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The Incredible Shrinking Man

Just before the recent demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, which shook the Party to its foundations, a rumor ran through the capital: Mao Zedong’s body, embalmed and mounted in the ugly Memorial Hall which disfigures Tiananmen Square opposite the Forbidden City, was shrinking. The woman doctor who headed the team of experts that performed the taxidermy on the Chairman soon after his death in late 1976, conducted because the Party was afraid to follow the practice of cremating even its greatest heroes, issued reassurances that the body remained precisely the same as it always was. It was in effect well above average height for a Chinese. Perhaps, she suggested, a body lying down appeared less large than one standing.

It has become harder and harder to recall how awe-inspiring Mao was, in the eyes of the masses, his comrades, and many foreigners. “Red Red Sun in Our Hearts,” “Great Helmsman and Teacher,” he was consulted through his quotations by ping-pong champions during matches, surgeons conducting operations, and, during the Cultural Revolution, by diplomats in London as they ran information out of their embassy to confront the British police. The Party in 1945 declared him “the greatest revolutionary” in Chinese history and the “greatest genius of the modern age.” Chinese who treated disrespectfully even a scrap of paper with the Chairman’s words or picture on it risked arrest, and millions of Red Guards and others “reported” to portraits of Mao every morning and every evening as if he were the emperor or at least a noble ancestor. A Chinese intellectual in Nanking who was beaten and otherwise shamefully treated during the Cultural Revolution told me how years after the Chairman’s death in September 1976 she noticed a little heap of Mao badges lying in the gutter, finally discarded by some ex-devotee. A great fear seized her that someone, even then, could court disaster by throwing away anything connected to Him. In Beijing during the recent mass demonstrations I saw an agitated, horrified reaction sweep through the crowds after three hoodlums threw paint on the gigantic portrait of Mao that hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. When a new portrait was quickly produced—it was notable that a spare was available—the relief was palpable.

Mao’s words poured from the official presses: between 1966 and 1968 alone 150 million copies of the Selected Works were published, with an additional 75.8 million published by 1976. There were 140 million copies of Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Zedong, 96 million volumes of his poems, 740 million copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao—the Little Red Book—and, two years after his death, 28 million copies of Volume V of the Selected Works.1

Then came the fall. After Mao’s death, the arrest of the Gang of Four, and the descent into political oblivion of Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng (who had decreed that “whatever” the Chairman had ever done or said was gospel), the gigantic statues of Mao, once scattered throughout China, began disappearing. On a Beijing campus, one was blown to bits with dynamite, but others were quietly pulled down. The Little Red Book vanished from people’s houses, where it had been carefully on show, and it became surprising to discover the once ubiquitous portrait in peasant villages. It is already a matter of speculation how long the great portrait with the enormous chin wart will continue to hang over the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, where Mao once addressed hundreds of thousands of screaming, weeping worshipers, and where tourists now pay a hefty fee to stand. In the Memorial Hall, it is claimed, all costs of preserving the Chairman’s corpse are borne by the sale of souvenir Mao T-shirts, mugs, and ballpoint pens, and the Party is debating whether to move the body to Mao’s home village of Shaoshan, and to rededicate the hall to all revolutionary heroes.

By 1977 Mao’s surviving lieutenants—he had murdered dozens of his closest comrades—had reassembled and begun, cautiously, to dismantle his reputation. They still paid lip service to his Thought—as opposed to his thinking at any moment—and to his deeds as the revolutionary leader who had guided the Party to power in 1949. In 1981 came the official judgment, closely overseen by Deng Xiaoping, once Mao’s Party general secretary, and a lucky survivor of two purges during the Cultural Revolution. Although Mao’s contributions were deemed to be greater than his “errors” and his “tragedy,” the verdict delivered in a Party resolution was damning enough:

The cultural revolution, which lasted from May, 1966 to October, 1976, was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong. 2

But the condemnation did not start with the year 1966. In 1958, the resolution stated, ” ‘left,’ errors, characterized by excessive targets, the issuing of arbitrary directions, boastfulness and the stirring up of a ‘communist wind,’ spread unchecked throughout the country.” And with the Great Leap in that year came “serious losses to our country and people.”3 Of these, according to subsequently released official figures, famine claimed over 16 million victims, or according to Western estimates well over 25 million.4

This is the very time, 1957–1958, covered by the revealing collection The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao. Its main editor is Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard, whose books on the years just before the Cultural Revolution have made him the leading expert on the period. Mao initiated three great policies, Mr. MacFarquhar notes in his introductory chapter, which departed from past Soviet and Chinese Communist practices. Two of them, the Hundred Flowers of 1956–1957 and the Great Leap Forward, 1958–1960, were introduced in speeches, some of them the hitherto secret ones included in the book under review, while the third, the Cultural Revolution, came about in part because of Mao’s rage with those who had thwarted him during the two earlier periods.

