IN FEBRUARY 1970 a 16-year-old boy, Zhang Hongbing, denounced his mother to an army officer in his village in Anhui province, in eastern China. He slipped a note under the officer’s door accusing her of criticising the Cultural Revolution and its leader, Mao Zedong. She was bound, publicly beaten and executed. Decades later Mr Zhang began writing a blog about the tragedy, seeking to clear his mother’s name and to explain how her death happened. “I want to make people in China think,” he wrote in April. “How could there be such a horrifying tragedy of…a son sending his mother to execution? And how can we prevent it from happening again?” Mr Zhang suffers recurrent nightmares about his mother. So does China about the Cultural Revolution.
What documents at the time called “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutionary bugle to advance” first sounded 50 years ago, on May 16th 1966, when Mao approved a secret circular declaring war on “representatives of the bourgeoisie” who had “sneaked into the Communist Party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture”. Just over a year later Mao wrote to his wife, Jiang Qing, that he wanted to create “great disorder under heaven” so as to achieve “greater order under heaven”.
He achieved only the first. Between May 1966 and Mao’s death in 1976, which in effect ended the Cultural Revolution, over 1m died, millions more were banished from urban homes to the countryside and tens of millions were humiliated or tortured. The Communist Party does not want any public commemoration of those horrors. Though it has called the Cultural Revolution a “catastrophe”, it fears that too much scrutiny might call into question the party’s fitness to rule. But debate about it still rages on the internet in China, and even occasionally surfaces in mainstream publications.
Its wounds are still raw. On May 2nd the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square held a gala concert featuring “red songs” of the period, triggering uproar on social media. Xi Jinping, China’s president, was himself a victim. Yet his seeming fondness for Mao, his contempt for Western liberal thinking and his ruthless campaigns against political enemies cause some to see parallels between China today and that of Mao’s later years (see article). Like an unexorcised demon, the Cultural Revolution still torments China.
To most outsiders, the period was one of those episodes of unreason that can afflict a great nation, comparable, say, to France’s reign of terror in 1793, though that nightmare lasted only ten months and claimed fewer lives. The Cultural Revolution involved three years of mob violence and an entire decade of terror (or more—even in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution was officially described as having been “triumphant”).
It was a time of ignorance and folly. “They beat her to death with their clubs,” wrote a student about his teacher. “It was immensely satisfying.” Schools and universities closed for months or years on end. When it reopened, Beijing Middle School Number 23 was held up as a model for devoting many hours to Mao Zedong Thought and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and for dedicating “a very limited amount of time…to general cultural knowledge (for example, Chinese, mathematics and foreign languages).”
The struggle of memory
It was a time of devastation. The demolition of ancient monuments by Islamic State in the Syrian city of Palmyra was an echo of what happened in Qufu, Confucius’s birthplace in eastern China, in 1966. Groups of Red Guards (Maoist youth gangs) took over the Confucian temple there, a great national treasure, and smashed it up. They destroyed thousands of manuscripts, ancient stone tablets and other “feudal property”. Of the 6,843 officially designated places of cultural and historic interest in Beijing, Red Guards vandalised 4,922.
Above all, it was a time of death. In Wuhan, in central China, where 54 rival Red Guard groups fought it out, middle-school students were paid 50 yuan (roughly a month’s wages) by gang leaders to kill children in rival factions. “I killed five kids with my star-knife,” wrote one teenager. In Daxing, on the southern outskirts of Beijing, 325 people from “landlord and rich peasant families” were killed in one night, with most of the bodies dumped down a well. A Chinese journalist who visited in 2000 was told of an old lady and her granddaughter being buried alive. “Granny, I’m getting sand in my eyes,” the child cried. “Soon you will not feel it any more,” came the reply.
In a nightmarish confluence of class hatred and reversion to primitive custom, it is claimed that victims in Guangxi, a province in southern China, were eaten according to rank. In “The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History” (see article), Frank Dikötter quotes a local account asserting that “leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork, while ordinary villagers were only allowed to peck at the victims’ arms and thighs.”
Mr Dikötter estimates that between 1.5m and 2m were killed in political violence across China between 1966 and 1976. As a proportion of the total population (then 750m), that was smaller than the number of Chinese killed in pogroms in Indonesia just before the Cultural Revolution began. It was also eclipsed by the numbers killed in earlier episodes of violence and calamity inflicted upon China by its Communist leaders. Millions had died in purges of “landlords” and “counter-revolutionaries” in the early years after Mao’s victory in the civil war of the 1940s. Tens of millions perished in the famine Mao created with his “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s.
But what made the Cultural Revolution so unusual was its assault not only upon the lives but also on the values and norms by which people had lived for centuries. One of its core purposes was to accelerate the eradication of the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. So family ties, cultural traditions and Confucian principles of respect for the elderly and learning all became targets of Mao’s revolutionary fury. Ba Jin, a novelist, once called the Cultural Revolution China’s “spiritual Holocaust”—a stretch but perhaps an understandable one. In “Mao’s Last Revolution”, Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals quote the chairman as saying “this man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious, the better, don’t you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.”
But the Cultural Revolution was not anarchic for anarchy’s sake. It was manipulated by Mao to rid himself of rivals, real and imagined, and to purge the Communist Party of doubters of his wisdom. After the famine, Mao thought he was being sidelined. To reassert control, he called on students and workers to “bombard the headquarters”, that is, attack everyone in authority—except himself and those he had clearly signalled to be his allies. By 1968 almost three-quarters of the members of the Central Committee had been dubbed traitors or counter-revolutionaries. They included Liu Shaoqi, the state president, whom Mao had once tipped as his successor. Had Mao seen his revolution mainly as a means of defeating rivals, he might have stopped there. But he wanted it to go further. According to Chen Boda, Mao’s secretary in the early 1950s and later the Cultural Revolution’s chief propagandist, Mao thought that, when righting a wrong, one had to “go beyond the proper limits”. This he repeatedly did.
