The heart of China’s twentieth-century revolution has been the revival of the Chinese state. Until the 1890s the Chinese empire had remained the most durable of the universal kingships of the ancient world. Its transformation into the state now known as the People’s Republic has left the Chinese public saddled with a political order still deficient in our sort of civil liberties. To be sure, the old China had worked out certain customary limits to despotism, but how such limitations are to be institutionalized in the revived state remains still uncertain. Now that China’s great revolution is in remission and off the front page, scholars and journalists are reaching mature verdicts both about Mao’s despotic part in it and about the quality of life that the new order has brought the Chinese people. Like tornado survivors, many Chinese have been wondering what hit them, and a flow of memoirs and more relaxed contact with outsiders have combined to give us a clearer view, at least for the moment.

Back in the late 1950s Mao’s Great Leap Forward was quite opaque to us, especially in cold-war America. The lead in academic discussion of Mao’s revolution was taken in London in 1960 by the founding of The China Quarterly. The first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, spent eight years making this much-needed journal preeminent before he moved into full-time research, first at Columbia and then at Chatham House, on the origins of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s attempt in 1966-1969 to tear down and rebuild the edifice he had led in creating so shook the Chinese earth and amazed the world that it has taken its place alongside 1789 and 1917 as one of the greatest of all the revolutions in which the state power dissolved and had to be reconstituted.

The first volume of Mr. MacFarquhar’s trilogy, Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Contradictions Among the People, 1956-1957, came out in 1974. After it appeared he served five years as a Labour member of Parliament. “Low-temperature British socialism of the 1970s,” he says, “was a far cry from the utopian communism of China,” yet being an MP undoubtedly sharpened his understanding of the interplay between leaders and followers, ideology and policy, and, in his words, “politicians and bureaucrats,…conscience and compromise.” Like the masterpieces of diplomatic history on the origins of the war in 1914 (before the enormous increase of communication made such work impossible), his second volume is based on a prodigious knowledge of where and when who said what. By sifting through the vast number of publications that accompanied Mao’s last decade, 1966-1976, and the rehabilitations that followed, MacFarquhar has traced the genesis and vicissitudes of the Maoist policies that led to disaster. No one else has so succinctly and yet comprehensively summed up the Great Leap.

Chairman Mao’s weak spot was that he couldn’t stop doing what he was best at—mobilizing mass campaigns to attack the status quo. The result was a tragedy in three acts—first the antirightist campaign of 1957 that put so many of China’s liberals and experts out of action, second the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960 that wrecked the economy, and third the Cultural Revolution after 1965 that attacked intellectuals and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Granted that good things were accomplished along the way, Mao’s overall influence after 1956 undoubtedly set China back. The fact that this verdict is subscribed to by today’s CCP itself, while disconcerting, does not necessarily invalidate it. Mao’s victims now in power acquired an all-too-solid basis for judgment.

The fascination of this volume comes from its single-minded though wide-ranging dissection of the policy-making process. The CCP leaders were frenetically busy people, constantly moving about yet continually conferring with one another. Having realized China’s agriculture could not provide the surplus for a Soviet-style heavy industrialization, they toured the country in early 1958 formulating plans to use China’s biggest asset, her raw muscle-power, for a Chinese-style breakthrough to modernize the economy. In January Mao conferred with local officials first in Hangchow near Shanghai, then in Kwangsi in the far south and in Canton, and then in Peking; in February in the northeast; in March in the southwest in Szechwan; in April in central China at Wuhan, then at Changsha, and at Canton again; and in May back in Peking, where Mao and Liu Shao-ch’i, his deputy, formally launched the Great Leap Forward.

At all these conferences Mao and his Politburo colleagues made pronouncements that allow the indefatigable MacFarquhar to trace the growth of their policies. Repeatedly he finds Mao in the lead, pushing for adventurous and grandiose innovations. For example, the origin of the communes lay in the fact that the new agricultural producers’ cooperatives (APCs), which in 1957 averaged only 164 families apiece, were too small to mobilize the massed rural muscle-power needed to build dams, dikes, ditches, and other water conservancy works. To meet this need, APCs began to combine to form bigger units. The process was encouraged but not given a name at the early 1958 conferences.


In April, twenty-seven APCs in Honan merged their 9,369 families into one regimented work unit. In June Mao began suddenly to call for communes to be the basic units of the nation, combining “agriculture, industry, commerce, culture and education, and militia, i.e., the whole people armed.” By the end of August the Politburo conference at the seaside resort of Peitaiho, on the basis of very limited and brief experience, made communes the official all-purpose 10,000-person building blocks for a new rural China. They quite disregarded, as MacFarquhar points out, “the ideological and intra-bloc implications” of this utopian leap into a degree of communal living not previously achieved in the communist world. Moscow would have to denounce it.

