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Up Against the Wall at Tsinghua U.

Some Chinese refer to their lives before and after the Cultural Revolution as if that storm of the Sixties were a religious conversion. Like John Bunyan writing with enthusiastic horror of his unregenerate days, the cadre or craftsman today says he was chief of sinners before 1966, then as grace abounded in the form of the cultural revolutionary line he suddenly saw previously unrecognized differences between dark and light. Recent visitors to China who knew the country only before 1949, as well as those in China for the first time, have naturally been swayed by such testimony. Yet, as I recall from a visit in 1964, China was hardly a cesspool of capitalistic tendencies before the Cultural Revolution.

Was it all necessary, the turmoil, the deep soul-searching, the fighting and polemics, the (usually temporary) purging of “capitalist-roaders” and later of “ultra-leftists”? Was the Cultural Revolution as successful as is claimed by those who now look backward with the cup of victory in their hands? Is China today more proletarian and socialist than a decade ago? Have the youth become sturdy pines instead of hothouse plants, as Mao Tse-tung wished?

Few Americans have seen as much of the Chinese revolution at first hand as has William Hinton, who is now a farmer in Pennsylvania. He went to China as a UN technical officer during the Forties and stayed on after 1949. He wrote a marvelous book, Fanshen, about the rural transformation in the northwest, and later another fine book, Iron Oxen, about modernization and social change in agriculture. These valuable studies were published only after the author had been harassed by the US government. The notes for Fanshen were taken from him by US Customs and the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security and held for some time. Until recently Hinton’s was a small and lonely voice, drowned out among those commentators on the Chinese scene who were calling the Chinese communes mad or evil or both. A not untypical view before the Cultural Revolution was that of Lucien Pye, who said the communes were “lunacy,” a “form of Chinese madness.” 1 After the Cultural Revolution a characteristic opinion was that of Theodore White, who wrote that the Chinese “must be brought to recognize they are the biggest factor in the world’s disorder, and we must untangle the madness of their minds.”2

But long delayed acceptance of the fact that China poses no threat to the US has put softer things on the tongues of most commentators. Even Joseph Alsop has lain down like a newly religious lion with the very lamb of Peking communism he once took to be a menacing monster. With the publication of his two new books on politics and ideology, Hinton will be more seriously listened to.

Hundred Day War tells of two years of political struggle at an important university in a nation where universities are particularly important. At one level the struggle of the cultural revolutionaries at Tsinghua University was aimed at replacing the “stuffed duck” way of learning with the “method of enlightenment,” and at turning Tsinghua from a “center of learning [into] a liaison center for learning from the university of life.” But at a second level the meetings, posters, spears, and loudspeakers Hinton describes were also props in a national political struggle, and he does not satisfactorily explain the connection between this national aspect of the Cultural Revolution and what happened at Tsinghua.

Hinton’s book nevertheless throws new light on the Cultural Revolution. Much information about the Cultural Revolution comes from scattered documents whose weight and setting are not always clear, or from secondary studies so generalized that the dynamics of the movement remain obscure. But Hinton used his great gifts for concrete reporting by going for nineteen days to Tsinghua University in 1971 and recording in detail what he was told about the events between 1966 and 1968.

In 1966 the Party called on people in the universities to weed out “revisionists,” i.e., backsliders into capitalistic ways. Students and others at Tsinghua were quickly stirred to the high pitch of ideological extremism and organizational fussiness that has often marked Chinese student movements. The issues were not always clear among the students, nor had they anticipated that such powerful men as Liu Shao-ch’i, the head of state, would be targets of the Cultural Revolution. Yet if the goal was vague, the chase itself was exciting. Many students found in the spontaneous excesses of those days personal liberation from the collective constraints of Communist Party rule during previous years.

One son of a poor peasant named Kuei Ta-fu underwent a pumpkin-to-coach transformation that can have few historical parallels. From an unknown student he became in a few months a kind of commanding general of an army of young people. Jeeps, telephones, arsenals, radio time were soon at his disposal; he conferred gravely with high party leaders from Mao down; his emissaries swarmed all over China on precocious tasks of intelligence and subversion; he decreed life or death for opponents who fell into his clutches.

