Bringing Up the Red Guards

Bringing Up the Red Guards

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the old world upside down, smash it to pieces, pulverize it, create chaos and make a tremendous mess, the bigger mess the better!

Red Guard manifesto
Tsinghua University Middle School
Peking, June 24, 1966

Everyone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“P’an T’ien-shou is a counterrevolutionary painter—he paints such miserable birds”). Those interested in “violence” can easily find some “urgent appeal” describing “sanguinary atrocities” (always unverifiable) in one of the remoter provinces. Pessimists will find plenty of stern directives from the Army and the central authorities in the later stages of the revolution, denouncing the “evil wind of anarchism.”

My own favorite heads this review. The Red Guards of Tsinghua University, Peking, were referring in their usual allusive style to a poem by Mao written a few years before to denounce Khrushchev’s revisionism. “The Golden Monkey,” Mao had written, “wrathfully swung his massive cudgel, / And the jadelike firmament was cleared of dust.” Mao in his turn was referring to the famous Monkey of the early Chinese novel Hsi Yu Chi, whose magical arts included the ability to turn every hair of his head into a thousand weapon-brandishing mini-monkeys.

* * *

Mao as the Monkey King, launching his swarm of little devils upon the baffled Party bureaucracy, is an attractive image. (Arthur Waley in the Introduction to his classic translation of the Hsi Yu Chi describes Monkey as personifying “the restless instability of genius”—which is not a bad description for Mao either.) But one must add that Monkey’s exploits were not purposeless; he had been converted by the Great Buddha to the true faith and his actions were designed to promote it. This point not all of Mao’s little monkeys in the Cultural Revolution managed to grasp.

It is also the central point of Professor Solomon’s full-scale analysis of Mao’s contribution to Chinese political culture and of his efforts to make use of certain characteristics of this culture, and to weaken others, in order to promote revolutionary change. The “chaos” or luan which the Red Guards were determined to “create” was an integral part of Mao’s plans. It was Liu Sh’ao-chi who confessed that “I feared confusion [luan] and excessive democracy,” and it was Mao who told his puzzled colleagues on the Central Committee that “I firmly believe that a few months of luan will be mostly for the good.” But it was (at least it was supposed to be) a controlled form of chaos, with the clear objectives of ousting the “capitalist roaders” from power, of throwing a bucket of ice-cold water over the bureaucratic Party and its institutions, of rekindling a revolutionary flame among China’s youth. It was, as Solomon puts it, “purposeful luan“!

* * *

Some Western observers of the Chinese scene tend to shed tears over the decline of the Red Guards and the reassertion in 1968, with Mao’s express approval, of centralized authority, very largely dominated this time by the Army instead of the Party. The ultraleft in China seems to strike a sympathetic chord even among some people who have no time for student revolution at home. In an extreme form, some Trotskyites suggest that in a way Mao ended up by betraying the true Maoists. In much the same way, one may recall how some responsible Western commentators, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, suddenly discovered the virtues of totalitarian bureaucracy, and wrote sadly of the fate of Liu Sh’ao-chi and other Chinese leaders, now judged to be “pragmatic” and “rational,” as they succumbed to the “irrational” onslaught of the Red Guards.

One of Solomon’s incidental achievements in his book is to demonstrate the relationship, from the Maoist view-point, between the “ultra-left” adventurism of the Red Guards and the “right” opportunism of the Party revisionists. Both deviated, in different directions, from the path of continuous but controlled revolution—or luan—which Mao himself pursued. Indeed both characteristics could be found in the person of Liu Sh’ao-chi, a man who appears to have swung from left (during the Great Leap Forward) to right a decade later. For the same lack of consistency the Chinese had denounced Khrushchev in 1962 when he blundered into adventurism by putting missiles into Cuba, and then turned to opportunism by pulling them out.

* * *

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture is not just a book about the Cultural Revolution, though thematically and structurally that revolution illustrates Solomon’s elaborate analysis of the sources of Chinese political culture. Using an explicitly psychoanalytical perspective, he locates these sources in the “millennial” nature of Chinese society which, strongly influenced by Confucianism, stressed “social interdependence and personal dependence” while suppressing self-assertiveness and activism. To put it over-simply (how can one properly summarize 500 pages of complex argument?), it is this “dependency social orientation,” according to Solomon, that accounted for the inability of Chinese traditional culture to cope with the consequences of social change.

For the state of dependency in childhood, encouraged by child-rearing and education (which he analyzes in detail), led to a corresponding submissiveness to authority in adulthood. The child who sought to struggle against his state of filial dependence had no alternative but to take up what Mao (in discussing his relations with his own father) once described as an attitude of “open rebellion.” Chinese society, says Solomon, did not present the young with opportunities “for testing out in limited ways methods for mediated control of his urges toward aggression” (his emphasis).

