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Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China


Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China
Commentaries on Mao’s Last Revolution and a
Reply by the Authors

One of the most important and tragic events in the latter half of the twentieth
century—an event that both inºuenced and was inºuenced by the Cold
War—was the Greater Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, inspired by
Mao Zedong. The Cultural Revolution, starting in 1966 and continuing un-
til Mao’s death in 1976, reached its height from October 1966 through the
ªrst few months of 1969, at the very time that a Sino-Soviet military confron-
tation was brewing. The Cultural Revolution was aimed at destroying much
of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), an entity that Mao had periodically
scaled back through ruthless purges, and was also targeted against anyone sus-
pected of being an “intellectual.” In 1967 the so-called Cultural Revolution
Authority (headed by Mao, Jiang Qing, and Lin Biao) set up a Revolutionary
Committee in Shanghai, which launched a chaotic wave of terror across
China. High-ranking ofªcials were subjected to public denunciations, ritual
humiliation, and severe physical abuse, and the same practices were replicated
at all levels of Chinese society, with a good deal of local initiative. An im-
mense number of people were tortured and killed.
Despite the closed nature of Chinese society, horriªc accounts of cruelty
and violence made their way out of China, and ofªcial broadcasts of public
denunciations were widely available. Hence, the broad contours of the may-
hem and bloodshed that engulfed China during those years have long been
known. What has not been known until recently, however, is the precise na-
ture of Mao’s objectives, the balance between supervision from above and ini-
tiative from below, the interaction between central and local authorities, and
the radicalizing impact of events in localities on the highest leaders, especially
Mao. The proliferation of memoirs by those who lived through the Cultural
Revolution (whether as victims, perpetrators, or observers) and the ofªcial
publication of formerly secret CCP and government documents have enabled
scholars in both China and the West to ªll in at least some of the many gaps
in the historical record.
Journal of Cold War Studies
Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 97–130
© 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology


The most comprehensive and authoritative account of the Cultural Revo-

lution yet to appear, Mao’s Last Revolution, was recently published by The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. The two authors of the book,
Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, are among the world’s fore-
most experts on Chinese politics under Mao. Their book is so meticulous and
draws on such a wealth of sources that it is likely to remain the deªnitive work
for many years to come. Although Mao’s Last Revolution focuses primarily on
internal events and deals only brieºy with foreign policy issues, an outpouring
of recent scholarship by specialists on Chinese foreign relations has shown
that events within China and Mao’s domestic political goals had a crucial im-
pact on China’s external policies. Similarly, external developments could in
turn be exploited by Mao and others for their domestic purposes. Thus, Mao’s
Last Revolution will be essential reading for those who want to study and un-
derstand China’s role in the Cold War during these years.
Because of the importance of the book, the Journal of Cold War
Studies solicited commentaries on it from ªve distinguished scholars: Lynn
White, Steven I. Levine, Yafeng Xia, Joseph W. Esherick, and David E. Apter.
Their commentaries are published here, along with a reply by Roderick
MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals.

—Mark Kramer

Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge,

MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii ⫹ 693 pp. $35.00.

Commentary by Lynn White, Princeton University

This book is at once a major academic contribution and a page-turner/

thriller. It shows Mao Zedong in his old age as the master manipulator of Chi-
nese politics. The personalities of the story—Mao, Jiang Qing, Liu Shaoqi,
Peng Zhen, Zhou Enlai, and others—are shown here more vividly and with
better documentation than in any other publication on the Cultural Revolu-
tion (CR). The previous record in that respect was set by MacFarquhar in his
3-volume Origins of the Cultural Revolution, of which this book is in effect the
fourth volume.1

1. Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 1: Contradictions among the Peo-
ple, 1956–1957 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974); Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of
the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 2: The Great Leap Forward, 1958–1960 (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1983); and Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3: The Coming of
the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

Mao is shown here to be a nearly perfect Machiavellian prince, hiding his

intentions from those he chooses as enemies and lying to them until he can
spring traps on them. Clearly he enjoyed such ªghts. Any semblance of moral
principle in the effects of his actions was purely incidental. The book quotes a
characterization of Mao’s police operative, Kang Sheng, as “a man with a heart
of stone, who did not know how to cry.” The same could be said of Mao.
The information base on which the authors drew for this book is spectac-
ular. Contemporary reports from foreigners in China (Britons, Swedes, Amer-
icans, and others) are combined with a mass of Chinese documentation as
well as interviews to provide an unprecedented scaffold of facts. The endnotes
alone take 126 pages, and many refer to Chinese sources that have never been
previously cited in any language.
When Mao plotted against leaders as bright as Liu Shaoqi or Deng
Xiaoping, why were they so slow to “get it”? MacFarquhar and Schoenhals ac-
knowledge that the reason is “not that Mao had a strategy. Indeed, to have had
a strategy for the mass movement and its ‘general offensive’ would have con-
tradicted the basic premise . . . [that] the masses had to liberate themselves”
(p. 161). Yet Mao’s concern for “masses,” excepting young women, was highly
abstract. Ordinary citizens were separated from what went on behind the
vermillion walls of the Zhongnanhai section of the imperial palace, where
Communist Party leaders lived, plotted, and often imagined or waged vendet-
tas against each other.
It is unclear that Mao had as much foresight as the analysis here some-
times suggests. As the book says, the Chairman always played his cards close
to his chest. For example, his text in the May 1966 “Notiªcation” mentioned
“representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the Party. . . . Some
of them we have already seen through; others we have not. Some are still
trusted by us . . . persons like [Nikita] Khrushchev, for example, who are still
nestling beside us” (p. 47). Because Zhang Chunqiao a year later admitted
that he “did not fully anticipate that Liu Shaoqi” would be one of these “rep-
resentatives of the bourgeoisie,” perhaps Mao had just been trawling for
names. Whatever the case may be, the book makes clearer than any other how
much Mao enjoyed catching people.
Mao’s Last Revolution neither claims nor needs to claim to be deªnitive
about the CR. But the book will, for a long time to come, be the best one
available about the topic that its title speciªes. Very little happens in the book
outside the Chairman’s broad purview.
This trenchant court drama is somewhat difªcult to present alongside so-
ciological explanations of the reasons that struggles for political power became
so violent all over China, even in localities in which neither Mao nor his main


enemies or allies knew anyone well. The story of the book is vivid because its
Beijing men and their wives are so crisply depicted, but nothing essential in it
suggests why the rest of China was so markedly similar. The authors admit in
passing (p. 54) that “the process by which Mao translated high-level political
intrigue into mass mobilization remains one of the many obscure issues of the
Cultural Revolution.” Maybe so, but this issue is important. Without it, the
topic is just Mao’s last skullduggeries.
The clearest example of a central action that made China’s political pot
boil over was Lin Biao’s order to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): “Don’t
strike back if hit; don’t talk back if abused” (p. 62), which was joined with
similar orders to the police. These injunctions allowed resentment to fester in
public, spurring many big-character posters. Yet the book says little about the
reasons for such widespread anger at local Communist Party bosses. The form
of analysis that has never been better pursued than in this book tells more
about the CR’s timing than about its causes. Admittedly, fuel without a spark
makes no ªre.
Red Guards and news traveling from Beijing brought the CR gospel to
other places, but why was it so avidly received? Enthusiasts, especially from
secondary schools, mimicked the violence and then used it zealously. More
sociological analysis is required to explain why the Red Guards inspired so
many Chinese, scattered so widely, to behave so unusually. The “up to the
mountains, down to the villages” campaign of 1968 is treated as just an exten-
sion of smaller xiafang campaigns in the early 1960s, without sufªcient atten-
tion to the social backgrounds of youths who were “sent down” at these times
or their reactions to the experience (p. 252).
The book’s lengthy bibliography mentions articles that probe into these
issues, as well as books by authors such as Anita Chan, Stanley Rosen, and
Jonathan Unger—but not their joint seminal article on the social origins of
student Red Guards in Canton2 nor books by researchers such as Marc
Blecher and Gordon White about functional units (not to mention
psychologizers such as Richard Solomon or Robert Lifton). The CR is a capa-
cious problem. Despite material in the book from non-Beijing locations that
national leaders visited, this study evinces a strong concentration on a few
leaders in the capital, almost as if China were a small country.
Where local units such as schools or factories are discussed in the book,
they are mostly in Beijing. The authors write on p. 157 that “Mao’s ideal gov-
ernment was a small one.” They usually seem to follow the Chinese habit of
seeing provincial power as unimportant (which it is not). Ambiguities none-

2. Anita Chan, Stanley Rosen, and Jonathan Unger, “Students and Class Warfare: The Social Roots of
the Red Guard Conºict in Canton,” China Quarterly, No. 83 (Autumn 1980), pp. 397–446.

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

theless arise, for example in the case of Tao Zhu, whose demise Mao viewed
with insouciance: “By bringing Tao to the center,” the authors write, “Mao
separated a dynamic leader with high-level connections in the capital from his
power base” (p. 190), especially in Guangdong. An exception to the book’s
Beijing-centrism is its coverage of early 1968, when politics became conspicu-
ously turbulent in China’s large military regions.
Mao’s Last Revolution depends on judgments about actors’ motives that
are hard to document fully, even though MacFarquhar and Schoenhals do a
much better job in this regard than anyone else has. Was Mao’s aim, in recall-
ing Deng Xiaoping, in 1973 really “to restrain Zhou Enlai” (p. 358)? Perhaps,
but the book gives more evidence that Zhou, who by then was suffering from
serious bouts of angina and cancer, was totally faithful to Mao.
Another question of motive has been debated by various scholars: How
ambitious was Lin Biao? The assessment in Mao’s Last Revolution is somewhat
different from that in a previous analysis by MacFarquhar, as the current book
sensibly concedes (p. 335, n. 53). When a prince is as Machiavellian as Mao
was, the courtiers become equally scheming.
Was Zhou an exception to this rule? Lin’s demise gave more leeway to
Zhou, who is depicted here as having been devoid of any moral principles that
Mao’s least intimation did not trump. Zhou apparently acted to preserve gov-
ernmental order (not justice) only when Mao also wanted it. Zhou could be
as unsympathetic as his boss toward old comrades, unless Mao also wanted
them saved. The discussion on p. 103 is among many passages showing that
Mao “had no scruples about the taking of human life.” The level of detail that
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have unearthed about tense personal relations
among the dozen or so most powerful leaders of the CR era is unprecedented.
Textual and photographic evidence in the book highlights the extent to which
Mao and his henchmen arranged the physical torture of their previous com-
rades, only some of whom succeeded in committing suicide. Schoenhals’s
pathbreaking research on the Central Case Examination Group, chaired by
Zhou, is reinforced by new information in this book to revise Zhou’s general
image from mainly moderate to mainly lapdog.
Torture regularly elicited false confessions. Whole movements, such as
the “May 16 Conspiracy,” were conjured from such fantasies. Mao’s Last Revo-
lution offers the best analysis anywhere of the political degradation wrought
by the CR.
Sex, and resentment stirred by sex, ªgure surprisingly often in this ac-
count. Wang Dongxing (Mao’s bodyguard and bouncer and the closest equiv-
alent to an imperial eunuch that a people’s republic could muster) chose a
harem of attractive and politically reliable young women for the Chairman’s
service. Lin Biao’s wife, Ye Qun, is repeatedly described as having been “a


