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Final Paper

The Communist Revolution in China

Fall 1998
Dr. Kiley

"The Rhetoric of Anti-traditionalism in China, 1915 to 1968"

Christopher Simpson
17 December 1998

"The tradition of all past generations weighs like an Alp
on the brain of the living."
- Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

"It will become clear how illegitimate the existence of

something, of a privilege, a caste, or a dynasty actually is,
and how much it deserves to be destroyed. Then the past is
judged critcally, attacked at its very roots with a sharp
knife, and brutally cut down, regardless of established
pieties. This is always a dangerous process, dangerous for
life itself. Men and eras that serve life in this manner, by
judging and destroying the past, are always dangerous and
endangered. For we are inevitably the result of earlier
generations and thus the result of their mistakes, their
passions and aberrations, even of their crimes; it is not
possible to loosen oneself entirely from this chain."

- Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History

"Let your wheels move only along old ruts.

This is known as mysterious sameness."

- Lao Tzu

1. "War of All Against All"

On his deathbed, on 15 June 1976, Mao was quoted as saying,

"I've done two things in my lifetime. One was battle all those years with Chiang Kaishek and in
the end chase him off to that little island... the other thing, as you know, was to launch the Great
Cultural Revolution. Here I don't have many supporters, and I have quite a few opponents. The
Great Cultural Revolution is something that has not yet been concluded..." 1

The source of this statement, his wife Jiang Qing, one of the infamous Gang of
Four, is deeply questionable. But if the statement is apocryphal, the sentiment is not. Mao
truly believed that ideological purity and mass participation in an ongoing transformative
process (a "permanent revolution") would cleanse the Chinese spirit of ingrained cultural
tendencies which kept it from achieving utopia. He believed in the Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution, and almost single-handedly opened its floodgates. A decade earlier,
on 18 July 1966, he had told an assembly of students, "do not be afraid to make trouble.
The more trouble you make and the longer you make it the better. Confusion and trouble
are always noteworthy." 2

For close to three years, rebellion and disorder were the currency of China. The
initial Red Guard Manifesto urged the youth of China to "turn the world upside down,
smash it to pieces, pulverize it, create chaos, and make a tremendous mess, the bigger the
better." Incredibly, the government of China allowed this to happen.

The Red Guard's announced goal, with the twinkling approval of Mao, was the
total destruction of the "Four Olds" (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits).

"Museums and homes were ransacked; old books and works of art were destroyed; everything
from old Confucian texts to recordings of Beethoven were sought out and thrown into the
dustbins... Hapless citizens wearing Western-style clothes or Hong Kong style haircuts were
attacked and humiliated, along with those possessing old Buddhist of Taoist relics; party officials
and school administrators were 'arrested' and paraded though the streets in dunce caps and forced
to admit their 'crimes' at public rallies." 4

If the late 1960's in the West has been characterized as a sexual revolution, a
liberation from centuries of repression, then the late 1960's in China seems similarly an
orgy of disrespect - a rebellion against thousands of years of filial piety and veneration of
the old.
Enormous numbers of people were tortured and murdered - in the millions, though
accurate figures do not exist. Families were torn apart. Temples and libraries were
destroyed. In one place, the remains of one of Confucius' descendants were exhumed and
Even in a century of mass horrors, the Cultural Revolution stands out. It seems to
be a historical novelty. Why would the rulers of a nation urge its people to anarchy? And
1 Michael Schoenhals, editor, China's Cultural Revolution 1966-1969 - Not a Dinner
Party, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, (1996), p. 293.
2 Shaorong Huang, To Rebel is Justified: A Rhetorical Study of China's Cultural
Revolution Movement 1966-1969, University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland,
(1996), p. 34.
3 Maurice Meisner, Mao's China, A History of the People's Republic, Macmillan
Publishing, New York, (1977), p. 315.
4 ibid.

why would a nation attack its own heritage as if it were a separate, evil entity? But much
of what seems novel regarding the Cultural Revolution does not turn out to be.
One of the most salient aspects of the Cultural Revolution, its radical anti-
traditionalism, was hardly new. It can be discerned as a rhetorical thread crucial to modern
Chinese thought, a theme or leitmotif that informs most of 20th century Chinese history. In
fact, by the 1960's, anti-traditionalism had become something of a tradition itself.
It began, in the early years of this century, as an elite cultural position, a drastic
intellectual response to desperate social and political conditions. At each step of the way,
historical events tempered and hardened anti-traditionalism into an ideology. With the
victory of the communists in 1949, the necessity of anti-traditionalism became a sturdy
component of party doctrine and even a source of legitimacy for the new government. By
the time of the Cultural Revolution, it was practically a common sense.
Of course, the Cultural Revolution was about a great deal more than "culture";
indeed, the cultural aspects of the event served to mask political shenanigans and power
struggles. But to a large degree, the Cultural Revolution was a mass ritual driven by
rhetoric. Cultural issues ignited it and fueled it, and it is important to consider the roots of
the anti-traditionalism that at least partly justified its frenzy.

2. "The Good Hell That Was Lost"

In 1916, Max Weber published his study of religion in China. Weber was not a

sinologist. His main interest lay in explaining the development of the West, the creation of
capitalism, and the phenomenon of modernity. He was curious why China, an older
civilization, had been eclipsed by the upstart West.
In China's Confucian culture, he saw a "stagnative" society held immobile by the
clinging vines of its own traditions and bureaucratic hierarchies, centered around a
"charismatic and pontifical" emperor who ruled with the "Mandate of Heaven."
Confucianism was not a religion as much as a way of life. There was no simple
distinction, as in the West, between "heaven" and "earth." China's was a deeply
materialistic culture, and cosmic order depended on correct behavior - every being in its
proper place in the eternal hierarchy and acting accordingly. To go against the order of
things was to court disaster. This was the "Rectification of Names," a Confucian
tautological sophism that insisted that everyone must act according to their role in society
(let a prince be a prince, etc.), and emphasized a rational adjustment to the world rather
than (as in the West) a rational mastery of it. Naturally, this philosophy was an outstanding
justification of the status quo and for this reason was adopted as the orthodoxy of empire.
China's bureaucracy was ancient and moribund, but administered by men who
advanced in rank not by virtue of wealth or birth (the potential for downward mobility was
always present) but by the passing of grueling, arcane and repetitive examinations. For the
In this poem, Lu Xun tells the story of how humans take over the reins of hell from
the devil. They rule even more tightly than the devil over hell but are not as
decadent. The Ox-headed Demon is put in charge of the operation, and humans rule
hell until none of them had the time to regret the good hell that was lost.
5 Max Weber, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, translated and edited
by Hans H. Gerth, Free Pres, Glencoe, Illinois, (1951).

first rank alone, ten exams were required. The subject of these exams was not technology
or administrative science but the classics of Confucianism. China was a nation run by
scholars, a "grammatocracy." Weber defines Confucianism by its official name as "the
doctrine of the literati." These men spent their lives immersed in the intricate complexities

of a language that Weber describes as "deaf and mute," and for which the "stock of written
symbols remained far richer than the stock of monosyllabic words." It could hardly be

spoken, but it was a sacred language, the soul of Chinese culture, and only through it
could one achieve a complete understanding of the classics, those embodiments of correct
thought, the scholarly pursuit of which led to the cultivation of the ideal man.
The bureaucracy was ubiquitous:

"Popular religion had the unmistakable imprint of the bureaucratic government that had long
ruled China. The other world as seen by peasants was a mirror image of this world, a spiritual
bureaucracy whose lowest ranking member, the stove god, presided over every hearth, and so on
up the hierarchy. Prayers addressed to the gods were written in the form of memorials, and
naturally the gods replied in imperial form with edicts. As in this world, so in the next: Chinese
bribed the stove god during the new year to make a good report; they burned paper money to ease
the way in the underworld for the deceased, who could bribe the clerks to alter their account
books and perhaps lighten their punishment. Arthur Wolf has observed, 'the greatest power the
peasant can imagine does not escape the impress of the imperial bureaucracy on his thought,' and
concluded that, assessed in terms of its impact on popular consciousness, the Chinese state
'appears to have been one of the most potent governments ever known, for it created a religion in
its own image.'" 8

The passage just quoted might make a fine textbook example of Antonio
Gramsci's theory of hegemony, which identifies the subtle mechanisms that convince the
subaltern classes in a given society to be complicit in their own subjugation. Hegemony is
achieved not through material power, but by virtue of a moral and cultural superstructure
that legitimates political control. The dead weight of cultural hegemony is what the earliest
anti-traditionalists rebelled against, though they were writing their polemics years before
he coined the term.
Of course, Chinese culture is infinitely more complex than the points mentioned
here. Weber's critique is almost a cartoon, assuming Chinese culture to be a homogeneous
entity which he can then objectify. While the rule of the Manchu in the 17th century fixed a
Confucian orthodoxy in place, there were always currents of change at large within the
framework of "Confucian" culture. But whether contemporary Chinese intellectuals read
Weber or not (and they may have), his Western perspective, in all its flaws and
inadequacies, closely parallels a growing conception of the Chinese heritage among many
influential Chinese thinkers in the early years of this century. If they similarly truncated
their definition of Confucianism, they did so because they were trying to see themselves
through the lens of Western modernity, which had been thrust so rudely upon them.

3. "An Iron House Without Windows"

6 Weber, p. 143.
7 Weber, p. 124.
8 Evelyn Rawski, "Problems and Prospects," from Popular Culture in Late Imperial
China, David Johnson, Andrew Nathan, and Evelyn Rawski, editors, University of
California Press, Berkely, California, (1985), p. 409.

Upon contact with the West, Japan underwent a miraculous transformation of its
culture to emerge at the end of the 19th century as a formidable Western-style power,
intent on acquiring an empire.
China's appreciation for Western technology came more grudgingly and painfully.
Their literati were disinterested in the fate of the nation and had little inclination to master
barbarian technologies. After the Opium War, the Chinese saw the need to avail themselves
of Western advancements, but they largely continued to regard their cultural institutions as
superior, and this interfered with modernization.
In addition to the ruling Confucian orthodoxy, a host of superstitions informed the
culture. Chronomantics, or "day masters," were consulted to choose auspicious days for
every task. Geomantics read the contours of the land - a single rock by its shape could
protect an entire region from demons. Consequently, the act of mining was thought to
disturb spirits; railroads and factories disrupted heavenly order as well, and, as Weber says,
"often, detours of many miles were made because, from the geomantic viewpoint, the
construction of a canal, road, or bridge was deemed dangerous." Or, as Wyndham Lewis

put it:
"Telegraph poles were the gloomiest of all Western
innovations for China: their height disturbed
delicately the equilibrium of lives.

They were consequently resisted with bitterness.

