Mao in 1946

In a review of the book “Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History,” John Gray of the New Statesman wrote: “The predominant western perception of Mao’s regime was of a progressive political project – if at times it got a little out of hand, that was no more than the exuberance that goes naturally with such a liberating enterprise. When in the 1970s I raised with a British communist the millions who were killed in rural purges in the years immediately after Mao came to power, he told me, “Those sorts of numbers are just for western consumption.” Further conversation showed that his estimates of the actual numbers were significantly lower than those conceded by the regime. No doubt unwittingly, he had stumbled on a curious truth: the prestige of the Mao regime in the west was at its height when the leadership was believed to be at its most despotic and murderous. For some of its western admirers, the regime’s violence had a compelling charm in its own right. [Source: John Gray, New Statesman, Cultural Capital Blog, May 24, 2014 \=\]

“Julian Bourg recounts how in France Mao’s thoughts became à la mode with the August 1967 release of La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s film about a youthful Parisian Maoist sect. Among French thinkers, Bourg notes, “Mao’s language of violence had a certain rhetorical appeal.” In fact, it was his combination of rhetorical violence with sub-Hegelian dialectical logic that proved so irresistible to sections of the French intelligentsia. Eulogising Mao’s distinction between principal and secondary contradictions, Louis Althusser deployed Maoist categories as part of an extremely abstract and, indeed, largely meaningless defence of “the relative autonomy of theory”. \=\

“Althusser’s student Alain Badiou (for many years professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure) continued to defend Maoism long after the scale of its casualties had become undeniable. As recently as 2008, while commending himself for being “now one of Maoism’s few noteworthy representatives”, Badiou praised Mao’s thought as “a new politics of the negation of the negation”. From one point of view, this stance is merely contemptible – a professorial pirouette around a vast pile of corpses. But one must bear in mind the fathomless frivolity of some on the French left. Already in 1980, two former Maoist militants had announced their rejection of the creed in the language of fashion: “China was in . . . Now it is out . . . we are no longer Maoists.” Against this background, Badiou’s persistence is almost heroically absurd. \=\

“In the west, Maoism had two defining characteristics: it bore no relation to conditions in China, in regard to which its proponents remained invincibly ignorant; and it was embraced by sections of an intellectual class that was, for political purposes, almost entirely irrelevant. In Italy, Mao’s thought had for a time a slightly wider influence. As Dominique Kirchner Reill writes, discussing Maoism in Italy and Yugoslavia, “In Italy Mao-mania was not purely a left-wing phenomenon. Some ultra-right groups quoted their Little Red Books to justify their arguments.” In 1968-73 the neo-fascist party Lotto di Popolo (“the people’s fight”) lauded Mao as an exemplary nationalist and resolute opponent of US global hegemony. In a footnote Reill observes that the “Nazi-Maoist movement in Italy included many other figures and groups” besides the Lotto di Popolo. It is a pity this aspect of Mao’s influence is not explored in greater detail. \=\

American journalist Edgar Snow with Mao and Liu Shaoqi

“Despite its inevitable limitations as an academic text, Mao’s Little Red Book contains much that is of interest. In a programmatic introductory essay Alexander C Cook compares the Chinese leader’s book to a “spiritual atom bomb” and considers its global fallout. Showing how it reflects the influence of the choral singing introduced into China by 19th-century Christian missionaries, Andrew F Jones provides an illuminating account of the rise of the Maoist pop song. Taking as her starting point the global distribution of the Little Red Book to over a hundred countries in the eight months between October 1966 and May 1967, Xu Lanjun examines the process of translation in the context of Maoist ideas of global revolution. Quinn Slobodian discusses the impact the book had in eastern and western Germany. In the concluding essay,Ban Wang considers the Little Red Book and “religion as politics” in China. Elsewhere, its influence in Tanzania, India, Peru, Albania and the former Soviet Union is discussed. \=\

“To my mind, the most illuminating contributions are those of Slobodian and Wang. Distinguishing between “badge books” and “brand books”, Slobodian defines the former as “books that express meaning through their outer form”, while brand books are “commodities that are consumed within the space of the market”. In West Germany in the late 1960s, the Little Red Book “resembled simultaneously an accessory of the classical workers’ movement and a modish commodity of the educated elite”. In theatres, across from the refreshments, there were glass cases “full of pretty red Mao bibles (two Deutsche Marks each)”. As an anti-consumerist commodity, the book became “a marker of social distinction within a commercial market”. \=\

For Wang, the book “represented a scriptural authority and emanated a sacred aura”. Among the radical intelligentsia, it provided a fantasy of revolution that enabled them to forget that their political influence was practically non-existent. As China has embraced a type of capitalism and turned itself into the world’s second-largest economy, original editions have become a scarce commodity. Today the great leader’s thoughts have joined a host of trashy collectibles – Mao fridge magnets, CD cases, cigarette lighters and playing cards, among other bric-a-brac – and become items whose only value lies in the commercial marketplace. The Little Red Book has now achieved what looks like being its most enduring significance: as a piece of capitalist kitsch.

