Daughter of the Cultural Revolution

“The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare.

Jung Chang’s, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, is a memoir of one family’s experience of the “Cultural Revolution”. It was composed of three generations of women: the grandmother, who as a child had had her feet bound, and was sold as a concubine to a warlord general; the mother, a devoted student leader and political activist, who married a leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); and the granddaughter, our narrator. Although Wild Swans spans almost a century of Chinese history, we shall focus only on the lifetime of its narrator, the tumultuous period that included the “Hundred Flowers” movement, the “Great Leap Forward”, and the “Cultural Revolution”.

Her mother, Bao Qin, was born in the spring of 1931, during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. According to her grandmother, she had “rebellious bones”, hated the system of concubinage and the oppression of women. When she, at fifteen, arrived at marriageable age, she refused to cooperate in a traditionally arranged marriage: she insisted on choosing her own husband. And Bao Qin was determined on an education that would lead to financial independence. A brilliant pupil and president of the student’s union, she selected a course of study that guaranteed a teaching job upon graduation. During her studies she befriended a cousin, who fell in love with her. Later, she learned that he was a communist who had been executed by the Kuomintang (KMT, the nationalist party under Chiang Kai-shek). Believing the CCP was the only alternative to the corrupt rule of the KMT (and particularly attracted to its promise to end the oppression of women), she joined the Communist movement. Although only a teenager, she distinguished herself by courage and presence of mind. Later, she met the man known as Comrade Wang (Wang Yu), who would become her husband.

Wang Yu, a commander with the Communist guerilla forces, was later appointed head of the city’s Public Affairs Department. Having grown up an orphan – whose childhood was one of near starvation, and who, as a teenager, had worked twelve-hour days – he had joined the CCP in 1938 at the age of seventeen. A few years earlier Communist forces had passed through his town on the “Long March” to what would become their capital, Yan’an. Wang Yu was determined to join them. After a four month trek through the war-torn countryside, he finally arrived at their remote, northwest republic. He was a man who loved books: at the age of three, he had learned to read classical literature. After easily passing the entrance exam, he became the youngest research fellow of their Academy of Marxist-Leninist Studies. 

In 1942 Mao began a campaign (the first of many of which her parents would later become the victims) inviting criticism of the Party. Young research fellows, including her father, put up wall posters demanding more democracy and freedom of expression. Outraged, Mao turned the campaign into a witch-hunt. They were accused of “Trotskyism”, subjected to relentless attacks and forced to attend lengthy meetings of “self-criticism”. “Party unity and discipline” demanded their complete submission, they were told. The Academy of Marxist Leninist Studies was dismantled, and Wang Yu reprimanded. But, instead of becoming disillusioned with the Party’s lack of democracy, he accepted his punishment as a necessary sacrifice. Having known poverty as a child – and convinced by the Party’s program – Wang Yu was a “true believer”. Later, he was rewarded with important administrative posts, whose programs reduced rent, confiscated grain from landlords, and distributed it to the poor. Because of this activity among the peasants, his comrades were hunted by the Kuomintang. They put a price on his head, and “Wanted” posters of him were displayed throughout the countryside. It was after seeing one of these that Bao Qin had first learned of him. And he, in turn, became acquainted with her courage and independence. They also shared a love of Chinese literature, poetry and calligraphy. This mutual attraction led her father to petition the Party for permission to “discuss marriage” (obligatory procedure). The Party was not above posing as parental authority in its member’s private lives. Before they were allowed to marry, however, her mother’s “bourgeois” connections were thoroughly investigated.  She was warned to “draw the line” between herself and friends who had once associated with the KMT.

 At this time Bao Quin’s Party assignment was to teach reading and writing to women at a textile factory. She lectured them on women’s oppression, and was instrumental in having a male foreman fired for his brutal behavior. But when she finally applied to join the Party, she was accused of “bourgeois decadence”. She had visited her husband at night (the Party had assigned them separate living quarters), had associated with former KMT members, and displayed excessive attachment to her mother:

“The Communists had embarked on a radical reorganization not just of institutions, but of people’s lives…The idea was that everything personal was political; in fact, henceforth nothing was supposed to be regarded as “personal” or private…My father had to make a verbal self-criticism, and my mother a written one. She was said to have “put love first,” when revolution should have had priority. She felt wronged. What harm could it do the revolution if she spent the night with her husband?...She did not want to write a self-criticism, and told my father so. To her dismay he admonished her, saying: “…You have to obey the Party even if you do not understand or agree with it. (p. 134)”.

Her mother was ostracized, and her resentment turned on her husband, whose devotion to the Party was absolute. Having been driven out of her mother’s hometown, Jinzhou, the couple sought leave from the Party to return to her father’s home, Yibin. But because it was July 1949, and the civil war was raging, they began a long and arduous journey of over one-thousand miles.


On the way, her mother suffered pain, exhaustion, and had a miscarriage: as a result, she lost her first child. And the lack of sympathy shown her by her husband, made her threaten him with divorce: she wished to leave the Party and study medicine (like her father). But Wang Yu warned her that one couldn’t simply “opt out” of the Party. It would be regarded as desertion, and she would be discriminated against for the rest of her life. Once you were “with the revolution” you could never leave. Shortly afterward, on October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic and all were overjoyed.

In December her father was appointed head of Yibin County. Her mother was assigned a job in its Public Affairs Department, whose difficult task was feeding the starving population. She went out, accompanied by guerillas, on many dangerous expeditions into bandit-infested countryside. By this time she had once again become pregnant, and suffered nausea and exhaustion on these trips. But despite her condition, she was forced to continue. Only after a number of women comrades had been brutally murdered by bandits, were pregnant women finally released from such assignments.

