Mao’s last decade was as full of confusion and surprises as the 1790s in France. In size and complexity the Cultural Revolution was of course a much bigger event than the French Revolution. At any rate it will be studied from many angles for a long time to come. Probably its most arresting feature, in retrospect, was its disastrous attack on learning and intellectuals in the very land that had exalted scholarship and invented civil service examinations thirteen hundred years before. In fact, the two were not unconnected—learning was attacked in China because it seemed to be so entrenched in the establishment. This historical circumstance makes the Cultural Revolution hard to understand without reference to history. Some political scientists, however, are willing to try.

Because the twentieth-century Chinese educational system is roughly comparable with those in other developing countries, Jonathan Unger’s Education Under Mao began as part of a project sponsored by Great Britain’s Institute of Developmental Studies to seek “solutions to the ‘diploma disease’ that has beset the educational systems of many of the Third World countries.” To study the violent Cultural Revolution as a manifestation of diploma disease is like treating toxic shock under a diagnosis of chickenpox. But never mind. We used to give money to China research in the name of national defense.

To study China as part of the third world presumably answers the need for all social scientists to be comparative, whether or not comparison explains anything. Similarly Susan Shirk’s Competitive Comrades begins by noting that Mao’s political moralism resembled that of Rousseau and other revolutionary movements (Puritanism, fascism, satyagraha, Islam, Marxism) which have advocated “total ethical transformations.” She is a structuralist and says that “policy-generated structure is a better starting point for understanding behavior” than is the usual concern for psychological tendencies passed down through cultural tradition. One is tempted to ask her about the “culture-generated policy” that must lie behind the “policy-generated structure.”

To make an exception of an area like China on the grounds of cultural differences fostered by a long history is not feasible in her kind of social science. To be sure, Susan Shirk notes that Mao’s “moralism also was rooted in ancient Chinese tradition” and Unger seems historically well informed. His Appendix B notes that the Chinese literati “have always been associated with the political realm.” Both writers make a polite bow to history but prefer to go into contemporary situations and outward in space rather than backward in time.

In their comparative and contemporary world view, China stands, by definition and by its own policy statements, in the ranks of the third-world countries. If we look at the facts, China does indeed stand there, in size and age an elephant among rabbits. Comparing China with Ghana no doubt has theoretical value. To argue that China is a “nation imprisoned by its history,” as has been said, may of course be only another way of showing that Sinologists are imprisoned by their China. But if we grant that harping on China’s exceptionalism is parochially antiscientific, does this require that social scientists studying China try to fly blind historically? Does the behavioral approach rule out the genetic? Neither diploma disease nor third-world comparisons can account for the ferocity of the Maoist “class struggle” against the educational system.

To understand the origins of the Cultural Revolution we have to get some picture of the establishment it was attacking—not merely the Party apparatus under Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping but the Chinese bureaucratic habits Mao saw reappearing in the Party. This leads naturally back to the Chinese invention of bureaucratic government two thousand years ago in the Han period, and their subsequent inventions of paper, printed books, and civil service examinations. By one thousand years ago, under the Sung dynasty, the examination system was a major arm of the state. Down to its abolition in 1905 it recruited the indoctrinated elite needed to govern the masses—how to govern peasants having become the great Chinese specialty in the world’s most stable empire.

Where the Han had governed, say, 45 million peasants, the Ch’ing dynasty by 1900 was governing 300 million. Mao’s successors today have 800 million—more farmers than you can find in the Americas, Europe, Japan, and the USSR combined.

This is what made education so important. Once in power in 1949 Mao needed to establish institutions for his regime through an indoctrinated elite such as the examination system had formerly provided down to 1905 (when he was twelve years old). He needed persons trained in his state orthodoxy who could propagate his new social order. Since Party dictatorship had supplanted dynastic despotism as China’s system of government in the 1920s, Mao’s new elite had to be the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its cadres, “reds” committed to his revolution. How to train such activists through China’s educational system was a top priority.