Any textbook on China becomes really eloquent in its

scorn when it arrives at the ascendancy of
the Geomancers." 10

In 1894, a war with Japan went badly for China. In the Peace of Shimonoseki that
followed in 1895, the Japanese demanded southern Manchuria and the island of Taiwan.
This defeat set in motion the ultimate collapse of the imperial government in 1911. China's
cultural institutions, the exams, the emperor, were useless in the face of Western
China was being "carved up like a melon" by Japanese and European colonial
powers. There was a shared sense among Chinese thinkers that China as a nation might
cease to exist unless something changed.
The so-called republic that succeeded the Empress Dowager Cixi soon succumbed
to a chaos of rival warlords, a political situation that invited exploitation by foreign
powers. On 18 January 1915, the Japanese delivered to Yuan Shikai, a powerful warlord
who had taken control of the republic, a list of Twenty-one Demands. The Japanese
wanted further territorial control in Manchuria, Shandong province, and the Yangzi valley,
as well as the right to garrison Japanese "police" on Chinese soil. They were going to
settle their people there. The Twenty-one Demands were printed on paper specially
watermarked with ghost images of dreadnoughts and machine guns, typically Japanese in
its attention to detail, its calculated humiliation, and its note of elegant menace. An
9Weber, p. 199.
10Wyndham Lewis, "Feng Shui and Contemporary Fiction," BLAST! #1, Black
Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, California, (1984), p. 138.

outpouring of rage against these demands did not stop Yuan from largely acquiescing to
At the same time Yuan Shikai, with what appears to be an incredibly tin ear for
politics, announced his intent to assume the title of Dragon Emperor. He was supported in
this venture by Confucian reformer Kang Youwei, who sought to install Confucianism as a
Chinese religion, in the interest of creating a stable nation-state. It was plain to see that
the revolution of 1911 had changed absolutely nothing. Chinese intellectuals were realizing
that the roots of the current problems went far deeper than had been previously thought,
and that any solutions might consequently be radical ones.
On 15 September 1915, Chen Duxiu published the first issue of his "New Youth"
magazine. In its pages would develop, over the next few years, the rhetoric of radical anti-
traditionalism. Chen believed that the only way for China to survive was rapid
modernization, rejecting useless tradition and replacing it with a complete embrace of
Western culture. He was incensed at the possibility of a return to imperial ways and at the
reassertion of Confucian values.
In the teeth of outrageous repression by Yuan Shikai, under which "corrupting
social morality," "harming local welfare," and "harm of good customs" were deliberately
vaguely defined as criminal acts, the magazine announced its agenda: "to advocate the
destruction of unworthy traditions." In rhetoric that sets the tone for the hyperbolic
ventilations of the Cultural Revolution fifty tears later, Chen Duxiu wrote:

"The function of youth in society is the same as that of a fresh vital cell in the human body. In the
process of metabolism, the old and rotten are incessantly eliminated to be replaced by the fresh
and the living... if metabolism functions properly in a human body, the person will be healthy; if
the old and rotten cells accumulate and fill the body, the person will die. If metabolism functions
properly in a society, it will flourish. If old and rotten elements fill the society, then it will cease
to exist... What is struggle? It is to exert one's intellect, discard resolutely the old and the rotten,
regard them as enemies and as a flood or savage beasts, keep them away from the neighborhood
and refuse to be contaminated by their poisonous germs." 11

Chen Duxiu wanted to replace characteristic Chinese complacency with what he

considered to be the vitality of the West. He advocated six principles to guide his new
youth: they must not be servile, but independent; not conservative, but progressive; not
retiring, but aggressive; not isolationist, but cosmopolitan; not formalistic, but utilitarian;
and not fanciful, but scientific. In short, they must abandon the old ethics of filial piety,
subservience, chastity, and loyalty. They must reject the old politics of the privileged elite.
They must deny old religions and superstitions and embrace science and technology. They
must forgo the study of traditional literature in favor of that of the West, and renounce the
assumption of Chinese cultural superiority. "In order to advance Mr. Democracy," he
wrote in 1919, "we are obliged to oppose Confucianism, the codes of rituals, chastity of
women, traditional ethics, and old fashioned politics. In order to advocate Mr. Science, we
have to oppose traditional arts and traditional religion." 2 He was inviting "heaven-

offending crimes." Luan (chaos) was sure to follow.

Lin Yu-sheng says of Chen Duxiu:

11 Chou Tse-tung, The May Fourth Movement, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, (1960), p. 45-46.
12 Chou, p. 59.

"If we measure a person's greatness in terms of his ability to harness potent and hitherto
undefined forces in society and channel them into an explosive social and intellectual movement,
thereby bringing about a major historical change, Ch'en Tu-hsiu can be regarded as one of the
greatest men in Chinese history. Not only was he the cofounder of the Chinese Communist Party,
but also it was he who first struck the spark of the totalistic iconoclasm of the May Fourth era.
That Ch'en lacked a highly subtle and sophisticated mind contributed, by default, to the
directness of his thought. In a cultural anomie in which most people were confused and
bewildered, Ch'en's combination of intellectual straightforwardness with moral passion and
dogged persistence became highly charismatic." 13

"New Youth" was very influential. "I began to read this magazine," Mao later told
Edgar Snow, "while I was a student at the normal school and admired the articles of Hu
Shih and Ch'en Tu-hsiu very much. They became for a while role models." 4 Later, he tells

Snow that he first met Chen Duxiu "in Peking, when I was at Peking National University,
and he had influenced me perhaps more than anyone else." 5 It is fair to say that the

program of cultural liberation proposed by Chen Duxiu and "New Youth" magazine
shaped Mao's anti-traditional orientation with lasting effect.
In its pages Hu Shi critiqued the "unique treasures" of Chinese tradition: "eight-
legged essays, bound feet, eunuchs, concubinage, five-generation households, memorial
arches for honoring chastity, hellish prisons, and law courts filled with instruments of
torture." 6

Hu Shi proposed literary reform, celebrating the vernacular, spoken by the average
Chinese, over the archaic language which no one spoke, and advocating its use in the
creation of a new literature. He published a list of "8 Don'ts", a mini-manual of style
influenced by Ezra Pound, advising writers to write honestly, directly and personally,
avoiding clichs and classical allusions, on every count the opposite of traditional Chinese
literary style. This was to be a literature for everyone, not just the elites, plain spoken and
sincere. The Western mode of "realism" was to be adopted.
As time passed, the ideas espoused in "New Youth" became ever more radical. In
it, Lu Xun published his devastating short story "The Diary of a Madman," a savage vision
of Chinese society as fundamentally cannibalistic. Only his madman sees the madness of
society; only the madman is "sane," and his knowledge makes him "mad." The cannibalistic
madness of society is, of course, embedded in Confucian classics:

"You have to really go into something before you can understand it. I seemed to remember,
though not too clearly, that from ancient times on people have often been eaten, so I started
leafing through a history book to look it up. There were no dates in this history, but scrawled this
way and that across every page were the words BENEVOLENCE, RIGHTEOUSNESS, and
MORALITY. Since I couldn't get to sleep anyway, I read that history very carefully for most of
the night, and finally I began to make out what was written between the lines; the whole volume
was filled with a single phrase: EAT PEOPLE!" 17

13 Lin Yu-sheng, The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness- Radical Anti-traditionalism in

the May Fourth Era, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, (1979), p. 63.
14 Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, first revised and enlarged edition, Grove Press,
New York, (1973), p. 73.
15 Snow, p. 148.
16 Lin, p. 97.
17 Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by William A. Lyell,
University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, (1990), p. 32.

Lu Xun prefaces his tale with an introduction, written in a classical style which
contrasts with the fragmented vernacular of the diary proper. This introduction informs the
reader that the events related in the diary happened a while back, and the "madman" is
now a sane, participating member of the society that once appalled him, and "awaiting a
substantive official appointment."
Lu Xun was possessed by a deeply conflicting view of his society:

"Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep
inside who will soon die of suffocation. Since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the
pain of death. Now, if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those
unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good

In the pages of "New Youth" and elsewhere, he demanded nothing less than the
total rejection of Chinese tradition. At the same time, he knew that this was an impossible,
absurd task. No man can escape the culture that formed his consciousness; but the
situation for China was so dire that it was worth a try. Like an existentialist choosing life
in the face of death's absurdity, or Pascal with his wager, Lu Xun, very much a modern
humanist, decided to bang loudly on the "indestructible" walls of the culture in which he
too was trapped.
Chen Duxiu, like Mao, was considerably more optimistic. He increased the fury of
his attacks on traditional culture in articles like "The Way of Confucius and Modern Life"
(they were, naturally, incompatible) and "Down With Confucius and Sons." In words that
presage the ascetic values of the Cultural Revolution, he wrote:

"Though a thing be of gold or jade, if it has no practical use, then it is of less value than coarse
cloth, grain, manure, or dirt. That which brings us no benefit to the practical life of an individual
or of society is all empty formalism and the stuff of cheats. And even though it were bequeathed
to us by our ancestors, taught by the sages, advocated by the government, and worshipped by
society, the stuff of cheats is still not worth one red cent." 19

His scientistic outlook gravitated toward simple, clear solutions. That

Confucianism was an exceedingly complex and multi-valent tradition did not matter to
Chen Duxiu or to his readers. As Chou Tse-tung observes, the Confucianism that was
attacked was primarily the current orthodoxy, not the depth and breadth of Confucian
thought; the attacks on old culture were probably "shallow, indiscriminate, and
oversimplified," but necessary, due to national inertia. 0 2

In his fascinating study of radical anti-traditionalism, Lin Yu-sheng argues that

Chen Duxiu and others created a vulgar, unreal "Confucianism", a "holistic," monolithic
entity that could then be rejected "totalistically" in favor of an equally "totalistic"
conception of Western culture. This rhetorical process Lin describes as a "formalistic
fallacy." Chen Duxiu, he says,

"did not examine exhaustively all aspects of the theory and practice of Confucianism over the
centuries, and he was not bothered by the problems of authorship and dating of the various
Confucian classics he used, nor did he face the important problem of changes in the history of
Confucianism or the problem of the interplay of Confucian ideas and nonintellectual factors in
18 Lin, p. 118.
19 Lin, p. 69.
20 Chou, p. 311, 365.

traditional China. What he resented was the li-chiao (Confucianist teachings of proper norms of
ritual and social conduct). But he felt he had not only to argue against the li-chiao itself but,
more important, to strike at its roots, which, according to Chen, were the ideas of Confucius." 21

Lin Yu-sheng demonstrates convincingly that this formalistic fallacy has its own
roots deep in traditional modes of thinking. If the old order had crumbled, why was Chen
Duxiu arguing to destroy its culture as well? Because, Lin argues, these intellectuals held
that culture was the primary determinant of reality, and that cultural change is the only real
change. Moreover, that conviction reflected traditional Chinese attitudes: that Chinese
culture was of paramount importance, and that it must be considered as an organic whole.
Chen wrote that previous revolutions had failed
"because these revolutions each had 'the head of a tiger but the tail of a snake.' They began well
enough, but were never carried to their logical conclusion. The old dirt was not washed away by
blood. But the major cause for the continued prevalence of darkness in China is that even that
kind of revolution, 'with a tiger's head and a snake's tail,' has not been carried out by us in the
fields of ethics, morality, literature, and the fine arts, which, laden with a great deal of 'debris'
and covered with a thick, dark 'smoke screen,' are the sources of our spiritual life. That is why
purely political revolution is incapable of changing our society. The fundamental cause of all
these failures lies in the fact that we are afraid of revolution and ignorant of its function in the
improvement of civilization." 22

