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Look Back in Anger

To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman

recounted by Yue Daiyun, written by Carolyn Wakeman
University of California Press, 405 pp., $17.95

After the Nightmare: A Survivor of the Cultural Revolution Reports on China Today

by Liang Heng, by Judith Shapiro
Knopf, 240 pp., $16.95

Warm Winds, Cold Winds: Intellectual Life in China Today

by Judith Shapiro, by Liang Heng
Wesleyan University Press, 197 pp., $17.95

The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective

by Tang Tsou
University of Chicago Press, 351 pp., $29.95

All of the four books under review examine the nature and the aftereffects of Mao’s revolution, which attacked special privilege under the battle cry of “class struggle.” His populist egalitarianism took as a target even the intellectual elite, who are so necessary to modernization. Since Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms seem to have left “class struggle” far behind. Is it dead or only dormant?

Before they came to power Mao and his colleagues had developed class struggle as a rationale for peasant rebellion. But once in power, Mao enlarged this style of mass revolution with two great fiascoes, first the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1960, second his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. The Great Leap Forward (GLF) came after the People’s Republic had followed the Soviet model of industrialization for almost a decade since 1949 but found it unsuited to China. As an alternative the GLF pursued Mao’s specialty. It mobilized China’s rural masses in a great nationwide campaign, using China’s greatest resource, its labor power, in order to create (somehow) a Chinese-type socialist modernization. It didn’t work out. In fact the GLF began by condemning about half a million of China’s other resource, its “intellectuals” (high school graduates or above) as “rightist” enemies of the revolution. Mao and his colleagues, including Deng Xiaoping, put those intellectuals out of action to make way for what they hoped would be worker-peasant-soldier successors.

Class struggle” was pushed much further in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). In 1966 Mao fielded teenagers as “Red Guards” to attack everything old, including bureaucrats and Party leaders, the entire establishment of which the intellectuals were a part. Immense destruction ensued. The universities closed. Deng Xiaoping and many others at the top were put through a grinder of vilification, struggle meetings, organized humiliation, and labor reform or imprisonment, with much violence and many deaths. Horror stories of the GPCR are still coming out, ten years after Mao died in 1976.

Because the Chinese revolution has had to march, or sometimes stumble, forward on the two legs of economic modernization and social change, we may understand “class struggle” as the shortcut to breaking up the old China’s social structure of a tiny elite ruling over the village masses. We egalitarian-minded Americans have to remember that literacy and the scholar have been closely involved with the Chinese ruling power ever since the Shang kings at Anyang around 1500 BC made decisions by consulting the ancestors and spirits and then had their scribes record the auguries on “oracle bones” in the earliest form of Chinese writing. The scribes and their writing served the ruler. Power-holding, scholarship, and culture have clung together ever since. From the peasant point of view, Mao’s attack on intellectuals as part of the old establishment may have made sense even if it proved to be no way to modernize China.

To penetrate beyond this simplistic first approximation of what Mao was up to, we can now get insight from reminiscences of survivors of the Cultural Revolution. They show us at once that an entire set of Chinese ways and attitudes were fed into the GPCR cauldron. Among these were the unquestioning dependence of all people upon the dictates of the constituted state authority; everyone’s persistent acknowledgement of the special status of the intellectual elite; and the elite’s use of personal connections (guanxi, kuan-hsi) to circumvent bureaucracy and secure special favors as the only way to get ahead in the world. These customs are of course not a monopoly of the Chinese except in their degree of prevalence. Combined with the preeminent concern for family, they helped maintain the intellectual elite’s inherited self-image that gave them the self-confidence, adaptability, and persistence to survive.

All these features emerge from Yue Daiyun’s remarkably frank account, which has been put together by Carolyn Wakeman. It suggests that as study of China continues, Mao’s role will shrink from that of originator to merely orchestrator of the revolution. The social problems he addressed so heavy-handedly will still demand attention as the economy modernizes.

Yue Daiyun’s life story is valuable on two counts: first as a dramatic narrative of how to survive a revolution while participating in it; second, as a well-analyzed case history of the vicissitudes of one upper-class intellectual. Yue is born in 1931 into an academic family. She is the daughter of a teacher of English literature, and one of her uncles studied chemistry at Harvard, another geology at Hamburg, and another medicine in Shanghai. Sure enough, in a typical diversification of roles, the second son “studied business and became manager of the family enterprises.” Her life begins at the top.