Meanwhile, her grandmother, who had remained in Jinzhou when her children were transferred to Yibin, was deeply worried about them. Despite her bound feet, she was determined to join them, and began her own epic journey across China. She followed much the same route as her daughter, through a war-torn country infested by bandits. After two months she finally arrived, and was joyfully reunited with her children. Unfortunately, all Party members and their parents were required to eat in canteens, whose food was meager and unappetizing. Learning that her daughter was pregnant, she insisted on cooking for her, herself. It was traditionally thought vital for pregnant women to eat well. But, because she had broken Party rules by having come to join her daughter, and insisted on preparing her food, Bao Qin was accused of being pampered and privileged – “bourgeois”. Only officials of a certain rank were allowed to have their parents stay with them; unfortunately, her grandmother did not qualify. 

The Party forced her father to make a “self-criticism”, which both her mother and grandmother deeply resented:

“Can’t you stand up for me just once?’ my mother said bitterly. “The baby I am carrying is yours as well as mine, and it needs nourishment!”…She was afraid of having another miscarriage. Perhaps my father could consider her safety and let her mother stay until the birth? Still he said no…My mother could not find any argument to win him over…My grandmother had to go, and my mother was never to forgive my father for this…(p. 162, 63)”.

In July of 1950, Bao Qin’s provisional membership in the Party was due to end. To determine full membership, her Party cell grilled her intensively, forcing her to make numerous “self-criticisms”.


She was attacked for not wanting to go on the food-gathering missions when she was pregnant, for eating food prepared by her mother, and for allowing her baby to wear clothes made by her mother. It had been a sweltering summer, so she had washed herself each day. She was attacked for this, as well: cleanliness was regarded as “unproletarian”. Because of their respective ranks, only her father was allowed to wash with hot water. But she had been advised not to use cold water when she came near to delivery. Having used her husband’s leftover hot water, she was accused of “behaving like a Kuomintang official’s grand lady”:

“The Party’s all-around intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as “thought reform”. Mao wanted not only external discipline, but total subjection of all thoughts…


Every week a meeting for “thought examination” was held…Everyone had both to criticize themselves for incorrect thoughts and be subjected to the criticism of others. The meetings tended to be dominated by self-righteous and petty-minded people, who used them to vent their envy and frustration; people of peasant origin used them to attack those of “bourgeois” backgrounds…The process appealed to the guilt feelings of the educated; they had been living better than the peasants, and self-criticism tapped into this.

Meetings were an important means of Communist control. They left people no free time, and eliminated the private sphere…My mother’s cell grilled her…forcing her to produce endless self-criticisms.

She had to consent to this agonizing process. Life for a revolutionary was meaningless if they were rejected by the Party. It was like excommunication for a Catholic… (p. 165)”.

Finally, the land reform in Yibin was completed, and her mother was promoted and accorded full Party membership. She became a member of a new Party cell, led by a new “boss”. Unlike her old boss, this one had permitted her to read “bourgeois” novels, see non-Soviet films and take a bath every other day. Another benefit of her promotion was that it allowed her to bring her mother and father to live with them. But before she had left for Yibin, her grandmother had, herself, been the object of Party attacks. Because of her associations with former KMT members, she had been denounced and forced to attend “struggle meetings”.

But once her grandparents had finally arrived at Yibin, they were well treated. The family was joyfully reunited, and her grandfather lived his remaining years happily:

“It was the dream of every Chinese, in a society without any social security, to be well looked after in old age. My parents and the new government had done this, and it was no small thing. (p. 178)”.
 It was at this point, on March 25, 1952, that our author was born. Earlier, in late 1951, the Party had launched its first movements against corruption – called the “Three Antis” and “Five Antis” Campaigns – aimed at both capitalists and Party members:      


"These two linked campaigns consolidated mechanisms of control, originally developed in the early days of communism, which were unique to China. The most important was the “mass campaign” (qiun-zhong yun-dong), which was conducted by bodies known as “work teams” (gong-zuo-zu)...(p. 183)”. 

Made up of government employees and headed by senior Party officials, work teams were sent throughout the country to review the activities of provincial officials and employees. To “mobilize the people”, they held compulsory meetings in the evenings to persuade them to stand up and expose suspects. Participants were encouraged to make anonymous complaints, investigated by the work team, which later delivered their verdict:  

“There was no genuine appeal system…Work teams could impose a range of sentences including public criticism, dismissal from one’s job, and various forms of surveillance; the maximum sentence they could give was to send a person to the countryside to do physical labor…But when it came down to individual cases, the judgment…of the specific work team could be important.

In each campaign everyone in the category which had been designated as the target by Peking came under some degree of scrutiny, mostly from their workmates and neighbors…This was a key invention of Mao’s – to involve the entire population in the machinery of control. Few wrongdoers, according to the regime’s criteria, could escape the watchful eyes of the people…because of personal vendettas, and even gossip, many innocent people were condemned…(p. 183, 84)”.

In 1955 another Party campaign began against “hidden counterrevolutionaries”, particularly writers who had exercised a degree of independence from the regime. Mao had a number of writers arrested and branded as “counterrevolutionary”, an accusation that could be punished by death:

“This signaled the beginning of the end of individual expression in China.  All the media had been taken over by the Party when the Communists came to power… placed under ever tighter control…the targets now were people in the Party…files on people’s backgrounds had been a crucial part of the Communists’ system of control…No one was allowed to read their own file…My mother became a prime suspect. (p. 196)”.

