Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Rethinking Is Not Demonizing

A Conversation with Cao Zhenglu About His Novel Lessons in Democracy

Yan Hairong teaches at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is the author of New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China (Duke University Press, 2008).

This interview first appeared in Chinese in China Left Review no. 5,

Cao Zhenglu is a well-known contemporary Chinese realist writer. His stories “Na’er” (“There,” about the tragic experience of a union cadre in a state-owned enterprise undergoing “structural reform”) and “Nihong” (“Neon,” about the life and death of a laid-off woman worker) expose the predicament of Chinese workers in the reform period. His novel Wen cangmang (Asking the Boundless—an allusion to a line from one of Mao’s poems, “I ask, on this boundless land, who rules over man’s destiny”) has a Taiwanese-owned factory in Shenzhen as the central theater, around which different characters struggle to understand and play their roles in the larger context of “investment.” This novel has been celebrated as “the first novel that uses Chinese reality to explain Das Kapital.” His most recent novel, Minzhu ke (Lessons in Democracy [Taipei: Taiwan shehui yanjiu zazhishe, 2013]), initiates a further reflection on the Cultural Revolution. Cao’s novel re-narrates the Cultural Revolution in terms of its historical unfolding—its aims, processes, contradictions, and significance, and links this story with the contemporary problem of China’s path today.

Since references to the events of the Cultural Revolution may be obscure to many readers, a historical glossary at the end covers numerous key terms and events referred to in the interview.

Yan: In the past you set your stories in the present but Minzhu ke (Lessons in Democracy) takes place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. How did the Cultural Revolution enter into your storytelling?

Cao: In fact I am commenting on the present as I write about the Cultural Revolution, since a lot of the intellectual debates of the current moment are linked to the history of the Cultural Revolution, and even the history of revolutions in general. Whether we can scientifically understand history and realistically sum up our historical experiences will determine what road China takes into the future, and even may impact the political legitimacy and sovereign independence of China. Therefore, I need to express my views, for which writing the novel is one way. Many intellectuals in China sincerely devoted themselves to the revolution when they were young, or were swept up into the revolutionary ranks by the tide of history. In any case they are loyal supporters of the revolution, and have been able to find their own place in society via the success of the revolution. But most of these individuals have a skewed understanding of revolution. They believe that it is fine for the revolution to happen to someone else, but not to them. So they have made a huge deal about how they were wronged or impacted during the Cultural Revolution and have resented it all their life. I have many friends who live in that kind of mental state. It would not be important if it were just some isolated individuals that thought this way, but this type of sentiment has turned into a tidal wave of opinion and is being used for political purposes. It’s been thirty years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, but it is still being used as the reason why China had to “change its banner.” As someone who lived through that period of history, I feel obliged to stand up and speak the truth about it. I have a modest goal in writing my stories: to write about the historical transformations that I myself witnessed, and to write the mental anguish that I am able to feel. It’s up to others to determine whether I have succeeded or not.

Yan: I’m most interested in your understanding of the Cultural Revolution, as this is a core part of the novel. At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the ‘80s, the so-called “scar literature” began to appear. Even to this day, it is still a taboo to reconsider the Cultural Revolution from the standpoint of the logic of revolution or that of socialist democracy.

Cao: The Cultural Revolution has become a focal point of debate. Why? Because the elite that advocate capitalism understand that there is a crisis at present. In order to ensure that they themselves do not fall from power they must continue to criticize the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong, and even China’s entire history of revolutions. From their standpoint, logic demands that they do this. I read that a professor from Peking University advocated removing the Qin Dynasty peasant revolutionary leaders Chen Sheng and Wu Guang from the Beijing Museum, stating that since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a ruling party, it should not advocate rebellions. This kind of thinking is from the same cloth, and is part of the ruling order that Chinese traditional culture has always upheld: the rulers are wise, the ruled ignorant; the ruled can be told what and how to do but not to know why. They believe that the ruling order can brook no challenge. Any rebellion or revolution is an upturning of the order. Of course what I wrote was a criticism of this type of elite sentiment. In my opinion revolution and rebellion represented questioning and criticizing the existing order. The responsibility of intellectuals is to understand the mistakes within the ruling group and imagine a reasonable way for humans to exist, and thereby continually propel humanity forward.