woman of easy virtue” in Yan’an days, and her resentment of this reputation
apparently fueled her important role in the early ouster of Mao’s chief of staff,
Luo Ruiqing, thus letting Mao more freely use the PLA to crush those within
the Communist Party whom he deemed disloyal. Many wives (Lin’s, Liu’s,
Deng’s, and of course Mao’s) ªgure more notably in this account of the CR
than in any other.
Speeches and notiªcations, often edited by Mao, were always important
even when vague. The dominant power of words, especially directives “emit-
ted from the Center” (Zhongfa), is an analytic premise here. To say that this
premise can be documented is a truism; documents are words. The same
premise underlies most discourse within China about political causation, but
it perhaps excessively downplays factors that are less subject to control by in-
tellectuals, such as unintended material situations (e.g., China’s size, or any
other factor not subject to change as quick as thought). Mao’s Last Revolution
is nicely dedicated to “all Chinese whose works and words have enlightened
us, and to future generations of Chinese historians.” There is nothing
deªnitive in this ªeld, and the authors are sensible to admit that. But this
book is as close to deªnitive as we will have for a long time.
The book will be translated and disseminated in China (no doubt on a
restricted basis at ªrst). It will be readily appreciated there, and among schol-
ars of China everywhere.
Chinese like to read about clever stratagems, and here Mao is much like
Cao Cao. But there is also a Chinese saying, “Lao budu Sanguo” (“Elders
shouldn’t read the Three Kingdoms”) because interest in traps and deceit may
well subvert respect and kindness for elders. Mao at the last was puerile. His
compatriots should read this book and see his impulse to betrayal.

✣ ✣ ✣

Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii ⫹ 693 pp. $35.00.

Commentary by Steven I. Levine, University of Montana

If the Cultural Revolution were a video game, it might seem so detached from
reality that even fantasy addicts would be hard-pressed to take it seriously.
Unfortunately, the joystick that Mao Zedong manipulated was the lever
of power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the results of the
Cultural Revolution, his all-too-real fantasy game, were chaos, destruction,
violent death, and cruelty on a scale fathomable only in the context of Chi-
nese history. This epic chronicle of the Cultural Revolution by Roderick

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, based primarily on a multitude of

Chinese published and unpublished sources and interviews, provides an unri-
valed historical narrative of a decade-long tragedy that was in some measure
the “watershed in the history of the People’s Republic of China” (p. 459). As
such, the book is a ªtting sequel to MacFarquhar’s magisterial three-volume
The Origins of the Cultural Revolution as well as to Schoenhals’s numerous and
valuable earlier contributions to the subject. The authors are well-matched
with respect to experience, angles of vision, and scholarly specialization, and
the result is a book that combines the minute dissection of elite-level political
maneuvering with a vivid sense of the terrible effects of the Cultural Revolu-
tion on ordinary Chinese who became the targets and the victims of Mao’s
quixotic attempt to save “his” revolution from the supposedly baneful effects
of Soviet-style revisionism.
Like any good book, this one raises as many questions as it answers. Its
contribution lies in its rich detail and the skill with which the authors unravel
the tangled skein of Mao’s complex maneuvering and plot the cross-cutting
actions of a large cast of mostly unsavory characters in the upper reaches of
the CCP as well as in the Red Guard and other mass organizations spawned
by the Cultural Revolution. Yet, the grand narrative does little to change our
overall understanding of the contours of the “last revolution” and offers little
in the way of interpretation except at the micro level.
At the heart of the book is Mao Zedong himself. With the exception of
Lee Feigon’s contrarian and unpersuasive attempt to redeem Mao’s reputation
and Philip Short’s surprisingly uncritical biography that focuses on Mao’s
path to the Forbidden City rather than how he exercised power, the Great
Helmsman’s stock has not fared well recently.3 The present book can only
further depreciate the value of that stock. The authors amply demonstrate the
arbitrary, cynical, and wholly self-serving manner in which Mao exercised his
power. If the traditional legitimacy of Chinese emperors came from the
Mandate of Heaven (tian ming), one might conclude on the basis of Mao’s
twenty-seven years in power that his was the Mandate of Hell (diyu ming).
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals appear to take at face value Mao’s self-
proclaimed motive for launching the Cultural Revolution, namely, to eradi-
cate “revisionism” and restore the revolutionary purity that supposedly had
been lost during seventeen years of bureaucratic socialism. They argue that
“the Cultural Revolution had always been about the rearing of revolutionary
successors” (p. 356) and cite Mao’s initial patronage of radical extremists like
Nie Yuanzi and Kuai Dafu and Mao’s reliance on mediocrities like Wang

3. Lee Feigon, Mao: A Reinterpretation (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002); and Philip Short, Mao: A Life
(New York: Henry Holt, 2000).


Hongwen and Hua Guofeng as examples of his persistent concern to nurture

revolutionary successors. The authors do not probe beneath the surface
of what Mao understood by “revisionism” and assume that his antipathy to
Soviet-style socialism is self-explanatory. They depict Mao as a victim of his
own self-delusion until 27 July 1968, when Tsinghua University students
ªred on a work team Mao had ordered onto campus to put an end to factional
warfare. “For Mao,” MacFarquhar and Schoenhals write, this event marked
“the end of an illusion that if ‘revisionist’ party leaders could be swept aside
and [Mao] could speak directly to the people, they would unfailingly follow
him. The hearts and minds of his revolutionary successors . . . were not auto-
matically synchronized with his own as he had hoped” (p. 250). Such a for-
mulation tacitly accepts the notion that Mao in essence was an authentic pop-
ulist whose attempt to liberate the revolutionary fervor and creativity of “the
masses” had gone awry rather than seeing him as an utterly ruthless master
manipulator of his comrades, his ministers, his generals, his intimates, and the
Chinese people in the interest of maximizing his own untrammeled power.
After all, what did Mao do with his power? Did he create a just, prosperous,
and powerful state that beneªted “the masses” in whose name the revolution
had been fought? Hardly. Over the course of decades, the early idealism of the
youth from Shaoshan had transmogriªed into the insatiable power lust of a
leader for whom revolution was an abstraction that had meaning only for
himself, not for the lives of the hundreds of millions of Chinese for whom he
cared not a ªg. As Robert J. Lifton suggested in 1968, the aging Mao was con-
cerned about “revolutionary immortality,” but the deaths of millions of real
people meant nothing to him compared to the abstract death of his abstract
idea of revolution. Mao inverted reality, preferring symbols to real life be-
cause, apart from the squalid details of his personal life, revealed by one of his
doctors, Li Zhisui,4 he dwelt in a symbolic universe in which people could be
moved about like pieces on a board game.
What really bothered Mao was not the rise of what Milovan Djilas
termed a “new class” (of which Mao himself, of course, was the chief exem-
plar), a class consisting mostly of privileged Communist bureaucrats in the
form of the nomenklatura, but the emergence of real or imagined threats to his
own untrammeled authority from whatever point on the political compass
such threats might come. Mao constantly pitted individual leaders and fac-
tions against one another and manipulated his comrades with the dexterity of
a Chinese puppet master. He elevated Lin Biao and the People’s Liberation
Army (PLA) to the top of the heap, only to dash them to the ground soon af-

4. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician, trans. by Tai
Hung-Chao (New York: Random House, 1994).

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

ter. (The treatment in Mao’s Last Revolution of the Lin Biao affair is rather
sketchy, inconclusive, and less satisfactory than the masterful analysis of nu-
merous other episodes.) After the Lin Biao affair, Mao recalled Deng
Xiaoping in 1973 to avoid “a backlash among PLA generals” (p. 358) and re-
strain Zhou Enlai. But did Zhou really pose a threat to Mao? That hardly
seems credible unless Mao completely misread the man whom Li Zhisui re-
ferred to accurately as “Mao’s slave.”
Zhou’s reputation, at least in most Western historiography, is still as over-
valued as Enron stock before its collapse. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals cast
Zhou in his accustomed role of Mr. Moderate, who struggled to hold the
party, the state apparatus, and the military together amid mounting chaos,
and who did what he could to blunt the worst of Mao’s excesses. But the re-
cord shows that Zhou’s actual accomplishments amounted to very little.
Moreover, during the latter half of the Cultural Revolution, he was busy man-
aging the opening to the United States while dying of cancer. Instead of
understanding Zhou as a lone voice of sanity in the lunatic asylum of China
during the Cultural Revolution, we should, in the language of addiction, view
him as an enabler or facilitator who made it possible for Mao to act out his
murderous fantasies in the certainty that Zhou could be counted on to keep
things from falling totally apart. Even so, Mao distrusted Zhou and sought to
hold him in check. When a man cannot trust his dog, the depth of his para-
noia is self-evident. Zhou had been slavishly loyal to Mao, following every
twist and turn in the Chairman’s labyrinth, a one-man act holding China to-
gether. Rather than being like a boy with his ªnger in the dike, he was more
like a hundred-armed Buddha.
The Cultural Revolution undoubtedly went deeply against the grain of
an urbane and cultured Communist aristocrat like Zhou, yet throughout
this time he showed himself to be a supreme opportunist, perhaps the most
pathetic of the coterie of sycophants who clung to Mao like remoras on a
shark. Among the handful of top leaders, Zhou alone, the indispensable man
with a reputation and authority second only to Mao’s, might conceivably have
been able to dissuade Mao from his folly or at least might have been able to
mobilize the party old guard and the marshals to strangle the Cultural Revo-
lution in its cradle. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals only lightly touch on this
The coup d’état that saw the arrest of the Gang of Four on 6 October
1976, nine months after Zhou’s death and four weeks after Mao’s, might have
been attempted ten years earlier had Zhou been a man of sterner stuff. In that
case, Mao and Jiang Qing might have suffered the fate of the Guangxu Em-
peror at the hands of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi following the aborted 1898
reforms and become prisoners of the palace or even of the dread Qincheng


