2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 348

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Rethinking the Mao Era from the Ground Up: Revisionist Approaches

Organizer: Felix Wemheuer, University of Cologne, Germany

Chair: Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Discussant: Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University, Canada

For a long time, Western and Chinese scholarship on the Mao era (1949-1976) was primarily focused on elite politics and on Chairman Mao himself. In recent years, research on the grassroots and access to new sources suggests that there are multiple and diverse narratives that challenge the old top-down focus. This panel brings various revisionist approaches together and asks how a fresh examination of politics at the grassroots challenges previous narratives about the Mao years. Aminda Smith will analyze letters from ordinary people to the People’s Daily. She will show how cadres gave meaning to the “voices from below” in the context of the policy of the “mass line”. Felix Wemheuer will explain how the Chinese government prevented famine before and after the Great Leap Forward. His paper will contend that the relation between the urban population and the peasants is central to understanding the conquest of hunger. Yiching Wu will reinterpret the “January Revolution” in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. He argues that it gave birth to a new national model of national politics in which rebellion and bureaucratic recentralization were highly interlinked. Lena Springer will analyze the official version of an episode of Chinese medical history which praises Mao Zedong for saving Chinese medicine by institutionalizing it. She will show that this narrative today is used to construct various inconsistent layers of Chineseness while neglecting certain positive side-effects that the “mass line” had on traditional healing. The panel will contribute to a new understanding of Maoist era and discuss how we can rewrite this very important period of Chinese history.

Speaking for the Masses: Letters from the People and the Practice of the Mass Line, 1949 -1959
Aminda M. Smith, Michigan State University, USA

In 1949, the new PRC government issued a nationwide call to its constituents, encouraging individuals to send their opinions, complaints, and suggestions to the state. Over the course of the 1950s, the Party-run People’s Daily newspaper regularly vaunted “letters from the people” as “the most direct” line between citizens and the state, and superiors in government bureaus across the country exhorted rank-and-file cadres to treat this correspondence as a practical expression of the Maoist mass line. In the “from the masses, to the masses” style of leadership, policy decisions grew out of the material and conceptual worlds of the ordinary people, making regular communication with the populace a political imperative. Officials envisioned cadres as the key mediators, through which ideas moved between the Party and the people. Accordingly, government employees wrote extensive reports dedicated to summarizing, interpreting, analyzing, and often appending letters from the people. Superiors revised these reports as they made their way up the administrative chain of command. Other official writings, both published and classified, also frequently cited letters from the masses on all manner of topics. This paper delves into these letters and the related reports to consider the way that cadres, mid-level supervisors, and officials described the thoughts, opinions, and aversions of “the ordinary people.” Invoking the mass line to speak for the masses, these writers crafted a series of powerfully normative statements about the nature and characteristics of the Chinese people.

How Maoist China Escaped Famine: A Revisionist View
Felix Wemheuer, University of Cologne, Germany

Since the last years, many scholars try to explain the reasons for the famine of the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961) that caused between 15 million and 45 million deaths. The paper places this famine in a broader historical context. According to estimates of Chinese scholars, over 18 million people died as result of natural disasters in Republican China. When the CCP came into power in 1949, it promised the people that no one would starve to death in New China. Against the background of serious natural disasters every two years between 1950 and 1958, it was not easy to keep this promise. Between 20 and 60 millions of peasants were effected by spring shortages every year. The paper will discuss the question “How did the CCP manage to prevent major famine between 1949-1958 and 1961-1976”. It will challenge the popular arguments that the reforms of the People’s Commune in 1961 and the increase of agricultural production ended famine. The paper will use documents of the Central Committee to show that conflicts about food between the rural and urban population played a crucial role to explain the famine and the conquest of hunger. Furthermore, it will explain how the anti-urbanization policies and the strict enforcement of the hukou-system after 1962 were linked to the experience of famine.

Revolutionary Alchemy: Shanghai’s “January Revolution” Reinterpreted
Yiching Wu, University of Toronto, Canada

As one of the most important events in the history of the Cultural Revolution, the “January Revolution” has often been viewed as a turning point and ruptural moment that opened up a new political horizon, in which the establishment of novel forms of political organization became possible. This paper reexamines the events in Shanghai in early 1967. How did the “January Revolution” take place? How should it be situated? What was the circumstance of the “power seizures?” How was the new authority structure established? And, what was the political significance of the “January Revolution,” both in local and national contexts? I argue that the events in Shanghai were considerably more complex than what has been portrayed in established interpretations. Based upon both existing and newly available materials, the paper explores an important yet largely ignored aspect, namely, the ideological appropriation and transformation of certain local experiences and initiatives in Shanghai—partial and fragmented as they were—into a national political model. Instead of simply being a ruptural event, I argue that the birth of such a model constituted a highly contradictory political moment, in which both eruption and containment, rebellion and order, and popular movement and bureaucratic recentralization, were closely intertwined.

Did Mao Save TCM? The curious tale of the professional inclusion of traditional healers in Maoist China retold today
Lena Springer, University of Westminster, United Kingdom

In medical history as written in China today, Mao Zedong plays a crucial role. He is praised for having rescued “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM) in early Communist history of the 1950s when it faced attacks by his own government. Mainstream narratives mention Mao as the man who had safeguarded China’s medicine: health care to be revived after the Guomindang proclaiming its erasure from a new society, rather than the healing practiced in times before Western intrusion. The impact of the mass line and science on Chinese medicine however is not regarded as fully beneficial anymore. This curious tale is retold in various ways and the political context is conjured up selectively or omitted today. This paper attempts to further close the gap between medical history and recent research findings on the Maoist period of Chinese history. Particularities of this era originating from China are especially strong in health care institutionalization. Threads of continuity have been traced across the historiographical ruptures circumscribing and defining the Maoist period. Chineseness however has one more facet which stems from the proclaimed bondage between traditional medical scholarship and mere survival by means adequate for masses. To be sure, party history does not play a big role in mainstream Chinese medical historiography. But it cannot be entirely spurned since Chinese medicine is still understood as cultural heritage and at the same time as an achievement of the Maoist period. Such contradictory layers tell a lot about the lasting yet severely contested impact of Mao on traditional healing.