Rebel is Right: Reassessing the Cultural Revolution

Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, Mao Zedong, Chinese history, Chinese Communist Party, Cultural Revolution

The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 768 pages.

THIS JULY, THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY (CCP) celebrated its centenary. Next year will see the twentieth national Party congress, at which a successor to current leader Xi Jinping may or may not be designated. International attention has been focused on a new version of the Cold War between China and the United States. Meanwhile, domestically, the Party has launched a series of indoctrination campaigns, bombarding the masses with state-centered narratives of history, while tightening control over the public sphere, online and offline.

Today it might be taken for granted that the Party’s National Congress is held every five years, but this frequency is quite recent and reflects the forces that have shaped the CCP over the last century. From the Party’s founding in 1921 to 1928, there were six National Congresses. Then there were big gaps, each of more than a decade, with the next three in 1945, 1956, and 1969. These are marks of Mao Zedong’s ascent during the war years, and his dominance after the Communists seized power in 1949. The current schedule was proposed in 1958 but not put into practice until Mao’s death in 1976. The ringleaders of the coup that followed held a National Congress in 1977, revamping the Party’s leadership and basic structure.

The CCP’s emphasis on regularity is a response against Mao-style personal tyranny on the one hand, and popular mass protests since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre on the other. Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “Stability is the top priority,” first declared in February 1989, became a convenient way for the state to bring society under control. Since then, the annual budget for “stability maintenance” has risen and expanded to encompass more recent “anti-terrorism” excursions in minority regions, such as northwest Xinjiang province, where Uyghurs and other Muslim communities are targeted. The same logic of stability has conditioned the Party itself, though this has received less attention. Adherence to formality is now a hallmark of the CCP’s internal management. Today’s leaders like to evoke Mao, but their working style is in stark contrast to his own, especially during the Great Leap Forward and the early phase of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), when Mao sought to bypass the Party apparatus and reach the masses directly.

China’s leaders today spent their formative years during the GPCR, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, and the party Xi commands is very much the product of that tumultuous decade. Yet GPCR-related documents are sparse in the Party’s copious official online archives. In the newly revised, official brief history of the Party, the GPCR is lumped together with the post-1949 era; together, they are painted as twenty-seven years of daring socialist experimentation. Mao is positively commemorated, as is his wife Jiang Qing. In recent years, some of the model operas written under her guidance have even been reenacted in Shanghai and Beijing to give the youth some revolutionary education. What has been deliberately omitted, or simply covered up, are the victims of the GPCR.

Writing about the GPCR is not impossible in China—but publishing is more complicated. The few public accounts that exist are by authors who have specialized in the topic since the 1980s. They largely follow the line set then by Deng Xiaoping, who promoted criticism against the GPCR while silencing those who held Mao personally responsible for its excesses. New names have not been allowed into the field in decades. That said, those who publish abroad or in Hong Kong, or post their writings online, are not persecuted. There are even several e-journals dedicated to the GPCR within China, run by self-trained scholars, though most terminated publication around 2016, when Xi tightened his grip on free expression. The journalist Yang Jisheng published articles on the GPCR in the influential liberal journal Yanhuang chunqiu (China through the ages) where he has also been an editor. This journal, too, was forcefully “rectified” in 2016. At the end of the author’s note of his new book, The World Turned Upside Down, Yang acknowledges many scholars and online databases in China, attesting to the serious interest in the GPCR among the Chinese. Yet, as the subtitle, “A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” indicates, Yang’s book is meant to be a comprehensive account of a subject that deserves the world’s attention.

This is Yang’s second book to be translated into English. The first, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (first published in 2008 and translated in 2012), won prizes and brought him international recognition. Where earlier studies had mostly relied on foreign intelligence, his pathbreaking work was the first to draw on secret documents from official archives within China. Though the Great Famine of 1958–1962 resulted from Mao’s fantastic industrialization project, the Great Leap Forward, it has, unlike the GPCR, not been officially recognized as a man-made disaster. Most of its victims, estimated at fifteen to forty-five million in total, were peasants who left hardly a trace in the public record. In fact, Yang’s own father was starved to death during the famine, a traumatizing experience which he connects to the regime’s policy in the book.

By contrast, there is a considerable body of international scholarship on the GPCR. Two major recent histories are Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) and Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 (2016). There have also been impressive studies with a narrower focus, including Andrew G. Walder’s work on the Red Guards and Joel Andreas’s on the “red engineers”; Yang Su’s Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution (2011); and Yiching Wu’s The Cultural Revolution at the Margins (2014). Yang’s new history thus serves as an addition, rather than a breakthrough.

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