China: The Virtues of the Awful Convulsion


For decades, Beijing’s Beihai Park has been one of the city’s most beloved retreats—a strip of green around a grand lake to the north of the Communist Party’s leadership compound, its waters crowded with electric rental boats shaped like ducks and lotus flowers. A former imperial garden, Beihai is home to stone screens, temples, and steles from as far back as the Mongolian occupation of China, but it also has reminders of more recent conquests. On its western shore is one of the oddest: a life-size bronze sculpture of three children rowing a boat through a wave of musical notes. Next to the boat, three more children sit attentively as a soldier on a stool recounts a story. Surrounded by shrubs and flowers, the boat and the children point out toward the lake, as if readying for an idyllic day in the park.

The sculpture of the children was put up in 2013 to honor one of the most influential movies in Chinese film history: Flowers of the Motherland, released in 1955 as one of the first children’s movies made by the People’s Republic. It tells the story of a fifth-grade class with two rebellious children. Unlike the other 38 children, they refuse to join the Communists’ Young Pioneers, even after hearing a stirring lecture from two demobilized soldiers. But eventually a flood of good deeds by the Communist children convinces the two recalcitrants to put on the red scarf, and everyone happily rows across Beihai’s lake to the words of the song “Let Us Paddle”:

After we’ve finished our day’s homework
We come to enjoy ourselves.
I ask you dear friends
Who gave us this happy life?

The answer, of course, is the Communist Party and Chairman Mao, a message drilled into children of all generations. Even today, the song is part of the national music curriculum. Its effect was strongest in those earlier decades, when the Party had a monopoly of information and entertainment. Little wonder that the old people who gather in Beihai and other parks sing these songs of their youth. Their generation had no real folk songs or pop music, let alone outside sources of information; instead they heard only a mind-numbing glorification of the Party and the great leader.

In his new book, The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China, Guobin Yang describes this movie as part of a propaganda barrage that laid the foundation for the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted until 1976. A professor of communication and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Yang writes how the Party’s control of information and images created

a world of enchantment, mesmerization, and danger, one that combined a sense of infinite possibilities and hopes with a sense of danger and threat. It was this world that gave reality, urgency, and potency to the political culture of that historical era.

Yang is aware that generations are difficult to define and he is careful with his words. Roughly speaking, these people were born around the time of the Communist takeover in 1949, and for them, joining the student units known as Red Guards was central to their lives. In China, few use the term “Red Guard generation” because the guards are seen negatively—they were the young people whipped up by Mao and the Party to attack, often viciously, educated people and the government, as well as books, temples, churches, and anything that seemed old. Most people of that generation prefer to be called zhiqing, or educated youth, a much broader term for any young person sent down to the countryside after Mao decided that the Red Guards had gotten out of control. This emphasizes their transformation into victims; but Yang’s choice is a good one because it focuses attention on the astounding outburst of violent politics 50 years ago, from 1966 to 1967, when the Red Guards were at their peak.

Yang starts his book with a chapter on armed violence in Chongqing in 1967 when Red Guards fought bloody battles with knives, pistols, machine guns, and even floating artillery platforms from which they bombarded their enemies while sailing on the Yangtze River. As Yang makes clear, these battles were reenactments of the films and stories they had been shown and told about the revolution of the 1930s and 1940s. The Red Guards sent themselves off to battle with slogans drawn from war movies, and wrote moving eulogies for the hundreds killed that echoed the rhetoric of the Communist wartime myths.

But Yang is interested in showing more than how young people were conditioned to accept violence and obedience. He also wants to explain how they broke free of this straitjacket. One way was to use the sudden, if limited, freedom that Mao had given them to think and argue. It is well known that Red Guards pasted posters around towns denouncing their imagined enemies, but many also wrote thoughtful criticisms of the system. One was Yu Luoke, who attacked the idea that children of the revolutionary elite were the only youth who deserved to be Red Guards—the so-called bloodline theory.

Surprisingly, much of this debate was initially encouraged and even subsidized by the state, which allowed Red Guard publishing houses and newspapers to print essays like Yu Luoke’s. The response was phenomenal. Yu’s publisher was so flooded with mail that the post office refused to deliver it, insisting that the publisher come by and pick up the sacks that arrived every day.

