Great Disorder Under Heaven

Women workers carry portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong  as they march in Shanghai at the pro-Mao rally, Jan. 6, 1967.
Women workers carry portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong as they march in Shanghai at the pro-Mao rally, Jan. 6, 1967. (AP)
Reviewed by Orville Schell
Sunday, October 29, 2006


By Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 693 pp. $35

It has been enthralling to read Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals's exhaustively researched new book on China's Cultural Revolution -- a sensation akin to returning to a Chinese painting in which a mist-shrouded landscape has miraculously cleared to reveal what was obscured beyond. While it was not difficult to feel the tension, even the fear, aloft in the land when I reported from Mao Zedong's China for the New Yorker during the mid-1970s, being there gave few intimations of the dark complexity of the political struggle playing out beneath the surface. By making sense out of this opaque decade, MacFarquhar (who teaches at Harvard University) and Schoenhals (who teaches at Lund University in Sweden) have provided the most definitive roadmap to date of China's odyssey through those tumultuous times.

But what happened is still not easy to explain completely. For complex reasons that involved Mao's political beliefs as well as his own psychological pathologies, the communist leader felt compelled to goad China into an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness that ran from 1966 to 1976. Both to protect his own political supremacy and to wrench China out of its "feudal" past, he made politics and "class struggle" the currency of his revolutionary realm. In his own words, he created "great disorder under heaven." Proclaiming that "to rebel is justified," he called on students to "bombard the headquarters" of the Communist Party and thus set in motion one of the most unprecedented upheavals of the 20th century.

"You ask us how to do it," President Liu Shaoqi, who later died as a political enemy in one of Mao's prisons, told students as the leftist surge gathered momentum. "I tell you honestly, I don't know either. We're mainly going to be relying on you to make this revolution."

In the name of wiping out "capitalist roaders" (a euphemism for anyone seemingly opposed to Mao's revolutionary line) and "bourgeois revisionism," tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed. "Beat to a pulp any and all persons who go against Mao Zedong Thought -- no matter who they are, what banner they fly, or how exalted their positions may be," proclaimed one Red Guard poster.

"Whereas party violence had normally been carefully controlled and calibrated, now the rules had been suspended," note the authors. "Freed from parental and societal constraints, youths, both girls and boys, had been unleashed to perpetrate assault, battery, and murder upon their fellow citizens to the extent their barely formed consciences permitted. The result was the juvenile state of nature, nationwide, foreshadowed in microcosm by Nobel Prize-winner William Golding in Lord of the Flies ."

A few of China's more pragmatic leaders did shrink from Mao's cataclysmic vision of revolutionary extremism. But Mao's Last Revolution suggests how easy it can be for a mercurial "Big Leader," operating within a totalitarian system, to throw doubters so far off balance that none was able to organize resistance. And if there is one thing that Marxist-Leninist states do well, it is defoliating the political landscape of checks and balances, as well as watchdog institutions like the press. This is especially true when the media fall into the hands of one faction so that any sense of the actual variety of contending viewpoints is eclipsed, making it impossible for an outsider to discern how different factions were actually struggling against each other behind the scenes.

Mao was a master of keeping all comers in a state of paralyzing uncertainty. He garnered enormous power from his imperial opaqueness: While almost everyone wished "to work toward" Mao and his policies in order to please him, they could never be quite sure whether they were measuring up. Mao was the embodiment par excellence of the advice implicitly given by the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov when he chastises Jesus for failing to compel belief by ruling by "miracle, mystery and authority."

By frequently absenting himself from the everyday sordidness of Beijing politics, Mao conjured up an almost otherworldly authority. And by making conflicting pronouncements that were impossible to factor together, he maintained both deniability and an ambiguity that kept his subordinates "transfixed like rabbits in front of a cobra," as the authors put it.

In the end, after years of chaos, even Mao seemed to realize that the party's ability to continue leading China hung in the balance. He then called back cashiered veteran army leaders such as Deng Xiaoping. Curiously, although most of them had been persecuted by Mao, when it came to evaluating his life after his death, they still gave Mao a pass, finding only 30 percent of his policies erroneous and 70 percent correct. But as Deng pragmatically observed, discrediting Mao "would mean discrediting our Party and state." And so, in the end, Mao's legacy as grand progenitor of the Chinese Communist Revolution was left largely intact, despite the horrors of this last revolutionary paroxysm.

MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have drawn from a truly impressive array of materials, including documents, wall posters, autobiographies, journalistic reports, interviews, speeches, academic studies and personal reminiscences. But here a cautionary word is in order. The field is awash with "wild" (rather than "official") histories and sources, which include autobiographies, memoirs, reminiscences and reflections filled with recovered memories and reconstructed dialogue of questionable provenance and accuracy. But the sources for this impressive book are more solid and varied than for any previous effort. One can only lament that Mao's Last Revolution will not be available in China, where the party's aversion to probing into such sensitive topics makes it unlikely that a similar historical research project will be forthcoming anytime soon.

China has come a long way since Mao. But neither he nor his revolution has been completely interred; his body still lies on public view in Tiananmen Square, his image remains on China's money, and his portrait still hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. With China's political system still lacking the kinds of checks and balances that can bring a society back from the brink of extremism, optimism about its political future should be tempered by realism.

Indeed, this September, on the 30th anniversary of both Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the party still chose to spend a week celebrating his legacy, culminating with an official concert in the Great Hall of the People entitled "The Sun is the reddest and Chairman Mao is the most beloved." No mention was made of the incalculable damage his Cultural Revolution inflicted on his country. In the future, one important index of China's passage toward political maturity will be the degree to which it feels able to repudiate both Mao and his Cultural Revolution legacy. ยท

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of numerous books and articles on China.

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