This past week I finished reading MacFarquhar and Schoenhals book Mao’s Last Revolution on the Cultural Revolution. Allow me a couple of thoughts. First, on the book, I understand that the authors have a particular view of the events but would prefer more discussion of other possible interpretations of the events in their first chapter rather than simply focusing on their perspective. I have not carefully examined this period of history, especially at the elite level,* and so would prefer to be persuaded by evidence that their perspective is superior to the alternatives. Instead I accept their view point by default but feel a bit uneasy about that acceptance.
On the Cultural Revolution itself, I only can think of how alien that period and politics seem from the present. The way that the book attempts to make plain the insanity of the time: hundreds of thousands of people crowding around to denounce super elite politicians, civil war in the streets, suicides of provincial party secretaries as routine… And yet, I wonder what the super elite politics of today looks like behind the closed doors and guarded gates of Zhongnanhai. How institutionalized is succession? How different is today’s party-state from that of the past, or from other non-democracies? Prof. Stephan Haggard when visiting Beijing last year had a nice meal with Jessica and me, and while seemed interested in my dissertation and theories, he disagreed with me when I said that China’s experience could illuminate politics in all non-democracies. He thinks that there are serious differences between party-states and other non-democracies. More, much more, to come on this topic as that section of the dissertation takes shape.
* There are many books detailing life on the ground and in the streets of the Cultural Revolution. I am a particular fan of Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters, although the deepest impression left with me from that book, other than the chaos of the time, is from its title which is from a quotation by Lu Xun. The meaning is that when people in prior generations were starving, they tried to eat anything that they could. Some found that we could eat lobster or crawfish but others died trying to eat spiders. Current generations have learned from those spider eaters and will never repeat that mistake. Similarly, the world should learn from the experience of the Cultural Revolution and never allow it to take place again. Here’s the quotation from Lu Xun:
“Many historic lessons were obtained through tremendous sacrifice. Such as eating food – if something is poisonous, we all seem to know it. It is common sense. But in the past many people must have eaten this food and died so that now we know better. Therefore I think the first person who ate crabs was admirable. If not a hero, who would dare eat such creatures? Since someone ate crabs, others must have eaten spiders as well. However, they were not tasty. So afterwards people stopped eating them. These people also deserve our heartfelt gratitude.”
(The quotation by the way, I found on page 65 of this Master’s Thesis [pdf]. Oddly Amazon didn’t have the dedication in its “search inside” text.)