While being investigated, Bao Qin was placed in detention. Those who had helped care for her (by this time) four young children were dismissed. And because her children could not be accommodated by the municipal nurseries, they were split up among four institutions. This courageous woman – who had demonstrated unfailing loyalty to the Communist cause – was subjected to six months of humiliating detention. She was assigned women “companions”, who filed daily reports on her. They followed her everywhere: to the toilet; slept beside her in bed. She was interrogated about anyone she had known who had associated with the KMT. Finally, she was forced to attend:

“…mass rallies at which “enemy agents” were paraded, denounced, sentenced, handcuffed and led away to prison amidst thunderous shouting of slogans and raising of fists by tens of thousands of people… (p. 199)”. 

If she had been classified as a “counterrevolutionary”, her children would be made to suffer. The only way this could have been avoided, was by divorcing her husband and “disowning” them. Attempting to sleep at night, she dared not cry, toss and turn: for fear her “companion”, who slept beside her, would report this. During her detention her husband neither called nor visited. He honestly believed this would have hurt her chances to be admitted to the Party. Once again, as during her pregnancies, she believed he had chosen the Party over her. And he seldom saw his children during this time, being constantly away at work:

“…a Communist was supposed to give herself so completely to the revolution and the people that any demonstration of affection for her children was frowned upon as a sign of divided loyalties. Every single hour apart from eating and sleeping belonged to the revolution, and was supposed to be spent working…

At first, my mother found this hard to get used to. “Putting family first” was a criticism constantly leveled at her…(p. 210)”.  

In 1955, Krushchev denounced Stalin (who had died in 1953) in his famous “secret speech”. In autumn of that same year the Hungarian Uprising took place: it was the first successful (although short-lived) attempt to overthrow a “Communist” regime. Identifying with Stalin – and, like him, aware of his party’s desire for liberalization – Mao, in the spring of 1956, announced the “Hundred Flowers” campaign.  It sought the help of “intellectuals”, invited their criticism of the Party, and promised the regime’s liberalization.  In a society that had been so thoroughly regimented up until now, the result was an outburst of criticism throughout the country. 

After about a month, Mao (who had earlier given his own “secret speech” about “enticing snakes out of their lairs”) reversed himself. He warned the nation that “rightists” had taken advantage of the campaign to attack the Party. He demanded these “rightists” be smashed. This ultimatum was relayed down through the Party’s command structure to her mother: who was ordered to find a hundred “rightists” in her organization to pin the blame on. She thought it grotesque to penalize those who had been invited to speak up, and then guaranteed that there would be no reprisals. And when she could only come up a few dubious candidates, she was accused of being a “rightist”, herself. To be so labeled could mean becoming a political outcast: losing her job; having her children ostracized. Her dilemma became whether to protect her own family or condemn hundreds of innocent people.

 Some officials used the campaign to settle personal scores, by offering up their enemies to fill their quota of “rightists”. But, for the most part, the campaign had little effect on society at large. Peasants and workers carried on with their lives as before. Only those labeled “intellectuals” – about a half-million – were punished:

“Most of them were sacked from their jobs and became manual laborers in factories or on farms. Some were sent to do hard labor in gulags. They and their families became second-class citizens. The lesson was harsh and clear: criticism of any kind was not going to be tolerated. From that point on people stopped complaining, or speaking up at all…(p. 217, 18).”

For many people – including her mother – this period finally caused them to question their devotion to the Party. Unlike her husband (who had not had to single out “rightists”), she had been forced to condemn the innocent. But she was determined not to reveal her doubts to him. Party rules forbade members (even husbands and wives) from speaking about Party policies among themselves. Every member must obey Party orders unconditionally, they were told. On one occasion, after an argument, she had burst out at him with:

““You are a good Communist, but a rotten husband!” He had silently nodded in agreement…(p. 219)”. 

After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Mao went to Moscow to attend a World Communist Summit. He returned convinced that Russia was turning “revisionist”, that only China was truly communist. So, in early 1958, he announced the “Great Leap Forward”, a campaign to seize world leadership from the Russians. Agriculture was neglected, and the nation’s first priority became steel production. All individual farms were combined into huge “people’s communes”. Jung Chang’s family was moved from their comfortable quarters to an enormous government compound. At her own school:

“…crucible-like vats had replaced some of our cooking woks and were sitting on the giant stoves in the kitchen. All our scrap iron was fed into them…The stoves were kept permanently lit…Our teachers took turns feeding firewood into them around-the-clock…We did not have many lessons…I hardly saw my parents for months. They often did not come home at all, as they had to make sure the temperature in their office furnaces never dropped…(p. 220, 21)”.  

Mao’s idea was to turn China into a world power overnight, and he saw the production of steel as key. But instead of creating modern plant and equipment – with trained engineers and workers – he dragooned the entire population into his scheme. Over one-hundred million peasants were shifted from agricultural work into backyard steel production. Although many had their doubts – after all the previous campaigns that had encouraged Party criticism – they were afraid to speak their minds. Those who did were silenced or fired from their jobs:

“In fact, the Great Leap Forward triggered off the most serious split in the leadership since the Communists had taken power…Mao had to step down from the less important of his two main posts…the voices of dissent grew so strong that the Party had to convene a special conference. (p. 227).”

The conference produced a dramatic controversy between Mao and Marshal Peng, the defense minister who opposed him. Peng was branded a “rightist opportunist”, dismissed and placed under house arrest. A purge now occurred, in which those who supported Peng were denounced, sacked and sent away to do manual labor. This dispute, at the top of the regime, soon filtered down through the levels of the Party to Jung Chang’s parents. At their Party “exam” meetings, at which they were obliged to discuss this controversy, her father suspected a trap and warned his wife. This was the first time she had known him to question the Party. Each was afraid of being condemned: for whatever they said or didn’t say. In fact, after her mother’s reluctance to speak, she was warned about her own “right-wing tendencies”:

“The lesson was that Mao’s authority was unchallengeable…if you offended Mao you would fall into disgrace…you could not speak your mind and resign, or even resign quietly: resignation was seen as an unacceptable protest. There was no opting out…(p. 229).”

