Public Comment

China’s Cultural Revolution a Human Disaster? Not According to Symposium Participants

By Reiko Redmonde 
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:50:00 AM

I don’t believe in human nature, said Prof. Dongping Han, a participant in China’s Cultural Revolution and now a Professor of History at Warren Wilson College. In the Cultural Revolution, he said, we didn’t have to care about ourselves, because others cared about us.  

“The Cultural Revolution was not, as depicted by the current Chinese government and standard Western accounts, a nightmare of persecution, violence, and senseless chaos,” Raymond Lotta, editor of “Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism,” summed up. “It was a society-wide political movement and struggle that brought about immense and egalitarian changes in Chinese society—in political institutions, education, health care, culture and women's participation in society.”  

Such portrayals of the Cultural Revolution came to life this past weekend at UC Berkeley where authors, scholars, and participants in the Cultural Revolution—1966-1976—gathered for a unique symposium: “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution—Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation.” Panelists came from diverse backgrounds and fields—the arts, gender and cultural studies, political economy and theory, and revolutionary practice—and had different perspectives on the Cultural Revolution itself. But all felt this was a liberating chapter in Chinese history that has been much maligned, and is in need of rediscovery and reexamination.  

Through a poster exhibit and film showings, discussion of new books on the revolution’s impact in rural China, panels on art and politics and the international impact and historical significance of the Cultural Revolution, and much lively discussion, the symposium painted a vivid picture of what happened on the ground during the Cultural Revolution; its international impacts, contributions in the arts, sciences, healthcare and education, and the transformations it brought for women, peasants, workers and others. Over 250 people attended.  

Indeed, this symposium definitely went up against the dominant narrative. I recently attended a showing of excerpts of “Morning Sun” by Carma Hinton at UC Berkeley. The film was a tendentious and carefully crafted attack on the Cultural Revolution which distorted history, and the truth. In her talk Hinton acknowledged that she purposely omitted footage of Red Guards helping peasants because that didn’t fit into her “master narrative.” These are precisely the kind of anti-communist lies and distortions that currently dominate the discourse about this crucial revolutionary chapter in China’s—and the world’s—history.  

The symposium punched a big hole these kinds of portrayals and helped broaden the whole conversation about human possibility. It’s impossible here to do justice to all that was presented—video and audio tapes of the entire weekend will be available—but here are some of the highlights.  

In discussing his new book The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village, which was filmed for CSPAN’s Book TV, Professor Han noted that during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution the government empowered the people of his region to build their own schools. The number of high schools in his county grew from one to 89. Han offered a gripping description of a society in which people worked together, looked out for each other, and were encouraged to “serve the people”— instead of the selfishness, atomization, and alienation fostered by capitalism.  

Bai Di, grew up during the Cultural Revolution and is co-editor of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up During the Mao Era Bai Di talked about the lives of her grandmothers before the Chinese Revolution. Both had bound feet. Both had arranged marriages. They each had 14 children. Their lives were limited to giving birth. They didn’t even have their own names but had their husband’s and father’s names, with the word “somebody” added on at the end. Bai Di’s mother who came of age around the time of the revolution of 1949, was the first person in the family to go to college, and her generation benefitted from the marriage law which abolished arranged marriage, and the concubinage system. Bai Di said that the cultural revolution furthered the liberation of women, “girls were equal to boys in every respect,” and this theme resounded in the theater and art of the period. After Mao’s revolution and especially during the Cultural Revolution, women were encouraged to participate in all aspects of society. “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” was their slogan.  

Ann Tompkins, who lived in China from 1965-1970, said she felt the Cultural Revolution the most democratic chapter in human history, and still feels that way today.  

Other presenters included Lincoln Cushing, co-author with Ann Tompkins of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution; Ban Wang, a Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Stanford; and Robert Weil, author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of Market Socialism. 

All this matters a great deal. Understanding the Cultural Revolution is crucial to understanding China today. And how one looks at the first experiences with socialism, including the Cultural Revolution, has everything to do with recognizing and comprehending the possibility and desirability of struggling for a different future—and helps open up the discussion of how to do even better in the future.  

One UC Berkeley undergrad whose parents are from China said the discussion at the symposium brought to mind a recent study showing “that collectivist cultures were actually higher in overall well-being and self-reported happiness than individualist cultures.” A psychology major, she said, “it’s definitely eye-opening for me, especially when in high school it was ingrained in my head that the United States was a superpower and that capitalism was definitely superior to communism. I think this experience today was also eye-opening as well and I think I am starting to question basic assumptions.”  



Reiko Redmonde is a staffer at Revolution Books, Berkeley which was a sponsor of the Symposium. More on the Symposium will be available at