It is also well-timed. She enters Peking University in 1948, just as the Guomindang is incontrovertibly losing the Mandate of Heaven. She at once becomes active in the underground of the Chinese Communist Youth League, and on July 1, 1949, before the final victory, is admitted to the Communist party. With energy, intelligence, and a capacity for group leadership she becomes a prominent student, leading the celebration of the May Fourth movement (of 1919) in 1950 and then going as a delegate to the Second World Student Congress in Prague. On return she has experience in the south with a land reform team. On graduating from Beida (the abbreviation for Peking University) in the summer of 1952 she is selected as the graduating class representative and joins the faculty as a teacher of Chinese literature. By September she has married the university vice-president’s son and lives with his family on the Beida campus. In 1953 she has a daughter and in 1957 a son.

Yue is in the upper crust but Mao’s revolution is not over. Not all the intellectuals have accepted his ideas and goals. He decides to weed out the unbelievers. When his Anti-Rightist Campaign begins in the summer of 1957, Yue Daiyun heads a four-person faculty committee to provide evidence against any department members who should be denounced as “bourgeois rightists.” They are expected to find a certain number of such people among their colleagues. Her committee sets to work scrutinizing everyone’s statements in earlier discussions about how to improve things, and duly comes up with five names. A real witch hunt in action! But as chief inquisitor, Yue betrays no qualms about framing her well-intentioned colleagues, who obviously have no rights except to be victimized. She remarks that “singling out incriminating sentences…is how guilt was established at that time.” Such a blatant confession (by American standards) gives the reader confidence in the general validity of her account of herself.

In January 1958 Yue is herself a victim. “Now it was my turn,” she says. She has come from an undoubted bourgeois background and has still some liberal proclivities which cannot be offset by her devotion to the Party and Chairman Mao. Thus she is vulnerable to attack by ambitious younger aspirants for upward mobility. On specious charges she is judged guilty as a “rightist,” expelled from the Party and indeed from “the people” as their enemy. Her children may expect to be stigmatized and underprivileged ever after. Suddenly she is ostracized. Old friends don’t know her. She is a pariah.

Sent to a village to help build a reservoir, she learns fast—first, how to carry eighty-five-pound loads of rocks down from the mountain. Second, how to lie. A friend counsels her, “Now we are enemies of the Party, we must admit we are guilty.” This will “help the Party by confirming the correctness of its policy.” Yue is at first revolted by this expedient dishonesty but she quickly learns to live by it. Another rule she learns is that before the all-powerful authority of the Party, the overriding necessity is to preserve yourself. To help others, even to talk, will endanger you.

After two years’ manual labor among the peasants she comes back to Beida in a minor teaching position. When the Cultural Revolution erupts in 1966 she is again a target and is denounced by the Red Guards. As late as 1969 to 1971 she is a laborer building the Beida-Qinghua cadre school on the barren shore of Lake Poyang south of the Yangtze. By this time she has learned all about carrying water and refuse, making bricks, using bamboo, and eating rough peasant food. This repeated experience of adversity, from which she returns each time to resume academic work, makes her an insider in the revolutionary struggle by which Chairman Mao is trying to bring worker-peasant-soldier students into universities so that higher education will cease to be a monopoly of the upper class.

Yue Daiyun has found that to get along, you go along. She sees injustice on all sides, but keeps her head down, works hard, and earns approval. Quite contrary to her personal convictions she delivers lectures in support of Chairman Mao’s literary line or whatever else is the Party policy of the moment. She feels compassion for the suffering of others but her outraged feelings must be kept to herself. She is nonideological but conscientiously obedient. She confesses to guilt she never feels and to crimes she never committed. The normal collectivism of Chinese life as well as the emotional intensity of the revolution sweep her along. The Red Guard or the village cadres or the military in charge of the cadre school may all make egregious mistakes and commit obvious injustices but there is no recourse except to bear it in silence. One feels that this low standard of moral life is part of China’s general poverty.

As the kaleidoscopic chaos of the GPCR unfolds, Yue keeps on working hard (she is in her thirties and healthy) and coping with shifting doctrines and factions, but gradually loses her faith. The two constant motifs running through Yue’s mind are first her trepidation about what may happen next and second her intense concern for the advancement of her children. To secure their entrance to university she uses all possible connections in the commonly accepted Chinese manner. She gets a contact to introduce her to a member of the admissions committee and other top authorities to whom she takes lavish presents as part of the customary lubrication of interpersonal relations when asking favors. Her struggle is so successful that by 1984 her daughter is pursuing a graduate degree in computer science and living with her husband in New York City, while her son is studying for a Ph.D. in physics and living with his wife in New York State.

Yue’s husband is one of those facile intellectuals who are picked up by political leaders to be proponents of their policies. But Tang Yijie suffers from poor timing; by 1965 he is close to the Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping leadership just before they become targets of the Cultural Revolution. At its end, however, he is one of a select group of professors used as a brain trust and writing staff by the Gang of Four just before their fall. Yet he survives and becomes chairman of Chinese literature at Beida.

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