The People’s Republic: From First Breath to Mao’s Death

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Mao Zedong was both the Lenin and the Stalin of the Chinese Revolution, both the revolutionary founder and the post-revolutionary tyrant.

Maurice Meisner (Meisner 2007, 192)

Civil War in China

The use of two atomic bombs by the Americans against Japan in August 1945 ended the war sooner than anyone in China expected. Chiang Kai-shek returned in triumph to Nanjing in the fall of 1945, but soon the ebullient mood in China was muted by what everyone knew was on the horizon: the final showdown between the Nationalists and the Communists.

For a time the Americans tried to mediate in China and prevent civil war. This, however, turned out to be an impossibility because each side was determined to defeat the other and was not sincerely interested in any sort of reconciliation. At the same time, however, both sides attempted to curry favor with the United States and tried to humor the idealistic American diplomats who sought to reconcile the Nationalists and the Communists. The U.S. government was sympathetic with the Nationalists for the simple reason that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was almost universally recognized as China’s government at the time.

Immediately after Japan’s surrender, American diplomat Patrick Hurley, a cantankerous and apparently prematurely senile man, tried to get the two sides together to conduct discussions. Yielding to U.S. pressure, Chiang Kai-shek invited Mao to Chongqing, but Mao balked because he feared a KMT trap. After Hurley gave the assurances of the U.S. government that there would be no trap, Mao boarded an airplane for the first time in his life and flew from Yan’an to Chongqing in mid-August 1945. Six weeks of talks yielded no practical results, however, and Mao went back to Yan’an determined to prepare for all-out war with Chiang Kai-shek. Hurley returned to the United States a discouraged and disillusioned man, but the Americans were not yet ready to give up on China. In December 1945 the United States sent another envoy to China, General George C. Marshall, the originator of the Marshall Plan for the postwar recovery of Europe. Because of Marshall’s enormous prestige, the Nationalists and Communists came to the negotiating table once more in early 1946 and feigned a tentative settlement of their differences. By March, however, both sides were fighting once again. “Talk, talk, fight, fight” was the guiding principle for the Communists at this time, and it might as well have been for the Nationalists as well. Marshall finally left China in January 1947, thoroughly disgusted with the refusal of both sides in the Chinese civil war to engage in peace talks in good faith.

After Marshall’s departure from China, civil war flared up in Manchuria. American military advisors had encouraged Chiang to maintain his hold over southern China rather than spread his forces too thin in the Communist-dominated north. Chiang, however, stubbornly refused to heed their advice and had the American military airlift thousands of Nationalist troops to areas throughout northern China. Chiang’s insistence on attempting to recapture the north was simple from the Nationalists’ point of view: Manchuria and other parts of northern China had been occupied by Japanese invading forces since 1931, and one major reason for China’s war with Japan was over these very areas. Strategically, however, Chiang’s moves against the north were quite foolish, and his campaigns turned out just as American military advisors had feared: his widely spread forces were eventually outmaneuvered and overwhelmed. By late 1947 his armies in Manchuria had been largely wiped out, and in December 1948 Beijing (then still called Beiping) fell to the Communists.

Nanjing itself fell to the Communists in April 1949, and on October 1, 1949, Mao was confident enough in the Communists’ ultimate victory that he proclaimed in Beiping (now renamed Beijing) the liberation of China and the founding of the new People’s Republic of China to jubilant throngs of celebrants in Tiananmen Square. He announced to China and the world that China had stood up. Meanwhile, the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt government and discouraged military fled to the island of Taiwan, where it has remained ever since.

The Korean War

The Korean War came as a surprise to the new Chinese Communist regime. The People’s Republic of China on the mainland was initially enthusiastic about extending its land reform program throughout the rest of the country and “liberating” Taiwan by armed attack. The Korean War, however, interrupted these plans and indirectly saved Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on Taiwan. Mao was initially content to let Korea fight its own civil war, but when it became apparent that General Douglas MacArthur, the American commanding general of the United Nations forces defending southern Korea against northern Korean aggression, quite possibly intended to invade China, Mao decided to commit Chinese ground troops to the war.

At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at roughly the 38th parallel, with a Soviet-backed Communist dictatorship north of it and an undemocratic dictatorship backed by the United States to the south. On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces launched a massive blitzkrieg-style attack on the south and quickly overwhelmed it. Two days later, a Security Council resolution passed at the United Nations condemned North Korean aggression and decided to commit UN ground troops to Korea. (The Soviet Union did not participate in this resolution because it had boycotted the Security Council to protest the UN’s refusal to seat the new Communist Chinese regime’s representatives on the Security Council.) This same day, U.S. President Harry Truman ordered elements of the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to save Taiwan from Communist attack. The United States has more or less been committed to the defense of Taiwan ever since.

In September 1950 UN forces under MacArthur successfully launched a daring surprise amphibious landing at Inchon on Korea’s west coast and quickly put the North Korean invaders to flight, pushing them back to north of the 38th parallel. In historical hindsight, this retreat of North Korean forces probably should have been the end of UN involvement in the war. But it did not end there, and by late October the UN forces had advanced far into North Korean territory and occupied Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. MacArthur continued to drive northward and to make reckless statements about pushing on to the Yalu River (the boundary between China and Korea) and even beyond it into China. The war in Korea was now suffering from “mission creep” and was turning into an entirely new war.

Washington and the United Nations ignored repeated warnings from China that it would not stand idly by if MacArthur continued in this reckless plan. Finally, on November 26, 1950, millions of Chinese Communist “volunteers” (many armed only with clubs or spears) who had been massed at the Yalu River invaded Korea and swarmed southward in overwhelming numbers, driving the UN forces southward to the 38th parallel and beyond. The withdrawal in the face of Chinese human-wave tactics was the longest retreat in the history of the U.S. Army. On January 4, 1951, Chinese Communist troops captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea. By April 1951, however, UN forces had once again driven the Chinese and their North Korean allies back north of the 38th parallel. After this, MacArthur began talking again about advancing to the Yalu River. This was too much for President Truman, who fired and recalled MacArthur on April 11. After this the war degenerated into a protracted conflict of attrition and stalemate. The Chinese abandoned their earlier human-wave tactics and practiced classical guerrilla warfare, resulting in thousands of UN casualties. The war dragged on inconclusively until July 1953, when a cease-fire was reached that essentially reestablished the prewar boundaries in Korea.

The Korean War was technically a UN action, but the United States assumed a disproportionate amount of the war burden: 54,000 of the 57,000 non-Korean UN troops who died in combat were Americans. China today regards the Korean War as an American operation and seems to forget that the war was sanctioned by a vote at the United Nations. Today, many patriotic mainland Chinese are fond of imagining that China “taught the United States a lesson” in the Korean War by fighting the most powerful military machine in the world to a standstill. Thus, in this view, China was announcing to the world that the People’s Republic was here to stay and that the Chinese military was no longer the ragtag collection of listless and ineptly led ragamuffins against whom Japanese forces had prevailed so easily during the 1930s in Manchuria. China’s “victory” over U.S.-dominated forces in Korea is, indeed, part of the national patriotic mythology in China. In fact, however, UN forces were gradually succeeding in pushing Chinese and North Korean forces back north of the 38th parallel when the war ended. The Chinese “victory” was achieved at an enormous and disproportionate burden to China: over one million died in combat. Not all of the Chinese troops were volunteers, and some 14,000 of them who were captured elected to go to Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan rather than live under communism in mainland China.

Chinese intervention in the Korean War did not fundamentally alter the situation in Korea. The war started and ended with the Communist North Koreans largely confined north of the 38th parallel and the non-Communist South Koreans south of it. This situation remains to this day, with a truce rather than a formal treaty keeping the peace between the two sides of the divided Korean peninsula. Today North Korea is still internationally isolated and economically backward, but China has in recent years reined in some of North Korea’s excesses and encouraged it to open to the outside world.


The Chinese Communist use of brainwashing or coercive indoctrination became known to the outside world in the 1950s, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War, when Chinese Communist forces began capturing UN troops and the practice came to the attention of Western governments and media. The Chinese Communists called the practice “thought reform” or “reform through labor;” the term “brainwashing” was coined by the American journalist Edward Hunter in 1950 to describe the way the Chinese Communists used “struggle groups,” physical and mental abuse, and social deprivation to coerce reluctant or defiant individuals into supporting their cause. The effects of brainwashing were not always long lasting, although the practice did succeed in permanently altering the thinking of some people.

