Child in the Cultural Revolution era

Mao era China was a remote, mysterious, drab place of ration cards, uniforms, Big Brother watchfulness’sort of what North Korea is like today. Lang Ping, a former Chinese volleyball player, told the Washington Post, “There was nothing to be happy about or not” in Mao’s China. “Life was simple and all persons were made to be the same.” She said she slept on a wooden plank and had just three sets of clothes.

Couples were separated for long periods of time and gradually became emotionally detached, many irreconcilably so. A female concert pianist born to U.S.-educated parents and trained at China’s finest conservatory, married an illiterate member of the People’s Liberation Army march band because she thought his peasant upbringing could compensate for her counter-revolutionary background.

Lijia Zhang wrote in the The Guardian, “Under Mao, citizens were forced to behave themselves in both public and private spheres. Every March, people were obliged to go into the street to do good deeds: cleaning buses, fixing bicycles and offering haircuts. Now relaxed social control and commercialisation over the past three decades have led people to behave more selfishly again. [Source: Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 22, 2011]

Many Shanghaiers and other residents of coastal cities were relocated to remote interior cities in the early 1960s. This was part of Mao Zedong's "third front" policy of establishing safely remote bases in China's interior for strategic industries under what was perceived to be the threat of Soviet invasion. These displaced urban communities contained many members who retained a strong sense of their previous urban identities while living in this sort of internal industrial "exile".

Websites: Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn ; Books and Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters ; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com; Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library cnd.org/fairbank offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures

Lack of Modern Conveniences in the Early Mao Era

gathering around the radio

In many houses there was no refrigeration, no air conditioning. Children gathered around industrial refrigerators kept by the local bus company, begging, “Comrade, give us some ice!” In the years before the Cultural Revolution some families killed their family pig and ate it in the early spring and then did nothing but lie in bed for weeks at a time, subsisting on congee, waiting for the wheat harvest.

The first televisions didn’t show up in people’s homes until the 1970s and then only the elite got them. Ni Ching Ching wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Television was such as new phenomena that and the state broadcasts lasted only a few hours at night and half of it was propaganda. Still we treated the magic box like a shrine. By day it was covered with an embroidered cloth and by night we opened our small living room to neighbors who brought stools and sat three or four rows deep.” Through the 1980s there were only a few hotels and taxis in Beijing, The streets were dark and deserted at 8:30pm, The few cars on the road drove with their lights out. They did this people said because the drivers didn’t want to burn out their bulbs.

Not everyone viewed the Mao era in a negative light. In her simply furnished living room, a woman born in the 1950s told the Washington Post: “Back in Mao’s time, we never used to lock our doors, and civil servants would serve the people,” she said. “Not like now — you would consider yourself lucky if they don’t gang up on you and fleece you. Everything is about money, and corruption is everywhere.” [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

Hardships in the Early Mao Era

working on a commune

Liao Yiwu wrote in the NY Review of Books: “Before the Tiananmen massacre, my father told me: “Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party.” My father knew what he was talking about. His courage had been broken, by countless political campaigns. Right after the 1949 “liberation,” in his hometown Yanting [in Sichuan] they executed dozens of “despotic landowners” in a few minutes. That wasn’t enough fun for some people. They came with swords, severed those broken skulls, and kicked them down the river bank. And so the heads were floating away two or three at a time, just like time, or like the setting sun always waiting for fresh heads at the next ferry point. My father left my grandfather, who had made money through hard work, and fled in the night. [Source: Liao Yiwu, NY Review of Books, June 3, 2014, Translated by Martin Winter ***]

“Afterward he never said a bad word about the Communist Party. Even at the time of the Great Leap famine, when almost forty million people starved to death, and when I, his little son, almost died. He did not say anything. It was hell on earth. People ate grass and bark. They ate some kind of stinking clay; it was called Guanyin Soil [after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy]. If they were very lucky, they would catch an earthworm; that was a rare delicacy. Many people died bloated from Guanyin Soil. ***

“My grandmother also died; she was just skin and bones. Grandfather carried her under his arm to the next slope, dug a small pit, and buried her. But Mao Zedong, the great deliverer of the Chinese people, would never admit a mistake. He just said it was the fault of the Soviet Union. And so the wretched people all hated the Soviet Union. Just because of their goddamned Revisionism [the label Chinese Communists used for Soviet ideology after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s], the Soviets had called back their experts and their aid for China! Mao’s second-in-command Liu Shaoqi couldn’t stand it any longer and mumbled, “So many people have starved to death. History will record this.” For this slip he paid dearly. During the Cultural Revolution they let him starve to death in a secret prison. We have a saying: “Illness enters at the mouth, peril comes out at the mouth.”