(Keystone/Getty Images)

Teenage Red Guards perform a rifle drill in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, circa 1966 to 1969.

Yang then goes on to show the uprising in underground culture that occurred toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the gradual dawning of China’s dissident movement during that decade. This was the result, in part, of the Red Guards’ experience of China’s poverty when they were exiled to the countryside. Most of the principal journals published in the Democracy Wall movement of 1978 and 1979—in which many documented their experiences during the Cultural Revolution on posters on the Xidan Wall in Beijing—were by former Red Guards, such as Wei Jingsheng, Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Xu Wenli. These people were also a link to the 1989 Tiananmen protesters, who, although younger, echoed the desire of the Red Guard generation for martyrdom and grand gestures.

As they grew older, the Red Guard generation engaged in new battles—over memory. These reflected many of the factional lines from the 1960s. The initial group of privileged Red Guards made themselves out to be pure of heart and ultimately victimized, and blamed the violence on the lower-class participants—often subsequently known as the “Rebels”—who joined later. Even today these divisions are crucial to understanding China. As an offspring of the first revolutionary generation, the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, runs the country as part of a coalescing aristocracy. In other words, the “bloodline” theory that Yu Luoke criticized is still very influential today.

Yang presents his interesting ideas sharply, yet one must say that some of his work revisits a record that will be familiar to scholars of the Cultural Revolution. He has done much original research, especially in finding reminiscences by Red Guards in the 1990s, and he has combed through hundreds of memoirs and diaries. But ultimately each chapter—the violence in Chongqing, the Red Guards’ upbringing, their link to the dissident movement—is based on fairly well-known historical episodes.

What makes his book important is that Yang draws these points together to create a nuanced portrait of the Red Guard generation. His own depth of understanding enables him to show that Red Guards were not all storm troopers or crazed youth. They were constantly subjected to propaganda, but also had the capacity to learn, to grow, and to change.

In a way, one can see the Red Guards as similar to the generation of Germans who came of age in the Hitler years. These young Germans participated in the war, suffered a crushing defeat, but later many of them helped build democracy and liberalism in West Germany. In both countries many of the supporters of dictatorship did not recant, but enough did to create something important and lasting—in China’s case, people like Wei Jingsheng: people who helped create a new generation of critical thinkers who continue to influence China today.

In reminding us of this, Yang has done a great service during the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution in May 1966. In August, we saw the anniversary of Mao’s blessing of the Red Guards—the start of a period so bloody that it is often referred to as Red August. During this period, Red Guards ran rampant, killing more than 1,700 people in Beijing, including one of China’s most famous authors, Lao She. When we see images of Red Guards humiliating and torturing their elders, it is worth remembering how many of them also tried to break free of their upbringing.


For a clear and strongly written account of the Cultural Revolution in a broad perspective, we now have Frank Dikötter’s new book, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. A professor of humanities at Hong Kong University, Dikötter has made a reputation for writing provocative histories, including groundbreaking work on the history of race in China. He has also written a series of historically grounded but polemical books that aim to make sure we understand just how horrific the Mao years were. In a way, Dikötter is fighting an old battle: during the Mao years, many on the left in the West challenged the conventional wisdom that Mao should be rejected as a Communist dictator. Instead, his rule was explained as inevitable, or as better than what preceded it, or as something that at least got China on the right track. Starting 40 or so years ago, observers like Simon Leys revealed the emperor’s clothes and discredited the left’s relativism and illusions.1 Dikötter is following in this vein.

While Dikötter’s works are sometimes celebrated for providing bracing correctives to fuzzy thinking about the Mao era, a significant number of specialists in the field have argued that it is more prosecutorial than historical. His new book is quieter in tone. The result is a much more successful blending of his brisk writing and his ability to unearth fascinating new information from the archives.

Dikötter, for example, convincingly evokes the paranoia that Mao and his circle felt in the early 1960s. Drawing on previously classified provincial archives, he provides evidence that after the Great Leap Famine, beginning in the late 1950s, opium was being grown again, religion was on the rise, and former officials of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party were running local governments. These were the kinds of reports that probably caused Mao to feel that the Cultural Revolution was necessary.