In 1922, Hu Shi wrote: "To overthrow the corrupt politics of today needs our
common effort; but to destroy the forebears of corrupt politics - the 'ghosts' of thought
and literature of the last two thousand years - requires more hard work." 3 2

At the peak of May Fourth activity, Sun Yatsen observed that "a renovation of the
mind is a prerequisite for revolution." 4 2

As early as 1902, Liang Qichao, in his "On the Relation Between Fiction and
Popular Sovereignty," had written on the power of fiction to extend reader's experiences,
to alter attitudes, to affect the way people see their own lives. "We must begin with a
revolution in the realm of fiction," he insisted. 5 The primacy of culture in shaping world-

view was not a premise held only by scholars and revolutionaries. In 1915, a top-selling
love-story magazine told its advertisers, as if hawking medicine or a new kind of soap, that
"the beneficial effects of fiction on society are by now publicly recognized in the world." 6 2

Lin Yu-sheng maintains that this conviction of the centrality of culture has its
source in the Confucian precept that, as correct thought and correct action create a
harmonious world, so uncultivated thought will lead to incorrect action and hence disaster.
This is why, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao could not simply purge Liu Shaoqi but
had to purge his thought as well. The object, he said on 31 August 1967, is not merely to
struggle against "capitalist roaders" but "to solve the problem of world-outlook and

21 Lin, p. 72.
22 Chou, p. 275.
23 Lin, p. 87.
24 Chou, p. 195.
25 E. Perry Link, Jr., Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies- Popular Fiction in Early
Twentieth Century Chinese Cities, University of California Press, Berkely, California,
(1981), p. 131.
26 Link, Mandarin Ducks, p. 130, note 20.

eradicate revisionism... if world outlook is not reformed, then although 2000 capitalist
roaders are removed, 4000 others may appear next time." 7 2

Not only is culture a primary determinant in this mode of thinking, says Lin, but
the long standing "organismic" conception that these Chinese intellectuals had of their own
culture (a conception that itself was ingrained and traditional) made it difficult to modify
or remove unwanted elements of it. As Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi wrote in a joint reply to a
reader's letter, "the old literature, old politics, and old ethics have always belonged to one
family; we cannot abandon one and preserve the others." 8 This is not to say, however,

that modification is impossible; though Lin Yu-sheng stresses the point that the
development of this extreme iconoclastic thought and rhetoric was primarily the direct
result of traditional Chinese modes of thinking and categories of analysis, it is impossible
to separate this development from its historical context. Totalistic anti-traditionalism was
conceived as a response to external social and political factors, which sharpened it as well
into the only response possible. The times and conditions would not permit a gradual
sifting and reforming of culture for the purpose of modernization, even if the structure of
Chinese self-consciousness had allowed it.
For Chen Duxiu and for others, there was no difference between the power
structure which had failed the Chinese nation and the ethical traditions which had justified
it. Weakness, complacency, and inaction had brought China to the brink of destruction.
Furthermore, ingrained traditions would continue to resist change and prevent or delay
modernization unless uprooted, and modernization was crucial to China's very survival.
Hence, a complex argument became rhetorically simple- the ancient cultural traditions that
had for centuries defined what it meant to be Chinese would have to go. The adoption of
this formalistic fiction, Lin Yu-sheng says, left Chinese thinkers with impossible choices
and awful solutions, and ultimately resulted in a crisis of cultural identity.

4. "Floods and Beasts"

The era's decisive moment came in 1919. At the Versailles Treaty conferences at
the end of World War One, the Japanese, who had fought with the Allies, demanded in
return the control of what had previously been Germany's large colonial concessions in
China's Shandong province. This, in addition to being an important region strategically and
economically, was also China's "holy land," the birthplace of Confucius and Mencius.
China, as an ally of Britain, France and the U.S. during World War One, hoped for its
return. But Japan was one of the "Five Great Powers." China was not. Japan had loaned
money to several warlords to build railroads, giving the Japanese a loose "legal" right to
administer the territory; and in Versailles the Chinese envoys themselves were factionalized
and fractious. On May 1 of 1919, it was announced in China that articles
156, 157 and 158 of section VIII of the Versailles treaty essentially gave the Shandong
province to Japan. 9

27 Shaorong, p. 61.
28 Lin, p. 96.
A standard Confucian phrase to describe an unimaginable calamity.
29 Chou, p. 84.

A dramatic student protest on May 4th gave the era its name, but the true
significance of the event came from what occurred in the following weeks. Organized
student outreach, both to New Culture intellectuals, and to masses of illiterate workers,
sparked a series of strikes. A successful campaign to boycott Japanese goods attracted
merchants and businessmen. The slogans "Externally, Resist The Great Powers" and
"Internally, Throw Out The Traitors," the mottoes of the May Fourth movement (which
would not have sounded out of place during the Cultural Revolution), were written and
shouted in every urban center.
On June 2, authorities arrested 50 students for "lecturing" in Beijing. The
following day, 900 students were arrested, followed by 1,150 arrests on June 4 and
culminating in a demonstration on June 5 in which 5000 students demonstrated, many with
bedding strapped to their backs as the prisons were out of beds. And on June 5, a massive
strike of merchants and workers shut down the city of Shanghai. The presidency of Xu
Shichang collapsed. And on June 28, 1919, Chinese students in Versailles surrounded the
Lutita Hotel, headquarters of the Chinese delegation, and prevented them from signing the
The May Fourth movement was not a conflict between radicals and conservatives,
or intellectual factions, but a mass mobilization of an awakened populace responding to a
crisis. In the alembic of May Fourth, culture became fully politicized. In turn, the New
Culture intellectuals found themselves addressing practical social, political, and economic
issues, as they addressed a wider and more diverse audience than ever before. The Chinese
nationalists reformed the Guomindang party and the Chinese Communist Party was
founded. May Fourth has come to stand for a great turning point in Chinese history. It was
a period of tremendous ferment of ideas, open-minded and enthusiastic. Defects in the
national character were examined. Classical language, literature, and the legends of
antiquity were attacked. Historians attempted to revise the unrealistic vision of the past
that had become standard - these "antiquity doubters" suggested that much of what had
passed for history was actually myth. Footbinding, female infanticide, kowtowing, opium
smoking, the old calendar, marriage arrangements, and family customs were decried and
rebelled against, and women's rights were championed. But although "the construction of
a modern civilization was the proclaimed goal of the leading reformers," says Chou Tse-
tung, "their efforts in this respect were overshadowed by their destructive activities. As a
result, conservatism and traditionalism lost their appeal for the young Chinese literati."
Iconoclasm was "the most colorful phenomena of the movement." 0 3

Literature was the major profession of Chinese intellectuals. The traditional

scholar-bureaucrat spent his life writing and studying poetry or non-fiction essays, vessels
of moral principle, and the only literary forms considered worthy of serious attention. And
it was all written in archaic, classical Chinese. Fiction and drama were regarded with
contempt, and popular vernacular culture was frequently denounced by officials as a
negative influence on public morals.
In contrast, the May Fourth writers wrote a great deal of fiction, as well as poetry
and essays, and not all of it was for the purpose of moral principle. Realism was
advocated, the bold and straightforward depiction of the brutal and ugly aspects of social
life. Instead of a "dead" classical Chinese, no longer spoken by the people, writers used
the vernacular to create a living literature. Worldly and cosmopolitan, writers like Lu Xun
re-worked the spoken vernacular into an instrument of art, incorporating European

30 Chou, p. 359.

elements. A new alphabet was promoted. Edward Gunn, in his study of May Fourth
linguistic changes has written:

"The innovations derived from foreign languages beginning in 1918 reached almost every
category of linguistic analysis in terms of grammar, rhetorical invention, and sentence cohesion...
a major, if not unique, revolution in prose style, and one which probably surpassed the Japanese
experience itself in the number and scope of innovative constructions." 31

Gunn's book features an appendix of over 100 pages cataloging these innovations
chronologically. "Because it revolutionized written communication," writes Chou-Tse-
tung, "the literary revolution was a crucial part of the May Fourth reforms, and of great
significance in changing the Chinese way of thinking." 2 3

Or so they hoped. In many ways, "the May Fourth era" is a kind of a myth,
important for what meant (and means) to people as a symbol, and as a source of identity
for those who participated. In spite of his huge inventory of linguistic innovations, Gunn
adds that the Europeanizations were "historically sweeping" but a "linguistically superficial
change." That is, such devices were employed for conventional stylistic purposes and
were, he says, "new means to achieve old ends, not new means to new ends." 3 Indeed, the 3

image of a "dramatic break" with the past, or the depiction of the past as corrupt and dark
and the present and future as ever-brightening is a recurrent theme in Chinese rhetoric, as
is a tendency to simplify and sentimentalize.
In her essay attacking May Fourth as a "construction," Gloria Davies examines the
"unexplored paradox of a literature which has as its explicit goal the transformation of the entire
content of 'traditional Chinese culture.' Such a literature, written as it was in a vernacular which
represents on one level a radical break with the classical language but which, on another level,
cannot generate meanings without appeal to existing meanings in the classical language must run
the risk of acting in bad faith against its own explicit instructions." 34

A similar paradox arises when one considers the wholesale appropriation of

Western idioms into the language and Western forms (like "realism") into the literature by
the same May Fourth writers and thinkers who were patriotically galvanized by the very
Western betrayal at the Versailles debacle.
In her examination of literacy in the late Qing empire, Evelyn Rawski describes a
China very different from the frozen culture that the May Fourth intellectuals railed
against, "an advanced, complex society, not stagnant but developing," 5 Functional

literacy in the late Qing, she says, was between 15% to 30% of the overall population, and
constantly growing. Chinese society was not as stratified as, comparatively, pre-modern
European society had been. Elites interacted frequently with other groups and
consequently most Chinese knew someone who could read or write.

31 Edward Gunn, Rewriting Chinese- Style and Innovation in Twentieth Century

Chinese Prose, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California, (1991), p.39-40.
32 Chou, p. 272.
33 Gunn, p. 41-42.
34 Gloria Davies, "Chinese Literary Studies and Post-Structuralist Positions: What
Next?", The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 28, (July 1992), p. 73.
35 Evelyn S, Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch'ing China, University of
Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, (1979), p. 149.

The rapid urbanization of the population stimulated an enormous rise in the
volume of vernacular literature published: collections of popular songs, jokebooks,
travelogues, salacious "histories" of the imperial house, pornography; Confucian self-
improvement books that involved "Ledgers of Merit and Demerit" that allowed the reader
to easily compute his "moral net worth" 6; and the popular novels of the "Mandarin Duck

and Butterfly school."