Impact of Mao-Era Propaganda on a Three-Year-Old

Tang Jinhe, a former engineer who studies the history of the Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University, was a student there when the movement began. She now lives in Hong Kong. She told the New York Times: “When my second son was 3 years old in 1976, the sun was going down. He watched it going from the balcony and asked his father, who’d come out from cooking in the kitchen, “Baba, what’s the sun?” His father answers: “It’s a giant ball of fire.” He sat there and thought for a long time and then went inside and said, “Baba, you’re a reactionary.” His father said: “Hey, why did you call me a reactionary?” He answers: “Because the sun is Chairman Mao, but you said it was a giant ball of fire.” [Source: “Voices from China’s Cultural Revolution”, Chris Buckley, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Jane Perlez and Amy Qin, New York Times, May 16, 2016 ~~]

“His father said, “Oh. I get it, but saying that Chairman Mao is the sun is a metaphor.” He said: “What’s a metaphor?” And his father said: “How can I explain to a 3-year-old what a metaphor is?” The boy said: “Baba, you’re a reactionary.” His father said, “I was wrong. The sun is Chairman Mao. You don’t understand what a metaphor is, so forget it.” The boy said: “That’s still wrong. I heard you say that the sun is a giant ball of fire.”“ ~~

Economics in the Mao Period

The Communists created a drab world of ration cards, uniforms, Big Brother watchfulness with suspicion directed at anyone who tried to improve himself. Under Maoist forced egalitarianism everybody was poor except the political elite and people were supposed to find fulfillment in spiritual matters and comradeship not material things.

Items confiscated in the 50s in an anti-corruption campaign

In the Mao era, people generally worked in factories if they lived in cities and worked on state farms if they lived in rural areas. They didn’t make much money but they didn’t need to. Most of their needs were taken care of by the state and there wasn’t much to buy anyway. The Chinese word for Communism, gongchan zhuyi, literally means “theology of sharing property.”

Under Mao, one pundit wrote, the economy was simple. The government controlled everything and ran it into the ground. When writer and Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows visited China in the 1980s, he said, “In one unheated, acres-wide factory in Hangzhou, we saw some 5,000 women attending old-fashioned looms to make hangings and tapestries of traditional Chinese scenes with no indication that anyone ever bought them.” Many of Mao's grandiose economic schemes were grand failures. See Great Leap Forward, History

In the Mao era, he economy emphasized heavy industry. Success was measured in how many tons of steel produced and barrels of oil pumped from the ground and how well targets and quotas set in five-year plans were met. The first Five Year Plan was in 1953. Over 100 new industries were started, with a strong emphases on heavy industries and the production of things like steel, tractors, mining equipment and generators. China’s 11th Five Year Plan was approved in October 2005 and began t take effect in 2006.

In the 1960s every factory and industrial complex was introduced with same speech: "Before liberation there was a poorly equipped factory run by capitalist exploiters. Then the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek. came, bringing production to a standstill. Weeds grew around it. But after the liberation, the workers gained a new spirit, knowing they were no longer the slave of the capitalist. Now thanks to the Party and Five Year Plans production has increased by a phenomenal rate." [Source: Jørgen Bisch, National Geographic, November 1964]

See Industry

Economic Daily Life in the Mao Period

Commune work

School and health care were basic but free. Housing was heavily subsidized. No one had a car. People huddles in quilted coats in the winter, waiting in long lines for buses. A bicycle was beyond the means of most people. To get one required half a year’s salaries and six months worth or ration coupons.

There was little bargaining and no tipping. There were few shops, restaurants, vendors and markets. The only clothes that were available were dark blue and grey Mao suits. People needed ration coupons to buy meat, rice milk powder and cooking oil and waiting for hours in lines to get their monthly allotments.