Just as, for the child, there was nothing between discipline and defiance, so in political terms there was no middle ground between acceptance of a hierarchically enforced “peaceableness” (ho-p’ing), and an attitude of total but purposeless rejection, or “disorder” (luan).

The dynastic cycle in imperial China, whereby long periods of “peace” imposed upon a passive peasant constituency by the state alternated with short periods of fierce but fragmentary “disorder,” could be said to illustrate the narrow range of choice available in traditional political culture. The tiger of rebellion could always be contained by the next dynastic succession. For centuries, writes Solomon, “a small but organized rural gentry and imperial bureaucracy had exercised effective control over the fragmented rural population. Mass hostility had to be organized and subject to political direction if revolutionary goals were to be attained.”

It was Mao’s genius (of which the Cultural Revolution is the latest example) to substitute controlled conflict, Solomon argues, rather than uncontrolled luan as the vehicle for revolutionary change in China. The source of political motivation was seen by Mao as “an emotional storm in which hatreds, resentments, and a sense of hopeless desperation broke through social restraints in an overwhelming surge.” But this surge had to be channeled, and the latent anger of the Chinese peasant had to be “directed outward through the force of ideology expressed in a political slogan.”

* * *

In the second half of this book, Solomon discusses the Chinese revolution and its consolidation after 1949, identifying some key features of Mao’s style in promoting “controlled conflict.” The anarchic tendencies of individual aggression were directed toward specific objectives: for example, “class struggle.” Personal ambition was subsumed in the collective—the “small group” which is characteristic of Chinese society today. Ideological study—the “Thought of Mao Tse-tung”—replaced the oppressive Confucian education by its emphasis on the “creative” application of thought to action.

Yet by the mid-1950s the revolution had become routinized. The need for social and economic reconstruction had driven the Party into what traditionally was its natural alliance with the bourgeoisie, the technicians, and intellectuals. To leaders like Liu Sh’ao-chi, the battle seemed to have been won; the “struggle between socialism and capitalism in our country has now been decided.” In the vital superstructure of art and culture, so Mao was later to remark, the stage was held by “emperors, kings, generals, ministers, talented young gentlemen, pretty ladies, and their maids and escorts.”

It was to clear the stage of bureaucrats, Soviet-trained technocrats, and opera singers that Mao inspired first the Hundred Flowers Movement, then the Great Leap Forward, and finally the Cultural Revolution, a revolution in which he took the art of controlled luan to its limits and perhaps a good deal further.

This is an impressive and startling book. It will have the same kind of impact as did, in its different way, Franz Schurmann’s Ideology and Organization in Communist China. The technique of “psychocultural” political analysis is not new to Solomon, and he acknowledges his debt to Lucian Pye among others, but what is new is the comprehensiveness and power of his argument. It is, first, an analysis of the traditional Chinese way of life, which explores basic attitudes toward consumption and excretion, education and discipline. Next, it deduces from these childhood experiences the existence of a strongly directed “oral” culture which dominates the political outlook of its adults. Finally, in a section which occupies almost half the book, Solomon applies his analysis to the course of China’s post-liberation politics itself, challenging in the process many accepted China-watching truths. The study is further supported by the results of Professor Solomon’s year-long intensive interviewing among main-land-born Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

* * *

Of course, the “psychocultural” approach is open to question, and even to parody. In spite of his carefully inserted caveats and disclaimers, Solomon lapses occasionally. “From a psychological perspective,” he writes, “there is no little irony in the fact that in contrast to the unfilial Mao, the great philosophers of China’s political tradition, Confucius and Mencius, were men who lost their fathers early in life.” But the real irony lies in the attribution of any significance at all to the family biographies of two semi-mythical sages who may not even have written the books to which their names are traditionally attached.

A much more serious criticism can be made of the way in which Solomon defines “China’s political tradition” (as in the quotation above). It is exclusively the Confucian “tradition,” “life pattern,” “scholarship,” and “political heritage” that are shown to exercise the dead weight of “dependency” on contemporary China. Moreover, this tradition is described in a somewhat cursory manner in view of its central importance to the author’s subsequent argument. The convenient quotations from Confucius (as well as some from Mencius) about “filial piety” or the “superior man” give the impression of having been taken almost at random from James Legge’s antique and often inaccurate translations. At one point (p. 89), Solomon reveals unwittingly that he has failed to grasp one of the more elementary hazards of the Legge translation. That worthy missionary, forever trying to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity, was accustomed to supply, in italics, liberal additions to the text to make the meaning fit the view he happened to favor. By noting that the “emphasis” (which it is not) was supplied by the “original source,” Solomon can only invite speculation about his own familiarity with the original texts and their interpretation.

