Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Revolution in Modern China

Unlike the French, American, or Bolshevik revolutions, the Chinese Communist Revolution spanned nearly 3 generations. It is difficult to pin an exact date on the movement’s beginnings, but it is often considered to be with the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. Yet, although the party had been formally established, it developed very little inertia until Mao Zedong led the “Long March” to Yen’an in 1934-35. A formal ending to the revolution is also hard to exact, yet may be placed in the 1970s with the death of Mao and the arrest of the “Gang of Four.” But these dates, it must be understood, act as bookends to a series of revolutions rather than points of origin and termination to a single one. In that light, it cannot be argued that this was a single event, nor did it involve a single approach. It is this variance, the series of revolutions, which came to define modern China, and it is also because of this episodic recurrence that rifts were driven between the varying generations experiencing them.

As mentioned above, the CCP found its initial power in Yen’an. It is also here that we see the making of Mao Zedong and the formation of his revolutionary philosophy, the so-called Yen’an Way that became the ethos of Revolution until the 1980s. Mark Selden defined its principles in his book The Yen’an Way in Revolutionary China as: First, reliance on the innate creativity of people; second, rejection of domination of a technical elite; third, conception of human nature as able to transcend social and environmental obstacles; and finally, cooperation and community approach. Decentralization and self-reliance.

These principles represent in many ways the idealistic education of the first generation of the CCP. They were a colorful bunch, an amalgamation of individuals of varying age and level in the traditional society. In his book Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow wrote of that early cross-cultural cooperation, giving the greater world their first look at the Chinese Communist. His portrayal of Mao and his followers is largely positive, and of the youth involvement he wrote: “Altogether, the ‘little devils’ were one thing in Red China with which it was hard to find anything seriously wrong…I suspected that more than once an older man, looking at them, forgot his pessimism and was heartened to think that he was fighting for the future of lads like those.” (1)

Snow’s work in Yen’an gives a rare glimpse into how the CCP was molded into the party of the people, and how party loyalty began to trump traditional Confucian ideals which placed family allegiance at the heart of society. But this transformation of duty would have very powerful repercussions after liberation (specifically 1949-1976), and would make the early “idealism” expressed by Snow appear a superlative adventure, a once pipe dream.

The CCP succeeded in political unification of China, but that was only the beginning of their task of building a society, of gaining the trust of the hearts and minds of everyone. Indeed, most of the country post-unification was not communist. What was needed was social and economic change, a shift in allegiance, to bring true unification.

The original impetus for this was found in Yen’an, when Mao and the Party leaders demanded a forced re-education for those joining the cause. They forced on new comrades a shift of consciousness, a kind of mild brainwashing to a new way of thinking. As illustrated in the above quote, the focus was not on the future of ones progeny, but the revolution, the party. The Yen’an Way may have appeared eager and enlightened in the beginning, but post 1949 it destroyed millions of family’s through an escalating need for party commitment. One of the few critical first hand descriptions of this post liberation period would come to be expressed brilliantly in Liang Heng’s account of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), titled Son of the Revolution.

At an early age, Liang’s family was fractured by an anti-rightist sweep disguised as the Hundred Flowers Movement. In Liang’s own words, “its official purpose was to give the Party a chance to correct its shortcomings by listening to the masses’ criticisms…but then, with confusing rapidity, the “Hundred Flowers Movement” changed into the “Anti-Rightist Movement.” (2) Liang expresses what many more must have been thinking, that the original movement was disguised to trap the Rightists (supposed economic and intellectual liberals, capitalists, entrenched bourgeoisie, etc) throughout the Party. Many came forward and expressed their opinions, and many of those were caught and sent away into the countryside to live among the peasants in forced re-education programs. Liang’s mother was one of them. Liang describes his father’s reaction: “Father’s traditional Confucian sense of family obligation told him to support Mother while his political allegiance told him to condemn her. He believed that [to condemn her] was the only course that could save the family from ruin.” (3)

