Revolution Online, December 3, 2009

Report from the symposium at UC Berkeley: "Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution—Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation."

The process of discovery and rediscovery of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), took an important step November 6-8 at UC Berkeley, as scholars and participants in the Cultural Revolution gathered to tell their stories and share their analyses. Panelists came from diverse backgrounds and fields—the arts, history, gender and cultural studies, political economy, and revolutionary practice—and had different perspectives on the Cultural Revolution itself. But all brought out from many angles that this was a liberating chapter in human history.

The rich mix of a poster art show, presentations and discussion challenged the master narrative demonizing the Cultural Revolution. This in the face of an atmosphere in which professors have been shouted down in academic meetings for even daring to uphold aspects of the Cultural Revolution; in which few students (outside of those with family ties to China) know anything at all about it except that it was bad—and not at all relevant to the concerns of today. The symposium served to open up intellectual space for real discussion and debate about this pathbreaking revolution within the socialist revolution in China; it furthered a process of rediscovery and reexamination. And the symposium began to get all of this out into society more broadly.

The symposium was a rare chance in particular for these different voices, including those who lived through the Cultural Revolution or parts of it, to engage in an academic setting—upholding and criticizing, sorting out and bringing to life what has been buried, suppressed, and vilified. It was significant that this event was held at a major university where China studies are promoted and well-funded.

The symposium was part of providing a framework for understanding the actual goals and objectives of the Cultural Revolution—and more fundamentally the whole communist project. This involves helping to set different terms for arriving at the truth of the rich historical experience—positive and negative—and what the implications of that are for the present, and the future. What was truly liberatory about the Cultural Revolution is now finding air to breathe—and those who have important things to say on this subject are finding greater freedom to do so.

An important part of this has been a coming together of a group of scholars—who feel some backing and are now starting to think about how to take this further. And through all of this people are being introduced to the important work of Bob Avakian. The work that Bob Avakian has been doing is very vital to understanding what happened, positive and negative, in the first stage of communist revolution—and looking forward to a whole new stage of communist revolution in the world.

This symposium had significant reach. Over the course of the three days, about 250 different people attended, including at least 12 professors, and a number of Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Many thousands more heard about it, throughout the Bay Area (at Stanford and all over UC Berkeley) and even in China via the internet and coverage in the Chinese press. There was local media coverage on KPFA in Berkeley and reportage in the Berkeley Daily Planet. And more should hear about it soon when Book TV broadcasts the book event with Dongping Han (author of The Unknown Cultural Revolution). Leading up to the symposium, significant controversy and excitement was created among certain groups of Chinese students as well as among scholars at the UC Berkeley Center for Chinese Studies, an academic department which has generally helped to spread lies and distortions about Mao and the Cultural Revolution.


What follows aims to give a sense of what was presented and discussed at the symposium.

The symposium kicked off Friday with a guided tour by Lincoln Cushing (co-author of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) of a beautiful exhibit of poster art from the Cultural Revolution. Lincoln was joined by Ann Tompkins, who collected the posters during her years in China, and Bai Di (Director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University and co-editor of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up During the Mao Era), who grew up with this art. Lincoln pointed out that these posters were not the stereotype of a dull uniform communist art imposed from the top down. They were tremendously colorful and creative works produced all over the country by individual artists, and collectives, including some by worker and peasant artists, and were the means by which any art at all, let alone revolutionary art, had entered the homes of workers and peasants for the first time ever in China’s history. They were a radical departure from the traditional feudal Confucian themes that came before, with titles like "Don’t depend on the heavens," "Resolutely support the anti-imperialist struggle of the Asian, African and Latin American people," and "Lofty aspirations touch the clouds" depicting a female electrical worker high on a wire. A number of UC Berkeley students came, notebooks in hand, just to see the art opening.

Later that evening, Dongping Han discussed his new book, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village. He offered a gripping description of a society in which people worked together, looked out for each other, and were encouraged to "serve the people," instead of the selfishness, atomization, and alienation fostered by capitalism. He said the Cultural Revolution showed that people aren’t inherently selfish: people in his village worked hard, not for personal gain but to build a new world—each contributing what they could. Countering the official storyline that Mao and the Cultural Revolution were "anti-education," Dongping Han noted that during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution the government empowered the people of his region to build their own schools—the number of high schools in his county grew from one to 89—and to take part in determining what kind of education should be taught. He also noted that these schools providing free high education for all are now gone, and today in the countryside education is once again restricted to those with family connections and money. A youth from a suburban high school commented that he really liked the point about the revolutionary transformation of education, in particular the way that tests were conducted—with an open book and students freely helping each other, instead of the intense competition that goes on in this society.

