Book Review

The Unknown Cultural Revolution

Life and Change in a Chinese Village, by Dongping Han

George Gruenthal

The Cultural Revolution that took place in China from 1966 to 1976, like most political movements involving large masses of people, was a complex process. This book does not attempt to provide a political analysis of the Cultural Revolution as a whole, and this review is much less of an attempt to provide such an analysis. But the book does provide much important information about a much neglected area of the Cultural Revolution.

The author, Dongping Han, is in a good position to write this book. He himself was a youth growing up in a village in Jimo County, Shandong Province on the east coast of northern China when the Cultural Revolution began. He took advantage of the educational opportunities provided by the Cultural Revolution and graduated from college in China. In 1990 he came to the U.S. to study for his master’s degree, and wrote his thesis on the Cultural Revolution. In the course of his research he made several trips back to his home county, where he studied local records and interviewed many peasants who had taken part in and experienced the Cultural Revolution. This book is based on his research material. He now teaches history and political science at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina in the United States.

Han points to the importance of the peasantry in China’s national democratic revolution, which ended with the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces (which fled to Taiwan Province) in 1949. Chiang was heavily armed by the U.S., and he could only have been defeated with the active support of the peasantry. They not only formed the bulk of the cadre of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); they also hid soldiers, transported supplies and provided food for the PLA. The peasants benefited tremendously from the division of the land of the landlords that took place during and after the Civil War and from the collectivisation that followed.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was very popular in the countryside, but the number of cadres there was much smaller than in the cities. Few new members were admitted between the land reform of the early 1950s and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In the village of South River in Jimo County that Han studied, before the Cultural Revolution there were only four CPC members, three of whom were Korean War vets who joined during the war (p. 12).

Han sees the limits on admitting new members as being partly responsible for problems of corruption in rural areas, although this policy was supposed to limit the chance of opportunists joining the Party. He states that the rural CPC members monopolised power in the villages, and that at times of food shortages, such as during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), they used their positions to ensure sufficient grain for themselves. Mao launched various campaigns against corruption and abuse of power. During one of these campaigns, in 1951, 404 of the CPC cadres in eastern Jimo County, almost 2/3 of the total there, were found guilty of corruption (p. 12). However, until the Cultural Revolution was launched, these campaigns did not succeed.

One of the most interesting parts of Han’s book, and one on which he places a good deal of emphasis, is on the question of education. Until the Cultural Revolution, education in rural areas was very limited. There were not sufficient facilities even for primary schools, and children had to take a test to enter and then to be promoted from one grade to another. Also, some families could not afford the costs of tuition and school supplies, even though these were low. Finally children, especially girls, were needed to help with household chores. In 1956, 7 years after Liberation, only 66% of school-aged children were enrolled in primary school (up from 48% in 1950), and in 1966 there were only 1,300 students in middle school (grades 7 through 9) in a county with a total population of 800,000. The expansion of rural education was one of the first changes that took place during the Cultural Revolution.

Han describes the economic development in rural China before the Cultural Revolution. After the initial land reform, there were moves to collectivise agriculture, which went through various stages including the development of large-scale irrigation projects. However, at least in Jimo County, this did not lead to a significant increase in grain output, with a total yield in 1965 of 163,560 tons, almost the same as the 163,337 tons in 1949. (Han unfortunately does not provide figures for China as a whole.) There was little rural industry in Jimo before the Great Leap Forward in 1958. During that time 2,854 small industries were established, employing 47,932 people, an average of about 17 people per enterprise. These mainly produced agricultural products and simple agricultural implements (p. 44). These industries were attached to the collective farms, either to the communes or to the production brigades. The workers were paid in work points, as peasants were, entitling them to a share of the harvest, rather than in wages, as city workers in state-owned enterprises were paid. This was apparently also the case for workers in rural industry throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. Almost all these rural industries were closed with the ‘readjustment policy’ of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping after the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

