Revolution #174, August 30, 2009

Dongping Han:

The Unknown Cultural Revolution

Life and Change in a Chinese Village

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China, from 1966-1976, involved one-quarter of the world’s population and took humanity to unprecedented heights in the struggle for liberation. But today, what people mostly hear about the Chinese Cultural Revolution is lies and slander. Dongping Han grew up during the GPCR and is the author of the book, The Unknown Cultural Revolution—Life and Change in a Chinese Village. His story is a very welcome contribution to the struggle to get the real story out about the GPCR. In December 2008, Dongping Han participated in a very significant symposium in New York City, “Rediscovering the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation” which was sponsored by Revolution Books, Set the Record Straight Project, and Institute for Public Knowledge-New York University.  On December 12, 2008, the opening night of the symposium, Dongping Han spoke at Revolution Books. Revolution is serializing the transcript of this talk as well as the Question & Answer session (which will soon be available in full at Dongping Han has edited this for publication. Bai Di, who also grew up in China during the GPCR, was another speaker at this symposium—and an interview with her is available at

The following is the edited transcript of Dongping Han’s talk:

My book is about the education reform during the Cultural Revolution—I lived through it. I grew up on a Chinese collective farm. I started working on the farm when I was nine years old. At the time, the Chinese school would close for two days each week—two afternoons plus Sunday—for children to work on the farm. So I worked about two days each week while I was still in school. And the collective farm paid the students work points.1 The adults got ten points a day. I got 5.7 points each day working on the farm. So I was able to support myself when I was only nine years old. Everybody could work on the farm, and if you wanted to work you would always get a job. And my job at the time was an easy one. For example, the adults carried water from the river to the field, and I would water the plants with a ladle.

What China’s Cultural Revolution Was About

In 1949, the Chinese revolution came to power and threw off oppression and foreign domination. And under the leadership of Mao Tsetung, the Chinese people set out to build a whole new, socialist society. But by 1966 the class struggle over whether China would continue to build socialism—or become a capitalist society—was extremely sharp. This was concentrated within the Communist Party itself—between top revolutionary leaders leading the masses to transform society toward communism, and those whose policies would take China onto the “capitalist road” and restore oppression. This is why Mao launched the GPCR—to overthrow the capitalist roaders and to seize back those portions of power in the government and society that these capitalist roaders had taken over. But this “revolution within the revolution” was more than that. It set out to further transform the whole society in the direction of communism. As Mao Tsetung stated,  while the target of the Cultural Revolution was the capitalist roaders-—the goal was to transform the whole consciousness, outlook and values of people.

A very important part of the GPCR was the struggle to narrow—with the goal of eventually eliminating—the inequalities and differences between town and country, between mental and manual labor, and between workers and peasants. This was a society-wide struggle to find new and creative forms that could enable the masses to more directly exercise power and participate in the all-round administration of society. For ten years, the GPCR prevented the restoration of capitalism and brought forward amazing “socialist new things” in culture, education, science and workplaces. But after Mao died in 1976, top leaders in the Communist Party, headed by Deng Xiaoping, carried out a reactionary coup. Key leaders and supporters of Mao were jailed and/or killed and tens of thousands were arrested and suppressed.

In my book I discussed the Cultural Revolution education reform and its impact on the countryside. When I was young, most people in the village were illiterate. Both my parents were illiterate. Before the Chinese Communists came to power, most Chinese farmers were too poor to go to school. My father started working in a factory full time when he was only 12 years old. My mom started working full time in an embroidery factory in my hometown when she was only six years old. So they didn’t have any education. I had five siblings. When I was growing up, many kids in the village who were older than I was were not able to go to school. Most of my cousins, my elder sister, were not able to go to school.

The Chinese Communist Party inherited an educational system that was biased against rural people. Most educational resources were concentrated in the urban areas. It was very hard for the rural kids to go to school. When I started first grade, I had to pass a screening test. If kids wanted to go to school they had to learn to write before they went to school, and they had to learn to count to 100 before they would be accepted into school.

But most of the parents didn’t have the skills to teach their children so they were all rejected. This screening test was necessitated because there was not enough room in the public school in the village at the time. But three years later, during the Cultural Revolution, every village in my hometown was empowered to set up a primary school of its own. There were 1,050 villages in my county at the time. Every village had set up a primary school during the Cultural Revolution years. Every school age child was able to go to school free. The Chinese government and the Chinese elite now talk about how education during the Cultural Revolution years was a disaster. This is simply a lie.

Education improved so much in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution’s ten years. Every four villages in my county set up a joint middle school. So children who graduated from the primary school were able to go to this middle school without any screening test. Everybody was able to go. And it was free. Every commune in my county had four high schools. There was only one high school in my county before the Cultural Revolution. And there were only two classes. From 1950 to 1966, for 17 years, that high school only produced 1,500 high school graduates. Of these 1,500 high school graduates, 800 went to college and never came back to the village. The rest of the 700 were working in the government or joined the army. There were almost no high school graduates in the countryside.

When I entered the commune high school in 1972, there were about 1,000 students in my year in my school alone. When I graduated from high school, there were more than 100 high school graduates in my village. These high school graduates in my village played a very important role in the development of the Chinese countryside. They were able to do a lot more things for the village than their elders were ever able to do.

Before the Cultural Revolution, we were only doing farming. During the Cultural Revolution years, the high school graduates helped diversify our village economy. We had a forest team composed of high school graduates. They planted many different kinds of fruit trees, pepper trees, as well as other trees. And we also built a factory. And there were 175 people working in that factory. In China today, rural young people have to leave the village to find jobs in the cities. But during the Cultural Revolution years we didn’t need to go anywhere. We were not anybody else’s slaves. We worked for our own future. And the 175 people working in the factory were able to generate an income for the collective, which greatly improved farmers’ livelihoods.