Saturday there was an exciting panel called "Art and Politics of the Cultural Revolution." Panelists were Bai Di, Lincoln Cushing, and Ban Wang.

Bai Di started off by talking about the lives of her two grandmothers before the 1949 Chinese revolution. They had bound feet, arranged marriages. They were completely illiterate and each had 14 children, so their role was basically to bear and raise children, especially boys. Their lives were so inconsequential they didn't even have names of their own—they were called by their husband's name with the pronoun "somebody" attached. After the revolution came to power in 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, women were encouraged to participate in all aspects of society—"Women hold up half the sky" was their slogan, and this theme resounded in the theater and art of the period.

Bai Di commented that the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women, which was going to be shown later in the symposium, was a retelling and transformation of a 1960 movie, and that the changes made were very revealing of the art and culture that the Cultural Revolution brought forward: "I would say it is very interesting what is revised, what is cut out of that [1960] play in order to be a model play, is really the sexual, the genderized role of women. So in all the model theaters, all the plays, and that is why I feel this is the greatest feminist intervention in creating revolutionary literature and art, for the images, in all these, to be a wife, to be a mother, those roles were totally eliminated in the model theater. Because womanhood in Chinese culture was so imbued with negative connotations. To be a mother you have to sacrifice for your family, to be a wife you have to follow your husband, so basically in the model theater they eliminated all these genderized roles, so basically all these girls, all these women, all these revolutionary daughters, they were going to be revolutionary successors precisely because they do not have a family burden to burden them."

Ban Wang (Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Stanford and author of Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China) gave a fascinating presentation about film during the Cultural Revolution and the idea of internationalism.

He showed clips from On the Docks, a "model opera" in which Shanghai dockworkers struggle to export rice seeds to an African country, and talked about how they saw that as part of the global wave of anti-imperialist anti-colonial revolution. He drew laughter when he distinguished the internationalism of On the Docks from "globalization or cosmopolitanism"—it is not some kind of individual preference, driven by the market and transnational cultural industry "… like you go to a buffet dinner, you pick from all over the world, almost like an emperor, coming to take your pick. You can have sushi tonight, tomorrow you have Thai or Vietnamese, you listen to salsa or Peking opera, and have Japanese wife and Chinese mistress. Very cosmopolitan, very worldwide choice…this goes against the grain of what I am referring to as internationalism—it hijacks the essence of internationalism as a shared democratic aspiration for equality. For people’s livelihood and for community among the disadvantaged people around the world."

The theme of internationalism, Ban Wang emphasized, was also expressed by the breadth and distribution of films during the Cultural Revolution. During the years 1971-1976, over 50 films were produced in China and over 60 foreign films were shown all over the country by projector teams. People, on average, saw eight foreign films a year—making people in China during that time far less isolated than most people in the U.S. are today. One high point of the art and politics panel was when Ban Wang and Bai Di, with encouragement from the audience, sang some of the songs that were popular throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. This was a society, as they explained, filled with singing and dancing.

The next panel—with Dongping Han, Raymond Lotta (Set the Record Straight project and Revolution newspaper), Ann Tompkins, and Robert Weil (Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute and author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of "Market Socialism")—was about the international impact and historical significance of the Cultural Revolution.

Raymond Lotta focused on two themes—historical truth and human possibility. He gave a sweeping presentation of why the Cultural Revolution was needed, what happened, and what some of its shortcomings and limitations were. For just one example, drawing from the insights and new synthesis of Bob Avakian, he emphasized that intellectual work and ferment are vital to the kind of society that socialism must be and to how socialist society can get to communism—adding to the store of knowledge in society, to the ability of the masses of people to understand the world; that intellectual ferment is crucial to the critical and exploratory spirit that must permeate socialism and is critical to interrogating socialist society at all levels. He noted that while there are elitist attitudes and values among intellectuals stemming from their position, like looking down on workers, there are also tendencies among workers and peasants toward things like resenting intellectuals and engineers—or bowing down to them. "Bourgeois ideology affects everyone—everyone’s ideas and thinking must be challenged and transformed as part of becoming emancipators of humanity." Lotta went on to point out that "there were tendencies on Mao’s part to see intellectuals somewhat one-sidedly, or from the side of their ideological problems and privileges and not from the ways in which they can contribute to the atmosphere needed in socialist society and to the kind of society that people can live in and thrive in."

