Spence's review: Mao, Mao, Mao, and Mao again!

From "Yiching Wu" <yw16@uchicago.edu>
Date Wed, 20 Sep 2006 04:14:59 -0500
References <200609172237.k8HMbGip026413@corinna.its.utas.edu.au>

I am actually quite disappointed with this review. Given the many very charming books he has written, I thought he could have produced a much more interesting and complex piece. But this one is rather simplistic and stereotypical.

I bought and have read parts of the book. It actually contains a number of interesting materials. Despite its obvious interpretive biases, they don't seem to me as vicious as the following review has made them to appear. The review seems to be a lot more selective and "focused" in its interpretation that the book itself.

Saul has written a response to the review, which contains many points I absolutely agree with. It's said to have been posted on CSG but I haven't seen it there.


Volume 53, Number 14 ˇ September 21, 2006 Email to a friend RSS feed

China's Great Terror
By Jonathan D. Spence
Mao's Last Revolution
by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 693 pp., $35.00

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red
Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those
in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures
in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own solutions. On March 18,
1966, General Luo Ruiqing, a veteran revolutionary and then chief of staff
of the People's Liberation Army, tried to commit suicide by jumping from the
top of a three-story building. The attempt failed, though his legs were
shattered and he ended up paralyzed, unable to walk. On May 17 Deng Tuo, the
Beijing Party secretary for culture and education and former editor of the
main Communist newspaper, People's Daily, took his own life in Beijing. Six
days later Tian Jiaying, who for many years had been one of Mao's most
effective and influential political secretaries, also committed suicide. On
June 25, the director of the Beijing foreign affairs office took the same
way out and he was followed on July 10 by the director of Beijing's
municipal propaganda department, Li Qi, who took his own life after being
denounced as an "ultra-vanguard opponent of Mao Zedong Thought." Two weeks
after Li, another senior Communist bureaucrat hanged himself.

What was it that these experienced revolutionary professionals saw as so
full of menace that they could not bear to confront it? In varying degrees
all of these men had lived through terrible times: the civil wars of the
1930s, the Japanese occupation of their homeland, the renewed civil war of
the 1940s against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, the Korean War,
violent land reform, the anti-rightist movement that followed the partial
thaw of the Hundred Flowers period, the Great Leap Forward and subsequent
famine. They all knew much about Mao's character, his bizarre ideological
swerves, his stated indifference to loss of human life, his tortuous
language, his unpredictable modus operandi; they had all sat through
hundreds of hours of "study groups" and had prepared numerous
"self-criticisms"; they were used to purges and the sudden vanishings of
relatives, friends, and colleagues.

As Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals show, the most convincing
explanation for the terminal despair of so many well-placed and
well-informed Party personnel was that each of them had the experience and
the knowledge to see how, in late 1965 and early 1966, a complex series of
intersecting pieces was being put into place by Mao and his self-selected
personal advisers and confidants. This was an eclectic group that included
People's Liberation Army Marshal and Minister of Defense Lin Biao, Mao's
wife (his third), Jiang Qing, Mao's longtime speechwriter and ideological
trouble-shooter Chen Boda, his security expert Kang Sheng, two leading
ideologues at the Shanghai Party headquarters, and China's long-term
premier, Zhou Enlai. Most important was their realization that Mao had
clearly decided to carry out his belief that the Chinese socialist
revolution was being sidelined by the "forces of revisionism" (whether these
forces were meant to be pro-Soviet, pro-capitalist, or pro-nationalist was
not always clear) that had wormed their way into the heart of the political,
cultural, educational, military, and economic institutions of China. In his
determination to wipe out these trends, Mao was willing to assault any of
the senior leaders of the Communist Party and their staffs, no matter how
strong were their prior revolutionary credentials, starting with the Beijing
Party establishment, and following whatever leads might emanate from these
assaults. Chief of Staff Luo had been persecuted in part because Mao wanted
to be absolutely sure that the military was personally loyal to Mao himself.