Good Websites and Sources: Nixon’s Visit to China chizeng.com/nixon ; Time magazine time.com ; The New Yorker newyorker.com ; Webcast of Nixon Visit to China cfr.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao’s Mausoleum Wikipedia ; News of Mao’s Death BBC . Book: Ping-pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World” by Nicholas Griffin, Scribner, (Simon & Schuster), 2014; “Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History,” edited by Alexander C. Cook (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn;

Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article paulbogdanor.com ; Death Tolls erols.com People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Wikipedia article on propaganda Wikipedia ; Cultural Revolution sino.uni-heidelberg.de; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters chinaposters.org ; Yet more posters Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists in the Early Days of Their Struggle

American journalist Edgar Snow toured the communist bases around Yan'an, in northern China. The resulting book Red Star Over China (1937) portrayed Mao in a positive light and was widely credited with introducing the communists and their leadership to the rest of the world. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, ‘snow managed to project onto the revolutionary the ideals of American progressivism.” Mao was presented as a “Lincolnesque” leader who aimed to “awaken” China’s millions to “a belief in human rights,” introducing them to “a new conception of the state, society, and the individual.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

“More perceptively, Theodore White, then a reporter for Time, who visited Yanan in 1944, concluded that the Communists were “masters of brutality” but had won peasants over to their side,” Mishra wrote. “Other “China Hands”---an assortment of journalists, American Foreign Service officials, and soldiers who succeeded in meeting the Communists---preferred Mao to Chiang Kai-shek. But, as the Cold War intensified, the China Hands found themselves ignored in the United States.” [Ibid]

“Following Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat and flight to Taiwan in 1949, the Republican Party angrily accused the Truman Administration of having “lost” China to Communism. Then they berated it for hindering Chiang Kai-shek’s reconquest of the mainland. The China Hands in particular came under sustained fire from early and zealous Cold Warriors for their supposed sympathy with the Chinese agents of Soviet expansionism. Henry Luce, who saw the Christian convert Chiang Kai-shek as a vital facilitator of the “American Century,” fired White from Time.”

“The Korean War, which China entered on the side of North Korea, fixed Mao’s image in the United States as another unappeasable Communist. The Eisenhower Administration now vigorously backed Chiang Kai-shek, signing a mutual-defense treaty with him in 1954, and threatening China with a nuclear strike the following year. The State Department imposed a full trade embargo on China and prohibited travel there.”

20111106-Wiki C -Mao_Zedong_with workers.jpg

Book: Passport to Peking by Patrick Wright (Oxford, 2010)

Sympathetic Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists

“Many Western intellectuals, recoiling from the excesses of McCarthyism, and hampered by lack of firsthand information, gave the benefit of the doubt to Mao in the decade that followed,” Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Travelling to China in 1955, Simone de Beauvoir drew a sympathetic picture of a new nation overcoming the aftereffects of foreign invasions, internecine warfare, natural disasters, and economic collapse. Neither Paradise nor Hell, China was another peasant country where people were trying to break out of “the agonizingly hopeless circle of an animal existence.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

“When China’s urbane Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai made his first public appearance in Europe, many were persuaded that China was more than a clone of Soviet totalitarianism, and that “peaceful coexistence” was a real possibility. “Come and see,” Zhou said, and a motley bunch of politicians, artists, and scientists took up his invitation in 1954...The Chinese...laid on extravagant banquets for the British. (The headline in the Daily Mail was ‘sOCIALISTS DINE ON SHARK’s FINS.”) The mammoth Chinese construction of factories, canals, schools, hospitals, and public housing awed these visitors from a straitened country that American loans and the Marshall Plan had saved from financial ruin. They were impressed, too, by the new marriage laws that considerably improved the position of Chinese women, by the ostensible abolition of prostitution, and by the public-health campaigns.” [Ibid]

