This month marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s mass political movement that lasted ten years and led to widespread social upheaval and violence. The Communist Party has never allowed a full public accounting of the decade, though personal accounts from those who lived through it have become more abundant in recent years. In an interview with The New York Times, Harvard University’s Roderick MacFarquhar discusses the legacy and impact of the Cultural Revolution on China and its leaders today:
Q. How is the Cultural Revolution remembered by the broader society?
A. No one talks about the Cultural Revolution in China today. People have got far more important things to think about than what happened 50 years ago. They’ve got to find better jobs, earn more money and send their kids to better schools. I know there is a Cultural Revolution museum in Sichuan, and there is a place in Shanghai where you can see Cultural Revolution posters. People have not forgotten the Cultural Revolution completely, but I don’t think it’s on top of their minds.
[…] Q. Do you think there will still be pressure on the party to open up about this period, say, 20 years down the road?
A. I believe 20 years down the road the party will have opened up, if the party is still there. It depends on how successful Xi Jinping is in the immediate future. I think it will still matter enormously to the Chinese, for a very simple reason: The essence of the Cultural Revolution is not just that Mao unleashed it and caused the chaos. The essence is that the Chinese, without direct orders, were so cruel to each other. They killed each other, fought each other and tortured each other. Mao did not go down the streets and say: “You are licensed to torture. Go torture.” It just happened. [Source]
As Hong Kong-Based publisher Bao Pu pointed out in an interview with Ian Johnson of The New York Review of Books in January, many published personal accounts fail to give a full picture of the turmoil and violence that took place:
Everyone feels he was a victim. If you look at them, you wonder, What the fuck were you doing in that situation? It was everyone else’s fault? You can’t blame everything on Mao. He was responsible, he was the mastermind, but in order to reach that level of social destruction—an entire generation has to reflect. But they all say they were victims. [Source]
Nevertheless, in the absence of any public national discussion of that period of Chinese history, personal stories often remain the best insight we have into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In a new book, “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976,” author Frank Dikötter looks at Party documents from the era as well as personal histories and argues that many of Mao’s goals were undermined by the people as they grew increasingly disillusioned, laying the groundwork for economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping. In The Wall Street Journal, Peter Neville-Hadley reviews the book:
Mao’s new revolution was an attempt to re-establish control, eliminate those who had dared to express disapproval and deter any future critics who might play Kruschev to his Stalin. It began with an editorial in the People’s Daily in June 1966 that exhorted readers to “sweep away all monsters and demons,” later defined broadly as “those in power within the Party taking the capitalist road.”
Students denounced their teachers, grew confident enough to physically molest them, and then, finding no government intervention, went on to torture and murder them. The revolution expanded beyond campuses to inflict widespread imprisonment and torture on anyone deemed to have a bad class background.
[…] The Cultural Revolution led to widespread disillusionment with the Party. Endless campaigns produced widespread resistance even among Party members themselves. Private plots, black markets, the renting of land and underground factories all proliferated without permission. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were in large part an acceptance of what was already happening.
Deng actually resisted decollectivization, but, as Mr. Dikötter writes, “had neither the will nor the ability to fight the natural trend towards private enterprise and a market-led economy.” When the communes were finally disbanded it was merely recognition that the farmers had made collective farms irrelevant. [Source]
In the Australian Financial Review, Lisa Murray interviews several people who experienced the Cultural Revolution as Red Guards or as children of parents who were persecuted under Mao, including writer Yu Hua, who was six years old in 1966:
Yu is one of the few China-based writers who speaks out about the ongoing impact of the Cultural Revolution. He argues the country has never confronted this period in its history.
[…] In a column for the New York Times two years ago, Yu argues it has been left up to individuals to come forward to apologise to their victims in newspapers or on social media websites. “Now retired, they express repentance, in part because they cannot excuse what they did, in part because they are disturbed by efforts to put a positive spin on the Cultural Revolution,” Yu says in the op-ed. “They have voluntarily confessed to shameful acts, in the hope that young people today will understand the grim history of that era.”
But in contrast to these “conscience-stricken individuals”, Yu says the Communist Party has never had any trouble forgiving itself for its mistakes and tried hard to have them erased from the historical record. “In the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, many sought to repudiate it, but when our leaders realised that this kind of critique detracted from their own authority, they immediately suppressed such criticisms – quashing them so thoroughly it was as though they had never been voiced. [Source]
While school children in China don’t learn the full story of that period, children’s author Cao Wenxuan has gained international acclaim by writing about children’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution. Cao recently became the first Chinese author to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award for children’s literature. Amy Qin at The New York Times reports:
The chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution form the backdrop for many of his stories. His 2005 book “Bronze and Sunflower,” for example, concerns the friendship of a girl, Sunflower, who follows her father from the city to the countryside, where he has been sent to do hard labor, and Bronze, a boy unable to speak whose parents are impoverished villagers.
[…] Mr. Cao insists that the Cultural Revolution is “merely a setting, not the main subject” of his books. Still, some say his straightforward descriptions of life then are needed now more than ever. In schools today, children are taught only officially approved versions of what, for many of their parents and grandparents, was an intensely formative and frequently traumatic time.
“So much history from that period has been distorted, which is why it’s important for children to know about the past,” said Wu Qing, a retired professor in Beijing who was a jury member selecting the Andersen award. “Cao writes about this period with humanity, and he doesn’t include any political slogans. He writes from his own experience.” [Source]
Read more about the Cultural Revolution, via CDT.