This last category constitutes a huge body of work, several thousand books written
for the burgeoning urban masses. These books were written to be easily read, in simple,
direct language. Characters in these novels were clearly good or clearly evil, and the affairs
of lovers were predominant. The tales featured strange and unusual events, and they were
action-packed, with many plot twists. Grounded in Confucian morality, the stories
reflected the social concerns of the day: girls who adopted Western styles were bad, or bad
things would happen to them; girls who were from the country were good and pure. They
reflected, says Perry Link, "a conservative attitude toward popular Chinese values and its
expression of protest against the West and social 'modernization.'" 7 By the 1920's, these

stories appeared as books, as serialized newspaper installments, as popular songs, plays,

comic strips and movies- a single story might wind up reaching an audience of millions. In
contrast, the celebrated May Fourth "literary renaissance" was an elite movement, "read
almost exclusively by a tiny number of China's most privileged young intellectuals." 8 The

initial copies of "New Youth" ran in editions of 1000, and while press runs increased to
16,000 after 1917, its circulation was dwarfed by the circulation of other magazines. 9 The3

May Fourth movement's foremost representatives had been groomed to become orthodox
literati. In spite of all his rhetoric, Lu Xun continued to wear his scholar's robes, 0 and, as

Link translates it, the "youth" of the title "New Youth" specifically connoted young males
of upper class households- new young gentlemen. 1 4

In fact, the May Fourth intellectuals saw popular literature in much the same way
as did the traditional scholars against whom they rebelled, as a pernicious poisoner of the
minds of the young. At the same time, the masses whom the May Fourth progressives
championed took a dim view of both radical iconoclasm (the poor benighted souls liked
their traditions) and the wanton embrace of the West.
In any event, the vernacular as a medium for popular literature was a booming
industry by the time the May Fourth intellectuals appropriated it. As Link points out, they
didn't establish the vernacular, they simply legitimated it. "The landmark contribution of
May Fourth leaders such as Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu was not to create vernacular writing
but to venture the audacious opinion that the elite should stoop to it." 2

The most damning criticism of the May Fourth writers came from one of their
own. Qu Qiubai observed that the May Fourth style incorporated old classical expressions
36 Rawski, Education, p. 113.
37 Perry Link, "Traditional Style Popular Urban Fiction in the Teens and Twenties,"
Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, Merle Goldman, editor, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (1977), p. 338.
38 ibid.,p. 346.
39 Chou, p. 73.
40 Ezra Vogel, "Unlikely Heroes: The Social Role of the May Fourth Writers," from
Goldman, ed. Modern Chinese Literature, p. 147.
41 Link, "Traditional Style Popular Urban Fiction," from Goldman, ed. Modern Chinese
Literature, p. 346.
42 ibid.

and structure and strange European grammar and vocabulary into the vernacular, resulting
in what he acidly referred to as a "New Classical." 3 More elitist even than the traditional

scholars, the May Fourth intellectuals had indeed severed themselves from the classical
tradition, but also from the tradition of folklore and popular culture as well. How then
were they ever to reach the masses? Qu said the May Fourth writers were captives of the
bourgeoisie, trying to establish themselves as a new Mandarinate. "To the middle and
lower ranks of the people," he wrote, "they are almost 'foreigners.' They live 'in their own
country of intellectual youth' and in the stationery stores of the Europeanized gentry." 4

5. "An Invisible Knife"

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921. For many years, at the urging
of the Soviet Russian Comintern, they worked in tandem with the right-wing nationalist
Guomindang, fighting the anarchic warlords in the interest of unifying the nation. In 1927,
however, Chaing Kaishek turned on his allies and began to slaughter members of the CCP.
Like all human catastrophes in modern China, the scale is numbing: hundreds of thousands
of communist activists were captured and executed during the "White Terror." Many non-
communists may have perished also- Chaing is reported to have preferred "rather
conducting a thousand wrong killings than letting one communist escape." 5 4

But many did escape, and over the next decade, many more joined the ranks of the
CCP. Given the steady encroachments of the Japanese, the corruption and carelessness of
the Generalissimo's republic, and the disrepute that Western concepts of democracy and
liberalism had fallen into in the wake of the bad faith exercised at Versailles, the simplistic
and radical solutions offered by the communists steadily gained in appeal. The common
sense was growing that it was too late in the game for gradual reform, and only the advent
of a true Leviathan could rescue the Chinese nation.
The de jure center of communist activity, overseen by the Comintern, remained
underground in the British protectorate of Shanghai (there Lu Xun had harbored fugitives
from the White Terror, including Qu Qiubai). But the de facto center of the CCP moved
into the countryside, to foment a great peasant uprising. Mao and the others that remained
moved first to Jiangxi, where a soviet had been established. Eventually, Chiang's army
came after them there and by late 1934 they were forced to undertake the famous mass
retreat that became known in myth as the Long March. By 1937, the CCP had established
a growing base in the remote northwest, in Yanan, their headquarters for the next decade.
From Yanan, the CCP would launch daring and often successful attacks on the Japanese,
who by 1937 had invaded China with their army and were actively waging a war of
After the White Terror, Chiang cut deals with the Japanese to avoid open conflict
while he consolidated his control. Unlike the May Fourth intellectuals, the GMD sided
with traditional cultural forces. Trying to forge a nation-state in the Western mold, the
43 Paul G. Pickowicz, "Qu Qiubai's Critique of the May Fourth Generation: Early
Chinese Marxist Literary Criticism," from Goldman, ed., Modern Chinese Literature, p.
44 ibid., p. 373, note 34.
45 Shaorong, p. 33.

GMD cultural program emphasized "national essence," legitimating itself in the trappings
of two thousand years of glorious cultural identity. But sentiment was growing that, as Lu
Xun put it, those who praised the old culture actually "wanted to subdue China with an
invisible knife." 6 Moreover, the GMD supported popular literature of the "Duck and

Butterfly" variety, to pacify the populace with escapism. In a time of great upheaval,
people didn't need encouragement to turn to what Link calls "reading for comfort."
Qu Qiubai was outraged. In the twenties, he had railed against popular fiction.
"One cannot say that popular fiction is 'the masses own,'" he insisted, "all one can say is
that it is an elaborate snare laid out by the ruling classes to tie the masses down."
(According to Link, there is documented evidence that the warlord governments of the
1910's and 1920's programatically supported popular fiction for just this purpose.) 7 4

Echoing Liang Qichao, he stated in 1932 that "the working people's knowledge of their
own existence, their view of social phenomena, in general their world view and life view, is
practically all gained from this sort of reactionary literature." 8 4

In contrast, the May Fourth writers of the 1930's lived in the foreign concessions
under assumed names, moving furtively in disguise, constantly fearful of assassination or
execution. But nothing turns writers (generally a timid and cautious lot) into heroes like
political repression, when the act of writing becomes truly dangerous. The May Fourth
writers who continued to speak out in this period, especially Lu Xun (whose caustic
essays were considered weapons), slowly became popularly regarded as brave patriots.
Ezra Vogel points out that during this period of crisis, moral legitimacy did not reside in
politics. The only respected voices of moral legitimacy were the May Fourth writers. 9 4

Indeed, Vogel says,

"Perhaps nothing, except foreign invasion itself, did more to stir Chinese nationalism than the
works of the May Fourth writers. With the Japanese invasion, they finally reached a wider
audience than the educated youth. A frightened populace looked for a clarion call to pull them
together. The writer rather than the politician sounded the call. It was the writer who roused a
generation, first the educated youth and later a broader public, to rally to the cause of its

Rhetorical lines were being drawn in the sand, and political events were polarizing
people's minds and turning rhetorical abstractions into apparent truths and ultimately into
historical agents. If Chiang Kaishek and the GMD resorted to traditional culture as a
source of their legitimacy, but were then seemed to be corrupt and ineffectual in dealing
with the rapacious Japanese, both they and their legitimacy were called into question.
Conversely, Mao and the CCP, who derived legitimacy via a staunch rejection of classical
culture, benefited even more by standing against what Chiang and the GMD stood for.
After 1937, when guerrilla attacks by the People's Liberation Army scored small victories
against Japanese troops, while Chiang's armies suffered massive defeats, the CCP's
rhetorical position continued to be enhanced.
46 Chou, p. 310. There is an old saying that If you kill someone with an invisible
knife there will be no stain on the blade.
47 Link, "Traditional Style Popular Urban Fiction," from Goldman, ed. Modern Chinese
Literature, p. 338.
48 ibid., p. 329.
49 Vogel, "Unlikely Heroes," from Goldman, ed., Modern Chinese Literature,
p. 153.
50 ibid., p. 156.

It is telling that the anniversary of May Fourth was celebrated by the CCP as
"Youth Day", emphasizing its political aspects, while the GMD opted for calling it
"Literature Day." 1 5

To the GMD, the May Fourth intellectuals were by and large too communist, and
in Taiwan after 1949, much of their work was unavailable. To the CCP, the bulk of the
May Fourth writers were too Europeanized, and not communist enough. The complete
works of Hu Shi, a gradualist reformer who ultimately sided with the GMD, were easily
available in Taiwan, while the writings of Lu Xun could only be purchased on the black
market. In mainland China, Hu Shi was criticized repeatedly, while Lu Xun was elevated
to an iconic status second only to Mao's. 2 5

And on Taiwan, Edward Gunn tells us, the nationalists pushed for the use of
archaic classical Chinese as the official language, "as a statement of cultural transcendence,
a psychic rallying point, a deliberately conservative assertion of 'essence,' and, inevitably, a
mark of distinction from practice on the mainland." The government of Chiang Kaishek
promoted Mandarin Chinese out of a "well published concern for its purity and the
prevention of barbarisms that occurred during the Qing and Republican eras." 3 5

6. "Dead Fire"

Yanan, says Edgar Snow, was "ideally suited for defense. Cradled in a bowl of
high, rock-ribbed hills, it's stout walls crawled up to the very tops." 4 Mao and others

lived in caves there, like bandits. Stuart Schramm tells us that in 1917 Mao, at age twenty
a student at the First Normal School of Changsha, engaged his classmates in a discussion
concerning ways to save China:

"Asked to offer his own solution, he replied: 'Imitate the heroes of Liang Shan P'o.' Liang Shan
P'o was the name of the mountain fortress on which the bandit heroes of Mao's favorite novel
Water Margin had established themselves to fight for justice and order in an unjust and disorderly

The ascetic lifestyle of Yanan well suited Mao. In his younger years, Mao had been
an ardent advocate of physical fitness, and had once published an article in "New Youth"
extolling these rugged virtues.:
51 Chou, p. 3.
52 Wendy Larson, Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer- Ambivalence
and Autobiography, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, (1991), p. 87.
53 Gunn, p. 57.
Lu Xuns dream-poem Dead Fire: The Emptiness Inside presents images of
fundamental elements: it starts with a dream of an ice mountain, inside of which he
finds a piece of dead fire. He puts it in his pocket. Later the fire comes back to life
from the warmth inside his pocket. The fire eventually flies off to burn out. As the
voice of the poem disappears into the valley of ice after being run down with a stone
cart, he exclaims: Aha! You will never meet the dead fire again.
54 Snow, p. 56.
55 Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung, Pelican Books, Baltimore, Maryland, (1975),
p. 43-44.

"In the winter holidays we tramped through the fields, up and down mountains, along city walls,
and across the streams and rivers. If it rained we took off our shirts and called it a rain bath.
When the sun was hot we also doffed our shirts and called it a sun bath. In the spring winds we
shouted that this was a new sport called 'wind bathing.' We slept in the open when frost was
already falling and even in November swam in the cold rivers. All of this went on under the title
of 'body training.'" 56

Mao saw the countryside as emblematic of purity, an image common in Chinese

popular culture. In his study of Butterfly fiction, Perry Link has observed the prevalence
of an idealized view of rural life. As the West stands in these books as a symbol for a
cluster of problems associated with modern, urban life, the countryside is a symbolic tonic,
a sentimentalized haven where natural harmony remains intact:.