Prison. Certainly, China would have been better off if a real military coup had
been carried out in 1966 by the old marshals. Such a venture would have had
to proceed without the support of Lin Biao, a consummate toady doubly
twisted by illness and ambition. Instead, Zhou viciously attacked men who
had been his closest associates including Ye Jianying, Chen Yi, and Zhu De.
One wonders what Mao really thought of this man on whom he depended so
heavily, a man who serviced the state with the suppleness and lubricity of the
women who serviced Mao’s bed. If Zhou was not Mao’s slave, he was in effect
his court eunuch.
In the end, of course, it was Deng Xiaoping who turned out to be Mao’s
posthumous nemesis, much as the Cultural Revolution radicals had indeed
predicted. The Great Helmsman, who knew only how to steer onto the rocks,
spared Deng the fate of Liu Shaoqi, who died an excruciating death unat-
tended in Kaifeng. Mao needed Deng to hold things together while Zhou lay
dying. Like Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, Deng, too, was the survivor
of a wreck. Unlike Ishmael, who merely lived to tell the tale, Deng rewrote the
script of Chinese history just enough to liberate the Chinese people from the
tyranny of Mao’s utopian Leninism but not enough to allow them to choose
freely their path to the future. Unhappily, the authors’ verdict that the Cul-
tural Revolution was “truly the last stand of Chinese conservatism,” a ªnal ef-
fort “to perpetuate a distinctly Chinese essence in the modern world,” seems
premature at best, although we may all be fairly certain that there will never
be another Mao.
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals argue that the Cultural Revolution was a
watershed in the history of the PRC, but was it also an aberration? I think
not. The Cultural Revolution was the distilled essence of the politics of the
Maoist era. Moreover, it lasted a full decade, more than one-third of the pe-
riod of Mao’s rule. None of its features were new. Vicious intra-party purges
of both high- and low-ranking cadres accompanied by intense psychological
pressure and torture were part of the standard operating procedure of Mao
and the CCP from at least the late 1920s. The same was true of the mobiliza-
tion of the masses or, perhaps more accurately, the unleashing of the dregs
of Chinese society in an atmosphere that not merely permitted but rewarded
violence, cruelty, and attacks on culture that exceeded any of the crimes of the
Taliban in Afghanistan.
One wonders whether a more dysfunctional political system than that of
China under the Great Helmsman has ever existed. The CCP Politburo
and the Politburo Standing Committee increasingly came to resemble an in-
stitution for aged criminals or the criminally insane. The authors’ struggle to
delineate the logic of Mao’s contradictory behavior—for example, his simulta-
neous support of rival factions—founders on the supposition that rationality

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

underlay his actions. Why did Mao’s colleagues, not just the timorous Zhou
Enlai, succumb so easily to his will? MacFarquhar and Schoenhals refer to
“the fear and pusillanimity that gripped Mao’s colleagues, transªxed like rab-
bits in front of a cobra” (p. 458). But this misses the point. These men and
women were not merely pusillanimous. They were also complicitous in his
crimes. These were not rabbits, but sharks in a feeding frenzy, feeding on their
wounded and bleeding comrades. One looks in vain for a hero in this story.
Among the top leaders, only Peng Zhen, a member of the Politburo Standing
Committee and mayor of Beijing, who was an early victim of the Cultural
Revolution, acted honorably and sought to protect his subordinates. These
were not Greek heroes, good men and women with a single tragic ºaw; they
are empowered gangsters, villains one and all, who mouth revolutionary slo-
gans and feign devotion to the ideals of socialism. Meanwhile, in the lower
depths, the Red Guards and other lumpen elements engaged in what was a
politicized and at least partly condoned form of gang warfare not unlike that
between the Bloods and the Crips on the streets of Los Angeles with the stakes
not dissimilar as well; namely, turf, prestige, and the power of life and death.
Contemporary Chinese who accuse Japan of historical amnesia and of
failing to confront the historical sins of their grandfathers should look in the
mirror and ponder the horrors that their own parents and grandparents
inºicted on each other in the name of their blind loyalty to the Great Teacher
and Great Helmsman. The terrible truth is that no foreign invader has
inºicted greater damage on the Chinese people and Chinese culture than the
Chinese have inºicted on themselves over the past 150 years. It is not some-
thing to take pride in. China would beneªt from the appointment of a Special
Historian Prosecutor who would not merely chronicle but also judge the lead-
ers responsible for the Cultural Revolution. Of course, this is really a task for a
future democratic China as a whole.
One hopes that someday Mao’s corpse, or whatever it is that lies on dis-
play in his mausoleum, will be removed from its position on the central axis
of power in Beijing and reinterred in his native village of Shaoshan, where
grandparents may frighten children into obedience with stories of his mon-
strosity. Then this ugly architectural monument to the megalomania, cruelty,
vanity, addiction to violence, and destructiveness of an arbitrary and capri-
cious leader whom too many Chinese and others mistook for a philosopher
king might be transformed into a museum commemorating the countless vic-
tims of his unhappy reign.

✣ ✣ ✣


Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii ⫹ 693 pages. $35.00.

Commentary by Yafeng Xia, Long Island University, Brooklyn

Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, the two leading experts in

the West on China’s Cultural Revolution (CR) from 1966 to 1976, have done
a great service in providing a masterly historical survey of the CR.
MacFarquhar, a Harvard historian and former member of the British Parlia-
ment, and Schoenhals, a Swedish expert on China, offer a full-length narra-
tive of the Cultural Revolution from its eve to the arrest of the Gang of Four
(including Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her close radical Shanghai al-
lies Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan) in October 1976,
a month after Mao’s death, marking the ofªcial end-date of the CR. Mao’s Last
Revolution is the ªrst grand synthesis of the history of the CR.
Academic study of the CR in China itself started in 1986 when Gao Gao
and Yan Jiaqi, who went into foreign exile from China after 1989, published
“Wenhua dageming” shinian shi, 1966–1976 (A History of the Ten-Year
“Great Cultural Revolution,” 1966–1976). Relying mainly on ofªcial Chi-
nese sources, Gao and Yan argued that the CR was “the brainchild and crea-
ture of the Gang of Four and the Lin Biao clique.” In 1988, another major
work appeared, Da dongluande niandai (A Decade of Great Upheaval), by
Wang Nianyi. Nonetheless, the study of the CR remained a sensitive topic in
China, and all publications dealing with it were strictly censored. In 1996,
with the approval of the Central Committee apparatus of the Chinese Com-
munist Party (CCP), Xi Xuan and Jin Chunming published “Wenhua dage-
ming” jianshi (A Short History of the “Great Cultural Revolution”), a general
yet important study of the CR. But a truly comprehensive and full-length
narrative of the CR has yet to be published in Chinese.
In English, the literature on the Cultural Revolution is immense. One of
the best previous publications on this topic is Barbara Barnouin and Yu
Changgen, Ten Years of Turbulence: The Chinese Cultural Revolution (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1993). In an earlier trilogy, titled The Ori-
gins of the Cultural Revolution (and published serially in 1974, 1983, and
1997 by Columbia University Press), MacFarquhar thoroughly explored Chi-
nese high politics from 1956, when Mao started to cast doubt on the revolu-
tionary potential of the Soviet model, to the eve of the CR in 1966 when the
Chinese leader was busy removing “revisionists” from positions of power.
Drawing on a large array of Chinese sources that have become available
since the early 1980s, including ofªcial collections, selected writings of lead-
ers, documentary anthologies, personal memoirs, chronologies, and biogra-

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

phies, plus many previously untapped documents such as handwritten diaries,

privately published memoirs, Red Guard handbills, intra-party investigation
reports, handwritten confessions, personal notes of meetings and speeches,
and original mimeographs of party documents, this new book is likely to stan-
d as close as we can get to a deªnitive narrative of the CR.
The ªrst two-thirds of the book (chs. 2–17) recount the events from
1965 to 1969, the heyday of the CR. The 1965 campaign against the drama
Hai Rui Dismissed from Ofªce, written by Wu Han, a renowned historian and
vice mayor of Beijing, sparked the outbreak of the revolution. When Mao
started his assault on the bureaucracy he had set up since 1949, his real target
was Peng Zhen, a CCP Central Committee Politburo member and mayor of
Beijing. In May 1966, not only Peng Zhen but also the chief of staff of the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Luo Ruiqing; the head of the CCP Central
Propaganda Department, Lu Dingyi; and the head of the CCP General De-
partment, Yang Shangkun became the ªrst high-ranking victims of the CR.
The purge of the “Peng-Luo-Lu-Yang” clique inaugurated the ofªcial launch-
ing of the CR (p. 39). The ouster and persecution of countless minor ofªcials
followed. “Suicides became increasingly common” for those “who refused to
accept such fates” (p. 43). Mao had won his ªrst major campaign.
In phase two, Mao’s real target was the head of state, Liu Shaoqi, who was
Mao’s heir apparent. But even members of Mao’s inner circle were unaware of
his true intention in May 1966 when he denounced “persons like Khrush-
chev, for example, who are still nestling beside us” (p. 47). Mao was deter-
mined to create “great disorder under heaven” so that he could eventually
achieve “great order under heaven.” He “would manipulate a mass movement
at China’s educational institutions to unseat the head of state” (p. 52). With
Mao’s ofªcial endorsement of China’s ªrst Marxist-Leninist Big-Character
poster in early June 1966, chaos ensued throughout the PRC. The Red
Guards beat their teachers and superiors and smashed “the four olds” (old
ideas, old cultures, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes), and
worker “rebels” seized power in factories. Mao had to mobilize the PLA to
suppress factional ªghting. With the paralysis of the party apparatus and gov-
ernment bureaucracies, army-dominated “revolutionary committees” took
over the running of the country.
By July 1968 the glory days of the Red Guards were over. In the next few
years, millions of Red Guards and urban youth were sent to the countryside
(p. 251). At a CCP Central Committee plenum in October 1968, Liu Shaoqi
was formally labeled a “traitor, renegade, and scab,” expelled from the CCP,
and dismissed from all his other posts (p. 277). This phase culminated with
the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, when Lin Biao was designated Mao’s
“best student, comrade-in-arms, and chosen successor” (p. 291). Although


