We often compare today’s student radicals to the Red Guards who terrorized and nearly destroyed China between 1966 and 1976. When it comes to student radicals the Red Guards are the gold standard: the most violent, the most empowered, the most depraved. After all, the did not just humiliate their teachers. They murdered them and sometimes even ate their remains.
When it was happening, no one outside of China really knew what was happening during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
When Richard Nixon traveled to China in 1972 the American press was presenting a rather positive view of the Cultural Revolution. In France, radical students, more sophisticated and more hard line than their American counterparts, took up the Maoist cause and tried to foment cultural revolution in their nation.
And yet, Zha Jianying reminds us in his review of Ji Xianlin’s account of his experiences as a persecuted professor during the Cultural Revolution, we still know very little about the sufferings that were visited on Chinese teachers and intellectuals at that time. Since Ji's book is a first person account, it does not seem to address the experience of the government bureaucrats who were also targeted.
For those who wish a different take, author Jung Chang recounts the lives of three generations of Chinese women, up to and including the experience of the Cultural Revolution in her book Wild Swans.
Ji Xianlin’s book matters because it provides us with a picture of what the student revolutionaries did to their teachers, goaded by Mao and his actress wife, Jiang Qing.
We know, or ought to know, that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in order to shift the blame for the famine that killed around 35,000,000 people in the early 1960s. After the famine, two Chinese leaders, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping tried to wrest party control from Mao. They wanted to reform the economy by bringing in capitalist reforms.
When it seemed that they were about to succeed Mao rallied disaffected students and told them to direct their anger at the intellectual classes, teachers and party bureaucrats. Liu and Deng were declared the number 1 and number 2 capitalist roaders. As you know Liu was murdered by the Red Guards and Deng survived, largely because he was protected by senior military officers.
Mao blamed the Great Famine on counterrevolutionaries in the government and on the intellectual classes. Since he was infallible, his policy could not have been the problem. The problem lay in the way it had been implemented and in the mindset that allowed people to believe that they could exercise freedom.
They were, by his thought, too attached to Confucian thought, with its emphasis on the practice of propriety and the exercise of discretion. During the Cultural Revolution the only book that anyone was permitted to read was the little red book of the sayings of Mao. All other books were banned. It was the most ambitious effort at mass brainwashing the world has ever seen.
Mao hated Confucianism for the same reason that earlier emperors had burned the writings of the great sage. Confucius was willing to rely on people’s moral sense, their sense of shame, their sense of propriety and decency. He did not want to regulate their behavior by giving them orders. Mao wanted people to obey his dictates to the letter, roughly as earlier emperors had imposed legalistic restraints on their orders.
Mao’s Communist Party had always been interested in brainwashing or thought reform. They must have believed that if they could control minds they could control behavior. For an extensive study, see Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
Chinese intellectuals were often happy to go along to get along.
Zha Jianying explains it in his review:
Under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), mass mobilization and political campaigns became a national way of life and no one was allowed to be a bystander, least of all the intellectuals, a favorite target in Mao’s periodic thought-reform campaigns. Feeling guilty about his previous passivity, Ji eagerly reformed himself. He joined the Party in the 1950s and actively participated in the ceaseless campaigns, which had a common trait: conformity and intolerance of dissent. In the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement, more than half a million intellectuals were denounced and persecuted, even though most of their criticisms were very mild and nearly all were Party loyalists.
Ji was teaching at Peking University in 1966 when Mao proclaimed the Cultural Revolution.
Zha describes the scene:
In fact, he was doing just that in the first year of the Cultural Revolution. Peking University was quickly transformed into a chaotic zoo of factional battles, with frantic mobs rushing about attacking professors and school officials labeled as capitalist-roaders-in-power.
The long, screaming rallies where Ji, already in his late fifties, and other victims were savagely beaten, spat on, and tortured. The betrayal by his former students and colleagues. An excruciating episode in the labor camp: Ji’s body collapsed under the strain of continuous struggle sessions; his testicles became so swollen he couldn’t stand up or close his legs. But the guard forced him to continue his labor, so he crawled around all day moving bricks. When he was finally allowed to visit a nearby military clinic, he had to crawl on a road for two hours to reach it, only to be refused treatment the moment the doctor learned he was a black guard. He crawled back to the labor camp.