Unfortunately there arose one of the recurring evils of Chinese politics—factionalism—with fateful consequences for the Cultural Revolution. It proved easier to work together for pulling down than for building. As increasing numbers of university people withdrew skeptically into their private concerns, a core of activists grew ever more brittle in their politics and shattered like a boxful of biscuits. Thus when Kuei sent his men to root out “capitalist-roaders” from the army at Nanking (where the commander of the military region was Hsu Shih-yu, who survived the rebels so well that he is today among the top ten leaders of China), they split into an “Excellent Faction” and a “Fart Faction.” (This elegant label derived from the cry of “You’re worse than a bunch of dogs making wind” with which members of the second faction greeted the first faction’s cry, “The situation is excellent.”) Instead of tackling the army the two groups tore into each other with grenades and machine guns until Premier Chou and Mrs. Mao intervened.

If revisionists were the first target of the Cultural Revolution, factionalism and excess brought about a situation in which “ultra-leftism” became the second target. Broadly speaking this change coincided with the active entry of the army into the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Puzzles abound at this point: Did Mao not foresee the factionalism? Did he originally intend to have the army intervene? Ironies abound as well, for after Hinton left China in 1971, parts of the army itself became a third target. One result was the fall of Defense Minister Lin Piao and other high military officials, and another the pruning during 1972 of the army’s role in tasks beyond its military expertise.

At Tsinghua, Peking workers rather than the army arrived to enforce upon the intoxicated academics a fragile unity. They managed to organize a “revolutionary committee” of diverse Red Guards, workers, and other elements. But only after twenty-four hours of bloody fighting:

…a hand grenade came bouncing down one of the stairwells. Wang Sung-lin, a worker from Machine Tool Factory No. 2., threw himself on it. The grenade exploded under his stomach, rupturing him badly. As he raised himself with both arms to see if anyone else had been hit, a spearman rushed at him down the same stairwell and ran him through the chest.

The workers later described themselves as “black above and red below”: black from the ink tossed on them by students and red from the blood of their own wounds. The astonishing moderation of the workers suggests that even today the Chinese intellectual has not lost all of his traditional high status. It reminds us, too, how much more violently students in the US have at times been treated after far less provocative behavior. Five workers died that day at Tsinghua and 731 were seriously wounded, yet according to Hinton no students were harmed.

Kuei Ta-fu objected to the workers and their Propaganda Team entering his domain and declared that the team had been dispatched by a “sinister hand.” At a dawn meeting with Kuei and other student leaders, Chairman Mao—so rebellious of spirit himself, yet now in tears at the sectarianism of the new generation of rebels before him—finally took what may have been a most reluctant stand and bluntly informed Kuei: “If you are looking for a sinister hand, I am that sinister hand. I sent the Team. You will have to blame me.” Mao told Kuei that he had a “swollen head,” as was promptly proven when Kuei went back to the campus. Disregarding Mao’s personal authority in a way that is rare in post-1949 China, he blandly said that Mao had not criticized him but supported him. The government leadership now insisted on unity at Tsinghua, under pain of military occupation. Kuei, along with militant leaders from other campuses, fell into the bottomless marsh of criticism and self-critcism. The coach was again a pumpkin.

As an account of one episode in the Cultural Revolution, Hundred Day War is a rich and important book with significant glimpses into Chinese society and politics. Hinton shows that mass meetings can be quite democratic and open-ended. The Communist Party even at the height of the Cultural Revolution was not eclipsed, as is widely believed. And the book makes it clear that in Chinese politics the bonds of family still count for much, as wives and children make use of a man’s connections, and a person’s choices are affected by his origins.