Mao had intended the Ninth Party Congress to be “the watershed, between
old and new, bad and good, pollution and purity, revisionism and revolu-
tion,” it did not work out that way. The Congress proved to be “a transitional
rather than a terminating event in histories of the Cultural Revolution”
(p. 285).
The second part of the book (chs. 18–25) covers events from the end of
the Ninth Party Congress to the ofªcial end of the CR. The focus of narration
is more on high politics than events in society. Mao became even more para-
noid during this period, and in August 1970, at the Second Plenum of the
Ninth Party Congress, he turned against Lin Biao and his followers over the
issue of who should succeed Liu Shaoqi as the President of the PRC. Lin, his
wife, and his son soon died in a mysterious plane crash while ºeeing to the
Soviet Union (p. 335). At this point, Mao apparently regarded his own wife,
Jiang Qing, and her Shanghai henchmen as his true ideological heirs. But he
knew that his radical supporters were not experienced in running the country.
In the wake of the Lin Biao incident, Mao chose to rehabilitate Deng
Xiaoping and other “capitalist roaders” whom he had previously discarded
during the CR (p. 339). In foreign policy, Mao also reversed his longstanding
anti-American orientation and achieved a rapprochement with the United
States in 1972.5
Mao was tormented between maintaining his image as a world revolu-
tionary leader and forming a tacit alliance with the United States, the “No. 1
imperialist power,” to offset the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. On
the one hand, Mao supported Zhou Enlai’s effort to improve relations with
the United States. On the other, he was ready to drop Zhou and make him a
scapegoat. This explains why Mao instigated the torture of Zhou at a Novem-
ber 1973 meeting of the CCP Politburo and in the 1974 “Criticize Lin, Criti-
cize Confucius” campaign (in which Confucius served as a proxy for Zhou).
Mao’s succession plan failed after his death. The radical leaders were too
arrogant to tolerate the old guard, and Deng Xiaoping was unwilling to com-
promise and form an alliance with the Gang of Four. In April 1976, barely
ªve months before the end of his life, Mao removed Deng once again and al-
lowed the Gang of Four to launch a series of political campaigns against other
leaders. Mao designated an ill-qualiªed new successor, Hua Guofeng. Less
than a month after Mao’s death, Hua, with the support of some members of
the old guard, arrested Mao’s wife and her radical colleagues. Hua himself was
able to rule China for only about two years until Deng Xiaoping emerged as
the paramount leader. In this phase of the CR, the aging Mao diluted military

5. On this shift, see Yafeng Xia, “China’s Elite Politics and Sino-American Rapprochement, January
1969–February 1972,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 3–28.

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

involvement in politics, got rid of Lin Biao, purged some military leaders, and
reinstalled some old guards in power. As MacFarquhar and Schoenhals note,
this phase marked “an ending [of the Cultural Revolution] so painfully drawn
out, so tortuously slow, that it would last more than twice as long as the event
it supposedly brought to a close” (p. 281).
Writing in 1986, Lucian Pye highlighted three key questions about the
Cultural Revolution.6 The ªrst of these was the causes and origins. Spe-
ciªcally, why did Mao decide to tear down what he had done so much to cre-
ate, and why did Chinese society as a whole react in such extreme ways to the
initiatives of a small group of leaders? The second question is how individuals
experienced the CR. The third is the impact of the CR on the major institu-
tions of Chinese society.
In discussing the causes and origins of the CR, scholars in China have ad-
vanced more than a dozen explanations, but no consensus has been reached.
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals offer two lines of interpretation. They claim,
ªrst, that Mao was motivated by revolutionary ideals and was disappointed
with the Soviet experiment, which he believed had created a privileged bu-
reaucratic class that abandoned revolutionary ideals. He therefore set out to
“smash the old culture,” “weed out capitalist roaders in the Party,” and create
a “new socialist man.” This explanation, however, is no longer convincing in
light of revelations over the past ten to ªfteen years about Mao’s extravagant
lifestyle: multiple villas, private trains, and a string of mistresses.
The second line of interpretation put forth by MacFarquhar and Schoen-
hals is that a power struggle was under way between Mao and Liu Shaoqi. But
this argument, too, is unconvincing. If a real struggle had existed, Mao could
simply have called a meeting to remove and arrest Liu Shaoqi, as he did with
the ultra-loyal Lin Biao.
A more plausible explanation for the origins of the CR pertains to Mao’s
concern about his earlier disastrous policies. Over the decades, the highest
CCP ofªcials such as Chen Duxiu and Wang Ming were held accountable for
serious mistakes, and their careers ended tragically. Mao knew that his Great
Leap Forward had inºicted catastrophic damage on the country. He thus re-
treated from the political frontline, leaving the main work to Liu Shaoqi,
Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. By the early 1960s, Mao sensed that his pres-
tige in the CCP was declining and that he was no longer revered by many of
his colleagues, including Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen. Thus, Mao worried that
he would be denounced by his colleagues after his death, much as Josif Stalin
was attacked posthumously in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev. Mao therefore set

6. Lucian W. Pye, “Reassessing the Cultural Revolution,” China Quarterly, No. 108 (December 1986),
pp. 597–612.


out to take drastic measures that would preempt any such action by his col-
leagues. He never wholeheartedly trusted Lin Biao and used Lin and the army
solely to defeat his civilian colleagues. Once that goal had been achieved, Mao
turned against Lin and sought to have Jiang Qing and her radical colleagues
installed along with his nephew Mao Yuanxin as his successors—an arrange-
ment that he believed would be the only guarantee of his legacy. Fortunately
for China, this plan was stillborn.
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have done a ªrst-rate job of assessing the
damage the CR did to all types of institutions: schools, universities, the CCP,
government ministries and bureaus, factories, and agricultural communes. In
reassessing the effects of the CR on individuals, the authors do a relatively
good job of incorporating a large collection of personal stories, interviews,
and memoirs of victims that have been published in the last 40 years. Disillu-
sioned Red Guards and people with “bad class” backgrounds made their sto-
ries known in the West as far back as the early 1970s.7 Over the last 25 years, a
plethora of memoirs from those who were involved in the CR have been pub-
lished in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Many of these memoirs
are not cited in Mao’s Last Revolution. To be sure, memoirs almost always are
self-serving and in some cases contain factual errors and personal biases.
Scholars must exercise caution, comparing and double-checking sources. But
the memoirs, if used circumspectly, can be an invaluable source.8 The recent
outpouring of memoirs can be grouped into the following categories:

(1) ofªcials who managed to stay in power and published their memoirs
with speciªc chapters on the CR, including Marshal Nie Rongzhen;
Marshal Xu Xiangqian9 (not cited in Mao’s Last Revolution); senior diplo-
mats such as Wu Xiuquan10 (not cited) and Geng Biao11 (not cited); the
senior economic ofªcial Xu Muqiao12 (not cited); and provincial leaders

7. For example, Ken Ling, Revenge of Heaven: From Schoolboy to “Little General” in Mao’s Army (New
York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972).
8. On the memoirs of the CR, see Chung Yen-Lin, “A Study on the Memoirs of the Cultural Revolu-
tion: The Characteristics and Historical Value,” Dongya yanjiu [East Asian Studies], Vol. 37, No. 1
(January 2006), pp. 134–159.
9. Xu Xiangqian, Lishi de huigu [Reviewing History] (Beijing: Jiefangjun Chubanshe, 1987).
10. Wu Xiuquan was deputy head of the CCP International Liaison Department on the eve of the
CR. See Wu Xiuquan, Wu Xiuquan jiangjun zishu [General Wu Xiuquan’s Personal Account]
(Shenyang: Liaoning Renmin Chubanshe, 1998).
11. Geng Biao was Chinese ambassador to Burma on the eve of the CR. See Geng Biao, Geng Biao
huiyilu: 1949–1992 [Memoirs of Geng Biao, 1949–1992] (Nanjing: Jiangsu Renmin Chubanshe,
12. Xu Muqiao was deputy director of the State Economy Commission. See Xu Muqiao, Xu Muqiao
huiyilu [Memoirs of Xu Muqiao] (Tianjin: Tianjin Renmin Chubanshe, 1996).

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

such as Jiang Weiqing13 (not cited), Zeng Sheng14 (not cited), and Yang
Yichen15 (not cited);
(2) Mao’s radical followers, such as Chen Boda (his son Chen Xiaonong
edited works on the father), Wang Li, Xu Jingxian, Nie Yuanzi, and
other beneªciaries of the CR such as Wang Dongxing, Wu De16 (not
cited), and Zhang Hanzhi (with books about her husband, Qiao Guan-
hua, who was vice foreign minister and then foreign minister during the
(3) prime victims, such as General Wan Yi17 (not cited), Liu Ying18 (not
cited), Xu Zhucheng19 (not cited), Qian Jiaju20 (not cited), and Ji Xian-
lin21 (not cited); as well as relatives of important leaders or victims such
as Zeng Zhi22 (not cited), Kang Keqing23 (not cited), Zhu Zhongli24 (not
cited), Deng Rong (Deng Xiaoping’s daughter), Luo Diandian (Luo
Ruiqing’s daughter), and Zhou Bingde25 (not cited);