Lotta concluded:

"As I said at the start, anyone who dreams of a liberating world needs to learn from the Cultural Revolution. There is a discussion to be had; a most important discussion to be had. A different world is possible. A communist world is possible and we need to open up that conversation."

Ann Tompkins lived in China from 1965-1970 and worked teaching English. She knew a revolution had begun when her Chinese students began to be late for class and not do their homework, because they had been staying up late discussing and debating politics. "I saw the posters going up. In our school when the classes stopped, we cleared the classrooms, we put straw on the floor, we put down mats over the straw as these young people who were arriving from all over China, having never traveled out of their villages before, their hometowns, and they were coming in to see Chairman Mao of course, but also to study all the things that were happening in Beijing, where the posters were going up, and the posters were going up pro and con. I mean anybody put up a poster, someone else could put up a poster opposing it. Or supporting it, or debating it."

Robert Weil talked about the international shockwaves that the Cultural Revolution created and the ideological influence it had throughout the world, including on the Black Panther Party and the Women’s Movement in the U.S. He exposed the brutality of the capitalist regime which took power after Mao’s death, and talked about effects that the reversal and repudiation of the Cultural Revolution has had on the people of China. According to Weil, some 800,000 revolutionaries were arrested when Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao’s death. Weil noted: "…there are something like100,000 significant protests in China every year—by workers, peasants, migrants, and including members of the middle class at times. This is an expression of the way in which the concepts of the Cultural Revolution, especially the idea that to rebel is justified, is still a living force within China despite the fact that we have had all these setbacks."

On Sunday, the symposium concluded with two films. The first was Red Detachment of Women, a model opera which tells the story—through incredibly choreographed ballet—of a young women who escapes from her enslavement to a vicious feudal landlord, hooks up with the communist Red Army and becomes politically conscious as they fight for liberation. The second, "The Barefoot Doctors of Rural China," is a documentary about the cutting edge public health system developed during the Cultural Revolution that was improving the lives of millions of people throughout China. Peasants were being trained to provide basic medical services, Western methods were being combined with traditional Chinese herbalism and acupuncture (the whole audience twinged when a young woman painlessly had a tooth pulled using acupressure anesthesia), health and sanitation problems were tackled with a collective and conquering spirit, and the people in the film exuded happiness and healthiness.

After the film there was a lively discussion. People compared the health care system in China to the health care "industry" here in the U.S. and talked about the possibilities that open up when you have a society geared toward meeting people’s needs, not profit. At the same time, several people in the audience pointed out certain shortcomings when it came to providing birth control and abortion unconditionally and to all women, instead of just married women, and talked about how we can learn from this experience and do even better in the future.


One highlight of the symposium on Saturday was the lively exchange which followed the panel on the international impact and historical implications of the Cultural Revolution. The exchange centered on some crucial questions, including what represented the capitalist road in China during the Cultural Revolution and in particular, someone in the audience posited that by the time the Cultural Revolution came to an end, large sections of the peasants were breaking up the agricultural collectives in the countryside on their own because they were against them (before these communes were dismantled nationally from the top by Deng Xiaoping and the capitalist roaders who had seized power in China). Involved in this was an assessment that some of the ways the GPCR was carried out (including excesses) created the basis for people to support Deng and company. Raymond Lotta made the point that there really were two roads contending, a capitalist road and a socialist road, and that key forces high in the party like Liu Shao-chi did concentrate a path of expanding all of the differences in society and re-establishing profit-based norms that would lead back to capitalism. And a number of others joined in to this stimulating and important exchange.

This kind of vigorous exchange points to the potential to open up the questions and debate further—in future events like this symposium and in society. There were limits in the ability of this symposium to do this and to dig into things more deeply—even as it pointed to what can and needs to be done. So many important and fascinating questions were posed in the symposium in different ways that merit much further discovery, exploration and wrangling—including before broader and more diverse audiences.