Two examples of more lasting effects of brainwashing are the cases of Allyn and Adele Rickett, married students of Chinese language at the University of Pennsylvania who received Fulbright grants in 1948 to study in China. In Beijing they engaged in intelligence work for the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service, and after the outbreak of the Korean War they were arrested and imprisoned for espionage. During their captivity the Ricketts were subjected to psychological and physical torment, including verbal abuse and being forced to wear handcuffs for long periods or to stand for several hours at a time. Adele Rickett recalled her treatment in a Chinese Communist prison camp in the following terms:

As we heard the doors being locked in preparation for turning in, Jeng Ai-ling suddenly asked, “What have you been thinking about the last couple of hours?”

Tears of self-pity welled in my eyes as I answered, “I’ve been thinking about all the terrible things the imperialists have done in China.”

Jen Ai-ling exploded, “Filthy spy! You really have all the tricks!” She turned to Mei Chi-yiin, “Just look at her, trying to gain our sympathy. She’s running true to form.” Then back to me, “You don’t have a human heart at all. You’ve got a dog’s heart, haven’t you?”

Afraid that denial would bring on further accusation of obstinacy, I remained silent, head drooping.

“Answer me! You’ve got a dog’s heart, haven’t you?”

I nodded and replied in a tiny voice, “Yes, I guess I have.”

“Ha! Shouted Mei Chi-yiin. “That’s a fine thing. Defiling your parents like that. If you’re a dog, what does that make them? Really you have the character of a filthy spy.”

Just then the whistle blew. The two women looked at each other hesitantly for a moment and then Jeng Ai-ling said, disgustedly, “Get to bed. And you’d better think about your attitude.”

The next two or three days were spent in a struggle to make me face up to those elements in my character which made me one moment cringing and fawning, the next obstinate and defiant. Over and over they resorted to the method of having me stand on the floor two or three hours at a time, hoping that this would stir me to take a serious look at myself. It was obvious, however, that my continued standing weighted on Jeng Ai-ling’s mind, for she used the flimsiest of pretexts to excuse me and let me sit down. (Rickett 1981, 246)

After their release from Chinese Communist captivity in 1955 and their subsequent return to the United States, the Ricketts continued to have generally positive opinions of the Chinese Communists and of their experience in China. “In our own personal lives we have found that the experience in China has been of tremendous value,” they wrote in 1981. “… [W]e are both convinced that what we learned during our prison experience has made us far happier and more active people” (Rickett 1981, 343).

Life in the thought reform camps was sometimes unspeakably brutal. Bao Ruo-wang (Jean Pasqualini) recalls a summary execution inmates at his prison farm were required to witness:

The first one to come before us was Wang, our one-armed warder, and he was quickly joined by the brigade leader in charge of production, a man named Yen, [and] perhaps a dozen guards. … In the middle of them all was the barber, tied up in chains and fetters. A rope around his neck and cinched at the waist kept his head bowed. His hands were tied behind his back. The guards shoved him directly in front of us. He stood there silently, like a trussed penitent, as the steam wisped up around his feet. Yen had a speech.

“I have something awful to speak about. I’m not happy to do it and it’s nothing to be proud of. But it is my duty and it should be a lesson for you. This rotten egg here was jailed on a morals charge—homosexual relations with a boy. He only received seven years for this offence. Later, when working in the paper mill, his behaviour was constantly bad and he stole repeatedly. His sentence was doubled. Now we have established that while here, he seduced a young prisoner nineteen years old—a mentally retarded prisoner. If this happened in society, he would be severely punished. But by doing what he did here, he not only sinned morally but he also dirtied the reputation of the prison and the great policy of Reform Through Labour. Therefore, in consideration of his repeated offences, the representative of the Supreme People’s Court will now read you his sentence.”

The man in the blue uniform strode forward and read out the somber document, a recapitulation of the offences that ended with the decision of the People’s Court: death with immediate execution of sentence.

Everything happened so suddenly then that I didn’t even have the time to be shocked or frightened. Before the man in the blue uniform had even finished pronouncing the last word the barber was dead. The guard standing behind him pulled out a huge pistol and blew his head open. (Bao 1973, 189-90)

Harry Wu (Wu Hongda) was an intellectual arrested in 1960 for speaking up for himself, which was considered a crime during the Hundred Flowers campaign. He was subjected to similar intimidation:

Around midnight a duty prisoner called my name from the doorway. I tried to still my growing panic as I followed him outside into a small, bare room. A police captain sat behind a single table. “Squat down,” he barked without looking up. He shone the desk lamp onto my face. “State your name, age, occupation, and the nature of your crime.”

“I am a counterrevolutionary rightist,” I answered quickly. “In the Hundred Flowers campaign I attacked the Communist Party. I still have a lot of poisonous ideas.”

“We know all that. What else? What else?” shouted my interrogator. “Don’t you understand the Party’s policy? Lenience to those who confess, harshness to those who resist reform.” He stood up, walked around me, then kicked open a second door. I saw a body hanging from the rafters, then another sprawled on the wet floor. I couldn’t see their faces or tell if they were unconscious or dead. “This is what happens to those who resist the Party’s authority,” he snapped. “You’re a young student. I’ll give you another chance. Tomorrow night come back and confess fully.” Terribly shaken by the glimpse of those who had apparently resisted reform, I returned to my slot on the kang [bed]. I had no idea what I would say at the next session. I knew only that if my answers sounded false or incomplete I too would be hanging from the interrogation room ceiling. I didn’t sleep at all that night. (Wu 1994, 49-50)

National Reconstruction Efforts, 1949-1956

The end of the Korean War brought some stability and normalcy to China for the next few years. Ultimately, however, Mao became concerned because China was getting down to the practical tasks of peacetime reconstruction and rational economic planning and seemed no longer to possess the ideological focus and revolutionary ardor of pre-liberation days. Longing to see China realize his revolutionary objectives before his own death, Mao attempted to propel China quickly along the revolutionary path to socialism. In this he was excessively theoretical and idealistic and ignored the real-world on-the-ground consequences of his adventurism. As a result, China was plunged into two decades of chaos and turmoil. From 1956 until his death in 1976, Mao more or less had his way with China and set the cause of modernizing his country back 20 years. In retrospect it is clear that Mao was a fine fighter and theoretician but largely a failure as a practical peacetime leader. Mao’s contributions to China essentially ended with liberation in 1949.

The first decade of the People’s Republic started out well enough. The Korean War was a brief but significant interruption to China’s plans for domestic reconstruction and political consolidation. Even during the Korean War, however, some reforms proceeded. Positive reforms included the land reform program of confiscating all farmland and redistributing it to landless peasants and reform of marriage law, which outlawed concubinage and polygamy and made it easier for women to obtain divorces. Negative development included a nationwide roundup and execution of more than 500,000 “counterrevolutionaries” (basically anyone deemed hostile to the new Communist regime, including former Nationalist officials and people who had voiced disapproval of what the Communists were doing) and new “reform through labor” techniques that employed backbreaking physical labor and subtle psychological torture. The object of reform-through-labor efforts was to change the thought patterns of people deemed hostile to the new state but not deserving of the death penalty.

The People’s Republic used Soviet models and five-year plans to achieve its socialist transformation. For its first four years, the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, focused on education, industrialization, and health care. The first formal Soviet-style-five-year plan, which extended from 1953 to 1957, continued efforts to improve education and health care, but it was concerned primarily with improving heavy industrial and agricultural production. Industrial output steadily increased during this period, thanks largely to the assistance of Soviet industrial experts. Agriculture was, however, a different story. Mao and the more idealistic of the Chinese Communists envisioned an agricultural collectivization scheme under which China’s peasants would combine themselves into agricultural producers’ cooperatives (often abbreviated APCs) of between 40 and 300 households. These cooperatives would, they anticipated, pool labor and create much more efficient agriculture. In practice, however, the results of collectivization were disappointing, and more practically minded national leaders sought the dissolution of the APCs. The practical camp eventually prevailed over the idealistic camp, and by 1955 several thousand APCs had been disbanded.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign

Mao and his ideological colleagues viewed these disbandments with alarm but for a time could do nothing about them. Mao was careful and deliberate in conducting warfare, but when it came to peacetime national reconstruction he proved to be an impatient and impetuous man. He saw the relative peace and prosperity of the 1950s as a step away from the old revolutionary commitment he had known in the Long March and Yan’an days. He sat and stewed at the dissolution of the APCs but could do little about it because he was outvoted in the Politburo. But votes were not everything, and Mao knew quite well that he was still the dominant personality of the Communist party and had an enormous reservoir of esteem and good will among the common people. In early 1957 he published an important essay entitled “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” in which he urged those who disagreed with his policies to come forward and offer constructive criticisms and suggestions. “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools contend” was his message, and it eventually backfired on him.