"All the values which were part of the fictional ideal of 'old style' life- including simplicity,
tranquillity, honesty, respect for elders and observance of family duties- were, from the
perspective of Shanghai, primarily 'countryside' values... If you asked a peasant a question, he
would not manipulate you with his answer." 57

Link calls the country "a prior"- that is, it existed both before cities, and lay
beneath a superficial urban encrustation. Cities might be destroyed, but the countryside
would endure; moreover, the country was the true soul of China, not the city. This
perhaps explains Mao's chilling remark that atom bombs were "paper tigers" and he had
no fear of nuclear war.
In Yanan, then, encamped with his army of saints in pursuit of the millennium, Mao
crystallized the ideological rhetoric of cultural revolution.
In May of 1942, Mao held a series of "Talks at the Yang Conference on Literature
and Art." The purpose of the talks, and the conference in general, was to reign in the
naturally independent spirits of artists and channel their energies in a direction useful to
the revolution. Quoting Lenin, he called literature and art "cogs and wheels in the whole
revolutionary machine." 8 "Literature and art are subordinate to politics," he says, "and

yet in turn exert enormous influence on it." 9 Culture, of course, is a crucial determinant,

and must be controlled as the ancient emperors controlled the waters. One must be very
careful about types of expression that influence things badly. "There is indeed such a thing
as literature and art that serves exploiters and oppressors," to be on the alert for, he says.
"Feudal" literature and art serve the landlord class, "Bourgeois" art serves the middle
class, and "slave" culture serves the needs of imperialists. Only "proletarian" art and
literature has any use or value.
"Culture that serves exploiters" generates a feudal-bourgeois-imperialist nexus
that covers a lot of ground, totalistically rejecting the traditional Chinese culture as well
as the culture of Western modernity. Furthermore, this cultural revolution must be
"institutionalized" as an endless struggle against enemies which are simultaneously both

56 Snow, p. 147.
57 Link, Mandarin Ducks, p. 202.
58 Mao Tse-tung, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Language Press,
Peking, (1976), p. 299.
59 Bonnie S. McDougall, Mao Zedong's "Talks at the Yan'an Conference on Literature
and Art: A Translation of the 1943 Text with Commentary, Center for Chinese
Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, (1980), p. 75.

external political forces and internal cultural forces. Adding one additional loophole, Mao
then postulates yet another proscribed category of literature and art, that which "serves
the Special branch and may be called 'Special' literature and art: it may be revolutionary
on the surface, but in reality it belongs to the three categories above." 0 6

In his talks, he emphasizes the Confucian-sounding need to strive for the elusive
goal of the "correct relationship" between culture and revolution, so as to obtain its
"correct development," guided by the "correct understanding," because, he says, "many
comrades have frequently strayed from the correct position." 1 6

"Incorrect working styles still exist to a serious degree among our writers and artists, and... many
shortcomings such as idealism, foreign dogmatism, idle speculation, contempt for practice, and
isolation from the masses still exist among our comrades." 62

The writers, he says, have let themselves grow "remote from the people." He tells
them, "yours is the language of intellectuals, theirs is the language of the popular
masses." 3 The proletarian audience is the ideal. Mao confesses that once, like Mencius,

he had "felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, and that workers,
peasants, and soldiers were in general rather dirty." But having jettisoned his bourgeois
feelings, he now sees that unreformed intellectuals "are not only spiritually unclean in
many respects but even physically unclean." 4 Here, Mao's emphasis on "clean" and

"unclean" anticipates the vehement, exaggerated rhetoric by which enemies of the state
would be linguistically reduced to a subhuman status in order to be "struggled" with.
Most ominously, he suggests that while most of the writers and artists assembled in
Yanan are genuinely committed to the struggle, some may merely be opportunists, while
others may even be "spies sent by the enemy or the Special Branch of the Nationalist
Party masquerading as writers and artists." 5 6

In all, literature and art must be considered a proper diet to promote healthful,
balanced living. As communication, it is to function as a top-down instrument of social
control. Literature and government policy were identical and, as Gunn says:
"Because Confucianism was a totalistic system, it could only be replaced by the same. In doing so
Mao also inverted the rhetorical invention of the May Fourth intellectuals that they spoke with
the voice of the popular will. By successfully arguing that, as a government leader, his vision
represented the interests of the masses to which the writers must adjust and adapt, he neutralized
the intellectual's claim that they commanded the moral superiority of the popular voice as
opposed to the government itself."66

Moreover, Mao's rhetorical trap of "permanent revolution" made it impossible to

escape its construction- if you questioned the revolution, you could only be a reactionary.
Lu Xun died in 1936. It is unlikely he would have felt comfortable writing within
the narrow yet treacherously vague limits of "proletarian culture," nor he would have

60 ibid., p. 64.
61 ibid., pp. 57-58.
62 ibid., p. 83.
63 ibid., p. 60.
64 ibid., p. 61.
65 ibid., p. 64.
66 Gunn, p. 50.

agreed to Mao's hydraulic damming and channeling of art and literature, but we'll never
know. Being dead, he quickly became a useful rhetorical construction.
His canonization followed quickly. He is the only author mentioned by name in
Mao's Yanan "talks." In "On New Democracy," Mao hails Lu Xun as "the greatest and the
most militant standard bearer of this new cultural force... the supreme commander in
China's cultural revolution... an unprecedented national hero on the cultural
front." 7 And in his "On Lu Xun," Mao says that he should be regarded as a "great Chinese

saint- the saint of modern China, just as Confucius was the saint of old China." 8

On the fifth anniversary of Lu Xun's death, the Society for Research on Lu Xun
held a rally in Yanan's Central Auditorium. Over one thousand people attended, singing a
"Lu Xun Commemoration Song," and saluting a huge portrait of him. Speeches and
reports were given, and each participant received an interesting souvenir: a small booklet,
a pocket-sized anthology of maxims and epigrams taken from his writings entitled
"Quotations From Mr. Lu Xun." The selection of quotes ignored the broad spectrum of Lu
Xun's thought; most reflected a merciless and bloodthirsty attitude towards ones enemies,
traditionalists and reactionaries, and glorified the "spirit of struggle." 9

7. "The Old Dirt Washed Away by Blood"

The victory of the communists in 1949 validated the legitimacy of their cultural
position: Chiang and the traditionalists had been repudiated, while Mao's anti-
traditionalism constituted an aspect of the moral virtue of the CCP and contributed to its
decisive victory.
Realizing that "political cohesion in China required predictability in language and
writing to build the nation," 0 the CCP embarked on a program to normalize the Chinese

language, codifying many of the May Fourth era reforms into a manual of style and
grammar that was published in 1952 and became a standard educational text. 1 7

Propagandist Hu Qiaomu exhorted the masses to "employ the language of the fatherland
correctly; struggle for the purity and the health of the language!" 2

The CCP oversaw the production of didactic fiction and entertainment. As Perry
Link explains, the aesthetic was a hybrid of May Fourth and Butterfly literary styles. The
new novels stressed the social realism and political orientation of the May Fourth style,
while eschewing that movement's "Western" flavor. And, though shorn of "feudal"
romanticism and traditional morality, the new party fiction aped the Butterfly writer's
popular appeal: action took precedence over description, unusual and exciting events were
67 Mao Tse-tung, "On New Democracy," Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung- Volume 3,
1939-1941, International Publishers, New York, (1955), p. 144.
68 Mao Tse-tung, "On Lu Hsun," Mao Papers- An Anthology and Bibliography, Jerome
Chen, editor, Oxford University Press, London, (1970), p. 14.
69 David Holm, "Lu Xun in the Period 1936-1949- The Making of a Chinese Gorki," Lu
Xun and his Legacy, Leo Ou-fan Lee, editor, University of California Press, Berkely,
California, (1985), p. 170.
70 Gunn, p. 56.
71 ibid., p. 53.
72 ibid., p. 51.

recounted, characters were unambiguously good or evil, and good always triumphed in the
end. 3 But, as Cyril Birch says of these books:

"The post-1942 work of fiction can be assigned to the realist mode only if we accept the arrival of
the millennium on the mainland. It is not enough just to admire and welcome the spectacular
improvement in the lot of the vast majority of the Chinese people. We would have to believe that
human nature itself has been fundamentally changed before we could find 'realism' in fiction
where all behavior patterns are dictated by class origin, where the motivations of positive types
can be paralleled only by the lives of epic heroes or saints in other literatures, and where the
happy ending is mandatory, a formal requirement." 74

Indoctrination was everywhere. In early education, children learned to read with

stories about revolutionary martyrs and the good deeds of model children who exposed
the perfidy of class enemies. Geography books emphasized the bondage of Taiwan. Math
text books gave students problems calculating the "distance of enemy ships from China,"
"compound burdens on the peasantry of pre-liberation China," or the "rate of
unemployment in America." 5 The so-called "Mao generation," born between 1940 and

1960, was raised in this atmosphere. Thus, Evelyn Rawski was able to observe in 1979
"The significant difference between post-1949 materials and their traditional predecessors lies in
the unified political culture that now controls even the popular genres. Unlike the traditional
world, where popular literature served as a vehicle for the
transmission of non-Confucian values, Chinese society today is one in which political authority
has come to effectively control all media. From this point of view, Chairman Mao may indeed
have been the most successful teacher China has ever known." 76

It is not possible to overstate the significance of mass communication to the

phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution. By virtue of its impact, hundreds of millions of
people understood a common conceptual vocabulary and shared a common system of
belief. Culture and consciousness were the first Chinese communist "supercollectives."
As the 1950's progressed, divisions arose within the CCP over the direction
Chinese economic development should take. A group of pragmatists, led by Deng
Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqi, stressed a moderate path of investment and growth to be
planned and overseen by a centralized bureaucracy. A generation of engineers and
scientists would be nurtured and developed, ultimately to provide China with the
technology necessary to achieve modernization. They were interested in working closely
with advisors (and investment) from the Soviet Union on large-scale projects like the
construction of hydroelectric dams. Peng Dehuai, the chief of the armed forces, was eager
to modernize, and professionalize, the People's Army along soviet lines.
Mao, on the other hand, held fast to the ideals of Yanan. For Mao, the ascetic
virtue of ideologically committed, self-sacrificing cadres working together in egalitarian
harmony was not nostalgia. It was his vision of China's future. Bureaucracy was anathema
to him, as representative of the traditional culture as bound feet; his temperament, forged
73 Link, "Traditional Style Popular Urban Fiction," from Goldman, ed., Modern Chinese
Literature, p. 348.
74 Cyril Birch, "Change and Continuity in Chinese Fiction," from Goldman, ed. Modern
Chinese Fiction, p. 403.
75 Helen F. Siu and Zelda Stern, editors, Mao's Harvest- Voices from China's New
Generation, Oxford University Press, London, (1983), p. xix.
76 Rawski, Education, p. 180.

in the loose organization of a guerrilla insurgency, was ill-suited to the practical realities of
governance. To Mao, the pragmatic veneration of expertise led towards a new elite, and
went against his belief that technology was overrated. The masses were the source of all
power, and, united with correct ideology and armed with sufficient revolutionary zeal,
could accomplish the impossible. Specialists and experts were out of touch with the
Mao insisted on embarking on a reckless program of industrial modernization and
agricultural collectivization that he called the Great Leap Forward. In late 1957, huge
posters of Mao began appearing everywhere as he applied his nascent cult of personality
to mobilizing the masses to achieve heaven on earth. Even Liu Shaoqi
went along, coining his slogan: "Hard work for a few years, happiness for a thousand." 7 7

Agricultural communes were each to have a furnace for the smelting of steel,
which would then be used to make farm machinery. Peasants and workers chopped down
forests to fuel the fires and melted down everything from doorknobs to pots and pans,
resulting in 3 million tons of completely useless metal. 8

More ominous were the changes imposed on China's agricultural methods.

