- Continuing the Reevaluation:Four Studies of the Cultural Revolution
Over forty years after the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and over thirty years after its official end, Chinese and Western scholars are still arguing, not over the import of the movement—about which nearly everyone agrees is very great—but about its true nature and meaning. Was this cataclysmic event really a true revolution in Chinese culture and an attempt to preserve the socialist gains of the 1949 revolution against revisionists who would lead China back down the road toward capitalist inequality, as Maoists and their defenders in the West argue to varying degrees? Or, instead, was it really about a simple power struggle between Mao and his followers, on the one hand, and other ruling elites in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on the other hand? Although of course there are many other possible views in between these two poles, at least three of the books under review come down clearly on one side or the other.
MacFarquhar (a professor of history and government at Harvard) and Schoenhals (a professor of modern Chinese society at Lund University in Sweden) attempt, by far, the most comprehensive history of the period, based on their own previous extensive scholarship as well as on new Chinese-language materials made available during the 1980s and 1990s. Their book could well serve as a basic text in courses on the Cultural Revolution, with a caveat about their narrow, if justified, focus on elite politics. Their basic conclusion is that "the Cultural Revolution [End Page 160] was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall" (MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, p. 3) and that it was Mao Zedong himself who was primarily responsible for the Cultural Revolution. Using mostly an analysis of factional politics at the top of the Communist Chinese Party (CCP), the authors wholeheartedly accept what they recognize as the "common verdict" that without the Cultural Revolution there would have been no economic reform era. What they demonstrate quite persuasively more directly is that without Mao, there would have been no Cultural Revolution.
Teiwes (an emeritus professor of Chinese politics, University of Sydney) and Sun (a senior lecturer in Chinese studies, Monash University) come to a very similar conclusion in their study of elite politics during the last half of the Cultural Revolution (the first installment of a projected three-volume work on the transition from "revolution through restoration toward reform" [Teiwes and Sun, p. xiv] that will cover the years from 1972-1982). Based on a review of many of the same sources of official and unofficial biographies and memoirs covered by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, as well as on their own extensive personal interviews with Party historians and political figures involved in elite politics of the period, the authors conclude that even in the later years of the Cultural Revolution, from the fall of Defense Minister Lin Biao in 1971 to Mao's death in 1976 (when Mao was supposedly being challenged from other leaders and his health began to decline), in fact, Mao completely dominated elite politics almost to the very end of...