In the Mao era formal exchanges of everything from goods and services to information was expected to go through official channels, under the supervision of bureaucrats. Administrative channels, however, were widely acknowledged to be inadequate and subject to inordinate delays. People responded by using and developing informal mechanisms of exchange and coordination. The most general term for such informal relations is guanxi (personal connections). Such ties are the affair of individuals rather than institutions and depend on the mutually beneficial exchange of favors, services, introductions, and so on. In China such ties are created or cultivated through invitations to meals and presentation of gifts. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the 1960s, a family living in a modest apartment in Shanghai are meat about once a week. In the 1970s, sugar and cooking oil were rationed. Food coupons could only be used in local markets to buy rice and vegetables. Friendship stores were the only places foreign goods could be bought. They were famous for their sullen, slow service and accepted only foreign exchange certificates.

One Chinese factory worker told the Washington Post, "In old China, before reforms, we all had this secure life. Nobody made any money but nobody felt any stress, unless you did political things. Now from morning till night, I have this sense of an impending crisis."

See Savings. Job Searching Customs.

Business in the Mao Era

20080314-cr osu.jpg
Fate of accused capitalist
in the Cultural Revolution

Repeating a pattern established by the Chinese emperors that preceded him, Mao withdrew China from the international marketplace. He created a state economy which controlled and owned everything from flower shops, to pig farms to steel mills. Factories were generally given certain amounts of raw materials and told how products they were supposed to produce.

The popular Communist play The March of the Foolish Man was based on a true life story of a poor peasant who turned a small business selling watermelon seeds into a big enterprise worth millions. Later he mistreated his workers and was taxed heavily by the government. The story ends with the man renouncing his millions and returning to his life as a peasant. [Source: "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux]

In the old days foreign investors who came to China mainly did business at the Canton Trade fair — a gathering which today accounts for 20 percent of the deals made for China's exports. Before they were allowed to make deals they had to sit through lectures on Maoist thought

Private businesses were illegal and entrepreneurs were regarded as criminals. State-owned enterprises grew into big bloated giants that employed lots of people but gobbled up much more money than they produced. But no matter how inefficient they were they were not allowed to fail. They continued sucking up more and more resources.

Edward Chancellor wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “In 1974, the future Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping led a large delegation to the United Nations in New York. Chinese officials discovered, as they prepared for the expensive trip, that the could muster only $38,000 in foreign cash. In those days there were no banks in China except the People's Bank of China, then a department of the Ministry of Finance.

Work Units in Mao-Era China

20080314-Haihe-poster-15 Nolls.jpg Much of economic life as well as daily and social life revolved around work units. In some ways, Chinese work units (danwei) resemble the large-scale bureaucratic organizations that employ most people in economically developed societies. The unit is functionally specialized, producing a single product or service, and is internally organized into functional departments, with employees classified and rewarded according to their work skills. Professional managers run the organization, enforce internal regulations and work rules, and negotiate with other work units and administrative superiors. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Chinese work units, however, have many distinctive qualities. Workers usually belong to the same unit for their entire working life. The degree of commitment to the unit and the extent to which the unit affects many aspects of the individual worker's life have no parallel in other societies. Chinese work units are highly corporate, closed, permanent, and all-embracing groups. In most cases, people are either born into their units (villages count as units) or are assigned to them when they enter the work force. *

Units supply their members with much more than a wage. Housing in the cities is usually controlled and assigned by work units. Consequently, one's neighbors are often one's workmates. If childcare facilities are available, they will most often be provided by the work unit. Recreation facilities will be provided by the work unit. Political study is carried out with one's workmates. In the cities many people meet prospective spouses either at work or through the introduction of fellow workers. For most people, social mobility takes the form of working their way up within the organization. *

If goods are in short supply, they will be rationed through work units. This was the case with bicycles and sewing machines in the 1970s. The same can apply to babies. As part of China's planned birth policy, unit supervisors monitor the fertility of married women and may decide whose turn it is to have a baby. At the other end of the life cycle, pensions and funeral expenses are provided by work units. Travel to another city usually requires the written permission of one's work unit before a ticket can be purchased or food coupons for one's destination issued. Every unit is managed by party members, who are responsible for personnel matters. Outside the farm sector, a written dossier is kept for every member of a unit. Units are often physically distinct, occupying walled compounds whose exits are monitored by gatekeepers. The unit is thus a total community, if not a total institution, and unit membership is the single most significant aspect of individual identity in contemporary China. *

building a commune building

Since the 1950s the individual's political life too has been centered in the work unit. Political campaigns have meant endless meetings and rallies within the unit, and when individuals were to be criticized or condemned for political deviation or bad class origins, it was done within the work unit, by fellow workers. In the post-Mao Zedong era, many people were working side by side with others whom they had publicly condemned, humiliated, or physically beaten fifteen or twenty years before. Much of the quality of life within a unit derives from the long-term nature of membership and human relations and from the impossibility of leaving. Members seem most often to aim for affable but somewhat distant ties of "comradeship" with each other, reserving intimate friendships for a few whom they have known since childhood or schooldays. *