There were some doubters. “The parade held in Beijing to mark the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic reminded the philosopher A. J. Ayer of the Nuremberg Rallies,” Mishra wrote in The New Yorker. “Though impressed by the “dedicated and dignified” Mao, the trade unionist Sam Watson was dismayed by Chinese talk of the masses as “another brick, another paving stone.” But “other European visitors to China were relative pushovers. François Mitterrand, who visited China at the height of the devastating famine in 1961, denied the existence of starvation in the country. André Malraux hailed Mao as an “emperor of bronze.” Richard Nixon, who consulted Malraux before “opening up” China to the United States in 1972, and Henry Kissinger were no less awed by Mao’s raw power and historical mystique.” American attitudes to China in the nineteen-seventies were marked by what the Yale historian Jonathan Spence characterized as “reawakened curiosity” and “guileless fascination,” followed soon by “renewed skepticism” as travel and research in China became progressively easier. [Ibid]

Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists Turn Sour

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “In the seventies and eighties, American scholars and journalists could finally experience the realities they had only guessed at, and they began compiling a grim record of China under Mao---a task that was speeded up by Deng Xiaoping’s repudiation of the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death, in 1976. More Chinese also began to travel outside their country. Some, safely settled in the West, published memoirs of the Cultural Revolution. This fast-growing genre, which flourished particularly after the brutal suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square, in June, 1989, described the violence and chaos suffered by ordinary Chinese during Mao’s quest for ideological and moral renewal. One émigré Chinese writer, who had previously been Mao’s private doctor, published the first intimate account of the Chinese leader, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” (1994). It depicted a luxury-loving narcissist who was at once autocratic, whimsical, and calculating.”[Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

“Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s best-selling biography Mao: The Unknown Story (2005) went much further, describing a man who was unstintingly vile from early youth to old age. Far from Edgar Snow’s champion of human rights, this particular Mao was working toward “a completely arid society, devoid of civilization, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility.” In Chang and Halliday’s account, Mao killed more than seventy million people in peacetime, and was in some ways a more diabolical villain than even Hitler or Stalin. The authors claimed---among other comparisons they made to twentieth-century atrocities---that the victims of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) were worse off than the slave laborers at Auschwitz.”

20111106-Wiki C -Mao_Zedong_in crowd.jpg

Historians in the Mao Era

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “In the six decades since coming to power, China’s Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to composing historical narratives that seek to legitimize its rule and obfuscate its failures. The disastrous famine that claimed millions of lives last century is said to have been caused by bad weather, not Mao’s misguided policies. Chinese history books often blame the United States for starting the Korean War, not the Communist troops from North Korea who, most historians agree, first invaded the South. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 18, 2014]

Yang Jisheng, author an authoritative account of the Great Famine, told the New York Review of Books, “Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions...But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled “Rightists” or “counter-revolutionaries.” There is an author in Anhui province who has described how his family starved to death. There are many authors who have written about how their families starved.[Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010]

On how he went about his research Yang said, “When I started I didn’t say I was writing about the Great Famine. I said I wanted to understand the history of China’s rural economic policies and grain policy. If I had said I was researching the Great Famine, for sure they wouldn’t have let me look in the archives. There were some documents that were marked “restricted” (“kongzhi” in Chinese)---for example, anything related to public security or the military. But then I asked friends for help and we got signatures of provincial party officials and it was okay.” [Ibid]

On why officials didn’t destroy the files, Yang said, “Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact---how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.” [Ibid]

Yang said people were sympathetic to his objective. “There was an elderly staff member in one archive, for example. My guess is that he also lost family members in the Great Famine; when I asked for relevant archives, he just closed one eye and let me look. I reckon he held the same view as I: that there should be an accounting of this matter. Like me, he’s a Chinese person, and people in his family also starved to death.

Official Version of the Communist Party’s History

In 2011, released in conjunction with 90th anniversary celebratiosn of the founding the Chinese Communist Party, the Central Party History Research Office has produced a compendium of the party’s history from 1949 to 1978 (post-1978 apparently remains too politically sensitive because many of the officials involved are still in power). While the tome provides many new details of sensitive events during the Mao era, it is still highly selective and largely in step with the master narrative laid down in the 1982 publication: “Certain Questions in Our Party’s History.” [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “China’s Communist Party has finally got its story straight. It took 16 years of editing and four extensive rewrites. Chinese leaders, otherwise preoccupied with running a rising superpower, weighed in throughout. “I never thought it would take so long,” said Shi Zhongquan, who helped craft what the party hopes will be the final word on some of the most politically sensitive and also bloodiest episodes of China’s recent history---a new 1,074-page account of the party’s early decades in power.It gets particularly hard when it includes not only two of the past century’s most lethal man-made catastrophes---the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution---but also a modest yet now ticklish upset back in 1962---the disgrace of Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, China’s current vice president and leader-in-waiting.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, May 26 2011]

20111031-wikicommons Deng Xiaoping with Mao Soong at Int Meet com and Worke.jpg
Mao and Deng Xiaoping

“It’s an old communist joke that Marxists can predict the future, but the past is more difficult,” Roderick Macfarquhar, a Harvard University scholar and leading authority on Chinese politics under Mao Zedong, told the Washington Post. The past, added Macfarquhar, “is important because it legitimates the present” and “what went wrong then has to be justified now.”