It was not as easy as one might think. Until 1905 those who wanted to rise in the world had prepared for the old government examinations through private instruction in family and village; and the elite had also used some 300 semi-official academies, which were the only residential schools or colleges in the country. The examination system’s many-tiered, multi-channeled structure had fostered an “examination psychology” among men of worldly ambition, but it was not a public-school system and did not aim at mass education. It rewarded literary skill, orthodox thinking, and conservative morality if not bigotry, while offering little chance for technical specialization. But during the 1911-1949 interregnum of central power between the end of the Ch’ing dynasty and the takeover by the CCP, Chinese education had been rebuilt in modern style, first by organizing a school system on Japanese lines and then by setting up universities on largely liberal American models.

The products of this modern education, China’s twentieth-century intellectuals trained in science, technology, and the humanities, have been generally regarded as the nominal and sometimes spiritual successors of the traditional literati who won degrees in the old examination system. But this appearance is deceptive. China’s literati after 1905 had in fact proliferated and branched out to form a new intelligentsia that included journalists, writers, teachers, doctors, engineers, and all the other professionals. They were no longer mainly a talent pool of local gentry when out of office or civil servants when selected for state employment. They did not think with one mind; nor were they primarily devoted to propagating the state ideology and its doctrines of virtuous conduct. They were specialists, modern people whom leaders like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping after 1949 wanted to recruit as experts to help modernize China.

In short, it can be argued that the old examination degree-holders’ functional successors were not such modern experts but were really the new red Party cadres, a selected elite morally committed to the leader of the state and his vision of egalitarian revolution. For many centuries government in China had relied upon indoctrinated cadres. They were not a Soviet invention even though many of them thought they were. The fact that their ideas were now anti-Confucian could not change their function in the system. In some ways China’s modern diversified intelligentsia were more novel than the CCP cadres. Thus the stage was set for the “class struggle” of red versus expert.

Viewed in this historical perspective, the Cultural Revolution was a product of more than an old man’s frustration. It represented an inevitable conflict between the new ruler’s customary need for ideological loyalty and the modernizer’s need for special skills. Mao was highly traditional in conceiving of education as indoctrination. He deplored even the modern specialization that the CCP modeled on the USSR system in the 1950s, because it gave the specialist a basis for being independent-minded and potentially unorthodox, at least in his own specialty. But since the revolution to bring the peasant masses into politics was so long overdue in China, Mao faced the problem that school examinations would continue to favor the children of educated parents, and specialists recruited to modernize China’s technology would seldom come from the peasantry.

Mao had adopted the peasants’ ancient distrust of the literati as hangers-on of bureaucrats and local magnates. He also inherited the five-foot shelf of Chinese attacks on the old examination system from Wang An-shih (1021-1086) in the Sung to Ku Yen-wu (1613-1682) in the Ch’ing. Education in China had had a long and sophisticated history that had left residual attitudes and assumptions—for example, that brain and brawn are naturally separate, that learning is to serve society through the state, and that orthodoxy is essential to order. This makes one wonder whether the diploma disease in China is most meaningfully seen as a contemporary third-world ailment or as a millennial examination disease encysted in the Chinese body politic.

Once launched on their research, both Unger and Shirk did an exemplary job of interviewing in Hong Kong, where the lengthy and circumstantial accounts of cooperative informants can be cross-checked for verisimilitude. Jonathan Unger concentrated on Canton, looking at events there within the framework of national policies and campaigns. In addition to the Canton press and documents, he relied on 191 interview sessions in 1975-1976 with forty-three former residents of China. From these interviews he distilled tables of data on the composition of each respondent’s school class, since class members stayed together for years on end and had to know all about each other. Susan Shirk began interviewing in Hong Kong in 1969. Especially in 1971, as well as in 1978-1979, she interviewed in her own Mandarin, and in depth, thirty-one students and three teachers, all refugees from Chinese urban high schools (chung hsueh). Her methodological appendix makes a persuasive case for her intensive rather than extensive procedure.


The efficacy of this skillful interviewing is highlighted by contrast with Robert Taylor’s study, China’s Intellectual Dilemma, which he seems to have based entirely on library research and on his own faith in what Mao was up to. Taylor lists thirty-three Chinese newspapers and periodicals in addition to all the usual books, journals, and translation services. Combing this evidence, he constructs a narrative of the struggle between the wily Liu Shaoqi’s persistent interest in “functional specificity” (which tends to revive individualism) and “Mao’s formulation of the proletarian intellectual concept.”

