A new memoir provides a first-hand account of why Mao’s attempt to communise China was a blooming disaster, writes IPA Membership Officer Claire Peter-Budge.
There is a line often heard in political and social justice circles which speaks of being on the “right side of history”. This notion is evoked when those behind it are challenged in situations such as when certain statues are vandalised or pulled down, why buildings or parklands are renamed, and even why classic authors are deleted from school reading lists. As Sydney Institute executive director Gerard Henderson helpfully pointed out in a recent article for The Australian:
The put-down that someone or other is on ‘the wrong side of history’ or is ‘not on the right side of history’ is not new. It was much used by ideologues of the left who maintained that political conservatives were on the wrong side of history and probably has its origins in what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about their concept of historical materialism.
Now one of modern man’s greatest ambitions is progress—a constant process of adapting and changing our society and ourselves for the better. However, I find myself pondering how can we be on the right side of history if we are unable to draw parallels between present and past actions? It is an indictment of how little we learn, particularly when it is perfection rather than incremental progress that is sought.
In her new book, Pink Flower: Growing Up in Mao’s China, Amei Li takes readers on a journey of her life, a youth defined by a society that previously only the minds of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell could have imagined. It is a story that gives a glimpse into the power of history, its strength to teach but also its weakness to be corrupted. For Li, it is a story of resilience, compassion, and the non-violent struggle to uphold not ‘one’s’ truth but THE truth.
Li, like many of her generation, lived in the shadow of a leader who promised a society completely free of ill and purified of the wrongs of the past. His name is permanently fixed into the annals of history: Mao Zedong. In life, Mao was presented as a leader in philosophy, military tactics, and political strategy. More than a leader, Mao was the Great Helmsman and figurehead of a nation and revolution—a character the stuff of legend, or reminiscent of protagonists in the great literary epics.
The word of Mao was one of continuous revolution.
Such status was part of a carefully curated personality cult that was intensively propagated to young and impressionable minds, seeking to turn them into submissive and unquestioning devotees. The word of Mao was one of continuous revolution and in his last years he raised an army of young fanatics, The Red Guards, to ensure his revolution was not only kept alive but that it was absolute.
Li was not only witness to this uprising, but a part of it. Mao’s legacy is at best controversial, at worst devastating. While Li is only one among millions of whom Mao would never know, he was nonetheless a key figure in countless lives as he shaped not only the physical surroundings of China’s societies but the minds of everyone who grasped his Little Red Book. British journalist and author Philip Short wrote of Mao: “With single-minded ruthlessness, [Mao] wrenched his subjects out of the somnolence of a medieval Empire and transformed them into citizens of a modern nation-state”. The first part is perhaps true; the second questionable.
Mao’s death in 1976 left a void in the lives of many Chinese who had lived, even grown up, under his 27-year rule, when it was difficult not to become accustomed to his presence that was as captivating as it was menacing. The violent purges that flourished under his rule shifted to ones of the written kind years after his passing. The stories told of the scars of social upheaval and collapse; this was the literature of the wounded. These are tales that demonstrate how Mao’s legacy is complex when considering the minds of hundreds of millions and what side they saw themselves on, at the time or in hindsight, in the history that was created and would be critiqued later. In Mao’s China, the events that unfolded lead us to ponder how a society comes to such chaos. It is not only rooted in the past, but how the past is co-opted.
For Amei Li, resilience was passed down as a family tradition. She writes of the strength of her family rooted in surviving China’s tumultuous history: the Opium Wars, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, warlords, corruption, political repression, foot binding, foreign invasions, and the Civil War that brought about what would be declared the People’s Republic of China, under Chairman Mao. After enduring much violence, division, and uncertainty, Mao’s ascension to be China’s Supreme Leader, along with his allies, was believed to be the start of the society envisioned by Karl Marx. Back then, as Li writes, the main concerns of the Communist Party were to rid China of the social scourges that were drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, banditry, and robbery.
Li was born in 1950, a year after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). She writes of her childhood like a recent memory, recalling the joys of school, swimming, gymnastics, and listening to her parents share the classics of Chinese literature. These early experiences cultivated a passion for learning and knowledge. This demonstrates education to be a liberating enterprise, especially considering the old constraints when many, particularly women, could never hope to attend school, let alone a well-respected tertiary institution. Li’s family understood progress, as she writes:
My Mother was not taught to read and write or allowed to go to school. Luckily, her parents discovered that reading aloud helped her brother to learn and that was important to them. Hearing those books read aloud gave her an education in literature, poetry, and history.
Li grew up in a family that she describes as enlightened, peaceful, and secure … despite the proletarian leadership sowing the seeds of what was to flourish later.
The central planning of agriculture in China lead to crop losses and mass starvation.
In the early 1960s, Mao’s power was in a precarious position after the disastrous Great Leap Forward initiative that attempted to reconstruct China’s economy and accelerate Communism’s development by establishing People’s Communes. The doomed application of central planning to agriculture lead to crop losses and mass starvation, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 15 to 55 million.
Writing for The BMJ (December 1999) about what has been widely recognised as the worst famine in human history, Canadian distinguished professor emeritus Vaclav Smil said:
… between the spring of 1959 and the end of 1961 some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or postponed. The famine had overwhelmingly ideological causes, rating alongside the two world wars as a prime example of what [American historian] Richard Rhodes labelled public manmade death, perhaps the most overlooked cause of 20th century mortality.
Two generations later China … has still not undertaken an open, critical examination of this unprecedented tragedy.
