Yang Jisheng’s decades working for Xinhua state news agency were followed by a second career as a newspaper editor, and then historian and writer. It is for the latter that he has become well known outside China. Some of this is due to the sterling work of his translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian who have, painstakingly and expertly, edited and then rendered into excellent English first his monumental `Tombstone’, and now `The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021).

`Tombstone’  (墓碑), published in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2010, was, in its original, almost 1200 pages long. A harrowing, data rich account of the great famines from the late 1950s into the early 1960s, it started off a passionate debate inside and outside China about just how many perished in this tragic period of modern Chinese history. Yang’s account was unflinching, almost overwhelming. The English translation brought out from this a more accessible narrative, but one no harder to fully digest in terms of the enormity of the human suffering it reported.

The Cultural Revolution (CR) poses different challenges. One is that in some ways the singular of the movement’s name needs to be made plural. As Yang himself acknowledges, the CR in 1967 and 1968 at its peak was a different kind of happening, and involved different actors, to that during the aftermath of the fall of Mao Zedong’s doomed chosen successor, Lin Biao, in 1971. The most violent period was during the rebellious group uprisings (more popularly known as Red Guards) in university campuses from May 1966 after the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the May 16th Circular, declared that everyone had to:

`hold high the great banner of the proletarian Cultural Revolution, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of those so-called ‘academic authorities’ who oppose the party and socialism, thoroughly criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the sphere of academic work, education, journalism, literature and art, and publishing, and seize the leadership in these cultural spheres.‘ (https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/cc_gpcr.html

Yang plots the impact of these, and other similar endorsements to engage in a new kind of revolution, in Beijing and across the rest of the country. The results were diverse, only united by their violence and tendency to produce high levels of disharmony.  In Shanghai, ironically the epicentre of radical leftism despite historically being the home of Chinese capitalism, different factions appeared, clashing against each other, in factories and work units from mid-1966. In Wuhan, even while Mao was resident there in July 1967, frenzied, impassioned competing groups almost invaded his compound. Even in the depths of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, in fact, particularly in a place with a complicated ethnic and class composition like this, the turbulence of the movement left deep marks. Yang’s account of the campaign to `dig out’ the Inner Mongolian People’s Party (内人党) leaves little to the imagination. In Siziwanqi area (四子王旗), a little north of the provincial capital of Hohhot:

`Bilig Tumen had each of his teeth pulled out with pliers and his tongue and nose cut off before he finally died. The Secretary of Naiyinebo commune in the Siziwang Banner, Aoribuzhamusu, and his wife were cut with razors after which salt was rubbed in their wounds and re-hot branding irons applied. After husband and wife were tortured to death, their five month old child died of starvation.’ (322)

Acts of barbarity like this are one of the reasons why this period remains so bewildering to this day. They are, alas, by no means isolated. In Guangxi, in the south west of the country, there were well documents occurrences of cannibalism. Tan Hecheng’s `The Killing Winds’, also superbly translated by Mosher and Guo records acts of similar violence in Hunan. How claims that an independence party active in the 1930s before the People’s Republic even existed led, in Inner Mongolia’s case, to the indescribably horrible demise of the two cadres of Mongolian ethnicity three decades later referred to in the quote from Yang above take some explaining. It is not surprising therefore that Yang only partially succeeds in this. He is in good company. Many other fine historians and analysts have also ended up metaphorically scratching their heads and simply sighing when looking at the carnival of violent action and rhetoric, mass campaigns and struggle sessions, and elite fellings that the CR ended up becoming.

If Yang has one overarching argument in this book, it is that the Cultural Revolution in the end was a struggle against a bureaucratic tradition with deep links into Chinese culture, one that the great revolutionary Mao Zedong wanted to finally root out and eradicate. Yang sets out the core parts of this argument in his introduction and first chapter. `The Cultural Revolution was a massive movement,’ he states there, `that swept up the political underclass at the lover level and attacked the bureaucratic clique at the upper level.’ (xxiii).  He argues later that in the late 1950s `Mao broke with the Soviet system by transferring power downward from the central government ministries and departments, but the result was chaos. He attempted another power transfer during the Cultural Revolution, but this merely resulted in another cycle of what is known in Chinese politics as “death in centralisation, and chaos in release”.’ (xxv). In essence, it seems that this argument posits three players – the charismatic leader (Mao), the Party State and its bureaucracy and power elite, and the masses. Attempted alignment between the first and the third of these to supplant the second ended up with instead a chaotic situation where, finally and almost inevitably, the bureaucrats still came out winning.