Each of the three policies, MacFarquhar says, “was a disaster: the first for the intellectuals, the second for the people, the third for the Party, all three for the country.”5 It is hard, therefore, when reading these rambling, often banal, speeches, to remember the impact Mao’s words had not only on those peasants and workers near enough to hear or literate enough to read them, but on the Politburo, the Central Committee, the People’s Liberation Army, and, indeed, on many Chinese academics who have since confessed that they found anything Mao said so mesmerizing that when he began persecuting them at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution many of them, guiltstricken, imagined they deserved it. And in the West, highly trained specialists devoted years to treating Mao’s speeches—admittedly often in artfully edited form—not merely as calls to action from one of the most powerful men on earth—which they certainly were—but as texts deserving philosophical analysis.

Reading them today, however, reveals that while these speeches contain some departures from typical Communist dogma—Mao admits for instance that bad acts can occur within the socialist system, even by great leaders such as Stalin—they are unimpressive in conception and form. Had they been uttered by someone else, Harvard would not publish them and the Politburo of the late Fifties would have paid them little heed.

This is the opinion of Benjamin Schwartz, emeritus professor of history and political science at Harvard, and one of the leading specialists during the last thirty-five years on the thought of Mao. In the first sentence of his commentary Schwartz says:

I will confess at the outset that, for this reader, a perusal of these hither-to unpublished, informal utterances of Chairman Mao delivered before a variety of audiences during the crucial period running from the early months of 1957 to November 1958 do not, on the whole, enhance his stature.6

He has suddenly become doubtful, Mr. Schwartz admits, whether Mao Thought, in the Chairman’s later years, “had any autonomous inertial weight of its own which set bounds to his shifting states of mind”; 7 and he notes that “what becomes questionable is the degree to which the thought as thought established controls over the constraints on his shifting moods.”8

More deadly still is Mr. Schwartz’s description of Mao’s style and tone; although he refers to the celebrated “earthy humor” (this term, found as well in Mr. MacFarquhar’s and Merle Goodman’s chapters, seems to arise from Mao’s fondness for scatological images that would be tiresome in a schoolboy), and to his whimsy and “soaring exaltations,” Mr. Schwartz perceives in Mao not only “injured pride, deep resentment, and unexamined complacencies,”9 but more unappealing still “the menacing and bullying tone of his sarcasm directed against individuals and groups.”10

Another of the editors, Timothy Cheek, an authority on Chinese modern intellectual history at Colorado College, divides all Mao’s published speeches into three categories: “collective wisdom,” “genius,” and “historicist.” The first category, during the early Forties, was intended to demonstrate that Mao Thought summed up Chinese-style Marxism-Leninism and represented as well the Party’s collective wisdom. Stuart Schram and others have shown how carefully these speeches were edited and reedited so that the published versions always convey the current line, even though the original speech may have said something else. The edited speeches were the line. The second category, the “genius” collection, drawn together during the Cultural Revolution by enthusiastic anonymous Mao worshipers, was intended, according to Mr. Cheek, to portray Mao as a “lone genius” not subject to correction by any collective leadership, least of all by a party riddled with “capitalist roaders.”11 The third category, speeches published or republished since Mao’s death in 1976, is used by the post-Mao leadership to set the record straight and, often, to show that Mao often drew on the ideas of others.

The nineteen speeches in the book were selected from twenty-three volumes of talks and speeches which have appeared in the West during the last few years, amounting to over five thousand pages; with a few exceptions they were collected by enthusiasts during the Cultural Revolution so that no sacred word would be lost. Many of these texts, taken down by members of the audience when Mao delivered them, but not always accurately or intelligibly, were seized by Red Guards when they ransacked ministries or the houses of officials during their rampages. Mr. Cheek has established that the nineteen speeches—which Mr. MacFarquhar selected, and for which he wrote most of the extremely interesting footnotes—have not previously been published, and it is he who supervised the team of translators. Mr. Cheek believes these texts to be authentic, even if sloppily recorded, because the Red Guards, unlike some of Mao’s colleagues, rarely tampered with the words of the Great Teacher. He notes, however, that some statistics, which Mao got wrong, were changed into XXXs, and certain names were omitted (Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, for instance, were purged years after the speeches favorably mentioning them had been delivered) while others, such as the Gang of Four member Yao Wenyuan, appear with suspicious frequency.

