Unknown Cultural Revolution

What was the Unknown Cultural Revolution?

The Unknown Cultural Revolution was the battle for the soul of the revolution and, though it’s not over even today, the peasants are gaining the upper hand. But first: a word from its sponsor:

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.  – Mao Zedong

Mao launched the 10-year Cultural Revolution in 1966. Both Western and Chinese critics  – the elites – hated the Cultural Revolution because it was a real revolution that introduced democracy to China and empowered hundreds of millions of peasants. If there’s one thing elites hate, it’s real democracy and if there’s one thing they hate more than real democracy, it’s an empowered citizenry. The Cultural Revolution spent ten years establishing both. First, some background.

Chinese peasants spent thousands of years submitting to authorities: emperors, nobles, officials, landlords, and warlords. The Cultural Revolution was the first time in China’s history that the local overlords (in this case, the Communist Party cadres in each town and village) were held to account by the local villagers. The Cultural Revolution is unique in being condemned by both Capitalist elites (always terrified of revolutions and democracy) and Communist elites (terrified of being non-elite) because it was a truly grass-roots revolution: Mao’s intention was to benefit the peasants–of which he was one–whose suffering and subjugation he understood well.

The greatest criticism leveled against both Mao as a historical figure and against his Cultural Revolution derives from the famine which coincided with it. Though China has a history of terrible famines, the worst excesses of this one could have been averted had officials told Mao the truth about it or simply handled food distribution equitably. But Mao’s strong personality so dominated the Politburo that his underlings painted a rosy picture of progress instead of confessing the dreadful state of affairs. Such toadying is common throughout Chinese (and all) history and, though Mao later confessed his responsibility when he learned the truth, he is rightly blamed for the catastrophe. Nonetheless, it is useful to keep it in perspective:

Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on famine, points out that in 1949 China and India had striking similarities in their social and economic development. But, Sen goes on to say, over the next three decades, “there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality, and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India.” As a result, Sen estimates that close to four million fewer people would have died in India in 1986 alone if India had had Mao’s health care system and food distribution network. (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 205, 214.)

Noam Chomsky made an interesting calculation using Sen’s data: “There is an anticommunist study called The Black Book of Communism. It talks about what it calls the ‘colossal failure’ of communism and accuses communism of having caused the deaths of 100 million people. Now even if that number were true, which it is not—still, as Chomsky puts it, and let me quote: “in India the democratic capitalist ‘experiment’ since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the ‘colossal, wholly failed…experiment’ of communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.” (Noam Chomsky, “Millennial Visions and Selective Vision, Part One,” Z Magazine (January 10, 2000) http://revcom.us/a/046/health-care-economy.html

Mao was both extremely pragmatic and a wild idealist. He was determined to change the 3,000-year-old, often cold and heartless, culture of China for the better, as this letter demonstrates:

Fei Xiaotong, China’s first sociologist, described Chinese people’s moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the last century. He pointed out that selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of the Chinese. “When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb ‘Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbour’s roof,'” wrote Fei. He offered the example of how the Chinese of that period threw rubbish out of their windows without the slightest public concern. Things are much the same today.

Under Mao, citizens were forced to behave themselves in both public and private spheres. Every March, people were obliged to go into the street to do good deeds: cleaning buses, fixing bicycles and offering haircuts. Now relaxed social control and commercialisation over the past three decades have led people to behave more selfishly again.

People are enjoying, and sometimes abusing, the vast personal freedoms that didn’t exist before. To start with, it is now safe to be “naughty”. Back in the early 1980s, when I worked at a rocket factory in Nanjing, one of my colleagues, a married man, was caught having an affair with an unmarried woman. He was given a three-year sentence in a labour camp and the girl was disgraced. In today’s society, having extramarital affairs or keeping an ernai – second wife or concubine – is as common as “cow hair”, as the Chinese would say. For a novel I am writing on prostitution, I have interviewed many prostitutes and ernai. Many see their profession as a way to gather wealth quickly, feeling few moral qualms.

China’s moral crisis doesn’t just manifest itself in personal life but also in business practice and many other areas. The high-profile “poisoned milk powder” case and the scandal of using “gutter oil” as cooking oil have shocked and disgusted people around the world. Last year an article, “Why have Chinese lost their sense of morality?”, in which the author tried to find an explanation, was widely read. He reasoned that China has introduced the concept of a market economy from the west but failed to import the corresponding ethics, while the traditional moral principles of China no longer fit the market economy model. – How Can I Be Proud of My China?  Lijia Zhang; The Guardian, UK

For a broader perspective, I warmly recommend these books:

The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village. This is a wonderful book: a brief, simple, and straightforward account of village life as it evolved over the 10-year period of the Cultural Revolution.  The emancipation of the villagers was exactly what Mao had hoped for.  It is sad to see how the local elites reasserted their control at the end.

The second book, The Battle for China’s Past, provides a broader perspective about the revolutionary experiment that China represents, and defends its successes against revisionist of historians in both China and the West.

And this article about the role of art in a revolution: Commemorating Mao’s “Yan’an Talks”Here’s a brief excerpt: The Chinese people, so long repressed by the feudal and bourgeois classes, did not need ‘more flowers on the brocade’ but ‘fuel in snowy weather.’” Mao then emphasized what he considered to be the political nature of all art: “In the world today, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines.  There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

For a closer look at some remarkably positive accomplishments during — and despite — the Cultural Revolution see “Science Innovation During the Cultural Revolution” by Fordham University’s Pr ofe ssor Darryl Brock.



Written by Godfree
Visiting China and studying it since 1967. Interested in its culture, politics, education and economy.