One of the great atrocities of modern times, the Cultural Revolution that began in China 50 years ago this month, has been slowly swimming into the consciousness of the world. Most of the details remain shameful secrets, locked in the files in Beijing, but many Chinese have been compiling private records and a few Communist Party archivists have allowed researchers to see otherwise sequestered files.
One result is The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962-1976 (Bloomsbury Press) by Frank Dikoetter, a University of Hong Kong professor and the author of nine earlier books on China. He's combed through great piles of official and unofficial reports to make a solid and deeply disturbing book.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao Zedong's misguided attempt to defeat critics within his government and secure his legacy. It was presented as a purge of Marxist revisionism, but the idea seems to have been mainly the product of Mao's vanity.
Dikoetter tells us that he was easily offended and had a long memory for grievances. In the early 1960s, leading party members infuriated Mao with criticism of his economic policies. Above all, they deplored the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, the nationalization of agriculture that led to widespread starvation. Mao set out to silence that kind of disloyalty.
His method was to campaign against a multitude of enemies within China, "counter-revolutionary revisionists" and "class enemies." He accused them of wanting to turn back history and develop China's industry on terms that would attract world commerce. Capitalism of a kind was China's destiny, as Deng Xiaoping demonstrated in the 1980s, but Mao treated that idea as a criminal conspiracy.
"We must punish this party of ours," Mao said. In the end he punished all China.
Mao called upon the masses to "educate and liberate themselves." At first, that meant intense discussions, angry words and inflammatory posters, but it soon developed into a massacre. At a party for one of his birthdays, Mao raised a glass and toasted "The unfolding of a nationwide civil war!" The war he inspired pitted the masses against leaders of every class and children against their parents.
Lin Bao, a hero of the revolution in the 1940s, agreed with Mao that the nation had to strike down "all the old ideas, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes," forgetting that those elements were the fabric of civilization. He called for new ideas, customs and habits, but didn't say where these were to be found.
Discussions turned into riots and criticism led to witchhunts.
High-school students, given Mao's instructions, humiliated their teachers in "struggle sessions" and then often killed them, sometimes by public decapitation. Workers who resented their bosses rose up, displaced them, listened to their pathetic apologies and sometimes did away with them. Literature and religion were old ideas, therefore libraries and temples were destroyed for the good of the revolution. Professors who continued to respect tradition were re-educated on farms, shovelling manure for years as they re-learned Marxist truths.
In the Cultural Revolution more than 1.5 million people were killed, usually by the inflamed Red Guards. Denunciation and persecution wrecked many other lives. And often those who mercilessly abused their leaders were left forever with the shame of what they did. Impassioned oratory combined with mob fury gave them the right to release their anger without mitigation.
In the province of Guangxi on China's southern border, a series of uprisings killed 80,000 party officials and teachers. At Wuxuan, madness even encouraged cannibalism, committed according to hierarchy. Dikoetter tells us: "There was a hierarchy in the consumption of class enemies. Leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork, while ordinary villagers were allowed only to peck at the victims' arms and thighs." A leader of one revolutionary committee supervised the butchery. Later, when someone suggested that perhaps cannibalism was inhuman, he had an answer: "Cannibalism? It was the landlord's flesh! It was the spy's flesh!" Apparently, more than 70 humans were eaten in Wuxuan.
Beyond China, the word "revolution" grew popular among young people. Mao's reputation benefited from the increasing distaste for the dour, bureaucratic Soviet Union, which even Marxists found boring. An English translation of Mao's Little Red Book (designed to look like the Chinese original) sold in Toronto bookstores. One Toronto art critic wrote a study of Canadian painting, telling readers how to understand it according to Maoist criteria. A friend of mine, a young journalist intoxicated by fashionable yearnings for revolution, said he thought the Chinese were getting it right by giving everyone a chance to speak.
For a while the vicious side of the Cultural Revolution was little known and a scattering of Canadian nationalists imagined that China could inspire the independent Canada of their dreams. Some of that pompous claptrap still exists in certain corners of the Canadian imagination. As my colleague Barbara Kay noted, the University of Victoria recently set up two awards in memory of Mao.
Eventually Mao realized he had created national chaos, not really what Marxism intended. He hoped to retain power through his wife, Jiang Qing, and her Cultural Revolutionary Committee, but it was the army that finally restored order. The Red Guards were now called "class enemies." Many were exiled to farms, where they had so happily sent their enemies. There they could watch farmers lead a new revolution from below by ending the era of collective farming.
As Dikoetter says, this was the one achievement of the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese learned at last a crucial rule of living with Mao: put his face on the money but don't believe anything he says.