Twists and Turns

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Review of 'Mao's Last Revolution', Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, The Belknap Press £22.95

There was nothing either cultural or revolutionary about China's Cultural Revolution. This extraordinary period, which started in 1965 and lasted, in name at least, for ten years, saw the destruction of historic sites, the persecution of writers and the replacement of colourful traditional operas with the "revolutionary operas" of Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing. It also became an excuse to attack minority cultures and religions.

There was nothing spontaneous about the movement either. It was initiated by Mao and led by the "Central Cultural Revolution Group" staffed by Mao's supporters. From the summer of 1966 they encouraged university and high school students to denounce their teachers and form "Red Guard" units. But the real targets were in the leadership.

Drawing on a wealth of Chinese sources, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals paint a detailed and vivid picture of the inner party intrigues. However, there are problems with this approach. Given that MacFarquhar was previously the author of the three-volume The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, it is perhaps not surprising that the causes of the movement are examined only briefly here. But this won't help the reader unfamiliar with the period understand its confusing twists and turns.

There is also a tendency to view these as simply the product of Mao's whim. But there were deeper causes. After the disastrous failure of the "Great Leap Forward" at the end of the 1950s, the majority of the party leadership tried to shunt Mao upstairs. He would be a figurehead without real power. That is why he had to go outside the party, to the students, for support. Mao, the leader of the 1949 revolution, remained an inspirational figure and he could play on the real frustrations of the country's youth to launch a movement against his enemies.

However, he couldn't simply channel the movement in the directions he wanted. By the summer of 1967 many areas were convulsed by virtual civil war and the army was brought in to try and regain control. By the following year the Red Guards had been wound down.

From the start the Red Guards were instructed to avoid economic and military targets, and the workers told only to engage in activities outside working hours. But this proved impossible to maintain. Falling production was another reason why the movement was reined in.

At the same time the "more or less widely felt genuine popular reverence for Mao" in 1949 "had by 1968 been replaced by a state-sponsored cult complete with carefully orchestrated rituals". These included expressing the "three loyalties and four boundless loves" for the leader.

The Cultural Revolution staggered on until Mao's death in 1976, with Mao vacillating between encouraging his "leftist" supporters and compromising with the "old guard" when things started getting out of hand.

The ultimate effect of the Cultural Revolution was to destroy the very enthusiasm and popularity which Mao had harnessed to launch it. There was no more appetite for endless campaigns, and the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping could launch the economic reforms that must have had Mao turning in his grave.