The work-unit system, with its lifetime membership — sometimes referred to as the "iron rice bowl" — and lack of job mobility, is unique to contemporary China. It was developed during the 1950s and early 1960s with little discussion or publicity. Its origins are obscure; it most likely arose through the efforts of party cadres whose background was rural and whose experience was largely in the army and in the disciplined and all-embracing life of party branches. *

The special characteristics of the Chinese work unit — such as its control over the work and lives of its members and its strict subordination to administrative superiors who control the resources necessary to its operation — make the unit an insular, closed entity. Units are subject to various administrative hierarchies; reports go up and orders come down. The Chinese Communist Party, as a nationwide body, links all units and, in theory, monopolizes channels of communication and command. Vertical, command relations seem to work quite effectively, and the degree of local compliance with the orders of superior bodies is impressive. Conversely, horizontal relations with other units are often weak and tenuous, presenting a problem especially for the economy. *

Wages and Benefits in the Mao Era

Commune payments

Much of any worker's total compensation (wages, benefits, and official and unofficial perquisites) is determined by membership in a particular work unit. There is considerable variation in the benefits associated with different work units. Although the wage structure is quite egalitarian when compared with those of other countries, wages are only part of the picture. Many of the limited goods available in China cannot be bought for money. Rather, they are available only to certain favored work units. Housing is an obvious example. Many collective enterprises may have no housing at all or offer only rudimentary dormitories for young, unmarried workers. [Source: Library of Congress *]

High-level administrative cadres and military officers may earn three or four times more than ordinary workers; in addition, the government often grants them superior housing, the unlimited use of official automobiles and drivers, access to the best medical care in the country, opportunities for travel and vacations, and the right to purchase rare consumer goods either at elite shops or through special channels. Although China is a socialist state, it is not exactly a welfare state. Pensions, medical benefits, and survivors' benefits are provided through work units and come out of the unit's budget. The amount and nature of benefits may vary from unit to unit. The state, through local government bodies, does provide some minimal welfare benefits, but only to those with no unit benefits or family members able to support them. *

Retirees who have put in twenty-five or thirty years in a state-run factory or a central government office can expect a steady pension, most often at about 70 percent of their salary, and often continue to live in unit housing, especially if they have no grown children with whom they can live. In many cases, workers have been able to retire and have their children replace them. In other cases, some large state enterprises have started smaller sideline or subcontracting enterprises specifically to provide employment for the grown children of their workers. In contrast, peasants and those employed in collective enterprises generally receive no pensions and must depend on family members for support. *

Examinations, Hereditary Transmission of Jobs, and Connections

Beginning in the late 1970s, China's leaders stressed expertise and education over motivation and ideology and consequently placed emphasis again on examinations. Competition in the schools was explicit, and examinations were frequent. A major step in the competition for desirable jobs was the passage from senior middle school to college and university, and success was determined by performance on a nationwide college and university entrance examination. Examinations also were used to select applicants for jobs in factories, and even factory managers had to pass examinations to keep their positions. The content of these examinations has not been made public, but their use represents a logical response to the problem of unfair competition, favoritism, and corruption. [Source: Library of Congress *]

One extreme form of selection by favoritism in the 1980s was simple hereditary transmission, and this principle, which operated on a de facto basis in rural work units, seems to have been fairly widely used in China's industrial sector. From the 1960s to the 1980s, factories and mines in many cases permitted children to replace their parents in jobs, which simplified recruitment and was an effective way of encouraging aging workers to retire. The government forbade this practice in the 1980s, but in some instances state-run factories and mines, especially those located in rural or remote areas, used their resources to set up subsidiaries or sideline enterprises to provide employment for their workers' children. The leaders of these work units evidently felt responsible for providing employment to the children of unit members. *

The party and its role in personnel matters, including job assignments, can be an obstacle to the consistent application of hiring standards. At the grass-roots level, the party branch's control of job assignments and promotions is one of the foundations of its power, and some local party cadres in the mid-1980s apparently viewed the expanded use of examinations and educational qualifications as a threat to their power. The party, acting through local employment commissions, controlled all job assignments. Party members occupied the most powerful and desirable positions; the way party members were evaluated and selected for positions remained obscure. Local party cadres were frequently suspected by the authorities of using their connections to secure jobs for their relatives or clients. *