Intellectuals and bureaucrats were subjected to public humiliation sentences and then punished by being sent to labor camps. In one sense, it was also a cultural reform. If you want to cure people of the proprieties and decorum of shame culture, if you want them to overcome the strict barrier that exists there between public and private… you can begin by subjecting them to public humiliation, to show them at their worst in public, to force them to expose themselves, to the point where they experience something roughly equivalent to a gang rape. At that point they come to believe that they have no self-respect, they have no face, they have nothing left to hide. Thus, they have no need to manifest good behavior in public or to try to behave decorously and with civility. They will then replace behaviors that contribute to social harmony with behaviors that involve them in a permanent struggle and permanent drama.
Intellectuals are not notoriously courageous. They wilt under stress. The extreme stress caused many of the intellectuals to turn against each other, to denounce and betray each other in order to show that they were true believing Maoists:
He writes about Chinese intellectuals’ eager cooperation in ideological campaigns and how, under pressure, they frequently turned on one another.
As Ji wrote:
Since we had been directed to oppose the rightists, we did. After more than a decade of continuous political struggle, the intellectuals knew the drill. We all took turns persecuting each other. This went on until the Socialist Education Movement, which, in my view, was a precursor to the Cultural Revolution.
In effect, they were being acculturated in guilt. In a shame culture one is duty bound to show respect for others. In a guilt culture one is duty bound to punish oneself for one’s crimes, real or imagined. In China these were invariably thought crimes.
To Ji, this is a forgivable sin because if he and many other Chinese intellectuals have been guilty of persecuting one another, it was largely because the intellectuals as a class had been compelled to feel deeply guilty and shameful about themselves. Ji described how this was achieved through the fierce criticism and self-criticism sessions, a unique feature of the Maoist thought-reform campaigns. Ji’s own ideological conversion was accomplished through such a ritual.
As Zha describes it, the sense of guilt effectively replaced a belief that they had nothing left to hide, and had no reason to maintain their sense of shame. Thus, they were acculturated in guilt and self-punishment:
Ji describes the overwhelming sense of guilt as “almost Christian,” which led to a feeling of shame and induced a powerful urge to conform and to worship the new God—the Communist Party and its Great Leader. Afterward, like a sinner given a chance to prove his worthiness, he eagerly abandoned all his previous skepticism—the trademark of a critical faculty—and became a true believer. He embraced the new cult of personality, joining others to shout at the top of his voice “Long Live Chairman Mao!” Through this process, millions of Chinese intellectuals cast off their individuality. For Ji, the feeling of guilt became so deeply engrained that, even after he was locked up in the cowshed, he racked his brain for his own faults rather than questioning the Party or the system.
Zha’s analysis of the Cultural Revolution differs somewhat from mind. Thus, it is worth examining:
Everyone knows that Mao is the chief culprit of the Cultural Revolution. Well-known historical data points to a tangle of factors behind Mao’s motivation for launching it: subtle tension among the top leadership of the CCP since the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine with an estimated thirty to forty million deaths; his desire to reassert supremacy and crush any perceived challenge to his personal power by reaching down directly to the masses; his radical, increasingly lunatic vision of permanent revolution; his deep anti-intellectualism and paranoid jealousy. But, from the viewpoint of the Party, allowing a full investigation and exposure of Mao’s manipulations would threaten the Party’s legitimacy. If the great helmsman gets debunked, the whole ship may go down. Mao as a symbol is therefore crucial: it is tied to the survival of the Party state.
Zha raises an important issue here. Even after the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, were arrested in 1976 there was little national soul-searching and little public analysis of the events.
One reason might have been that so many people participated:
Then there is the thorny issue of the people’s participation in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards were only the best-known of the radical organizations. At the height of madness, millions of ordinary Chinese took part in various forms of lawless actions and rampant violence. The estimated death toll of those who committed suicide, were tortured to death, were publicly executed, or were killed in armed factional battles runs from hundreds of thousands to millions. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bring all of the perpetrators to account.
Surely, this is a primary reason. The second reason was if you want to restore people’s sense of shame you should begin by covering up. When you get caught with your pants down, even when your pants have been pulled down against your will, the first thing you to do take a step toward having a sense of shame is to pull them up. The powers in China did not believe that anything would be gained by a protracted soul-searching into the causes of the Cultural Revolution. Nor did they seem to believe that those who were victimized by it would be served by reliving its horrors.
Zha recounts that Ji became an active supporter of the student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Surely, this was an act of political courage. But, Zha does not mention an important point, namely, that whereas we in the West saw the protests as the second coming of Woodstock, the men who were leading China at the time were more likely to have seen the students as the second coming of the Red Guards.
If one does not understand what the protests looked like within the context of recent Chinese history one will never understand what happened, why it happened, and why it did not cause the people to overthrow the regime.