How Reds Smashed Reds

How Reds Smashed Reds

July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but beating people is no big deal.” A few weeks later Mao himself heard a report about a mass meeting in Beijing at which Red Guards “struggled” against “hooligan” students. In those days “struggle” included physical violence. Walder describes in his revealing Fractured Rebellion how the Chairman made clear his impatience with anyone who warned that the Red Guards were going too far. “I do not think Beijing is all that chaotic,” he said. “Students holding 100,000-person mass meetings, capturing assailants, getting all panicked. Beijing is too civilized.”

“Mao set the tone,” Walder writes.

The authorities should turn a blind eye to violence as an inevitable by-product of revolutionary mobilization. This was translated into official directives…. The targets of the red guards were left virtually defenseless.

This meant being defenseless in the face of beatings, torture, murder, or suicide. During the Cultural Revolution, Walder emphasizes, losing could be fatal.

Mao unleashed this violence, according to many accounts of people who were close to him, because he feared that after his death, as with Stalin, his successors would turn on him and dismantle communism. Enemies of the revolution, Mao proclaimed, some of them in the open, others concealed, must be “rectified,” an anodyne-sounding word used to describe dreadful deeds. Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard and Michael Schoenhals of Lund, leading authorities on the Cultural Revolution, note that much of what Mao said was gobbledygook or opaque, puzzling even to those closest to him, who feared that at any moment they could become his victims. This enabled the Chairman to hint strongly that some extremely violent acts must be committed but contend later that he had been misunderstood. In 2003, a Harvard seminar on Mao heard from one of his secretaries, Li Rui, that “Mao was a person who did not fear death and he did not care how many he killed.” In Mao’s Last Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals quote Mao praising Hitler: “The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.” Indeed, because of Mao, MacFarquhar has written, “The Cultural Revolution bore the mark of Cain from birth.”1

* * *

Andrew Walder, too, has written a great deal about the problems surrounding the Cultural Revolution. He claims in his newest book that the mass movements of the period “remain inadequately documented and poorly understood,” and recognizes that Mao “had in mind something much bigger, more disruptive, and potentially much more enduring” than most observers realized at the time. The Chairman was prepared to risk everything to create

a mass movement in which the people themselves would identify, criticize, drag out, and punish those whose actions and words had betrayed the revolution and “Mao Zedong thought”…[and] gain revolutionary experience that would ensure commitment to Maoist ideals for another generation.

It is not a mere conceit of foreign scholarship on China to continue to focus on the Cultural Revolution. Almost thirty years ago the Chinese Communist Party itself declared:

The “cultural revolution,” which lasted from May 1966 to October 1976, was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was initiated and led by Comrade Mao Zedong.2

This was not the worst time for China after 1949; during the famine between 1959 and 1961 at least 30 million people starved to death and many surviving children were stunted. The Party has yet to confirm this catastrophe, caused by Mao’s destructive notions about agriculture. But fear of something like the Cultural Revolution happening again helps to explain the determination of Deng Xiaoping and his aged colleagues—some of whom, like him, had been “dragged out” during the terrible decade—that the Tiananmen demonstrations had to be smashed. “Instability” remains a Party code word for the years between 1966 and 1976.

In the West, for some enthusiasts the Cultural Revolution was regarded as fascinating and inspiring. There was a romance about the Red Guards in 1960s America. Many radicals conflated them with student demonstrators against the Vietnamese war in the US, France, and Britain. It must be recalled that there were China specialists, Lucian Pye of MIT and Canberra’s Pierre Ryckmans—”Simon Leys”—to name two of the most eminent, who did not swallow the Maoist line, as well as some journalists like Joseph Alsop; such skeptics were often scorned, and refugee accounts of persecution on the Mainland were dismissed by Mao enthusiasts with a shrug: “What do you expect from refugees?”

Now we know how widely and deeply violence bit into Chinese society from 1966 to 1968, as many thousands of young people, inspired by Mao, called themselves Red Guards and followed the general order given by Mao and his close confederates to attack the four “olds” of Chinese society—customs, culture, habits, and ideas. While at first museums were ransacked and books destroyed, the Red Guards soon turned on intellectuals, teachers, and Party functionaries, and on rival groups of students.

