It's okay, this book. I wanted to know more about the Cultural Revolution and now I do. But it's not a great book for people who, like me, are not all that au fait with modern Chinese history. The authors are addicted to acronyms, which, I suppose, the Chinese were (and are) as well. It's one of the afflictions shared by bureaucrats and academics and, it goes without saying, military people. The text is peppered with uppercase initial letter - CCP, PLA, CC. In fact, there's a list a couple of pages long at the beginning. But it's a pain, if you're reading on a Kindle, as I am, to "flip" back and forth, so that it's a lot harder than it needs to be. I suspect that people who use acronyms are seriously out of touch with reality, but doubtless I'm mistaken.
(Disclaimer: this reviewer has not visited China and has no professional expertise on China. This is strictly a book review, and not an assessment of Chinese politics.)
This book has been highly praised as a magisterial history of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR, the official term). Other reviewers have been impressed by its detail and high expectations for readers. It is certainly a valuable book for people interested in the history of the GPCR, but there are some serious caveats I have with the work.
The book suffers from a tendency of historians of Communist subjects to "work towards" the official story on China. The authors introduced the term "work toward" to refer to how members of a dictator's entourage try to figure out what he wants to ensure his continued patronage. In this case, the authors focus on the action at the very top of the political system, with other considerations outside the scope of the book. This allows them to present the leadership as acting in a virtually context-free environment. The choice of focus is, of course, required; but it just so happens to support the premise of an arbitrary and largely omnipotent totalitarian movement free to behave however it pleases (1). Possibly MacFarquhar and Schoenhals believe that "context" (i.e., compelling explanations for the decisions made by the principals) muddies the waters and exposes them to the charge of "moral relativism" (1). If so, that would explain their indifference to any of the un-sordid possible explanations for Mao's behavior--viz., those that existed outside of the Politburo. The authors say up front that this book focuses on the action at the top, and they do not spend much time dwelling on the different point of view that a Chinese revolutionary would have from that of, say, a Harvard professor or World Bank economist.
Communist countries have a party bureaucracy and a state bureaucracy, with a very blurry boundary in between (2). For example, in both the USSR and the PRC, there is a single complex that houses both (the Kremlin in Moscow, the Zhongnanhai in Beijing). Typically, the scope of direct intervention by the Party bureaucracy is very broad indeed. This means that Communist countries may claim that their state ensures the same freedoms as Western governments do, while ignoring the all-pervasive role of the Party. Also, the Party bureaucracy is replicated in miniature inside factories, universities, and individual state bureaux. So even though the Party Secretary at a cement plant in Zhengzhou, for instance, might seem like a minor functionary compared to the Party Secretary for Henan or any functionary for the People's Republic, the pattern is the thing that matters here. During the period of the Party's existence both before and after final victory in 1949, it had gradually built up shadow organizations for practically every single institution in China, and then stitched them all together.
So while the inner circle around Mao was the incredible shrinking Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the inner inner circle consisted of Mao's network of zealous revolutionaries--the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG), whose members appeared to actually know what Mao wanted (3). These people were empowered to stage rallies and seize physical control of Party offices, etc. from the relatively staid CCP functionaries. M&S pay tremendous attention to every movement of the CCRG, playing up its absolute arbitrary power and even implying that it was implicated in violent struggles with other power centers within Chinese ultra-radicalism. In contrast, the rise and dynamic of the rival WGHQ is maddenly vague. The WGHQ was a major counterweight to the CCRG, and not something the CCRG could merely control. Again, M&S are not under any obligation to pay as much attention to the WGHQ as I would like them to, but by downplaying it (except as an object of CCRG deputy director Zhang Chunqiao's power play against Advisor Tao Zhu), we get the impression that it was just a cats paw for Zhang (4).
This leads to a "parade of horrors": a succession of allegations about the GPCR and its instigators (such as the CCP itself), usually beginning with a few uncontested claims--like the one that the CCP's management of the economy between 1958 and 1962 was an utter disaster, or that many heroes of the Revolution like Zhu De were purged and humiliated--and ending with lurid allegations of punitive cannibalism (or Mao's alleged mania for violence and disruption). All political activity is treated as top-down, practically begging the question of how totalitarian the GPCR was. Serious motivations such as the desire to actually create an equitable society or end drastic disparities in income, privilege, or organizational power, are totally ignored. Quotes from the _dazibao_ are mainly chosen for humor, emphazing the weirdness and stridency of the revolutionaries, rather shedding light on their concerns.
Instead of a serious historical examination, we get a replay of the (totally understandable and reasonable) revulsion that outsiders would naturally feel seeing the excesses of the GPCR. I cannot deny that the self-desecration of China's massive cultural patrimony is heartbreaking beyond words. However, M&S seem anxious to use these things to morally blind readers rather than enlighten them. True, they are careful to avoid finger-wagging at long-dead iconoclasts and witchhunters, but they are happy to create the impression that this is what the Cultural Revolution was. It's a bit as though we were to write a history of the antebellum USA which described only atrocities against slaves and Indians, and nothing else whatever (and implied that Andrew Jackson was micromanaging all of it). Morally, it's impossible to ignore slavery and the genocide against the Indians. But insisting that's all one needs to know about the history of the USA is not history, but polemic. In the GPCR, so many people were affected that it was inevitable that many of the experiences would be horrible. M&S cannot fail to know that, in a country as immense and complex as China is, you cannot generalize about the whole GPCR from the experiences solely of its most victimized.