The party published its first official history 20 years ago but ended the story with Mao’s conquest of China in 1949. It has now ventured into far more treacherous territory with the January publication of “History of the Chinese Communist Party, Volume 2 (1949-1978),” which continues the saga until the year Deng Xiaoping started undoing much of Mao’s legacy.

The leadership’s close attention has at least helped boost sales: The two-volume text topped the Beijing News bestseller list for more than a month, due in large part to bulk orders from party units, which have been ordered to study the work. Regular historians sniff at the whole venture: “This is politics and propaganda,” said Yang Kuisong, a prominent history professor in Beijing. “I have no interest in the topic.”

Difficulty in Assembling the Official Version of the Communist Party’s History

Shi, a former deputy director of the Party History Research Center, acknowledged wide differences of opinion among scholars, both Chinese and foreign, but said the party was not budging from the line it first fixed in 1981 that Mao made “gross mistakes” but, overall, did far more good than harm. “You can’t attack Mao and not attack the Chinese Communist Party,” Shi said.

Xi, the Politburo member who is due to take over as leader of the party next year and whose father was purged by Mao in 1962, has been particularly active in stressing the need to get history right. In a keynote address at a “history work conference” last summer, he called on all party members---numbering nearly 80 million---to “resolutely combat the wrong tendency to distort and smear the party’s history.” (He didn’t comment on his father.) Also weighing history has been Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, a former Chinese president who died in 1969 after being denied medical treatment, having been purged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.

So touchy is the party about its past that the new history Shi helped edit had to be vetted by 64 party and state bodies, including the People’s Liberation Army. An initial draft took four years to finish, but that didn’t pass muster with the leadership. It took 12 more years before the Politburo finally signed off on a finished text. This, according to an editor’s note, followed “clear demands regarding revisions” from party chief Hu Jintao, his heir apparent, Xi, and vice president Zeng Qinghong. The whole process lasted so long that more than a dozen of the scholars involved at the start died before publication. Of an original trio of three senior editors, Shi, now 73, is the only one still alive.

Content of the Official Version of the Communist Party’s History

David Shambaugh of George Washington University wrote in the New York Times, Nowhere mentioned is the violence of political campaigns during the 1950s that cost the lives of tens of millions (some of the campaigns are discussed, but not the persecutions and killings). The 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which intellectuals launched broadside critiques of party rule (many which remain apt today), is totally absent. Only the subsequent “Anti-Rightist” purge is covered (in a sanitized fashion) “but not Deng Xiaoping’s role in directing it. [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]

Mao himself does come in for criticism, but overall the blame is shifted to others. Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng does benefit from a posthumous “rehabilitation,” but no such luck for the disgraced Zhao Ziyang. The official treatment of these events is clear: maintain a strong institutional apparatus and remain vigilant against inner-party usurpers and foreign saboteurs. Thus, even in the midst of an anniversary celebration, the party’s continuing inability to honestly and fully confront its past speaks volumes about its present and future. It is symptomatic of existing insecurities.

20111031-wikicommons Liu Shaoqi 1950 with Mao.jpg
Mao and Liu Shaoqi

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “In a lengthy discussion of the Great Leap Forward, a ruinous crash program of industrialization and rural collectivization launched in 1958, the party history acknowledges great suffering and even notes that because of food shortages and illness, China’s population in 1960 fell by 10 million. But, claiming that Mao’s goal throughout was basically the same as that of China’s current leadership, it says he was driven by “a desire to change a picture of poverty and backwardness and make China grow rich and strong so it could use its own strength to stand tall in the forest of nations.”

Mao, according to the party’s version of events, “realized relatively early through preliminary investigation and research that there were problems in [the Great Leap] movement and worked hard to correct them.”Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who last year published a study of the period, “Mao’s Great Famine,” dismissed this as a “barefaced lie.” Mao, he said, was indeed aware of the starvation caused by his policies but pressed on, with the result that as many as 45 million people died. Not recorded in the official history is a 1959 comment by Mao that Dikotter unearthed from a Chinese provincial archive: “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/ and Noll websites http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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