Many events between 1966 and 1968 turned out to resemble the repression during the worst periods of the Stalinist terror when Stalin counted on “the organs” to do his murderous work. On the whole, Russians in the towns and villages did not turn on one another. One of Mao’s achievements was to persuade Chinese to do just that. This is plain in the book Wild Swans (1991), in which Jung Chang vividly showed how the children of the Party elite in Sichuan province manhandled their hitherto respected, even loved, teachers. A seventeen-year-old student spelled this out to those who held back from attacking the teachers:

“Chairman Mao says, ‘Mercy to the enemy is cruelty to the people!’ If you are afraid of blood, don’t be Red Guards!” …The rest of us fell silent. Although it was impossible to feel anything but revulsion at what he was doing, we could not argue with him. We had been taught to be ruthless to class enemies.3

Chang says that while she feared what might happen to her if she objected to the violence, “One could feel devoted to Mao without perpetrating violence or evil,” and she admits that she was “keen” to be a Red Guard.

Walder observes that previous scholars, including himself, believed that “Red Guard factions…represented different social constituencies, and their political orientations were derived from their social positions.” He now disagrees, and concentrates instead on the Beijing Red Guard factions in particular and their conflicts. “Student factions perceived…political opportunities…as revealed by the mass media and Maoist officials. Throughout the two years of the movement, these signals were frequently ambiguous and contradictory, and at key points they were reversed without warning.” This eventually led, as he shows, to Red Guard factions in Beijing turning on one another.

<p:first-letter”>Yet as Jung Chang points out in Wild Swans, the behavior of Red Guards in Beijing was mild compared to what took place in other parts of China. In 1967, in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, activists killed many thousands more people than had died during the war against Japan. With next to no objections from anyone, some of the victims were dismembered and eaten. “Anything was acceptable,” writes Zheng Yi in Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China (1996), “as long as it was in the name of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship.”4No one ate anyone else in China’s capital.

* * *

Walder’s book, the first on the Beijing Red Guards, concentrates entirely on the movement in the capital’s universities and schools and the conflicts among them, mighty subjects in themselves. Not only were there more university students there than in any other Chinese city, but Beijing’s students, who were immediately made aware of Mao’s demands, were the first to mobilize, and much of what they did became models for the rest of China. Walder, however, notes Beijing’s particular circumstances. In all of China in 1965, on the eve of the great upheaval, in a population of 750 million, there were only 674,430 students in institutions of higher education. Of these, one sixth, or 111,000, were in Beijing. They were an elite group, as were the students in some of the high schools. But while the universities drew their students from around the country, those from the elite high schools were the children of Beijing’s political class. Both groups were prominent in the Beijing Red Guards.

Throughout China, students lived in what Walder calls “a highly closed system.” Graduates of schools and universities were assigned the jobs that they were likely to hold for life and in which their entire lives would be monitored. Students’ grades were important, but equally so were the political records of both the students and their families: “A political error in this system could have costly and irreversible consequences for one’s future…there was no exit from the system.” A family’s political status was inherited by the child and depended in great measure on the family’s hukou, its official household registration, which was virtually unchangeable and defined the political classification of a family through the generations. There was little chance of promotion in this system, but the danger always lurked that an entire family could be banished, most terribly, to a rural hukou, a fate that even Red Guards would have feared could apply to them, and eventually did.5

Walder does not ignore interviews with former activists, but he explains that they are often misleading and must be checked against written documents. Interviews could

never accurately establish the timing and sequence of events…. Interviewees can recall vivid anecdotes and offer interpretations that in isolation seem highly authoritative, but I have often found that they are convincingly refuted by the documentary record, revealing inaccuracies, half-truths, and self-serving myths that would otherwise intrude directly into the analysis.

In addition to published sources, Walder includes wall posters, handbills, and other unofficial statements. Additionally, he writes, since the late 1990s extensive collections of factional newspapers, students’ chronicles, and transcripts of speeches to large and small audiences have become available in Beijing.

As for the student factions in the capital that went on to fight one another, often to the death, these centered on the campuses of the super-elite Beijing and Qinghua Universities. In both cases, though the students of the two universities were to become rivals, initially they were defying what they took to be the wrong political positions of student leaders who had been previously “anointed by Maoist officials to lead the student movement.” That rival factions of students emerged and often differed violently is at first glance surprising. After all, everyone worshiped Mao, “the Red Red Sun in Our Hearts, the Great Helmsman and Teacher.” It was the Chairman and his circle who ensured that the student militants dominated the student press and were supplied with money, transport, and plenty of advice and encouragement from the very top. They were immune from interference from the army or security organs—until Mao changed his mind. As Walder explains, “Mao’s call to criticize power holders reverberated through a hierarchy that directly linked large numbers of politically active students to the regime.” That being the case, “the puzzle is not how the students mobilized but why they were so bitterly divided.”