That’s why Mao said, “Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel.” When he saw the play “Tale of the White Snake” in Hangzhou, his eyes brimmed with tears, and then he suddenly stood up and said, “Is it possible not to revolt? Is it possible not to rebel?” He stood up so quickly his pants fell down. He had unbuckled his belt while he was sitting watching the play. Mao was a person who infused his actions with his emotions. He comprehended revolution based on the internal logic of history. Of course the reason I’m interested in the Cultural Revolution stems from the same source. There are two main issues that I want to set straight: first, that the rebellions during that period stemmed from pressures in society, that is they did not emerge for no reason; and second, that the issues that the elite and the ordinary people faced were different. If I can write about this history faithfully, then I will be able to accurately describe some of the thoughts and feelings of the people of that era. Novels aren’t as focused and logical as academic treatises. They start from experiences of individuals, but my story wants to express the idea that it was inevitable that a revolution would occur in China, and moreover that the revolution was legitimate. There is rationality and logic to rebellion. No civilized country can ignore the legitimate rights of the masses.

Yan: Your generation grew up together with the People’s Republic, and your generation’s wide-ranging experiences are a testament to that period’s history, leaving you with the task of returning history to its rightful place. But most people have no direct experience with this period of history, and do not know the real vicissitude.

Cao: In the past the reform-era propaganda about the Cultural Revolution did not leave a deep impression on me, and I was unclear about its true meaning. It was only when China was really faced with the question about which direction to take that this issue gradually became more important. If not for this reason I do not think I would have chosen to write this novel. Some people now are terrified that the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution will return. Why are they afraid? Because that era was a carnival of the people, a period when the masses experienced equality. The elite, on the other hand, felt that they were dragged down, and no longer superior to others. They were forced to submit to the masses, so obviously they are afraid of a return of this situation.

Yan: In the novel you frame the Cultural Revolution as “lessons in democracy.” This is very different than the mainstream framing of the Cultural Revolution as “a power struggle.” The title of the novel contains a keyword from contemporary society (democracy), and this is one of the reasons that I was immediately interested in reading the novel when I first heard about it. How did the experiences described in the novel come about? And as you were writing it, did you encounter difficulty, or did the story just flow out of you?

Cao: Let me answer your second question first. First of all, the story presents an objective historical process. If you plot out the major events of the Cultural Revolution and put them in order, it is easy to see the relationships between the events and their logic of development. Although the story was set in a small city, what happened there was not very different from what happened elsewhere, such as the sending of work teams to middle schools and colleges, the arrest of anti-revolutionary rightists, how the Red Guards and rebels formed, how the army supported the left, and how the Revolutionary Committees were established. So there were no major difficulties in plotting out the major events, this was relatively easy. It is precisely on the question of the basic facts that those who castigate the Cultural Revolution have muddled reality, hidden the historical process, and misled the youth of today. There is a saying that the Red Guards rebelled by following Mao’s order, as if the Red Guards were a unified organization, and that revolting was [simply] an honorable thing to do. This glosses over the fact that the repression of students came first, which in turn led to the students’ rebellions. The middle school that I attended once declared ten of its students to be anti-revolutionaries, and I don’t know how many students were similarly labeled in all of China. By the end of 1966, the Central Government had clearly criticized the “bourgeois reactionary line,” and it was only then that the rebels throughout China began to enjoy an advantage. Of course by the 1970s, the rebels had been decimated by all sorts of campaigns. If you can understand this historical process, then you will understand why there is such a divergence of opinion and experience toward the Cultural Revolution by people of different political positions. My own understanding of it has changed over time. After I experienced capitalism, and understood the political, economic, and cultural logic of capitalism, my feelings on this issue began to change. I began to reconsider mass struggle, a tactic that we had abandoned as something worthless. But this is the very thing that ordinary people often talk about: What would happen if another Cultural Revolution occurred? Democracy is something that the intellectual elite hunger for, but democracy is also something that the workers and peasants desire, however the content of the concept varies among the two groups. The elite want constitutionalism, in other words the rights of the minority to be heard. Workers and peasants desire equality, the right for the majority to be heard. In this way it is correct to understand the Cultural Revolution as “lessons in democracy.” There was no teacher in this class, we learned from each other, we liberated each other, and then chose which path we took. As to people that explain the Cultural Revolution as a power struggle and demonize China’s leaders, or use court mysteries to explain political affairs, their arguments are so weak they do not require a rebuttal.