Collectivization had placed cadres in charge of farmers; close-planting and deep-ploughing
were advocated, which left crops vulnerable to bad weather. Crop yields fell. Afraid to
report failure, the cadres and party officials reported absurd increases in crop yields, but in
any case it was difficult to assess the real size of harvests, as the central State Statistical
Board had been shut down and replaced by local "good news reporting stations." And
anyone who spoke out against these absurdities was labeled a "Malthusian reactionary"
and ignored. 9 By 1959, China had entered into what may well be the greatest famine in

human history, three years of starvation which claimed nearly 30 million lives.
In that light, it is more than reasonable to call Mao's Great Leap Forward a failure.
The Russians had opposed the Great Leap program, but Mao in turn was highly critical of
Khrushchev's "de-Stalinizing" of Russia and his endeavors to liberalize the Soviet
economy. "Khrushchev" and "revisionist" soon were added to Mao's list of rhetorical
villains, along with feudal landlords, bourgeois industrialists, and foreign imperialists. In
1960, the Russians withdrew all aid and advisors.
At the Lushan party conference in the summer of 1959, Peng Dehuai attacked
Mao. Mao responded by accusing Peng of collusion with the Soviets and engineered his
ouster. Still, Mao's authority was damaged; he eventually stepped down as head of the
National People's Congress, while retaining the office of party Chairman. Liu Shaoqi took
his place.
"Filial piety" is only one side of the Confucian coin; rebellion is the other. Implicit
in the "rectification of names" (the principle that things must correspond to their names) is
the understanding that if a ruler is not a ruler, that is, if he has lost the Mandate of Heaven
(and no longer lives up to his title) then, according to Mencius, the people have a right,
even a duty, to rebel. "To rebel is justified." 0 But the emperor could protect himself from

blame with a rhetorical device, as Thomas Metzger points out:

77 Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts- Mao's Secret Famine, Free Press, New York, (1996),
p. 59.
78 Craig Dietrich, People's China- A Brief History, 3rd Ed.,Oxford University Press,
New York, (1998), p. 133.
79 Becker, p. 79.
80 Shaorong, p. 80.

"The emperor repeatedly charged his censors with having taken the wrong side in the struggle
that was continuously being waged in the bureaucracy. Evildoers, an amorphous group with a
totally fluid membership, were always present and were often referred to by the emperor in broad,
unspecific terms as lurking 'in the dark,' 'demon like,' pulling strings behind the scenes in a
'hateful' way. Evil practices had to be uprooted the way a doctor cured an infected abscess or
'tumor.'" 81

Heaven had been promised, but hell had been delivered. If the Great Leap failed,
however, it could not be the fault of Mao, whose thought was held to be "invincible." It
failed, and disaster had ensued, because lingering bad and traditional elements had not yet
been purified from the body politic. This was the dry, brittle ideology that fueled the mania
of the Cultural Revolution, and it was to ignite over the issue of culture.

8. "Ox Freaks and Snake Monsters"

It is not uncommon for a modern, Western culture to ignore or neglect its past,
focusing instead on the mundane, practical needs of the day or the demands of the future.
For a culture to seek to completely eradicate its past, and engage in an active program of
destruction, suggests an entirely different relationship to cultural heritage, one more
similar to passionate love and worship than the more Laodecian attitudes of Western
The Cultural Revolution presents a unique mystery, a multi-dimensional, almost
inexhaustible object of study which will continue
to intrigue scholars for years to come. It has been considered a purge or a struggle for
power by historians and political scientists who have studied it carefully. But purges and
power struggles are nothing new under the sun. It has been assessed as the "unintended
result of administrative policies," as an accident or a mistake. 2 It has been psycho-

analyzed as mass catharsis (a deeper "purge") or mass hysteria, but modern China is not
81 Thomas Metzger, Escape from Predicament- Neo Confucianism and China's
Evolving Political Culture, Columbia University Press, New York, (1977), p. 171.
In the English language there is the four-letter word; in Chinese there is the four-
character term of abuse. In 1955, Mao Zedong had publicly denounced "Right
opportunists inside the Party who . . . act in concert with the forces of capitalism" by
calling them "evil spirits and monstrous freaks" (yaomo guiguai). ["Zhongguo
nongcun de shehuizhuyi gaochao de anyu" [Prefaces to Socialist upsurge in China's
countryside], in Mao Zedong xuanji, vol. 5, p. 233.] After the summer of 1957, the
"ox-monsters and snake-demons" became synonymous with the original four
categories of non-People plus the "bourgeois rightists." From 1963 to 1966, ox-
monsters and snake-demons were among the designated targets of the rural so-
called "Four Cleanups" movement. In one of the very first programmatic documents
of that movement, it was said that one must "expose all the ox-monsters and snake-
demons who do damage to socialism."
82 Lynn T. White III, "The Cultural Revolution as an Unintended Result of
Administrative Policies," New Perspectives of the Cultural Revolution, William A.
Joseph, Christine Wong and David Zweig, editors, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, (1991), p. 99.

the only society ever to have been seized by "extraordinary madness and the delusion of
crowds." Certainly it was all these things and more. It was a uniquely Chinese
phenomenon, but not so unique that it offers no lessons relevant to other cultures.
The Cultural Revolution was a brutal, violent event that left a hundred million
wounded victims. 3 Much of the brutality was accompanied by a malignant silliness that

makes violence and the struggle for power seem like the only familiar aspects of human
nature to be found in it. It is too easy for Western observers to dismiss the Cultural
Revolution as "madness," and many did. But it is important to remember that, like the
dark looniness of "Alice in Wonderland," the Cultural Revolution possessed an internal
logic and was not irrational, especially to those who engaged in it.
The conceptual vocabulary of totalistic anti-traditionalism had put the Chinese in a
rhetorical box, a new, ideological "iron house" which allowed them little room to think and
few tools to think with. The result, in the words of Lin Yu-sheng, was a crisis of Chinese
Externally, China in the mid 1960's saw itself as a nation alone and surrounded by
enemies. The split with the Soviet Union led to tensions along their border; to the South,
India, with Soviet assistance, was interfering with Chinese hegemony in Tibet, and in
Vietnam the United States was escalating its presence; to the East lay Taiwan, an eternal
thorn in the side of the CCP. Internally, Mao feared that his glorious revolution would not
be permanent at all but would succumb to corruption and "revisionism." Only a return to
the Spartan values of Yanan could save it.
Deng Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqi continued their development and training of
experts, but unfortunately for the ideals of an egalitarian society, the best educational
opportunities went to those who tested well on exams, the children of intelligentsia, party
cadres, and what remained of the bourgeoisie. Mao felt that the children of peasants,
proletarians, and army veterans should have easier access to those educational
opportunities, and that standards should be lowered to allow it. Mao had no interest in the
creation of a technocracy, and in his eyes, an emphasis on book-learning had led to the
decay and weakness of the Qing. Mao told students that "rather than keeping your eyes
open and listening to boring lectures, it is better to get some refreshing sleep." 4

Lin Biao, having taken command of the PLA, proceeded to implement Mao's
ideals. Lin stressed Four Priorities: humans over weapons; political work over other work;
ideology over politics; and "living" thought over books. A human-oriented army prepared
to fight a guerrilla war took precedence over the expensive, professional, weapons-
oriented army that Peng Dehuai had advocated. The PLA would mingle with the masses as
they had done at Yanan; by 1963, Mao was calling for the entire nation to learn from its
example. In 1965, Lin Biao eliminated all military ranks in a gesture of Maoist
egalitarianism, replacing the older, Soviet-style uniforms with green khaki fatigues, the
same for men as for women. And the PLA saw to it that the famous "Little Red Book,
Quotations From Chairman Mao, an embodiment of living thought, was published and
distributed. 5

The early 1960's saw another significant literary event. In 1961, a play written by
Wu Han, the Vice-Mayor of Beijing and a well-placed party official, was performed.

83 Lucian W. Pye, The Mandarin and the Cadre: China's Political Cultures, Center for
Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, (1988), p. 109, note 1.
84 Shaorong, p. 88.
85 Dietrich, p. 167.

Entitled Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, it ostensibly concerned an historical event from
the Ming dynasty, but in keeping with an ancient Chinese tradition of veiled, indirect
criticism of authority, it was in fact a satire of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent
removal of Peng Dehuai. Mao and his wife Jiang Qing were outraged. Mao saw the play
as a violation of the precepts for the arts he had laid down at Yanan, but his call for a
rebuke of Wu Han and for broader cultural reforms were ignored by the bureaucracy.
Even without administrative power, Mao was still the pre-eminent political force in
China. He seemed to operate only on an oracular, mythic, and ideal plane of being, which
gave him considerable symbolic gravity. Mao embodied, in the words of Lucian Pye, "an
exaggerated ideal of the great man as leader- the emperor, generalissimo, chairman- who is
an amplification of the Confucian model of the father as the ultimate authority in the
family." 6 In traditional China, the emperor was considered to have a "golden mouth." He

had only to utter a command, and it was done. Lin Biao gave these instructions to the
PLA concerning the words of chairman Mao: "those we understand, we must carry out.
Those we do not understand, we still carry out." Eventually, it became virtually a national
policy that Mao Zedong thought was infallible, a kind of "holy spirit" that made all things
possible. 7 Even Zhou Enlai stated publicly that "Mao Zedong Thought is the sole criterion

of truth." 8 This is not to say that Mao was a new emperor, or even that he thought of

himself in that way; only that, in certain ways perhaps, the figure of Mao fit certain
traditional archetypes, especially to the broader masses. In any case, Mao was one of the
masters of the great art-form of the 20th century, the art of mass power politics:
"When Mao Zedong took the 'foreign' ideology of Marxism-Leninism and added his own 'Mao
Zedong Thought,' and claimed that the result was the 'essence' of Chinese civilization, to be
defended against foreign contamination, he performed a feat of legerdemain that was one of his
most astonishing achievements." 89