13. Jiang Weiqing was ªrst party secretary of the Jiangsu provincial CCP committee. See Jiang
Weiqing, Qishinian zhengcheng: Jiang Weiqing huiyilu [Seventy-year Journey: Memoirs of Jiang
Weiqing] (Nanjing: Jiangsu Renmin Chubanshe, 1996).
14. Zeng Sheng was vice governor of Guangdong province. See Zeng Sheng, Zeng Sheng huiyilu
[Memoirs of Zeng Sheng] (Beijing: Jiefangjun Chubanshe, 1991).
15. Yang Yichen was vice governor of Helongjiang province. See Yang Yichen, Yang Yichen huiyilu
[Memoirs of Yang Yichen] (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 1996).
16. Wu De was a leader of Beijing from 1966 to 1976. See Zhu Yuanshi, Wu De koushu, shinian fengyu
jishi—Wo zai Beijing gongzuo de yixie jingli [Oral Account of Wu De, A Record of Ten Years of Wind
and Rain—My Work Experience in Beijing ] (Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo Chubanshe, 2004).
17. Wan Yi was deputy director of the State Science and Technology Commission for National De-
fense in the 1950s and was purged after the Lushan Conference in 1959. See Wan Yi, Wan Yi huiyilu
[Memoirs of Wan Yi] (Beijing: Zhonggong Dangshi Chubanshe, 1998).
18. Zhang Wentian was a top CCP leader in the 1930s and deputy foreign minister in the 1950s. He
was purged together with Marshal Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Conference in 1959. Liu Ying was
Zhang Wentian’s wife. See Liu Ying, Wo he Zhang Wentian mingyunyugong de licheng [Sharing the
Same Fate—The Life Journey of Zhang Wentian and I] (Beijing: Zhonggong Dangshi Chubanshe,
19. Xu Zhucheng was the creator of Wenhui bao [Wenhui Daily]. see Xu Zhucheng, Xu Zhucheng
huiyilu [Memoirs of Xu Zhucheng ] (Taibei: Shangwu Chubanshe, 1999).
20. Qian Jiaju was a noted economist. see Qian Jiaju, Cong zhuiqiu dao huanmie: Yige Zhongguo
jingjixuejia de zizhuan [From Pursuing to Disillusion: An Autobiography of a Chinese Economist]
(Taibei: Shidai Wenhua, 1993).
21. Ji Xianlin is a noted Beijing University professor. See Ji Xilin, Niupeng zayi [A Random Reºection
on Life at the Cowshed] (Beijing: Zhonggong Zhongyang Dangxiao Chubanshe, 1998).
22. Zeng Zhi was Tao Zhu’s wife. See, Zeng Zhi, Yige geming de xingcunzhe: Zeng Zhi huiyilu [A Survi-
vor of Revolution: Memoirs of Zheng Zhi] (Guangzhou: Guangdong Renmin Chubanshe, 1999).
23. Kang Keqing was Marshal Zhu De’s wife. See Kang Keqing, Kang Keqing huiyilu [Memoirs of
Kang Keqing] (Beijing: Jiefangjun Chubanshe, 1993).
24. Zhu Zhongli was Wang Jiaxiang’s wife. See Zhu Zhongli, Mao Zedong, Wang Jiaxiang zai wode
shenghuozhong [Mao Zedong and Wang Jiaxiang in My Life](Beijing: Zhonggong Zhongyang
Dangxiao Chubanshe, 1995).Wang Jiaxiang was the ªrst head of the CCP International Liaison De-
partment from 1951 to 1966.
25. Zhou Bingde is Zhou Enlai’s niece. See Zhou Bingde, Wo de bofu Zhou Enlai [My Uncle Zhou
Enlai] (Shenyang: Liaoning Renmin Chubanshe, 2001).


(4) those who worked for the leaders, including doctors such as Li Zhisui;
bodyguards such as Zhang Yaoci26 (noted cited) and Gao Zhenpu27 (not
cited); secretaries such as Lin Ke28 (not cited), Tong Xiaopeng29 (not
cited), Yang Yinlu (Jiang Qing’s secretary), Zhang Yunsheng (Lin Biao’s
secretary), and Zhang Tingdong (Ye Jianying’s secretary); interpreters
such as Ji Chaozhu30 (not cited); and photographers such as Du
Xiuxian31 (not cited).

Although MacFarquhar and Schoenhals should be commended for their

interpretations and their excellent mastery of Chinese sources, new materials
and publications have been coming out every year, and it will take time to de-
termine whether some of the authors’ interpretations will hold up. As is inevi-
table when dealing with subjects so complex, the reviewer is likely to ªnd
ºaws or points of disagreement. For example, the authors write that “when
Mao began his rise to supreme leadership from January 1935, Zhou recog-
nized that here ªnally was a man with the vision for the party and country
that he himself lacked” (pp. 10–11). But the latest evidence indicates that
Zhou came to realize this about Mao only after the Yan’an Rectiªcation Cam-
paign (1941–1943), when Zhou himself became a major target of the move-
ment. Prior to that, Zhou was still angling for position. He had teamed up
with Mao’s rival Wang Ming ªrst at the CCP Politburo meeting in December
1937 and then at the CCP’s Yangzi River Bureau in Wuhan in 1938, chal-
lenging the CCP Center in Yan’an, to Mao’s great irritation. Zhou would have
been expelled from the party had it not been for the leader of the Communist
International, Georgi Dimitrov, who sent a telegram on behalf of Zhou and
Wang Ming.32 Recently, Shaoguang Wang published an article about the

26. Zhang Yaoci was Mao Zedong’s bodyguard. See Zhang Yaoci, Zhang Yaoci huiyi Mao Zedong
[Zhang Yaoci Remembers Mao Zedong] (Xianggang: Sanlian Shudian, 1999).
27. Gao Zhengpu was Zhou Enlai’s bodyguard. See Gao Zhengpu, Zhou Enlai weishi huiyilu [Mem-
oirs of Zhou Enlai’s Bodyguard] (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2000).
28. Lin Ke was Mao’s secretary, Xu Tao was Mao’s physician, and Wu Xujun was Mao’s head nurse.
They published a book on Mao to try to rebut Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao. See Lin
Ke, Xu Tao, and Wu Xujun, Lishi de zhenshi—Mao Zedong shenbian gongzuo renyuan de zhengyan [Let
Historical Truth Be Told—Eyewitness Account of Mao’s Staff ] (Hong Kong: Liwen Chubanshe,
29. Tong Xiaopeng was Zhou Enlai’s secretary. See Tong Xiaopeng, Tong Xiaopeng huiyilu [Memoirs of
Tong Xiaopeng] (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 1996).
30. Ji Chaozhu was an interpreter for Mao and Zhou. See Ji Chaozhu, Cong “Yang wawa” dao
waijiaoguan: Ji Chaozhu koushushi [From Foreign “Doll” to a Diplomat: Ji Chaozhu Oral History]
(Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe, 2000).
31. Du Xiuxian was a photographer for the highest leaders. See Gu Baozi (articles) and Du Xiuxian
(photos), Hongjingtou: Zhongnanhai sheyingshi yanzhong de guoshi fengyun [Red Camera Lens: State
Affairs in the Eyes of Zhongnanhai Photographers] (Shenyang: Liaoning Renmin Chubanshe, 1998).
32. Gao Hua, Hongtaiyang shi zenyang shengqi de—Yan’an zhengfeng yundong de lailongqumai [How

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

Wuhan Incident of 20 July 1967 that provides a much clearer and more con-
vincing narrative and analysis of the incident than what we ªnd in Mao’s Last
Revolution (pp. 199–220).33
The authors’ claim that “the PRC was voted into the China seat on the
United Nations Security Council with U.S. support” on 25 October 1971 is
misleading (p. 347). The reality is more complex. It is true that the Nixon ad-
ministration had shifted its position toward China’s membership at the UN
from unconditional exclusion of the PRC to advocating dual membership for
both Taipei and Beijing starting in the fall of 1970. When Henry Kissinger
was in Beijing for a second visit in October 1971, the United Nations (UN)
General Assembly took up the matter. On 22 October the General Assembly
placed an Albanian resolution supporting PRC membership on the agenda
ahead of U.S. resolutions for dual representation. On 25 October, the Gen-
eral Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority to let Beijing have China’s
seat at the UN and expel Taiwan.
Also, the main reason that Mao launched his campaign to castigate Zhou
Enlai at an enlarged Politburo meeting in November 1973 was not the Tai-
wan issue as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals claim (p. 361). Instead, Mao
suspected that Zhou, during his latest talks with Kissinger, had discussed
Sino-American military cooperation and accepted U.S. nuclear protection in
the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Zhou was thus accused of “rightist
capitulationism.” On p. 380, the authors allege that “in June [1974] a team of
doctors had informed the Politburo that Mao had not much more than two
years to live.” This statement cannot be supported by available Chinese
sources. No one during the CR would have dared to say that Chairman Mao
had only two years to live. Apparently, the authors misinterpreted the source
they cited, which says that “in June 1974, the second medical team was set up
for Mao Zedong. . . . This medical team would exist for more than two years
until Mao’s death.” On p. 381, the authors note that “Deng [was] made a
CCP vice chairman, [Central Military Affairs Commission] vice chairman,
and PLA chief of staff, the ªrst civilian to be given the last post.” The descrip-
tion of Deng as a civilian is not fully accurate. He was one of the highest-
ranking political commissars in the Chinese Communist army from 1937 to
1952 and was also a leading member of the Central Military Affairs Commis-
sion of the CCP from 1952 to 1966. He was a politician with strong military
Finally, in a subsequent edition of the book, the authors should correct

Did the Red Sun Rise? A History of Yan’an Rectiªcation Campaign] (Hong Kong: The Chinese Uni-
versity of Hong Kong, 2000), pp. 136–153, 588–593.
33. See Shaoguang Wang, “The Wuhan Incident Revisited,” Chinese Historical Review, Vol. 13, No. 2
(Fall 2006), pp. 241–270.


some typographical errors and minor inaccuracies. The general who replaced
Chen Zaidao as the commander of the Wuhan Military Region was Zeng
Siyu, not Zeng Ziyu (pp. 213, 691). When Deng Xiaoping and his family
were in exile in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, they lived in a large two-story
building on the grounds of an old infantry school, not “a small apartment”
(p. 358). Luo Ruiqing’s military rank was a senior general (“Dajiang” in
Chinese, equivalent to a ªve-star general), not a marshal (“Yuanshuai” in Chi-
nese) (p. 471). The author of the article “The Background to the ‘Seizure of
Power’ in the Foreign Ministry” is Jin Ge, not Jin Xi (p. 628).
These caveats aside, the book will be of immense value for anyone inter-
ested in recent Chinese history.

✣ ✣ ✣

Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii ⫹ 693 pp. $35.00.