Yan: The current generation of intellectuals has spent almost all its time within the academy, and does not have a good grasp of practical reality.

Cao: In 1966, even if you were a teacher who had been criticized in big posters, or had been struggled against in the early stages of the movement, you very likely would’ve been overtaken by emotion when the Central Government supported the rebelling students. It’s very hard for us now to even imagine this. Teachers in our school got up in the middle of the night to go out to the street and copy down the big character posters, listen for news from Beijing, and then draft and hand out pamphlets. Why? They had been suppressed for so long. The actual situation of the upper and lower strata were not the same in the Cultural Revolution. The Central Government was faced with the question of which direction the country would take. How would they maintain their independence and autonomy in the superpower struggle for hegemony between the Soviet Union and the United States? The grassroots on the other hand was faced with the long-festering contradictions between cadres and the masses. So the concept of the line struggle does not have a great deal to do with the issues of the grassroots. In the initial years of the Cultural Revolution indeed there were cases of people being beaten, houses being searched, and theories of the revolutionary bloodline were indeed proposed, but these acts were not undertaken by ordinary people who had been repressed. It was only those people who had political advantages that were beating and taking advantage of others. Those individuals who were cowering in the corners, including their sons and daughters, would never dare to do such things. This is common sense and simple logic. But this period of history has been distorted and different groups have been lumped together under the category Red Guard. Those who had political advantage seem to think this is a way for them to assuage their own guilt. In truth they were the ones who tried to settle accounts with the rebels of the Cultural Revolution. Beginning in 1968 when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “supported the left” [see glossary], the rebels were repressed in wave after wave including the “516” campaign to find and “cleanse” anti-revolutionaries, and the “One Strike Three Anti Campaign.” During what was later called “ten years of tragedy,” the rebels were actually pretty much eliminated by the third or fourth year. By 1976, there was an even larger overhaul, called “cleansing three types of people.” They gave the Gang of Four the label “anti-revolutionary.” But in fact they were trying to suppress the rebels, and they wanted to completely eradicate the concept of rebellion as an ideology.

Yan: The main narrative form of the Cultural Revolution is “scar literature,” which simplifies the Cultural Revolution as a wound. Most times the narrative of the stories is told by intellectuals, sometimes cadres. Undoubtedly there were many wounds incurred during the Cultural Revolution, but your narrative of the sufferings endured differs from that of “scar literature.” For instance if experiencing pain and degradation is a type of wound, then many different groups were wounded in the novel, including the rebels, intellectuals, and even some old revolutionaries. In your narrative you linked together the painful experiences of different people at different times. How do you view these traumatic experiences?

Cao: From a broad perspective, the entire revolution is a history filled with trauma. Revolution is not as beautiful as people make it out to be, nor are the two sides in conflict always clear-cut. The entire process of the revolution is filled with pain, filled with trauma. In the novel I spent a great deal of time on two characters, two old revolutionaries who suffered. I was searching for an answer to the question of why they participated in the revolution. Was it for personal gain and mobility? If so, then the revolution would have no value. The same goes for reforms: If reforms just replace one set of leaders with another, then what is the point? The same logic holds for the Cultural Revolution. If the goal is really to make the country better, then it is fairly trivial if some intellectuals experienced some discomfort. In fact the discomfort may not be very great, they still receive all of the wages promised to them, and they only have to participate in some manual labor including sweeping the streets, or going to rural areas. But they would still receive their wages. The things they were being asked to do of course were precisely the things that peasants have always done for generations. In some exceptional cases intellectuals were beaten, humiliated, and some committed suicide; but these were exceptional cases and not normal ones. Moreover the tormentors of intellectuals in the Cultural Revolution were inevitably other intellectuals. This was clearly apparent in China’s colleges and universities, where intellectuals devised all sorts of strange methods to criticize and humiliate their enemies. It was never the work of workers or peasants. And when the intellectuals did experience a disaster or humiliation, how far was their misfortune from the daily experience of peasants? What makes you think you are better than peasants?

