In 1956, two historic events occurred in the Communist world - one well known, the other, less so. First, in February, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita S. Krushchev denounced his predecessor as General Secretary, the deceased Josef Stalin, and exposed the purges and executions carried out during his rule. This had its fallout in neighbouring China, weakening the control of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, who had been modelling himself after Stalin.
Next, in September, at the eighth party congress of the Chinese Communist Party, all references to Mao's thoughts were deleted from the party constitution. This dilution of authority, Frank Dikötter maintains in his latest book, was the key trigger which prompted Mao to launch the series of 'revolutions' that followed - the Hundred Flowers Bloom, the Great Leap Forward and finally the Cultural Revolution - in a bid to regain control. The failure of each one led to the next.
The 'cultural revolution' was ostensibly aimed at re-establishing 'true' communism, purging the party of the remnants of bourgeois behaviour and thinking that Mao claimed still stuck to it. As is well known, the effort soon degenerated into rank bullying, violence, conspiracies and vindictiveness. At the time, however, it had a very different impact, sending positive reverberations across the Communist world, which, following de-Stalinisation, had increasingly begun to look at China rather than the USSR, as the epicentre of their movement. Even rebels in Africa and the Communist Party in India sought to anchor their own movements to China's. But Dikötter's book is a crucial reminder of the tragedies, miscalculations and human costs of what turned out to be Mao's last experiment.
Mao died in September 1976. By 1981, the Chinese Communist Party had disowned the Cultural Revolution, passing a resolution which while still acclaiming Mao as a pioneering genius, condemned this particular 'revolution' as an error for whose horrors the 'Gang of Four' - Mao's wife Jiang Qing and her three closest aides - were mainly responsible. In the 35 years since then, many books have analysed this great upheaval in China's history, including monumental works like Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals.
The period has also seen acclaimed fiction by Chinese authors like Mo Yan, Tie Ning and Yu Hua, which minutely describes the sufferings ordinary people underwent as a result. Dikötter's book adds to the literature by drawing material from Chinese Communist Party archives, which has only become available in recent years.
The Cultural Revolution: A People's History is the final volume of Dikötter's trilogy of the Mao Zedong era, after Mao's Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation. A professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, he is the author of 10 books on China. This latest one traces in shocking detail the turbulence of the times, during which no one was secure. Bourgeois decadence, which the cultural revolution sought to eradicate, included long hair, narrow trouser legs, high heels, flower shops, libraries, paintings, musical instruments, and even pets, especially cats - all of which were sought to be ruthlessly eliminated.
The book confirms, with lengthy archival and personal testimonies, the horrors perpetrated by the group of young people called the Red Guards and sundry other groups such as the Red Flags, the East Wind, and more, who took their cue from Mao's exhortation: 'to rebel is justified'. Known as 'Mao's little generals,' they attacked their teachers and local administrators, in some cases even beating their school principals to death.
The role of Lin Biao, the supreme military leader at the time, and Mao's principal cheerleader, is documented at length, especially his speech on August 18, 1966, exhorting young people to go forth and destroy old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes. In the 50 years since then, many of former Red Guard members have publicly apologised and repented their actions.
Top party leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who had developed differences with Mao during his great leap forward phase were also punished and humiliated. Even Premier Zhou Enlai was not spared. Liu died in prison in 1969, and was cremated 'in great secrecy', his demise never publicly acknowledged during Mao's lifetime. (He was finally rehabilitated more than a decade after his death.) His position of President of China remained vacant till 1983, when Li Xiannian took over. Lin Biao died in an air crash, apparently after a failed coup. Deng, of course, survived to return to power and transform China by dumping Maoism, even as he kept paying lip service to it.
In the last decade, Dikötter's books have firmly established his global reputation as the finest historian of modern China, with a niche position similar to that of William Dalrymple on the medieval history of South Asia. This book only confirms his erudition and understanding.
It is a must read for those who want to know more about the mysterious world of China's Communism. ~