China’s Cultural Revolution: The World Turned Upside Down - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
China’s Cultural Revolution: The World Turned Upside Down
Portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, February 2011 (EA Photography/

Revolutions swing back and forth between puritanism and debauchery, without touching civilized ground.

– Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito, Vol. II, No. 1,383

The Master said: “I hate to see purple replacing the purity of vermilion. I hate to see the dissolute songs of Cheng confused with the stately music of Ya. And I hate to see calculating tongues pitching countries and noble houses into ruin.”

– The Analects of Confucius, XVII.17

“From the cry of a tiny insect, one can hear the sound of a vast world.” So begins The World of a Tiny Insect, Zhang Daye’s haunting memoir of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), a masterful account of the immeasurable horrors that attended the insurrectionary war between Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom and the decaying Qing Empire. Zhang’s narrative describes a world turned upside down by that apocalyptic conflict, with China pitched into near-total ruin, and some 30 million soldiers, peasants, merchants, and grandees pitched into the grave. The rebellion’s human toll was altogether staggering, and Zhang struggled to encompass the horror of it all. Another observer of the carnage, Zeng Guofan, governor-general of Lianjiang, recorded how “the wind and rain cry out mournfully, the dead bodies are piled on top of each other…. in jurisdictions including Huizhou, Chizhou, and Ningguo, one finds only yellow reeds and white bones; an entire day might pass without seeing a single living person.”

All across the theater of war, in cities like Nanking and Anqing, and all along the mid and lower Yangtze Valley, there were wu zhu shihai — “masterless corpses” — lying in heaps so high it was said “the dead left no place for the living to sleep.” Gen. Zeng eventually arrived at the inelegant solution of simply putting the bodies “on old boats to be carried away on the river.” Zhang Daye, for his part, was unimpressed with such an approach, given that “when people drank contaminated water from a river with floating corpses, they became infected and had an outbreak of sores and ulcers.” Desperate for something potable, villagers would pay as much as seven ounces of silver for half a cup of blood. “Even if one had survived the war,” Zhang wearily noted, “one could hardly escape from the epidemic.”

From time immemorial, China has been caught in a cycle known as “death in centralization, and chaos in release.” Whether the present incarnation of China can escape this cycle will help define the century to come.

The Taiping Rebellion was certainly the most spectacular instance of bloodletting in that unhappy era, with its casualties easily eclipsing the 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians who perished in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but the suffering did not even stop there. Vast swathes of the empire descended into anarchy around the same time, as evidenced by the Dungan Rebellion in western China, which led to an estimated 20 million more deaths, as well as the Panthay Rebellion in Yunnan, which added several million more, not to mention the Nian Rebellion in northern China, another cataclysm modest only in comparison with the aforementioned revolts, which ended with hundreds of thousands of peasants buried beneath the floodplains of Anhui and Hunan. Zhang Daye, the memoirist and self-styled “tiny insect,” was fortunate to survive these desperate days. Many of his friends and family did not, as rebels, government soldiers, bandits, diseases, and famine all stalked the far-reaching territories of the faltering Middle Kingdom.

It is unsurprising, then, that Zhang pined for “the old days, when the former kings ruled the country,” that unspecified halcyon epoch when

once the five grains were harvested, the kings had the common people share the same alleyways, and let men and women sing together if they had any grievance. Those who were hungry would sing of food; those who were fatigued would sing of labor. The government would provide for men over fifty and women over forty, and ask them to collect their songs and present them to the county; the county would in turn present them to the prefecture, and the prefecture would in turn present them to the capital, so that the Son of Heaven would know everything about the world without having to go outdoors.

Zhang’s memoir, The World of a Tiny Insect, similarly constituted an effort to “collect the songs.” After all, “wouldn’t the Great Hero of this world [the Buddha] consider the sound of a tiny insect to be on par with the wonderful music of Emperor Shun and the Dance of the Mulberry Grove?” The Blue Cliff Record, a Song-era collection of Chan Buddhist kōans, tells of a “cold cricket [who] cries in the pile of wet leaves,” while wandering back and forth, lamenting how

Flames will destroy everything
At the end of the universe
It may already be destroyed

Like that humble little orthopteran, Zhang Daye persisted in singing his quavering song, and we are all the better for it, no matter how melancholy the tune.


It was The World of a Tiny Insect that came to my mind while reading Yang Jisheng’s The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Chinese-language edition of which was published in Hong Kong back in 2016, but was promptly banned by the authorities in mainland China, and now has thankfully been given a wider audience thanks to its translation into English by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian. Yang, a former Xinhua News Agency reporter and former deputy editor of the controversial (from the standpoint of the Chinese Politburo, at least) journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (Chronicles of History), is best known for his acclaimed history of the Great Famine, Tombstone, which he described as a sort of “tombstone for my [foster] father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book.” He, too, is a collector of songs, ones that might otherwise have been lost due to official suppression in his own country, or the blinkered dimwittedness of our age.