So what the “scar literature” has described and has been made into movies—a young intellectual woman was sent down to the countryside and was raped by the head of the brigade or by rogue-like rebels—was ridiculous. I was sent down to the countryside in 1968. The peasants were extremely envious of students at that time and would never have dared to take advantage of them. Women students were especially held in high esteem. For example if the peasant had seen a woman like you wearing glasses, they would have found it incredible, and said: “Look! It’s a girl in glasses!” By the mid–1970s, some people were being allowed back to the cities to work in factories, to serve as cadres, or to go back to university. Only some people were unable to make the cut, and therefore had to have the recommendation of local peasants. This kind of thing didn’t happen in the early Cultural Revolution, it was only later when people needed the approval of the brigade leader that people began trying to curry favor with him. At that time, the sent down youth often would visit each other in different communes. But they would get together at major festivals and cause problems, like stealing chickens if they were hungry. The rural cadres were extremely afraid of them, and would never dare to treat them poorly. Of course it’s hard to say that this was true in all cases, but it was generally true. The story mentioned above was made up to elicit compassion: I have been taken advantage of, I have been wounded. And in this way compassion flows towards the intellectuals.

Yan: This is very interesting. In much “scar literature,” sex and the body play a major role, especially as a way of eliciting compassion from the reader for the humiliation of the sent-down young women.

Cao: That’s right, they use their worldly wisdom to write some provocative things. What I wrote of course is a conscious effort to clear things up and say that things were in reality not that way at all.

Yan: Then how do you understand the extreme and even vicious events that took place during the Cultural Revolution?

Cao: I believe that our appraisal of any period of history or movement must be based on its main elements, which defines its nature. Each person may experience unhappy events in their life, and every era has its tragedies. The unfortunate things that happen to each of us differ, of course. If you are unable to see through to the nature of things, or if you intentionally confuse the main course of events with less important branches, then you will be unable to realize a scientific or clear understanding of the past. There is no doubt that we are in great need of a sober and honest appraisal of the Cultural Revolution. We will only be able to learn the proper lessons if we are able to seek truth from facts. Did anything bad happen during the Cultural Revolution? Yes. Did anything ugly occur? Yes. These things happened. There are many things about that period I myself dislike. But those things were not the mainstream.

Yan: What types of things did you dislike?

Cao: The cult of personality, formalism, turning a slogan into a doctrine, taking the spirit of the Central Government’s proclamations as doctrine, and then – just like today – singing its praises, even to the extreme.

Yan: Just like how GDP is treated today.

Cao: Yes, quite so. There were many propaganda teams on the streets in the 1970s with huge drums, bigger than this table. They would beat the drums and yell out: “The Cultural Revolution is great!” The ordinary people saw right through it, and knew that if you had to say that “The Cultural Revolution is great!” all day long, then it was doomed. Of course evil things occurred, such as in cases where cadres were struggled against and people would sometimes grab their hair, so the cadres would put oil on the hair so that people couldn’t get a grip, which in turn led people to coat their hair with sand. Of course these things were bad, but the point is that they were not the mainstream of what occurred during that period. Why do I say that the Cultural Revolution was welcomed by the people and masses? Because it allowed them to get a glimpse of equality. Everyone could post a big character poster, every official was under supervision. Why was the Chinese Communist Party able to defeat the Nationalists? Because of the equality between officials and soldiers. Party members were the first to sacrifice themselves in battles. This was the reason they were able to win the war.