Readers who think the Peking government is a despotism will be surprised to see how difficult it was for Chungnanhai (China’s White House) to flick a switch and produce results; they will be startled to learn what pains were taken to persuade the people before commanding them. Hinton shows how the choice of which Mao quotations were to be put at the top of a document caused deep argument, which makes it absurd to say that because all Chinese cite Mao they are mental robots. Theorists sold on the notion that for psycho-cultural reasons Chinese youth are still conformists will be puzzled to find that many of the youth of the Cultural Revolution asserted themselves with such romantic boldness.

If Hundred Day War is a Peking Duck from Mr. Hinton’s kitchen, Turning Point in China: An Essay on the Cultural Revolution is in my opinion a rather flavorless chop suey, and for this there are several reasons. Written before Hinton went back to China in 1971, the essay is long on preaching and short on information, and its use of documentary sources is rather selective. It is so angry with official America—Mr. Hinton lumps government, press, and scholars together as a ruling class—that you almost get the impression that the alleged sympathy of the American ruling class for Lui Shao-ch’i was a major factor with which the Maoists had to contend. Imperialism is arrogant; so is that reverse imperialism of the far left which thinks that the US is at the root of all the world’s affairs.

Hinton’s explanation of the Cultural Revolution in Turning Point is not always borne out by the detailed account from Tsinghua. In the earlier book he argued that the Cultural Revolution was a decisive class struggle for power between socialism and capitalism. Whereas in Turning Point Hinton brushes aside doubts that the oppositionists were a coherent organized group, at Tsinghua he was honestly puzzled that he could find no hard evidence of conspiracy by ultra leftists. Hundred Day War cautions readers at the start:

Who can be trusted to sum up what happened? Who can interpret its real meaning? A dogmatic, sectarian spirit associated with the influence of Lin Piao still colors some people’s thinking. What actually happened tends to get mixed up with what should have happened. [Emphasis added]

How true that is, as is the author’s careful statement that he “traveled to China too early to unravel the full story of the Cultural Revolution.”

Yet the earlier essay claims to offer the meaning of the full story and rails against anyone who does not see that it was a “turning point in history [to be] compared with the Russian Revolution of 1917.” Turning Point speaks smoothly of revolutionary committees as a new form of direct mass rule, but Hundred Day War hints at the fragility of their supposed unity. It is also awkward that Turning Point locates Lin Piao in the socialist camp, while Hundred Day War finds him in the capitalist camp! I do not criticize Hinton for failing to foresee Lin’s fall, but this failure is especially embarrassing for his particular interpretation of the Cultural Revolution.

If the Chinese people did not suspect in advance that Liu would be a target of the Cultural Revolution, as Hinton concedes, or that Lin would be a target of its aftermath, as Turning Point makes clear, can the Cultural Revolution have been the deep clearcut class struggle that Hinton says it was? (One also wonders why the American ruling class, whose “all-out support…to the opposition forces in China was an indication that the latter were, in fact, the ‘Party people in authority taking the capitalist road,’ ” had to wait until 1967 and a signal from Mao before knowing who were their soul brothers in China.)

Once again the invaluable detail that Hinton amassed at Tsinghua supports such doubts. In the “big events of 1967” he found that “most of the people involved…were completely unaware of the larger aims.” When the 1966 Work Team (a group loyal to Liu Shao-ch’i and not to be confused with the Workers Propaganda Team of 1968) went to Tsinghua, Kuei objected to its arrogant methods, not its class line. In the Nanking fiasco, one group in the campaign against General Hsu Shih-yu so resented the high-handed ways of other groups who questioned the depth of their opposition to Hsu that they totally reversed themselves on the basic issue: “Finally we decided that since everyone seemed to believe we really supported Hsu, maybe we had better turn around and support him in fact. We…then came out on Hsu’s side….” Not surprising in student politics; but are “turning points” in historical class struggles made of such stuff?

