China Book Reviews


Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008.

ISBN: 978-1-58367-180-1

Han Dongping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008.

by Jason Lee

Dongping Han's The Unknown Cultural Revolution challenges the established narrative of China's Cultural Revolution, which assumes that this period of great social upheaval led to economic disaster, the persecution of intellectuals and senseless violence, and for this reason the book makes a great companion piece to Mobo Gao's The Battle for China's Past and Paul Clark's The Chinese Cultural Revolution - both of which I reviewed here on this site last year.

While Clark focusses on creativity and innovation in the arts, Dongping Han offers instead a powerful account of the dramatic improvements in the living conditions, infrastructure, and agricultural practices of China's rural population that emerged during this period. Drawing on extensive local interviews and records in rural Jimo County, in Shandong Province, Han shows that the Cultural Revolution helped overthrow local hierarchies, establish participatory democracy and economic planning in the communes and expanded education and public services. The political convulsions of the Cultural Revolution "democratized village political culture and spurred the growth of rural education," writes Han, "leading to substantial and rapid economic development." (p.1)

According to Han, ordinary villagers, "being at the very bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy," were "accustomed to oppression and abuse." (p.18) Abuse and corruption during the years immediately following the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party "took place in rural China not only because the laws and regulations banning abuses of power and corruption were insufficient," but also because "the common people did not know how, or were not predisposed, to use the existing laws and regulations to fight corrupt and abusive officials. In order to empower ordinary villagers it was necessary to transform their political culture of submissiveness and to increase both literacy and political awareness." (p.19)

The Chinese Communist Party also inherited the legacy of pre-1949 policies that had financed urban education at the expense of the countryside. "While the Communists had denounced the social injustices inherent in this educational system when they were in opposition," notes Han, "once in power, CCP officials began to entrench themselves and their families in urban areas and began to see the existing educational inequality in a different light." (p.23) Without appropriate supervision from the people, adds Han, "the Party bosses at all levels possessed the human tendency to become arrogant and corrupt." (p.49)

The Cultural Revolution then, insists Han, was launched by Mao with the aim of empowering the masses so as to prevent the Party from being transformed into a corrupt institution under bourgeois control. "China's pre-Cultural Revolution political culture had provided fertile soil for the growth of tuhuangdi (local emperors)," says Han, pointing out that former rebel leaders in Jimo County like Lan Chengwu and Wang Sibo at the time viewed the Cultural Revolution as something that had been introduced by Mao "because he wanted to cultivate a more democratic political culture in order to eradicate the tuhuangdi phenomenon." (p.55)

According to Han, most of Jimo's workers and farmers, unlike the young students who had naive and noble notions about the Cultural Revolution, joined for very practical reasons. "They rebelled because they were not happy with the local Jimo Party bosses, and with the ways some Party leaders conducted their official business. They accused the Party leaders of turning their units into small independent kingdoms (duli wangguo), of distorting Central Government policies and enacting their own arbitrary rules, of oppressing people who challenge their authority, and of pilfering public funds." (p.57) This explains, says Han, why during the Cultural Revolution their challenges "were labeled anti-Party and anti-revolutionary by the local Party bosses." The workers and farmers however, responded to such claims by appealing to Mao's 16 Points, which stressed that the targets of the Cultural Revolution were the capitalist roaders inside the Party. "Chairman Mao supports us," they said, "and we will not let Chairman Mao down." (p.57)

The picture Han Dongping paints of the conflicts that occurred in Jimo County between local Party leaders and students and rebel worker and farmer associations during the 1960s bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of conflicts that commonly occur throughout much of rural China today. "In the beginning the rebels were not able to engage in these political activities without harassment," Han observes. For example, "Li Hu, a policeman from Chengguan Police Station, tried to stop Lan Chengwu and his comrade Yan Libo from distributing their newspapers in the market places. They resisted. Li Hu took them to police headquarters. Inside the police station, Li Hu confiscated all their newspapers and searched their bodies. After harassing both students for some time, Li Hu dismissed them in the usual off-handed manner. But the two students refused to leave and demanded an apology for the illegal harassment. When they did not get an apology, they immediately started a hunger strike inside the police headquarters. Farmers, workers, students and teachers swarmed the police station to support the two students." In the end, the police were forced to back down and to apologize. "When rebels such as Lan Chengwu and Yan Libo defended themselves and subjected the arrogant and aggressive Party leaders to vehement criticism and physical harassment," concludes Han, "defenders of traditional political culture condemned this as 'disaster' and 'chaos'. But this 'disaster' and 'chaos' also empowered masses to talk back to people in authority." (p.58)

Like Mobo Gao, Han Dongping believes that the militancy of today's rural workforce in China is a direct legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
As Han points out, most mass associations during the Cultural Revolution "claimed allegiance to Mao Zedong thought and to the agenda of the Cultural Revolution because they empowered them," though Han also acknowledges the fact that in most villages, mass associations "were divided into two major sides." Usually one side "was made up of people who had grievances against village Party leaders and saw the Cultural Revolution as an opportunity to settle past wrongs" while the other "was composed of people who were more favorably disposed toward the former village Party leaders and wanted to protect them." (p.59)  Different mass associations would often compete with one another for the allegiance of villagers, and sometimes village Party leaders were subjected to violence, but nevertheless concludes Han, "these violent explosions of anger and frustration by villagers had some very positive consequences in the process of empowerment for rural people." (p.59)

When looking at the 80,000 or so rural disturbances that now occur every year throughout rural China, argues Han, it is important to recognize the past as prologue.