The magnitude of the response might have surprised Mao. Thousands of intellectuals took Mao at his word and criticized the Soviet Union, Mao’s impetuosity in the agricultural collectivization movement, and even socialism and the CCP itself. Some posters put up by students in Beijing were almost frenetic in their denunciations. By May 1957 Mao announced that criticisms of socialism and the party would no longer be tolerated, and a distinction was drawn between “fragrant flowers” and “poisonous weeds.” Those who had already uttered “poisonous weeds” were tracked down by the hundreds of thousands and “sent down” to the countryside for backbreaking agricultural “reform through labor.”

Did Mao plan all of this from the start and use the Hundred Flowers movement as a ruse to smoke out his critics and then crack down on them, or did he start the movement with the best intentions, only to be taken aback by the magnitude of the negative response? Many scholars, as well as many Chinese people who lived through this period, disagree on the answer to this question.

The Great Leap Forward

For reasons that are not altogether clear, Mao and his critics in the highest levels of the CCP worked out a reconciliation among themselves in the summer of 1957. Perhaps they were fearful of the ground-swell of public opinion voiced against them and their party during the abortive Hundred Flowers movement. At any rate, by the summer of 1957, a largely united effort was made by the CCP leadership to push forward the agricultural collectivization movement once more. Mao had argued all along that the APC movement had failed in the mid-1950s because it was not pushed fast enough. He was impatient to see the agricultural transformation of China through to its completion, and his former critics apparently decided to go along with him and give it one more try.

The CCP launched the Great Leap Forward in September 1957. Its purposes were twofold: to collectivize agriculture and thereby dramatically increase agricultural production, and to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within the impossibly lofty goal of 15 years. The collectivization of agriculture was accomplished by October 1958. In industry it was decided that China would follow a decentralized approach, with thousands of small-scale industrial enterprises located throughout the countryside. Huge numbers of peasants were transferred to these local, rural industrial efforts, which led to a shortage of agricultural labor. The results for Chinese agriculture were catastrophic.

Enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward and its goals was tremendous throughout China. In the countryside a movement against the “four pests” (flies, rats, sparrows, and mosquitoes) was launched, and so many sparrows were killed that the numbers of insects actually increased because the sparrows, their natural predators, were disappearing. With the boundless enthusiasm prevailing in the countryside and the completion of agricultural collectivization, elevated agricultural production goals were announced in the summer of 1958, and bumper crops were expected. Peasants and agricultural leaders naively believed that these impossibly high goals were actually achievable. Government propaganda was at its shrillest pitch in the fall of 1958, and one famous report claimed that peasants at one APC had successfully planted grain so closely and densely together that children could stand on top of the planted stocks and not sink down to the ground.

In industry, the most well-known efforts were the so-called backyard furnaces or small-scale steelmaking efforts that had sprung up all over the countryside by the fall of 1958. Almost 100 million people were diverted for labor in these efforts, and in their enthusiasm to achieve elevated production quotas, millions of ordinary Chinese even donated their pots and other metal tools to be melted down. The results were catastrophic; the steel produced was of inferior, unusable quality, and millions of peasants had been distracted from their agricultural work, naively believing that agricultural collectivization would somehow make up for the absence of their labor.

The autumn harvest of 1958 was disastrously small, but government propaganda reported that agricultural production had doubled. (The vast majority of the APCs did not want to disappoint the government with accurate production reports, so they grossly exaggerated them.) The government took these inflated production figures at face value and collected grain tax according to them. As a result, millions of people in China starved to death during the winter of 1958-1959 before the government could get food to them. By early 1959 there was grain rationing in the cities, and meat all but disappeared from the markets because farm animals could not be fed what little grain and other crops had been produced.

Written eyewitness recollections of starvation during the Great Leap Forward are relatively rare, and living memory of the famine will have all but disappeared by approximately 2030. A few telling descriptions of it do survive, however, including a harrowing account by an old woman who lived in Anhui province near Fengyang along the Huai River at the time:

The communal canteen did not serve any proper food, just wild grasses, peanut shells and sweet potato skins. Because of this diet we had terrible problems. Some were constipated but others had constant diarrhoea and could not get beyond the front door. Yet if they found that a house or the area around it was dirty, they would place a black flag outside. If it was clean, they put up a white flag. I had to try and clean up the mess but at the time I had difficulty walking.

My legs and hands were swollen and I felt that at any moment I would die. Instead of walking to the fields to look for wild grass, I crawled and rolled to save energy. Several old women tried to get grass from ponds or rivers but because they had to stand in the water their legs became infected.

All the trees in the village had been cut down. Any nearby were all stripped of bark. I peeled off the bark of a locust tree and cooked it as if it were rice soup. It tasted like wood and was sticky.

At the time the villagers looked quite fat and even healthy because they were swollen but when they were queuing up at the canteen to eat, they would suddenly collapse and could not get up. Some could only walk using a stick…

More than half of the villagers died, mostly between New Year [1960] and April or May. In one of our neighbours’ houses, three boys and a girl starved. In one brother’s family two children died. Another family of sixteen died. Many families disappeared completely with no survivors at all. The production team chief’s daughter-in-law and his grandson starved to death. He then boiled and ate the corpse of the child but he also died. When the village teacher was on the verge of death, he said to his wife, “Why should we keep our child? If we eat him then I can survive and later we can produce another child.” His wife refused to do this and her husband died. (Becker 1996, 135-36)

Bao Ruo-wang (Jean Pasqualini), a Chinese and French citizen, was imprisoned in late 1957 on charges in the course of the anti-rightist campaign, and his prison memoirs recall the widespread eating of “food substitutes” in China at the time in vain attempts to stave off hunger pangs and give a sense of satisfied fullness in the stomachs of starving people:

The signal that truly desperate times were upon us came in early December, when a horse-drawn cart entered the compound and a prisoner detail began unloading the cargo: dark brown sheets of an unknown material, rigid and light, each one measuring about three by five feet. No one had any idea of what they were. Two weeks later we were called into the auditorium to hear the answer. The stuff was paper pulp, and we were going to eat it. Food Substitute, the prison officials called it—dai shipin. I’ll never forget the words. Since there wasn’t enough food to go around in China, the search was on for something to replace it and we prisoners had the honor of being the guinea pigs for the various ersatzes the scientific community came up with. (Bao 1973, 216-19)

Harry Wu (Wu Hongda) describes his own ordeal by hunger in a brainwashing camp during this time:

Day by day, our hunger became more intense. Without food, the body uses calories stored in muscle tissues and even in bones to provide energy and sustain life. I began to understand the process of starvation. When death strikes in the camps, malnutrition is rarely the direct cause. The heart does not stop beating from lack of nourishment. Depending on your overall health, you can survive for a week, even two, with no food or water at all. In such a depleted state, it is other things that kill you.

Sometimes you catch cold, your lungs fill with fluid, and finally you stop breathing. Sometimes bacteria in the food cause continuous diarrhea that leads to death. Sometimes infection from a wound becomes fatal. The cause of death is always noted in your file as pleurisy or food poisoning or injury, never as starvation. (Wu 1994, 95-96)

Wu Ningkun, another intellectual who spoke his mind during the feigned openness of Mao’s Hundred Flowers campaign, wound up in a brainwashing camp in 1960. He was fortunate enough to have family members who could bring him some food during the worst months of the famine, but other inmates were not as lucky.

One of the have-nots was a young scholar of classical Chinese who slept on my right on the kang [bed]. One day he handed me a note written in his elegant calligraphy in the style of the great classical calligrapher Liu Gongquan. “I beg you to lend one of your pancakes, professor. I solemnly promise to pay you back with double interest when my wife comes from Hunan province to bring me food from home.” I hesitated, because I felt I had no right to be generous with the food, which represented the sacrifices of my relatives were making to save my life. A second note contained the same message with a proverb added: “He who saves a man’s life does a deed greater than building the Buddha a seven-story pagoda.” My heart melted at his elegant Liu-style calligraphy. I had always admired and envied people who were expert at the Liu style, which I had imitated in vain in my school days. Such elegant calligraphy reduced to such abject circumstances! What had the nation come to, the nation that tirelessly flaunted its ancient culture! When the others were not looking, I handed Lao Liu a pancake. He gobbled it up in no time.