Commentary by Joseph W. Esherick, University of California, San Diego

Forty years after the outbreak of China’s Cultural Revolution, we now have an
authoritative history of this momentous upheaval, a volume that is certain to
remain the standard work on the subject for years to come. The authors come
to this project with unparalleled qualiªcations. Roderick MacFarquhar has
already published three volumes on The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (in
1974, 1983, and 1997), each one more detailed and compelling than the last.
Michael Schoenhals has been collecting Cultural Revolution material for de-
cades and brings to the project a remarkable command of rare sources and a
rare ability to read the hidden messages and human impact of Cultural Revo-
lution rhetoric. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals also represent a particularly
complementary pair for this project, the former focusing on elite politics, the
latter providing insight into how the Cultural Revolution affected ordinary
Most of the existing Anglophone scholarship on the Cultural Revolution
was written several decades ago, often relying on materials produced by Red
Guards and the radicals who dominated the propaganda apparatus until Mao
Zedong’s demise in 1976. This volume is able to combine original materials
from the Cultural Revolution decade with insider accounts from survivors
and victims of the movement who reemerged to tell their stories during and
after the Deng Xiaoping era. The 47-page bibliography at the back of Mao’s
Last Revolution reºects the extent of this new documentation—and also the
considerable effort by the authors and their home institutions (Harvard Uni-

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

versity and Lund University) to assemble it. One ªnds, for example, repeated
annotations in the form “Handwritten text. Available at the Fairbank Center
Library” or “Schoenhals collection.”
The new material and insights are presented here as a chronological nar-
rative of “Mao’s Last Revolution” beginning in 1965, essentially where
MacFarquhar ended his three volumes on The Origins. The strength of the ac-
count lies in the detailed yet judicious explication of the elite politics of the
era. Step by step we are led through Mao’s orchestration of the early stages of
the movement—working through his wife Jiang Qing and such henchmen as
Kang Sheng. The 1965 purge of the army chief of staff Luo Ruiqing, orches-
trated by Defense Minister Lin Biao and his wife, is presented as “the last
chance for [the Politburo Standing Committee] to act together to restrain the
Chairman before themselves being divided and denounced during the Cul-
tural Revolution” (p. 26). The next few years saw “confusion on campuses”
(ch. 3) sown by party leaders acting through family members and personal
connections; the explicit condoning of Red Guard violence by the minister of
public security, Xie Fuzhi; the dramatic shredding of the central government
so that by 1968 some 70 to 90 percent of the original cadres in central minis-
tries had been sent for reeducation at 7th of May Cadre Schools; the real
threat of civil war in a standoff between rival military factions in Wuhan;
the disbanding of the Red Guards; and the “cleansing of class ranks” carried
out in 1968 by the new revolutionary committees that were ultimately re-
sponsible for the greatest number of deaths in the provinces. This initial and
most chaotic phase of the Cultural Revolution came to an end with the Ninth
Party Congress in 1969, which installed a new group of Communist Party
Many would end a history of the Cultural Revolution at this point,
conªning their deªnition of the movement to the era of mass participation by
Red Guards and open factional ªghting on campuses and in some factories
and administrative units in large cities. But the focus in Mao’s Last Revolution
on elite politics makes the continuation of the narrative until Mao’s death in
1976 fully justiªed. The obscure dynamics of the fall of Lin Biao in 1971 are
a case in point. The initial division between Mao and Lin was manifested in a
debate over whether to restore the position of head of state, previously held by
the ousted President Liu Shaoqi. Mao expressed his opposition to the idea,
and MacFarquhar and Schoenhals interpret Lin’s support for it as a case of
“‘working toward the Chairman,’ the attempt by uncertain subordinates to
ºatter their leader by going beyond what the latter may have really wanted”
(p. 327).34 This was a pattern of politics in Mao’s court, and the book contains

34. This concept is modeled after Ian Kershaw’s notion of “working toward the Führer” in the Third


several other convincing examples. Mao, for his part, was anxious to use the
affair to limit the power of the People’s Liberation Army, another sign of his
consistent desire to maintain ªrm control of the military. This concern lay be-
hind the return of Deng Xiaoping and the progressive rehabilitation of old
cadres in the 1970s. In the end, the authors conclude, the failure of Mao’s
utopianism is what led to the dramatic reforms in China over the last thirty
years. As they put it, “no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform” (p. 3).
One of the hallmarks of all of MacFarquhar’s scholarship has been the
deft interweaving of domestic and international inºuences on Chinese (and
especially Mao’s) decision-making. The international dimension in this case
relates mostly to the Soviet Union. The abrupt removal of the Soviet Com-
munist Party leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1964 represented a dan-
gerous precedent for Mao, especially after an allegedly drunk Soviet defense
minister told the Chinese Marshal He Long, “We’ve already got rid of
Khrushchev; you ought to follow our example and get rid of Mao Zedong”
(p. 9). That the opening to Richard Nixon and the United States was predi-
cated on Chinese fears of the Soviet threat has long been evident, but MacFar-
quhar and Schoenhals provide new details about the ªghting along the Ussuri
River and show that concern in Beijing was great enough to prompt an evacu-
ation of party leaders from the capital.
The book contains more than just the high politics among party leaders.
The authors estimate the extent of violence against people and property and
assess the effect of the Cultural Revolution on the economy. Mao’s Last Revo-
lution also offers telling selections from Red Guard diaries in the authors’ pos-
session. The basic narrative, however, is driven by a Mao-centered elite poli-
tics. Having just co-edited a volume on the Cultural Revolution,35 I would
note that when one looks at the local level, from the bottom up as it were, the
Cultural Revolution presents a somewhat different face. Because of the divi-
sions within the central leadership and the deliberate obscurity of Mao’s
supervision of the struggle, other actors—Red Guards, local cadres, and ordi-
nary citizens—were often forced to think and act on their own. One of the
greatest challenges in scholarship on the Cultural Revolution lies in explain-
ing the unique combination of extraordinary attempts by Mao and his radical
allies to manipulate and control the behavior, thought, lifestyles, and aspira-
tions of Chinese citizens on the one hand, and the remarkable empowerment
that many young people felt as they were freed from the ordinary institutional
constraints on day-to-day behavior. This empowerment, of course, was brief

Reich—the attempts by senior Nazi ofªcials to anticipate and carry out (with great zeal) what Adolf
Hitler would want. See Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001).
35. Joseph W. Esherick, Paul Pickowicz, and Andrew Walder, eds., The Chinese Cultural Revolution as
History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

and was followed by bitter disillusionment as Red Guards were disbanded

and students were sent off to the countryside. But the independent agency of
ordinary actors was real and is one of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution
deserving of further investigation.

✣ ✣ ✣

Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution. Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii ⫹ 693 pp. $35.00.

Commentary by David E. Apter, Yale University

The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as a suc-

cession of victories of consciousness over blind forces—in nature, in society, in
man himself.
Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1932), p. 347.

In our great motherland, a new era is emerging in which the workers, peasants
and soldiers are grasping Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung’s thought. Once
Mao Tse-tung’s thought is grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inex-
haustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of inªnite power.
Quotations from Mao Tse-tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), p iii.

It is not possible totally to disentangle Mao’s motives, but the evidence suggests
that Mao’s ultimate dread—the image of extinction that stalk[ed] him—[was]
the death of the revolution. He had to devise some new recipe for reinvigorating
it. He had experienced the morning-after epiphany common to all revolutionar-
ies: in victory, the revolution dies. Shades of the prison house begin to close
upon the post-revolutionary state; after the initial transformative spasm, exhaus-
tion replaces exhilaration, routine replaces voluntarism, responsibility clogs ide-
alism. Many revolutionary victors are happy to settle for power and stability.
Mao was not.
Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3, The Coming of
the Cataclysm, 1961–1966 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 469.

Even in a century marked by extraordinary cataclysms, the Cultural Revolu-

tion stands out. Perhaps antecedents exist, but one is hard-pressed to think of
an equivalent to Mao Zedong’s bid for ultimate authority. Modesty, of course,


has hardly been a characteristic of left-radical revolutionary leaders generally,

but no other such leader compares in scope and ambition to Mao. He was not
simply laying claim to power. The Cultural Revolution he initiated was de-
picted as Aufheben, with the struggle itself as the necessary condition for revo-
lutionary consciousness. The Jacobin phase of the French revolution, the
Bolshevik takeover in Russia (for which the Jacobins became the initial
model), and the Stalinist “revolution from above” in the Soviet Union all
claimed victories over “blind forces” but were not aimed so single-mindedly at
transforming “nature, society, and man himself ”—certainly not all at the
same time and to the same degree. Perhaps, as MacFarquhar suggests in his
Coming of the Cataclysm, Mao learned from these earlier experiences that even
though the revolution was “on the side of history,” there was always a risk
that “irreversible” change would reverse itself. In the Cultural Revolution,
Mao was akin to a Chinese Canute, taking it upon himself to prevent the rev-
olution’s demise, not least by turning the revolution itself upside down and
provoking total social upheaval.
Did Mao realize when he embarked on this ªnal revolutionary adventure
what the scope and intensity of it would be? If MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
are right, complete certainty about the most terrible consequences of the Cul-
tural Revolution would not have been enough to deter Mao. On the contrary,
it probably would have made him even more determined to press ahead. In
this regard, what Mao’s Last Revolution describes, in great detail, is Mao’s last-
ditch attempt to create a revolution within the revolution.
How much Mao actually believed in the whole enterprise is impossible to
know. Did lingering affection for his anarchist youth perhaps spawn his thesis
of permanent revolution? The succession of decisions that both followed and
determined the course of events played factions and individuals off against
one another, as Mao had done throughout his political life. One of the ironies
is that the logic behind his call for permanent revolution was set out far more
persuasively by the arch-enemy Leon Trotsky than by Mao himself.
Whatever the complex of factors that led to and shaped the Cultural
Revolution in all its tortured complexity, the events can be said to ªt between
two bookends, the quotation from the “Little Red Book” cited above and
MacFarquhar’s description of how revolutions fail. These two comments pro-
vide as good a framework as any for examining the dynamics of the Cultural
It is precisely on these counts that Mao’s Last Revolution is a tour de force.
We see Mao’s revolutionary abstractions as pretenses and his logic of transcen-
dence as an exercise in instrumentalism whereby he personalized his leader-
ship and depersonalized his role. This new style of leadership endowed him

