Chairman Mao Talks to the People, Talks and Letters: 1956-1971
The Second Chinese Revolution
The World and China, 1922-1972
You Can Get There From Here
Interpreting Chairman Mao and his revolution has become an industry. But to appreciate his achievements, Americans must grope for his structural ideas through the successive veils of the Chinese language, the Marxist-Leninist terminology, and Mao’s application of these European concepts to China. So Mao is perhaps best interpreted from Europe, where a peasant-feudal background makes the idea of class struggle more intelligible and socialism a more widely accepted ideal. American social scientists, on the other hand, so sincere and intent on empirical data, lack a national experience of peasant rebellion and foreign invasion. Feudalism and imperialism can hardly be the chief protagonists of history in American thinking as they can be in Eurasia.
Thus far, of course, no one has seriously tried to fit Mao into Chinese history. Any great revolutionary wants to leave history behind and start afresh. But of all peoples the Chinese are far and away the most history-conscious, and Mao’s speeches are full of historical allusions. China’s revolution is pre-eminently against the Chinese past, both feudal and imperialist. Supposing the new ideas of the revolution dominate conscious thought, what about the half or say two-thirds (or 90 percent?) of human conduct that remains unconsciously habituated, adjusted to the perduring environment? Understandably, Mao inveighs against old ideas and practices. But how far is his own institutional role like that of the old emperors?
For example, continuity in power. During the span of our American history since 1607, China has had two emperors who each ruled for sixty years (K’ang-hsi, 1662-1722; Ch’ienlung, 1736-1795). The Empress Dowager held power for more than forty years, 1861-1908. And now here is Mao, the old lady’s exact opposite in every conceivable way, except for longevity in power. Imagine if FDR were still in the White House, having been there continuously since 1932! Mao Tse-tung has led China’s revolution since 1935, some would claim since 1927. This says something about the Chinese readiness to accept a supreme personality—instead of our idea of the supremacy of law and due process.
Mao outshines all the emperors by being more creative. But he is also like the best of them in being the One Man at the top, the main font of wisdom and policy yet antibureaucratic, unpredictable, and even capricious, withdrawn from sight for months and then re-emerging like thunder and lightning. Can Chinese politics function without such a figure? Only a supreme personality of Son-of-Heaven proportions could twice in succession cashier his number two in the hierarchy (Liu Shao-ch’i in 1967, Lin Piao in 1971), like an emperor sacking his chief ministers, and yet bring back a cashiered number three like Deputy Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing, all the while remaining number one himself.
Until 1911, the Son of Heaven sat on top of a multi-layered ruling stratum of officials, upper scholar gentry, and lower landlord-merchant gentry, a privileged elite, hardly 5 percent of the population. Today, Mao’s unprecedented attack on this old ruling class …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.