In early 1966 Mao moved to Shanghai, where his wife Jiang Qing had already
formed a partnership with local leaders. With their help she had launched an
ideological assault against a group of writers prominent in the Beijing
Party world who, Mao believed, were guilty of privately trying to undercut
his prestige. Jiang Qing and Mao also worked closely with Lin Biao, who had
used the army as a testing ground for the mass popularization of Mao's image
and thoughts, most famously through the brief collection drawn from a wide
range of Mao's earlier writings which became known as the Little Red Book.
Lin made no secret of his ardent loyalty to Chairman Mao, and the army's
broad range of cultural organizations, such as dance troupes and opera
teams, were all pledged to spread Mao's already omnipresent image. By late
April 1966 the senior Beijing Party leader Peng Zhen had effectively been
isolated and removed from his several powerful posts, joining General Luo
and two other once-dominant Party leaders in the political wilderness.

Party members not marked as targets in this initial purge were especially
contemptuous of Luo's suicide attempt. The head of state, Liu Shaoqi,
remarked that "if you are going to commit suicide, you have to have some
technique, that is, heavy head and light feet, but he arrived feet first and
did not injure his head." Liu's dismissal of Luo's suicide attempt was
supplemented by Deng Xiaoping, who commented that Luo had "jumped like a
female athlete diver"; Deng added that the trajectory of the falling general
must have resembled a popsicle on a stick. Perhaps the contempt shown to Luo
helped make the later group of suicides all the more determined to succeed
in their attempts, for Luo's failure was defined as "resistance to the
Party," and for months after the disaster Luo still was forced to attend a
series of struggle meetings, bundled in the kind of large basket used by
farmers to carry their vegetables to market. (He was rehabilitated in 1975
and died in 1978.)

The conclusion of this opening phase of Mao's assault on his own Party
hierarchy came with a series of "notifications" presented to the Politburo
Standing Committee on May 16, 1966. In these notifications, Mao and his
supporters announced the coming of a "cultural revolution"-whether that
revolution should be termed "great," "proletarian," or "socialist" had not
yet been determined. Mao and his surrogates summed up the scale of the
issues confronting the nation. "Far from being a minor issue," the
notifications declared, "the struggle against this revisionist line is an
issue of prime importance having a vital bearing on the destiny and future
of our party and state, on the future complexion of our party and state, and
on the world revolution."

As MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write in their sweeping panorama of the
Cultural Revolution, many senior Party figures in China found the charges
against those four senior leaders "literally incomprehensible."
Nevertheless, the two authors point out, as late as December 1965 the most
influential noncommitted Party leaders might have had a chance to close
ranks and tell Mao that "they could not go along with this travesty." But
they let the moment pass, and such an opportunity did not offer itself
again. By the late spring of 1966 Mao's most radical group of allies, with
the chairman's obvious encouragement, had triumphantly institutionalized
themselves in the form of "The Central Cultural Revolution Group" (often
known simply as "the small group"), and this informal-sounding body was to
be the center of the radicals' power for the next decade. As the authors
add, "the more profound result of Mao's secretiveness was that during the
Cultural Revolution his ardent supporters had to try and intuit what he
wanted and to fulfill what they believed to be his aims."


Mysterious though the "May 16 Notifications" seemed to many Party members,
Mao was determined to widen the circles of his assault on what he may have
truly believed were counterrevolutionary forces that had pushed their way
deep into the Party and its leadership, and through those organs to the
society as a whole. Mao's decision to focus on schools and universities as a
spearhead of his assault on the Party establishment was confirmed by the
appearance on May 25 of the first inflammatory "big character poster"
attacking the Peking University leadership for being a "bunch of
Khrushchev-type revisionist elements." The initial poster-which did indeed
use very big Chinese characters -was soon followed by others, and the
criticisms spread to Tsinghua University, and from there to other campuses
and schools. The scale rapidly became immense: 65,000 posters were displayed
at Tsinghua in June. According to records in Shanghai, in the first three
weeks of June 2.7 million people joined the protest movements inside the
city; 88,000 posters appeared, attacking 1,390 people (by name) for various
"crimes." Mao declared that this spreading movement was "more significant
than the Paris Commune," and the pressure built up even more after June 13,
when the State Council, acting on Mao's instructions, suspended all classes
at all schools nationwide. This freed for political action some 103 million
primary school students, 13 million middle or high school students, and just
over half a million at colleges and universities. When senior Party leaders
outside the Central Culture Revolution Group ordered investigative "work
teams" to go to campuses and schools and double-check the nature of the
accusations being made, and to restore some semblance of order, Mao charged
them with trying to stifle the revolutionary impulses of the people, and
condemned them for backsliding and encouraging "revisionist" behavior.

