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The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis.

The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis, by Yiching Wu. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014. xxii, 335 pp. $US 49.95 (cloth).

Yiching Wu offers a revisionist history of the core years of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-69) based on three case studies. At the heart of his study is an investigation of the relevance of class as a category for both historical analysis and understanding social struggles in China today. It provides compelling detail, much of it new, of two well-known cases, the Red Guard debates in 1966 over the "blood line theory" of revolutionary status (that children of revolutionary cadres were revolutionary by birth while those of reactionary parents--landlords or capitalists--were likewise tainted by their parentage) and the January Storm in Shanghai in early 1967 that saw the toppling of the local government. The third, less-studied case is of the Shenwulian group of rebels in Hunan province in 1968. Wu takes the grassroots view, focusing on local actors rather then central politicians. In this he reflects the current wave of New Party History on the Chinese Communist Party and history of the People's Republic of China that focuses on a social history perspective and relies heavily on archival documents.

Wu does this work well, with meticulous use of archives, the chaotic and voluminous Red Guard and other informal publications of the day (now made available in huge reprint and digital editions of hundreds of thousands of pages), new histories and reminiscences, and interviews in China. However, Wu's goal is not simply to let the Chinese subaltern speak. He seeks to understand the role of ideology, and especially to investigate the relationship between the pronouncements of the political centre and thinking on the ground. One of the great strengths of this study is precisely the detailed, grounded, and rigorous investigation of what happened to Mao's vague pronouncements in the mouths and on the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, and Changsha. Wu is committed to embracing the messiness of history but does so in a clear and compelling narrative of bickering student Red Guards, warring Shanghai workers, and resentful Hunanese returnees (urban students who had been sent to villages only to return to the comforts of the city and argue for the right to return). Wu's focus on the role of ideology in general and the concept of class in particular is premised on the conviction that "theoretical ideas emerge from a context of pragmatic action rather than contemplatively as disembodied knowledge." Thus, "nationally significant issues" combine with local contingencies, social rifts, and power relations (p. 118). This firmly justifies ideology as an explanatory variable, challenging the dominant interpretative framework of studies on the Cultural Revolution that see debates as essentially reflections of social interests pure and simple. In this, Wu reflects the influence of his teacher, Marshall SalhinS, and his structural work, particularly his "structure of conjunctions."

Wu extends this logic in his study of the relationship between the Cultural Revolution, the post-Mao reforms (generally dated to 1978 onward), and social tensions in China today. For both history and theory Wu adopts an admirably frank and fair-minded engagement with previous scholarship. At a dozen spots he clearly signals "the standard story" on an event or an interpretation (such as motives of Red Guards or the relationship between Deng Xiaoping's reforms and the Cultural Revolution). This is followed by a detailed and reasonable summary of those key points. He then announces "but I argue that...." The reader is well served. This is a model of sound scholarly engagement that our students would do well to emulate.

The theoretical heart of this book is to makes sense of China today, and the fate of the ideals of Chinese socialism. Wu announces this as a "dual criticism" of both state (the abuses of the Maoist regime) and capital (that has taken power under Deng's reforms). The standard story, according to Wu, is that reform China is the antithesis of the Cultural Revolution--for better or worse. Wu argues in case after case, detail after detail, that the post-Mao reforms are but an extension of the reassertion of Party bureaucratic power over society that began not after the Cultural Revolution, but in the middle of it. It began in 1967 with the rustification of the Red Guards and was completed through the establishment of Revolutionary Committees by the end of 1968. Seeing Deng's China and Mao's China as so intimately linked--and despite the dominant narrative that specialists have been telling us for ages, the two have been staffed by essentially the same cast of characters--changes how we make sense of the problems of socialism or post-socialism today. Most simply, there is no "golden age" to go back to. At the same time, as Wu ends his book, the work of socialism is not done. The lessons and the charge is, in the words of E.P. Thompson, to develop a socialist project "which is both democratic and revolutionary in its means, its strategies and objectives." (p. 237)

DOI: 10.3138/CJH.ACH.50.2.005

Timothy Cheek, University of British Columbia
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Author:Cheek, Timothy
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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