The Chairman's Willing Subjects

In the summer of 1967, a group of middle-school students, daughters of high-ranking officials in Beijing, forced their headmistress to crawl through a cement pipe and then beat her to death as she emerged. “These teenage girls,” wrote Yue Daiyun in To the Storm, her 1985 memoir of the Cultural Revolution, “ordinarily shy, mild, and gentle, had somehow become capable of unimaginable cruelty.”

That “somehow” betrays the author’s unwillingness to probe too deeply for fear of what she might uncover about her society. Yue’s tale is by no means atypical of the times, however. Today (save for a dwindling remnant of the faithful-not all of them Chinese), the years from 1966 to 1976 in China are almost universally seen as a time of terror, violence, and bloodshed; of families, friends, and colleagues turning against one another in their often vain efforts to save themselves from the revolution that was devouring the nation’s children.

Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard has studied the Cultural Revolution for years, and Michael Schoenhals found himself in the midst of it as a Swedish student in Shanghai at the time. Those unfamiliar with the story’s outline may be put off by the detail in this exhaustive treatment and by the large cast of characters. That would be a mistake. (The authors do give a helpful dramatis personae.) This book is not simply for China specialists, but for anyone interested in the ways regimes led by men such as Stalin, Hitler, or Mao not only kept themselves in power but also sought to draw their people into the terrifying dystopias of their visions.

Explaining such dictators is usually easier than explaining their dictatorships. Even if we can analyze Hitler or Mao, the problem remains of trying to understand the societies they ruled. In China’s case, easy generalizations about the Confucian tradition of deference to authority or about two thousand years of empire, are little help. Confucianism, after all, also preaches a social harmony far removed from the violence, torture, and murder of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s last revolution lasted just over a decade, from 1966 until the Chairman’s death in 1976. This attempt to build a new Jerusalem on an old man’s fantasies included a declaration of China’s independence from Soviet thrall and an approach to the problems of modernity that, while distinctly Chinese, proclaimed itself as a model to the world. It also masked a power struggle among factions in the party and government, in the army, and in intellectual circles (not for nothing was it a “cultural” revolution), all of whose protagonists vied with each other in protesting their loyalty to the “Great Helmsman.” Meanwhile, Mao almost managed to destroy both the party and the government that he had helped to create (the army, significantly, grew stronger), while power came into the hands of a small group of his close collaborators.

In the chaos that followed, faithful old party members, after a lifetime of service, were arrested, humiliated, tortured, driven to suicide, or simply left to die (like Liu Shaoqi, author of How To Be a Good Communist and Mao’s putative successor before the madness started). Encouraged to “make revolution,” rival groups of workers, students, and others fought and killed one another. Then the young Red Guards were rounded up and shipped off to the countryside to “serve the people,” their education abandoned and their careers blighted. Meanwhile, given contradictory orders both to “support the Left” and to “restore order,” the army behaved as might be expected, particularly in the virtual civil war of 1968 (whose coming, incidentally, Mao had toasted several months earlier).

With the army ascendant, in 1969 Marshal Lin Biao-“Chairman Mao’s closest comrade-in-arms,” as the party styled him-was named Mao’s successor. Two years later, he vanished mysteriously, supposedly after the failure of a plot to assassinate the Chairman and seize power. Old and sick, Mao never recovered from the blow, and as the violence and backstabbing continued, the revolution unraveled.

Today many Chinese consider Zhou Enlai-Mao’s premier-a hero who prevented even worse things from happening. In this book, however, he emerges as weak and compliant, unwilling to use his enormous prestige to check Mao’s destructive course. And yet, as the authors remind us, without the Cultural Revolution, we would not see the China we have with us today. For once the Chairman was gone and his closest associates-the “Gang of Four”-arrested, the nation’s leaders resolved never, ever to allow such things to happen again (despite Zhou Enlai’s call for future revolutions). The thousand gleaming spires of Shanghai and other such cities are today a sign, for good or ill, of a new dynamic that drives the country, and one that owes little to either Mao or Marx.

So how do we explain why those mild, well-mannered girls “somehow” beat their headmistress to death? China’s youth had been raised in the culture of violent struggle, the authors suggest, and though the violence was carefully controlled earlier, the restraints were lifted in the Cultural Revolution. With students free to assault their fellow citizens, “the result was the juvenile state of nature, nationwide, foreshadowed in microcosm by...William Golding in Lord of the Flies.”

In their controversial and problematic Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), Jung Chang and Jon Halliday leave no doubt that Mao’s power was founded simply on terror. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals offer a more complex explanation, if not ultimately a very different one, reminding us of the “Leader’s” enormous prestige, and detailing the ways he manipulated people and factions to make sure he remained the ultimate source of authority.

Perhaps in the end, though, it was not so much Mao who imposed a reign of terror on his fellow citizens as they who-at least during the dreadful years of the Cultural Revolution-imposed it on themselves. That is why this book’s interest reaches well beyond China. Perhaps someday a study by Chinese historians will surpass it; but for them the subject is still off limits.

Published in the 2007-02-23 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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