In a fine example of their mastery of specific details on the logistics of
the Cultural Revolution, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals point out that even when
Mao was away from Beijing, as he so often was, traveling in his special
train and staying in spacious residences in Hangzhou, Shanghai, or Wuhan, he
was kept in touch with events on a daily basis, by special planes that
brought important documents to an airfield near wherever he happened to be
staying, whence they were driven to his residence in special cars. Even more
importantly, Mao's power was bolstered by a highly secretive office known as
the Central Case Examination Group, whose name was never mentioned in the

This special body (which the authors suggest had strong parallels with the
Gestapo and the Cheka) reported directly to Mao. Its mandate was to check
out all senior Party personnel charged with treachery, spying, or "collusion
with the enemy." With a staff of several thousand, including 789 People's
Liberation Army officers, the group was subdivided into three main sections,
each devoted to specific cases, such as digging out evidence against Peng
Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, checking at least eighty-eight members, or alternates,
of the Party Central Committee, many senior army officers, and the members
of a huge and shadowy alleged plot known as the May 16 Conspiracy. The scale
of operations was enormous: seven hundred army officers, for example, worked
for eighteen months to investigate the entire archive of the Ministry of
Public Security. The work of digging into the past became so arduous and
time-consuming that some of it was outsourced to groups of trusted Red
Guards at leading universities; eventually branch offices of the Central
Case Examination Group were opened in eighteen cities besides Beijing.[1]
Clearly Mao trusted the members of this secretive and ruthless institution,
though the authors do not fully explain why Mao did not also suspect it
might have ideological traitors within its ranks.

By such means, Mao was kept fully apprised of unfolding events, including
the way that the "criticism meetings" (called in many Party and educational
locations from June 1966 onward) began to take on new levels of violence, as
people accused of incredible charges were beaten up and humiliated, often in
front of huge crowds, or even in sports stadiums. The growing practice of
forcing criticized people to march through jeering crowds, their heads
crowned with dunce caps, and their "crimes" outlined in heavy signboards
hung from their necks, apparently sprang from the practice of rural
revolution by the peasant associations that Mao had investigated and
described in his widely read "Hunan report" of 1927.

Such practices became more widespread after Mao and his allies began to
speak of the need for, and value of, a "Red Terror" that would lead the
"black gangs" of the present era to "tremble with fear and shake with
fright." Violence increased further at the end of July 1966, after Mao
ordered the investigative work teams withdrawn from schools and workplaces.
In personal messages sent to various members of informal Red Guard units,
formed initially by Beijing college and middle school students, Mao stated
that "to rebel is justified" and that students should not hesitate to
"bombard the headquarters."

In an angry diatribe against Party leaders who, he believed, had used the
work teams to try to cow the young activists by the use of counterterror
tactics, Mao called them "monsters and freaks," whose "so-called mass line,
this so-called faith in the masses, this so-called Marxist-Leninism, is all
fake and has been so for years." Clearly disassociating himself from most of
his own senior colleagues at the Party center, Mao added, "What we have here
is suppression and terror, and this terror originates with the [Party]
center.... Because the center not only has not supported the movement of the
young students, but in fact has suppressed the student movement, I am of the
view that something has to be done." On August 8, Mao promulgated even
sharper instructions through what were termed the "Sixteen Points," which,
in case anyone might miss them, were broadcast by radio that same night,
published in People's Daily the next morning, and even distributed to record
shops in the form of a 33 rpm vinyl disc. In the sixteen points, all brakes
were removed:

 In the great proletarian cultural revolution, the only method is for the
masses to liberate themselves.... Don't be afraid of disturbances.... Let
the masses educate themselves in this great revolutionary movement and learn
to distinguish between right and wrong.