For example, the poster show was a powerful example of revolutionary art in China—and most of the posters spoke very directly to pressing political and economic campaigns—but this does raise a question of the need for art under socialism with an even wider variety of form and content, some not so directly tied to practical concerns. Or, in relation to the empowerment of the peasants and workers under socialism, and the prevailing ethos of "serve the people," there is much to dig into about the need for the party to foster dissent even beyond what was done during the Cultural Revolution—and the important role of intellectuals in that.

This kind of discussion and debate is vital now, in relation to the struggle to rediscover the Cultural Revolution—in order to get the fullest airing of the social and scholarly controversies; to enable everyone involved (including those not directly in attendance who are part of the larger social process of rediscovery) to grapple deeply with how to understand what happened and what it really means; and to enable people to engage more fully with how all of this fits into getting to a radically different world. And this is the kind of process and struggle that has to characterize revolutionary socialism as well.


This was an important step in opening up the discourse, debate and engagement about this whole chapter of human experience and punching a hole in the verdicts that predominate in society and in academia about Mao, the Chinese Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and the communist project more generally.

One UC Berkeley undergrad psychology major, whose parents are from China, commented at the end of Saturday’s session on "The International Impact and Historical Significance of the Cultural Revolution": "I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to hear these really eye-opening experiences…Having read the communist manifesto and Noam Chomsky, I have come to realize a lot of my K through 12 education has basically been propaganda—an ideology that exists to prop up the American government…" Spending two days at the symposium, she said, was "definitely eye-opening for me, especially when in high school it was ingrained in my head that the United States was a superpower and that capitalism was definitely superior to communism. I think this experience today was eye-opening and I think I am starting to question basic assumptions."

Not only were people’s assumptions challenged, but new horizons for what human society can be like were opened up. A Chinese physics major who attended every session of the symposium said, "I used to think that the Cultural Revolution was a waste of 10 years and a step backwards. Now I know that not only was it a step forward toward socialism and communism, but that communism was not a utopian idea—it actually worked."

Even those who know something about that time came away with a greatly enriched and deepened understanding. For example, a young woman from the Bay Area Revolution Club reflected on a story Dongping Han (Professor of History at Warren Wilson College) told Friday night about a friend who had a lot of trouble waking up in the morning for work. The solution they came up with was to have Dongping wake his friend up every morning. This worked, and his friend not only worked hard, but also contributed his artistic and musical talents. After capitalism was restored and the rural communes dismantled, no one went to wake this friend up any more and his life suffered because society no longer had a spirit of collective living and concern. The friend eventually killed himself. The Revolution Club member commented that she had understood that, under socialism, people will be motivated by an ethos of "serve the people" and the understanding that they are contributing to the liberation of humanity, but Dongping's story illuminated a whole other dimension of what will not only keep people going, but unleash them—an entire society working together, helping and caring for each other, a radically different way of living.


This was the second such symposium on the Cultural Revolution (the first took place last winter at New York University). They are happening at a time when social discontent and sympathy for Mao are rising in China; discussion of capitalism, socialism and communism are in the air; and interest in this chapter of Chinese history is growing—evidenced by last year’s exhibit "Art and China’s Revolution" at the Asian Society in New York City and a spate of new books—some revisiting the period, others deconstructing and debunking the attacks on Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

The overall quality of the symposium, the richness of the engagement that took place, the impact on the panelists and on many who were there—point to the need for going further with this process of rediscovery. And it also points to the importance of making many people aware of the promised Book TV film of the book event with Dongping Han, and to see the video of the main panels and discussions which will be available soon.

It means a great deal that these two symposiums have happened at a time when communism has been declared dead and buried, and every possibility of human society going beyond capitalism branded wrong and impossible. But another process is going on—people have come together who have lived through the Cultural Revolution, studied it, and can tell from the inside what it was like to live in a radically different, liberatory society—and this is in the mix with the theoretical work of Raymond Lotta, proceeding from Bob Avakian’s new synthesis, drawing from historical summation to point to how we can do better next time.

Many more people, from many corners of society—people involved in the arts, scholars, 1960’s generation folks who were influenced by the Cultural Revolution, immigrant communities, students—need to become part of this, to find ways to raise their questions and enter into the wrangling over what really happened and what this revolution within a revolution means for today, and for what human society can be.

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