Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution — A First Set of Suggestions

By Jeff Wasserstrom

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start and the 40th anniversary of the end of a period often known as China’s “Cultural Revolution Decade” or the “Ten Years of Chaos” (Shinian dongluan). Everything about the Cultural Revolution is up for debate, including its name (should it be called “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”?) and chronology (to some scholars, its opening moves began in 1964, for others, it concluded in 1969, and so on). Still, it makes sense to treat 2016 as a major anniversary year as far as the latter part of the Mao era (1949-1976) is concerned. The Red Guards were formed in 1966. Ten years after that, Zhou Enlai and then Mao Zedong himself died. Soon after that the “Gang of Four,” which included the Chairman’s wife Jiang Qing, fell from power. We have already begun marking the anniversaries here by running a two-part Q&A weeks ago with specialists, and we will be following this up here at the China Blog with occasional posts that flag new and old books and films of interest to those who want to get a fuller sense of the confusing events of 1966, 1976, and the years in between.

To begin this occasional series, I suggest four places where non-specialists seeking to know more about the Cultural Revolution might usefully turn. For those without a great deal of time, I flag the value of an excellent short narrative history; a lavishly illustrated book devoted to posters (a crucial artistic and propagandistic medium of the time); a poignant memoir (by a former Red Guard who now teaches in the United States); and a website with a wide array of things to read, watch, and listen to, which was created to accompany and supplement a powerful documentary film. None of the things I am flagging here are new, but perhaps posts still to come will focus on things that are coming out during this anniversary year.

The narrative history

The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is the work of political scientist Richard Curt Kraus. Like all works in the popular Oxford University Press VSI series, this is small enough to slip into your back pocket. It is deeply informed, written in a clear and lively style, and covers an enormous amount of ground in a small number of words.

The book on art and propaganda

Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: The Posters of the Cultural Revolution comes with a generous set of color prints and additional black and white images taken from the University of Westminster’s important collection of Chinese visual materials. Co-edited by historian Harriet Evans, who contributes a chapter on representations of women, and cultural studies scholar Stephanie Donald, whose focus is on children in her chapter, the book includes essays by a prominent journalist (John Gittings), a leading art historian (Craig Clunas), an influential scholar of literature and drama (Chen Xiaomei), and a respected political scientist (Robert Benewick).

The autobiography

What makes Rae Yang’s Spider Eaters: A Memoir stand out to me is its candor, her discussion of issues relating to gender, and her willingness to go beyond describing the violence she witnessed or suffered to wrestle with her own complicity in disturbing actions. (First published in 1998, it was reissued with a new preface by the author in a 2013 fifteenth anniversary edition — a move reflecting its enduring popularity as a classroom text.)

The website

This site was created to accompany “Morning Sun,” a documentary directed and produced by Carma Hinton, Geremie Barmé, and Richard Gordon. A creation of The Long Bow Group — the same organization responsible for “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a prizewinning documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4th Massacre of 1989 (full disclaimer: I was a central consultant to that film and an adviser on “Morning Sun” as well) — this online resource needs to be seen, or rather dipped into and played with, to be appreciated. It is special, including such things as a radio dial that can be turned to play different songs from the era, as well as materials that emphasize in direct and indirect ways that passionate fealty to Mao took on religious and indeed millenarian dimensions.

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