New Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Culture and Society

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New Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Culture and Society

Chen Yung-fa

Institute of Modern History

Academia Sinica

Instead of calling for a new research perspective, I would like to urge my fellow historians to pay more attention to the Maoist Era and its legacy. As China has opened up its doors to capitalism, scholars tend to treat Mao and his era as an insignificant and meaningless aberration, preferring instead to devote increasingly more time to tracing the continuity between the Chiang Kai-shek era (1927-1950) and Deng Xiaoping era (1979-2003) in order to emphasize how China learned from the capitalist West. Three decades of Mao’s efforts to reshape Chinese culture and society are thought to have made no impact on the Chinese consciousness, and play no role in directing China’s efforts to integrate into the capitalist world order. Recent studies by Mainland Chinese scholars such as Cao Jinqing, the author of China on both Sides of the Yellow River, warn us of the dangers of taking such an attitude. He also cautioned against uncritically grafting the experiences of coastal China onto the hinterland, where he found strong nostalgia for the days of Chairman Mao. A systematic inquiry into the Maoist Era would therefore serve us well in our attempts to understand China’s search for a form of modernity suitable to its unique indigenous context.
Other than an oversized population, an omnipresent party state, and a thoroughly discredited ideology, Mao left China with a culture and society that features more dissimilarity than similarity to its predecessors. Mao’s moral rectification and political campaigns reached their peak during the Cultural Revolution, when he called for the complete eradication of old thought, culture, customs, and habits. In fact, since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao and his comrades had devoted themselves to reforming the superstructure of the art, law, culture, and religion. Later, as a state power in competition with the Nationalist government, they made concrete efforts to adjust this superstructure to the economic substructure revolutionized through land reform. After declaring the pro-Soviet “Lean to One Side” policy in 1949, Mao and his party quickly transformed the previously mixed economy into a Soviet-style planned economy, while also seeking to revive Mao’s rectification experience of wartime Yenan that aimed at remodeling what he conceived of as manageable people, particularly the intellectuals. The Cultural Revolution was no more than another attempt to achieve this goal, but unprecedented in its scale. For a time, Maoist China indeed conjured up an image of an egalitarian paradise where people were selfless and “serving the people” had become habit. Before its disintegration, Maoist China enjoyed great popularity and was worshipped among young radicals throughout the world, including those in the western counties.
In Maoist China, the dichotomy between state and society no longer existed. In this thoroughly organized society, every Chinese belonged to a basic geographical unit, be it commune and production brigade in rural areas or street office and neighborhood committee in urban areas, all of which exhibited features of both state and society. A household registration system, together with varieties of ration tickets for daily necessities, separated the city from the village. In the cities, a system of compartmentalized danwei spread out in company with the expanding party state, and rapidly enveloped almost the entire urban population. With a near monopoly on official power and scarce resources, danwei constituents and their dependents enjoyed privileges envied by outsiders, such as steady employment and income, educational opportunities, medical welfare and a pension. Being a part of the party-state and its extension, the danwei often operated like an extended clan. And, despite all the high-sounding rhetoric, it was pervaded with patron–clientelism and other forms of networking that became an informal culture among cadres and their subordinates. Outside the danwei, there were only outcasts and other marginal elements in a wretched state of existence. Actually, neither Mao nor his party allowed rural culture and society to evolve outside administrative frameworks.
How such a highly organized nation could appear and even function well for a time during the Maoist Era remains a mystery. Was it purely an imposition from a tyrannical individual or an ideologically motivated party? Can we attribute its success (albeit short-lived) to factors in traditional culture and society that facilitated the acceptance of such a regimented order? To deepen our understanding of the evolvement of what the current Chinese authorities labeled as “a market economy with socialist characteristics”, we have to study the Maoist Era more comprehensively and thoroughly.
Since Maoist culture and society are notions that can prove difficult to grasp and dissect, I propose a tentative agenda for future research that takes into account materials currently available:
1. China as reflected in the secret Internal Reference Materials(Neibu cankao ziliao): Maoist China emphasized control over the news media and information. Previously only open publications were available for our research on China, but the recent availability of theInternal Reference Materialsthat the New China News Agency edited and circulated only among high-ranking cadres should enable us to form a picture of Maoist rule quite different from the one we used to know. These sources show how the people responded to Maoist efforts to reshape Chinese culture and society, and how feedback served the party-state in revising and improving its stratagems.
2. Rectification and political campaigns. Recently published diaries, memoirs, biographies (e.g. Gu Zhun and Tan Qixiang), and collected works of prominent figures (e.g. Liang Shu-ming, Guo Xiaochuan) including their memoirs, diaries or many versions of their self-criticisms, should give us a better sense of the mechanism of the rectification campaigns. The complicated interactions between individuals, institutions and traditions revealed in these texts should enable us to re-evaluate this great innovation of Chinese Communist Party, and to explain its ultimate fall into oblivion. As some Mainland China scholars have observed, Maoist rectification, with its emphasis on selflessness, ended up creating distorted personalities, sowing paralyzing guilt, and breeding double-speak, hypocrisy and a tendency to tell lies.