The words had already been overtaken by events, for it was in the afternoon
of August 5 that we have the first recorded details of the death of a
teacher at the hands of students. The students were girls at a prestigious
middle school not far from Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai, who had formed
their own Red Guard organization to "answer the call" of Chairman Mao. The
teacher they beat to death was named Bian Zhongyun. Bian was a
fifty-year-old mother of four (three girls and a boy), who had been at the
school ever since the Communists took over the country in 1949, and had
risen steadily to her current position as assistant principal. She had
joined the Communist Party secretly in Sichuan province back in 1941, and in
the job at her school had encountered a wide range of elite pupils including
the daughters of Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping.

From June 1966 onward Red Guard units composed of female students began to
accuse Bian of a battery of crimes, many of which were written out on big
character posters. They charged her with engaging in counterrevolutionary
activities while serving on the Beijing municipal Party committee, planning
to foment a military coup, working against the class lines laid down by the
Party, and lacking due respect for Mao Zedong. (This last charge arose from
an incident in March 1966, when Bian briefed her students on earthquake
drill, and emphasized the importance of leaving the school buildings as
quickly as possible. When one of the students asked if it were not equally
important to save the portrait of Mao that hung in the schoolroom, Bian
apparently failed to answer with the correct level of enthusiasm.)

On August 5, after she had been so badly beaten in another struggle meeting
that she could no longer move, the students dumped Bian's body in a hand
cart, covering her with copies of big character posters, weighted down with
a road sweeper's broom. After some hours, when her body was already stiff,
somebody from the school pushed the cart across the road to a nearby
hospital. When her husband and her eldest daughter came to the hospital, no
one would tell them what had happened, and the cause of death was listed as
"unknown." Bian's husband did go and buy a camera, with which he took a
photo of his dead wife, showing the fearsome extent of her injuries. But
still nobody in the school chose to take responsibility, though among the
Red Guard leaders was Deng Xiaoping's own daughter.[2]

Around two weeks after Bian's death, the first of a series of eight Red
Guard mass rallies was held in Tiananmen Square, with Mao on the reviewing
stand atop the old gate to the Forbidden City. An estimated one million Red
Guards participated, and Mao himself wore a military uniform. When some of
the girl students were invited to join Mao at the rostrum, one of them, who
was from Bian's school, slipped a Red Guard armband onto his uniform. When
Mao asked her for her name, she replied that it was Song Binbin. Mao
commented that "Binbin" had the meaning of "refined" and hence was not a
suitable name for the current period of violent upheaval in which the young
should strive to be militant. Shortly thereafter, Binbin changed her name to
"Be Martial" and the school was subsequently also renamed the "Red 'Be
Martial' School."


There is obviously a difficult question here: Why were so many of the early
radical activists so young, in many cases just middle school or even primary
students, and why were girls often prominent in the violence? The answer
given by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals is that these younger students were
mainly from highly privileged elite Party families; they lived in the same
compounds, and were tightly bonded together through work and leisure
activities. In this closed setting, sheltered from the real worlds of farm
and factory, girls were under intense pressure to appear as revolutionary as

Furthermore, through their high-ranking parents, these privileged youngsters
were privy to much confidential information about the shifting ideological
lines in the top councils of the Party. They were fiercely competitive, and
wanted to be seen as fiercely revolutionary. They also had a pungent view of
the issues at hand: as one early big character student poster put it, the
central rule of the radical groups should be to "beat to a pulp any and all
persons who go against Mao Zedong Thought." The somewhat elder college
students, on the other hand, came from all over China, and had widely
different backgrounds and interests. Like the workers, peasants, and PLA
soldiers later caught up in the turmoil, they already had established their
career plans.

Especially in the early phases of the Cultural Revolution, another factor
may also have been involved, a kind of sexual excitement or challenge that
came with the violence. Evidence for this is elusive, but present in various
sources, both official and anecdotal. The members of one of the work teams
sent to Peking University in June 1966, for example, accused one of the male
radical students of repeatedly making unwanted sexual contact with a female
cadre being "struggled against." The British chargé d'affaires reported
similar aggressive and unwanted sexual advances being made to female members
of his staff when the British mission was sacked in August 1967. The authors
also cite a powerful passage from one of the strongest memoirs ever written
about the Cultural Revolution, Spider Eaters by Rae Yang.[3] In the cited
passage, as Yang and her fellow Red Guards are "struggling" with a
middle-aged man, the man shocks them all by suddenly dropping his shorts and
exposing himself. In the rage and embarrassment that follow, he is beaten to


