past on the National Day parade on 1 October. There was even a movie called The Song of the Mango. The revolutionary road show would stretch on—until Mao’s death in 1976.

Forty years on, the Cultural Revolution seems almost as inscrutable as it was to contemporaries. If anything, the idea that one man’s whim could make the world’s most populous country twist in the wind and yet draw the adoration of millions seems rather more incredible in our ostensibly post- ideological times. Yet the Cultural Revolution is critical to our understanding of the origins of contemporary China. For it at once marked the end of China’s ‘revolutionary century’ that had started in 1911 and the beginning of the market-oriented economic transformation that would enable the country to take several astonishing leaps forward.

Interestingly, Mao had touched off the Cultural Revolution in response to the horrendous failure of his own Great Leap Forward. It was the attempt by an ageing autocrat to cement his prominence in the revolutionary pantheon. Mao was also eager to avoid the posthumous fate of a man he had hugely admired: JV Stalin. The Chairman had been stunned by how swiftly Stalin’s legacy had been overthrown by his successor Nikita Khrushchev and how comprehensively his policies revised. The Soviet Union, Mao concluded, might have been the first socialist state in the world, but too little had been done to remake Soviet society. The bourgeoisie might have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but bourgeois ideology had remained securely in place and had enabled subsequent leaders to subvert the system. In Mao’s reading, the transition from socialism to communism required another revolution—a Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s sense of urgency also stemmed from the fact that the Great Leap Forward—his first attempt at pole-vaulting China to the position of leadership in the socialist world—had been an unmitigated disaster for the country. The human toll of the resulting famine may have been as high as 30 million. In consequence, the Chinese Communist Party not only got off this expressway to socialist modernity but also began to criticise the policies advocated by the Chairman—if only subtly and sotto voce. The aftermath of the Great Leap Forward led Mao to conclude that his successors might well emulate Khrushchev. So, it was all the more important to launch another revolution that would erase every vestige of the past and ensure that the country continued its passage to communism.

There was yet another consideration at work. As Frank Dikötter notes, the Cultural Revolution ‘was also about an old man settling personal scores at the end of his life.’ Mao had always been prickly, resentful and wrathful—given to conjuring plots by real and imagined enemies, and conspiring against them in turn. The Cultural Revolution afforded him a final opportunity to catch his party colleagues on the hop and pummel them into submission. Yet once Mao sounded the bugle call, the revolution assumed a life of its own and took China down a jagged path that the Great Helmsman could not have anticipated. When the rubble of the Cultural Revolution was finally cleared, China was a rather different country.

Mao had been prickly, resentful and wrathful—given to conjuring plots by real and imagined enemies, and conspiring against them in turn

Few historians are as well placed to tell this story as Dikötter. The author of many scholarly works on China, he shot into prominence with his Mao’s Great Famine—a stunningly researched account of the Great Leap Forward that established the enormous human cost of Mao’s communist fantasy. He followed it up with The Tragedy of Liberation, which painted the decade-long backdrop to the Great Leap Forward. His latest book offers the final instalment of the trilogy on Mao’s China. These books are likely to become the standard account on this period for English readers, lay and specialists alike. Unlike his book on the Great Leap Forward, though, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 (Bloomsbury, 396 pages, Rs 599) isn’t a feat of archival research. Since Dikötter doesn’t discuss his sources, it is difficult to judge whether more archival material is indeed accessible. In the absence of such archival sources, he is forced to fall back on an assortment of memoirs, works of somewhat questionable veracity as well as a smattering of interviews. As such the book does not really advance our knowledge beyond such extant works as Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution—a superb combination of political analysis and social history.

The analytical edge of Dikötter’s book is blunt too. The subtitle of the book claims that it is a ‘people’s history’, but Dikötter does not attempt a systematic history from below. His account is mainly propelled by the high politics of the Cultural Revolution with a deft interweaving of a few ordinary lives. Indeed, Dikötter makes no attempt to understand the revolutionary identities in the making and explain their role in determining the course of the events that he so ably narrates. The absence of such analytic pressure is perhaps the price to be paid for a highly readable narrative.

THE PRELUDE TO the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s ‘Socialist Education Campaign’ that began in late 1962. In the wake of the criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Mao emphasised the importance of class struggle in the domain of ideology. “Writing novels is popular these days, isn’t it?” he asked: “The use of novels for anti-party activities is a great invention. Anyone wanting to overthrow a political regime must create public opinion and do some preparatory ideological work. This applies to counter-revolutionary as well as to revolutionary classes.” The Campaign was supposed to inculcate among the people an appreciation of the benefits of socialism. But it was also used to snuff out corruption in the rank-and-file of the party and smoke out the counter-revolutionaries—a supple category that covered anyone the Chairman disliked.

