‘Bombard the Headquarters’ The twin pillars of Mao’s campaign were uprooting supposed reactionaries and the promotion of sycophancy.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.

Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as “Xi Dada,” or “grandpa Xi,” while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the country’s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of China’s Joint Battle Command Center.

Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.

But to read Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976” is to understand how far Mr. Xi’s China—however worrisome recent trends—is from Mao’s radical, despotic regime.

Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the university’s leadership as “Khrushchev-type revisionist elements.” Mao responded by urging the young radicals to “bombard the headquarters” of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. Dikötter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate China’s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Mao’s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.


By Frank Dikötter

Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32

According to Mr. Dikötter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairman’s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.” Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Mao’s thoughts, which became known as the “Little Red Book,” was only getting started.

As Mr. Dikötter’s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Mao’s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Mao’s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairman’s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.

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China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011

It will be a very long time before Chinese writers cease to mine the seemingly inexhaustible vein of material that comes from the ten years of chaos and upheaval of  the Cultural Revolution.

Indeed, Yu Hua, the author of the seventh book to appear on this list, China in Ten Words himself has come up with his own graphic way of taking note of this. If all the stories of fortunes reversed and lives thrust into chaos “were laid out one after another, they would stretch as endlessly as a highway and be as hard to tally as the forest.”

For people who follow China  seriously, this produces something of an occupational hazard. After a while, so much that is written about this turbulent period (1966-’76) begins to  sound familiar, and even when the stories are extraordinary, as they so often are, the effect becomes somewhat repetitive — even monotonous. This is made worse when people write about the period – and there are many of them – more or less to to pander.

Yu Hua, who hails from Hangzhou, a metropolis that few Americans have ever heard of and  yet is bigger than almost any city in the United States, has none of these issues. As the previous author, most famously, of Brothers, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, he has long earned his stripes as a highly original writer, and one who revels in taking on big social and historical themes.

At 225 pages, China in Ten Words is so brief that one couldn’t be blamed for suspected it as one of those tossed off efforts that famous writers sometimes lend themselves to, whether out of boredom, or contract requirements, or the need for funds, or simply because they can, which means for the heck of it. To the contrary, the result is one of the most intriguing recent contributions on the subject of the Cultural Revolution that this reader has come across.

No, Yu Hua has not come up with some astounding new material, or even a genuinely new perspective on the period. All in all, his stories of growing up in that era of generalized violence, and of yet of striking innocence in terms of some things, such as social and sexual mores, sound rather familiar. The breakthrough instead, if it is not too grand a claim to call it that, comes in the form of the extended parallels he draws between that era in China and our own. And here, I believe, Yu Hu, ever the astute social critic, has stumbled upon something really quite interesting.

The Cultural Revolution was an era of extraordinary concentration of power in the person of Mao Zedong. The Party remains powerful, of course, but by the measures of the past, authority has become highly diffuse. Both result in great violence, both in great injustices, even if their nature and description vary dramatically.

Here and there, Yu Hua takes great pleasure in skewering a body of opinion that exists in China (and which is nursed by the state) which is smug and self satisfied. “Our economic miracle — or should we say, the economic gain in which we so revel — relies to a significant extent on the absolute authority of local governments, for an administrative order on a piece of paper is all that’s required to implement drastic change.”

He is speaking, of course, of the administrative hocus pokus that has propelled real estate speculation and made huge fortunes out of thin air, while cheating ordinary people, the nameless masses, out of their land and their homes or their livelihoods, fueling combustible anger in places like Wukan and many other places.

He is mostly impressed by the great waste that accompanied the economic boom, likening it to useless backyard steel furnaces of the Great Leap Forward that boosted statistics but left the countryside polluted and denuded of trees.

“When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburgs airport was selling vuvuzelas — Chinese-made plastic horns — for the equivalent of 100 yuan each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan apiece,” he writes. “One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan. This examples gives a sense of China’s lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in generating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China’s GDP, to clean up the rivers it has ruined will cost ten times that amount. An authority I respect has put it this way: China’s model of development is to spend 100 yuan to gain 10 yuan in increased GDP.”

