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 and Judith Shapiro
Knopf, 240 pp., $16.95

Warm Winds, Cold Winds: Intellectual Life in China Today

by Judith Shapiro and 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…

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