As the sixties began, a great famine spread across China: over thirty million people had perished. Her father had immediately volunteered to help with famine relief in the countryside. However over-scrupulous he might have been with regard to Party discipline, he was a courageous and compassionate leader who was willing to share “weal and woe with the masses”. On returning home from his demanding tasks in the country, he suffered exhaustion and illness; later, he was hospitalized.  And the harrowing scenes of starvation he had witnessed, made him suffer severe depression, as well.  On many occasions, during his childhood, he had nearly starved, himself. So he saw his life’s work as putting an end to his country’s hunger. For the first time he questioned his vocation.

In the beginning of 1961 the famine finally persuaded Mao to replace his disastrous policies with those of his more “pragmatic” rivals, Liu and Deng Xiaoping. Reforms gradually brought about the nation’s economic recovery. And there was a political liberalization, as well, which allowed greater freedom of expression. In Jung Chang’s family exclusive devotion to the Party was replaced by normalcy. Now her parents spent more time together, and with their children. They were particularly concerned with their  children’s education. Now our narrator finally enters the story.

In 1964, Mao (who had been in retreat, as a leader, because of the famine) issued a call to the nation to “learn from Lei Feng”. This was a valiant young soldier who would serve as a model for them all.  Jung Chang was told by her teachers that he had shown “boundless love and devotion to Chairman Mao”. Students must learn to do likewise. It was at this time that she was first initiated into Mao’s “cult of personality”:

“…Mao was sowing the seeds for his own deification…just as (his) harshness to class enemies was presented as loyalty to the people, so total submission to him was cloaked in a deceptive appeal to be selfless. It was very hard to get behind the rhetoric, particularly when there was no alternative viewpoint…The near total lack of access to information and the systematic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate…Fear was never absent in the building of Mao’s cult. Many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think…parents encouraged their children to grow up as conformists…(p. 261-63).”

By this time the country had largely recovered from the famine, and the standard of living was improving. Campaigns of political persecution had largely disappeared, and memories of past mistakes were conveniently forgotten. And it was Chairman Mao, himself, who was given all the credit for the nation’s recovery. Jung Chang grew up in an atmosphere in which everything was politicized with his thought. Although she couldn’t help but have doubts, she was afraid to discuss them. The habit of “self-criticism” that was instilled in them forced her always to blame herself. In fact, during her years at school, she composed passionate eulogies to Mao, pledging to him undying devotion. 

At about this time Mao once again addressed the nation, denouncing “reactionary bourgeois authorities”. Throughout the county, officials, like Jung Chang’s mother, were once again ordered to seek out culprits. Having lived through previous persecution campaigns, she was appalled, and avoided victimizing her fellow workers. Her “passive resistance” to this campaign was duplicated by others throughout the country. And it had led Mao to suspect disloyalty. Fearing that he was losing control of the Party – and convinced those who opposed him were “capitalist-roaders” who must be eliminated – he now launched the “Cultural Revolution”. He created his own organization, the Cultural Revolution Authority, outside the Party apparatus. And he took control of People’s Daily, the Party’s newspaper, which ran daily editorials calling for his absolute authority. 

In Jung Chang’s school teaching stopped, altogether. Loudspeakers blasted People’s Daily editorials, which were studied by the students each day. On the cover was a full-page portrait of Mao; and there was a column of his quotations, which they were forced to memorize and recite. These were collected in “The Little Red Book”. Each student was given their own copy. Now one of the teachers Jung Chang had admired was labeled a “reactionary bourgeois authority”. His students were forced to shout harsh slogans at him, and paste up wall posters to denounce him.

Finding this repulsive, Jung Chang had often played truant from school. For this she was criticized for “putting family first”. Although her parents had refused to be swept up in it all, they were afraid to speak of this to their children.  This left Jung Chang unprepared for the “Cultural Revolution”:

“…to get the population to act, Mao would have to remove authority from the Party and establish absolute loyalty and obedience to himself alone. To achieve this he needed terror…He saw boys and girls in their teens and early twenties as his ideal agents. They had been brought up in the fanatical personality cult of Mao and the militant doctrine of “class struggle”…To arouse the young…victims were necessary…The most conspicuous targets in any school were the teachers…Now the rebellious children were set upon them…In practically every school in China, teachers were abused and beaten, sometimes fatally…They raided people’s houses, smashed their antiquities…Bonfires were lit to consume books…Museums were raided…(p.283-84).”

In Jung Chang’s school Red Guard groups formed, wearing armbands with large gold characters. It was obligatory to join, so she submitted her application. Students remained in school, day and night, devoted to the “Cultural Revolution”. Groups would go into town to pull down street signs, replacing “bourgeois” with “proletarian” names. And they would stop adults in the street – cut their hair, rip their garments, brake women’s high-heeled shoes. These were considered signs of “bourgeois decadence”. The Red Guards were called upon to adopt an austere, “proletarian” life style. So Jung Chang cut her hair short; put patches on her trousers. 