There is an extended meditation here about the seemingly almost arbitrary reversals of fates that the two eras, the Cultural Revolution and now, have brought about in the lives of Chinese people. Back then, as Yu Hua notes, Wang Hongwen, a simply security guard, rose at age 38 to officially become the country’s third leading politician, after Mao and Zhou En Lai. Today, it is seemingly ordinary people from the grassroots who dominate the lists of richest people. They are people who “think and dare to act,” and who “will adopt any method,” legal or not, to get ahead.

In the popular idiom of the revolutionary 1960s China, this was called “flipping pancakes,” he tells us. “Everyone was just a pancake, sizzling on the griddle, flipped from side to side by the hand of fate.”

For Yu Hua, the forms of the past may have changed but the essence of so many things has remained the same. We have gone from an era of radical redistribution of political power to an era of radical redistribution of economic power, but the arbitrary nature of fate and the injustices that it inevitably deals have remained constant.

“What is revolution,” Yu Hua asks? “The answer I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.”

Or indeed today’s.

Here’s a profile from the New York Times magazine of the author, written by the formidable Pankaj Mishra: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25hua-t.html?scp=1&sq=Yu%20Hua%20profile&st=cs

Book Four – My Best Reads of 2011

My first choice of fiction in this list is Yiyun Li’s Golden Boy, Emerald Girl.

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Li’s extraordinary book (published late in 2010) is a collection of dense yet luminous stories of women’s lives, alternately lived in claustrophobic or numbingly pragmatic ways in response to the brutal and alarming changes that China has undergone from late in the Cultural Revolution until the recent past.

The subtext throughout is about the coping mechanisms that these people adopt to manage their inner lives and shield themselves from despair, as they settle for far less n life than they once might have dreamed. Most of the stories pack intense emotional power, and yet the language is restrained and delicate and tightly controlled throughout.

Li’s unforgettable characters include a young female inductee into the People’s Liberation Army, whose childhood with unusually remote parents has forged its own distance from others in her. The results are seen through poignant, arms-length ties with her much older childhood tutor, and with a young female officer who eagerly seeks to befriend her.

In another story, a couple of emigrants to the U.S. have lost their child and return to China  to “replace” her. This results in search in one of China’s innumerable half-developed inland towns for a surrogate mother, who they find, with striking results in terms of the dynamics between husband and wife, and wife and birth mother.

These stories resonated with all the more emotional truth for me because I read them during a year of extensive travel in Africa, where I met with scores of uprooted Chinese who have been driven by a very similar pragmatism as they have traveled far from home in middle age in search of more livable lives; in search of relief from the untold, disorienting stresses of the booming China of newspaper headlines.

Many of them were uncomplaining survivors of the Cultural Revolution, each in possession of an extraordinary oral history, and yet often surprised in our encounters that their lives could be of interest to a stranger at all.

A Review from The Guardian: http://bit.ly/auSyTW

Yiyun Li interview, NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130538242


My other picks so far:

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[amazon_my_favorites design=”4″ width=”250″ title=”The Origin of AIDS” market_place=”US” ASIN=”0521186374″ color_theme=”Onyx” columns=”1″ rows=”3″ outer_background_color=”” inner_background_color=”” background_color=”” border_color=”” header_text_color=”#FFFFFF” linked_text_color=”” body_text_color=”” shuffle_products=”True” show_image=”True” show_price=”True” show_rating=”True” rounded_corners=”False”/]

[amazon_my_favorites design=”4″ width=”250″ title=”1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” market_place=”US” ASIN=”0307265722″ color_theme=”Onyx” columns=”1″ rows=”3″ outer_background_color=”” inner_background_color=”” background_color=”” border_color=”” header_text_color=”#FFFFFF” linked_text_color=”” body_text_color=”” shuffle_products=”True” show_image=”True” show_price=”True” show_rating=”True” rounded_corners=”False”/]