Rationing and Pricing in the Mao and Post-Mao Eras

A number of important consumer goods, including grain, cotton cloth, meat, eggs, edible oil, sugar, and bicycles, were rationed during the 1960s and 1970s. To purchase these items, workers had to use coupons they received from their work units. By the mid-1980s rationing of over seventy items had been eliminated; production of consumer goods had increased, and most items were in good supply. Grain, edible oil, and a few other items still required coupons. In 1985 pork rationing was reinstated in twenty-one cities as supplies ran low. Pork was available at higher prices in supermarkets and free markets. [Source: Library of Congress]

As a result of the economic reform program and the increased importance of market exchange and profitability, in the 1980s prices played a central role in determining the production and distribution of goods in most sectors of the economy. Previously, in the strict centrally planned system, enterprises had been assigned output quotas and inputs in physical terms. Now, under the reform program, the incentive to show a positive profit caused even state-owned enterprises to choose inputs and products on the basis of prices whenever possible. State-owned enterprises could not alter the amounts or prices of goods they were required to produce by the plan, but they could try to increase their profits by purchasing inputs as inexpensively as possible, and their off-plan production decisions were based primarily on price considerations. *

Prices were the main economic determinant of production decisions in agriculture and in private and collectively owned industrial enterprises despite the fact that regulations, local government fees or harassment, or arrangements based on personal connections often prevented enterprises from carrying out those decisions. Consumer goods were allocated to households by the price mechanism, except for rationed grain. Families decided what commodities to buy on the basis of the prices of the goods in relation to household income. *

Consumer Goods in the Mao and Post-Mao Eras

As with food supplies and clothing, the availability of housewares went through several stages. Simple, inexpensive household items, like thermoses, cooking pans, and clocks were stocked in department stores and other retail outlets all over China from the 1950s on. Relatively expensive consumer durables became available more gradually. In the 1960s production and sales of bicycles, sewing machines, wristwatches, and transistor radios grew to the point that these items became common household possessions, followed in the late 1970s by television sets and cameras. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the 1980s supplies of furniture and electrical appliances increased along with family incomes. Household survey data indicated that by 1985 most urban families owned two bicycles, at least one sofa, a writing desk, a wardrobe, a sewing machine, an electric fan, a radio, and a television. Virtually all urban adults owned wristwatches, half of all families had washing machines, 10 percent had refrigerators, and over 18 percent owned color televisions. Rural households on average owned about half the number of consumer durables owned by urban dwellers. Most farm families had 1 bicycle, about half had a radio, 43 percent owned a sewing machine, 12 percent had a television set, and about half the rural adults owned wristwatches. *

Xu Hongci: A Life in Maoist China

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust. Xu Hongci had been drawn to politics by the promise of dignity. Growing up in Shanghai during the Second World War, part of a downwardly mobile middle-class family, he resented the Japanese occupation and the Chinese leaders who failed to prevent it. “Japanese soldiers would fish in our pond, swaggering off with the biggest carp without paying a single penny,” Xu recalled, in a memoir he wrote years later. “Our nation’s tragedy awakened my political consciousness at a young age.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 19 2016]

“He dreamed of making China strong again, of erasing “injustice and darkness.” At the age of fourteen, he placed his faith in the radical change envisioned by Mao Zedong, joining the Communist Party before it came to power, in 1949. The first time Xu noticed cracks in Mao’s project, he rationalized them as the by-products of bold reform. Xu and his classmates had been ordered to identify “counterrevolutionaries” in their ranks, but they could find none. They fingered an innocent boy who, Xu conceded, “would have to suffice as a target for a round of criticism.”

“For a time, autocracy rewards the true believer, and Xu received a coveted place at Shanghai No. 1 Medical College, to study medicine. Violence was spreading, but Xu found ways to justify the lists in the newspaper of men and women executed in the Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionary Activities. He was only a “bystander,” he told himself.

“Mao told his people to watch their neighbors, to ferret out threats from within and from without. Xu played his part, until he, too, became suspect. In 1957, Mao repeated his call to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Xu voiced his dissatisfaction with the Soviet Union, and he spoke favorably of the Hungarian uprising against Moscow’s control. It was a trap. The president of Xu’s college labelled him a “traitor to the party.” Now the victim, Xu realized that the accusations he had parroted about others “were nothing but lies.”

