Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Cultural Revolution in China by Frank Dikotter


By the early 70s people throughout China started quietly reconnecting with the past, from local leaders who focused on economic growth to villagers who reconstituted popular markets that had existed long before liberation. Sometimes a farmer merely pushed the boundaries of the planned economy by bringing some corn to market or spending more time on a private plot. In other cases they were bolder, opening underground factories or speculating in commodities normally controlled by the state. But everywhere, in one way or the other, people were emboldened by the failure of the Cultural revolution to take matters in their own hands. As one shrewd observer noted, ‘people decided they did not want to go on living they way they were doing, and they were setting up ways to get themselves out of their predicament.’ It was an uneven, patchy revolution from below, and one that remained largely silent, but eventually it would engulf the entire country.

If a second economy was quietly finding solutions to the widespread misery created by central planning, a second society was appearing amid people disillusioned with the communist creed. As in Eastern Europe  and the Soviet Union, a hidden, underground, largely invisible society lived in the shadow of the formal political system.

The phenomena was not new. Much as the black market appeared the moment the communist party started to clamp down on basic economic freedoms in 1950, social activities condemned by the new regime continued to survive away from the public eye. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam  had great staying power, as their followers dropped all outward signs of allegiance but clung to their faiths. A literary inquisition in the early 50s consigned entire collections to the pulping press but for many years people continued to read forbidden books- some of them rescued by the very Red Guards sent to destroy them.


China  has one of the world’s most complex kinship system, fined tuned over many centuries by a sophisticated lexicon with separate designations for almost every family member according to their gender, relative age, lineage and generation. Filial piety was a linchpin of Confusian ethics, while extended families in the forms of clans and lineages formed the backbone of a millennial empire that collapsed only in 1911. As a result families proved remarkably resilient, and resistant to official ideology. Even outside the family, the old loyalty codes occasionally survived. In its efforts to atomize society and centralize power, the regime took sword and fire to traditional bonds, but it failed to destroy the family.

The Communist Party leadership was all too conscious of the extraordinary resilience of the old ideas and institutions it had tried to destroy wholesale after liberation. At the very heart of the Cultural Revolution lay the acknowledgement that despite seventeen years of communist rule, in the hearts and minds of many people the old society continued to exist. Underneath a surface of ideological uniformity lay a world of subcultures, countercultures and alternative cultures that were perceived as threats to the party. In official parlance, once the socialist transformation of the means of production had been completed, a new revolution was required to liquidate once and for all the last remnants of feudal and bourgeois thought, or else the forces of revisionism might very well prevail and undermine the entire communist enterprise.


The Cultural Revolution aimed to transform every aspect of an individual’s life, including their innermost thoughts and feelings. Certainly there were millions of true believers or pure opportunists who enthusiastically followed every twist and turn in official ideology, and others simply crushed by the relentless pressure to conform. Thanks to the endless campaigns of thought reform, however, many learned to parrot every party line in public but keep their thoughts to themselves. People fought deceptions with deceptions, lies with lies and empty rhetoric with empty slogans. Some developed two minds or two souls, one for public view, the other private, to be shared with trusted friends and family only. Despite the house raids, the book burnings, the public humiliations and all the purges, not to mention the endless campaigns of re-education, from study classes in Mao Zedong Thought to May Seventh Cadre Schools, old habits died hard.

Local Gods were stubborn, subverting attempts by the state to replace them with the cult of Mao. In some villages, local festivals and public rituals were discontinued, temples closed down, but many villagers continued to worship at a small shrine or in their homes. They burned incense, offered vows, invoked the ancestral spirits, patron deities, rain and fertility gods. Folk culture  also remained resilient, even at the height of the Cultural evolution. Jiang Qiing (Madame Mao) had made her first appearances at the Peking Opera festival in the summer of 1964, determined to reform traditional opera, one of the most popular art forms in the countryside. Soon enough she banned all opera with the exception of eight revolutionary dramas which glorified the People’s Liberation Army and Mao Zedong Thought. These shows were presented to factory workers and commune peasants on crude stages and open fields. The audiences were usually large but the applause sparse. The operas were never really welcomed anywhere except at Yan’an University (‘the cradle of the revolution’). Some local communities then went ahead and stuck to their own traditions, organizing huge gathers around a performance of the old operas, with cigarettes and wine laid out on hundreds of tables for honorary quests and local families. In parts of the countryside commune members routinely celebrated traditional festivities and prayed to local gods and spirits. Some villages had common funds to allow dragon-boat competitions where pigs were slaughtered and food was piled on tables in conspicuous displays of consumption. By the early 1970s, besides opera performers, a whole range of traditional specialists, including folk musicians, geomancers, spirit mediums and fortune tellers, were making a living in the countryside.

When the Cultural Revolution devastated public schools and universities, many families took up the burden themselves, drawing on ancient and rich traditions. Traditional family craft skills- paper umbrellas, cloth shoes, hats, rattan chairs, wicker creels and twig baskets, protective charms, almanacs , even martial arts- were preserved or revived. The puritanical sex morals of the cadres of the Cultural Revolution never caught  big in the countryside.

[The Cultural Revolution was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that today is hard to imagine. Millions of people were beaten, imprisoned, crippled for life and executed. Competing factions often fought each other with machine guns, artillery and dynamite. In Wuxuan there was a hierarchy in the ritual consumption of class enemies. Leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork and a sprinkling of local spices, while ordinary villagers were allowed to peck at the victims arms and legs. After several teachers had been sliced up in a middle school, a crowd carried away chunks of flesh in bags dripping with blood. Students cooked the meat in casseroles sitting on top of small,, improvised brick barbecues. The deputy director of the schools revolutionary committee, wjo oversaw the butchery, was later expelled from the party, but was proud of his actions: “Cannibalism? It was the landlord’s flesh! The spy’s flesh!” One subsequent investigation listed all the ways in which people had been killed in Wuxuan, including ‘beating, drowning, shooting, stabbing, chopping, dragging, cutting up alive, crushing and hanging to death.” All  subsequently blamed by Mao on  class enemies and counterrevolutionaries.

Still, there must have been some Chinese who felt something other than a huge relief when he finally died. Perhaps the biggest miracle in all of this was not that so much of traditional Chinese culture survived but that the Communist Party still rules China]

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