Death and madness in China

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History
© 2016 Frank Dikotter
433 pages

In twenty-five years of reading history, I know of no man who has instigated more human suffering and death at a broader scale than Mao Tse-tung, the rebel turned architect of a nightmare state. He is rivaled only by Lenin and Stalin, Hitler being a pale and overly medicated imitation, and any book on the cultural revolution serves an example as to why. I’ve long put off reading this title, because the Cultural Revolution horrifies and disturbs me like little else. Episodes like it have happened before; Byzantine iconoclasm, Puritanism, the French revolution — some zeal seizes the mob and its wrathful energy is poured out on the impure past, and beauty is destroyed to make society conform to an abstract ideal. But the cultural revolution was total, murderous bedlam, instigated by Mao to solidify his own position by turning the first generation of Chinese children raised under his regime against his interior rivals to shore up power after destalinization swept Russia.. But the fire he kindled consumed its own, and in A Cultural Revolution we receive not only the full scope of the endless, stupefyingly horrible brutality, but witness too flashes of hope — people’s growing alienation from the state, and their rebellion in the face of starvation. Although Dikotter’s dispassionate record of abuse after abuse doesn’t scourge the soul as effectively as say, The Rape of Nanking, or Wild Swans, it’s sufficient enough that I don’t want to dwell on it at length. The chaos and carnage are horrific, as is the realization that these were not just 20-somethings being set on teachers and the like, but schoolchildren — children given the whip by ideology and set on their elders. Wild Swans had already communicated much of the awfulness for me, but Dikotter’s broader review made me aware of how the Revolution wasn’t one frenzied episode, but rather a series of related outbreaks that finally exhausted themselves when Mao’s lieutenant mysteriously died after Mao caught wind that he was planning to murder the murderer-in-chief. Of particular interest to me were the brief looks at how man adapts to living in a tyrannical society, in which his neighbors are the agents of his oppression — the people who would turn him in for doing the wrong thing, or not having the wrong opinions.


“But in an odd twist of fate, the attempt to replace individual rewards with moral incentives during the Great Leap Forward had already produced a nation of entrepreneurs. People had not simply waited to starve to death. In a society in disintegration, they had resorted to every means available to survive. So destructive was radical collectivisation that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan, covertly giving full scope to the profit motive that the party was trying to eliminate. As the catastrophe unfolded, claiming tens of millions of victims, the very survival of an ordinary person came to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.”

“Zhai Zhenhua was one of the girls from an elite middle school who joined the Red Guards. The first time she saw a friend remove her belt to beat a victim until his clothes were drenched in blood, she recoiled. But she did not want to fall behind, so she persevered. At first she avoided eye contact with a human target, justifying the beatings by imagining how they were plotting the return of the old society. But after a few beatings she got the hang of it. ‘My heart hardened and I became used to the blood. I waved my belt like an automaton and whipped with an empty mind.’”

At one point a quiet man who was an expert in experimental phonetics was declared a counter-revolutionary in the middle of a study session. Everybody was stunned. The team leader used the occasion to announce triumphantly that even a person who had never spoken about political matters could be an enemy in his heart, and such inner convictions could no longer be concealed from the proletariat.”

“But despite the house raids, the book burnings, the public humiliations and all the purges, not to mention the ceaseless campaigns of re-education, from study classes in Mao Zedong Thought to May Seventh Cadre Schools, old habits died hard. The Cultural Revolution aimed to transform every aspect of an individual’s life, including his innermost thoughts and personal feelings, but in many cases it managed to exact only outward compliance. People fought deception with deception, lies with lies and empty rhetoric with empty slogans. Many were great actors, pretending to conform, knowing precisely what to say when required.

The Tragedy of Liberation, Frank Dikoetter
Wild Swans, Chang Jung. A memoir of the Revolution, which destroys the lives of the subject’s parents, despite their status as True Believers as far as Mao and the party went
The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang. If you want to read about more death. Perhaps the suffering Chinese people endured at the hands of Japan hardened them and allowed them to be just as brutal to each other twenty years later.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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13 Responses to Death and madness in China

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    As much as Hitler is (rightly) vilified as a mass murderer he’s a rank amateur compared to Stalin and especially Mao who is head and shoulders above the others in the levels of blood he drenched his own land in.

  2. Sharon Wilfong says:

    This sounds like quite a book and I’d like to know more in detail when you speak of countering lies with lies etc..

    I read a similar account in Red Scarf Girl. It’s truly terrifying to see how whole groups and populations can be brainwashed into “group think”. Of course they start with the youngest.

    And then there’s our college students today, weeping uncontrollably when Trump was elected. Screaming “hate speech” whenever anyone disagrees with them. Of course it’s not only students.

  3. Mudpuddle says:

    and they’re still at it: vis a vie the Uighurs… i’m glad i don’t live there…

    • We’re just developing our own China over here…they have their corporate-political state, and we have ours. Our tyranny throws kittens and rainbows at us, but it’s monolitihic and unavoidable all the same.

  4. Marian says:

    It gives me pause whenever I hear someone say “humans are basically good.” If they are, it doesn’t last long under peer pressure.

  5. I think the problem is that humans are basically MORAL — which is a double-edged sword. We can pardon the most execrable of behavior if it’s done for ‘good reasons’ — and not just pragmatic reasons, but because we’ve been made to think that Other People are being wicked and we need to punish them. Of course, once the bottle is uncorked and violence is sanctioned, people start using it as an excuse to indulge in gratuitous violence, or to exercise petty grievances against victims….but the genesis is in self-righteousness. “The Paradox of Violence” was VERY illustrative in this area.

    • Cyberkitten says:

      We do have a VERY strong in-group/out-group dynamic *hardwired* into us. If one group can be convinced enough that the other group is an existential threat to it they will do just about anything to eliminate that threat. As we’ve seen from our bloody 20th century (and long before) we have still yet to find a limit of how far we will go!

  6. Marian says:

    Good points… bad behavior is usually justified by the people doing it.

  7. Pingback: 2021: February Review | Reading Freely

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