“In April, 1958, Xu was sentenced to laogai (“labor reform”), modelled on the Soviet Gulag. He was one of five hundred and fifty thousand men and women across China who were convicted in the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Xu was sent to the White Grass Ridge camp, in barren southern Anhui Province. He and other convicts were housed in bamboo barracks and forced to scratch at the earth with the goal of “reclaiming wasteland.”

“Autocrats promise the unobtainable, and in 1958 Mao vowed to catapult his country past Britain in fifteen years. In Xu’s camp, the workday was extended to nineteen hours. Dysentery ravaged the convicts. Xu’s calves, swollen by edema, grew as large as his thighs. Mao promised to triple the size of the harvest, and he ordered the people to plant rice seedlings three times more densely than usual. The crops died. Famine set in.

“During the next decade, Xu escaped from laogai three times. On each occasion, he was recaptured. But his persistence is astonishing, because, as the laogai survivor Harry Wu later put it, “all of China was a prison in those days.” In 1972, Xu escaped once more and succeeded, at last, in reaching Mongolia, where he settled and later married. He wrote down his story, but he was unknown, and when he died, in 2008, it remained unpublished. Erling Hoh, a Swedish-Chinese journalist, happened on an oral history of Xu’s escape and in 2012 discovered the manuscript.” In January 2017, “No Wall Too High” was published in English. Xu’s story can be read as a testament to man’s unwillingness to succumb, or as the description of a moment when “the naked truth, so long outraged, burst upon the eyes of the world,” as Albert Camus wrote of Hungary’s uprising. But, above all, it should be read as a warning. Tyranny does not begin with violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of the truth."

Book on Daily Life in Maoist China

On the book they edited, “Maoism at the Grassroots” Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University and Matthew D. Johnson of Grinnell College wrote: “The Maoist state’s dominance over Chinese society, achieved through such watersheds as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, is well known.“Maoism at the Grassroots” reexamines this period of transformation and upheaval from a new perspective...Focusing on the period from the mid-1950s to 1980, the authors provide insights into the everyday lives of citizens across social strata, ethnicities, and regions. They explore how ordinary men and women risked persecution and imprisonment in order to assert personal beliefs and identities. Many displayed a shrewd knack for negotiating the maze-like power structures of everyday Maoism, appropriating regime ideology in their daily lives while finding ways to express discontent and challenge the state’s pervasive control.” [Source: MCLC /*/]

May Day celebration

Brown studied in Harbin and did research in Tianjin, focusing especially on the rural-urban divide in China under Mao Zedong. He and Johnson wrote: “Heterogeneity, limited pluralism, and tensions between official and popular culture were persistent features of Maoism at the grassroots. Men had gay relationships in factory dormitories, teenagers penned searing complaints in diaries, mentally ill individuals cursed Mao, farmers formed secret societies and worshipped forbidden spirits. These diverse undercurrents were as representative of ordinary people’s lives as the ideals promulgated in state propaganda.” The article by Yang Kuisong at East China Normal University is about a man who was persecuted for his homosexuality. Brown’s piece shows how people could have their “class label” changed by friends or rivals. /*/

“Part I. Crimes, Labels, and Punishment 1. How a “Bad Element” Was Made: The Discovery, Accusation, and Punishment of Zang Qiren [Yang Kuisong] 2. Moving Targets: Changing Class Labels in Rural Hebei and Henan, 1960–1979 [Jeremy Brown] 3. An Overt Conspiracy: Creating Rightists in Rural Henan, 1957–1958 [Cao Shuji] 4. Revising Political Verdicts in Post-Mao China: The Case of Beijing’s Fengtai District [Daniel Leese] /*/

Part II. Mobilization 5. Liberation from the Loom? Rural Women, Textile Work, and Revolution in North China [Jacob Eyferth] 6. Youth and the “Great Revolutionary Movement” of Scientific Experiment in 1960s–1970s Rural China [Sigrid Schmalzer] 7. Adrift in Tianjin, 1976: A Diary of Natural Disaster, Everyday Urban Life and Exile to the Countryside [Sha Qingqing and Jeremy Brown] /*/