Robert Taylor is history-minded and opens with a historical summary. But as he goes along describing the eligibility and preparation of candidates, administration of university enrollment, the selection system, and the elite-mass structure, it becomes apparent that he can’t get his feet on factual ground. His selected evidence deals in ideological goals and aspirations, regulations and their rationale, fragmentary data and estimates, denunciations of evils, in short, exhortation rather than fact. The understanding of the Cultural Revolution that he gets through the contemporary Chinese press is about like a study of the American economy through remarks overheard at a bankers’ convention. Evidently carried away by the Maoist euphoria of the late 1960s, he recounts how Mao wanted to put “politics in command,” “achieve the integration of education and society,” and create “proletarian intellectuals.” In 1958 Mao hoped

the educational system would cease to exist as a separate entity when it became one with the part-time system, itself integrated with society…. By 1965 it had become clear to Mao Tse-tung and his supporters that the only way in which the Liuist subversion of the Party’s educational philosophy could be prevented was by the closure of universities and institutes, with the concomitant destruction of the education system…. By 1970 the link between education and society through production was being forged in three ways: (i) by worker participation in the university, (ii) by teacher participation in production, and (iii) by student participation in labour…. The integration of education and society was to be achieved through the interchangeability of roles of teachers, students, and workers.

Such incantations, as we know, created a real shambles. Just as Mao knew little economics (“I understand nothing about industrial planning,” he confessed in 1959), so this gobbledegook makes it plain that he did not understand science and technology either. The traditional imperative imposed upon a new ruler of China, to achieve an orthodox consensus supporting his revolutionary regime, led Mao to exalt the peasant over the scholar (proletariat over bourgeoisie) and this ensnared him in a struggle against modern learning.

This struggle did not begin at once. During the 1950s the pre-liberation system had continued in place. Students competed at four successive levels—to enter primary school (six years), junior high school (three years), senior high (three), and university (four). The Chinese fixation on degree status as the measure of success was as strong as ever. The government examinations before 1905 had been at the county, prefectural, provincial, capital, and palace levels. Now the revolution had reasserted the primacy of ideology, which formerly had been ensured by mastery of the Confucian classics but which the liberal curriculum of the twentieth century had abandoned.

To reestablish an orthodoxy that would buttress its revolutionary government, the CCP had long since set up categories of class status. Though announced in Marxist terms, this was actually what the founder of the Ming, a great organizer, had done, like emperors before him: after 1368, farm families, artisan families, military families, as well as official families, were all registered, and sons were expected to continue in their father’s status. The Ming founder, declaring that “the primary thing in government is transformation through education,” also ordered that “schools be established in all prefectures, subprefectures and counties, each with a state-supported teaching staff and state-supported students.”*

During the 1950s socialist China could do no less. The CCP rated school applicants according to three criteria: family class origin, political behavior, and academic performance. Class origins ranged from good (CCP revolutionaries, soldiers, workers, peasants) to mid-level (former middle-peasants and urban white-collar) to bad (capitalists, rich peasants, landlords, “rightists”). In each district, the school best staffed and equipped was made a “key-point” school, into which came especially children of CCP officials (of good class origin) and of mid-level intelligentsia (of high academic capacity from their parental environment). Working-class youths filtered into the poorer high schools and into a separate echelon of vocational schools that fed their graduates directly into factories.

Stress on class origin and political activism aimed to check the intelligentsia’s continuing to staff the new China with its liberal-minded children. Many expedients were tried to produce worker-peasant-soldier graduates—setting up part-time and people-managed schools, shortening the educational ladder, simplifying textbooks, and reducing requirements. Another reform effort was to reduce the rote memorizing that had been inculcated, Unger says, by the special nature of Chinese writing, the belief in literary models, and the tradition of promoting ethical behavior through classical moral maxims. Teachers assumed there was “a single truth that should be taught—the ‘correct line,”‘ and they set frequent tests. To combat this tendency “key-point” schools and universities experimented with open-book examinations. Unger mentions the program for rural half-farming/half-study schools, as well as the program to compress the twelve-year system into ten years as in the Soviet Union. By 1965 both had petered out, “pulled back toward the standards set by the higher-school exams and toward the curriculum of the regular academic track because that curriculum and its exam system defined what the public and school staffs took to be the legitimate system of schooling.”