“You don’t know how good it tasted, Lao Wu,” he told me in his Hunan accent the next day when he was being removed to the cell set aside for the sick, whose continued presence in the regular cells the offers thought was demoralizing to the other inmates. (Wu 1993, 134-35)

During the heady euphoria of the “backyard furnace” fiasco in late 1958, Mao himself never seriously doubted the inflated production figures. The enthusiasm and creative energies of the masses unleashed during the Great Leap Forward were more important to him than strictly accurate production reports. The serious nationwide shortage of food in December 1958 was unknown to Mao because “no one was willing to tell him the truth” (Li 1994, 283). When he did finally learn the terrible truth about the Great Leap Forward, he refused to assume responsibility for it. Mao subscribed to the popular traditional Chinese idea that the emperor could do no wrong himself; he could only be deceived and misguided by his advisers and court officials. “As the emperor, he believed in his own infallibility. If wrong decisions were made, wrong policies introduced, the fault lay not with him but with the information provided him. The emperor could not be wrong, but he could be deceived” (Li 1994, 296).

By the summer of 1959, everyone in China realized that something had gone disastrously wrong with the Great Leap Forward, but very few people dared say so openly for fear of offending Mao and his supporters. One person who did dare say that the emperor had no clothes was Peng Dehuai, a general with a reputation for bluntness who had been with the Chinese Communists since the Long March days and was a hero of the Korean War. At a meeting of the Politburo (a small and powerful core group of high-level leaders within the Chinese Communist party) held in the summer of 1959 in Lushan, Peng Dehuai circulated a letter that was scathingly critical of Mao’s policies and the disastrous results of the Great Leap Forward. Mao was offended at the tone and content of the letter and was aghast to learn that Peng had probably circulated it at the suggestion of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Peng’s blunt criticisms forced Mao to own up to the errors of the Great Leap Forward, but Mao excused himself for them with the banal observation that everyone makes mistakes. He then moved with a vengeance against Peng Dehuai and denounced him as a traitor to China who had done a foreigner’s bidding. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Peng’s supporters (including Deng Xiaoping) abandoned him, and he alone took the fall for his impolitic criticisms of Mao. Peng, who was dismissed as Minister of Defense and replaced by Lin Biao, was hounded during the Cultural Revolution over his confrontation with Mao and eventually died in a prison of cruel neglect in 1974. Today, however, Peng’s reputation has been posthumously rehabilitated, and he is admired even in Taiwan for his courageous and forthright criticisms of Mao’s policies.

Mao decided to learn the truth about the Great Leap by traveling to his home village of Shaoshan in Hunan. There he would encounter no carefully staged performances or artificially inflated agricultural production figures. He could trust his fellow provincials and home villagers to speak forthrightly and honestly with him. His trip there awakened him to the horrible reality of the Great Leap Forward, but even then he still did not want to do anything to dampen the enthusiasm of the masses. His basic confidence in the movement remained unshaken. His confidence was not fully undermined until 1960:

Mao of course was immune to the tribulations of famine, and everyone tried to shield him from its effects, but he knew the severity of the crisis. The documents he received every day now allowed him no escape from the truth. Reports were coming in from all over the country, and by the summer of 1960, he had become so depressed that he took again to his bed. He seemed psychologically incapable of confronting the effects of the famine. (Li 1994, 339)

Mao did, however, finally did make one concession to the famine: He stopped eating meat. “Everyone is starving. I can’t eat meat,” he said (Li 1994, 340).

Mao never did admit that his Great Leap Forward was a complete failure. He was finally forced to admit that at least some of the responsibility for the disaster was his, but it came across as insincere and even staged. He was distressed that party and state began operating independently of him. He became depressed and took to his bed during his disgrace within the party during the early 1960s, all the while craving popular approval and adulation and plotting his next political moves. He rarely attended meetings but did read the daily transcripts of the proceedings in the Great Hall of the People. He became increasingly suspicious of the loyalty of Liu Shaoqi and saw Lin Biao as one of his few true supporters. Mao also admired Chen Boda for defending the Great Leap Forward:

Confronted two years later with the massive starvation during the Great Leap Forward, Chen dismissed the millions of deaths. “This is an unavoidable phenomenon in our forward march,” he declared. No wonder Mao liked this mean, petty, and ambitious man. In one simple sentence, he absolved Mao of responsibility for one of the greatest catastrophes the country had ever faced—a catastrophe for which Mao’s policies were directly responsible. (Li 1994, 390)

The Great Leap Forward was, in reality, a great leap backward. An estimated 20 to 40 million people died of starvation between 1959 and 1962 because of the food shortages created by the movement. (This number, already appallingly tragic enough, would have been much higher had not Canada and Australia sold, over Washington’s objections, thousands of tons of wheat to China.) Agricultural production in China did not recover its 1957 levels until the early 1970s. The Great Leap scandalized the Soviets and solidified their determination to distance themselves from Mao’s madcap adventurism. For the Nationalists on Taiwan, it was just one more instance of Chinese Communist tyranny. This time, however, instead of fearing and loathing the Communists, the Nationalists simply laughed at them. Ever since Great Leap days, the idiom “primitive methods for making steel” (tufa liangang) has been a part of popular speech in Taiwan as an idiom for doing things in a comically outmoded and inefficient manner.

During the famine associated with the Great Leap Forward, “Mao knew that people were dying by the millions. He did not care” (Li 1994, 125). He often shocked foreign visitors with his callous attitude toward human life. India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was appalled when Mao told him not to fear the atom bomb; it is nothing but a “paper tiger” because “China has many people. They cannot be bombed out of existence…. The deaths of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of” (Li 1994, 125). Later he expounded on his “paper tiger” theory again to Soviet leader Anastas Mikoyan. Mikoyan was so taken aback by Mao’s nonchalance about China’s potential loss of tens of millions of lives in a nuclear war that he sought out Dr. Li and had a heart-to-heart conversation and a stiff drink with him. In the wake of Khrushchev’s visit to Beijing in 1958, he shocked Dr. Li with the following tirade:

Khrushchev doesn’t know what he’s talking about…. He wants to improve relations with the United States…. Let’s get the United States involved…. Maybe we can get the United States to drop an atom bomb on Fujian. Maybe ten or twenty million people will be killed. Chiang Kai-shek wants the United States to use the bomb against us. Let them use it. Let’s see what Khrushchev says then. (Li 1994, 262)

This was not mere blusterous rhetoric on Mao’s part. The shelling of the Nationalist-held island of Quemoy off the shore of Fujian in 1958 was carried out with this in mind and was an attempt to undermine Khrushchev’s quest for peace. “Mao was convinced that Chiang Kai-shek wanted the United States to drop an atom bomb on Fujian province,” Dr. Li informs us, “and Mao would not have minded if it had. His shelling of Quemoy was a dare to see how far the United States would go” (Li 1994, 125).

In late 1960 future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau traveled with one of his ideological confreres to China at the official invitation of the Chinese government. For almost six weeks their Communist minders took the two Canadians to carefully selected and prepared industrial and agricultural sites to showcase the putative accomplishments of Mao’s Great Leap. They knew they were being handed propaganda, but they endured it with grace and good humor. The next year Trudeau and his friend published their travel diaries in French as Deux innocents en Chine rouge. An English translation as Two Innocents in Red China appeared in 1968 after Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada.

While the two innocents never really denied persistent contemporary reports of famine in China, they did downplay them to some extent and sidestepped the issue of the famine’s severity:

Hold on a minute, please! Isn’t famine raging in China at this very moment?

Do you mean the famine in which the conservative press of the West takes such delight? The famine of which the Formosan [Nationalist Chinese] government speaks with such cheerful compassion? It is true that dispatches from Hong Kong report a “shortage of provisions that in some districts verges on famine.” It is true that during our journey people mentioned to us droughts in the south and floods in the north…. All the same, it has to be acknowledged: it would take more than that to overturn the government of Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong]…

In fact a famine … today will do less harm than in the past, for there will be no financial sharks to speculate in misery. And the instruments of distribution and apportionment (roads, trucks, staff) are better organized today than they used to be.

Conclusion: the Chinese will continue to listen to the teachers of Marxism at the weekly meeting. (Trudeau and Hebert 2007, 178-79)

But now we know much more about Great Leap China than we did in the early 1960s. A Chinese translation of Deux innocents was published in book form in China in 2006, and in the introductory Chinese-language material there was not one word about what is now known about the famine and starvation.

The next year, in his long introduction to the 2007 republication in Canada of the English translation of Deux innocents, Alexandre Trudeau (son of Pierre Trudeau, who died in 2000) acknowledged that “The Great Leap Forward caused a great famine” and that it was the Chinese Communist Party’s “first great catastrophe,” but he did not discuss the magnitude of the resultant starvation (Trudeau and Hebert 2007, 26-27). “This charming period piece gives us a memorable picture of a China that has largely vanished,” writes Canadian historian and popular commentator Margaret MacMillan on the jacket of this republication. But if Great-Leap China has indeed largely disappeared, the Chinese people can only celebrate in jubilation and relief and hope that no man-made famine ever stalks and starves them again.