In Beijing, at Tiananmen Square, gigantic rallies were held. Here, Mao addressed crowds composed of tens of millions. Everything that represented the old culture must be destroyed: libraries ransacked; books burnt; traditional architecture, demolished. Jung Chang, like many others, was appalled. But she was afraid to speak out for fear that she would be victimized:

“…”denunciation meetings” were becoming a major feature of the Cultural Revolution. They involved a hysterical crowd and were seldom without physical brutality…professors…were beaten, kicked and forced to kneel for hours. Dunce caps with humiliating slogans were forced onto their heads. Ink was poured over their faces…slogans were pasted all over their bodies. Two students gripped the arms of each victim, twisting them around behind his back and pushing them up with such ferocity as to almost  dislocate them…(p. 293).”

Jung Chang now witnessed the beating of one of her teachers. Accused of being the “teacher’s pet”, she was forced to watch this “lesson in revolution”.  In the center of a small office she saw her teacher kicked, rolling on the floor in pain. Distraught, she gasped for breath – begging the students for mercy. They further humiliated her by forcing her to kowtow and beg. As others shouted vile slogans, Jung Chang slipped out of the room, ashamed.

To determine their “class enemies”, the Red Guards adopted a “theory of bloodlines”, according to which one was judged by one’s class origins: red – if one’s parents were workers or peasants; black – if they were landlords or rich peasants; and gray – if they were from ambiguous backgrounds. One of her fellow students and best friend was judged a ‘black’, because of her privileged parents. Red Guards raided her house, destroyed her family’s valuables, and beat them and her elderly grandfather. Finally they humiliated her by shaving half her head. Other ‘blacks’ were kept under surveillance: made to confess; sweep the grounds; clean the toilets. A few had been so humiliated that they attempted suicide. Jung Chang was haunted by this hysteria, in which she was forced to participate. Finally, her father, too, was severely shaken. He had told his wife:

“I don’t understand the Cultural Revolution. But I am certain that what is happening is terribly wrong. This revolution cannot be justified by any Marxist or Communist principles. People have lost their basic rights…I am a Communist, and have a duty to stop a worse disaster. I must write to the Party leadership, to Chairman Mao…(p. 297, 98).”

His wife warned him that not only would he be putting himself at risk,  but that she and their children would suffer.   And her warning proved prophetic. Because he was an important party figure associated with “culture”, Wang Yu was selected as a scapegoat. Denounced at meetings by mobs of students, he was finally placed under house arrest and taken into custody. Now his wife was forced to take his letter to Peking, and deliver it to Party authorities.

 A number of weeks later she arrived in the capital, where she delivered her husband’s letter. Bao Qin was given a document ordering her husband’s release, which she sent home to their grandmother. Her grandmother, in turn, had tried to persuade local officials to release Wang Yu: by this time, he had suffered a nervous breakdown. She was forced to beg the authorities repeatedly for the care he required. Despite this persecution of her family, Jung Chang now become a Red Guard:

“Like many Chinese, I was incapable of rational thinking in those days. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable. Besides, we had been overwhelmed by deceptive rhetoric, disinformation, and hypocrisy, which made it virtually impossible to see through the situation and to form an intelligent judgment…(p. 304).”

She proudly wore her red armband, Lenin jacket and her father’s leather belt. She remained at school with the others; but while they went off at night on “house raids”, she found refuge reading in their quiet office. Then one night she was forced to go on a “house raid”, herself. 

They had piled into a truck, which had driven through the night. Finally it arrived at a wooden house, consisting of two tiny rooms. To “receive an education in class struggle”, she was forced inside to watch:

“…my nostrils were filled with the stench of feces, urine, and unwashed bodies. The room had been turned upside down. Then I saw the accused woman…Her eyes were bulging out in desperation as she shrieked: “Red Guard masters! I do not have a portrait of Chiang Kai-shek! I swear I do not!”


She was banging her head on the floor…her back was covered with cuts…As I glanced at her face, it dawned on me that there was no portrait of Chiang Kai-shek. (An informer)…had denounced the poor woman out of vindictiveness. The Red Guards were being used to settle old scores. I climbed back into the truck full of disgust and rage…(p. 306, 07).”

Because of their reluctance to participate, Jung Chang’s parents were now attacked as “capitalist-roaders”.  Denunciation meetings were convened at her father’s department. Bao Qin and her husband hoped to resign as officials of the government and become ordinary citizens. But this was wishful thinking: resignation from the Party was absolutely forbidden. 

In 1967, Mao denounced his fellow leaders, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, and called on the people to join the Red Guards to “seize power”:

“In China, there were virtually no safety valves for ordinary people. The whole country was like a pressure cooker in which a gigantic head of compressed steam had built up...So when Mao launched his call to “seize power”, he found a huge constituency of people who wanted to take revenge on somebody…All sorts of people…started calling themselves “Rebels”…they split into factions and fought for power…All sides accused their opponents of being “anti-Cultural Revolution”…Rival factions competed to outdo each other in brutality. Much of the population colluded, driven by intimidation…(p. 326-28).”

Now her mother was caught up in the violence. Meetings were held to denounce her. At one, Bao Qin was forced to kneel on broken glass. Her grandmother would spend that entire night picking shards of glass from her knees. She had made thick kneepads and a wasteband to protect her.

Bao Qin was later paraded through the streets with a dunce cap on her head and a placard around her neck. Crowds jeered at her, as she was forced to kowtow and bang her head on the ground.  

On another occasion, she was made to kneel on the pavement, during a rainy, winter day. Around her screaming crowds had raged. And when she managed to twist out of her painful crouch, she was hit on the head, knocked to the ground. She had suffered an internal hemorrhage. For the next six years she had bled. It was so severe, on occasion, that she had to be hospitalized and have hormones prescribed. Now her father was further victimized.

One day a group barged into their apartment and proceeded into his study. They pointed at the “reactionary” books on its shelves: his priceless collection of Chinese Classic literature. He was slapped and shouted at by the youngsters. Then they collected his precious books in jute sacks to be taken to a bonfire to be burned. He was ordered to burn those that remained.