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

with intimacy, and his new role gave him agency—providing two forms of
manipulative power at once. He depicted himself as the moving ªgure in Chi-
nese history, the seeker after truth, the arbiter of right and wrong—a ªgure
earning the adulation of the young through his direct appeals to strike the
establishment wherever it might be.
The lesson of Mao’s Last Revolution is how people can be made complicit
in the afºictions they suffer. Such complicity was not limited to those directly
involved. The wishful thinking of a good many Western liberals, radicals, in-
tellectuals, students, journalists, scholars, and ªlmmakers, in their passionate
yearnings for social improvement by transformational betterment and in their
desire to blend modernity with moral ambition, were roped into the enter-
prise. As a phenomenon, the Cultural Revolution, despite its apparent
uniqueness, reveals the mostly hidden human moral propensity to try to start
the world all over. That alone should induce us to continue studying the
Cultural Revolution and not allow it to be obscured by the achievements of
Chinese economic growth. As the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989
would suggest, future paroxysms are entirely possible.
Mao’s effort to cleanse people’s minds of capitalist and wrong socialist
thoughts helps to explain why the Cultural Revolution began at a moment of
relative political and social calm, a period between spasms, when the Com-
munist regime had consolidated itself after so many twists and turns in the
party line and was shifting to the business of economic construction and
growth. This “pragmatic” turn tended to sideline Mao as the main political
actor. But, as MacFarquhar and Schoenhals demonstrate, Mao’s aim in
launching the Cultural Revolution was not merely to restore himself to su-
preme power. External as well as internal factors were involved. What had
been happening inside the Soviet Union over the previous decade, notably
Nikita Khrushchev’s “exposure” of Josif Stalin’s crimes and the subsequent de-
Stalinization campaign (as well as the polemical exchanges with China), was
anathema to Mao. He found these disturbing tendencies mirrored in the poli-
cies pursued by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and their followers, who had
come to dominate the affairs of party and state. Lin Biao, the designated suc-
cessor to Mao, became more and more politically dangerous as order disinte-
grated, leaving the army (under Lin’s command) as the main bulwark against
foreign threats and internal conºicts. The greater Mao’s dependence on
the army, the more urgent the need to subordinate Lin. But the Cultural Rev-
olution during its initial stages increasingly spun out of control—so much so
that even the old guard Yan’anites drew back, except perhaps for Zhou Enlai.
Trying to decipher what “deep meanings” to attach to Mao’s words is
always hazardous, given his theoretical ªckleness and volatile shifts and turns


of fancy. The Cultural Revolution was a high-risk venture for everyone. No

one could play it safe. An event that ostensibly started as a literary critique of a
parable about imperial power in China’s history escalated almost immediately
into a totally unrealistic project for remolding the “mentalité” of revolution
itself. Nuclear bombs as “little red books” indeed.
MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have succeeded in making sense of this
extraordinarily complex moment in China’s political evolution. They delin-
eate the mixture of motives and actions and institutions. Their analysis de-
pends not only on factual information but also on deep knowledge, good
sense, and enough imagination to see the ridiculous in the sublime. In all
these respects, the authors are superbly endowed. To the extent that both of
them have had something of an obsession (no other word will do) with the
Cultural Revolution, that is precisely what is needed to explore and recapture,
almost on a day-by-day basis, the events, large and small, that affected every-
one from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom. In a narrative at times grip-
ping, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals bring to life the struggles over leadership,
the mobilization of factions, and the plots and counterplots in national, local,
and provincial venues. The narrative is replete with mystery, tension, and cli-
max. So vivid are the portrayals of events that one can see the book as the
script of a play in three acts marked by the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh
Plenums of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. The play is a
tragedy in the interplay between moralism and sycophancy, the hypocrisy of
the so called inner party struggles, the hollowness of spiritual claims that be-
came so dangerous that the mere misuse of a word deemed inappropriate
could lead to banishment or death. The whole process involved not even a
pretense of legalism, none of the show trials that accompanied the Stalinist
purges in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Impromptu “tribunes of the
people” in the name of public rage reduced and trivialized individuals and
their fate—not least the men and women who made the revolution in the ªrst
So complete is the account in Mao’s Last Revolution that one might be
excused for calling the book (although I doubt that the authors would) a phe-
nomenology. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals eschew explanation per se, specu-
lation, or analytical commentary. So fastidious are they in describing what
happened in great detail that the effect is to challenge social science theory it-
self and most particularly those claiming to deal with violence, revolution,
and the games of power politics. Implied by the almost total absence of theory
in the book is either an indifference to it or a belief that especially in political
science, the more one knows about a situation the more theories, or at least
grand theories, become simplistic or inadequate. That said, the book supplies
plenty of grist for theoretical mills—the question is what sort.

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China


My own answer would be that the Cultural Revolution lends itself to the
application of interpretive theory. Whether called discourse analysis, narrative
theory, or symbolic interaction, the idea is basically the same. Such modes of
analysis do not, of course, displace or replace others. What they can do is shed
greater light on some of the fascinating questions that turn up on almost every
page of Mao’s Last Revolution. Some of these questions are introduced almost
casually. How could Mao, “who loved upheaval (luan)” but “appreciated the
services of a well-oiled and obedient bureaucracy,” have assumed that his
headlong restructuring of the bureaucracy (doing away with ministries and re-
placing them by an entirely improvised “three-in-one formula” consisting of
so-called leading and revolutionary cadres and “representatives of revolution-
ary masses”) could ever work? How could he have ever believed that the
elected revolutionary committees he favored to supervise ministries, let alone
the Cultural Revolution itself, would be anything but utterly chaotic? Was it
the sinister instrumentalism hidden in the innocence of the formulation that
so appealed to his exercise of personal power? The authors make nice work of
Mao’s control over revolutionary symbolism, alluding to the romantic aspects
of his appeals to the younger generation. They note, more or less in passing,
that the so-called Shanghai Commune established itself on the anniversary of
the Paris Commune, 27 March 1871. They describe how the old guard was,
despite its misgivings, maneuvered into supporting Mao, who in turn became
increasingly suspicious of the military as it was called on to restore local order
(pp. 182–183). Other examples abound.
Taking a step back from the narrative itself, we can discern two “dialecti-
cal” themes. One, a dialectic of political position and power, focuses on how
Mao always retained the initiative. The second, embedded within the ªrst, is
the usurpation of power by the Gang of Four (Five really if one includes Kang
Sheng, who died before their overthrow). As for the substance of the Cultural
Revolution, it is a ballet between those opposed to the Gang of Four and
those favoring it, marked by poisonous betrayals of friend against friend and
of colleague against colleague, and of course of revolutionaries against fellow
revolutionaries. All sides engaged in pretense accompanied by an increasing
crescendo of celebratory acts of public humiliation, not to speak of the wan-
ton destruction of property, of art, and of history itself. Other “dialectical” en-
counters include the successful counterplot after Mao’s death. We witness
how the Gang of Four were outºanked by the old guard of senior party cadres
and arrested by the PLA, an account that reads like an adventure story.
One interesting side comment conªrmed something I had wondered
about after interviewing a clerk in a factory in Shanghai in 1986—the accep-


tance and apparent lack of desire for revenge and reprisal in the aftermath of
the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution the clerk was a rela-
tively young man who had recently married and whose wife had just had a
baby. His best friend, who shared his desk in the ofªce, denounced him. After
the clerk was sent off to a pig farm, divorced by his wife, and deprived of any
contact with his child, the “friend” took over his apartment. When I inter-
viewed the clerk in 1986, he had been restored to his old job and was sitting
once again across from this “friend” every working day. I asked how he could
stand it. His explanation was that the Cultural Revolution was like a natural
disaster. One accepted it. One survived. That was enough. The only thing
that seemed to bother him is that his erstwhile friend had expropriated his
favorite sweater and continued to wear it to work every day.


Although the authors include little if any theory in the book, they do point
out how texts, their interpretation, and their realization in action played into
the contest between Mao’s own “theory” and the instrumentalism of “empiri-
cism.” In a fascinating vignette, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe the
struggle over which faction would ultimately control the production of vol-
ume ªve of Mao’s Selected Works, which was published posthumously. What
comes through in the narrative is the tension between what to believe, how to
believe it, and facts on the ground—facts that in the end were decisive. As the
authors note, the Cultural Revolution cost China well over a year’s worth of
national income. But not until Mao was already near death did he reluctantly
acknowledge that something drastic had to be done to restore the economy.
At the ªnal CCP Politburo meeting Mao attended, he switched to the other
side, charging the Gang of Four, the “anti-empiricists,” with actually being
“empiricists.” He cast doubt on the “authenticity” of their revolutionary cre-
dentials and speciªcally singled out Jiang Qing as an example. In so doing, he
set the stage for their demise.
This is a big book but difªcult to put down. One fascinating episode un-
folds after another. Despite the cynical use of “Maoism” in battles over power,
the book makes clear that a great many of those involved took ideological
matters very seriously. I have three copies of the Little Red Book, and one of
them, an English edition bought in Oxford, appears never to have been read.
The two others were bought in China. One appeared early, well before the
downfall of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four. This copy is full of
earnest underlining. The second, published after the demise of all three, is a
patchwork of scratched out and restored names, words, and faces.

