The Right Coast

June 21, 2005
The Teaching Company's Nostalgia for Mao's China
By Gail Heriot

This is an excerpt from Red Guard: From Schoolboy to "Little General" in Mao's China by Ken Ling, written about the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story takes place at a secondary school in Xiamen, where the author was a student:

"At twelve o'clock ... as a few of us were on our way back from a swim ..., we heard screams and shouts as we approached the school gate. Some schoolmates ran up to us shouting, 'The struggle has begun! The struggle has begun!'

I ran inside. On the athletic field and farther inside, before a new four-story classroom building, I saw rows of teachers, about 40 or 50 in all, with black ink poured over their heads and faces so that they were now in reality a 'black gang.' Hanging on their necks were placards with words such as 'reactionary academic so-and-so,' 'corrupt ringleader so-and-so,' 'class enemy so-and-so,' 'capitalist roader so-and-so": all epithets taken from the newspapers. On each placard was a red cross, making the teachers look like condemned prisoners awaiting execution. They all wore dunce caps painted with similar epithets and carried dirty brooms, shoes and dusters on their backs.

Hanging from their necks were pails filled with rocks. I saw the principal: the pail around his neck was so heavy that the wire had cut deep into his neck and he was staggering. All were barefoot, hitting broken gongs or pots as they walked around the field crying out: 'I am black gangster so-and-so.' Finally, they all knelt down, burned incnese, and begged Mao Zedong to 'pardon their crimes.'

I was stunned by this scene and I felt myself go pale. A few girls nearly fainted.

Beatings and torture followed. I had never seen such tortures before: eating nightsoil and insects, being subjected to electric shocks, being forced to kneel on broken glass, being hanged 'like an airplane' by the arms and legs.

Those who immediately took up the sticks and applied the tortures were the school bullies who, as children of Party cadres and army offiers, belonged to the five 'red' categories, a group that also included children of workers, poor and lower-middle peasants, and revolutionary martyrs .... Course and cruel, they were accustomed to throwing around their parents' status and brawling with the other students. They did so poorly in school that they were about to be expelled, and presumably resented the teachers because of this.

Greatly emboldened by the instigators, the other students also cried 'Beat them!' and jumped on the teachers, swinging their fists and kicking. The stragglers were forced to back them up with loud shouts ....

The heaviest blow to me that day was the killing of my most respected and beloved teacher, Chen Ku-teh ...

Teacher Chen, over sixty years old and suffering form high blood pressure, was dragged out at 11:30, exposed to the summer sun for more than two hours, an then paraded about with the others carrying a placard and hitting a gong. Then he was dragged up the the second floor of a classroom and down again with fists and broomsticks all along the way. On the second floor some of his attackers ran into a classroom to get some bamboo carrying poles with which to beat him further. I stopped them pleading, 'You don't have to do this. This is too much!'

He passed out several times but was brought back to consciousness each time with cold water splashed on his face. He could hardly move his body. His feet were cut by glass and thorns. But his spirit was unbroken. He shouted, 'Why don't you kill me? Kill me!' This lasted for six hours, until he lost control of his excrement. They tried to force a stick into his rectum. He collapsed for the last time. They poured cold water on him again--it was too late. The killers were stunned momentarily, as it was probably the first time they had ever beaten a man to death, and it was the first time most of us had ever witnessed such a scene...."

Unfortunately, stories like this about the Cultural Revolution are abundant. According to Jean-Louis Margolin in The Black Book of Communism, by the time it ended, the dead numbered between 400,000 and 1 million, although some estimates are as high as 3 million. Large numbers of victims were professors, school teachers, scientists, writers and actors. Some were actually eaten by their attackers--at least 137 in Guangxi, mostly teachers and college principals. It was a time of almost unimaginable horror.

The members of the Red Guard, most of them teenagers, who committed these atrocities were not acting on their own. Mao Zedong himself launched the movement. And he and his CCP-controlled media relentlessly egged on the young thugs. (Local CCP cadres even joined in the "feast" at Guangxi). Mao's motives were, of course, ugly. He had lost much of his governmental authority (although not his party authority) as a result of his disastrous Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution was his way of getting it back.

According to Margolin:

"The Chinese Communist Party had a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, and Mao was a particularly noteworthy example. Red Guards everywhere repeated his slogan: ‘The capitalist class is the skin; the intellectuals are the hairs that grow on the skin. When the skin dies, there will be no hair.’ Officials became incapable of pronouncing the word ‘intellectual’ without adding the adjective ‘stinking.’"

Why I am bringing this up today? I've been listening to the Teaching Company’s audio series "From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History", hoping to learn something about China's long history. (Up until now, my knowledge of early Chinese history had been mainly derived from the study of Chinese art, and that has its limitations. I could tell you a bit about the T’ang dynasty ceramic horses, but I couldn’t tell you much about the actual T’ang dynasty.)

But after listening to all 36 lectures, I’m not sure if I what I learned from the tapes about early Chinese history is reliable. When the lectures reached events that occurred during my lifetime, it became pretty clear I was listening to a white wash.

The first hint was the lecturer’s description of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s big push toward large-scale collectivization from 1957 to 1961. The author seemed a tad too eager to describe its successes along with its failures. This seemed like a funny way to describe what quite possibly was the greatest famine in history. (As my fellow Right Coaster Maimon is fond of saying "Other than that Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play...?")

Then the lecturer described the Cultural Revolution as being "chaotic" but then went on to say that "in some ways [the forces] Mao unleashes ... are anticipatory of things like the Solidarity Movement in Poland." Yikes. Well, I suppose they are similar in the sense that both were movements purportedly for the benefit of working people in avowedly communist countries on the Eurasian landmass. But the similarities end there. The Solidarity movement was a grassroots movement that was all about loosening the grip of totalitarianism on the people of Poland. The Cultural Revolution was instigated by the Chairman of the Communist Party and was about tightening that grip on the Chinese people–by sending teenaged thugs out to neutralize "enemies" of the revolution. Especially elderly school teachers and opera singers.

Finally, the listener is told that Mao was committed to women's equality, that the status of women has "deteriorated quite significantly" since Mao's time and that, in particular, "educational opportunities for women have declined" since he was in charge. What rubbish! The notion that anyone's education opportunities have declined since Mao’s lunatic reign is absurd. Mao’s idea of supporting education was his July 26, 1966 order to close all secondary schools and institutions of higher education for six months. Why? He needed gangs of schoolchildren to terrorize, humiliate, and sometimes murder school teachers, that's why.

By the way, Margolin reports that the Cultural Revolution "class enemies" who were forced to parade around in ridiculous costumes and hats for the amusement of Red Guard gangs were disproportionately women. That should be no surprise. Cowardly thugs always prey disproportionately on women.

Modern China continues to have serious problems. But only a fool would be nostalgic for Mao.