When Jung Chang returned home from school that day, she found her father in the kitchen: hurling burning books into the sink. It was the first time she had ever seen him cry. With violent sobs he stamped his feet, banged his head against the wall. 

He was forced to attend denunciation meetings. Here, crowds chanted Mao slogans, waving their Little Red Books. But Wang Yu refused to cooperate. For this he was drowned in shouting, beaten and bruised by the crowd. At another meeting he was ordered to kneel and kowtow to a giant portrait of Mao. Once again, Wang Yu refused. He was screamed at, kicked, struck on the head. Despite this, he had answered them:

 “I have committed no crime. I will not bend my head!”

On later occasions, he was beaten repeatedly; but Wang Yu refused to yield. Not only was he the only one that his daughter knew who had stood his ground, but he was determined to send another letter to Mao. 

After a day of such torment, her parents returned home to her grandmother’s tender care. She had nursed their wounds with ointments and traditional remedies. They were, in effect, under house arrest: just waiting to be summoned for the next mass meeting:

“The whole of China was like a prison. Every house, every street was watched by the people themselves…The atmosphere outside was terrifying, with the violent street-corner denunciation meetings and all the sinister wall posters and slogans; people were walking around like zombies…(p. 332).”

One day Jung Chang returned to their apartment to find both her parents gone. Her father had been taken into custody, and her mother had left for Peking to plead for him. After an arduous journey, and weeks of waiting in official’s offices, she finally managed to see Zhou Enlai. He gave her a note granting her husband’s release. 

Months later, Wang Yu was allowed to return home. But when Jung Chang was finally allowed to see him:

“…my joy turned to horror. There was a strange light in his eyes. He would not say where he had been, and when he did speak, I could hardly understand his words. He was sleepless for days and nights on end, and paced up and down the apartment, talking to himself…my father had gone insane…(p.347).”

While her father had been imprisoned, his interrogators had informed him that if he refused to confess, his wife would denounce and desert him. Despite this, he refused. Later, he was told she had denounced him and refused to visit. He began to suffer from schizophrenia: began to “hear things”. His interrogators took advantage of this to convince him of his wife’s betrayal. When he finally was allowed to return home, he was so confused that he wouldn’t believe her.    

Bao Qin tried repeatedly to obtain treatment for him, but this was denied by the authorities. And to add insult to injury, they had hounded Wang Yu with a wall-poster campaign. Despite his mental illness, he was forced to attend more degrading meetings. These became increasingly brutal:
“One day he came back with one of his eyes badly damaged. Another day I saw him standing on a slow-moving truck, being paraded through the streets. A huge placard hung from a thin wire that was eating into his neck, and his arms were twisted ferociously behind his back…he appeared indifferent to his physical pain…his mind seemed to be detached from his body…(p. 349).”

At home he became uncontrollable, and had finally attacked his wife. As a result, she suffered permanent damage to her hearing.  His violence forced her to move away from him with her daughter.  Bao Qin continued to suffer from internal bleeding, and her new quarters had no stove with which to sterilize the needles for injections she required. When her mother’s health improved, Jung Chang returned to live with her father. But the apartment was in a dreadful state; he had paced up and down, distractedly.  Being only a youngster, he was beyond her control. One night she had barely prevented him from committing suicide. They once again sought medical care from the authorities: but they treated her father’s miserable condition with scorn. They even posted placards in the neighborhood to ridicule him:

“…What was the reason for all this pointless brutality? It was in this period that my devotion to Mao began to wane. Before when people had been persecuted I could not be absolutely sure of their innocence; but I knew my parents…(p. 352).”

Her father was finally admitted to a mental hospital.  He had been dragged away from them, struggling, bound up in a straitjacket. Later, he was forced to have insulin injections, and painful electro-shock.  After forty days of this hellish treatment, he had finally recovered. Now Wang Yu returned home to live with his wife. 

In the summer of 1967, the fighting between Rebel factions had escalated into a veritable civil war across the country. Now Chinese troops armed the warring “Rebel” factions:

“In Yibin there was brutal fighting with guns, hand grenades, mortars, and machine guns. Over a hundred people died…In Chengdu…I saw parades of tens of thousands of Rebels carrying the blood-soaked corpses of people killed in battles…It was under these circumstances that Red Chengdu made three requests of my father…He refused. He said he could not back one group against another…(p. 355).”

For this, he paid dearly. He was once again taken away to what he was told would be another denunciation meeting. But, instead, he was thrown into a small room, where he was punched and kicked in the genitals. Water was forced down his throat and nose; then they had stomped on his stomach until he fainted.

He was eventually taken to a hospital, and treated along with others wounded. But, for over a year, until the end of 1968, he was in and out of detention. Their apartment was raided, turned upside down. Other officials in detention were disowned by their families. Some, as a result, committed suicide. Now the Rebel authorities attempted to break Bao Qin: to make her denounce her own husband.  But no amount of suffering would force her to betray him.

She was forced to attend over a hundred denunciation meetings. Details of her background were researched by a team of Party investigators. On one occasion, Bao Qin was dragged to a rally attended by tens of thousands. Along with many others, she was accused of being a “Kuomintang spy”. She was kept in detention for nearly two long years; there, she was tortured by her guards. Although she was forced to sign confessions, she refused to denounce her husband.