Many readers might be astounded by this. After all, the Cultural Revolution was like a civil war, and it's obscene to talk about the benefits accruing from wars. This is a compelling point, except it so happens that, like the Civil War in the USA or the UK, the GPCR is an historical term that applies to far more than the fighting and devastation. All non-metaphorical revolutions are also civil wars; John Adams famously insisted that the true revolution came before the fighting began (letter to Hezekiah Niles, 13 Feb 1818). No doubt Adam's attitude about the revolution, even when set apart from the violence, of the GPCR, would have been hostile. But his point is relevant: the "GPCR" is an arbitrary term for a social revolution in China in which hundreds of thousands of people died and _also_ in which massive social change was effected, some of it permanent. Most of my readers will no doubt feel that no aspect of the revolution was desirable, but that remains an enduring controversy.
The literature on the GPCR is immense and I expect I shall be updating this list in the future.
(1) For an excellent introduction to critical reading of Western journalism on China, I highly recommend Adam Cathcart, "Nobel Prize Awarded to Liu Xiaobo: A Critique of New York Times Coverage," _Sinomondiale_ blog (9 Oct 2010). Journalism is not the same thing as history, but there is a strong relationship between the two: even today, historians are usually tagged with a particular orientation depending on how they interpreted and presented their evidence.
UPDATE (3 Sept 2013): Western writers on Communist regimes sometime "work toward" an interpretation of the events that ingratiates them with the military-managerial complex. MacFarquhar's contribution reprises his work in the 3-volume series, Origins of the Cultural Revolution, which overwhelmingly presented the GPCR as a top-down conspiracy-driven event with no compelling justification. This came a few years after it was "discovered" that the journal he edited, _The China Quarterly_, was funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (which was a front for the CIA). See Bruce Cumings, "We look at it and see ourselves," _London Review of Books_, Vol. 27 No.24 (15 Dec 2005) & Roderick MacFarquhar's rebuttal, "Letters" Vol. 28 No.2 (26 Jan 2006). To make it blindingly obvious, the CIA needed academics to propagate the view that the Chinese Communists were irrational and malevolent.
(2) "Bureaucracy" is meant to refer not merely to an organization of people possessing successively higher rank and supervisory power, but also to the tendency of this organization to be controlled mainly by its own top leadership, rather than any subservience to the people it governs.
(3) According to Andrew G. Walder, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (p.17), by February 1968 only 5 of 19 members of the CCRG remained. Chen Boda, one of the five, was sacked in 1971. The other four were Jiang Qing, Zhou Enlai (yes, really!), Yao Wenyuan, and Zhang Chunqiao. Wang Hongwen rose through a rival CR group, the WGHQ--a radical faction of factory workers that seized power from the worksite party functionaries all over China, and eventually became its own power base. For this reason, I strongly recommend Elizabeth J. Perry Challenging the Mandate of Heaven (2001), Chapter 8.
(4) Tao Zhu was a party secretary from Guangdong who was briefly dominant in the CCRG; he was purged very early on, almost at the same time as Liu Shaoxi and Deng Xiaoping. Zhang Chunqiao was a Shanghai newspaper editor and early ally of Jiang Qing who benfitted from Tao Zhu's stunning fall from grace. Zhang and Jiang were the most durable and active members of the Gang of Four. Tao's fatal "error" was to try to restrain the Red Guards at the universities (according to most accounts) and also to restrain the Shanghai WGQH's attempts to march on Beijing. A casual observer might assume that, because the main WGHQ was in Shanghai, and supplied Wang Hongwen, and because Zhang was from Shanghai too, Zhang was conspiring with Wang to take over the CCP leadership. This is not implausible, but any possible link between Zhang and Wang is not discussed and M&S never suggest any collusion.
There have been many accounts of the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,' the era of purges and near-civil wars in China from 1966 to 1976. Most accounts have been based upon public documents, weighted toward the Chinese Communist Party's (often re-written, revised, re-created) interpretation of events. This incisive study starts with those sources but draws upon memoirs, interviews, and numerous other sources to provide the most comprehensive and objective overview of this tragic era in China's history. In the process, it debunks much of the mythology about the Cultural Revolution, written from western or Chinese sources.
People not familiar with this era, which is crucial to understanding the successes and continuing problems of China's political system, will find Mao's Last Revolution is easily the best study yet written. The scale of research carried out by the authors is staggering, with many individual stories of the 'victors' and 'losers' in the different stages of the Cultural Revolution: from Liu Shaoqi (purged as 'China's Khrushchev' by the extreme leftists in 1966), Lin Biao (Mao's designated successor and denounced as an arch-traitor in 1971 after a purported coup d'etat), the Gang of Four, and Deng Xiaoping (purged twice and the ultimate victor who spent the next twenty years undoing the damage triggered by Mao). The narrative enables a reader to grasp the order and logic of developments in a highly chaotic period. Mao's Machiavellian plotting is presented objectively and the authors carefully reveal how his own actions ultimately led to the failure of the Cultural Revolution and the rise of a leadership committed to alternate roads for China. This is a scholarly book without exciting prose. Still, as events unfolded, I found it riveting and the narrative of horrors terrifying. Conservative estimates suggest in excess of 35 million were persecuted with probably more than 1.2 million casualties. The twists and turns, the rise and fall of different pretenders are all presented objectively. Well worth your time and money if you want to understand modern China.
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MacFarquhar has been writing about the Chinese (palace) politics for all his career. This new book is a laborious attempt to reveal the deeper things behind the infamous Cultural Revolution. It is very detailed study on the period, very interesting read.
But at the same time, he applies too much western concept on the Chinese politics and life, which is a great limitation. Unfortunately, this approach is very common among intl China scholars, though it may block our understanding of the issues in some ways. In this regard, this book is obviously limited in its depths and insights. A far more insightful book on the Chinese Communist system is this: China and the new world order: how entrepreneurship, globalization, and borderless business are reshaping China and the world, by outspoken Chinese journalist george gu, which sheds huge insights on the inner workings of the Chinese political and business world (including cultural revolution)