The utopian fever with which Mao and his colleagues became infected in the summer of 1958 had its international aspect: Khrushchev visited Mao on July 31. They failed to agree on naval cooperation on the China coast but on August 23 Mao on his own began the bombardment of the Nationalists on the offshore island of Quemoy. When this precipitated a confrontation with the US, Gromyko flew to Peking and Soviet support of China was publicly promised only after Mao had given up the enterprise of recovering Quemoy. “The seeds of further bitterness between Moscow and Peking had been sown”; Mao and company felt confirmed in the idea of going it alone.

Utopianism soon took over. The retreat over Quemoy was masked by an enormous “everyone-a-soldier” movement to organize militia. There were 220 million soldiers enrolled by January 1959 but not many with weapons and fewer still with ammunition. Meanwhile everyone was to eat in mess halls under a “free-supply” system. Everyone was to labor voluntarily with no need of materialistic “bourgeois” wages. Education was to be combined with manual labor and factories with schools, to produce what Liu Shao-ch’i called “proletarian intellectuals” both red and expert. The national fever rose to a dramatic delirium in the backyard steel-smelting campaign. MacFarquhar presents poignant testimony on the production frenzy that in late 1958 engulfed hundreds of millions of people—essential cooking pots were melted down to feed the furnaces, commune farming was militarized like warfare, grain production figures were doubled and redoubled (which led to collecting grain quotas so large that peasants had not enough left to live on), deep plowing destroyed the soil. There were many other inanities such as campaigns to kill all the sparrows, while bumper crops rotted in the fields because people were too busy to harvest them.

By mid-1959 it became obvious that production figures had been wildly inflated, the steel campaign was a bust, agriculture was disrupted, and farmers were exhausted and undernourished. The climax of MacFarquhar’s drama, “High Noon at Lushan,” is the July 1959 conference at which the doughty head of the army, General P’eng Tehuai, never a Mao sycophant, laid the blame at the door of the great leader. Mao’s defensive counterblast blew General P’eng into retirement. The Politburo members were all parties to the crisis: between Mao and P’eng, they had to choose Mao. The result was to prolong the Great Leap with a sort of “revivalism” and so compound the disaster, a foretaste of the Cultural Revolution after 1965.

How could all this happen? Such harebrained romanticism would not mobilize American farmers in Fargo or Fresno or even Provo. The Great Leap was so bizarre a triumph of revolutionary fervor over common sense that one wishes the historical literature were adequate to connect it with its antecedents in Chinese history. Unfortunately the institutional history of China remains still underdeveloped. The great tradition of statecraft (ching shih), how the bureaucrats customarily organized and manipulated the populace, is neglected while researchers today swarm into social history as more suited to current concerns.

Institutional and historical perspective on the Great Leap would no doubt begin with the parts of the written dynastic histories dealing with the economy. These detail how on reunifying China new regimes commonly mobilized corvée labor for great public works (and often wore it out), how they assigned peasants, for example, “equal field” allotments of land, and organized them into responsibility groups for mutual surveillance. Dozens of ingenious devices, like “ever-normal granaries” in each locality or soldier-farmer encampments on the frontiers, stand in the record unstudied. The question how these clever schemes of scholar-administrators actually worked out in practice remains largely unanswered. They represented the ruler’s unquestioned prerogative to structure the life of the people by personal example, sumptuary regulations, moral exhortation, and condign punishments.

We know that Mao praised the first emperor of 221 BC who buried scholars and burned their bamboo books. We know that the first emperor of the Ming after 1368 planted millions of trees and had his ministers ceremoniously beaten in court. In fact he became paranoid, killed his chief minister, and terrorized the scholars. When the record is mastered, I suspect it will be evident that what Mao attempted was in the spirit of many predecessors and that he often used their methods, except that Mao had some new devices and was in more of a hurry.


MacFarquhar concludes with a chilling demonstration that the Great Leap indeed built up heavy industry but at great human cost, especially among the peasantry: in 1960, a bad crop year, the mortality rate doubled. “Anywhere from 16.4 to 29.5 million extra people died during the leap, because of the leap.” The proximate cause of the disaster was “the Mao factor…. Without Mao there would have been no leap…no communes…no mass steel campaign…no revival of the leap.” True enough, and spoken like a political scientist exhaustively versed in the record. But perhaps a historian can add: without the ancient Chinese monarchy, there would have been no Mao.