* * *

Answering that question is a major theme of Walder’s book. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, “work teams,” consisting of four hundred groups of party officials, 3,800 strong, were sent from the highest levels of the regime to visit all campuses and given instructions to destroy the “old.” The students at first welcomed them enthusiastically (partly because they saw the draconian measures meted out to those who deviated from what was ordered). But Walder writes that “the Beijing red guards nonetheless spiraled out of control.” One of the reasons for the disorder was that the work teams insisted that the existing campus Party leaders “stand aside”; as a result, the usual political networks to which the students had belonged quickly disappeared. The problem deepened if work teams changed their commands or were suddenly replaced by new ones.

“In the survey of the range of work-team experiences, there is one common theme: in virtually all schools, regardless of the work team’s stance, power structures were fractured and their followers were divided against one another.” In every school, department, and classroom, the old power structures were those governed by the Party with its links to the center. When the two main university groups of Red Guards began fighting each other, each was concerned above all not to be crushed: the fear of losing preoccupied both groups for the next two years.

It was the high school students who invented the term hongweibing, Red Guards, for which Mao praised them. These younger students, unlike the older ones in the universities, were not broken up into factions by the work teams, and seem not to have been divided by rivalries. They were quick to invade Beijing’s neighborhoods where they vandalized temples and museums and terrorized local residents, “often with fatal consequences.” It is worth looking closely at Mao’s admonitions in this climate of zeal and confusion and the need to show one’s loyalty, the very conditions so well described in Wild Swans. The Chairman was widely quoted as having told his nephew and grandniece in 1966 that rules and regulations were irritating and should be rebelled against. “Here I want to say,” Mao said in congratulating a high school student leader, “that I and all my revolutionary comrades-in-arms have the same attitude. We enthusiastically support anyone in Beijing or throughout the nation who adopts the same kind of revolutionary attitude.”

Mao’s rhetoric sounded ferocious, but as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have observed, it could be reinterpreted later to argue that the Chairman never said to injure, torture, or kill. At the time, what he said seemed clear enough to the students. In August 1966, Walder writes,

a wave of unrestrained violence swept over the city…. High-school students seized party secretaries, principals, teachers, and classmates and subjected them to violent beatings. Those who died as a direct result were a small percentage of those who suffered such mistreatment. At least eight high-school party secretaries, principals, or vice-principals were murdered or committed suicide during August. Teachers and other administrators bore the brunt of the assault; suicide and beating deaths were common, and in some schools several died in a single day.

Here is the language of a Beijing handbill:

Capitalist real estate owners (landlords), “respected” gentlemen and ladies, you are bastards, sons of bitches…. Before liberation you sucked our blood and sweat, fed off our flesh and blood…you are truly maggots, leeches…. Today, on behalf of the broad masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, we open fire on you!

* * *

Two years later, in the summer of 1968, after the factions turned on each other, Red Guard violence reached its peak. One faction was led by Nie Yuanzi, a middle-aged woman official at Beijing University seething with resentment against some of her colleagues in the university administration. Several times married, a veteran of Mao’s guerrilla headquarters at Yan’an, she was well connected to the more heavy-handed sections of the security apparatus. Nie had won Mao’s praise in 1966 for the first wall poster, in May, that “is widely credited with inspiring the student rebellion that led to the red guard movement of August.” In late April 1968, her faction imprisoned 218 rivals who were beaten and tortured. Battles in which the Red Guards fought with roof tiles, spears, bricks, and Molotov cocktails escalated to the use of snipers on rooftops. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals quote a former Red Guard’s description of a procession of thousands of defeated Red Guards mourning the dead:

At the head of the procession were the tens of dead, their comrades holding their blood-soaked bodies aloft for everyone to see. The wounded followed, aided, too, by their fellow rebels, and young female revolutionaries were honored to carry the occasional severed bit of a body—an arm or leg or a hand…. They were proud to have risked their lives and would be willing to risk death again. They believed they were dying for Chairman Mao.

By then, Walder writes, “the red guard movement had limped to an inglorious end,” and Mao had had enough. On July 28, 1968, he summoned the Red Guard leaders, who found the Chairman surrounded by his principal officials. In words of deepest hypocrisy, ignoring his previous statements and encouragements, Mao said:

I say you are divorced from the masses; the masses cannot accept civil war…. Well, now we are issuing a nationwide directive, and whoever violates it, striking at the army, sabotaging transportation, killing people, setting fires, is committing a crime. If there is a minority who will not listen to persuasion and refuses to change, then they are bandits…. We will wipe them out.