One can make a lot of this argument. In some ways it might also be a barbed critique-cum-tribute to the endless resilience of the bureaucratic governance system in China, able to survive through history, and still maintain itself despite the onslaught Mao directed at it. Paradoxically, the Cultural Revolution activists themselves far from eschewing bureaucracy ended up creating their own unique version, with the Central Cultural Revolution Leading Group sitting atop a plethora of other groups, some of which (the Central Investigation Group for instance) undertook the main purges and attack campaigners against top level figures. Nor is Yang’s story one where there are any real heroes. The sainted Zhou Enlai comes across as the faithful implementer of Mao’s will, chairing the aforementioned Investigation Group as a kind of willing executioner. Deng Xiaoping was an enthusiastic purger of rightists in the 1950s, only denouncing himself and his former colleagues at the start of the Cultural Revolution, before disappearing to rustification and several years of silence. If there were any real victims, these were the `masses’, the underclass Yang referred to in his trinity of actors mentioned above, who were manipulated by campaigns and propaganda to undertake. Maybe though, this too is not truly reflecting of the uncomfortable truth that for many of these individual actors, while they can excuse themselves on the grounds of being lied to and used, some of the extreme acts they engaged in, and the fervour by which they did this, denotes something deeper about their commitment to the idealistic, but terrifying Utopian vision that the whole movement held before them rather than just brainwashed enforcement.

Much of Yang’s narrative as he goes through the landmarks of the `turbulent decade’ (one, he points out towards the end of the book, that actually lasted not ten, but eleven years if one counts to the end of the Gang of Four’s full downfall) does deal with specific named actors – figures like Peng Zhen, Wu Han, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and his family, and, of course, Jiang Qing. The latter, cast as some demon in the Chinese state propaganda after her husband Mao died in 1976, can be viewed in a different way in the recent BBC documentary `Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ which has excellent footage of her time as an actress in Shanghai in the 1930s, and then during her peak as a demagogue and leftist during the CR years.  Unrepentant at her trial in 1981,  one that Yang himself acknowledges was a travesty of legal process, she was to die in May 1991, committing suicide with tights she had managed to secret in her cell and hang herself with. This happened during my first visit to China. I remember the news being carried, sotto voce, on pages of the international news, but being largely ignored in the country itself. Somewhat bafflingly, recent reports from China state that people have been allowed to visit and pay their respects at her tomb in the lead up to the centenary of the Party’s foundation in mid 2021.

I have often wondered, over the years, reading accounts like that by Yang, and others, what happened to some of the actors referred to as leaders of CR groups or campaigns at more local level. Nie Yuanzi, a firebrand at the Philosophy Department of Beijing University, who wrote Big Character Posters denouncing the university leadership, died at the grand old age of 98 in September 2019, striving to explain herself to the end. Song Binbin, whose pinning of a Red Guard armband during one of the vast rallies held in central Beijing on the arm of Mao Zedong became one of the iconic images of the era, migrated to the US in the early 2000s and then returned to China to work for a British company later in the decade. This was despite claims she had been involved in the beating to death of a school leader. But there are endless other names who simply disappear into silence after their brief appearance during the CR era, some of them named in this book. Many must have had to wrestle with the memories and trauma of the events they had taken part in for the rest of their lives. But to all intents and purposes, they are as good as voiceless now. One can only wonder about them.

Yang of course is both an historian, and a participant, and this tremendous book testifies to his ability simultaneously to be in the events he talks about, but also be able to observe them from outside. In a sense, he is a bit like the director, Hitchcock, who famously usually did cameos in his films. Yang appears briefly in his own account, during the hottest phase of the CR in 1966, and then in December 1978 towards the end of his book, looking at Wall Posters in Xidan, during the brief and ill-fated Democracy Wall Movement. Whether his overarching account of the CR being comprehensible as one which had bureaucratic power struggles at its heart, is another matter. In the conclusion of this book, he has figures for what he describes as the burgeoning of the Chinese bureaucracy over the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. Even so, at the end of this period its personnel numbered 12 million – 1 per cent of the Chinese population then. That number has not increased vastly today, if we are talking about only Civil Servants rather than those work in the State Owned Enterprise world. The mystery therefore only deepens as to exactly how best to explain the real drivers of the Cultural Revolution. But Yang’s attempt is a noble, and a powerful one.

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