Han sees two major weaknesses in the organization of collectives before the Cultural Revolution. One was that ‘ordinary members were not politically empowered and were dependent on village and commune officials,’ because the CPC ‘had not fundamentally changed the rural political culture of submission to authority and had not significantly remedied the lack of education in the countryside’ (p. 46). The other was that development ‘required the investment of resources from the city, particularly in the form of the knowledge required to develop rural education and health care and the technique and machinery required to mechanise agriculture and produce chemical fertilizer. Before the Cultural Revolution these resources were not forthcoming’ (pp. 46-47). It must be noted that this is one of the few places where Han does mention the economic relations between the city and the countryside, and in a correct manner, even if only in passing. In the Soviet Union, it was not possible to begin the collectivisation of agriculture until the factories in the city were able to provide sufficient machinery, particularly tractors, to make collectivisation a success, which took place with the beginning of the first Five-Year Plan in 1929.

Han sees as one of the most important change of the Cultural Revolution that ‘it circumvented the local party bosses and stressed the principle of letting the masses empower themselves and educate themselves’ (p. 49). He saw party bosses at all levels becoming corrupt, without appropriate supervision by the people. In earlier campaigns against corruption and even in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the local party leadership set up ‘official worker teams,’ which were used to suppress criticism of party authorities. Han says that the ‘official’ Red Guard groups and ‘official’ teams carried out campaigns against former landlords, which he says was a way to deflect attacks against corrupt party authorities.

Han sees the turning point of the Cultural Revolution as the ‘16 Points’ drawn up by Mao in August of 1966, ‘which stressed that the targets of the Cultural Revolution were the capitalist roaders inside the party’ (p. 54). With this statement, party authorities could no longer denounce their critics as ‘anti-party’. He describes the creation of numerous rebel Red Guard groups, first in local middle schools and then in factories and villages. These groups criticised local party authorities who were abusing their positions and engaging in corruption. Rather than a chaotic situation of different Red Guard groups all fighting each other, Han describes the formation of a united front of these rebel associations, which criticised the official groups that were defending the abusive and corrupt leaders. He describes how the Cultural Revolution allowed people to put up ‘big character posters’ criticising these leaders, and how mass debates were carried out to discuss these questions. To Han this was a most important part of allowing rural people to empower themselves and break out of a history of thousands of years of subservience to authority, whatever authority that might be.

Han also describes how young people from the villages went to Beijing and other areas of the country to exchange experiences, and that for many this was the first time that they had travelled beyond the nearest market town. He further describes how people in the villages were encouraged to study Mao’s works, particularly the Red Book, and the role the PLA played in encouraging this. Han sees this as a further break with traditional Chinese culture, which emphasises that ‘ordinary people should be led but be kept ignorant’ (p. 64). Han acknowledges that ‘the study of Mao’s works’ was ‘blind submission to Mao’s words as the final authority.’ However, he answers critics who said that Chinese peasants did not understand terms such as ‘capitalist restoration’ as follows: ‘For many farmers I interviewed, “capitalist restoration” referred to the loss of the fruits of land reform, and a return to the ways of the old society, and the term “newly arisen bourgeoisie” referred to party leaders who did not work but bossed people around like the old landlords and capitalists’ (p. 66).

Han points out that the platform of the Communist Party ‘stipulated that Communists had no separate political interests from the people, and no party member should be allowed to act as if they were above the masses.’ However, he speaks of ‘the unique dominance of officialdom in Chinese civilisation for thousands of years’ that ‘had not been seriously challenged until Mao’s Cultural Revolution.’ He sees that the platform of the Communist Party could only be put into effect when ‘the empowerment of ordinary villagers during the Cultural Revolution promoted a change of political culture in rural areas’ (pp. 70-71).

In early 1968, various mass organisations formed revolutionary committees, which in Jimo County were called ‘Association of Poor and Lower Middle Peasants.’ They included more than 90% of the rural population. They became the organs of power. Unlike previously, leaders of these associations had to participate in productive manual labour. Between 1968 and 1976, most of the party authorities who were criticised in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated and joined in the work of these revolutionary committees together with the new rebel leaders (p. 70). New people were also brought into the Communist Party, leading to an increase in the number of party members in Jimo County from 14,015 in 1965 to 27,165 in 1978 (p. 72).