Soon a sustained campaign to foster Mao’s cult of personality was underway. Lin Biao, who had recently taken over the Ministry of Defence, began advocating the study of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ as a substitute for the intricacies of Marxism- Leninism to practical-minded soldiers. In January 1964, he published a cyclostyled collection of the Chairman’s aphorisms stapled between a pair of garish red plastic covers. The Little Red Book was a publishing sensation. By the time a revised and updated edition came out in August 1965, millions of copies had been sold. The military also organised ‘summer camps’ for students and workers. Primary school children were trained to use airguns by shooting at pictures of Chiang Kai-shek and American imperialists.

Mao, for his part, had the entire educational system in his cross-hairs. He called for a drastic revision of the system of examination in schools and colleges: “I do not approve of this. It should be changed completely. I am in favour of publishing the questions in advance and letting the students study them and answer them with the aid of books.” Here was one reason why students and teenagers were pulled towards the Chairman: he was on their side. As one future Red Guard put it, anticipating Pink Floyd by over a decade, “Classes are wasting my time and teachers are wasting my time.”

Mao also turned censorious of the class background of students and artists. The Ministry of Culture, he alleged, was ensuring the survival of bourgeois thought. Indeed, it ought to be renamed the ‘Ministry of Foreign Dead People’. In the summer of 1964, Mao encouraged a national campaign against traditional opera, perhaps the most popular art-form in the Chinese countryside. The campaign enabled Mao’s (fourth) wife Jiang Qing—once a starlet in Shanghai—to take the centre-stage of politics. Jiang and her cronies would achieve considerable notoriety in the Cultural Revolution. Around the same time, Mao persecuted four of his senior colleagues for ‘vilifying Mao Zedong Thought’ and claimed that they were an ‘anti-party clique’ that was planning a coup d’état. In May 1966, the four men were denounced as ‘a bunch of bastards who want to…kill us, so we have to crush them.’ The vicious purge set the stage for the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was a rebellion of youngsters inspired by an old man and it was an attack on the state spurred by its own architect

As a first step, Mao sanctioned the setting up of ‘Cultural Revolution Group’ comprising his wife, her associates as well as his own acolytes. The composition of the group would change periodically depending on the master’s whim, but it remained central to the Cultural Revolution. China was soon in the maelstrom of a campaign against imaginary counter-revolutionary plots. Teams of cadres fanned out to encourage students in schools and colleges to target the ‘monsters and demons’ that controlled culture to oppress the working classes. Students began to denounce their teachers, while the latter took to denouncing each other and penning contrite ‘self-criticisms’.

At this opening stage of the Cultural Revolution, the violence was largely confined to secondary schools. As Dikötter notes, ‘some victims were made to carry dunces’ caps and others had placards hung around their necks, identifying them as ‘Running Dogs of Capitalism’, ‘Black Gang Elements’, ‘Imperialist Spies’ or other incriminating categories. Many were paraded around the campus, pushed and shoved, sometimes splashed with inks.’ Beatings and suicides duly followed.

Throughout this period, Mao had deliberately avoided stayed out of the public eye, cultivating an aura that was at once Olympian and Delphic. On 16 July 1966, the Chairman turned the spotlight on himself when he famously swam across the Yangtze to underscore his determination to take the Cultural Revolution to its logical culmination. Mao penned a verse to mark the occasion: ‘I care not that the wind blows and the waves beat; it is better than idly strolling in a courtyard.’ Sure enough, there followed a propaganda blitz and a swimming craze. In Beijing alone some 8,000 people swam across the water at the Summer Palace. Similar spectacles unfolded across the country.

Two days later, on returning to Beijing, Mao let fly against the work teams of the party, scolding them for ‘fearing the masses’ and enjoining them to learn from the students. Senior party leaders, including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were compelled to offer public mea culpas for having had the temerity to question the rowdy behaviour of the students. The work teams were asked to lay off the students, who in turn thronged jubilantly towards the Chairman. A plenum of the party’s Central Committee was hastily convened in early August 1965 and endorsed Mao’s decision to launch ‘the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’. The main targets were ‘those in power within the party taking the capitalist road’. The proclamation also signalled that the real power now lay not with the party but the Cultural Revolution Group.