But why should Harvard bother to publish such banal, and even ignorant, speeches, apart from the fact that they had never been published? The reason is that some of them record Mao thinking out loud, unrehearsed. He could talk for three or four hours on everything from class warfare to pharmacology, from how deep to plough to whether yams should be planted in smaller numbers, from what makes a good play to who invented the sleeping pill. For decades, speeches on such matters made things happen in the biggest Communist country. After he talked, there was a good chance that fewer yams would be planted. Mao’s comrades were obedient to the Chairman’s whims and transfixed by his personal projection of his power. In one speech he said, “During my visit to Tianjn tens of thousands of people gathered around me but at a single wave of my hand everybody dispersed,”12 and he often refers to the huge numbers of people it was necessary to execute only a few years earlier. But even his most slavish followers realized there was something dangerous, unstable, and megalo-maniacal about the Great Teacher and Helmsman. As MacFarquhar comments:

The fact that these speeches have surfaced after thirty years suggests that their circulation even among the Chinese elite was very limited, testimony to their embarrassing content…. The major speeches from the Great Leap period were not even bowdlerized for public consumption, so hyperbolic had Mao become at that time.13

In August 1958 at the leadership’s summer retreat at Beidaihe (to which the Party has recently promised the demonstrating Beijing students it will no longer go) Mao made grandiose predictions, which included this vision of the future for one of the world’s poorest countries:

Villages will become small cities where the majority of philosophers and scientists will be assigned; every large commune will have highways constructed, wider roads of cement or asphalt, with no trees planted so that airplanes can land. In the future every province should have a couple of hundred airplanes averaging two planes per township.14

Also at Beidaihe, while discussing plans for 1959, the first year of the catastrophic three-year famine that resulted largely from his lunatic policies, Mao assured his audience that famine could not happen.15 The next year, when millions were already dying of hunger, he purged those who had told him so. And to the same audience, which only a year or two before had heard him worry aloud about the dangers of overpopulation, Mao suggested that a population of one billion could be sustained in China.16 In 1959 he took care to put under arrest, for almost twenty years, Professor Ma Yinchu, China’s leading demographer, who had warned of the coming population crisis. In 1957 Mao, never modest about speaking on any subject, although he was similarly lighthearted about conceding mistakes later, announced, apropos of very little, that “childbirth is actually not painful; but once public opinion says it’s painful, it becomes painful…. There should be a conditioned reflex of another sort.”17 The speeches contain many similar idiocies. Mao explains that even a nuclear war ultimately would be a good thing for the socialist world, and how the eventual disappearance of humanity itself will be a mark of progress.

In the late spring of 1989, with the leaders unable to contain student protest and the possibility emerging of the alliance between intellectuals and workers—a possibility that terrifies the leadership perhaps more than anything else—we can see the lingering effects of Maoism on his comrades. Literature and art, among other creative activities, are still seen as simultaneously important and subversive—Mao wonders several times in these speeches why “bourgois literature” is better than the Party’s own stuff. Intellectuals, while necessary to production—Mao says that everything must be learned from them—cannot ultimately be trusted. Merle Goldman, of Boston University and Harvard’s Fairbank Center, a leading authority on Party anti-intellectualism, explores what Benjamin Schwartz calls Mao’s “central dyadic formula…namely the antithesis between the tasks of class struggle and the tasks of production.”18

In 1957 Mao entreated intellectuals, whose help in modernization he then recognized as indispensable, to speak their minds and even criticize the supreme leadership. Having recently been humiliated in a series of ideological campaigns in which their loyalties were questioned, the intellectuals, 80 percent of whom Mao describes as anti-Marxist but ultimately loyal, hung back. Against the advice of most of his colleagues, who distrusted intellectuals far more than he did, Mao, as Mr. MacFarquhar puts it, “hustled” to persuade the comrades to “let 100 Flowers Bloom and one Hundred Schools Contend.” But when the intellectuals suddenly did speak out, not sparing even the Chairman, Mao, alarmed by what had already happened in Poland and Hungary, launched a purge of hundreds of thousands of “rightists,” some of whom were not rehabilitated for twenty years.

That campaign of 1957, which foreshadowed far worse depredations during the Cultural Revolution, has never been wholly condemned by the Party; in the Resolution of 1981 it is described as “entirely correct and necessary” although “far too broad.”19 The man who oversaw that purge was then Party general secretary, now “senior leader,” Deng Xiaoping. Among those purged in 1957 were the journalist Liu Binyan and the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi; both were repurged in 1987, when students demonstrated, although far more tepidly than this spring, for democracy. (Mr. Liu and Mr. Fang have recently set out their views on China’s continuing struggle between repression and production in these pages.20 ) The man who ordered the rehabilitation of many rightists in 1980 and 1981 (he had tried to protect Liu Binyan in 1957) was Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whom Deng ordered to resign in 1987 for failing to curb the campus unrest, and whose death this April set off the newest wave of student protest.