For young Liang, being raised “in the shade of the revolution” presented a confusing set of circumstances. His was a new, unproven generation, schooled in the history and propaganda but as yet unable to assist. They were overzealous to help and make something of themselves, to prove their worth to those who came before them. The fuel for the Cultural Revolution came, in a sense, from these kids, from various student factions who were following commands from head leaders of the People’s Liberation Army, determined to make the “PLA a centerpiece of cultural change. These factional fires were fueled by the anger of students frustrated over policies that kept them off the paths of political advancement because the students had the ill fortune to be born to parents who had had connections with the Guomindang, the landlords, or the capitalist “exploiters” of the old regime and were therefore classified as “bad” elements by the CCP…there were as well millions of disgruntled urban youths who had been relocated to the countryside during the party campaigns of earlier years…there were those, within the largest cities, who were denied access to the tiny number of elite schools that had become, in effect, “prep schools” for the children of influential party cadres." (4)

These students were the outcome of years of revolution, of social upheaval and a vast reworking of class and norms. They were the logical conclusion to their preceding generation, simply adopting the prevailing ethos. But in their case, where revolution and war was the dominant paradigm, the absence of an external enemy would force war upon itself. In the course of only a few decades, thousands of years of Chinese culture was challenged, with its terminal point being the PLA’s attempt to erase that history in the Cultural Revolution. It was an attempt to turn siblings into comrades and Party leaders into parents, to erase any memory of Confucian morality or cultural proclivity, to destroy the native instinct of the Chinese heart.

The forced re-education programs, often bordering on religious conversion, took Liang’s family, especially his father, through recurring bouts of self-doubt and self-flagellation. Intellectuals, represented in Son of the Revolution by Liang Shan (the father), the consummate writer and thinker, were forced into the countryside because terror of judgment within the party became too great. Others throughout traditional society, monks especially (5), were brought into a parallel world with the party line by much the same method; during the Cultural Revolution, none were free from the Little Red Book. An account by Liang during a bus ride through the countryside illustrates the point emphatically. Upon stopping for a moment in the town of Xiangxiang, they encounter a monk who is being harassed by a gang of kids. “He was kneeling and beating a gong before a broken stone tablet on which I guessed was inscribed the history of the temple or some Buddhist scripture…as he beat the gong, he chanted, “I have tricked the people, I should be punished,” and Buddhism is a lie, only Marxism-Leninism-Chairman Mao Thought is the truth.” (6)

This, it can be surmised, is a far cry from the original positive idealism of the Yen’an Way. Revolution had devolved into an inquisition under the guise of controlled criticism, where exile led to redemption and paranoia to stronger party loyalty. Snow’s account of revolution in the 1930s and Liang’s in the '60s presents a stark contrast to the ways and means employed to achieve intellectual and cultural unity. The countryside and peasantry, the great savior of the CCP and modern China, was used to bring equilibrium to a class-based society, but ended up becoming an instrument rather than an ideal. “’How could Chairman Mao say that the countryside was a great land where we Educated Youths would have glorious successes?’ Liang Wei-ping wondered. “I’m only afraid that when I go back I’ll be sucked into that terrifying whirlpool once again.” (7) The three decades following the establishment of the PRC brought unity and nationalism to China, but one has to wonder at what cost.


  1. Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China. New York: Grove Press, 1961. p 327
  2. Heng, Liang. Shapiro, Judith, Son of the Revolution. New York: First Vintage, 1984. p. 8
  3. Ibid, p 9
  4. Spence, Jonathan D., The Search For Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. p 604
  5. While attending a retreat at a Chinese Buddhist monastery, I had a chance to speak with a senior monk who had escaped the Cultural Revolution and fled to Taiwan, and then on to America. He shared with me a story of watching his uncle (also a monk) be torn apart by four kids (presumably Red Guards) on horses. They tied ropes to each of his appendages, with the other sides of the rope to their horses. It remained his most vivid memory of the revolution.
  6. Heng, Liang. Shapiro, Judith, Son of the Revolution. New York: First Vintage, 1984. p
  7. Ibid, p 200
D. Reese Zollinger, 2007
(fair use of above material)

1 comment:

Shari Zollinger said...

Interesting. I have never heard that story about the monk. Seems China is in the spotlight once again. I remember when I was going to be a star China scholar I talked to Jonathan Spence on the phone. Is he still the star of Chinese Historical scholarship? I used my Chinese last night at an amazing Szchwan restaurant. I also ate the most exquisite fish and crab.