Dikötter also very effectively describes Red Guard violence and provides fresh examples of the effects of China’s destruction of its traditional culture. In one telling section, he uses archives to show how thousands of people engaged in producing statues, incense, and other objects used in religious worship were thrown out of work when religion was effectively banned.

Still, some of the same problems arise in Dikötter’s book that are to be found in other historical work on China. We sometimes lose track of the fact that officials write reports for all sorts of reasons, with reporting the truth rarely among them. When Communist officials report that Nationalists have infiltrated the Party, one is not sure that this really is the case. Perhaps a score is being settled. In one respect it doesn’t matter: if Mao read the report and believed it, then its veracity is secondary. But Dikötter does not discuss such nuances, giving the impression that these reports are facts.

Dikötter might also have said more about the basis of his contrarian views. He writes, for example, that literacy and public health declined during the Mao period. This runs against many opposing accounts showing that they rose during the Cultural Revolution.2 Dikötter could usefully have acknowledged the other viewpoint and shown why it was wrong. Instead, one isn’t sure if he is unaware of other analyses (which is unlikely) or simply disagrees with them to such a degree that he can’t be bothered to address them (more likely).

Dikötter calls his book a “people’s history” and he culls many interesting anecdotes from daily life, but this is not the story of ordinary people at the grassroots; instead it is a fairly conventional history illustrated with colorful anecdotes. His version of events differs little from other histories of the Cultural Revolution, such as the more definitive and evenhanded—albeit weightier and less readable—Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals.3 For all the talk of archival treasures, the real archives we need—for example the records of such major events as the death of Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao—are under Communist Party control, meaning they are just as inaccessible now as they were a decade ago.

At the same time, Dikötter makes relatively little use of recent alternative histories of local events. He acknowledges their existence in the foreword, but the book relies heavily on well-known sources such as The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994), the revealing memoirs of Mao’s doctor,4 and English-language memoirs such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991).5 Nor does Dikötter take account of the ways the Cultural Revolution and Mao became global catchwords, with Black Panthers reading Mao and Maoist guerrilla movements active in countries on faraway continents. Also, the impact of the Cultural Revolution on today’s politics in China is hardly explored. Dikötter draws on work by political scientists such as Kate Xiao Zhou, whose book How the Farmers Changed China: Power of the People (1996) made the case that Mao’s policies were so disastrous that they led to today’s economic reforms allowing family farming. But he goes no further and the story stops in 1976. An afterword on the Cultural Revolution’s meaning today would have made this book much more relevant for many readers.

All this said, every era interprets great historical events like the Cultural Revolution in its own way. Dikötter’s strongly written book captures the current tone of disappointment with China in the West—including both its problems of growth and its authoritarianism—and so it can be read as a reflection of the West’s ongoing engagement with China, just as the starry-eyed reports from half a century ago echoed that era’s obsessions.


Of all the books on the Cultural Revolution that have appeared during this anniversary year, I was most intrigued by those that told detailed local stories to illustrate the larger history. This drew me to Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism, a volume edited by Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and Matthew D. Johnson of Grinnell College. In their introduction, Brown and Johnson make it clear that they want to broaden our understanding of the Cultural Revolution and the period that preceded it:

We are . . . making a statement—that the story of change in post-1949 China is more than a story of policy implementation via relentless group mobilization, or of chaos and terror unleashed by factional infighting in Beijing.

One of the many laudable features of the book is that it combines the work of Western and Chinese scholars. So often these two groups are opposed; scholars based in the West, including those born in China, are sometimes critical of their Chinese counterparts for withholding negative comments or not being up on the latest theoretical advances, while those in China may feel that Western-based scholars don’t respect their work. This volume shows what can be accomplished when both sides are represented. It is filled with memorable essays, including two on the surprising resiliency of religious life, as well as in-depth profiles of ordinary people, such as a teenager who described his frustrations at growing up in a repressive society and the sad story of a factory worker persecuted for his homosexuality.