3. Danwei culture: rupture or continuity? As the state apparatus penetrated below the traditional boundaries of “small” government, the expanding party state not only created a conspicuous and permanent dichotomy between urban and rural sectors, but also a danwei society in which the party managed to reshape the constituents’ behavior. Largely confined to the cities and towns, this danwei society combined the traditional features of clans with Marxist “modern” discourse. In view of a pervasive worship for authority and an emphasis on patro-clientelism, should we conceive of danwei culture as a natural outgrowth of Chinese tradition, particularly that of its peasants? Does another great Chinese tradition, bianhu qimin, which emphasizes control of the population and the extraction of resources, play some role here? Or, should we agree with Andrew Walder and perceive danwei culture as a reflection of New-traditionalism that crosses boundaries between socialist countries? Perhaps the concept of hybridism is more fruitful. This system collapsed only after the onslaught of the recreated private sector and the revived market economy.
4. Antagonism, utopianism and mass mobilization in rural China: Reexamination of rural society through the study of land reform, collectivization, and the Great Leap Forward may help us to better understand the peasant mentality of the Maoist Era. Why did Chinese peasants raise comparatively less opposition than their Russian counterparts to the Maoist state’s attempts to transform rural China? Why did peasants meekly submit to the massive extraction of resources to finance an industrialization plan that eventually failed? Mao always envisioned a peasant mass capable of transforming itself through a cultural and technological revolution. Although the mass support and enthusiasm he whipped up during land reform and political campaigns did lend credibility to the view, the disasters in their wake and the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping only testify to the fallacy of this fundamental creed of Maoism. Unless peasants were transformed into workers or modern farmers, they were unable to transform themselves. Recent studies of the Chinese peasants clearly show that the trickling down effect from the urban sector might work in the coastal areas, but definitely not in the hinterland. Yet inland peasant society is simply too large to ignore. Peasants here continue to react to authority like their ancestors, yet remain discontented at the bottom of the Chinese society because of the unavailability of resources and opportunities.
5. Knowledge: definition, classification and production: Ideology became the most important form of knowledge, which was managed through Maoist society. Politics being the highest value, the authorities defined an orthodox art and literature, and proscribed others in the name of serving the people. The government not only reorganized the educational system, but also redefined what constituted scientific and useful knowledge. Western social sciences and genetics were banned. The educational system made cultivating a totally new generation of young Chinese its top priority, but in the end it was this new generation that presided over the disintegration of the Maoist China. To explain this unexpected turn of events, we should comprehensively study the way that Maoist China defined, classified and produced knowledge, as well as the limits to Maoist concepts of knowledge.
The above proposal reminds us that although autonomous, culture and society are not independent of the state, particularly after China entered the modern age of “globalism” and sought to rebuild a cultural universe in the image of the European nation states. The Maoist Era saw the boldest efforts of the Chinese elite to reshape culture and society. Its ultimate failure should not deter us from studying its origins, evolution and legacies.
In terms of materials available, we are now much better prepared for this task than our predecessors. Our investigations to the field need no longer be limited to Hong Kong, where the collection in the Universities Service Center for China Studies in the Chinese University maintains a competitive edge. The authorities in Mainland China, despite their reluctance, have opened up their research facilities and allowed much more latitude for field research. Now even Taiwan’s social scientists have begun to cooperate with their Mainland Chinese colleagues to do research on topics such as folk religion and the clan system. It is reasonable to expect an increasing relaxation of Chinese control over outsiders’ research.
People familiar with Mainland China have surely also noticed the massive publication of historical materials during the last twenty years. Equally noteworthy is how many reflective and insightful studies Mainland Chinese scholars have recently produced about their own culture and society. In Taiwan we feel overwhelmed by the recent avalanche of published works. The Institute of Modern History has made great efforts to collect the new almanacs, local gazetteers, internally circulated local historical and literary materials, and restricted materials concerning the organizational history of the Chinese Communist Party. The Institute currently boasts a collection of more than 4,600 volumes of new local gazetteers, which might be the largest one outside the Mainland China. However, due to the sheer quantity involved, it soon had to give up its ambitious plan for purchasing all the almanacs that appear on the market. At any rate, the availability of so many new materials can better prepare us for using Mainland China archives, particularly local ones, where political vigilance was not so stringent. In the past, the study of post-1950 China was an area claimed almost exclusively by social scientists. As they vacated the field in shifting their interests towards present-day China, we historians should continue the tasks they left and use our findings on the Maoist China to shed new light on the evolution of Chinese culture and society over time.

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