Over the next few years he steadily turned up the heat of his public statements, and
any resistance he encountered from the pragmatic faction made him redouble his effort.
Concerned with backsliding and revisionism, he warned in 1962 "never forget class
struggle!" In 1963 he pushed for a Socialist Education Movement which would revitalize
the revolutionary spirit of the countryside by rectifying party cadres. 0 In 1964, impatient

with centralized bureaucrats and pragmatists who had put the brakes on his
programs of reform, and concerned that party cadres were becoming a new Mandarinate,
Mao announced "we must boldly unleash the masses." 1 That same year, he complained

that "operas abound in feudal emperors, kings, generals, ministers, scholars and beautiful
women, but the ministry of culture doesn't care a bit." 2 In 1965, Mao asked, "what are

we to do about revisionism that crops up at the party center?" 3 But he had a pretty good

idea. He ordered Peng Zhen, Wu Han's superior, to criticize the play Hai Rui Dismissed

86 Lucian W. Pye, Asian Power and Politics, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, (1985), p. 185.
87 Shaorong, p. 141.
88 Schoenals, ed., p. 27.
89 Pye, Asian Power and Politics, p. 195.
90 Dietrich, pp. 152-53.
91 ibid., p. 156.
92 ibid., p. 163.
93 ibid., p. 174.

from Office, and its author. When Peng endeavored to de-politicize criticism of Hai Rui,
Mao saw to it that a scathing ideological polemic on the play be published in a Shanghai
newspaper, without consulting Peng. The ensuing power struggle between the two ruined
Peng Zhen's career by April of 1966, leaving Mao and his wife in charge of China's vast
apparatus of propaganda. Things moved very quickly from that moment. A current of
rebellion had been unleashed which would soon become, in Craig Dietrich's words, "a
Niagara of rhetoric, slogans, accusations, denials, directives, and, above all, Mao Zedong
Thought." 4

In his fascinating study of the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, To Rebel is

Justified, communications scholar Shaorong Huang examines its symbolic and
psychological dimensions, and concludes that while the Cultural Revolution was of course
a political event, it was also a creation of rhetoric, the result of a kind of self-amplifying
feedback loop of rhetoric that reached a destructive volume. Mao, he says, "rhetorically
constructed the need for change... used rhetorical strategies to interact with the populace,
and... his rhetorical power succeeded in directing people's attention." 5

In a circular from May 16 Mao warned that "counter-revolutionary revisionists"

were "nestling in our midst" and had "sneaked into the party, the government, the army
and various spheres of culture." If nothing was done to stop them, they would soon "seize
power and turn the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the
bourgeoisie." 6

On May 25, a young woman named Nie Yuanzi, a philosophy instructor at Beijing
University, posted the first of what were to become the famous, ubiquitous "Big Character
Posters." In it, she attacked the university's party committee, and proclaimed her
pleonastic desire to "resolutely, thoroughly, totally and completely wipe out all monsters
and demons and counter-revolutionary revisionists of the Khrushchev type." 7 Mao saw to

it that the text of this poster was published the next day on the front page of the People's
Daily and broadcast on radio. It started a fad.
To protect itself, the party sent out to universities over 400 "work teams" to rein in
and channel student dissent. As a counterstroke, Mao ordered even top-level bureaucrats
like Liu Shaoqi to go out and "learn from the students."
Liu Shaoqi was furious; he should have been frightened. 8 9

Mao's rhetoric went beyond words and into the gestural- China was quickly
becoming a nation in which, as the social fabric came undone, the only things that held
people together were shared processions and rituals revolving around the figure of Mao.
On July 16, Mao swam the Yangzi River near Hankou, accompanied by hundreds
of ecstatic young people. He swam fifteen kilometers in just over an hour, which was seen
not only as an indication of his vitality but as symbolic: "Learn swimming by swimming,
learn struggle through struggle." 9 The event was reported across the nation in red-ink

headlines and was celebrated with firecrackers and festivities. 00


94 ibid., p. 178.
95 Shaorong, p. 5.
96 ibid., p. 22.
97 ibid., 28.
98 Dietrich, p. 184.
99 Shaorong, p. 115.
100 Dietrich, p. 181.

Two days later, he advocated a cleansing chaos and told students to welcome a
revolutionary spirit as "fresh as morning air." 01 1

On August 1, Mao praised Nie Yuanzi's Red Guards for their slogan: "To Rebel is
Justified." And on August 5, Mao put up his own big-character poster, on the door to the
Central Committee's meeting rooms, entitled "Bombard the Headquarters." In it, he
attacked the "tyranny" of the work teams that had been sent to the schools and the
"leading comrades" (Liu Shaoqi and others) who had "enforced a bourgeois dictatorship
and struck down the surging movement of the Great Cultural Revolution of the
Proletariat." 02 Later, the fifty-day period of Liu Shaoqi's work teams would be referred to

as "The White Terror," a rhetorical tarnishing of Liu with Chiang Kaishek's evil of 1927. 03 1

On August 8 the Central Committee announced the "Sixteen Points," which

recognized the creation of mass organizations like the Red Guard for the purpose of
criticizing the establishment, and which basically gave legal sanction to anarchy.
It was announced that Red Guards could travel for free on the nation's railroads, in
order to attend rallies and exchange revolutionary experiences.
Ten days later, the first of eight staggeringly huge mass rallies was held. At dawn
on August 18, one million Red Guard youths assembled in Beijing's enormous Tiananmen
Square, a one hundred acre expanse of flagstones, each numbered for the easy assembly of
cadre units. Mao appeared before this gathering and allowed a teenage girl named Song
Binbin to pin a Red Guard armband on him.
"Bin" means "refined and gentle." Mao asked the girl, "but don't you wish to do
battle?" She changed her name to "Yaowu," meaning "will do battle," and said of that
magical moment:
"When I beheld Chairman Mao and spoke to him and pinned the red brassard around his
venerable arm, I knew boundless joy and an overwhelming sense of duty. My determination to
dare to rebel became overwhelming. I will certainly not fail the Chairman's expectations. I will
do battle! I will create disorder!" 104

Between that day and 26 November 1966, when 2.5 million people shivered in the
cold for what Philip Bridgham called the "psychedelic" experience of seeing Chairman
Mao, over 11 million youths had rallied in the square, their little red books held high. As
Anne Thurston put it, revolt was "infectious."
Mao's goal was an utter and complete transformation of the culture, to return a
billion souls to the state of tabula rasa in order to inscribe upon them the pure poetry of
his ideology. What is amazing about this is not the grandiosity of the project, or its
obvious impossibility, but that so many people agreed with Mao and determined to
attempt it.
At this point, the totalistic mechanism of thought that Lin Yu-sheng identified had
been enlarged and extended to include the rejection of a great deal more than just the old
traditions. While the May Fourth program had advocated Western modernity as a
replacement for the traditions it despised, Mao's Cultural Revolution totalistically rejected
all Western influences as inherently decadent and contrary to the ideological spirit that he
valued. "Mao and his associates at this time were culturally iconoclastic," says Merle

101 Shaorong, p. 37.

102 Dietrich, p. 184.
103 Dietrich, p. 34.
104 Shaorong, p. 40.

Goldman. "They saw May Fourth and traditional culture as representing an elite that was
completely divorced from the needs and experiences of the Chinese masses." And China's
intellectual life in the early 1960's was still dominated by this "cosmopolitan, Westernized,
urban elite." 05

For Mao, the old traditions were always feudal. Foreign influences were invariably
imperialist, and Western modernism was capitalist, poisonous and bourgeois. Khrushchev-
style Marxist revisionism was extremely dangerous as well, as it seemed "correct" but
opened the door for the other, demonic influences. All of the above had to be eradicated if
cultural renovation was to succeed. Anti-traditionalism had metastasized into an
encompassing rejection of every conceivable cultural influence except Mao's vague yet
"pure" ideology. This meant nothing less than the total reformation of everything.
Some of the initial activities of the Cultural Revolution were comical. The Beijing
Red Guards used up all the red paint available in the city painting walls red. They
suggested that traffic should drive on the left side of streets, not the right, because right
was reactionary. Traffic lights also needed to be fundamentally changed: red lights should
mean "go." To have red mean "stop" was counter-revolutionary. 06 The name of the street

in front of the Soviet embassy in Beijing was changed to "Anti-Revisionist Street." 07 1

"Bourgeois" neon signs were destroyed. Herb gardens for traditional Chinese medicine
were destroyed, as were flower gardens; growing and arranging flowers was also
bourgeois. A Red Guard newspaper described "our battle to destroy the counter-
revolutionary revisionist black line in the garden and park system," based on Mao's
"important instructions concerning the revolutionization of flower gardens:"
"The forms of recreation in our gardens and parks, the variety of plants, and other gardening
issues must all, in every respect, give prominence to the propagation of Mao Zedong thought;
make the masses never forget class struggle; constantly get rid of what is bourgeois and foster
what is proletarian; destroy 'self' and establish 'public.'" 108

In Guangzhou, the Revolutionary Workers of the Hairdressing Trade announced an

important campaign to "vigorously and speedily eradicate bizarre bourgeois hairstyles." 09 1

This, however, often meant attacking people of the street and beating them up for
their hairstyles, or cutting off their braids. Anyone wearing peg pants or pointy shoes,
current fashions from Hong Kong, was similarly attacked.
By September of 1966, packs of Red Guards were invading peoples homes and
ransacking them for anything old or foreign, destroying Confucian texts, Buddhist relics,
traditional art, translations of Shakespeare and Western philosophy, any Western-style
clothing or furnishings, whatever was there. Everywhere was the auto da f, huge outdoor
bonfires where books and property were festively immolated. On free rail travel, bands of
Red Guards criss-crossed the nation, vandalizing museums and ancient temples, and
whenever possible invading bad-class homes and terrorizing the occupants.
Intellectuals and cultural officials were the first to be attacked. Mao had seen to it
that their political protectors had been eliminated, as in the case of Peng Zhen, or

105 Merle Goldman, China's Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (1981), p. 125.
106 Shaorong, p. 41.
107 Schoenals, ed., p. 188.
108 ibid., p. 206.
109 ibid., p. 210.

neutralized, in the case of Liu Shaoqi. It was open season on teachers, writers and artists,
anyone in the arts who could be perceived as traditional, or bourgeois, or worst of all,
Wu Han and his family were hounded mercilessly. A woman named Zhang Yidong
recalled in an article called "Comrade Wu Han, I Apologize," that at age 15 she and her
friends had heard the call "let's go struggle against Wu Han!" They broke into his house in
a mob, and she recalls gazing into his "kindly eyes" as she pasted a revolutionary slogan on
his head, and confesses remorse for what happened later. 10 Abused and beaten, Wu Han's

wife and brother were basically persecuted to death. Wu Han survived many "struggle
sessions" but eventually died in 1969 of medical neglect in the countryside to which he had
been "rusticated." Wu Han's daughter, Wu Xiaoyan, was ten and his son was two when he
and his wife were imprisoned. The two children wound up living alone "in a run-down
room on the outskirts of Beijing. When they dared to go out, the Red Guards surrounded
them, beat them, stoned them and called them sons of bitches." Wu Xiaoyan was said to
have been driven mad, and committed suicide in 1975. 11 1

The brutal rhetoric that Mao inspired made this abuse possible. By rectification of
names, these class enemies, these "black elements" were not people at all, but "ox freaks
and snake monsters," or "ox ghosts and snake spirits," creatures out of dark superstition.
Eminent university professors and administrators were humiliated. They were
brought before jeering crowds, spat upon and beaten, and forced to wear dunce-caps and
heavy wooden placards around their necks bearing inscriptions like "anti-revolutionary,
revisionist element." Some were made to stand for hours in pain in what became known as
the "airplane position," back bent and arms outstretched. Says Merle Goldman, "those
who were not arrested, persecuted to death, or did not commit suicide were sent to work
camps. The persecution drove some of their family members to mental breakdowns from
which they never recovered." 12 1

According to Mao, a revolution was not a dinner party, but the Red Guards were
having the time of their lives. They published their factional newsletters at government
expense, rode the rails for free to revolutionary shrines like Yanan and proudly sported
souvenir buttons from their "revolutionary tourism." They were ecstatic in their veneration
of Mao. They greeted each other with a fervent "long live Chairman Mao," and said the
same upon parting. Thousands would perform together the "Loyalty Dance" to Mao,
demonstrating the Three Loyalties (to Mao, Mao's thought, and Mao's revolutionary
line) and expressing the Four Boundlesses (boundless love, loyalty, reverence and worship
of Mao):

"Just stretching your hands toward the sky and then drawing them back to your stomach to
symbolize the idea that Chairman Mao was the sun rising from the heart to the sky." 113

They sang hymns to Mao, "The East is Red"

The East is red
The sun rises
China has brought forth a Mao Zedong
110 ibid., p. 329-331.
111 Anne F. Thurston, Enemies of the People, Alfred Knopf, New York, (1987), p. 130.
112 Goldman, China's Intellectuals, p.133.
113 Shaorong, p. 146.