And why not? Would one not expect the examination route (“meritocracy” as Shirk calls it) to be the norm to the modern Chinese public? Unger does not go into the matter, but with a bit more concern for history he could have reminded us that meritocracy in China antedates Christianity in the West, and the Chinese examination system is far older than trial by jury in Britain. Its legitimacy as the main channel for getting ahead in the world is deeply embedded in the Chinese experience. Their counterparts of our folk figures from young Lochinvar to Lil’ Abner were generally examination candidates. Huck Finn of course can be rated as a failed scholar. Before the time of Caesar or Christ, the emperors had begun to examine candidates recommended by high officials. Long before Charlemagne the Chinese system was firmly in place: candidates secured the recommendation of officials; they were impartially examined and ranked by the Ministry of Rites and were appointed to office by the Ministry of Personnel so that selection and appointment were separated.

The procedures and safeguards, the various kinds of degrees including those obtainable by purchase or by simple recommendation, the struggles over content and vicissitudes of policy, the apportionment of degree quotas by administrative areas, the continuing “examination life” of an official, all these complexities fill an enormous record. Over the centuries in major provincial capitals thousands would compete triennially as they do now every year. The elite thus created was hardly more than 2 percent of the population, about the same proportion as Chinese university graduates today. The tragedy of Mao’s revolution was that in trying to shake off the elitist incubus of China’s past he decried learning in general.

Unger and Shirk quote many first-person accounts. As the competition intensified in the 1960s among the increasing numbers of students, tension built up between the political activists, mainly in the Communist Youth League, and the academic achievers, mainly from non-proletarian families. Susan Shirk contrasts them as Virtuocracy versus Meritocracy. Ambitious students had to choose which route to follow. Activism injected one into politics, even precariously into power, but it alienated individuals from one another and, in the end, even from the political system. This was because the standards of correct political behavior were vague, subjective, and dangerously changeable; one was judged within one’s peer group; and in political competition one advanced oneself by harming others. She concludes that within the Virtuocracy,

instead of cooperation there was intense individual competition, both academic and political. Students did not admire and confide in political activists, they avoided them. The regime’s political demands on individuals strengthened rather than weakened friendship ties. Students kept their public criticism on a superficial level in order to protect their friends. Mutual criticism deteriorated into a superficial ritual…. The effort…produced not the “revolutionary successors” Mao had hoped for but wary adapters….

Eventually in the Cultural Revolution “the penetration of politics into every corner of social and economic life destroyed people’s trust of one another and of their leaders.”

This failure of virtuocratic activism (“politics in command”) in the schools lay behind the eventual student warfare during the Cultural Revolution. Jonathan Unger’s tabulations of his interviewees’ and their classmates’ affinities as Red Guards show that “their factionalism was tantamount to class warfare”: in Canton Mao’s loyalist East Wind Red Guards were primarily redclass students; their rebel adversaries the Red Flag Red Guards were primarily of middle-and bad-class origin. Broader in scope than Shirk’s, Unger’s book recounts how, after the student warfare of 1967 had been quelled by the forcible rustication of the Red Guards, Maoist reforms took over China’s education: “key-point” schools and entrance examinations were abolished in favor of a system of recommendation (the traditional alternative to examination), rural branch schools were set up to facilitate student labor in the fields, the curriculum was watered down, and academic achievement positively discouraged.

After Mao died in 1976 all this had to be reversed. Liu Shaoqi has now been rehabilitated. Exams are back in. Education is forging ahead. But Mao’s Great Revolution for a Proletarian Culture remains still a nearly incredible cataclysm, appealing in aim perhaps but appalling in detail and awesomely destructive. We are still far from understanding it. The 800 million peasants are still there in the villages. How are they to be educated for modern life?

This Issue

December 2, 1982