Historical continuity is also evident in Jay and Linda Mathews’s very readable survey of Chinese life, One Billion: A China Chronicle. The sympathetic yet critical balance of attitude that distinguishes this book no doubt reflects the authors’ experience living together in China. Linda Mathews was the first female editor of The Harvard Crimson and went on to take a law degree before eventually becoming Peking bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Jay Mathews was also a journalist on the Crimson but went into Chinese studies and took an MA before joining The Washington Post and eventually becoming its Peking bureau chief. When the pair married, and had two children, they mixed collaboration and competition. By living in China as a family they were in an unusual position to explore nooks and crannies of the society around them.

The humane balance of their approach is evident first of all in the structure of the book, which is really a journalists’ effort (the best I know of) to capture that elusive but ubiquitous entity known as “Chinese culture” or what makes the Chinese tick. The book’s first section, “Beginnings,” stresses the collective sense that forms the matrix of Chinese behavior, the personal connections (guanxi) by which things are accomplished. “Being Chinese…is a commitment to one another—billions of small relationships becoming one great whole.” Next, the authors write of the pervasive sense of history, a different and quite un-American perspective on the present day. Finally, they explain how individuals are identified by their relationships, primarily their work units, today’s distillation of the Confucian five relationships that used to tie people to their families.

The book is divided into three sections, dealing first with what the authors call “One Billion,” the crowded life of the people, then with “The System” which organizes their lives, and finally with “Escape,” the leisure arts which help them to survive the system. This organization allows the Mathewses to discuss the daily experience of many city people, but they were able to talk to only a few rather well-off country people. They record many conversations, and many case histories. In a chapter called “Working,” they show the continual difficulty of incentives under socialism; “Language” shows the effort at reform of writing in order to make it more efficient. In the chapter on sex, the absence of privacy and knowledge is typified by girls who worry that kissing may make them pregnant. The revolution, they write, “stopped at the bedroom door.” In this matter, China has a long way to go. Meanwhile marriage itself continues to be a very secure institution, carefully planned and practically sustained. On the other hand, the Chinese specialty of having children confronts the new law:

“One is enough,” say the billboards in Peking. To the Chinese, this is the curse hanging over their pride at being the world’s only billion-member nation.

The chapters concerned with “the system” show how the Chinese manage to circumvent it, largely by way of the “back door,” with gifts in hand. Information is a government monopoly but the nine million restricted copies of Reference News, by quoting the foreign press, can “[bounce] signals back to the Chinese people.” The examination system, an ancient Chinese invention, has come back with a vengeance: five million young people may take the nationwide exams, and one of these applicants in twenty may get into college. A college population of two million (not yet attained) would be .2 percent of the population. The highly educated are as tiny an elite as ever. The perquisites of the highly placed are opulent.

The Mathewses show how sensitive the authorities are to dissent. The government needs the intellectuals’ support and will, they believe, have to move carefully when limiting intellectual freedoms. But “The Law” is as Draconian as ever, weeding out malefactors with a bullet in the brain. “The whole province [of Qinghai, northeast of Tibet] is a sort of prison colony.” Penal labor camps give the government, in the Soviet style, “a reliable supply of low-cost labor which can be moved about the country at will.” The new legal system is far from catching up with injustice.

The final section, “Escape,” suggests a synthesis: the overcrowding, bureau-cratization, and police dictatorship are moderated not only by the Chinese cuisine, by the theater and graphic arts, by movies, music, and literature, but by “fun and games,” including cricket fighting, gambling, betting, sports, and other diversions. The authors also recount jokes from the fast satiric stage dialogues (xiang-sheng), another Chinese specialty. Three prisoners explain to one another how they got in jail: “I am here because I supported Deng Xiaoping,” says one. “I am here because I opposed Deng Xiaoping,” says the second. Says the third, “I am Deng Xiaoping.”

The Mathewses report “a daily struggle between a popular yearning to grasp material incentives and democracy, and stubborn resistance from an office-holding class stiffened by centuries of experience in holding on to power.” They see the Chinese poised on the “edge of political unrest…collapse… despair…their pride and confidence… at a critical point.” Yet they know how to survive the system. The Chinese “resent—some actively, the majority almost unconsciously—the oppression and inconvenience of their form of government but prefer to finesse it rather than challenge it outright.”

In short, they live with the revived bureaucratic state on their backs. It is sanctioned by the national collective spirit and clamped on by modern technology. In this fix, the Chinese practice what we may call a private mini-individualism that consists of freedom in small things that are beneath collective concern. The Western faith in legally protected public individualism, currently expressed in our concern for human rights, probably appeals to the highly educated Chinese elite more than Christianity ever did. But even they for now have to put the collective national interest ahead of individual rights. As we here try to defend ourselves against the computer, we can feel we have something in common with them.

This Issue

January 19, 1984