In the seventeen years before the Cultural Revolution, China experienced many accomplishments, but there were also many problems. Some officials had indeed started moving away from the masses, and it was more common for officials to lie and exaggerate, or even take advantage of common people. So the Cultural Revolution gave everyone an opportunity to vent. So when some were struggled against, it’s possible that they were also hit. These kinds of things happened, but they were not extremely common. Many officials were struggled against, and lost their power, were forced to work in the factories with common people. But everyone treated them well, joking and laughing with them, no one viewed them as somehow bad. They had only temporarily lost the power. At the time they were able to take it, but it actually became unbearable for them after they were rehabilitated, feeling at that point that they had been sent down to hell. So, if ordinary people were happy, they were definitely unhappy. They felt humiliated, felt that they had lost something. Actually even then there was still a difference between them and the common people, not least of all reflected in their higher wages. Workers took home 34 yuan a month while officials earned 70–80 yuan, sometimes as much as 100. But people didn’t care so much about that because at least they felt equal to officials in status, and were happy that they were able to “stick it to the officials” for a while. Ordinary people felt that equality was the main thing that they achieved. They had no idea about what kind of “ism” China should adopt, or whether it should take the capitalist road. No one had any idea what capitalism was at that time, they had never seen it. Who could have known?

This is one of the reasons that Cultural Revolution lost its direction after 1968. Things started out with the political campaign of October 1966 against the “bourgeois reactionaries” who had suppressed the masses, and everyone rose up in rebellion, eroding the authority of officials. Later came the “Take Out the Capitalist Power Holder” movement, and everyone started searching for evidence of such people throughout China. People didn’t find that many extreme examples, nothing more than officials forming cliques, excluding people with differing views, picking on ordinary people, and using their position to eat and drink better. There was nothing extraordinary about any of it. So the movement quickly lost its direction. So how was it that two different factions [rebels and loyalists] later formed? This is related to the establishment of the revolutionary committees. When these were formed it became a question of who would play a larger role within the organization, in other words how would power be distributed? As a result two factions formed, and the source of these two factions can be traced back to previous struggles. Moreover, behind each faction stood a group of old leaders. As a result the struggle between the factions became more and more severe to the point of armed struggle. At the grassroots, this is what the Cultural Revolution was like. Of course I’m not talking about what went on in the Central Government. At that level, there was a choice about what road China would take against the backdrop of the international situation. But at the grassroots, there was nothing of the sort; they had no idea about any of that.

Yan: So you’re saying that most people understood “taking the capitalist road” as officials enjoying special privileges, and viewed the Cultural Revolution as removing these privileges?

Cao: That’s right. If the special privileges had been removed, they would have been content. Returning to the question of democracy, I believe that the question that Mao Zedong raised has always been a real issue. Have you given any thought to the slogan that he put forth? He was constantly looking for a successor, but he said that he wanted to raise up tens of millions of the proletariat to serve as his successor. That is a pretty profound idea. It’s not hard to find one or two people who could succeed you, but you’ll need tens of millions of successors for revolution to be passed on. I think Mao Zedong had this kind of idea: giving power to the people is a type of democracy that will ensure that the people are the “masters” of society. This is why he put forth the “Two Musts,” the “Anshan Constitution,” the “Principles of the Paris Commune”; why he instituted the “two participations, one reform and three combinations” in productive enterprises (cadre participation in productive labor and worker participation in management; reform of unreasonable and outdated rules; cooperation between workers, cadres, and technicians); why he demanded the “three sames” from cadres (to eat, live, and travel the same as non-cadres); and why Mao put great emphasis on research and field investigation. He thought that bureaucratic politics was the worst, he hated it from the very beginning. Xie Juezai—one of his teachers—once said about him: “Mao Zedong was truly opposed to bureaucratic culture.” Bureaucratic culture here refers to bureaucratism. Mao always advocated flat management, and hoped that workers and peasants would participate in management while cadres would participate in labor. Whether this could be realized or not is a separate question, but Mao held onto these concepts as ideals. This is why I understand the Cultural Revolution as “lessons in democracy,” since Mao Zedong himself didn’t have a clear idea about how to go about it. He long had these nagging doubts, and didn’t know what to do about them.