The factory also maintained the farming implements for the village. We had two tractors and two pickup trucks. And looking back, I feel the Cultural Revolution years improved the farmers’ lives in many ways because the production increased. And in my county, the grain yield more than doubled in those ten years. And the income more than doubled in those ten years. The Chinese government now says the Chinese economy was at the brink of collapse. That’s nonsense.

And when the Chinese government asked the farmers to disband the collective to farm on their own, farmers in my hometown resisted very hard. The government had to remove all the county government leaders from my prefecture in order to disband the collective. My village didn’t privatize all our assets, even though the government bought all the land from the village. But my village insisted, if they took our land they needed to compensate us with land from another area. So we didn’t lose our land. The village still owns as much as it used to own. The village is still doing very well today. And the farmers are able to retire today. My mom receives retirement money from the collective every month. In other villages where the land was privatized, the farmers are suffering hardship.

I went to college in 1978. In 1977 there were about 12,000 high school graduates in my commune. They all graduated from the commune high schools during the Cultural Revolution years. And all these people were eligible to take the college entrance exam in 1977. Of these people 2,000 took the exam, and out of these, I was the only person who was able to go to college. I was the only one from my commune of 50,000 people. I graduated from college and went to grad school and then went to teach in Zhengzhou University.

In 1986 I joined an American research team in China to do rural research. There were two American professors and myself. We went to a few villages in Hunan. At that time it was very rare to see a foreigner in the rural areas. So wherever we went in the village, there was a huge crowd following us—mostly young boys and young girls—who wanted to see what a foreigner looked like.

One day, while I was eating lunch, I asked the young kids to read some headlines in the newspaper. But they all shook their heads. And I thought they were shy in the beginning. And some kids said they were not in school. They were not in school! I was so shocked to hear that. I used to take it for granted that every child was in school. But since the commune has been dismantled, all the public school system, the medical care system, which were supported by the commune, had to go with the commune. I started thinking about the importance of the educational reforms during the Cultural Revolution years since then.

I left China in 1988, to go to Singapore to study there. From there, I got a scholarship to study in the U.S. It was my intention to study American foreign policy, to study U.S. intellectual and diplomatic history. But in the U.S. I read what the U.S. scholars wrote about China’s Cultural Revolution. What they wrote about China’s Cultural Revolution was not the same Cultural Revolution I experienced. I was horrified about the way they portrayed China and socialism. And of course I was also shocked about what was happening in the United States.

When I first came to the United States, I didn’t know what America would be like. I was told by the Chinese elite how wonderful America was. The first place I lived in the U.S. was Burlington, Vermont. It is a very beautiful place on Lake Champlain. I lived in the northern part of the city, a poor neighborhood. My next door neighbor’s children were hungry all the time. Every day after they came back from school, they came to my house to play with my son. They would say that they were hungry and ask if I would give them a piece of Chinese bread. I was shocked to see America, the most wealthy country in the world, to actually have hungry people. I lived there for two years.

Then I moved to Boston and lived in a wealthy neighborhood. One day, my landlord asked me what I thought about America. And I said I was not impressed. He was very upset. He asked me why. I told him that when I was in China, we were very poor, but we didn’t have a homeless population. And everyone had a job under socialism, and everyone enjoyed free medical care and free education. And in the wealthiest country in the world, these things did not exist. And my landlord felt that I have an attitude problem.

When the Chinese revolution succeeded in 1949, the communist officials felt that they suffered hardship fighting for the revolution. Now the revolution succeeded, it was time for them to enjoy life. They built special schools for their own children. Even though we were supposed to build a socialist system in China, the class situation in China was very sharp. High officials were entitled to special privileges.

The Cultural Revolution was a revolution within the revolution to empower the masses and to transform Chinese society into a real socialist system, and to make sure what happened in the former Soviet Union would not happen in China. During the Cultural Revolution years, all Chinese officials, all the Chinese elites were required to work with working class people on a regular basis. College students, college professors, high school teachers, were all asked to participate in manual labor on a regular basis. I was the manager of the village factory. I was not paid any more than anybody else working in the same factory. Village school teachers were paid the same in work points. The barefoot doctors2 were paid the same work points in the village. That’s how socialism should operate and if we have a system like that we wouldn’t have the financial meltdown like the one we have now.

In the last few weeks, as the financial crisis materialized in this country, many of my students were worried. I told them that this could actually be an important opportunity for us. We have been consuming recklessly for so long. It’s time for us to pause and reflect. We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to tolerate homelessness and many other social ills. We have so much in this society. We have enough productivity to provide for everybody to live adequate lives. But we have a problem. A small minority, who are greedy, want more. We could build a different society where people are fulfilled.

1. Work points refers to the way in which income was distributed to peasants in China’s socialist countryside. In the collectives in which people lived and worked, people would receive a certain number of work points for the amount of work they performed. And the value of each work point was linked to the production and earnings of the collective. This was a particular application of the socialist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work.” [back]

2. Barefoot Doctors: During the GPCR the focus of health care shifted to the countryside, even as overall health care improved in the cities. The “barefoot doctor” movement was part of this revolutionary transformation. Young peasants and urban youth were sent to the countryside and trained in basic health care and medicine geared to meet local needs and treat the most common illnesses. And doctors went to rural areas—at any given time, a third of the urban doctors were in the countryside. Life expectancy during the period of Mao’s leadership doubled from 32 years in 1949 to 65 years in 1976. [back]

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