In autumn of 1968, “Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams” were sent into Jung Chang’s school to restore order. No teaching took place; textbooks were condemned as “bourgeois poison”. Instead, they recited Mao’s articles, sang songs, and did “loyalty dances” waving their Little Red Books. Finally, they were all summarily “graduated”: dispersed to distant rural and mountain wastes. These urban youngsters were exiled to primitive regions, for what Mao called “thought reform through labor”. Fifteen million were sent away in what was one of the largest population transfers in history. Jung Chang’s own family were split up and sent off:

“Hardship was part of “thought reform”. In theory, it was to be relished, as it brought one closer to becoming a new person, more like the peasants…I developed a serious skin rash…For over three years this rash recurred…no medicine seemed able to cure it…I had several sores running with pus, and my legs were swollen from infections…(p. 386).”

She was finally allowed to return to the city for medical care, where she found her grandmother, who was approaching sixty, seriously ill.  Because her children had been branded, “capitalist-roaders”, she was denied proper medical care. Bao Qin, who remained in detention, was finally allowed to visit her.  While there, she often dreamed of her and had awakened, sobbing:

“She was a great character – vivacious, talented, and immensely capable. Yet she had no outlet for her abilities. ..She might have found happiness in looking after her grandchildren, but she was rarely free from anxiety…the disasters which hit my parents, the worries about her grandchildren…all conspired to crush her…(p. 409).”

Jung Chang’s dismal experience doing rural labor in the countryside, convinced her to enter the medical profession. At the beginning of 1971, her commune’s authorities ordered that their clinic take on a “barefoot doctor”. At age eighteen, she was assigned this task. 

Meanwhile, her mother, had been sent to a camp in another part of the country, where they lived in shacks or peasant’s huts. Here, Bao Qin worked twelve-hour days; ate nothing but rice and boiled cabbage. The camp was organized like a barrack, run by army officers. And she was treated as a “class enemy”, humiliated, and given the most difficult jobs. Her internal bleeding grew worse; she was struck by hepatitis. Although treated by a doctor whose family she had once protected, she was soon forced to return to work. Fifteen hours a day – bent double in the paddy fields – with an inflamed lower abdomen and bleeding.  Despite her illness, her husband wasn’t allowed to visit her. He remained in a camp, far away, subjected to denunciation meetings after a long day’s work. This “anti-Mao criminal” bore all of this with his habitual fortitude. 

In the summer of 1971, Bao Qin had had a severe hemorrhage. She was taken to the hospital, where the doctors discovered a skin condition that could prove fatal. Not even now was her husband permitted to visit. He, too, had been deteriorating:

“…under the combination of intolerable mental and physical pressure, with years of brutal beatings followed by hard physical labor under atrocious conditions. For nearly five years he had been taking large doses of tranquilizers…He felt crippling pains somewhere in his body all the time…he began to cough blood…(p. 442).”

In November 1971, Bao Qin was finally rehabilitated by the Party. Yung Chang returned home to live with her. Now our narrator began working in factory producing machine tools. Unlike her previous work as a farm-laborer, working dawn-to-dusk, her new job meant working only eight hours a day. It was dirty, hard work, but she had finally had time to read. Now her mother had a hysterectomy; her skin condition had improved. And, because of his failing health, her father was finally allowed to leave his camp and return home to them. 

After the downfall of Mao’s opponent, Lin Biao, a liberalization of the regime had occurred. In October 1973, Yung Chang entered the university to study English. But the “Cultural Revolution” was hardly at an end. In January 1974, Mme. Mao launched an attack on foreign culture and education.  Yung Chang’s textbooks were propaganda. Serious literature was hard to come by, and she had had to hide these books from her classmates and instructors:

“Although we were studying English…we must not be seen to be too devoted to our subject: that was considered being “white and expert”. In the mad logic of the day, being good at one’s profession (“expert”) was automatically equated with being politically unreliable (“white”)…(p. 467).”

In the meantime, her father had yet to be rehabilitated. He remained in the hospital: on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yung Chang now moved in to care for him. He soon improved, and once again returned home. Finally, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of fifty-four:

“For days I wept in silence. I thought of my father’s life, his wasted dedication…There was no place for him in Mao’s China, because he had tried to be an honest man. He had been betrayed by something to which he had given his whole life, and the betrayal had destroyed him…(p. 479).”


“Marxism has acquired a very bad name in China – which is quite understandable,
 though somewhat unfair: after all, it was never really tried.” – Simon Leys 

What is the relationship of Mao to Marxism? Having described the experience of one family during the “Cultural Revolution” – the practice of Maoism, we now turn its theory. For Marxism is a unity of theory and practice. Let us begin with what I take to be the central proposition of Marxism. In the Preface to the 1888 English Edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels states: “…our notion, from the very beginning, was that “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” 

Working-class self-emancipation. First, it is the working class. This class – the vast majority in most modern nations – has both the interest and capacity to replace capitalism with socialism. Its daily experience teaches that it is composed of members of a class subject to the power of another, the capitalist class. Capitalists own the firm and decide what to produce. They have the power to hire and fire, control working conditions, and “exploit” the labor of workers. Thus, there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between the working and capitalist classes.

Furthermore, workers’ daily experience – in the workplace, in particular – is one of concentration. Here, the division of labor within the process of production (e.g. into work shifts, labor teams, along assembly lines) teaches the value of organization, discipline and the subordination of individual effort to the needs of the group. Most important of all, it teaches the working class its indispensability within the process of production: its power, through withholding its labor, to bring the system to a halt.

Next is self-emancipation. Marxism is based on the belief that ordinary people, the working class, can decide what is best for themselves and their families. They do not need charismatic figures or elites to lead them; nor do they need the utopian models of society of philosophers. What they require is their own organizations (e.g. labor unions, workers’ assemblies/”soviets”, a Leninist party), but these must be democratically controlled. According to Marxism, socialism is the process of democratic control of society by the working-class majority (i.e. ‘workers’ power’. See my essay, “What is Marxism?”). Exactly what is decided is not as important as that the process that determines it is democratic. Policies can be changed, and those who have been elected can be replaced. Such is working-class self-emancipation, the core of Marxism. Now let us turn to Mao.