Mao himself fired the opening salvoes of the propaganda war, telling students “To Rebel is Justified!” and inciting them to “Bombard the Headquarters”. Soon Red Guards started sprouting all across the country. These young men and women swore to defend Mao and his revolution down to the last ditch. Days after the announcement of the Cultural Revolution, over a million young students swarmed into Tiananmen Square. Mao waved mildly at the crowds, while Lin Biao urged them to demolish “all the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes”. Violence against ‘class enemies’ rapidly escalated as the Red Guards went on a rampage. The victims were not just human beings but animals as well. There was a great cat massacre as the Red Guards hunted down the ‘feline symbol of bourgeois decadence’. The campaign against racing pigeons was mercifully less successful.

Mao came to resent Lin Biao’s authority over the military chain of command and began setting up elaborate snares for the man

Most scary for those caught up in this mayhem were the house searches by Red Guards and the attendant fear of being denounced as bourgeois, a reactionary or an admirer of Chiang Kai-shek. The Red Guards also plundered enormous quantities of art, silver and gold, musical instruments and other bourgeois finery. The meticulous lists maintained by the raiders have survived in the archives. The largest haul was in Shanghai, where the Red Guards searched more than a quarter of a million households and picked up three million pieces of antiques and art objects as well as jewellery and currency worth 600 million Yuan. Leading lights of the Cultural Revolution Group did very well out of this—rather as the Nazi leadership did in occupied Europe.

THE PROLETARIAN CULTURE that replaced the older one was the cult of Chairman Mao. The most pronounced manifestation of it was the slew of slogans that assaulted the senses. Posters and loudspeakers screamed the choicest slogans of the proles: ‘Our Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander, Great Helmsman’ and ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’. Photos and badges, posters and books of Mao circulated in mind-boggling numbers. The publication of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong could scarcely keep up with the demand. Eventually there were two formats for readers: Edition A for the cognoscenti and Edition B for the unwashed. State-owned factories produced more than 50 million Mao badges by 1968. Huge quantities of aluminium had to be diverted from other productive activity to sustain this scale of deification. There was even a black-market in Maoist iconography.

In March 1968, Mao’s cronies launched a new campaign called ‘Three Loyalties and Four Boundless Loves’. This sent the cult of Mao soaring to stratospheric heights. Altars to Mao were set up in schools and colleges, offices and factories. Statues of Mao in death-white plaster sprung up everywhere. Government units sought to outdo one another in the size and quality of the installation. There was even a loyalty dance: a few easy moves with arms wide open from the heart to the Chairman’s portrait accompanied by the song, Beloved Chairman Mao.

While students celebrated the bottomless benevolence of the great leader, Mao himself was entirely ruthless and capricious in the orchestration of the Cultural Revolution. He would laud a group as truly revolutionary one day, only to damn them as counter-revolutionary the next. As if on cue, toughened party officials too promoted their own factions and used the students to settle their scores. Soon, no one seemed clear about the true identity of the ‘capitalist roaders’ in the system. And roving bands of Red Guards set upon each other.

By January 1967, the situation was sufficiently chaotic for Mao to call on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to bring the various rebel groups to heel and uphold the ‘true proletarian left’. Eager to preserve his own power base, Lin Biao got Mao to sign off on a document that not only shielded the PLA from assault by rebel groups but also empowered it to take necessary action to further the Cultural Revolution. Mao now declared “whoever still continues to rebel, attack the People’s Liberation Army, sabotage transport, kill people or set fire to property is a criminal.”

Soon after pausing the revolution in the summer of 1968, Mao announced that students should be sent to the countryside to work and learn from the masses. The ‘Re-Education Campaign’ was an extraordinary programme of rustication. In the following decade, millions of students were sent from cities and towns to remote regions of rural China. Dikötter observes that many students went willingly: ‘they could steel themselves in the countryside and further the revolutionary cause.’ Indeed, some of them wanted to prove that they had the strength to break with the bourgeois values of their parents. Students were fired not only by revolutionary passion but a vision of pastoral idyll. If nothing else, they looked forward to a change from the boredom of urban living. As cities were emptied of the young, the Campaign was also billed as a solution to China’s fast growing population that was rendering its cities unliveable.

Dikötter follows several memoirs of the Cultural Revolution in highlighting the inevitable disillusionment. Yet in exploring the hopes and disappointments of this ‘lost generation’, he offers little by way of explanation. This is partly because he is unable to take seriously the ideology that this generation took rather seriously. The Cultural Revolution was essentially about creating a new revolutionary subjectivity that would then transform everything: the state, the party, the family. Dikötter focuses on the creation of the Mao cult, but is unable to tell us why millions and millions of young students and workers fell for his charisma despite all the vicissitudes of the Cultural Revolution. Nor does he have any fresh insights on why Mao’s colleagues clung to his aura until the very end.