Indeed it is remarkable that Taoism and Buddhism, both strong cultural influences in China, are never once mentioned by Solomon. The influence of either may be hard to chart, partly because it was greater among the illiterate masses than among the literati for whom Confucian norms were passwords to social success. Yet for this very reason the strength or weakness of these very different philosophies, both of which took a much less authoritarian view of how society should be organized, is surely worth some attention.

Discussion of another cultural tradition is also absent—again one perhaps more popular outside the closed and small circle of the literati—a tradition according to which politics was not a set of filial relationships but a very serious game of stratagems and Machiavellian maneuvers. This almost “Western” view can be found in early semifictional histories of the Warring States period such as the Tso Chuan and the Chan Kuo Tse, in the vernacular art of the Sung storytellers, and in popular novels like the Shui Hu Chuan (“All Men are Brothers”), to mention only one example familiar in the West.

This tradition, it could be argued, composed just as real a world in imperial China as that of the Confucian scholar, even if it were recorded in the annals only when the peasants rose in rebellion. Moreover, it is to this tradition—one might almost call it a “counterculture” of peasant struggle against Confucian authority—that Mao has frequently referred in outlining his own stratagems for dealing with the enemy.

* * *

Solomon recognizes that a problem arises from broadly applying the Confucian tradition to all of Chinese society. The important question, he writes, is “whether the social attitudes and emotional concerns of China’s small stratum of literate elite, as expressed in the life style and ideology of the Confucian ‘great tradition,’ were shared by illiterate peasants enduring poverty and toil in the ‘little tradition’ of the villages.” To answer this question, he falls back on a working hypothesis that the attitudes combining both Confucian thought and the tendency toward dependence stem from a common source shared by the peasant as much as by the scholar. This is the “social logic of an agrarian society” in which the formal structure of Confucianism simply mirrors the inexorable necessity imposed on man by nature. “There is an almost contrived equivalence,” writes Solomon, “between the monotony and physical discipline of agricultural life and the mental repetitiveness and unquestioning acceptance of the teacher’s authority required to become literate in the Classics.”

Contrived by whom? one is tempted to ask. Solomon’s working hypothesis requires much more attention than he apparently gave it during his researches. It is a pity, he explains, that the people whom he personally interviewed in Taiwan and Hong Kong did not provide any direct evidence of the social attitudes of the Chinese peasant, but rather reflected those of the bourgeoisie. This, he explains, was because “our tools of analysis required minimal literacy and sufficient social poise to be able to respond to an interview situation.” To which one again is tempted to ask, Whose situation?

The “interview schedule” which is reproduced in an appendix was, inescapably, written by a middle-class social scientist for middle-class interviewees. Certainly, an illiterate peasant would have little expectation of becoming “mayor of this city” (Question 56) nor would he have “a high wall round [his] family house” (Question 24). And the pictures from the Thematic Apperception Test offered by Solomon to his subjects for comment and free association include only one rural scene—in which an educated young man surveys a classic Chinese landscape. Somewhere in the middle distance, beneath the cloud-capped peaks, a humble peasant hoes his row. But he is only part of the scenery.

This identification of the Confucian tradition with the Chinese peasant is crucial to Solomon’s argument. For it follows that Mao Tse-tung’s efforts to mobilize the Chinese peasantry must continually run foul of the dead weight of “dependency,” and indeed that it is doubtful whether Mao will ever succeed. Solomon writes, after 1949, “Mao and his colleagues found another series of struggles between their own revolutionary goals and the personal inclinations of the Chinese people”; the failure to resolve these struggles led to the supreme mobilizing effort of the Cultural Revolution. Yet the Cultural Revolution in turn demonstrated that China remains “largely a traditional peasant society.” The organization and ideology have changed, yet “the Confucian heritage endures in the personalities of the Chinese people.” The question is left nominally open whether Mao’s mechanism for “mobilizing a basically conservative and politically reticent peasantry” can be sustained in the future. But Solomon’s implied answer is a pessimistic one.

* * *

The question, “Who will win?” as Mao himself has said, is “still undecided.” But we are right to take into account the pace and progress of social revolution in China since 1949 as to some extent indicative of a much more positive attitude on the part of the Chinese peasantry toward making revolution than Solomon’s picture would suggest. Of course we know all about the persistence of feudal practices, the arranged marriages and clan rivalries denounced (and perhaps exaggerated) from time to time in the Chinese press. But are we to suppose that the Confucian tradition is as strong a generation after liberation as it was before, or that after a further generation of change—including changes in the child-rearing and educational habits regarded as so vital by Solomon—it will not be any weaker? Perhaps not every Chinese peasant has “stood up,” in the Maoist sense, but a tendency in that direction has surely been established.