Part III. Culture and Communication 8. Beneath the Propaganda State: Official and Unofficial Cultural Landscapes in Shanghai, 1949–1965 [Matthew D. Johnson] 9. China’s “Great Proletarian Information Revolution” of 1966–1967 [Michael Schoenhals] 10. The Dilemma of Implementation: The State and Religion in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1990 [Xiaoxuan Wang] /*/

Part IV. Discontent 11. Radical Agricultural Collectivization and Ethnic Rebellion: The Communist Encounter with a “New Emperor” in Guizhou’s Mashan Region, 1956 [Wang Haiguang] 12. Caught between Opposing Han Chauvinism and Opposing Local Nationalism: The Drift toward Ethnic Antagonism in Xinjiang Society, 1952–1963 [Zhe Wu] 13. Redemptive Religious Societies and the Communist State, 1949 to the 1980s [S. A. Smith] Epilogue: Mao’s China—Putting Politics in Perspective [Vivienne Shue] /*/

Book: “Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China's Era of High Socialism,” edited by Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University Matthew D. Johnson, Grinnell College, Harvard University Press, 2015]

Website on Everyday Life in Mao’s China

Historian Covell Meyskens teaches at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and curates “Everyday Life in Mao’s China,” a website filled with photographs and other images from 20th-century China.[Source: Tong Lam, “Everyday Life in Mao’s China”: a Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens by Tong Lam, La Review of Books, China Blog, January 27, 2016 |||]

Meyskens told Tong Lam of China Blog and the Los Angeles Times Review of Books: “All of the images are from the internet. The majority of images are from websites based in China, though I have found some on websites from other countries as well. I normally search for images using Mandarin, so most end up being from Chinese or Taiwanese sites. Some of the images come from Chinese archives, which have digitized and made public some of their visual holdings. These images are particularly interesting, because they tend to be more candid than pictures made for national media outlets like Xinhua. From what I can tell, work teams or local journalists appear to have produced most of this type of image. So, for instance, when a work team went to inspect a railroad or city, sometimes they would bring a camera in tow and take images. In archives, I have not come across these photos attached to documents. The only photos I have seen are ID type images attached to personnel files. This is perhaps because of the way that archives file materials. I am not sure. |||

“Another another source of images is personal blogs, the biggest treasure trove probably being Sina blogs. Quite a few elderly people in China have written online memoirs on Sina blogs and formed online memoir communities, where people with common experiences exchange and comment on each others’ memoirs. Some people have also uploaded images onto their blogs. Some of these photos come from other sources, such as Xinhua, but individuals also post images that they took on their own. One really large genre is photos taken by sent-down youth, who probably due to their relatively privileged access to basic appliances, were to able to use cameras to document quite extensively their lives in rural China. |||

“Every historian admittedly has to choose a topic, time period, and location to examine and characterize. But, for a historian to become aware of the panorama of practices current at any given time in Maoist China, she has to read a rather large volume of files from a number of different sections of the government, an endeavor that takes a huge amount of time and requires a high level of access to archives that is not likely to be possible in the CCP’s current drive to keep out of view the archival secrets of its past and not reckon with them in anything but political fables. |||

“Another genre of photos on the EDL website is young people during the Cultural Revolution engaging in leisure activities such as celebrating the birth of a child, visiting the Leshan giant Buddha, or palling around with friends in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1967 and 1968, a time typically remembered as full of violent political factionalism, not a time for knitting a sweater, practicingmartial arts, holding a wedding, or taking a selfie. Historical photographs also show the violent side of the Cultural Revolution in a different light. For example, they contain the kinds of weapons people had, ranging from machine guns to improvised tanks, and what they did with them, which included a whole host of activities, from posing for class photos and parading martyrs around the city toelementary school red guards and students standing by memorials for their classmates who had died in factional struggles....These are also images of young men and women coming of age. These are images of joy, sorrow, love, narcissism, and so forth. It seems that their emotions really do reach out to us — the spectators of these photos.” |||

