The cultural revolution and how it shaped China

A new history of the tumultuous last decade of Mao's life and the impact it left on his country

Many trends in today's China have their roots in the late 1970s – the period after the nation had its slate wiped clean by the Cultural Revolution. Those cataclysmic years (1966-1976) offer insight into what pushed China's pendulum toward capitalism and why democracy hasn't followed.

Or as the preface to a new history of that period, Mao's Last Revolution by China scholars Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals states: "To understand the 'why' of modern-day China, one must understand the 'what' of the Cultural Revolution."

The 462-page narrative (with nearly 200 pages of supplemental material) excels at detailing the how of the Cultural Revolution – how Chinese leader Mao Zedong purged opponents, upended the lives of millions, and established a cult of personality (while yet remaining vague about what it all meant).

Ostensibly, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to restore the communist revolutionary spirit within China – after watching Russia's post-Stalin leaders make "revisionist" steps. The revolution began with a series of carefully orchestrated purges of leaders accused of taking the capitalist road. With the help of his wife, loyal propagandists, and cowering colleagues, Mao encouraged students to find and drive out "capitalist roaders."

Emboldened by slogans such as "To rebel is justified" and "Bombard the headquarters," Chinese students attacked teachers and officials as ideologically unsound. As the revolution progressed, workers and even soldiers were also nudged to rebel. Accusations flowed forth, often motivated by petty grievances or opportunism, sweeping up millions of Chinese over the course of 10 years.

Punishments ranged from public humiliation to manual labor to death by mob violence. "A middle school teacher ... was sentenced ... to nine years in prison for having, among other crimes, written in his private diary that a certain Mao-quote gave him 'boundless energy,' then changed that to 'very much energy,' " MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write.

However, the book does not tell the stories of ordinary citizens. Its focus is on top-level machinations, particularly those of the Chairman. The aging leader is portrayed as fearful of either being sidelined during life or consigned after death to the dustbin of history. Mao's "last revolution" was a crafty effort to stave off both threats.

"Only Mao himself could 'detect' revisionists, or, more accurately, decide who they were." But Mao kept his cards close to his chest, leaving his supporters "to intuit what he wanted and to fulfill what they believed to be his aims." If Mao decided to change direction, he would quietly wait for his acolytes to overstep – and then pounce.

What emerges from the exhaustive research in this book is an understanding of the Cultural Revolution less as a coherent ideological movement and more as divide-and-rule political tactics. "Recent Chinese histories attempt to impose a nonexistent coherent 'anti-leftist' pattern" on attacks that took place in 1967 when students targeted "just about every power-holder there was, save for Mao himself." But if there was any pattern, it was summed up best by the son of fallen leader Lin Baio: "Today [Mao] uses this force to attack that force; tomorrow he uses that force to attack this force."

As time wore on, the inconsistencies of the revolving purges and the absurdity of radicals denouncing each other for being "bourgeois reactionaries" took its psychological toll on the party faithful. In material terms, as well, the country suffered. The value of industrial production dropped by 13.8 percent in 1967, and another 5 percent in 1968. Striking workers and gang warfare hurt industry, as did ministries purged of experienced officials. Perversely, some officials feared they would be labeled "bourgeois" if their industries appeared profitable.

Faced with a mess and few left to fix it, Mao rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, who had been discredited early in the Cultural Revolution. Deng proved enormously capable at restoring order and putting economic progress ahead of partisan fighting. Deng would lead China after Mao's death in 1976 and inaugurate the market reforms that have made China an economic power.

"Mao's Last Revolution" is a fascinating study of Mao's colossal, yet cunning, misadventure. But it may leave some readers fatigued, with too many faceless names and a narrative that is at times chronologically disjointed. The introduction and conclusion, however, offer context and much food for thought.

The book's final pages place the revolution within a century-long Chinese quest for modernization that does not compromise cultural integrity. "The chaos, killing, and, at the end, the stagnation of the Cultural Revolution ... led Deng to abandon this vain search. China had to jump on the bandwagon of successful Western-style modernization."

But the chaos of that era also taught Deng to prefer political stability and gradualism – a lesson he applied in crushing the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Ben Arnoldy is the Monitor's Asia editor.

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