Mao himself does not believe that the Chinese peasantry is “basically conservative and politically reticent,” although this is implied in this book in several passages. While recognizing that conservatism is part of the dialectic of rural society, he also insists that the new revolutionary forces in the countryside are at least of equal strength. Rural policy, for Mao, is essentially a question of how to win over the uncommitted majority who tend to waver between the pressures of activism and conservatism. As Mao told the Lushan Party Plenum in July, 1959, defending himself against criticism that the Great Leap Forward had gone too far,

At least 30 percent of the people are actively on our side; another 30 percent are pessimists and landlords, while the rest are middle-of-the-roaders. How many people are 30 percent? It’s 150 million people! They want to run communes and mess halls and do everything cooperatively. They are very enthusiastic and keen—how can you call them petty-bourgeois fanatics?

The effect of what by any reckoning must be a substantial minority of support for Mao’s new style against the traditional style Solomon never squarely faces. For him it is a struggle between Mao and the rest in which the forces of revolution are never analyzed separately from the Chairman’s individual contribution.

The source of Mao’s own revolutionary inclinations is traced by Solomon back to Mao’s childhood where he fell foul of his father and of the schooling system. Here we are asked to identify “the emotional origins of Mao’s willingness to challenge established political authority.” Mao’s account of his childhood certainly provides countless anecdotes that seem to cry out for the analyst, and Solomon is not the first writer to respond to the call. There was, for instance, that famous time when Mao, after a dispute with his father, threatened to jump into a pond unless the latter promised not to beat him. “Thus the war ended,” Mao told Edgar Snow, and “I learnt that when I defended my rights by open rebellion my father relented, but when I remained meek and submissive he only cursed and beat me the more.” This is an excellent couch-side confession, but it was not told under treatment on the couch, but with a degree of self-irony which makes it a doubtful source for serious analysis. It certainly does not explain a revolution.

* * *

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture is a considerable work of scholarship and argument. In one step it raises our naïve conceptions of Chinese political culture and the old sterile debate of “totalitarianism” vs. “participatory democracy” to an entirely new and more complex plane. What it tells us about the persistence of traditional attitudes among certain sections of society is important; its speculations about the effect of these attitudes on political life are controversial and challenging. But it must be emphasized that this book is only the first step in an argument. In spite of its air of consummate authority, it is not the last word, and to take it as such would do Professor Solomon a great disservice.

It would not usually be necessary to make this point about a book in the bitchy field of Sinology, in which the hatchets are always kept handy. But the fact is that the Solomon approach confers a kind of academic seal of respectability on many of our prejudices about Chinese society that may mute the valuable controversy which it should arouse. Nor does it look as if Solomon’s views are of merely academic interest. For we learn from his publisher’s blurb that he has “recently been appointed to the National Security Council as a staff assistant to Henry Kissinger.” Professor Solomon’s study of Mao and the Chinese revolution, we are assured, “will be one factor in the shaping of America’s evolving China policy.”

It is not only Solomon’s conception of the “traditional conservatism” of the Chinese peasantry that conforms to a popular Western stereotype, but also his conception of China as an “oral” culture, unable to channel its creative and innovative forces effectively, and limited to a sterile dialectic between “conformity” and “chaos.” What a satisfying contrast with our anal Western culture! The Chinese stuff their children with food and then (as Solomon carefully explains) let them shit where they like. We, on the other hand, train our children young, and teach them the values of “personal independence and self-reliance” at an early age. No wonder the Chinese never had a proper industrial revolution. What a funny sort of people they still are!

  1. Monkey by Wu Ch'eng-en, translated by Arthur Waley (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942), p. 10.
  2. University of California Press, 1966.
  3. The Spirit of Chinese Politics: A Psychocultural Study of the Authority Crisis in Political Development (MIT, 1968), which acknowledges a debt to Solomon.
  4. James Legge, trans., The Chinese Classics, Vol. 1 (Shanghai, 1935), pp. 384-5. The passage quoted by Solomon, to illustrate his argument that in the Confucian view "social order was a function of the discipline…of popular emotions," is a particularly unfortunate choice. Legge himself comments on this passage that "it is difficult to translate the paragraph because it is difficult to understand it."
John Gittings is a reporter on Chinese and international affairs. He is currently a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the associate editor of the...

Reviewed in This Article

Mao’s Revolution and the Chinese Political Culture
by Richard Solomon
University of California, 604 pp

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This article was first published in the issue of the New York Review of Books.



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