The Unknown Cultural Revolution: showing how social conditions and cultural values can be changed to transform people’s lives and redirect society

Dongping Han, “The Unknown Cultural Revolution” (Guns and Butter, 13 January 2010)

Dongping Han is a history professor at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and the author of “The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village” which challenges the Western narrative of the Cultural Revolution in China as a destructive period of economic regression and of violence and persecution of Chinese intellectual elites. This Guns and Butter recording on SoundCloud is an edited version of Han’s presentation made at the University of California in 2009 in which he talks about his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in a rural part of Shandong province. His premise is that an individual’s psychology is shaped in large part by the social conditions in which that individual grows up and by the values that are emphasised in those conditions. The topics he covers in this presentation include the development of the education system during that period and how it transformed peasant communities in Shandong province; the general transformation of Chinese society, culture and values under Communist rule; the tensions and riots between Uyghur and Han Chinese communities in Xinjiang; and the famine during the Great Leap Forward in China in the 1950s.

It’s quite a rambling talk and I must confess I did get lost along the way during the first half hour of the talk as Han ranges across a variety of topics relating to Chinese social development during the Cultural Revolution and the far-reaching results it had on the country’s economic, political and social directions in the half-century that followed. The very first topic on the importance and value of work, especially work done voluntarily by individuals as part of a team, is very interesting and highlights the difference between Western societies which basically view individuals as selfish and incapable of improvement (a view encouraged by traditional Christianity which regards humans as being born in sin) and who must be forced to work or threatened with punishment, and societies such as Communist Chinese society which regard humans as capable of change and self-sacrifice. I did try to follow and concentrate as much as I could on the part of his presentation where he discusses Xinjiang and relations between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Han Chinese and Uyghurs were equals and treated one another fraternally; under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the 1980s – 90s, when state enterprises were privatised, relations between the Han Chinese and Uyghurs deteriorated and ethnic tensions arose as Han Chinese employers of firms based in Xinjiang favoured people from their own regions or ethnic groups over local people in Xinjiang. Again, this part of Han’s presentation implies that changing social conditions during the second half of the 20th century as a result of the changes in political leadership in China can have grave consequences for the strength of the social fabric in communities of great ethnic and religious diversity.

The talk becomes more structured once people are invited to ask questions and one person wants to know what kinds of new values were created in villages and rural communities during the Cultural Revolution and how this creation took place. Han emphasises through anecdotes how people were taught and encouraged to care for others and to look out for them, especially if they were all part of work teams. Looking out for others is often motivation enough for people to undertake work of their own volition without needing personal material rewards. Urban-based intellectuals were encouraged to work with rural-based peasants and farmers.

Han discusses why and how Mao Zedong was so popular among ordinary people, especially rural people: the policies he instigated were aimed at improving their lives, and many of these policies had either immediate results or powerful long-term results. One consequence is that very few people criticised Mao: criticism was discouraged because, as Han sees it, the people discouraged such criticism, not the government. Some of Mao’s policies often struck his followers as odd or even dangerous: on attaining power in October 1949, Mao insisted on continuing to employ public servants who had served under the Nationalist government – the reason being that if he were to get rid of them, these people would turn their energies against the Communists (and be co-opted by hostile anti-Communist forces within and outside China).

Han concludes his talk by comparing and contrasting contemporary Chinese society with US society, especially the contrasts he found when he first started studying and working in the US. He points out that while some Chinese citizens have become billionaires, their wealth has not come at the cost of their fellow citizens’ welfare whereas in Western societies many individuals have become extremely (and insanely) wealthy as a result of wealth transfers created by (among other things) privatisation of public institutions and services. The Chinese government has retained state ownership of critical industries and prioritised employment over inflation or monetary policies to steer the economy.

The presentation is edited in a way that makes Han’s audience appear uncritically accepting of everything or nearly everything he says. People could have challenged him on how China under Mao dealt with those who opposed Communism or criticised Mao’s policies and how such dealings were or can be justified on the basis of the new values being sown among the working class in cities and rural areas alike. Listeners wanting more can try finding the whole presentation online or read Han’s aforementioned book.