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals help us to understand events that other-

wise might appear as madness. They suggest the continuities behind the twists
and turns of party policy. Missing perhaps is reference to the Yan’an period,
some of the events of which amounted to a dress rehearsal for some aspects of
the Cultural Revolution. In these terms one might say that the Cultural Revo-
lution happened twice, although no one would suggest that its second coming
was farce. I refer to the so-called rectiªcation campaigns. One could argue
that the ideological orchestration in Yan’an, not least by the notorious Kang
Sheng, was in some ways a forerunner of things to come, although the context
and the times were too different to call Yan’an a full-ºedged precursor to the
Cultural Revolution. In both events one sees how the propensity to use Mao’s
texts as a recipe for political power and to equate “truth” with revolutionary
legitimacy actually worked.
Perhaps Mao believed with Karl Marx that “the traditions of all of the
dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Tradition now includes the Cultural Revolution itself. The current lead-
ers in China have sought to exorcise the residue of its effects. In this regard
one of the conclusions of the book is of particular relevance: “The Cultural
Revolution and the Reform era had destroyed respect for the ideology that
had given the party legitimacy and glued the system together. Party members
were for the most part careerists without a cause, and, more dangerously for
them, unrespected [sic] by their people” (p. 461). Nowadays, when mass pro-
tests erupt frequently in China, one might wonder how the regime survived at
all. The Chinese Communist Party today is hardly like the political parties in
democratic countries, but one might hope, if only tenuously, that the more
the CCP is held in popular contempt and the more it fails to exercise its re-
sponsibilities in acceptable ways, the more receptive it will be to sharing
power with other parties if only to distribute the onus of governing. Stay

Response to the Commentaries

Response to the Commentaries36

✣ Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals

First, we must express our warm appreciation to the editor of the Journal of
Cold War Studies for arranging to have not just one but a bevy of distin-
guished and knowledgeable scholars review our book, and for inviting us to
respond. And of course our thanks go, too, to the scholars themselves for tak-
ing the time from their own work to write the kind of review that makes
authors think hard about what they wrote. Needless to say, when such knowl-
edgeable reviewers pay tribute, it is particularly welcome. However, we come
not to cite praise of our book, but to disinter its meaning where we have been
insufªciently clear.
Lynn White asks why Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were so slow to un-
derstand what was happening, and he then goes on to quote our contention
that Mao Zedong had no strategy for the mass movement as if that were our
explanation. What we evidently did not convey sufªciently was our vision of a
two-stage Maoist plan. In the ªrst stage, employing various stratagems, Mao
plotted successively to remove senior colleagues in Beijing from power. Only
by eviscerating the central party apparatus could the mass movement be un-
leashed, and only Mao had the cunning and prestige to carry this through.
White later implies that our concentration on Mao’s court led us to ne-
glect sociological explanations of why the struggles for political power became
so violent all over China. However, we did attempt to deal with this obviously
important issue, even if not as extensively as he might have wanted us to. On
pp. 129–131, we argued that the youth of China had been brought up in a
culture of class-struggle violence, notably the “four clean-ups” campaign in
1965, and that once the party’s leading strings were cut these young people
were effectively empowered to make revolution their own way and indeed cre-
ated a state of nature. Their actions stemmed not so much from their anger at
local Communist party bosses as from Mao’s injunctions to them to bombard
the headquarters. Having been provided with this example of purging the
party headquarters in Beijing, they took as their natural targets the local party
In the case of “cleansing the class ranks,” which accounted for more
deaths even than Red Guard violence, we follow the argument of Andrew
Walder that the leaders of the new revolutionary committees were inexperi-

36. This response was drafted by Roderick MacFarquhar and reºects the views of both authors.

Response to the Commentaries

enced and insecure and thought that the best guarantee of continued political
ofªce was to show the maximum zeal by executing their opponents (p. 256).
Underlying all the violence, we feel, is the concept we learned from Ian
Kershaw’s Hitler of working toward the leader (p. 48). Red Guards and new
leaders all wanted to do Mao’s bidding and were prepared to go to any lengths
to do so.
We certainly did not mean to suggest that provincial power was unim-
portant. In the chapters on Shanghai’s January storm, on seizing power, and
on the Wuhan incident, which also dealt with other incidents elsewhere, as
well as the chapter on cleansing the class ranks, we covered events in the prov-
inces with as much detail as we could unearth.
On the recall of Deng: The idea that Mao wanted Deng to counter Zhou
is a theory we have heard from knowledgeable Chinese foreign service ofªcers,
as we indicated (p. 366). However, as we also indicated, we are more inclined
to believe that the reason he was recalled was to allay the concerns of the Peo-
ple’s Liberation Army (PLA) that the country might be left in charge of a
whippersnapper like Wang Hongwen.
Steven Levine has understandably harsh words for Chairman Mao and
the Communist system over which Mao presided, and we agree with much of
this. Levine seems disappointed that we did not write in similarly excoriating
terms. Our belief was that we should on the whole let the record speak for it-
self because in that way we would be more likely to carry conviction with Chi-
nese readers—a Chinese translation will be published, though obviously not
in mainland China itself—than if we showered the Chairman or his party col-
leagues with highly negative adjectives. Our book was designed as a political
history rather than a polemic.
Levine’s Mao is concerned not with revisionism or with the rise of the
“new class,” as we suggest, but with maximizing his own power and manipu-
lating everyone like a puppet master. We heartily agree with the suggestion
that Mao manipulated his comrades and factions, particularly in the ªrst year,
as Yafeng Xia notes in his comments. But if Mao had simply been concerned
with maximizing power, he could have called a halt and declared a victory in
February 1967. By then, he had vanquished those of his old colleagues who
conceivably could have been thought of as threats.
Levine may be right to complain that our treatment of the Lin Biao affair
is not as satisfactory as our “masterful” analysis elsewhere. Despite Chinese
memoirs and histories and two penetrating Western analyses of the affair, we
do not believe that enough of the facts have emerged to enable us, or indeed
anyone in China to make a ªnal judgment—as Yafeng Xia comments, the
plane crash that ended this episode is still “mysterious”—but we like to think
we got as close as is currently possible!


We feel that Levine does not quite do us justice with respect to our treat-
ment of Zhou Enlai, whom he states we conventionally characterize as “Mr.
Moderate.” Lynn White got it right, suggesting that we revised “Zhou’s gen-
eral image from mainly moderate to mainly lapdog.” Levine adds that we only
“lightly touch on” the possibility that Zhou might have been able to mobilize
the old guard against the Cultural Revolution (CR). He presumably refers to
our speculation (on pp. 194, 415–416) about what might have happened if
Zhou had backed the February countercurrent or rallied his colleagues.
Again, as with our treatment of Mao, we believe that our approach is more
likely to persuade Chinese readers of Zhou’s great failure. This is particularly
the case if one is uneasily conscious, as we were, that it is only too easy to ac-
cuse leaders of cowardice from afar, not knowing how one would personally
have behaved under those circumstances. It is better always to praise those
who did take the risks and show courage. Sadly, during the CR, few at the top
actually did show any courage.
Yafeng Xia ªnds unconvincing our argument that the CR was caused by
Mao’s desire to establish a more revolutionary China. Xia argues that Mao’s
extravagant lifestyle indicated that he had no real interest in creating a new so-
cialist man, but we believe that Xia is excessively idealistic about political lead-
ers anywhere. How many leaders genuinely practice, in their private lives,
what they proclaim in public? Mahatma Gandhi perhaps, but few others. On
one occasion during World War II a British civil servant looked askance at
Winston Churchill’s luxurious eating and drinking, but the disapproving
ofªcial was apparently told that if you have a Rolls Royce for a leader you have
to treat him appropriately. If Mao ever reºected on his imperial lifestyle, as
opposed to taking it for granted, we suspect that he would have thought it
justiªed because ultimately he alone bore responsibility for the revolutionary
transformation of China.
Xia also rejects the suggestion that the CR was caused by a power struggle
between Mao and Liu. But we never made that argument. Rather, we agree
with Xia that Mao was worried that his senior colleagues might unite against
him. Indeed, we made that very point in our introduction (pp. 9–10). How-
ever, we do not agree that Mao could simply have arrested Liu or Lin Biao.
Mao was perennially conscious of the verdict of future historians and wanted
precisely to avert any possibility that he could be compared to Josif Stalin as a
leader who arrested colleagues and sent them off to prison or worse.
Xia’s voluminous listing of Chinese sources exhibits his great knowledge
of this ªeld, and it will be a valuable aid to future researchers on this topic.
With respect to some of the sources he mentions, we chose not to cite them
because we did not believe they added much (e.g., Marshal Xu Xiangqian);
but in other cases we either did not come across the sources or did not obtain

Response to the Commentaries

them in time. We also faced a more fundamental dilemma: we wanted to pro-

duce a “state-of-the-art” study, but we were also conscious that the more foot-
notes and sources we added to the end of the book, the less likely we were to
attract the intelligent general readers who were our target readership. As it
was, a number of otherwise complimentary reviews commented that the
number of Chinese names meant that the book was only for specialists.
Xia makes numerous other speciªc complaints and adjustments, and on
some of these we will have to agree to disagree. But I would point out that in
the case of the Wuhan incident, we relied heavily on the account given by
Wang Shaoguang in his 1995 book on the subject.37 If Wang revised his nar-
rative and analysis in a fall 2006 article, after our book was published, that
was our bad luck. As for whether the doctors dared to say that Mao had only
about two years to live, we relied on Dr. Li Zhisui’s account in The Private Life
of Chairman Mao.38 Finally, we are particularly grateful to Xia for his listing of
some errors, which we will try to correct in the paperback version.
We were intrigued by David Apter’s comments because his Revolutionary
Discourse in Mao’s Republic (co-authored with Tony Saich) does indicate some
of the distant origins of the CR in the Yan’an Rectiªcation Campaign, in
which Kang Sheng rehearsed his later, even more sinister role.39 Apter is right
to suggest that we should have referred to that campaign. The nearest we
came to it was our reference to the “culture of violence that class struggle rep-
resented” (p. 131). The Yan’an Rectiªcation was the ªrst major instance of in-
ternal class struggle after Mao attained a dominant position in the party.
Even more interesting is Apter’s comment that the almost total absence of
theory in our book suggests either that we are indifferent to it or that we be-
lieve the more one knows about a situation, the more grand theories become
inadequate. Actually, this is not totally accurate, even though he is right to
imply that we saw our main task as giving the general reader an account of
these extraordinary events that would be as factual and dispassionate as possi-
ble. For us, a key question underlying our narrative was how Mao managed to
bring about the chaos, a feat he achieved with much help but with little resis-
tance. For this purpose, as indicated above, we adopted Kershaw’s concept of
working toward the leader. Countless Chinese, both leaders and led, adopted
this tactic, out of either fear or enthusiasm. In effect, this is what Apter delin-
eates as one of the “dialectical” themes of the book. The theory that we need is

37. Wang Shaoguang, Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995).
38. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician, trans. by Tai
Hung-Chao (New York: Random House, 1994), pp. 380–385.
39. David E. Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1994).


one that compares the most important twentieth-century dictators, Lenin,

Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, something which I attempted in a brief appendix in
the ªnal volume of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution (pp. 331–333), but
more at the empirical rather than the theoretical level.
Finally, to repeat, our warm thanks to the reviewers and the editor for
giving our book this splendidly extensive treatment.