Through it all, Mao wallowed in narcissism, reveling in the chaos he had wanted over the nation. As violence began to spread at the very beginning of this period, the president rhapsodized in a letter to his wife: “There is a great mess under the sky, the situation is excellent. Five months later, on his birthday night in December 1966, he raised a toast: To the unfolding of the nationwide civil war!
In retrospect, Maos’ adoration of chaos, and his indifference to the carnage it caused, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His preoccupation with turmoil, his sanctification of violence and his ever-ready willingness to ignite the spark that could ignite a meadow are all evidently present in his writings dating from the late 1920s and early 1930s. evident are his visceral contempt for stasis, his contempt for expertise, his loathing for bureaucratic administration, and his impatience with the effort required to effect positive change in situations bound by rules, laws and institutions .
To this day, the Chinese who lived through this period, the Cultural Revolution, have internalized one lesson clearer than any other: They know that all of the most seemingly immutable institutions of society are the rules, the structures of authority, the social hierarchies, the police, the armed forces, and everything else that seems so predictable and unresponsive to change are fleeting moments that can fall apart in the blink of an eye. And they know that all the human inhibitions so intrinsic to social life as the reluctance to violence, the ability to feel shame, the willingness to trust, and the subordination of emotion to motivation so easily give way to lower human desires, especially the context of a mob and a manipulative leader. Witnesses of the Cultural Revolution are all too aware of the fact that what separates us from the state of nature is only a thin and fragile veneer.
Why is this important? On one level, this is important for understanding contemporary China. Xi Jinping can now proclaim whatever he wants, the great renaissance of the Chinese people. He can parade his floats, evoke the patriotic fervor of his citizens and revel in triumphalism. But even the most casual observer can discern the flip side of all this jingo solidarity: the compulsive desire to eradicate potential dissent, and therefore potential disorder, wherever it lurks, whether in evangelical Christian churches not. recorded, the Chinese #MeToo movement, the culture and ethnic identity of the Uyghur people, or the desire of Hong Kong citizens to preserve their basic civil rights. Xi promotes solidarity, but behind it lies fear, the fear that the edifice of harmony and strength will be vulnerable to collapse at any time.
However, this is not the main reason why Americans should understand what Mao did in 1966. I started studying China as a college student in the mid-1980s and am now 25 years old in a career as a teacher of Chinese studies. During this period, I was constantly moved by the intensity, the drama and the deep tragedy of Chinese history. I have appreciated and benefited from the wisdom of Chinese friends, colleagues and mentors. And I empathize with the special challenges, difficulties and triumphs they have faced in their lives. Yet the experience of their nations has always seemed so remarkably different and far removed from mine. In other words, until the present.
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