book review: the battle for china’s past

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, which apparently makes me an atypical male (seriously: I’ve been reading a bunch of things about making YA libraries guy-friendly and all these books and articles talk about how “guys don’t like fiction” and how “the only people who read fiction are women”). But! I read a nonfiction book. Woo testosterone! The book I read was by Mobo Gao, a professor of Chinese Studies in Australia and it’s called The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Mobo Gao’s thing is to reexamine the Cultural Revolution and see if it was really as bad as we think it was. And when I say “we think it was” I mean, the we in the West, and the we that is the Chinese urban elite. Because the West misunderstands China. We always do. We basically suck at figuring out what’s going on over there. We tend to think that China still venerates Mao just because his picture’s up watching Tian An Men square. But the book points out that official policy over the last thirty years has been to degrade Mao’s actual political message. The CCP says, “The Cultural Revolution was a lost decade. Nothing good came of it.” Because if the CCP doesn’t devalue Mao’s message, all of the capitalism with Chinese characteristics that’s been going on since he died would create so much cognitive dissonance it might be unbearable to anyone paying any political attention at all. It makes way more sense to say “Mao created China, which is great! Then he got crazy, which is bad.”

The books that tend to get translated into English are ones written by the elite. The people who were in college, or whose parents were middle class folk. Mobo Gao devotes a chapter to Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story and how it is shoddy scholarship bent to a neoconservative worldview. This was at first surprising for me. Neocon? But I really liked that book! It was the Mao Blows Goats book that told us what an incompetent asshole Mao really was. Mobo Gao’s thing is that aside from the lack of scholarly rigour that allowed her to mislead the reader, this is a book from the perspective of one of the elites that Mao was fighting against his whole life.

See, Mobo Gao believes in the communist revolution, that it’s a good thing for the peasants not to be ignored, for the educated elites to go off to the countryside and learn to work with their hands and all that stuff that Jung Chang fucking hated in Wild Swans. He discusses how in the past 25 years since the collective system was disbanded in the countryside life for the rural poor has gone downhill. China is developing, but it is doing it on the backs of the peasants. He talks about the poor farmers and how they look back to the days of Mao as the good old days. He points to how post-Mao history has gone and says this was exactly what the Cultural Revolution was trying to prevent. All of those “Capitalist Roaders” Mao demonized did take over once he was out of the way, and they did take China away from Communist lines.

This is what made the book great. I went in prepared to argue my ass off with the book. I read it with a pencil in hand to write snide remarks in the margins. I did get to write a bunch; Mobo Gao really downplays the Great Leap Forward idiocy, and he engages in a lot more hagiography than I’m really comfortable with. There’s a bit of acknowledgement that “man, those kids went crazy” during the Cultural Revolution, but he says that wasn’t Mao’s fault; it was the people much further down the chain of command than him. I also disapprove of Gao’s belief in the virtue of strict adherence to ideology. But there was a lot of interesting stuff in there that made me think more about my privilege and how that shapes my view of the Cultural Revolution, and my identification with those upper-class victims.

And once again, it looks like Aileen is right: I’m never going to be a true revolutionary.

One thought on “book review: the battle for china’s past

  1. hi. I am glad that you also thought the book was good. Sometimes it is nice to read something which reminds us of how it is the privileged which shape our view of history, and the perspective of the masses gets forgotten. I had always thought that it was Western arrogance to think that it is just because of brainwashing that Mao is still revered by many in China, which many foreigners in China automatically asume.

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