By any conceivable measure, the Cultural Revolution was an immense, violent,
and tragic upheaval, which can be variously dated but is most often
presented-as in the book under review-as spanning the period from mid-1965
to Mao's death in 1976. Because of its scope, its drama, and its moral and
personal complexities, it is a great subject for the historian. Yet just
because the scale is so vast, it remains a major challenge to provide a
simple unified linear narrative of the entire movement that does justice to
all the issues involved. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals are both leading
authorities on Chinese Communist Party history, and inevitably their focus
is on the Communist Party, on Mao and his cohorts, and on the Beijing and
Shanghai regions. Even though that means some highly charged problems have
to be bypassed, the story they do tell is absorbing enough.

As might have been predicted, Mao soon lost control of the movement he had
initiated. The ferocious assaults by the younger Red Guards spread rapidly
from their schools to the homes and possessions of those they deemed guilty
of loyalty to the past, and lack of devotion to the thoughts of Chairman
Mao. Yet as the focus of the violence, they were rapidly replaced in later
1966 by older students who formed competing Red Guard units and "rebel
forces," often heavily armed, who clashed with one another over the correct
interpretations of the current political line, desperate to prove they were
innocent of any taint of revisionism.

By early 1967 workers' organizations were formed, also along ideological
lines, sometimes allied with student rebels and sometimes acting on their
own. The attempt by the far left wing of Mao's supporters to found a new and
radical Shanghai "commune" was deflated by Mao once he came to realize how
seriously this affected economic production. Similarly, attempts to rein in
the People's Liberation Army and prevent it from curbing major dissension
with massive force and firepower led to a serious military mutiny in Wuhan
and the arrest of two members of the Cultural Revolution Central Group in
mid-1967 and to countless other outbreaks all across China. As workers began
to demand more concessions, and staged their own large-scale clashes with
the "power holders" and the "center," the working of full eight-hour shifts
in factories was declared mandatory by Mao's administrators. To help in
restoring order to the cities, 12 million or more "educated urban youth"
were sent out to the countryside, to live there indefinitely and to "learn
from the peasants." A new system of "revolutionary committees" was
instituted, consisting of three roughly equal parts, the PLA, the
revolutionary masses, and the revolutionary cadres; all these groups, it was
optimistically hoped, would work together to establish a more truly
revolutionary society.

But though a second generation of purges had dismissed both Liu Shaoqi and
Deng Xiaoping from all their offices, and Liu Shaoqi was humiliated and left
to die from diabetes and related problems without any medical help, China
endured several years of near anarchy between 1968 and 1970, with the
campaign to "cleanse class ranks" being the single most violent focus of
confrontations between the army and the local power structures. Indeed for
several years of hell for the Chinese people, it appeared that Mao had
simply replaced the power of his "revisionist capitalist-roaders" with the
organized muscle of his huge military establishment. (The top army commander
Lin Biao was officially named Mao's successor in October 1968.)

The year 1969 was dominated by fears of war with the Soviet Union, but as
that panic faded, Mao began to regret having allowed so much power to Lin
Biao, and in another tortuous set of purges and realignments he was able to
transfer certain key generals, and to gradually isolate Lin Biao. The turn
toward the United States in 1971 was a curious part of this story, and may
have been part of the trigger for the extraordinary events of the year, when
Lin Biao allegedly tried to assassinate Mao, only to die in a plane crash
with many of his family members after bungling the attempt. In 1973, Mao
summoned Deng Xiaoping back from limbo, and began to rethink the nature of
the main tasks now confronting the allegedly purified Party. The task was
uncompleted when Mao died in 1976.