Han is again especially interesting when he deals with changes in the education system during the Cultural Revolution. Rebels in Jimo County had formed the ‘Preliminary Educational Reform Programme’ in April of 1968 (p. 91). Its basic goal was to expand primary, middle and high school education to make them accessible to all rural students, to link education more closely with what students would be doing after graduation, and to allow students, peasants and workers to take part in the formation of educational policy, which involved knocking teachers and principals off their pedestals as the only authorities.

In Jimo County, new primary schools were created in each village and joint middle schools were created to serve neighbouring villages. These schools were built by the voluntary labour of peasants in the winter and spring off-season when there was little agricultural work to be done. They used local materials, cutting stones from village quarries and wood from village forests. The teachers were villagers who had a middle school or sometimes even only a primary school education. Now there were sufficient schools for all village children, education was free, and school hours were flexible, allowing students to still have time to help with household chores. With the reforms, enrolment of Jimo County children in primary schools rose to 90.5% in 1968 and 99.1% in 1976 (p. 94). Sufficient middle and high schools were also built, allowing for the abolition of the entrance exams that had been used to limit the number of children in the pre-Cultural Revolution schools. The number of middle school students in Jimo County rose from 3,573 in 1965 (the last year before the Cultural Revolution) to 56,814 in 1977, after which it fell off with the end of the Cultural Revolution to 43,007 in 1987 (the last year for which Han gives statistics). Similarly, the number of high school students went from 433 in 1965 to 19,825 in 1977, falling to 5,669 in 1987. Most of the teachers in these new schools, including the high schools, were paid in work points, as peasants were.

The new worker and peasant teams in the schools had to fight to be accepted by the teachers, but eventually they succeeded. Schooling was combined with productive labour, including working in gardens to provide vegetables for the student dining rooms. Students also spent time working in village factories. The curriculum and new textbooks included practical lessons such as  the principles of internal combustion engines, how to draw blueprints, the best ways of planting crops and using fertilisers and farming machines, together with basic academic skills.

One of the main achievements in education during the Cultural Revolution was the change in the relations of teachers towards students, and towards workers and peasants. Before the Cultural Revolution, teachers were the supreme authority, and could administer punishment, including physical punishment, to students at will. During the Cultural Revolution, students were encouraged to ask questions and engage in discussion. Before the Cultural Revolution, the few rural students who finished high school went to the cities either to get jobs or to go to college, and few ever returned to the countryside. This was part of the reason for the lack of economic development in the countryside. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, colleges suspended the national entrance exam, and high school graduates had to go back to the countryside or work in factories for two years before going on to college. Also, educated youth from the cities went to work in the rural areas for a year or two. This helped break down the differences between city and countryside.

Another claim about the Cultural Revolution that Han contradicts is that it led to a decline in production. The opposite was apparently the case, at least in the rural areas in both agriculture and industry. Han shows that agricultural output more than doubled during the Cultural Revolution in Jimo County, and rural industry, which had almost ceased to exist since the end of the Great Leap Forward, became almost 36% of the economy in the county. Han gives as a main reason for this the changes in empowerment of the rural population. Production team leaders were now elected rather than appointed, village leaders at all levels had to take part in production, and basic production plans were discussed in mass meetings, held once a year in early spring. (These production plans were apparently not tied to any state plan, if such a plan even existed in China at that time.) Collective agricultural projects, such as large-scale irrigation works, were encouraged, again with mass participation in planning. Peasants who worked on these projects earned work points, but students and teachers and other government employees who were paid salaries frequently did voluntary labour on these projects in the evenings and on weekends. (This reminds one of Lenin’s encouragement of communist voluntary work in Russia on the weekends.) During the Cultural Revolution, rural industries were developed to aid agricultural production. These industries produced machines such as tractors, harvesters and mills. In 1965, total mechanical power in Jimo County was 8,271 horsepower (hp); by 1970 this had increased to 25,676 hp, and by 1975 it reached 116,586 hp (p. 131). The increase in rural industry could take place by the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, partly because peasant youth were being trained in practical skills during the Cultural Revolution, and apparently also because city industry was able to provide parts and equipment for the rural industries, although Han does not make this clear. These industries were owned by the agricultural collectives (p. 140), and the workers there were also paid in work points (p. 142). This may have been inevitable at this time, but in Han’s view (and apparently according to China’s official understanding of political economy at that time) this was not seen as a weakness. However, the problems with this should have become clear after the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, when the collectives were dismantled, the rural industries were largely abandoned, and the social services based on these were undermined.