Eventually, Nie Yuanzi, together with other Red Guard leaders, was arrested and sent to prison.

Walder writes that his research has led him to conclude that “what is most remarkable about the Beijing red guard movement…is the extent to which the various mobilizations were ultimately defensive in nature.” One faction wanted to “nullify the potentially devastating impact of political verdicts lodged against its members…. [Another faction’s] mobilization…was in turn an effort to avoid being implicated in the recent political errors of the work teams and to prevent students hostile to it from taking power.”

As noted above, Walder rejects earlier explanations of the Beijing student movement. He argues that it was not simply an obedient tool mobilized by the Maoist leadership; nor did its factionalism spin out of control because the Red Guards represented different social constituencies with different opinions about how China was organized. Far from being a coherent social movement, he insists, what emerged was an episode of vast mass participation stirred into existence during the chaotic political situation engendered by Mao. He had replaced the Politburo with the Central Cultural Revolution Group, made up of his closest cronies; this body mobilized and directed the warring factions, placing informants within them and crushing Red Guards who stepped out of line. This was done so clumsily that the divisions deepened. As the violence increased, each side feared the deadly consequence: a “real prospect of physical harm…. The red guards were fighting not to lose.”

Yet lose they all did. By 1979, 16,470,000 “educated youth” had been “sent down” to the countryside.

* * *

But China’s nightmare did not end with Mao’s July 1968 meeting. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write:

The dispersal of the Red Guards did not put an end to violence, but instead proved to be the prelude to an even wider-ranging campaign of terror during which even more people were tortured, maimed, driven mad, killed, or committed suicide.

By then, Mao was using the People’s Liberation Army and other official groups to forcibly suppress the Red Guards; their particular forms of brutality were no longer seen as useful but the Cultural Revolution continued, claiming millions of victims. This campaign, “cleansing the class ranks,” was directed by Zhou Enlai. For many reasons, some of them revenge or opportunism, deaths ran into the thousands throughout China. “The movement provided whoever happened to be in power with an opportunity to get rid of opponents.” Many in that generation never again believed in the Communist Party or much else.

In revolutionary China, the fear of losing may well have begun at Yan’an, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters long before the Communist triumph. The Red Guards were, after all, the actual or spiritual descendants of the men and women in and around the Yan’an caves. No one has described the atmosphere of fear that prevailed there as eloquently as David E. Apter and Tony Saich in Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic(1994)6. After interviewing 150 veterans of Yan’an, including “some very angry widows,” they noted that most had been persecuted for “crimes.” “Deviations to left or right, or both,” were seen as all the more heinous because those accused had previously been “official heroes of the revolution.” In 1966 the leaders who clustered around the aging Mao were largely old Yan’anites:

Each has, over the years, been betrayed and has betrayed, not once but many times…. They are plagued by guilty knowledge. For only they know what they have done to one another, both before Yan’an, when communist plotted against and killed communist…and when factions fought each other as surrogates for monopolistic truths…. Still thinking in terms of class struggle, they are frightened most of all of a war between civil society and the state.

This remains true in 2010, as dissidents disappear into jail or just vanish. The Beijing Red Guards imbibed their fears of being losers from their early childhood onward.

Elsewhere in China, Red Guards also fought one another; but more than fear of losing drove them. They fought over authority, legitimacy, and sometimes looted spoils. Walder acknowledges that “we should not automatically expect to see the same patterns [that prevailed in Beijing] among other social groups in other places.” He seems to lean hard on the writings of a Chinese scholar, Xu Youyu, a recently retired member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who was a high school student activist in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. Walder says that Xu “emphasized in considerable detail the differences between factional divisions in Beijing and in most outlying provinces.” The reasons for this distinction, Walder writes, “are a major subject for future research.” Much is still perplexing about the rampages of the Red Guards.

  1. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 473.
  2. Resolution on CCP History (1949–1981) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), p. 32.
  3. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Flamingo, 1992), pp. 407–408.
  4. Translated and edited by T.P. Sym (Westview, 1996), p. 32.
  5. The ramifications of the hukou system and of the urban–rural divide have been comprehensively explored recently in One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China, edited by Martin King Whyte (Harvard University Press, 2010).
  6. Harvard University Press, 1994.
Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Reviewed in This Article

Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement
by Andrew G. Walder
Harvard University Press, 400 pp.

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This article was first published in the November 11, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

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Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

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...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...