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Books: Monkey’s Uncle

4 minute read
Charles Elliott


One of the best-known characters of Chinese folklore is Monkey, who is forever running amuck and terrorizing celestial Establishment figures like the Jade Emperor. As Stanley Karnow notes in his account of the Cultural Revolution, Monkey also happens to be one of Mao Tse-tung’s favorite characters. He has even likened himself to Monkey in a poem, wielding the great cudgel of “class struggle” against his enemies and history.

Viewing Mao as a latter-day Monkey may be the only way to make sense out of the Cultural Revolution. Six years after it began, five years after it peaked, the largest civil disorder of modern times remains largely mysterious. Yet, amazingly, there was a continuous stream of information flowing out of China during those years of turmoil. From regional radio broadcasts, newspaper stories, wall posters, speeches, government documents, refugee tales and many other sources came a provocative mixture of facts, accusations, propaganda, rumors and half-truths. As a correspondent stationed in Hong Kong (originally for TIME, later for The Washington Post), Karnow monitored enough of this material to be able to see it for what it really was—the first approximation of a free press ever known in Communist China. His idea, brilliantly carried out, was to sort the mess into reliable narrative history.

Karnow considers the Cultural Revolution a culmination of the long conflict between Mao’s romantic dream of permanent revolution and the Chinese people’s natural drift toward realism. Repeatedly, whenever Mao sensed that the bureaucrats seemed to be taking over, he forced a return to basic revolutionary principles, often at chaotic cost to the country. He skirmished with intellectuals, with army professionals who thought that modern weapons were more important than revolutionary élan, with economic planners who thought the Great Leap Forward to instant industrialization was dangerous nonsense (which it was).

In the early 1960s, an aging Mao had grown increasingly isolated and possibly ill. He could see that the people were bemused by economic improvement and that the entrenched party structure was uninterested in risking itself for anybody’s dream. This must have infuriated him. “To expose our dark aspect openly,” as he later put it, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution by appealing to China’s students, the one group eager for a call to arms.

Mao’s support had a narrow base. His Cultural Revolution directorate included only his private secretary, his wife, his former bodyguard and few others of note. What really counted, as always, was his godlike status. He took pains to enhance it with Little Red Books, parades and ritual. This worked so well that when Mao was forced to take the desperate step of calling out the troops, he could still pretend that the country was well on the way to a Communist Utopia.

But of course it was not. As the Cultural Revolution died, Mao’s millennium was as far away as ever. Years before he had suggested, “You will feel better, comrades, after you break wind and move your bowels.” But this time, upheaval left China in absolute disarray. Karnow shows that violence reached a level frightening even to Mao. Thousands died in pitched battles, using weapons seized from the army or hijacked from trains headed for North Viet Nam. In Loyang, workers dispatched a group of student rebels holed up in a ball-bearing factory by simply demolishing the building with a five-ton wrecking ball. Government directives led to such hopeless confusion that one Chungking unit finally named itself the Fail-to-Understand Combat Corps.

Aftershock. Hundreds of debating, conniving and brawling characters move through Karnow’s pages. Among the most memorable is Mao’s fourth wife, Chiang Ch’ing. Her rivalry with Mme. Liu Shao-ch’i is as bitchy as something out of Balzac. One is left with the impression that if by chance Mao had wheezed off, Chiang Ch’ing would have kept the Cultural Revolution going all by her termagant self.

Paradoxically, now that China is quiet we know a lot less of its internal power struggles. For example, is the Cultural Revolution really over? An odd aftershock last year was the almost perfunctory elimination of Lin Piao—once Mao’s chief crony and chosen heir—in a Mongolian plane crash following an abortive coup—this, according to Chou Enlai. Despite the heroic presence of Chou, China’s administrative superstructure is clearly makeshift. Though the book-lined study in Peking that President Nixon visited last winter seemed peaceful enough, Mao lives on there, Monkey to the end. “Neither weapons nor thunderbolts have the least effect on him. What are we to do?” “Yes, indeed,” said the Jade Emperor. “With a fellow like that, what line can one take?” ∎Charles Elliott

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