The total grain output in Jimo County was 163,370 tons in 1949; it was almost exactly the same, 163,956 tons, in 1965. But in 1966 it already rose to 245,030 tons, and by 1979, the last year for which Han gives figures, it was 381,130 tons. Vegetables and other cash crops also saw similar increases. During the Cultural Revolution, while income (based on work points) rose for rural Jimo County residents, the income of urban residents in the town of Jimo actually fell from 480.7 Yuan in 1956 to 427.8 Yuan in 1976 (there are no figures given for years in between), and their grain consumption fell accordingly (p. 143). Han says that the reason for this is beyond the scope of his book, but he still sees this as part of closing the gap between urban and rural living standards (p. 144)!

With rural development came rural medical care. Before the Cultural Revolution, most rural residents had to go to city hospitals, which were too expensive for many and treated peasants with contempt. During the Cultural Revolution, villages were encouraged to establish their own clinics. In rural Jimo County, the numbers went from 105 villages with clinics in 1967 to 910 villages in 1970, 93% of all villages in the county. These clinics were mainly staffed by ‘barefoot doctors,’ students who had received basic medical training in high school and returned to the villages. They were supervised by doctors from the commune hospitals. These barefoot doctors were also paid in work points by the agricultural collectives.

Han says that economic development in the rural areas, both in agriculture and in rural industries, was not unique to Jimo County but took place in China generally. He attributes this to two main factors: the empowerment of the peasants, or ‘change in rural political culture,’ due to the Cultural Revolution, and the ‘rapid expansion of rural education’ (p. 146).

In his final chapter, Han describes what happened in rural China after the end of the Cultural Revolution with Mao’s death in 1976 and the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. When the former village officials who had been criticised during the Cultural Revolution returned, they acted like the landlords who had been ousted in the Civil War then they temporarily came back to power before their final ousting after Liberation. Returning officials took over local power again, often arresting and sometimes ‘disappearing’ revolutionary rebel leaders of the Cultural Revolution period. Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the rebels were purged from all positions of responsibility. Peasants were no longer allowed to criticise village leaders or put up ‘big character posters.’ This was followed by a wave of corruption and privatisation. Village leaders could and did sell off land to private developers, pocketing the profits for themselves and turning the peasants into landless peddlers. State enterprise directors were freed from political control from above or below. They could dispose of public assets at will and could decide how much to pay themselves and how much to pay their workers.

Deng Xiaoping instituted the ‘household responsibility system’ in the rural areas. This meant, first of all, that the agricultural collectives were disbanded, and the land was divided up among the villagers. This led to a move back to small peasant farming, which if nothing else was inefficient and could not make use of mechanical improvements such as tractors, etc. Han does not describe whether this also led to the kulakisation of agriculture, with rich peasants buying up the land of poorer peasant.

With the dismantling of the collectives, the rural services that had been built around the then, such as job security, medical insurance, safeguards in old age and education also disappeared. Many irrigation systems fell apart due to disuse. Rural industries were either rented or sold to village party secretaries and managers, who ran them for their own private profit.

Many rural schools were closed, school attendance fell sharply, and ‘poor quality’ rural middle schools were closed. Rural teachers now had to be supported through re-instituting tuition in the schools. The number of students in middle school first year classes fell from 29,660 in 1976 to 15,734 in 1987, while the number of high school first year students declined from 12,186 in 1977 to 1,935 in 1987. National standard textbooks were again created, and skills and knowledge useful to rural life were removed from the curriculum. In 1977 the national college entrance exam was re-introduced. In December, 1977, of more than 2,000 high school graduates from 50 villages in one commune in Jimo County who took the test, only 1 passed. Those who wanted to succeed had to invest a lot of their own money into education, even if the chances of doing well were low. Teacher performance was measured by the number of students who passed the college entrance exam. (This reminds those of us in the United States of the educational policies of New York City Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama.)

