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Making sense of the `great disorder' of the Cultural Revolution

There is a play on words popular among Beijing intellectuals that transposes the characters for ``cultural revolution" -- ``wenhua da geming" -- to create a satiric expression, ``da ge wenhua ming," which translates loosely as ``the revolution that destroyed the life of culture."

As a campaign against the ``Four Olds" -- ``old ideas, old culture, old customs , and old habits" -- the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 turned Chinese society against itself. But as Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals suggest in ``Mao's Last Revolution," ``the Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster" in economic and social terms ``that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution." That revolution has created a world economic power in the three decades since the Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao Zedong, in 1976.

``To understand the `why' of China today," they write, ``one has to understand the `what' of the Cultural Revolution."

MacFarquhar, director of Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, covered it for several British media outlets. Schoenhals is a Swedish scholar who was studying in China during the Cultural Revolution .

Their account is authoritative, and presented with powerful narrative sweep. As they make clear, the Cultural Revolution was all Mao, all the time. He was determined, they write, ``to create `great disorder under heaven' " in order to achieve ``great order under heaven."

It all started when Mao, wanting to topple a prominent party leader who was mayor of Beijing, orchestrated a campaign against a historical drama written by the city's vice mayor. Then ``he [manipulated] a mass movement" -- the Red Guards -- ``to unseat the head of state [Liu Shaoqi]."

It was the Red Guard movement that caught the attention of the outside world, 40 years ago this summer, with their mass rallies in Tiananmen Square, waving Little Red Books with the sayings of Mao, freed from social restraints to roam through the country and attack scholars, landlords, even members of the political old guard -- and smash the ``Four Olds."

``Don't be afraid of people making trouble," Mao told a meeting of People's Liberation Army officers in 1967 as China descended into what he would later toast as ``all-around civil war."

``The bigger the trouble gets, the longer it lasts, the better. . . . Something is bound to come out of it!"

As the Red Guards disappeared from the scene by mid-1968 -- sent ``up to the mountains and down to the villages" or dismissed to their classrooms -- the story becomes one of ``elite politics," and the authors' account captures the turmoil.

They deftly guide the reader through the successive demotions and rehabilitations of Deng Xiaoping, and the apparent coup attempt by Lin Biao, Mao's chosen successor, in September 1971 -- just five months before President Nixon's surprise visit to China in February 1972.

And through all that, the authors note the impact of events on ordinary citizens. In October 1972, angered by crowded living conditions, thousands of Beijing residents descended on Tiananmen Square ``and dug up and carted off" some 20,000 flowers planted there. The action ``symbolized," the authors write, ``the disruption of socialist controls."

Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976 -- eight months after Zhou Enlai, who had labored to soften the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Within a month, Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her radical allies, the ``Gang of Four," had been arrested, and ``the Cultural Revolution was over."

``So accounts were settled," the authors write, ``and a line was drawn under the Cultural Revolution." Mao's ``worst revisionist nightmare has been realized, with only himself to blame." And Deng, the ultimate ``capitalist roader," opened China to the outside and its economic boom.

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