Was Mao Insane?

Japan-based Ampontan posts some reactions to Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals (Belknap, 2006). I’ll just cite the conclusion of a review of the book by Andrew J. Nathan for the New Republic.

So little of what Mao said and did makes cool political sense that one is tempted to fall back on a third theory: that he was insane. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals also employ this explanation some of the time, describing Mao as perhaps paranoid, and as fantasizing during the Cultural Revolution in the way that he did during the Great Leap Forward. (MacFarquhar co-edited The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao, published in 1989, which contain extensive transcripts of some of Mao’s nuttiest ravings from the Leap period.) And Mao is not the only crazy person in this story. Lin Biao was “a small, thin, weak man, his face as white as paper,” who “normally led a mole-like existence in his home.” Jiang Qing’s “paranoia left her constantly on guard.” The ghostwriter Chen Boda and the internal intelligence chief Kang Sheng were also pretty strange. And eventually the regime as a whole acted deranged — as seen, for example, in Central Document Number 3 of 1970, issued after the entire nation had been beaten into submission, which ordered officials “resolutely [to] execute those counterrevolutionary elements who are swollen with arrogance after having committed countless heinous crimes and against whom popular indignation is so great that nothing save execution will serve to calm it.”

Certainly Mao was extraordinarily cruel. But neither MacFarquhar and Schoenhals nor any other scholar has yet presented a plausible diagnosis that would help us to understand how Mao’s pathology directed his actions. Confronting such riddles, one misses a certainty, a fullness of reconstruction, that simply cannot be had when it comes to Mao and his court, because so much remains off-limits even in the recent document collections, biographies, and memoirs. Li Zhisui, who was perhaps the only person really close to Mao who was able to write uncensored, was too limited in his access to the leader — and, indeed, too frightened of him — to provide an answer to the inner mysteries of this supremely mysterious man. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday solved this problem in their best-seller Mao: The Unknown Story with their own imaginations — by making up motives and states of mind that they ascribed to Mao and other actors without authority from their sources. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have respected the limits of their data, and have more scrupulously left Mao an enigma.

As soon as Mao was gone, his project was abandoned. China set course toward wherever one thinks it is heading: capitalism, market socialism, export-led mercantilism — certainly toward a society obsessed with selfish wealth. Deng Xiaoping set to work to make another Cultural Revolution impossible. He created a retirement system for party elders to leave power before they died without retaining the right to intervene in politics (as Deng himself ironically had to do in 1989 against his own wishes), strengthened the role of formal institutions in making decisions and choosing leaders, and established the deliberative technocratic promotion system that produced the current set of organization-man leaders. Deng delivered a formal verdict on Mao in 1981, in a party resolution that evaluated Mao as 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Interestingly, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have discovered that this ratio was originally proposed in 1975 by Mao himself in one of his displays of false modesty, making it a safe formula for the canny Deng to adopt.

Still, readers of MacFarquhar and Schoenhals’s doleful history should not comfort themselves with the thought that Mao’s failure taught the Chinese once and for all that human nature cannot be changed, or that all people want freedom, or that capitalism and democracy are the tide of history. In this sense, I do not agree with the authors that the Cultural Revolution was “the last stand of Chinese conservatism,” by which they mean the last attempt to define a distinctive Chinese form of modernity that uses Western technology to realize a Chinese essence. Hard as it is to believe after reading this masterful and sickening book, large parts of Mao’s vision still live. The dominant voices among independent intellectuals in China today belong not to liberal democrats and human rights activists, but to so-called neo-conservatives and neo-leftists who believe that even though Mao’s revolution failed (through a combination of his mistakes and Western cultural and economic subversion), the search for a distinctive Chinese model should continue. Some of these ideas even animate the current leadership’s push for a so-called “harmonious society,” which aims to use state control to repress social conflict and ease inequality. The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last revolution, but it may not have been China’s.

The blogger at Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China is likely to have some interesting reactions after she finishes reading the same book.

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