A band of militants who went on a mission to change the class line of Sinkiang province recalled its arrival in the far west: “When we arrived in Urumchi, we didn’t talk to anyone. We just asked the way to Sinkiang University, even though we weren’t sure there was such a place.” (This does not seem to reflect serious study of Mao, who has stated, “No investigation, no right to speak.”) A high Sinkiang official greeted the students and offered them some famous Sinkiang melons for refreshment. They told him not to “talk crap like this” for they had not come to eat melons but to “discuss your class line.” Yet a couple of days later they were bitterly complaining of getting only boiled potatoes and navy bread to eat, and their problems about supplies and their status seemed to push class struggle to a back seat. The Cultural Revolution that Hinton investigated in China was simply more complex than the Cultural Revolution that he lectured about before he went to China.

In a splendid passage in Hundred Day War a former black cadre who had changed his ways sums up what had been learned in the Tsinghua storm: the struggle for socialism must continue long after the first capture of revolutionary power; every young leader is a target for the revolution as well as one of its moving forces, and he cannot reform others without reforming himself; it is not polite fiction but reality that one learns from the masses, and to divorce oneself from the masses is to sell out socialism.

In these respects and others the Cultural Revolution deepened Maoist-socialist values in China. Education, for example, has been made more proletarian in recruitment, style, and purpose, and theory and practice are better integrated than before—in ways that other countries could not easily accept but still may observe to their profit. Yet in general it is the social atmosphere of China that has changed; actual policies in the countryside and industry alike are not so different. In Turning Point Hinton says that the policy of buying jets instead of making them in China was the policy of Mao’s opponents, yet since the Cultural Revolution China has bought many jets from Britain, France, Russia—and even from the American ruling class.

The Chinese are human beings as well as socialists and it is true both that there were dark features to the Cultural Revolution and that the overall trend is toward a stronger and more just nation. The Cultural Revolution did not weaken China, as right-wingers throughout the world claimed it would; and it gave Mao a freer hand for his new foreign policy line championing independence and opposing both superpowers. But the Cultural Revolution was concerned not only with class struggle, and an open mind has as yet to be kept about how organized were certain “conspiracies.” International pressures—especially relating to Vietnam—and disputes in which no large issues were involved also partly explain what happened.

One cannot understand Chinese youth only by asking where they stand on the old conflicts with the Kuomintang, feudalism, America. The very success of China since liberation has leveled out the mountains and valleys of earlier struggles into choices of undulating ambiguity. This is why moral judgment in the case of the Cultural Revolution cannot be black and white as it was in Hinton’s classic account of land reform a quarter century ago. Is a cadre who grows complacent a bad egg in the same way as a landlord who starved peasants through usury? Can a student who falls in love with a professor’s wife be labeled a “black element” just as bad as a Kuomintang general who betrayed his people to the Japanese?

When K’ang Sheng of the Politbureau saw some Kuei Ta-fu leaflets attacking the line of certain military commanders he cried out: “People without hate for the revolution could never write such things.” Hate is not, I think, involved; these youths simply had a thinner sense of the reality of revolutionary struggle than had K’ang Sheng and his colleagues. When the Regiment faction at Tsinghua lambasted the Fours faction as “Kuomintang,” their impulses simply cannot have had the same meaning as for a revolutionary who has actually fought the Kuomintang.

When the Workers Propaganda Team entered Tsinghua, a student who was being criticized burst out: “Surely you can’t say that I oppose Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party. No one in my village ever went to a university before Liberation. Without the Communist Party I’d never have had a chance to study. Without the Communist Party I might not even be alive. I’m for Mao and the Party with my whole heart and soul.” Hinton’s book would be worth reading for this poignant testimony alone. The nature of this student’s loyalty to Mao and Party is startling. His statement may yield little to class analysis, but it tells much about why the Chinese government enjoys overwhelming support from the Chinese people, and it suggests that future steps on the 10,000 li march of the Chinese revolution will not retrace the steps of the past.

  1. 1

    Lucien Pye, The Communes: A Microcosm of Chinese Communism (MIT, 1964), p. 3.

  2. 2

    Theodore White, China: The Roots of Madness (Norton, 1968), p. 129.

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