Chinese historian's latest book describes the awful truth of Mao's Cultural Revolution

Yang Jisheng is a Chinese historian who lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as a young man. He started out as a member of the Communist Party and eventually became a reporter for a state news service. But his viewpoint changed in 1989 after he saw the Party’s crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square. He used his access to primary sources as a Communist Party member and began putting together a book on the famines associated with the Great Leap Forward.

That book, titled Tombstone, was an unsparing account of what led to the deaths of more than 30 million people, was published in 2008 and translated into English four years later.

In 2016, Yang published a follow up about Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The English language translation of that book, titled The World Turned Upside Down, will be published next month. Today the Atlantic published a profile of Yang that also offers a preview of the latest book.

The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s last attempt at creating the utopian socialist society he’d long envisioned, although he may have been motivated less by ideology than by political survival. Mao faced internal criticism for the catastrophe that was the Great Leap Forward. He was unnerved by what had happened in the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev began denouncing Joseph Stalin’s brutality after his death in 1953. China’s aging despot (Mao turned 73 the year the revolution began) couldn’t help but wonder which of his designated successors would similarly betray his legacy.

To purge suspected traitors from the upper echelons, Mao bypassed the Communist Party bureaucracy. He deputized as his warriors students as young as 14 years old, the Red Guards, with caps and baggy uniforms cinched around their skinny waists. In the summer of 1966, they were unleashed to root out counterrevolutionaries and reactionaries (“Sweep away the monsters and demons,” the People’s Daily exhorted), a mandate that amounted to a green light to torment real and imagined enemies. The Red Guards persecuted their teachers. They smashed antiques, burned books, and ransacked private homes. (Pianos and nylon stockings, Yang notes, were among the bourgeois items targeted.) Trying to rein in the overzealous youth, Mao ended up sending some 16 million teenagers and young adults out into rural areas to do hard labor. He also dispatched military units to defuse the expanding violence, but the Cultural Revolution had taken on a life of its own…

What started as casual brutality—class enemies forced to wear ridiculous dunce caps or stand in stress positions—degenerated into outright sadism. On the outskirts of Beijing, where traffic-crammed ring roads now lead to walled compounds with luxury villas, neighbors tortured and killed one another in the 1960s, using the cruelest methods imaginable. People said to be the offspring of landlords were chopped up with farm implements and beheaded. Male infants were torn apart by the legs to prevent them from growing up to take revenge. In a famous massacre in Dao County, Hunan province, members of two rival factions—the Red Alliance and the Revolutionary Alliance—butchered one another. So many bloated corpses floated down the Xiaoshui River that bodies clogged the dam downstream, creating a red scum on the reservoir’s surface. During a series of massacres in Guangxi province, at least 80,000 people were murdered; in one 1967 incident, the killers ate the livers and flesh of some of their victims.

When it was all over the death toll from the Cultural Revolution alone was around 1.5 million. That figure only seems small because of the much greater death toll from the Great Leap Forward that preceded it.

Yang is no 81 years old and still lives in Beijing. The Atlantic reports he was nervous about the English publication of his new book, enough that he tried to delay it. He was concerned it could have an impact on his grandson. There’s no doubt that China is willing to clamp down on criticism of the Communist Party, even historical criticism. Today the NY Times published a piece about the arrest of Chinese journalist Du Bin.

The journalist, Du Bin, 48, was detained on Wednesday by police officers in Beijing, said his sister, Du Jirong. Police officers told Ms. Du on Thursday that her brother had been placed under administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The vaguely worded offense is one that the government often uses to quell activism and discussion of social and political issues.

Friends of Mr. Du, who has worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, say they believe his detention may have been connected to several of his recent book projects.

One book, published in Taiwan in 2017, was a historical account of what is known as the “siege of Changchun,” when Communist troops blockaded the northeastern Chinese city in 1948 to starve out their rival Nationalist soldiers, leading to the deaths of at least 160,000 civilians. Another book by Mr. Du, about the more nefarious aspects of Lenin’s experiments with Communism, was scheduled to be published in Taiwan on Jan. 1, 2021.

If China doesn’t like what you are saying, you disappear and they make up some charges against you and put you in prison. That’s what happened to the independent journalists who were covering the coronavirus outbreak. Even doctors who displeased the party disappeared. The Party may be less deadly than it once was but the essential disregard for individual rights goes on.

As for Yang’s new book, I’ve added it to my Christmas list this year.