Revolution #140, August 17, 2008

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Check It Out

New Book - The Battle for China’s Past by Mobo Gao

We received the following "Check It Out" from the Set the Record Straight Project.

We urge Revolution readers to check out the new book The Battle for China’s Past: Mao & the Cultural Revolution, by Mobo Gao (London: Pluto Press, 2008). In recent years, many memoirs and histories have been churned out that paint the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) as a disaster, and depict Mao Tsetung as a monster. The expectation is that anything written by someone who lived through this period will just have “horror stories” to tell. But Gao, who grew up in rural China and came of age in the 1960s, lived through the Cultural Revolution, upholds it, and carefully documents its achievements. How refreshing!

As the title of the book suggests, there is a real battle for historical truth about Mao and the Cultural Revolution. The current leadership in China has a vested interest in slandering the Cultural Revolution as a “decade of calamity.” After all, they are carrying out a capitalist program. And everything Mao stood and fought for was about uprooting exploitation and oppression and unleashing the masses to create a truly liberating society and world. And is it any wonder that the books about Mao that overwhelmingly get published in the West are negative portrayals?

Contrary to the standard claim that the Cultural Revolution was an exercise in “despotic terror,” Gao explains: “The Cultural Revolution involved many millions of people who willingly participated in what they saw as a movement to better Chinese society and humanity in general.”

Contrary to the endlessly repeated charge that China was a basket case under Mao, Gao cites numerous studies demonstrating that the economy, in agriculture and in industry, showed consistent growth during the Cultural Revolution decade, outpacing many developing countries. He shows that there was an explosion of cultural creativity among ordinary peasants and workers. He describes the historic breakthroughs in healthcare in socialist China. Gao also gets into other controversial issues, like the real positive changes that took place in Tibet in the 1949-76 period.

What makes The Battle for China’s Past especially valuable is that it takes on two books that have received wide promotion in the West and that have spread incredible misinformation, vicious distortion, and ludicrous speculation about Mao Tsetung.

The first is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story. Gao shows how the book is dishonestly crafted, that the authors play fast and loose with facts, to argue that Mao is like Hitler. Gao shows how quotations are ripped out of context. He examines historical episodes like the Long March and the Great Leap Forward—and contrasts reality with Chang and Halliday’s scholarship of deception and invention. Gao goes on to detail the actual reality of the Cultural Revolution that has been suppressed and sums up: “The fact that the book [Mao: The Unknown Story] has been taken as serious scholarship by the popular media is an intellectual scandal.”

The other major book Gao critically exposes is Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao. This is a sensationalistic account of Mao’s personal life that has the seeming “authority” of having been written by an insider: Mao’s personal physician. Gao discusses the contested character of memoirs—who does the remembering and how are memories reconstructed and manufactured? He challenges Li’s ability to have witnessed and known all of what he recounts (and Gao reveals politically-motivated discrepancies between the Chinese and English-language editions of this book). Gao makes the important point that for Li, everything is an elite power or personal struggle—the real issues of class struggle and the struggle over economic and social policies are barely mentioned in this doctor’s book.

The Battle for China’s Past is not intended as a comprehensive history or analysis of Mao’s theory of continuing the revolution under socialism. But this book fills a great need. It contests the anti-Mao memoir literature that has such influence in the West and punctures big lies about Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Also, check out these other books that challenge the standard distortion that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible thing:

Mobo Gao, Gao Village (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999). Political struggles and social-economic-cultural changes in the author’s home village during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di, eds. Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (Rutgers University Press, 2001). A collection of memoirs. What was happening in families and neighborhoods; breaking with traditional gender roles; and going to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

Dongping Han, China’s Unknown Revolution (paperback edition available in December from Monthly Review Press). How the Cultural Revolution opened educational opportunity and politically empowered peasants in the rural villages—based on extensive research and interviews.

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