The Lull before the Storm

Mao was an unpopular man in China in the early 1960s, and he knew it. In 1961 a play called Hai Rui Dismissed from Office became quite popular and was performed in Beijing before sellout audiences. The plot of the play was an oblique historical condemnation of Mao’s role in the Great Leap Forward and a celebration of Peng Dehuai’s courage in criticizing him over it. The historical Hai Rui was a loyal and upright official during the Ming dynasty who bluntly criticized a Ming emperor’s policies and was, as a result, dismissed from office in disgrace. Anyone who saw the play and had a finger on the pulse of political developments in China knew that the character Hai Rui was the historical and literary counterpart to Peng Dehuai, while the stubborn and obtuse Ming emperor who failed to heed the loyal minister‘s remonstrations was none other than Mao himself. Jiang Qing, a woman with literary and cultural interests who had been Mao’s wife since Yan’an days, quickly caught on to this and urged Mao for years to do something about it.

Mao made only one public appearance in 1962. During this year he was angry and hurt about the way practical officials had more or less shunted him aside and regarded him as a “dead ancestor.” He feared that bureaucrats and governmental cogs were now in control of China and that the country was slowly watering down Marxist-Leninist dogma. In his youth he had accepted Marxism-Leninism and saw class struggle as the driving force of history. Now, in the wake of attempts to recover from the Great Leap, there was little evidence of continuing class struggle, and this troubled him.

One segment of Chinese society that was not critical of Mao was the People’s Liberation Army (or PL A), led by Lin Biao. Lin knew that the basis of his power and authority was his loyalty to Mao, and during the early 1960s he flattered Mao and was obsequious in his behavior to him. When others criticized Mao for the Great Leap catastrophe, Lin praised it and glorified Mao for attempting it. Lin fostered a personality cult centered on Mao in the PLA, and he printed and circulated among PLA troops the famous “Little Red Book,” or Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, which he encouraged officers and men to read and memorize reverentially. Mao was pleased with all this attentiveness and by 1965 was encouraging China to learn from the PLA’s ideological zeal and personal dedication to him. Mao encouraged the formation of a personality cult centered on himself, partly for his own glorification but mainly for the mass dedication to his ideology that it might produce.

By late 1965 Mao was once again confident enough in his own leadership to fire a salvo at his critics and detractors. He finally unleashed the fury of his wife Jiang Qing and her ultra-leftist cronies against those they regarded as impeding class struggle in China, and in November they had newspapers in Beijing and Shanghai publish a tirade against the Hai Rui play. By the end of the year Mao had convened a meeting with top Chinese officials about the play and lashed out at his critics, questioning their devotion to the revolutionary cause. In February 1966 he told Lin Biao and the PLA about his vision of a “great socialist cultural revolution” that would fundamentally change China’s culture by rooting out the vestiges of old or feudal ways. With this done, Mao believed, his critics would finally be silenced and China could proceed farther and faster along the revolutionary path toward the ultimate goal of pure communism.

China Goes Mad: The Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976

Mao was intensely dedicated to the task of seeing the revolution through in China during his lifetime. Rather than see his revolution derailed, he threw China into a decade of chaos and turmoil that would, he hoped, maintain China’s revolutionary ardor and keep the nation on track to achieve socialism in his lifetime. Mao plunged China into one of its darkest decades of the twentieth century because the revolutionary ideals and goals of his youth remained unrealized. He was, as his physician wrote in the 1990s, dedicated to socialism for socialism’s sake and cared little about the practical consequences or real-world human suffering that his attempts to realize his theoretical ideals entailed (Li 1994, 377).

Frustrated that the majority of the Chinese government was apparently abandoning China’s revolutionary charter and following a more revisionist path similar to the Soviet Union, Mao essentially threw a temper tantrum; he went over the heads of the government and appealed directly to the people for support. Mao tapped into a vast reservoir of youthful discontent in China and told a generation of Chinese youth that it was acceptable for them to rebel against authority figures in families, schools, workplaces, and local and provincial governments; many personnel in these organizations were, after all, revisionist or counterrevolutionary and deserved contempt and censure. That was all that a generation of angry and disenchanted urban youth needed to hear, and by the summer of 1966 China was in the throes of a nationwide upheaval that would last, to a greater or lesser extent, until Mao’s death in September 1976.

May 1966 was a big month in the developing momentum for the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s most prominent critics were dismissed in May, and this same month Lin Biao asserted that these critics were part of a “black line” in the party that was out to restore bourgeois interests in Chinese society. Only a thorough housecleaning within the party and an intensified revolution in Chinese society and culture could reverse these ominous developments. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Mao’s longtime associate Zhou Enlai named the developing movement the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Also in May, an ultra-leftist philosophy professor at Peking University (Beida) placed “big-character posters” throughout the campus condemning the university president’s policies forbidding student protest movements. Mao’s discovery and approval of the posters had two results: the dismissal or assailing of many professors and administrators at Peking University and the popularization of big-character posters (large posters written with bold Chinese characters) as a means of airing opinions and attacking ideological opponents.

In June 1966 the anarchy in China began. Many young students left their studies and joined the exciting new movement to protect Chairman Mao and his Thought from revisionists, the standard bogeyman label for anyone who dared voice disagreement with Mao. Revisionists were members of the over-thirty generation; how could young people ever dare resist the smiling Chairman Mao who was telling them that it was acceptable to rebel against the older generations? In August Mao publicly and approvingly designated his new young supporters the “Red Guards” and heartily approved of their slogan “to rebel is justified.” And rebel they did, in the name of a personality cult centered on the thought, and the person, of Chairman Mao. Mao took his famous swim in the Yangtze River in July 1966 to announce to China and the world that he had the renewed political and physical prowess necessary to direct the turmoil he was about to unleash in China. (In reality, the swim as a feat of physical fitness was quite unremarkable; Mao simply let the current carry him along as he floated on his back, supported by the buoyancy of his considerable stomach.)

Mao’s sycophants and flatterers in the PLA were proud of the role they had played in starting the movement. Happy to be included in Mao’s vision of cultural revolution and ideological purification in China, the PLA’s Liberation Army Daily published the following piece in its August 1, 1966 edition:

Chairman Mao wants us to run our army as a great school. Working mainly as a fighting force, it concurrently studies, engages in agriculture, runs factories, and does mass work; it carries on and further develops the fine traditions of our Party and our army, and trains and tempers millions of successors to the proletarian revolutionary cause, so that our people’s army of several million can play a still greater role in the cause of socialist revolution and socialist construction. It is a great school for the study, implementation, dissemination, and safeguarding of Mao Zedong’s Thought. (Schurmann and Schell 1967, 623)

In this same piece the Liberation Army Daily ingratiated itself with Mao by lashing out at his critics at Lushan:

The … big struggle took place at the same time as our Party’s struggle against the Right opportunist anti-Party clique in 1959. Taking advantage of the important posts they had usurped in the army, the principal members of the anti-Party clique—who were exposed at the Party’s Lushan Conference—made a great effort to do away with the Party’s absolute leadership over the army, to abrogate political work, to reject the army’s tasks of participating in socialist construction and doing mass work, and to abolish the local armed forces and the militia; in this way, they tried to completely negate Chairman Mao’s thinking on the people’s army and the people’s war. They vainly hoped to refashion our army according to the bourgeois, revisionist military line so that it would become an instrument for their usurping leadership of the Party and the government, and for realizing their personal ambitions. The Enlarged Session of the Military Commission held after the Party’s Lushan Conference thoroughly settled accounts with them in regard to their crimes and dismissed them from office. This was a great victory for Mao Zedong’s Thought! (625)

On August 5, Mao egged the Red Guards on by posting his own big-character poster saying “Bomb the headquarters!” at the door of the Communist Party Central Committee Headquarters. Unnerved, the Central Committee gave in to Mao’s tactics by dismissing moderates and recruiting radical Maoists into its ranks.

On the dawn of August 18, 1966, Mao propelled his new personality cult to a frenzy among the Red Guards when he spoke to one million of them at a rally in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He mingled and chatted with the crowds for several hours, and the next day news of the rally was splashed all over China’s newspapers. This produced a craze for Red Guard rallies at Tiananmen Square for much of the rest of the year. The last rally, held in November 1966, was the largest, with more than 2.5 million people attending.