You asked earlier about the mainstream understanding of the Cultural Revolution. It’s that it was a power struggle. For me, this interpretation is a narrow-minded interpretation. In 1965, Liu Shaoqi’s standing within the Party fell as a result of the “Four Cleanings” movement, so if Mao wanted to deal with Liu Shaoqi it would have been very easy, and wouldn’t have required the launching of a popular movement. But the method he employed was to have a revolution of culture. China’s culture really did need a revolution, in particular the culture of officialdom. If it wasn’t changed then, it would undermine progressive efforts at any time. Getting education would become a route to officialdom, and officialdom would become a way to ride on the backs of the common people. In the late Qing Dynasty, why did people commonly say, “officials are afraid of foreigners, foreigners are afraid of the people, the people are afraid of officials”? Because of the culture of officialdom. If people were not able to stand up spiritually, they would never be able to be in control on their own. In other words the people’s historic subjecthood cannot be established. My understanding of the Cultural Revolution is that it was a method of last resort for Mao Zedong in his later years. He saw no other way out, and even (I am guessing) may have known what would happen after he died. He could imagine that after his death the government would differ very little from that of the Kuomintang, and this led him to experiment and allow people from the bottom-up to expose the darkness in society. He had a saying: “We will not solve any problems through this or that [top-down] movement. We will only solve problems by mobilizing people from the bottom up to expose our dark side.” Why did it have to be from the bottom-up fashion? I think the reason is that he wanted to keep alive the spark of revolution and rebellion. In my opinion the true historical mission of the Chinese Communist Party lies here; that is how to allow the people to stand up spiritually. This is the true meaning of democracy.

Yan: So you think that the Cultural Revolution has two levels of meaning. At the top level, it involved a choice of what road to take in the context of the world system. At the grassroots level, the people were faced with how to deal with inequality and special privileges, and how to ensure that the people had a voice, not how to oppose the “capitalist road” but how to deal with issues that would still be considered “contradictions among the people” within socialist culture. So the Cultural Revolution failed in building a linkage between the struggle over lines at the top and the social concerns at the grassroots level.

Cao: There was no link.

Yan: You mentioned how your own understanding of the Cultural Revolution changed and yet a lot of people view the entire movement from the standpoint of one’s individual gains or losses. Was this a common phenomenon during the Cultural Revolution or immediately after it?

Cao: It was a widespread phenomenon, including myself in the past. The thing intellectuals like to say most is: we are just common people, we just look out for our immediate interests and only take care of ourselves. They use the common people as an excuse, and understand things from the standpoint of self-deprecation. In this way they judge history on the one hand by gauging their own personal gains or losses, and on the other hand by washing their hands of the whole affair by laying the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution at the feet of the revolutionary leadership. This is how they put themselves to sleep. People who use the moral bearings of others to stake out their own position do not deserve to be called independent moral individuals. How can people such as this truly be considered free?

Yan: One of the rebels in the novel is a young woman. Was her gender a criteria for the design of the plot, or was it inevitable?

Cao: Both reasons. It made the plot design more interesting and readable. Also it is easier for women to relate to the essence of revolution. There is a saying that you can judge the level of the country’s civilization by the status of women within it. In China, the only fruit of the revolution that remains is the improvement to women’s status. Not long ago I went to Beijing to see a play, and several PhDs said that someone had produced a report saying that most social roles have not changed very much in China over the past sixty years. The sons and daughters of officials have become officials; the progeny of capitalists have become capitalists; the offspring of intellectuals have become intellectuals, etc. Supposedly this was determined through the use of statistics, that society had not changed very much. I said that’s not right, there have been at least two major changes. The first is that women’s position has been raised, and the second is that literacy is much improved. Improvements in women’s position are the result of the Chinese revolution, this can’t be denied. I made a comparison in the book between Xiao Ming and her mother. Both of them had suffered injustices, and both of them had difficult lives, but their attitude towards their lives was completely different. The mother had received an entirely traditional education, and her last request was that she be reincarnated as an animal. Xiao Ming suffered many setbacks as well, but she took the initiative during the Cultural Revolution to rebel, as she wanted to play a major role in the world. These are two completely different attitudes. The improvement in women’s status was realized in the midst of struggle, it was not handed out as a gift.

Yan: Very interesting. Some of my friends that research workers’ movements had observed that in the latter half of the 1990s women played a pivotal role in the anti-privatization struggles in factories.