How can we estimate the actual scale of these years of chaos and violence?
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals take their start from an important estimate of
the casualties of the movement by two scholars in 2003. That study was based
on evaluations of over 1,500 local county gazetteers compiled in the PRC
during the 1980s and 1990s after the Cultural Revolution was over, and
concluded that in the Chinese countryside alone-not counting any of the
major urban areas-and restricting the inquiry to the period between 1966 and
1971, when figures seem to have been fairly reliable, 36 million Chinese in
those five years suffered some form of "persecution," often repeatedly. Of
that total, again just in the rural areas, between 750,000 and 1.5 million
people were killed, and "roughly equal numbers permanently injured." The
study's authors add that in their opinion "the vast majority of casualties
were not the result of rampaging Red Guards or even of armed combat between
mass organizations competing for power. Instead, they appear to have been
the result of organized action by new organs of political and military
power."[4] If the urban centers of China could be studied through similar
sources, the estimated figures would of course be immensely greater, though
by how large a factor is hard to say.

Drawing on a broad range of recently available sources, MacFarquhar and
Schoenhals give further estimates that amplify the question of scale. Though
episodic and fragmentary, the figures nevertheless paint a terrible picture.
In Inner Mongolia, for example, just during a search for
counterrevolutionary scapegoats during the year 1968, 790,000 people were
"put in prison, criticized, struggled, isolated, and investigated." Of
these, 22,900 died, and 120,000 were "maimed." In eastern Hebei province,
the region closest to Beijing, over 84,000 people were interrogated in the
attempt to find links to an alleged underground KMT nationalist party
espionage network: 2,995 died during interrogation, and 763 were permanently
disabled. In the southwest border province of Yunnan, during the "campaign
to cleanse class ranks" of August 1969, 448,000 people were "targeted" for
interrogation, of whom 6,979 died. The cause of death in these Yunnan cases
is given cryptically as "enforced suicide."

During the Beijing "cleansing class ranks campaign," spanning the year 1968
and the first part of 1969, the death toll is given as 3,731. Again, most of
the deaths were ascribed to "suicide." In the coastal province of Zhejiang,
with unusual directness, the 9,198 fatalities are described as having been
"hounded to death." For the southern province of Guangxi, perhaps China's
poorest region, came reports of over 3,000 people buried in mass graves, and
several incidents of ritualized cannibalism.

This entire story seems unreal now, misted over by time's passage, seemingly
irrelevant to New China's current concerns. Yet all China's current leaders
were in their early twenties or their teens during this time, and they would
not be human if the scars did not run deep. It is both correct and touching
that MacFarquhar and Schoenhals should dedicate their deeply researched and
poignant book to two groups of the Chinese people, first to those who have
"enlightened" the two authors with their "works and words on the Cultural
Revolution," and second to "the future generations of Chinese historians,
who may be able to research and write on these events with greater freedom."
There is, indeed, much still to be explained and explored.

A few months ago I made a visit to the former factory area in northeast
Beijing, known as Dashanzi, long abandoned by failing industries, and now
converted into sprawling studio and exhibition spaces for China's new
artists. Prompted by some impulse to look upward, I could see that, in bold
but now faded characters, there were two matching passages of calligraphy
written along the vaulted brick ceiling. "Chairman Mao is the Red, Red Sun
in our Hearts," declared one. "Chairman Mao, Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand
Years," responded the other. Hard to remember, in such a setting, how deadly
those words were, not so long ago.

[1] Michael Schoenhals pioneered Western research on this topic. See his
essay "The Central Case Examination Group, 1966-79," The China Quarterly,
No. 145 (March 1996), pp. 87-111.

[2] Bian Zhongyun's grim story is reconstructed in careful detail by Wang
Youqin in her Wenge shounanzhe (English title Victims of the Cultural
Revolution: An Investigative Account of Persecution, Imprisonment and
Murder) (Hong Kong: Kaifang Zazhi, 2004), pp. 2-24, with an introduction (in
Chinese) by Roderick MacFarquhar. A photo of Bian and her family in happier
times is on the prefatory page 23. Wang's absorbing study marshals an
immense amount of data on 675 victims of the Cultural Revolution, of all
ages up to seventy-six, many of whom were beaten to death or committed
suicide. Wang's meticulous indices also list the victims by city, province,
and school.

[3] Rae Yang, Spider Eaters (University of California Press, 1997), p. 138.

[4] Andrew G. Walder and Yang Su, "The Cultural Revolution in the
Countryside: Scope, Timing and Human Impact," The China Quarterly, No. 173
(March 2003), pp. 74-99.