Q. and A.: Jeremy Brown on the Cultural Revolution at the Grass Roots

So Mao declared “we can never forget class struggle” and started the Four Cleanups. It was traumatic. Outside work teams went to villages, investigated local officials and violently punished people they considered class enemies.

Q. It’s not something we hear about too much.

A. That’s because it was rural, and rural people don’t get to tell their stories. We should have been talking about this 50-year anniversary two years ago.

Q. What’s another reason for not liking the anniversary this year?

A. It was really a three-year period. The Red Guards were part of it, but there was more violence in 1968-69, when Mao sent the army and tried to restore order by setting up Revolutionary Committees. But my pessimistic expectation is the anniversary will mostly focus on Red Guard chaos narratives, and suffering of elite intellectuals.

Q. Intellectuals write history.

A. Intellectuals write books and their experiences do matter. But we tend to forget how the majority of people lived.

Q. Who else do we need to hear about?

A. We don’t hear too much about the “rebels.” They were workers in factories, not Red Guards, and they got a seat at the table when the Revolutionary Committees were set up in 1968. They ran factories and many workplaces along with the army. They were the ones who got scapegoated at the end of the Cultural Revolution. They’re not super literate or well-connected enough to get their stories out, and their stories are embarrassing to the officials who used them and survived and did well after the Cultural Revolution. They’re called “Gang of Four elements.” We don’t know much about them at all.


Q. Your new edited volume is meant to be a corrective. You have one amazing piece by Yang Kuisong at East China Normal University on a man who was persecuted for his homosexuality. And your piece shows how people could have their “class label” changed by friends or rivals.

A. One thing all the contributors found is that policies didn’t take effect simultaneously across China. Things were happening at a different timeline in villages and factories. People also didn’t understand the policies — they were confusing and contradictory — and did what made sense to them. They were reading the newspaper or listening to the broadcast and figuring out what the policy was going to be, but it didn’t translate into what happened in a village.

Q. In some ways it’s surprising how things did work in the Mao era.

A. We often have images of mass rallies, but many people opted out. Don’t forget, most people didn’t go. It’s interesting to think of that — most did not participate. And the economy kept going. There were no widespread famines. People still went to school in unprecedented numbers.

Q. This view also calls for more nuance in describing things like the worship of Mao.

A. When you look at the Mao cult and the way that people were performing rituals to the “great leader” — doing the loyalty dance, for example — they seem like absurd rituals. But it was a limited period of time. There were a few cities where the Mao cult was intense. But if you look at the whole period from the mid-60s to mid-70s, you have all sorts of people detaching themselves from politics and focusing on their work. You have a Mao picture in the workplace, and campaigns, but it’s background noise for many people. That political narrative was not first on their minds when they went about their lives. That is what we were trying to show.

Sometimes you can’t get around it, like the chapter on the young fellow in Tianjin trying to avoid being sent down to a village as part of a massive social engineering project. It’s based on excerpts from the young man’s diary and reads like any teenager’s diary. He’s worried about what people think of him, what’s next in his life.

Q. That chapter is by Sha Qingqing, a librarian in Shanghai. How did he get the material?

A. He bought it at a flea market.

Q. You get a lot of material like that, too.

A. I learned it from Michael Schoenhals, a Swedish expert on the Cultural Revolution and the pioneer of what he calls “Sinological garbology.” Back when I started collecting documents in the early 2000s, there was an amazing amount of stuff you could simply buy at flea markets or online. Smaller neighborhood offices were renovating and moving, so they got rid of old files they did not need anymore — some of them found their way to the markets. These days the flow of grass-roots documents has slowed; it’s more of a trickle than a torrent.

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