Cao: This can be seen in many different spheres. It’s most clear in sports, but also in the arts. Some women have a much greater range of thought than that of men. Also there are definitely more women studying for their doctorate than men. I think that there is a great future in this, and it shows how consequential the Chinese revolution was. If you visit South Korea or Japan, you will see that the position of women there is quite different from that of China. Many of the teachers in my school have gone on exchanges to South Korea, and they come back and say that the women teachers are self-confident and animated when they’re having class, but have to retreat to a much more staid demeanor as soon as the bell rings to end class. They are actually very envious of China.

Yan: Thank you very much for this conversation, it touched upon many issues that were not apparent in the book.


Bourgeois Reactionary Line: “Criticize the Reactionary Bourgeois Line” was first proposed in issue No. 13 of Red Flag published on October 1, 1966, and was also part of the speech that Lin Biao gave in Tiananmen that day. He said, “In the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the proletariat revolutionary line struggle, led by Mao Zedong, against the anti-revolutionary bourgeois line will continue. Those who stick to the mistaken political line are few in number; their thought has left the side of the masses, is against the people, and against Mao Zedong Thought. This dooms them to failure.” Red Flag, in a commentary entitled, “Advancing on the Road of Mao Zedong Thought” first said that, “Mao Zedong personally organized the ‘Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,’ also known as the ‘16 Points.’ This was a product of the two-line struggle, and a product of the victory of the proletarian revolutionary line led by Mao Zedong over the reactionary bourgeois line. The announcement of the ‘16 Points’ was supported by most of the masses, and propelled the Cultural Revolution to new heights. The overall situation of the revolution was very good, and was improving.” This was the first time that Central Committee had publicly criticized the Party Committee work teams, and was a show of support for the side that had been suppressed. Later this support became the mainstream view under the slogan, “it is right to rebel.”

Investigate the May 16th Clique: On May 18, 1967, Zhang Jianqi from Beijing Steel College, Liu Lingkai from Beijing Foreign Language College, and some others formed the “Capitol May 16th Red Guard Group.” Less than 100 people were part of the organization when it was founded. They attacked Zhou Enlai, saying that he was the “black hand” behind the “February Reverse.” The group’s actions were immediately noticed by Mao Zedong and the Central Committee, and it was decided they would be suppressed and that Zhang Jianqi, Liu Lingkai, and others would be arrested. The “Investigate the May 16th Clique” movement lasted from 1970–1974, with several million ordinary people wrongly labeled as being involved in the May 16th movement. In fact, this movement was also aimed against the rebel groups.

Little Right Wing: Because the work teams were not certain of the nature, tasks, and goals of the Cultural Revolution, they acted in ways entirely opposite to those found in the May 16 Circular, as embodied in the key phrase from the document: “The important task is to rectify the power holders within the Party for taking the capitalist road.” Nearly all of the work teams instead understood the Cultural Revolution as a new Anti-Rightist Movement. As a result the work teams arrested academic authorities and officials that had been denounced (labeling them part of a “Black Gang”), and struggled with young teachers and students for the most part. As a result, the targets of the work teams during this period are sometimes called the “Little Right Wing” or “Little Counter-revolutionaries.” On August 5, 1966 Mao Zedong issued the “Bombard the Headquarters—My Big-Character Poster,” statement, criticizing Liu Shaoqi without naming him, and clearly putting forth the idea that the very center of the Party had developed a capitalist headquarters, and that this needed gradually to change.

One Strike Three Anti Campaign: The “One Strike Three Anti Campaign” movement originated in three documents issued by the CCP Central Committee in 1970. The first, “Directive Concerning the Crackdown on Counter-revolutionary Destructive Activities” was issued on January 31, and “Directive Concerning Anti-Graft and Embezzlement, Anti-Speculation and Privateering” and “Notice on Anti-Extravagance and Waste” were issued on February 5. These directives also targeted the rebel factions.