There also were the lingering threats of the Anti-Rightist purges that sought to rid the political establishment and any other person suspected of harbouring ‘unfavourable’ opinions of the Communist Party. Such fear of persecution prevented any concern or objection being raised about the effectiveness of any aspect of Party policies. To distract from his own policy failings, Mao relied on the strength of his revolutionary rhetoric and understanding of the power of symbolism.
Further to what was to become the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the influence of Mao’s wife, a former Shanghai actress named Jiang Qing. Behind her were three of her close associates and together they formed a radical clique dubbed the Gang of Four that took control of culture and media. Given that the country’s youth had grown up in an environment where opposing opinion was all but repressed, it was not only easy to foster one view but to attack anyone, or anything, that deviated from it.
As Li recalls, the change that occurred was sudden but carefully concocted: “The seeds of Communist doctrines were planted in our young minds and fostered by beautiful tunes.”
Li describes how China’s culture transformed and revolved around dedication to the party, the people, and Mao. The world was no longer black and white but black and red to symbolise one’s background and their thoughts associated with a particular socio-economic status. The ancient multicultural state of China was torn down and beaten into an orthodoxy of oneness.
Li was 16 when the Cultural Revolution began. At an age when Li had hoped to continue her education, classrooms were either emptied to attend rallies or turned into interrogation rooms. The norms were chaos and contradiction after Mao declared “Bombard the Headquarters” and “Smash the Four Olds”, giving Red Guards free reign to turn on their teachers and peers.
To many, it was less about protecting the revolution and more about exerting the superiority of their ‘Red’ class identity—those aligned with a worker, solider, or peasant background—over those of the ‘Black’ classes: the intellectuals, revisionists, capitalists, and bourgeoisie, who were considered a threat to the revolution. In asserting superiority, it was the perfect storm to get back at anyone who had wronged you.
Li lost many friends in the class struggle, whether cast out or leading the attacks on ‘Blacks’ (which Li said she was associated with because of her family’s business acumen and nice home). Beloved teachers were denounced, sometimes violently assaulted, and humiliated in public in what would become known as ‘Struggle Sessions’. Li writes: “With Mao’s decree, ‘Yao wu ma’, or ‘Be Violent’, the Red Guards embraced it with vigour that would cost many—and no one dared to criticise them.”
However, as the power of the Red Guards grew, it became apparent they too were expendable. As foot soldiers of Maoist orthodoxy, all they could do was wait for the party’s next decree. In the late 1960s, the Party instituted the ‘Down to the Countryside Movement’ policy to ‘encourage’ youths to travel outside the city to live with peasants. This, however, was a ploy to stabilise the urban centres that had effectively come under the influence of the Red Guards. Li, like millions of other young people, were boarded onto trains and sent to various rural regions. Some never returned home. According to Mao, the aim was for students to “develop their talents by learning from the rural class”. It would certainly prove an important lesson for Li.
The importance of education is a key theme in Li’s story.
As Li travelled to remote parts of the country, she became acquainted with their local communities, their hospitality, and the humbleness that had vanished from the cities where the great upheaval had wreaked havoc. However, the experience proved to be a harsh lesson. The new class system that upheld the importance of the Worker, Peasant and Soldier was such because of the abject poverty of their status. The peasant represented tolerance by accepting the narrow and precarious nature of their impoverished lives. The worker was the leading class in running the factories, yet their lives were no better than a peasant. The soldier was the muscle of society, representing devotion as the only faculty in a numbed mind.
Progress had not reached the rural populace despite their glorified place in Maoist folklore, but that was precisely the point: they were the idealised underclass cursed to live under oppression and yet be thankful for it. This was the start of a pivotal time in Li’s life that brought her to where she is now.
We cannot escape our past because we are a product of it. Regardless of the ills of the past, it is not effective to promote artificial hatred of things that happened beyond our control or before our time. The lesson of history is tolerance. We acknowledge while times change, we must accept they were once different.
However, history can empower by serving as a reminder of the real meaning of progress, which Amei Li upheld throughout her life by moving forward. Her life is in Australia now, and has been for 30 years, where she became a teacher. Li’s students inspired her to tell her story. She writes about how one of her students struggled to comprehend Li’s adolescence:
Looking into the wide-eyed face of my young pupil I realised that the world of hatred, death, and destruction where I lived at her age never existed for her.
At this point readers will realise that the importance of education is a key theme in Li’s story. Education helps give people a say in what they want to do with their lives. In such an oppressive State as Mao’s China, ‘progress’ was just a word shouted at rallies or written repetitively in doctrines. Education was merely indoctrination, and the most shocking thing was the truth. Li writes her story with a degree of honesty, understanding, and compassion which promotes great reflection.
Important to this lesson is a man Li makes special mention of: Mr Song, an elderly doorkeeper guarding a dilapidated three-story temple that housed the Yongle Bell (pictured, right); a relic of the Ming Dynasty’s third emperor, Zhu Di (1360–1424), that symbolised divine rule. When Li was a teenager, Mr Song regaled her with stories of the bell’s history and significance, but lamented the possibility of its destruction by the Red Guards as it was “from the time of the Emperors”:
The Buddha was protecting this Bell! Long before the Cultural Revolution professors and students would come from the universities and study it. Now all the old things will be destroyed … and I will die soon.
With Amei Li’s memoir of growing up in Mao’s China fresh in my thoughts I began contemplating the misguided actions of today’s so-called progressives, leading to the question only time will answer: can we learn from the past, or are we doomed to repeat it?
This article from the Summer 2022 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Membership Officer Claire Peter-Budge.