The author of that article is the Shanghai historian Yang Kuisong, who also published this year his own book on grassroots China, A Record of “Marginal People,” a fine series of eight profiles drawn from papers and files that he found in antique markets and archives, and through his personal connections. Unfortunately, this book has not been translated into English, but the stories give fascinating insights into the tumult faced by ordinary people during the Mao period, especially the Cultural Revolution.

Many of these books owe a debt to the heroic work of several U.S.-based Chinese scholars, especially Yongyi Song, an independent historian and librarian at California State University, Los Angeles, and Guo Jian, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. Among their invaluable contributions to studies of the Cultural Revolution is The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, which was compiled and edited by a team of seven scholars led by Song. It contains 40,000 documents, including internal papers, speeches, confessions, suicide notes, and appeals by ordinary people, with 40 million Chinese characters. Another resource by the team is The Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, written by Guo, Song, and Yuan Zhou.

In June, these epic works were supplemented with 13,000 more pages of classified documents that Song, Guo, and their team members recently obtained. Entitled Secret Archives of the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi, this e-book series provides the full text of an official 18-part report made from 1986 to 1988 under the instructions of reformist Party leader Hu Yaobang.

Although some of these documents were known previously in sketchier forms, the new authoritative material shows that during the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi—a province on the Vietnam border—302 people were cannibalized and about 90,000 people (excluding missing ones) perished; there are many grotesque examples of rape and murder. Party leaders killed opponents, including students exiled to Guangxi by Mao, in some cases cutting out their livers and eating them. Such extreme behavior was relatively scarce, but it reflected a broader attitude cultivated during the Mao years that opponents were beasts, not humans.

Obtaining this sort of material can be a laborious process, as I found when I went with a Chinese scholar of the Cultural Revolution to explore the Panjiayuan antiques market on Beijing’s east side. Most of this vast market is given over to selling reproductions of Ming vases and Chairman Mao statues, but one row of 50 or so stalls has something more valuable: old books, magazines, newspapers, and handwritten material of all kinds—diaries, notebooks, and sometimes even just loose sheets of hastily scribbled notes.

We spent a Saturday morning rummaging through notebooks filled with math and physics equations, as well as a draft of an unfinished novel from the 1950s. Four hours later, the researcher had spent $500 of his own money on hundreds of sheets of paper, diaries, and jottings from government officials. He would spend the week digesting them and then come back the next Saturday for more sinological scavenging.

All this paper was the detritus disgorged by the dying and dead men and women who won China’s civil war, founded the People’s Republic, grew up as the flowers of the nation, were persecuted, and then regained power; their scribblings are now being thrown out by their children or grandchildren. Sold mostly as scrap paper, some of them have been identified by crafty garbagemen as valuable and offered to the Panjiayuan merchants. In the past, so many diaries and notebooks were thrown out that Western libraries built entire collections based on them. Now, as the older generations fade, the flood is slower but it still casts new light.

Best of all, local historians continue to defy the government by plowing through this material. Many cannot get their work past the censors, so they self-publish online. Their work is sometimes censored, but an amazing amount still gets through. In May, on the first day of this year’s anniversaries for the Cultural Revolution, I opened my WeChat social media account and found half a dozen unofficial articles commemorating the dead and condemning the culpable. I also found a new edition of the biweekly underground journal Remembrance, with over 80 pages of articles on Mao, his security chief, the students, and the youth.6 With much still to be learned, the period of the Cultural Revolution continues to fascinate and reveal itself as a touchstone for understanding China’s past and its present.

  1. See especially his book excerpts in these pages, “Chinese Shadows,” May 26 and June 9, 1977.
  2. See Richard Curt Kraus, The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012). Another very worthwhile short history, not yet published in English, is Die Chinesische Kulturrevolution, 1966–1976 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2016) by the American scholar Daniel Leese, who teaches history at the Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg.
  3. Reviewed by Jonathan Spence in these pages, September 21, 2006.
  4. Reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky in these pages, November 17, 1994.
  5. Reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky in these pages, March 5, 1992.
  6. For more on Remembrance, see my two-part article in these pages, “China’s Brave Underground Journal,” December 4 and December 18, 2014.