Rebel: The initial Red Guard organizations did not have clear goals when they were first established. Their claim to “Sweep Away all Ox-Ghosts and Snake-Spirits” was in practice part of the movement to combat the “Four Olds,” and to uphold the “Bloodline Theory,” and these activities were all originally the responsibility of the work teams. Because many of the high school and college students who were suppressed in these campaigns began to resist, and they were supported by the ordinary masses, so after September 1966, the Red Guards divided into rebel and conservative factions, divided on whether they supported the work teams run by the Party committees or not. In effect the rebels were rebelling against the “bourgeois reactionary line” (see entry  above). The suppression of the students came first, then the rebellion of the students. It was not the case that the Red Guard rebelled as soon as they were formed.

Red Guards: On May 29, 1966 a group of students from the middle school attached to Tsinghua University decided to establish a secret student organization: the Red Guards. They declared that they were the “red guards” that would protect Mao Zedong, who was their “red commander.” On June 2, they posted a signed big character poster at their school. Later Red Guard organizations that appeared in other areas were actually student organizations under control of the Party Committees’ work teams, about the equivalent of youth organizations affiliated to the Communist Youth League, and were mainly comprised of the sons and daughters of so-called revolutionary cadres. On August 18, 1966, a mass meeting of the Cultural Revolution was held in Tiananmen Square, and Mao Zedong for the first time received a number of Red Guards that had travelled to Beijing to “link-up.” Only at this point did the term “Red Guard” start to refer to all young students in China.

Revolutionary Committees: In January 1967, the rebel faction of Shanghai took over the city government and installed a new government, the Shanghai People’s Commune. Many other regions began to copy the Shanghai’s experience, and the questions about the practice led Mao Zedong to declare that, “The Revolutionary Committees are best.” As a result the Revolutionary Committees were formed from the PLA that was supporting the left, old cadres, and representatives of the masses (rebel factions). This in fact led to the drawing down of the movement, reflecting the trend from rebels to “support the left” (see entry below) to a coalition with older cadres.

Support the Left: By October 1966, the rebel factions had the upper hand. The Party Committees were under constant attack, and the situation was becoming extremely chaotic. The high tide of the attempt by the rebels to take power took place when the Shanghai workers’ rebellion occurred. By this time the Party committees and governmental offices were basically paralyzed. On January 23, 1967, the CCP Central Committee, the State Council, the Central Military Commission, and the Cultural Revolution Small Group issued the “Decision Regarding the People’s Liberation Army’s Resolute Support for the Revolutionary Left Masses.” Soon after, Mao Zedong ordered the PLA to support the Left, peasants, workers, and to engage in direct administration as well as military and political training. On August 19, the Central Military Commission issued the “Decision to Concentrate Forces to Support the Left, Peasants, Workers, and Engage in Management, Military and Political Training.” Therefore the “Left” here refers to the rebel factions, but in fact the true meaning of the orders was to bring order to and manage the rebel actions.

Work Team: The Cultural Revolution was sparked when the Shanghai newspaper Wen Wei Po published Yao Wenyuan’s “A Criticism of the Historical Drama ‘Hairui Dismissed from Office’” on November 10, 1965. In February 1966 the Central Cultural Revolution Small Group, made up of five members and headed by Peng Zhen, drafted the “Outline Report Concerning the Current Academic Discussion” (known as the February Outline). When Mao Zedong presided over a meeting of the expanded Central Politburo in Hangzhou soon after the February Outline was issued, he rescinded the Outline and disbanded the Central Cultural Revolution Small Group headed by Peng Zhen, and replaced it with a group headed by Chen Boda, placing the group directly under the authority of the Central Politburo via the “Circular of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (known as the May 16 Circular). These unexpected events signaled the launch of the Cultural Revolution. This was followed by a disagreement over sending work teams to high schools and colleges, with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping on one side and Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, and Chen Boda on the other. This is the background of the dispatch of work teams. At the end of May, the Central Committee sent work teams to the People’s Daily newspaper, the North China Bureau of the CCP, and Peking University. By the beginning of June, Party Committees had sent work teams to high schools and colleges in areas for which they were responsible. The job of the work teams was to strengthen the authority of the leadership, control the direction of the movement, and in some cases to replace the original Party Committee and exert leadership over the movement.

2013, Volume 65, Issue 05 (October)
Comments are closed.