Mao-Era Potemkin Images

Historian Covell Meyskens told Tong Lam of China Blog: “Potemkin images..-like the famed Soviet village present an ideal representation of socialist life for visitors to experience. In the case of photos, these are images where it is fairly obvious that a photographer has asked for people to arrange themselves in a particular place in a certain way and in which the people in the photos almost always smile, even when they are engaged in practices that would have probably involved a much wider range of emotions than happiness. [Source: Tong Lam, “Everyday Life in Mao’s China”: a Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens by Tong Lam, La Review of Books, China Blog, January 27, 2016 |||]

marking the anniversary of Mao's Yangtze swim

“This tendency to have one emotion dominate the visual realm of socialist cultural production suggests that there was probably an official rule that everyone in photos distributed in the mass media had to look like they were enjoying what they were doing, as if everyday life was an experience of constant happiness in a country, like Maoist China, where people were in theory incessantly working for the creation of a socialist universe of experience not just in China, but in the entire world. Historians of visual images from Maoist China may have uncovered such a rule already, I do not know, but even if such a rule did not exist, the abundance of smiling faces in Maoist era mass media implies that there was at least a tacit expectation that photographers knew that a good socialist cultural worker would airbrush cheer onto nearly every visage approved for wide distribution. |||

There are definitely counter examples, even for such icons of Maoism as Lei Feng, who apparently rode a motorcycle throughTiananmen Square. Other images show that the State wish — fantasy of socialism incessantly lighting up every face with positive feelings was patently not true. For instance, this photo contains a family reading Mao’s works at home. No one in the family looks particularly happy, enthusiastic, or excited, as the dominant ideology prescribed them to be when reading Mao. Nor do they appear to be especially enlightened, even though they are imbibing the great beacon of international socialism — Mao Thought. Instead, most of the figures in the picture look rather bored or amused that someone is taking their picture. Their minds seem to be not there, but elsewhere. They are not occupied with contemplating Mao’s words, nor are they engaging in a lively discussion to more fully understand Mao. They seem instead to be distracted.” |||

“Scholars of China use another type of simplifying language, when they, for instance, describe the few years after the Great Leap Forward (1961–1964) as a period setting the stage for the Cultural Revolution, all the while occluding from view the plethora of social practices various groups engaged in, such as kids riding a hobby horse, professional gamers playing in an international Go competition, families taking portraits, city folk attending a Lantern Festival, a reporter making a newscast from a flood zone, a family going to a pastry shop in Shanghai or taking a stroll in a park, an old man receiving a telegram in Lhasa, thousands of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest, holiday revelers setting off May Day fireworks in Tiananmen, engineers designing a public bus for Beijing, or an artist painting a dam.” |||

Documents from the Mao Era

Historian Covell Meyskens told Tong Lam of China Blog: “Many documents from Maoist China are very programmatic. They are bureaucratic objects. They are about how effectively local areas have carried out some task set by higher levels in the bureaucracy, such as collecting leftover scrap metal, achieving a production target, or teaching correct safety procedures. Their writers focus on telling upper administration about how they are handling whatever administrative assignment they have been charged to do. [Source: Tong Lam, “Everyday Life in Mao’s China”: a Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens by Tong Lam, La Review of Books, China Blog, January 27, 2016 |||]

Teaching old people to read in the 1950s

“Of course, there are also cases where local officials decide not to allow upper levels of government to see into local life and occlude from view certain problem areas or willfully neglect to respond to certain queries by upper administration. Report writers might also employ the reigning wooden language of the day, a dissimulation tactic that also provides very little insight into the happenings of a local area. Occasionally, a bureaucrat might bring up other issues outside the assigned purview of discussion, but bureaucratic documents normally concentrate their descriptions and analyses on a fairly defined range of topics. |||

“A document on a given factory might spend pages talking only about whether workers were meeting production targets. On the other hand, a few images can provide a window onto what sort of everyday routines and activities workers engaged in, what clothes people wore, what their hair looked like, how their workplace was arranged, what sort of machinery it had, how people led work singalongs, what sort of tools laborers used, how well a factory workshop was lit. To cover such a wide variety of topics in a text, a bureaucrat would have to write a rather lengthy detailed report and would probably risk being reprimanded for not staying on point and not following proper report writing guidelines. |||

“The Potemkin style of course was not restricted to images. It had a sort of analogue in the world of documents. It is the kind of document I referred to earlier which consists almost entirely of wooden political slogans, like “lift high the great red flag of Mao Thought” and other bureaucratic phrases that are almost completely abstracted from a specific place or time. These documents erase locality, subtract out geography, and make all China appear as a simulacra of the reigning ideology at any given moment. They make it seem that there is only one China that is the nearly the same everywhere. How a specific political campaign played out at a mine in Sichuan was exactly the same as how it was unfolding in rural Hubei or a Beijing market. |||

Image Sources: Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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