He works for the people's happiness
He is the people's savior

and "The Great Helmsman"

Sailing the sea depends on the helmsman
Life and growth depend on the sun
Rain and dewdrops nourish the crops
Making revolution depends on Mao Zedong thought
Fish can't leave the water
Nor melons leave the vine
The revolutionary masses can't live without the Communist Party
Mao Zedong Thought is the sun that forever shines. 114

Mao's picture was placed in taxicabs and on the front doors of houses to repel evil
spirits, a latter-day "gate god." 15 And people in danger would often yell "long live

Chairman Mao" instead of "help," as if Mao's invocation might magically send aid. 16 1

Rituals involving the deity of Mao brought people together (though refusal to participate
would have looked "reactionary") in secular ceremonies that reinforced, legitimated, and
incorporated into daily routine the sacred and therefore unquestionable quality of his
The "Little Red Book" was crucial. It was a breviary, a compass, a protection
against evil. Everyone had to carry a copy with them at all times- Red Guards might stop
people on the streets and demand the recitation of a passage. Many people memorized the
entire 270 pages of it. In the second half of 1966 alone, 350,000,000 copies of Quotations
from Chairman Mao were printed and distributed. 17 1

The Red Book was to be consulted at all times, to resolve all questions in life,
though not, as the writer Alberto Moravia observed, private questions because for
proper revolutionary consciousness, there was no such thing as "private, intimate, personal
life." After visiting China in 1967, Moravia interpreted the Red Book brilliantly. "The
book," he says " has two functions: to guide man in his daily life, and at the same time to
remind man that his daily life is not, and must not be, any other that political life." 18 1

Moravia sees the Red Book as the "axis of a system of ritual behavior," and compares it to
the maxims of Confucius. Very much like the old imperial examination system, it was more
important to memorize the Red Book than to understand it:
"Good memory is a form of intelligence. And what is the significance of this preference for
memory? obviously, it is this: memory holds and preserves what is not and should not be subject
to criticism and hence to change. In other words, memory is a mental process that serves to
confer authority, to embalm something that should not decay." 119

Shaorong Huang says of the Red Book rituals: "The expression of homage to a
common sacred object provided people with a sense of belonging and sharedness. People
114 ibid., p. 143.
115 ibid., p. 142.
116 ibid., p. 141.
117 ibid., p. 147.
118 Alberto Moravia, The Red Book and the Great Wall- An Impression of Mao's
China, translated by Ronald Strom, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New Youk, (1968), p.
119 ibid., p. 40.

felt secure, holy, and politically correct when involved in such practices." 20 During those

years in China, "feeling secure" was as rare as diamonds.

Cultural production at this point had practically ground to a halt. Bookstores
carried nothing on their shelves but the Red Book. Jiang Qing staged a series of
excruciatingly dull revolutionary operas. It didn't matter. The Cultural Revolution was a
grand carnival spectacle. 21 Life itself became a vast post-1949, "Duck and Butterfly"

influenced revolutionary novel, with plenty of action, plot twists, exciting and unusual
events, unambiguous characters of clear-cut good or evil, and a dramatic role for everyone
to play, all predicated upon the happiest ending ever. When asked by Anne Thurston why
the Cultural Revolution happened, Wang Hongbao answered simply, "I think it is because
their lives are so boring." 22

After having "struggled with" and "rectified" the artists and intellectuals, Mao
turned the Red Guards on the CCP bureaucracy. By the winter of 1966-67, Liu Shaoqi,
labeled "the first capitalist roader in the party," and Deng Xiaopeng, "the second capitalist
roader," had been purged. Deng survived the Cultural Revolution; Liu did not. While this
is frequently regarded as the centerpiece to the "power struggle" interpretation of the
Cultural Revolution, its important to remember Mao's dislike of bureaucracy. The
centralized bureaucracy, with its emphasis on gradual technological and material progress,
did not move fast enough for Mao, and its system of government was the opposite of the
republican virtue of his Yanan ideal. Furthermore, China had been gripped by bureaucracy
for thousands of years; to rebel against bureaucracy was identical to rebelling against
tradition. Mao wanted to de-centralize things, and things de-centralized very quickly.
The attack on the ministries followed. In the "January Storm" of 1967, more than
twenty ministries were seized by revolutionary rebels, including the Foreign Ministry.
Zhou Enlai had tried to restrain Red Guards from taking their abusive struggle to scientists
and scientific institutions, but the intimate connection between the bureaucrats and the
scientific elite made the high-level ministries concerned with science and technology
attractive targets for "making a mess, the bigger the better." Merle Goldman reports that
even the "Seventh Ministry of Machine Building, which directed aircraft and missile
production, came to a standstill because of Red Guards' rampages through the ministry."
Scientists were struggled with and rusticated and "a generation of scientists was lost." This
mattered little to Red Guards, who knew Mao's thought would create "a host of miracles,"
inspiring the masses to technological and scientific breakthroughs without the help of
experts. 23

The children of party cadres formed their own revolutionary units, as did the
children of other elements of society. Soon there were dozens of Red Guard factions, all
claiming to represent the true left, to be adhering closest to Mao Zedong Thought, while
their opponents were either "rightists", "counter-revolutionaries", or the most remarkable
rhetorical construction of all, "ultra-leftists", whose ideological position was construed to
be so "left" that they, too, endangered the revolution. Immense frustration was spilling
over into intense factional violence.
The summer of 1967 saw tremendous upheaval and brought China to the brink of
civil war. In Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, utter anarchy reigned. PLA arsenals were

120 Shaorong, p. 150.

121 Thurston, p. 125.
122 ibid., p. 124.
123 Goldman, China's Intellectuals, p. 137.

looted for weapons, buildings blazed, corpses hung from trees, and young female Red
Guards were seen carrying baskets filled with severed ears and noses from males of a rival
faction. 24 In Wuhan, a mass general strike threatened to shut down China's industrial

heartland. It was finally quelled when the PLA sent in three infantry divisions and one
paratroop division, as well as sending navy gunboats up the Yangzi. 25 In September, Mao

called for order. Youths were rounded up and put into "study classes." The most violent
phase of the Cultural Revolution was over, though aspects of it would persist until Mao's
death in 1976.
In late July of 1968 the Red Guards were officially terminated, followed by a
spontaneous, darkly absurd, and haunting ritual, as perplexing and imaginative as any of
Lu Xun's parables.
On 5 August 1968, Arshad Husain, the foreign minister from Pakistan, gave Mao a
basket of mangoes. He in turn gave them over to the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda
Team of Qinghua University. They then placed the fruit on a bright red table outdoors at
the center of the campus and shouted "long live Chairman Mao!" People lined up to file
past and look at the display. Later, the mangoes were preserved individually in jars of
formaldehyde labeled "Let Chairman Mao's Proletarian Revolutionary Line Be Engraved
In Our Hearts Forever!"
The mangoes were sent to different parts of the country, to be viewed by
thousands more, secured solemnly behind glass, and protected by honor guards.
Eventually, requests from far and wide for mango visits outnumbered the available
mangoes, so a batch of wax replicas were made, simulacra for the faithful to conjure
with. 26

There's something eerily premodern about all this. The problem that the May
Fourth, New Culture thinkers grappled with was the problem of modernity. They
concluded that only a totalistic rejection of tradition would allow China to modernize,
coupled with a simultaneous embrace of all things Western. In this they far out-paced the
Chinese masses.
Dire circumstances hardened that position. The victory of the Communists turned
it into orthodoxy, but Mao added to it orthodoxies of his own. To totalistic anti-
traditionalism, he added an equally totalistic rejection of the West, of bureaucracy and
technological expertise, and of "revisionist" Marxism. The slogan of the Shanghai
Commune was "Overthrow Everything!"
What, then, was to be the basis for China's modernization? Modernity forces
compromise, especially on philosophies based upon agrarian virtues. Modernity is a largely
urban phenomenon, messy, complex, corrupt and corrupting. On some level, in addition to
being an attack on tradition, it seems to me that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
was an all-out attack on modernity.
Interestingly, biographer Stuart Schram finds Mao's attitudes toward economic
modernization were "profoundly ambiguous." 27 1

"Although scientific and technical modernization was a central and crucial strand in Mao's
conception of socialist development, one may legitimately ask whether his broader vision of the

124 Thurston, p. 124.

125 Shaorong, p. 63.
126 ibid., p. 69.
127 Stuart Schram, ed, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung, Cambridge University Press,
London (1989), p. 178.

Chinese revolution, even as he entertained it in 1949, would ultimately prove compatible with
such technical modernization." 128

And, as Mao himself said in April of 1969, somewhat wistful and melancholic
about his days as a bandit-hero in Yanan:

"For years we did not have any such thing as salaries. We had no eight-tier wage system. We had
only a fixed amount of food, three mace of oil and five of salt. If we got 1 1/2 catties of millet, that
was great... Now we have entered the cities. This is a good thing. If we hadn't entered the cities,
Chi'ang Kai-sheck would be operating them. But it is also a bad thing, because it has caused our
party to deteriorate." 129

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128 ibid., p. 111.

129 ibid., p. 178. In trying to make sense of their country's turbulent modern history, Chinese
intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one
or another accidental event had happened differently? For decades it was a sort of parlor game to guess
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and whom Mao Zedong praised in 1942 as "the bravest, most correct national hero," could have survived
in Maoland had he lived beyond 1949. Eight years, most people said. If he had somehow managed to
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Mao Tse-tung. Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Foreign Language Press, Peking. (1976).
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Moravia, Alberto. The Red Book and the Great Wall- An Impression of Mao's China. translated by Ronald
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Pye, Lucian W. Asian Power and Politics. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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