Yang Jisheng published another honest and, to the Chinese government, irreverent history of China during the Mao years. The subject of his historical curtain-pulling is the Cultural Revolution which broke out among the Chinese youth between 1966 and 1976. Barbara Demick does an admirable job of reviewing the book – I will leave it to her. My interest in his book may be the one glaring topic that he seems not to address (I will read the book to find out…) According to Demick, the book reveals the chaotic and costly revolution which Mao manically launched.
In 1966 Mao had just returned to power after pulling out of public life. He instituted a reform movement in 1958 which was meant to build a new industrial and agricultural system that would, as he said, take China to the stars. The reform was so thorough that it destroyed an entire nation’s economy that led to the starvation of somewhere in the vicinity of 35 million people. I would ask you upon reading this, or reading it in Demick’s piece, to pause for 15 seconds – 35 million human beings. Humiliated by the abject failure of his reforms, Mao bowed out of power then handed Chinese government over to his associates led by Chou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, among others. These men curbed some of the more socialist controls on the Chinese economy. In an economic, social, and cultural turn-around that can only be described as a miracle, China recovered after 5% of the nation’s entire population starved to death. But Mao smelled a rat – recovery was instigated by people not dedicated to Chinese Communism.
In order to right the national ship, Mao roared back into power. He refused to rally a group of like-minded politicians through party machinery (as Soviet leaders did). Instead he led a rally of the youth who, from their new university classrooms, felt they were being left out of the economic recovery. He called a large and poorly defined teen movement called the Red Guard, to rise up and attack all the adults who were benefiting from the economic recovery. Somewhere around 1 million teens and young adults gathered in Tiananmen Square clutching the Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings. He came out on their side, thus justifying their rage – they were unleashed. What ensued was one of the most complicated and destructive civil wars of the modern period. He called them to destroy the Four Olds: ideas, culture, customs, and habits. By the time he exiled the youth to the countryside and then subsequently died, somewhere around 1.5 million had been killed, many in very personal murders, some of which entailed a vengeance-styled cannibalism
Yang Jisheng tells the story. However, what must be said is that such unimaginable violence was not just the result of Chinese culture or life. It was the impact of a set of ideas that has been swirling in the West since 1966. By the words of Mao’s sayings and the lessons of Chinese communism, the youth came to see the world in a certain way: history and the people in power made human progress impossible. In their minds, and in Mao’s words, the youth were the only ones who had spirits revolutionary enough to destroy history and reset the human story around equality.
We ought to read this book and study the Cultural Revolution – it has many difficult and frightening lessons to teach; I am not sure that we are listening.