These huge Red Guard rallies were possible because students all over China simply quit school and adventurously traveled all over China to “make revolution” and do quixotic battle against the phantom counterrevolutionaries and reactionaries. They were given free passage on China’s train and bus system to just about anywhere, which enabled the Red Guard generation to see more of China than any other generation in Chinese history. The ultimate destination for millions of Red Guards was, of course, Beijing, especially after the news media reported that Mao himself was known to review the rallies at Tiananmen Square. The fondest dream of any Red Guard was to lay eyes on the Chairman, even if only for a few fleeting and frenzied seconds. Liang Heng, a young student who traveled all the way from Hunan in southern China to attend a Red Guard rally at Tiananmen Square, conveys in his memoirs the intensity and flavor of the rallies:

If there was any single thing that meant ecstasy to everyone in those days, it was seeing Chairman Mao. Ever since I had been in Peking [Beijing], the possibility had been in the back of my mind, and, like every other Red Guard, I would have laid down my life for the chance.

Chairman Mao’s car was first, a Peking-brand army jeep. As in a dream, I saw him. He seemed very tall to me, magnificent, truly larger than life. He waved his hat as the jeep drove slowly through the throng. The soldiers forming the passageway stood at attention, but the tears poured down their faces in rivulets. Nevertheless they managed to sniffle their refrain, “Please keep Revolutionary order! Please keep Revolutionary order!”

I was bawling like a baby, crying out incoherently again and again, “You are our hearts’ reddest, reddest sun!” My tears blocked my vision, but I could do nothing to control myself. Then Chairman Mao’s car was past, and Premier Zhou’s followed.

The people in front hadn’t realized what had happened, and were still chanting. “We want to see Chairman Mao!” with their backs turned to all the action. As they discovered him in their midst, however, they nearly mobbed the car, obstructing its passage completely…. It was only when the crowd was told that the Chairman wanted to climb the gate-tower to see the fireworks that they separated and let the car go through.

When it was all over everyone ran to the post office to telegraph the good news to their families all over China. I waited more than two hours to trace out the trembling words, “This evening at 9:15 I became the happiest person in the world.” I knew my father would need no further explanation. (Liang and Shapiro 1983, 121, 124-25)

The throngs of Red Guards collected Mao memorabilia, wore red armbands emblazoned with three characters meaning Red Guard, sang songs in praise of Chairman Mao’s wisdom and benevolence, and above all read his works, especially the Little Red Book or Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao’s Quotations were carried by every good Red Guard wherever he or she went. The original edition of the Quotations, issued by the PLA in a cheap, red plastic cover, had 270 pages of text and measured about 5 × 3½ × ¾ inches. A generation of Red Guards reverentially pored over the Quotations and knew them largely by heart; many even committed the entire book to memory. (The Quotations achieved popularity with the 1960s hippie generation in the United States and Canada.) Stridently anti-American, the Quotations contained frequent and shrill denunciation of the United States:

People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs! People of the world, be courageous, dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the people. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed. (Mao 1976, 82)

Mao was supremely confident in the ultimate victory of the socialist revolution all over the world:

The socialist system will eventually replace the capitalist system; this is an objective law independent of man’s will. However much the reactionaries try to hold back the wheel of history, sooner or later revolution will take place and will inevitably triumph. (24)

It is my opinion that the international situation has now reached a new turning point. There are two winds in the world today, the East Wind and the West Wind. There is a Chinese saying, “Either the East Wind prevails over the West Wind or the West Wind prevails over the East Wind.” I believe it is characteristic of the situation today that the East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind. That is to say, the forces of socialism have become overwhelmingly superior to the forces of imperialism. (80-81)

The ultimate victory of the socialist and communist revolutions would be accomplished through brute force of arms:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” (61)

… only with guns can the whole world be transformed. (63)

We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun. (63)

Revolution was, in fact, a brutal and messy business, and in what was probably the most famous statement of his life, Mao told his followers that they should not expect it to be otherwise:

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. (11-12)

The Cultural Revolution was an exciting time for the Red Guards and other perpetrators, but for its victims (variously called counterrevolutionaries, reactionaries, revisionists, capitalist roaders, and the like) it was a time of enormous suffering and hardship. Mao detested intellectuals because they thought for themselves and did not always reverentially lap up the dogma he poured out to them. It had been the intellectuals, after all, who had spoken out most vociferously against Mao’s policies during the Hundred Flowers campaign. Always conscious of his own lack of formal advanced education, Mao was especially suspicious of any intellectual who had studied abroad. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of patriotic, foreign-educated Chinese who had returned to China after the 1949 revolution were hunted down and sent to the countryside for back-breaking reform through labor on farms. Hundreds of physicists and other scientists were reduced to demeaning tasks such as shoveling pig manure and cleaning latrines. Intellectuals in general were referred to as the “stinking ninth category,” ninth being the last of a list of undesirables in Chinese society that included criminals and “bad elements.” Red Guards took special delight in bursting into their teachers’ homes in search of anything that could possibly prove them antagonistic to Mao or pro-Western in their tastes: books, music, paintings, and even Western-style clothing. People who aroused the slightest suspicion of the Red Guards were taken out and “struggled,” or verbally and physically abused before large crowds of accusers and detractors. Chinese writer Jung Chang recalls how her father, an intellectual, was tormented but remained defiant during the Cultural Revolution:

A standard opening was to chant: “Ten thousand years, another ten thousand years, and yet another ten thousand years to our Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander, and Great Helmsman Chairman Mao!” Each time the three “ten thousand’s and four” great’s were shouted out, everyone raised their Little Red Books in unison. My father would not do this. He said that the “ten thousand years” was how emperors used to be addressed, and it was unfitting for Chairman Mao, a Communist.

This brought down a torrent of hysterical yells and slaps. At one meeting, all of the targets were ordered to kneel and kowtow to a huge portrait of Mao at the back of the platform. While the others did as they were told, my father refused. He said that kneeling and kowtowing were undignified feudal practices which the Communists were committed to eliminating. The Rebels screamed, kicked his knees, and struck him on the head, but he still struggled to stand upright. “I will not kneel! I will not kowtow!” he said furiously. The enraged crowd demanded, “Bow your head and admit your crimes!” He replied, “I have committed no crime. I will not bow my head!”

Several large young men jumped on him to try to force him down, but as soon as they let go he stood up straight, raised his head, and stared defiantly at the audience. His assailants yanked his hair and pulled his neck. My father struggled fiercely. As the hysterical crowd screamed that he was “anti-Cultural Revolution,” he shouted angrily, “What kind of Cultural Revolution is this? There is nothing ‘cultural’ about it! There is only brutality!” (Chang 1991, 331)

Zhai Zhenhua, who now lives and works in Canada, recalls in lurching, harrowing detail her Red Guard days and her raid on the home of a supposed class enemy named Xiuying:

We searched high and low, everywhere except under the bricks on the floor, but we didn’t find money or anything worthwhile, let alone a gun or counter-revolutionary leaflet. And the woman was arrogant! She wouldn’t even talk to us or answer our questions. I was annoyed. Everything about her—her loose, large body, her flaccid face, and her fishy eyes—was hateful. “You don’t want to talk with us? All the better, save me some saliva. Beat her!” I ordered my soldiers.

As soon as they started to strap her with their belts, she slid down onto the floor with her back against the wall and from then on hardly moved. Her eyes never looked up. Before we left, we grabbed some of her belongings at random to turn over to our headquarters.

The next morning, as I walked towards the headquarters’ office, Xiaoli, a Red Guard from the third grade of junior school, was leaving. We exchanged hellos as we passed each other. After a few steps, she suddenly stopped, turned, and asked me, “Did you raid Xiuying’s home yesterday?”

“Yes, I was in charge.”

“She’s dead,” Xiaoli said casually.

“Dead?” I repeated.

She nodded several times and went on her way.

My heart jumped. Dead? She was alive yesterday when we left. Or wasn’t she? It wasn’t our habit to check whether our victims were dead or alive when we left them. But I didn’t mean to kill her! I didn’t! Although I had no problem beating people hard to make them suffer, I never wanted to kill anybody and I never beat people on their heads. Perhaps Xiuying committed suicide after we left or had a heart attack during our beating. No! It was impossible. Why should she die on the only home raid I was in charge of? Xiaoli must have made a mistake. Or maybe she was kidding with me. I wanted to go after her to find out, but I didn’t have the courage. It was too frightening. I wasn’t about to ask the headquarters either—let them come to me. If Xiuying was dead and I had to pay the price, I would do so.