Disorder under heaven
Almost all countries struggle to come to terms with dark periods in their histories. Japan, for example, has failed fully to acknowledge its wartime atrocities. China is no exception. Both its government and its people wrestle with the story of the Cultural Revolution.
For many young people at the time, the Cultural Revolution was a thrilling experience, a period when those in authority were humbled and peasants and workers were encouraged to speak up (as long as they supported Mao); when students could travel free by train and meet comrades from other parts of China.
Zhang Baohua, a member of a group that promotes orthodox Maoism via a website in China called Utopia, recently wrote about China’s modern leftists commemorating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution with seminars, lectures and other public events. He admitted they are being kept low-key, lest the government stop them.
Many of today’s leaders spent their formative years in the Cultural Revolution. Of the seven members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the party’s highest organ, four others shared President Xi’s experience of banishment to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”, including: the prime minister, Li Keqiang; the chief ideologue, Liu Yunshan; and the anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan. The sister of another, Yu Zhengsheng, committed suicide after persecution by schoolmates. Mr Xi’s half-sister also committed suicide.
Many perpetrators survived, too many to prosecute. And millions were both perpetrator and victim. Red Guard torturers were tortured in their turn. Among a generation of educated teenagers sent to the countryside were some who had been vicious fanatics. And although for some of those rusticated the experience was liberating, for many others it was grim. Girls were raped; girls and boys starved. No wonder older Chinese do not want to revive such memories.
Thomas Plankers, a German psychologist, argues in “Landscapes of the Chinese Soul” that, in the few countries where people have come to terms with dark periods in their history, historians and public intellectuals have played vital roles in overcoming the reluctance of politicians and ordinary people to talk openly. That process has not happened in China.
One reason for the silence is private reticence. But another is Mao’s unique position. Whereas in the former Soviet Union, the chief perpetrator of terror, Joseph Stalin, had not been the founder of the Communist state (that was Vladimir Lenin), in China, Mao was both. At the end of his life, he described his two proudest achievements as the founding of Communist China and the launching of the Cultural Revolution. It is impossible to separate one from the other. “Discrediting Comrade Mao Zedong”, said Deng Xiaoping in 1981, “would mean discrediting our party and state.”
That could not be tolerated, so official historians, with Deng’s guidance, concocted a careful formula. In 1981 the Central Committee published a “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party”. It argued that Mao had “initiated and led” the Cultural Revolution, which it called a “grave blunder”. But “as for Lin Biao [Mao’s chosen successor in 1969-71], Jiang Qing and others…the matter is of an entirely different nature. They…committed many crimes behind his [Mao’s] back, bringing disaster to the country and the people.” And having established that, Deng said he hoped debate on major historical questions would come to an end. It was a sort of historical omerta.
And it has mostly been respected. A few memoirs have been published. In the late 1970s a so-called “scar” literature appeared, in which writers sought to describe their experiences. And in March Wang Meng, a former minister of culture under Deng, wrote in Yanhuang Chunqiu, a reformist magazine, that China bore an “unshirkable responsibility” to explain the politics of the Cultural Revolution. “The Chinese people should be doing this, the Chinese Communist Party should be doing this, Chinese scholars should be doing this. It is the duty of the Chinese people, to history and to the world.”
But public discussion is rare. Most Chinese historians have steered clear of writing about the period. Shapingba cemetery in the south-western city of Chongqing is the only one dedicated to the dead of the Cultural Revolution, bearing monuments to hundreds of Red Guards, most of whom were killed in battles with another faction. It is closed most of the year. Museums gloss over the period. And this year China’s leaders, who love to celebrate anniversaries at every opportunity, will draw a veil of silence over the decade.
Yet however much the Cultural Revolution is ignored officially, it casts a long shadow. Widespread abhorrence of it enabled the eventual rise of pragmatists led by Deng Xiaoping, who ushered in economic and social reforms. But it also exacerbated widespread disenchantment with politics; Rana Mitter, a historian at Oxford University, notes that older generations that suffered under Mao’s endless political campaigns and policy flip-flops transmitted their disillusionment to younger ones. Perhaps, Mr Plankers suggests, Chinese people are unusually determined to succeed in business partly in order to protect themselves against the randomness of power embodied in the Cultural Revolution.
Yet the reaction against a decade in which ideology trumped all has not helped China’s leaders think more profoundly about how to avoid the destructive caprices of unrestrained power. In a rare criticism of this omission, China’s then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, warned in 2012 that without successful political reform, “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again in China.”
The violence of the Cultural Revolution, and the many officials it claimed as victims, may explain why China’s liberalisation of the economy has not gone hand-in-hand with greater democracy. To Westerners, the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989 may have seemed a million miles from the Red Guards who had assembled there more than two decades earlier screaming Maoist slogans. But to China’s leaders, there has always been a connection: that the Cultural Revolution was a kind of “big democracy” (as Mao called it) in which ordinary people were given the power to topple officials they hated. The students in 1989 may not have been Mao-worshippers, but had they been given a chance, they would have acted just like the Red Guards, according to the logic of Chinese officials—with chaotic, vindictive rage. They produce no evidence. They do not need to. The nightmare of the Cultural Revolution continues to disturb the dream of Chinese democracy.