At the heart of Mao’s Hundred Flowers,” writes Ms. Goldman, “was a fundamental ambiguity: he called for the expression of all points of view, but would not tolerate the articulation of basic disagreement with the policy itself…. All views were possible except those that disagreed with Mao’s.”21 Mao encouraged writers to speak—unless, he said, they ran “small secret organizations,” his way of saying they disagreed with him.22

Deng Xiaoping, who also says that intellectuals are necessary to modernization, recently admitted, as Mao would never have done, that education has been the greatest failure of the last ten years and he went so far as to say that the standard of living of academics should be improved. But Deng also launched campaigns in the early and mid-Eighties against “spiritual pollution.” He personally ordered the purging in 1987 of troublesome writers and thinkers like Liu, Fang, and the Party’s main ideologue, Su Shaozhi, who had condemned the Party’s lingering Stalinist habit of treating critics like enemies. In late April of this year it was Deng who enraged the students by calling them disloyal when they demonstrated against corruption and called for an end to autocracy. Some of the students I spoke to in Tiananmen Square in late April and just before the great defiance of May 4 had written posters attacking Deng by name. And although Deng had warned that continued demonstrations in the square would “cause bloodshed,” the young people, and their worker and civil servant allies, cheerfully marched straight through the lines of police drawn up against them.

One horrific aspect of Maoism has evaporated and the students know it. In 1957 Mao told the Party that “smashing with one blow” was no longer suitable for dealing with critics, but only a few years before he had approved the killing of over 700,000 “class enemies,”23 and he was responsible for many more deaths during the Cultural Revolution. But Deng and his colleagues had suffered and witnessed much suffering between 1966 and 1976, and they had no wish to revive mass punishment even though it meant the public humiliation of the security forces for many days in late April and early May. The Party lost its aura of legitimacy many years ago, leaving it with only one powerful weapon: terror. In its full traditional sense this is no longer available, except in Tibet, where the Party is prepared to wage what Standing Committee member Qiao Shi calls “merciless repression.”

Stalin, Chairman Mao observed, killed many members of his own Central Committee, and Mao claimed, “We don’t do this sort of thing.”24 But of course he did. Deng Xiaoping no longer seems willing to have people killed, and unless he wishes to appear in frightening contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Chinese students loudly praised during his frequently disturbed visit to Beijing in May, he won’t do so.

But during the last phases of the Beijing protests a rumor ran through the city that Deng had warned, “It would be worth killing 200,000 if it would guarantee twenty years of stability.”

The Party has warned every office and institution in Beijing and many other cities that further participation in the protest is forbidden. Intellectuals who have been willing to speak freely with foreign friends for the last six or seven years, and during the protests spoke with an astonishing lack of inhibition on radio and television, are now unavailable; some are in hiding.

Party members have had read out to them a “chuan da,” a Bill of Particulars against Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, upon whom Deng and his gerontocratic allies have fastened—someone in China must always be identified as the sinister force behind any sustained criticism. Zhao is now identified as the instigator of the protests and is accused of attempting to split the leadership. His policy-making teams, in four high-powered institutes, will now be investigated, scattered, and frightened away from China’s principle task—political reform.

The old Stalinists, who suffered under Mao but inherited his habit of treating adversaries like enemies, will soon die, and the millions of people who have been shouting for a new system will eventually move again to create one. But everyone in Beijing knows that the dead Mao, lying embalmed in Tiananmen Square, which was only recently filled with protesters, continues his frightening work.

  1. 1

    The Writings of Mao Zedong, Vol. 1, edited by Michael Y.M. Kau and John K. Leung (M.E. Sharpe, 1986), p. xxvi.

  2. 2

    Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (Foreign Language Press, 1981), p. 32.

  3. 3

    Resolution, pp. 28-29.

  4. 4

    Nicholas Lardy, in Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14 (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 370–371; and Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Great Leap Forward (Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 330.

  5. 5

    Secret Speeches, p. 3.

  6. 6

    Secret Speeches, p. 19.

  7. 7

    Secret Speeches, p. 20.

  8. 8

    Secret Speeches, p. 22.

  9. 9

    Secret Speeches, p. 20.

  10. 10

    Secret Speeches, p. 21.

  11. 11

    Secret Speeches, p. 82.

  12. 12

    Secret Speeches, p. 412.

  13. 13

    Secret Speeches, p. 4.

  14. 14

    Secret Speeches, p. 430.

  15. 15

    Secret Speeches, p. 420.

  16. 16

    Secret Speeches, p. 403.

  17. 17

    Secret Speeches, p. 370.

  18. 18

    Secret Speeches, pp. 24–25.

  19. 19

    Resolution, p. 27.

  20. 20

    See The New York Review, January 19 and February 2, 1989.

  21. 21

    Secret Speeches, p. 50.

  22. 22

    Secret Speeches, p. 289.

  23. 23

    Secret Speeches, p. 142.

  24. 24

    Secret Speeches, p. 58.

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