… I never discovered whether she died or not, but I suspected that there were many victims of home raids who had died during or after the attacks. Xiuying’s death would hardly have been news, but the thought that I might have killed her weighed heavily upon me for days. Still, eventually I managed to persuade myself it was all right. We were in a war and there are always casualties on the battlefields. I shouldn’t be intimidated by the death of one class enemy. The revolution had to succeed, and I had to continue to do my part. When I was assigned new tasks, I tried to be as brave as before. (Zhai 1994, 97-98)

By November 1966 Mao was taken aback by the viciousness of the attacks against teachers and other authorities and tried to remind the Red Guards that not all people in authority were revisionists or capitalist roaders. He did not, however, rein in the movement at this time, and things steadily worsened. Several high officials in China’s government were hauled out of their homes, struggled, and more or less forced to admit to trumped-up accusations against them. During the summer of 1967, mobs broke into Peng Dehuai’s house and dragged him out to a struggle session. A mob broke into the British embassy in Beijing, terrorized British diplomats, and burned a part of the British embassy compound. Anarchy prevailed in several major Chinese cities as rival groups claiming to be the most loyal of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards fought and murdered each other. One Chinese intellectual remembers how university and urban life was violently disrupted as the city of Hefei in Anhui province descended into lawlessness:

At the university, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Colonel Li, still in junior high, made herself famous by being one of those daredevil Red Guards who prided themselves on their blood lineage. She sported a dagger with eclat, because both of her parents had served in the early Red Army. One day, while roaming the streets with a band of teenagers of her faction, she saw a teenage boy coming toward them.

“Who is that? Friend or enemy?” she asked her companions. “I have not seen him before. Enemy, I believe,” one of the boys said. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s get him,” she urged, walking up to the solitary youth. “Stop! Who are you, kid? Which faction?” “You have no right to stop me or ask me questions. Let me go by.”

“Here’s for your impudence, you dog!” Her dagger went straight into the youngster’s heart. Her companions were dumbfounded. “Come on!” she said cheerfully. “I’ll treat you to ice-suckers to celebrate our heroic deed.” Leaving the youngster dying on the street in a pool of blood, she walked up to a man peddling ice-suckers and clenched the bloody dagger between her teeth while she fumbled in her pockets for change. “Ten ice-suckers for Chairman Mao’s true Red Guards!” she said proudly. The peddler was so frightened that he dared not take money for the ice-suckers. The dead boy turned out to have belonged to the same faction as the killer. (Wu 1993, 206-7)

Hundreds of thousands of people met with violent deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution. Nien Cheng’s daughter Meiping was murdered in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, and after the 10-year nightmare finally ended, Nien Cheng began to seek justice and resolution of Meiping’s case. She wrote many petitions seeking redress until a government official finally asked her to stop writing them and to be patient.

“I have come here today to tell you to stop writing petitions. In due course your case will be reviewed, since it is the policy of the Party and government to review all cases of the Cultural Revolution.”

“How much longer will I have to wait?” I asked him.

“Do you know how many cases we have to deal with in Shanghai? Ten thousand people died unnaturally in this city. Their deaths were all related directly or indirectly to the Gang of Four and their followers. Many times that number were imprisoned. Many are still detained. Our first priority must be to examine these cases immediately and to release the innocent people. Then we will examine the cases of those who are out of prison and are still living, like yourself. After that we will come to the cases of those who are dead, like your daughter…”

What he said seemed reasonable. I had not realized the magnitude of the problem facing the officials charged with reviewing the cases.

“It’s good of you to take time off to visit me today. I want to thank you and the government you represent. I must say your visit has somewhat restored my confidence. You are very different from the officials I have had to deal with during the past ten years.”

“Of course I’m different. I’ve only recently been rehabilitated myself,” the man said with a twist of his mouth that might have been a bitter smile. (Cheng 1986, 488)

Things became ominous in the summer of 1967 when entire shipments of weapons disappeared and mob rule prevailed in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. When it appeared that the PLA itself might also be sliding into chaos, Mao finally concluded that his Cultural Revolution had gone too far and tried to restrain it. When he toured the provinces in September, he was appalled at the extent of the social disruption he saw. Mao also reined in Jiang Qing and her group of writers, but he kept them in reserve to use as attack dogs against his political opponents when it suited him. Order in China was not quickly restored, and in July 1968 Mao had to instruct the PLA to restore order to China’s cities through all the necessary means, including military force. That same month he summoned student and Red Guard leaders to a discussion and more or less told them that the party was over now. One way to get the Red Guards out of the cities was to send them out to the countryside to learn from the peasants. This he did in 1969, and millions of students went to work on farms. Some went willingly and enthusiastically, but most had to be compelled. In the countryside they learned nothing but bitterness for Mao, who seemed to have no concern for them now that they had outlived their usefulness.

In addition to its mindless brutality, the Cultural Revolution was a time of destruction to China’s artistic heritage. (Tibet was hit particularly hard, with almost all of its monasteries destroyed. Only the Potala Palace in Lhasa was spared the destruction, on the personal orders of Zhou Enlai.) Red Guards destroyed innumerable relics and objets d’art. A wealthy Chinese woman whose house was raided and ransacked by Red Guards recalls the wanton destruction she witnessed in heartrending detail:

The Red Guards had taken from the storeroom the crates containing my father’s books and papers and were trying to open them with pliers. Through the open drawing room door, I saw a girl on the ladder removing the curtains. Two bridge tables were in the middle of the room. On them was a collection of cameras, watches, clocks, binoculars, and silverware that the Red Guards had gathered from all over the house. These were the “valuables” they intended to present to the state.

Mounting the stairs, I was astonished to see several Red Guards taking pieces of my porcelain collection out of their padded boxes. One young man had arranged a set of four Kangxi winecups in a row on the floor and was stepping on them. I was just in time to hear the crunch of delicate porcelain under the sole of his shoe. The sound pierced my heart. Impulsively I leapt forward and caught his leg just as he raised his foot to crush the next cup. He toppled. We fell in a heap together. My eyes searched for the other winecups to make sure we had not broken them in our fall, and, momentarily distracted, I was not able to move aside when the boy regained his feet and kicked me right in my chest. I cried out in pain …

The young man whose revolutionary work of destruction I had interrupted said angrily, “You shut up! These things belong to the old culture. They are the useless toys of the feudal emperors and the modern capitalist class and have no significance to us, the proletarian class. They cannot be compared to cameras and binoculars, which are useful for our struggle in time of war. Our Great Leader Chairman Mao taught us, ‘If we do not destroy, we cannot establish.’ The old culture must be destroyed to make way for the new socialist culture.” (Cheng 1986, 73-74)

The fall of 1968 was the end of the Cultural Revolution proper, and it was officially declared over in the spring of 1969. Its lingering effects, however, continued to reverberate until Mao’s death in 1976. After 1969 movements reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution flared up occasionally but were not given the full rein they had in 1966 and 1967. Mao knew that his Cultural Revolution was, like his Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, a monumental failure, but this time he made sure that nobody like Peng Dehuai would dare come forth and criticize him. This time the odds were stacked in his favor; the highest levels of the CCP were packed with his allies, and he always had Jiang Qing and her group of literary hatchet men ready to slice up any potential critics.

Mao continued to be concerned about the state of the revolution in China, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s he was becoming preoccupied with another matter, the growing Sino-Soviet split. Mao became convinced during this time that the greatest threat to Chinese and international security was not the United States but the Soviet Union, which had distanced itself from China in horror after the lunacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and had begun menacing China along the Sino-Soviet borders.

The Cultural Revolution was a complex phenomenon, and making sense of it is not an easy task. Indeed, several scholars who have devoted their careers to plumbing its depths have not been able to come to full grips with its causes and the course of its development. The Cultural Revolution was more or less officially launched in mid-1966, but after that it seems to have assumed a momentum and meaning all its own, quite apart from what Mao originally foresaw or intended. It ended with the deaths of more than one million Chinese and massive disruptions in the lives of almost all of China’s urban population. (Disruptions were less extensive in the countryside.) Perhaps we never will fully understand the Cultural Revolution, but at present it appears that it was more or less a failed attempt by Mao and his ideological supporters to see the revolution through to completion. Mao’s appeal to China’s angry young people was an attempt to harness their energy and restlessness for the revolutionary cause, but instead of furthering the revolution they plunged China into social and economic chaos.