The rich and complex history of Marxism and the working-class movement in China is far beyond the scope of this essay. For those interested in an excellent summary, I recommend Ahmed Shawki’s “China: From Mao to Deng”, ISR (International Socialist Review), Issue 01, Summer 1997. Among the conclusions to be drawn from this article, is that the possibility of making a revolution in China on the Bolshevik model was genuine, but that it was foreclosed by the policies of Stalin’s Comintern imposed on the Chinese Communist Party. Mao’s was another model, entirely. 

First, he abandoned the working class in the cities, for the peasantry in the countryside. The working class played a largely passive role in the conquest of power. To base one’s activity on the peasantry is not Marxism. The daily experience of the peasantry is fundamentally different from that of the working class. Unlike the working class, which is concentrated in workplaces and neighborhoods, the peasantry is dispersed throughout the countryside. The typical peasant works their own land, with their own tools and labor. The peasant family sees itself as largely self-sufficient, not needing to enter into a common effort with others. Lacking the experience of working collectively, like the working class, it tends to follow the lead of other classes. Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, famously describes these characteristics of the peasantry:      

“The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse…Insofar as there is merely a local connection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community…They are incapable of asserting their class interest…they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear their master, as an authority over them.”

Unlike the Bolsheviks, whose party was based on and led by the working class, Mao’s was based on the peasantry and led by the petit-bourgeoisie, (i.e. urban intellectuals). It also differed from the Bolsheviks in that its goal was military conquest by soldiers engaged in guerilla warfare in the countryside: not class struggle – strikes and demonstrations – based on workers’ power in the cities. Finally, and in fundamental contrast with the Bolsheviks, the CCP may have been popular among the peasantry, but it was never democratically controlled by that class.  After the massacres suffered by the CCP in 1927, and the abandonment of the cities, this might well have been the only way to defeat the Chiang Kai-shek.  But even if we forgo criticism of the CCP’s model of the conquest of power, its policies after assuming power remain to be judged. What was the relationship of these policies to Marxism? I believe the key is in a remark made by Nikita Krushchev to one of Mao’s delegates at a conference after Stalin’s death. Krushchev had confessed that:

 “When I look at Mao I see Stalin, a perfect copy.”

Ahmed Shawki’s “China: From Mao to Deng” summarizes the mirror-image of the policies displayed by these two world-historical leaders:   

“The revolution placed in power a party committed not to socialism, but to using its control of the state as a lever to develop China’s economy. With its first Five-Year Plan in 1953, the Chinese state attempted to launch a program similar to Stalin’s industrialization of Russia – starting from a much lower base.

With income per head three to four times less than that of Russia in 1928, the new plan required a policy of extreme hardship – of intensive exploitation—for the mass of the populace. Over time, in a piecemeal way, the Party nationalized and placed sections of the economy under its control, absorbing into its ranks the former owners and directors of private enterprises it nationalized. This was not socialist nationalization conducted by the workers themselves, but the absorption of the old, private bourgeoisie into a new, bureaucratic state-capitalist class…(p. 5).”

From our theoretical sketch, let us return to the particular experience of Jung Chang’s family. The “Hundred Flowers” campaign, “The Great Leap Forward”, and the “Cultural Revolution” – all were experienced by her parents (devoted, long-time members of the CCP) – as edicts handed down from heaven. They were forced to suffer these social catastrophes like “Acts of Nature” (as they might earthquakes, droughts or plagues). Never was their advice sought, nor their consent given. The “popular” organizations, that governed their working and family lives, were nothing but the ‘top-down’ creations of authorities at the distant imperial court. Marxism’s democratic control by the majority, the working class, was nowhere to be seen. And Maoism not only dictated the conditions of their working lives, but invaded their private lives, as well. Let us summarize this society in the words of our author:  

  1.     “The Party’s all-around intrusion into people’s lives was the very point of the process known as “thought reform”. Mao wanted not only external discipline, but total subjection of all thoughts…(p. 165).”

  2.     “…everything personal was political…nothing was supposed to be regarded as “personal” or private…(p. 134).”

  3.     “Meetings were an important means of Communist control. They left people no free time, and eliminated the private sphere…(p. 165).”

  4.   “In each campaign everyone came under some degree of scrutiny, mostly from their workmates and neighbors…This was a key invention of Mao’s – to involve the entire population in the machinery of control. Few wrongdoers, according to the regime’s criteria, could escape the watchful eyes of the people…(p. 183, 84)”.

  5.     “The lesson was that Mao’s authority was unchallengeable…if you offended Mao you would fall into disgrace…you could not speak your mind and resign, or even resign quietly...There was no opting out…(p. 229).” 

  6.    “…The near total lack of access to information and the systematic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate…Fear was never absent in the building of Mao’s cult. Many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think…parents encouraged their children to grow up as conformists…(p. 261-63).  

What Jung Chang describes for us in, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, is a society in which no one could escape “the watchful eye of the people”. All news and information was strictly censored. Spying on your neighbor was a civic duty; even children were made to spy on their parents. And once you had become part of the system, there was no escape: no “opting out”; no freedom “to be left alone.” As Solzhenitsyn’s writings have exposed the gulag of Stalinist society, so Jung Chang’s have revealed the madness of Mao’s. Marxists have a duty to inoculate the current generation against these perversions of our deepest beliefs. The working class has no need of Chairmen.

© 2015 By Mark Dickman