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The Cultural Revolution:
A People’s History, 1962–1976

by frank dikötter
bloomsbury, 432 pages, $20

As American society was roiled this summer by civil unrest, purges, and struggle sessions, I read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, a recently published book that is newly relevant. The subtitle is a bit of historiographic trolling. “People’s history” is a catchphrase of Marxist social history, and Dikötter has spent the last decade documenting the horrors of Marxism in China. But it is not just a joke. Dikötter relies on memoirs, many of them not ­previously used by researchers, to show how ordinary people ­experienced the ­Cultural Revolution as a time of terror, deprivation, and (occasionally) exhilaration.

Late in his career, Chairman Mao took a radical turn. Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” against the memory of Stalin had made Mao fear that China would one day take a “capitalist road” and seek détente with the West. In order to forestall this deviationism, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962). The Chinese people were conscripted into a war against nature, forced onto disastrous agricultural collectives, compelled to build useless steel furnaces in their backyards—shrines to a cargo cult of industrialization. Tens of millions of people died in the famine that resulted.

Mao’s legitimacy was shaken by the famine. To reassert control, he launched the “Socialist Education Campaign.” Its slogan, “Never Forget Class Struggle,” was a call to seek out and destroy class enemies. Mao attacked schools as redoubts of bourgeois intellectuals and exams as a means of class reproduction. He suggested that students should nap through lectures and cheat on exams. He said that the Ministry of Culture would be better described as the “Ministry of Foreign Dead People.” Five million party members were punished and tens of thousands were driven to their deaths. But this was nothing compared to the Cultural Revolution.

In 1966, Mao lost patience with the party structure as a means of revolutionary action. He formed a committee to promote a directed form of anarchy, violence from ­below approved by the powers that be. The Cultural Revolution Group was launched on June 1 with a People’s Daily editorial: “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons!” The group was led by a sycophant named Lin Biao, but its most iconic member was Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing—who, Dikötter suggests, had once sublimated her sexual jealousy at Mao’s ­infidelities into hypochondria but found a more exuberant outlet in ­political terror.

Immediately, posters began to appear, many of them denouncing specific people. Work teams of cadres encouraged middle and high school students to denounce and brutalize their teachers and principals. Prosaic grievances against school discipline and tough coursework were expressed in a political key. Students beat their teachers, made them wear dunce caps, and locked them up at night in improvised prisons. These students evolved into the Red Guards. Dikötter’s portrait of them, drawn from diaries and memoirs, shows tweens and teens relishing the excitement of inverting authority and getting to play soldier or spy, like Tom Sawyer in a dictatorship. They were not so much pint-sized secret police as an unruly mob of children. When Mao encouraged them to travel, they crowded onto trains, straining the transportation network and causing a meningitis outbreak. The cars were crowded and filthy. But the teens saw it as an adventure, and those excluded from the Red Guards by virtue of their bourgeois or reactionary background felt ashamed and envious for missing out.

In August of 1966, Mao and Lin Biao directed the Red Guards to destroy old ideas and old culture. The emboldened students put up big character posters announcing their intention to smash not just the ideas but the material artifacts of bourgeois decadence and imperialism. They attacked ordinary people in the street, “forcibly cutting their hair, slashing narrow trouser legs, chopping off high heels.” Shops, libraries, cemeteries, and holy sites—including pagodas, churches, and mosques—were destroyed. Statues, tombstones, and books were smashed or burned. Pets—considered bourgeois decadence—were massacred. Homes were looted and vandalized. State functionaries confiscated the finest items, including many priceless antiquities.

The Red Guards got away with this behavior for a little more than two years because the Cultural Revolution Group had praised them and ordered the army and the party to stand down. By 1968, nearly everyone had tired of the Red Guards’ aggression, and when Mao sent a box of mangos to a work team that had decided to discipline the Red Guards, all of China was elated. Finally, the madness could be resisted. People began to observe a cult of mangos, complete with icons, reliquaries, and pilgrimages. Worshipping a dictator’s box of fruit may sound bizarre, and it was, but this shows just how relieved the Chinese people were that an army of brats would no longer have free reign. At the end of 1968, the Red Guards were sent to the country to learn from the peasants—a euphemism for internal exile.

The Cultural Revolution did not end with the removal of the Red Guards, but it became less chaotic. Directed anarchy was replaced by routine totalitarianism. Mao, convinced of a coming total war with the Soviet Union, reorganized the economy for a war of attrition by relocating heavy industry to the hinterland, which was enormously expensive and strained the transportation system. In the “Learn from Dazhai” campaign, a Potemkin village was used as a model for restarting the Great Leap Forward. There were imagined conspiracies—such as “the New Nationalist Party”—and purges, lots of purges. Lin Biao, at one time Mao’s likely successor, died in a suspicious plane crash while trying to flee to the Soviet Union.

The beginning of the end for the Cultural Revolution was, ironically, the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the popular moderate. A few months later, on Tomb Sweeping Day 1976 (the Chinese equivalent of All Souls), huge crowds gathered to mourn. In Nanjing and at Tiananmen Square, these funerary gatherings turned into overt protests against Jiang Qing. The mourning for the beloved late premiere and protest against the hated Madame Mao were eventually suppressed, but something had changed. When Mao died a few months later, the nation went through the motions of mourning. But in private, people were inviting over trusted friends, drawing the curtains, and breaking out the good booze to toast the end of a decade of terror.

Red terrors are often followed by white terrors, but the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution was surprisingly mild. The Chinese Communist Party realized it could not repudiate the legacy of Mao without undermining the legitimacy of the Communist Party itself. It thus resorted to the classic tactic of affirming the king’s legitimacy and blaming problems on his corrupt ministers. A show trial blamed the Cultural Revolution on “the Gang of Four,” a group that had risen to prominence during the revolution. Its members were initially sentenced to prison or death, but they eventually were released or had their sentences reduced. Jiang Qing killed herself in 1991 after being released from prison with terminal cancer. In time, Deng Xiaoping implemented the capitalist road his enemies had accused him of favoring during the Cultural Revolution. It was Deng who sent tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989, leading to China’s current regime of free markets and unfree men. Xi Jinping has elaborated this policy, with reeducation camps aimed at the cultural genocide of the Uighur people and the extension of the mainland’s tyranny to Hong Kong.

The Cultural Revolution was far more severe than anything America is experiencing or is likely to experience. Middle-aged management and professionals are being forced out of their jobs by students and young workers; nobody is being beaten to death. Old movies and television episodes disappear from streaming services; adolescent vigilante squads don’t break into your home to beat you up and confiscate copies of Gone With the Wind. Mobs have burned police stations and ­police cars; there have not been street battles with mortars and machine guns.

Still, there are striking parallels between the Cultural Revolution and the wokeist revolution. Rioting and looting have spread not because the authorities are unable to stop it, but because they refuse to restrain what they regard as righteous outrage. Self-criticism and struggle sessions have come to every institution in America. Students, including those at my own university, express routine frustrations in terms of ideological grievance. In place of posters denouncing capitalist roaders, we see viral social media posts shaming the “Karen” of the day. People and enterprises seek security through ostentatious displays of ideological conformity. Instead of destroying statues of Confucius, mobs topple monuments to a philanthropist who built schools for black children, an abolitionist who died fighting for the Union, and Ulysses S. Grant. Not so long ago, people hoped that communist China would gradually adopt the values of the democratic West. The opposite may be closer to the case.

Gabriel Rossman is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.