Mao’s Later Years and Death

By 1970 Mao was so concerned about the perceived threats posed to China by the Soviet Union that he began to make his first tentative openings to the outside world. He tried to oust the Chinese Nationalists from the United Nations and to seat representatives of his own government on the world deliberative body. In 1970 Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were still representing China at the United Nations and stubbornly maintaining the fiction that they, and not the Chinese Communists, were the legitimate government of all China. On October 1, 1970, Mao appeared publicly in Tiananmen Square with Edgar Snow, an American journalist who during the 1930s had written about the Chinese Communist movement. Newspaper coverage of this appearance stated pointedly that the people of the world, including Americans, were China’s friends. The government of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1970, and in 1971 U.S. President Richard Nixon surprised the world by personally visiting China and chatting with Mao. Later that year, the Chinese Communists were admitted to the United Nations and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were ousted. Nixon’s decision to “play the China card” against the Soviet Union began the process of normalizing relations between China and the United States, but official U.S. recognition of Mao’s China did not come until early 1979. In 1972 Japan, reeling from the “Nixon shock” caused by the president’s trip to China, established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and cut off ties with the Nationalists on Taiwan.

Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor and supposedly loyal comrade in arms, did not like Mao’s anti-Soviet stance and his outreach to foreign countries. In August 1971 Lin Biao apparently launched a failed attempt to assassinate Mao and then attempted to flee to the Soviet Union, where he probably had supporters. Historians disagree on the ultimate cause of Lin Biao’s death, but one fairly widely accepted account holds that a plane he boarded to flee China ran out of fuel and crashed in Mongolia, killing all aboard. News of Lin Biao’s perfidy shocked the Chinese public, and soon there were massive anti-Lin Biao rallies. Lin’s introduction to Mao’s Quotations was dutifully cut out of millions of copies, and today a first-printing copy of the Quotations with Lin Biao’s introduction still intact is something of a rarity and a collector’s item.

The fall of Lin Biao led to a power struggle between the Maoist radicals and the more moderate voices in the Chinese government, chief of whom was Zhou Enlai. Zhou was designated as Mao’s heir-apparent, and this did not sit well with the radicals. The center of the radicals’ power was the Politburo, which included Jiang Qing and her radical literary and cultural supporters. Two of these radicals were, in fact, members of the Standing Committee, a five-or six-member core group within the Politburo. Zhou led the moderates and attempted to reduce the power of the radicals. Zhou brought Deng Xiaoping, a fellow moderate, back to power in 1974, and the next year Zhou announced China’s “Four Modernizations,” or goals to improve and modernize agriculture, industry, defense, and science. The radicals were incensed by this and accused Zhou and Deng of plotting to restore capitalism in China.

Zhou Enlai died in early January 1976 of cancer, and all of China mourned. He might have lived a little longer had Mao not refused to allow him treatment for his cancer. Zhou’s death led to a power struggle over whether a moderate or a radical would be named as Mao’s successor. Deng Xiaoping, who had no other source of support than Zhou, found himself in an awkward and precarious position. Mao designated a compromise candidate as his successor, a relatively unknown figure named Hua Guofeng, and reportedly told him that “with you in charge, my mind is at ease.” Meanwhile, the battles between radicals and moderates continued. By March the radicals were attacking Zhou’s memory and vilifying him as a capitalist roader, an opprobrious bogeyman tag somewhat equivalent to being labeled a “commie” during the 1950s in the United States. This infuriated millions of people who knew that Zhou had been a moderating force behind the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution and had blunted its sharpest edges; without him, the Cultural Revolution might well have been much worse. Zhou, in fact, and not Mao, was by 1975 the most beloved man in China. In April millions of people marched to Tiananmen Square and celebrated his memory by placing huge mounds of wreaths and poems at the foot of the Monument to the Heroes of the People in the middle of the square. Mao’s ordering of the removal of these tributes on April 5 led to the Tiananmen Incident, a huge demonstration in response. After angry crowds burned the police station near the square, the army moved in with truncheons to clear the square. The radicals on the Politburo then blamed one of their number, Deng Xiaoping, for the disturbances. Deng was expelled from the Politburo and sent into internal exile. He retained only his party membership, but he was too major a figure to be forgotten. He eventually came back to power after Mao’s death and was China’s leading figure until his death in 1997.

The radicals then gained the upper hand, but they did not enjoy their day in the sun for long. Mao fell gravely ill in the summer of 1976 and finally died on September 9. China mourned his passing, but not with the same grief that attended Zhou’s passing earlier in the year. The main question for China after Mao’s death was, once again, who his successor would be. Then, as now, the Chinese public would have nothing to do with the selection of his successor. Because China was not a democracy, the death of a national leader was typically followed not by an orderly transition, but a raw power struggle between unelected, high-ranking political figures. Hua Guofeng was the nominally designated successor, but he knew that his base of support was limited and that he would probably not prevail in a protracted power struggle. So he decided to strike first. The PLA, by now sick and tired of all the upheavals and instability in China, responded positively to his appeal for military support, and on October 6, 1976, Jiang Qing and three of her fellow radicals were arrested. These four people, dubbed the Gang of Four, were made scapegoats for most of China’s suffering over the past decade. Everyone knew that Mao did find the Gang of Four useful at times and occasionally gave his support to them as he saw fit, but Mao was still too much a revered figure to share in the blame. Mao was the unnamed fifth man in what was really a gang of five.

Mao was a political revolutionary and an important national symbol, but he made most of his contributions to China prior to 1949. After that he proved to be largely an impediment to peacetime growth and development in China. He understood neither economics nor military operations. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mao was not a military genius; the military writings and victories commonly credited to him are actually attributable to other figures in the Red Army (Wei 2002, 229-48). After his death in 1976 his mistakes were openly recognized, and the Chinese people in their innately good sense decided that China would never again allow the disruptive national movements and class struggle he so treasured.

One of Mao’s most insightful biographers comments on the ironies of Mao’s transition from liberator to tyrant:

Mao Zedong thus stands in a long line of revolutionary tyrants—revolutionary in that they contributed to great socio-economic progress, tyrannical in their political methods. Mao began his political career as a servant of China’s impoverished peasants and made himself their master in the process. He liberated the Chinese nation from the shackles of a century-long foreign impingement, only to bind the people of the nation to the alien shackles of his own deified image … The ill-fated Great Leap Forward campaign marked the transition from Mao as the dominant leader of an authoritarian Leninist party to a personal tyrant ruling above the Party. (Meisner 2007, 194)

Ever since he had become a Marxist during his student days at Beida, Mao Zedong was an idealogue in a hurry who valued socialism for its own elegant, purely theoretical sake. He wanted to see the completion of the Marxian stages of socioeconomic development and the final emergence of a truly classless, communistic society in China. He longed for the culmination of this grand historical process during his own lifetime and was annoyed by the possibility that he might not live to see it. Thus, during the 1950s as he began contemplating his own mortality, he grew impatient with the slow, grinding gait of historical process and sought to impel or accelerate it, to make History bend to human (i.e., his) will. For China, the results of Mao’s impatience with the unfolding of Marxian fantasy were utterly disastrous:

… Mao’s subjective desire for socialism proved far more powerful than the influence of Marxist teachings on the objective material prerequisites of the new society. Thus, by the late 1950s, Mao’s Marxian insistence on proceeding through the necessary stages of socio-economic development gave way to the notion of a “permanent” or “continuous” revolution, one that bypassed the “bourgeois-democratic” phrase altogether; he claimed to have completed “the transition to socialism” in a few short years, and then proclaimed the imminence of communism…. By late 1957 Mao Zedong had thrown off all conventional Marxian restraints on the revolutionary will, permitting him to embark on the tragic adventure of the Great Leap Forward. Standing above all institutions, he now became a tyrant as well as a utopian prophet, nearly oblivious to the human and social costs of his “great leap” to communism—and to the costs of the Cultural Revolution, an upheaval which in large measure grew out of the political tensions generated by the failure of the Great Leap. (Meisner 2007, 197)

The Chinese Communist Party knows full well that Mao and Maoism have little if anything to do with what is going on in China today, and he and his ideology are now largely repudiated. (In fact, China today pointedly distances itself from Maoist guerilla insurgencies in Nepal and Peru.) But this repudiation must be kept under wraps and cannot go too far without undermining the legitimacy of continuing Communist rule over the country. (Lu Decheng fond this out in 1989 when he threw dye-filled eggshells at Mao Zedong’s gigantic portrait facing Tiananmen Square in Beijing and was sentenced to over a decade and a half in prison for the act. Lu, who now lives in Calgary, is the subject of a recent book by Denise Chong.) So Mao is now revered at a distance but disavowed close up. In today’s China, Mao is indeed a “dead ancestor,” both literally and figuratively. China has outgrown him.