During this period, China came closest to being under a military dictatorship. At one point, Mao’s own authority came under fire from sections of the PLA. The Marshals—senior officials and veterans of the civil war—took a grim view of the speed with which China was hurling itself down the Gadarene slope. One of them told off a close aide of Mao: “What masses? Always the masses, the masses. There is still the leadership of the party! Your aim is to purge the old cadres.”

Mao was shrewd enough to realise that he needed the support of at least two party veterans to stave off any challenge from the Marshals. Lin Biao and Premier Zhou Enlai gladly obliged him, so closing off the possibility of the Cultural Revolution being curtailed. Neither man could, however, remain forever in the good graces of the Chairman. Mao came to resent Lin Biao’s authority over the military chain of command and began setting up elaborate snares for the man whom he had designated as his heir apparent. Eventually Lin died in plane crash in August 1971 during an attempt to flee China. Zhou remained loyal to the Chairman, but Mao denied him adequate treatment for cancer.

Eventually, Mao was forced to turn to another associate who had been ruthlessly purged early on in the Cultural Revolution: Deng Xiaoping. The most durable of politicians, Deng returned as vice-premier in the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. He soon got a grip on the party and the government, not hesitating even to take on Madame Mao and her groupies. As his end neared, Mao sought one last time to fireproof his legacy. In his own judgement, the Cultural Revolution had been 70 per cent successful and 30 per cent a failure. He leaned on Deng to chair a meeting of party elders and get them to endorse this verdict. Deng knew well enough to avoid this trap. But his refusal to go along with the Chairman resulted in a final bout of hounding. Deng was stripped off his posts and a hysterical campaign was launched against thousands of his associates for being ‘counter- revolutionaries’. Just a few months later, Mao was dead.

Dikötter is insightful on the consequences of the Cultural Revolution. By the time of Mao’s death, the economy had begun to gradually revive after years of devastation. This was partly the result of state policy. The government had initiated a series of measures to revive agricultural productivity. The most important of these was abandoning the vision of radical collectivisation and encouraging villagers to cultivate their private plots in their spare time. State enterprises had yet again started to dispatch travelling representatives and purchasing agents to renew commercial links across the country.

More important, Dikötter reckons, was the silent release of entrepreneurial energies in rural China. As the doctrinaire fires of the officials cooled, the peasants began voluntarily reviving traditional markets, fairs and inland trading ties. As the grip of the state relaxed, they began to take advantage of the difference between prices set by officials and the higher amounts that people seemed willing to pay. Wealthier peasants also began to invest in local factories. While some of these village enterprises were collectively owned, many were privately run beneath the cover of a collective venture. It was an uneven revolution from below—but one that would transform the economy of China.

Alongside this second economy rose a ‘second society’. Although the Cultural Revolution had destroyed much of China’s educational system and there was a decline in literacy, there were also new opportunities to read forbidden literature. Indeed, across the country, black markets of used and banned books were thriving. Similarly, popular culture, religion and family ties proved far more resilient than the architect of the Cultural Revolution had hoped. Ironically, the only culture that Mao’s final revolution managed to destroy and discredit was socialism.

The Cultural Revolution lives on in Chinese memory as a memento mori—a reminder of how close the state and society came to edge of the precipice. Dikötter’s book reinforces this image—at times graphically and sensationally. Yet we also need to see the Cultural Revolution in a wider historical frame. After all, the 1960s witnessed student and youth protest movements across the world: in the United States and Britain, France and Italy, West Germany and Czechoslovakia, Mexico and Japan, Pakistan and India. These movements were connected—both in the sense of reflecting some common underlying causes and of mutual inspiration and emulation. The Cultural Revolution was very much a part of this global phenomenon, though it had its own peculiarities. It was a rebellion of youngsters who were inspired by an old man and it was an attack on the state spurred by its own architect.

Equally important—and missing in Dikötter’s account—is the international context in which the Cultural Revolution played out. Without paying more attention to the intersection of the Cold War and decolonisation, it is impossible to understand how Mao was able to effect a complete U-turn in China’s foreign policy: reaching out to the old American enemy, while still claiming to fight ‘capitalist roaders’ at home and support socialist revolutions abroad. Such a broader analysis of the Cultural Revolution is essential to restore China to the global twentieth century and understand how it might shape our own times.