The village medical clinics became privatised, and peasants had to pay to receive services. The ‘Five Guarantees’ of food, clothes, fuel, education and funeral, which had been based on the collectives, disappeared. But the Cultural Revolution still left the spirit of popular resistance among some rural residents.

Han concludes by contradicting standard Chinese government accounts, which deride the Cultural Revolution as an economic disaster and claim that China’s economic growth began with the economic reforms after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. Han reiterates that agricultural production in Jimo County doubled during the Cultural Revolution and that rural industries were established in that period, as in most of rural China. He states that Jimo County continued to experience rapid economic growth after 1978 (‘Market economies can be extraordinarily dynamic”), but credits the period of the Cultural Revolution with having provided the base for this growth. But he bemoans the decline in access to medical care and education in the rural areas due to the dismantling of the collectives, and questions ‘the sustainability of agriculture developed through small-scale farming organised increasingly through the market’ (p. 172). He once again emphasises that the Cultural Revolution was ‘an intensive and extensive social revolution aimed at changing people’s social consciousness, the parallel of which is hard to find in history. It attempted to enhance collective organisation by challenging autocratic political authority within the collective’ (pp. 172-173).

So far, this writer has confined himself to giving a relatively straight-forward account of Han’s book. This was necessary because the book has many important descriptions of what was, after all, a very important period in the life of China, whose revolution was the second most important political event in the 20th century, after the October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. The Cultural Revolution has been criticised from various angles, by the imperialist bourgeoisie, by Soviet and Chinese revisionists, but also by some Marxist-Leninists. This has also made a detailed overview of Han’s book necessary.

There are important criticisms to be made of Han’s book. One cannot criticise an author for selecting the scope of his subject matter. Therefore I cannot criticise him for ignoring other questions, such as what took place in the cities during the Cultural Revolution, the part that the Cultural Revolution played in a ‘power struggle’ among Mao, Liu Shaochi, Deng Xiaoping, Lin Biao, Chou Enlai and others, its relation to the attacks on Soviet revisionism and the cessation of the anti-revisionist polemics of the early 1960s, whether it was used to attack Soviet social-imperialism and at the same time make alliances with U.S. imperialism (remember that Nixon visited China in 1972, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution), etc. But there are other aspects of the manner in which Han takes up questions of the Cultural Revolution in rural China that must be dealt with.

First, Han does not take up a class point of view. He treats the peasants (or ‘villagers’ or ‘farmers,’ as he usually calls them) as an undifferentiated mass, and treats class distinctions between rich peasants (or even landlords), middle peasants and poor peasants as terms that are relics of the time before land reform, with no relation to the period of the Cultural Revolution. When he does deal with these class distinctions in passing, it is mainly to point out individual cases of children of rich peasants or landlords who took an active part in the Cultural Revolution. Similarly, with regard to the city population, he frequently contrasts rural education with that of the urban ‘educated elite’ (a term he uses frequently throughout the book), and one does not know whether this ‘elite’ includes the urban proletariat or just the urban petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. Also, he speaks of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘elitist,’ not capitalist, mentality (p. 166). It is impossible to tell from reading the book whether Han considers himself a Marxist or simply a sympathetic observer of the Cultural Revolution.

Second, there is also almost no discussion in the book of the connection between production relations in the countryside and those in the cities. From a Marxist-Leninist perspective one cannot separate the two, and one must acknowledge the need for industry to play the leading role over agriculture, and particularly the need for the production of instruments of production that would allow agriculture to develop on a collective basis. Han ignores, or at most mentions in passing, the development of industry in the cities. Even though this is not the book’s focus, one cannot deal with the question of the mechanisation of agriculture, which took place during the Cultural Revolution, without discussing the extent that factories in the cities were able to provide the tractors and other equipment needed. Also, there is not even a brief explanation of why the Cultural Revolution did not lead to an increase in the income of city residents. This is a significant omission, and to simply see this as part of reducing the differences between town and country is not satisfactory. Stalin defined the basic law of socialism as ‘the securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques’ (Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1972, pp. 41-42). Therefore, socialism should have raised the income of both the urban proletariat and the rural peasantry. It could have decreased the differences between town and country by raising the income of the peasantry faster.

While Han ignores the relations between town and country, he seems to see collectivisation in agriculture as a higher form of production relations than state ownership of socialist industry. This is so although Han is clear about the negative results of disbanding the collectives after the end of the Cultural Revolution, which led to a decline in rural education, medical care and other social services. Even the revisionist Soviet Union, with the restoration of capitalism after Stalin’s death, was able to, and had to,  provide certain social services, because these had earlier been socialist state services.

Han also makes an error common to many Maoists of looking at China’s development in a vacuum, as if there had never been other socialist countries. In particular, he ignores the experience of the Soviet Union, which had undergone over 30 years of socialist development under Lenin and Stalin, and then the restoration of capitalism under Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. Han, for good or bad, never tries to make the Cultural Revolution a universal necessity for socialist countries, but places it in the context of the social and cultural history of China, especially in terms of the lack of self-empowerment of the peasantry. Actually, Han hardly speaks of socialism at all, but mainly of the ‘collectivised economy’ during the Cultural Revolution.

Han’s lack of a class viewpoint leads to another serious weakness in his book – the discussion of the role of rural CPC cadre during the Cultural Revolution. He clearly describes how the main targets of the Cultural Revolution in the countryside were leading village party cadres and other authorities who had become divorced from the masses and frequently engaged in corruption and personal enrichment, which he sees as a problem of ‘party control.’ But before the Cultural Revolution, were there no mass discussions, reports to and criticism by the people, no committees of worker-peasant inspection? Were there not ordinary peasants who were rank and file members of the CPC? What role did they play during the Cultural Revolution? Clearly the CPC was quite weak in the countryside, but was there no attempt to recruit local cadre into the CPC from among the peasants who played a leading role in the land reform after Liberation, and if not, why not? (Han merely mentions in a footnote a directive of Mao to stop recruiting into the CPC. But this directive is from 1950, and there is no explanation of why there were few recruits until 1966.) Clearly, the CPC was much stronger among the urban proletariat. Did rural rank and file CPC cadre among the proletariat play a role in the Cultural Revolution, particularly among those workers who went to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution? When the CPC started to re-open recruitment to its ranks during the Cultural Revolution, were rebels who had taken leading roles in the Cultural Revolution in their villages then recruited into the CPC, and if not, why not? Han states that most party and village authorities who had been overthrown at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution had been reintegrated into the new revolutionary associations by the end of the Cultural Revolution. But were there also such authorities who sided with the Cultural Revolution from the beginning, and did most of the authorities again become corrupt after the end of the Cultural Revolution? Unfortunately, Han’s viewpoint does not seem to go beyond the bourgeois concept that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Overall, the main shortcoming in Han’s book is that it almost completely ignores the role of the working class in socialist revolution and socialist production, and the relation of the working class to the peasantry. But this cannot be separated from the views of China’s leadership. Mao himself put forward the theory that China had to walk on two legs, industry and agriculture, without seeing the need for industry to play the leading role. This is also necessary to develop the mechanisation of agriculture and cement the worker-peasant alliance with the working class in the lead.

Even so, Han has given us a valuable account of a very important area of the Cultural Revolution. It is necessary to have an overall understanding of such an important movement. This is especially true at a time when proletarian political power has been reversed in all formerly socialist countries. (This is not the place to polemicise with those who think that China is still socialist, or who see Cuba’s continuing national-democratic revolution as a socialist one.) In my view, one should look at the Cultural Revolution in relation to Stalin’s fight for the democratisation of the party and state organs in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

For those interested in Han’s book, it was published by Monthly Review Press in New York City, USA, in 2008 (see It is also available at many Revolution Books stores in the USA.

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