The World Turned Upside Down picks up roughly where Tombstone left off, in 1966, with Chairman Mao Zedong seeking to eradicate the remaining conservative and pragmatic leftist forces in his country by declaring a wenhua geming, a “cultural revolution” that would mobilize “the broad masses from the bottom up to expose these sinister phenomena.” Mao, contemptuous of the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs) and eager to establish the “Four News” (new ideas, new culture, new habits, new customs), was under no illusion that the process would be straightforward; indeed, he declared that it was only “great disorder under heaven” that could create “great order under heaven.” Various Red Guard factions seized the initiative, and a campaign of violence, institutional purges, struggle sessions, torture, and cultural destruction followed suit. As many as 20 million Chinese citizens would die in the span of 10 years, with the Cultural Revolution reaching its nadir in the Guangxi Massacre, where the persecuted were subjected to “beheading, beating, live burial, stoning, drowning, boiling, group slaughters, disemboweling, digging out hearts, livers, genitals, slicing off flesh, blowing up with dynamite, and more.” Ritualized cannibalism followed, in which, according to the Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, there was even “a hierarchy in the consumption of class enemies. Leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork, while ordinary villagers were allowed only to peck at the victims’ arms and thighs.”

Mao had achieved the impossible, surpassing even the enormities of the Taiping era. The body count was higher, and the cultural destruction unfathomably worse. In Beijing alone, some 5,000 registered historical sites and cultural relics were destroyed, irreplaceable Buddhist scrolls were thrown into bonfires, and even the temple and tomb of Confucius in Qufu were reduced to rubble. Yang memorably describes how, at the Beijing Municipal Federation of Cultural Circles, elderly writers were flogged with belt buckles, derided as “ox demons and snake spirits,” and were force-marched to the Imperial College Confucius Temple, where they were “forced to kneel in a circle around a bonfire of Peking Opera costumes and props while Red Guards beat them over the head with wooden swords.” Elsewhere class enemies were made to “recite Mao quotes for hours at a time, sometimes while kneeling on stool legs and wearing a tall hat.” “This is a combination of words and violence,” the Red Guards liked to say, “the highest form” of all. China had descended into what could only be called collective insanity. When the Chinese marshal Lin Biao’s residence was searched, a scroll was uncovered bearing the Confucian saying “subdue the self and return to propriety.” Red Guard propagandists deemed this wholesome message incompatible with Mao’s “philosophy of struggle” and evidence of Lin Biao’s unacceptable “desire to restore capitalism.” The world had indeed turned upside down.

In the end, Mao’s perverse wenhua geming succeeded in spilling blood and pulverizing Chinese cultural heritage, but, as Yang Jisheng concludes, “the old system that the Cultural Revolution had destroyed was completely restored once the Cultural Revolution ended.” A crisis of faith, and a crisis of confidence in communism, inevitably followed. Engels famously posited that “there is no great historical evil without a compensating historical progress,” and the progress in this case, as Yang concludes, proved to be a mixed bag to say the least. “Mao lay mute in his crystal sarcophagus, the rebels were cast into the eighteenth circle of hell, and the bureaucrats did everything in their power to obstruct progress toward democracy and to promote the market mechanism.” Nicolás Gómez Dávila, as always, put it best:

A civilization’s memory resides in the continuity of its institutions. The revolution that interrupts a civilization’s memory, by destroying those institutions, does not relieve society of a bothersome caparison that is paralyzing it, but merely forces it to start over.


The publication of The World Turned Upside Down is undoubtedly timely, as mainland China once again pursues policies of ethnic subjugation, cultural destruction, and the centralization of political power. These days, however, the CCP authorities are not as antagonistic towards Confucianism as they were at the time of the Cultural Revolution. One of Xi Jinping’s favorite sayings, borrowed from the Tang-era politician Wei Zheng, is that “for luxuriant trees to grow, they must be deeply rooted in the ground; for a river to flow far, its source must be dredged; to stabilize a country, it must conform to the common aspiration of the people.” From time immemorial, China has been caught in a cycle known as “death in centralization, and chaos in release,” which provides an explanation for the horrors of events like the Taiping Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution, events unmatched in human history. Whether the present incarnation of China — with its overweening bureaucracy, its power market economy, and its updated “Soviet learning as the base, Western learning for application” philosophy slightly tempered by a vaguely neo-Confucian ideology — can escape this cycle will help define the century to come. It is only through the lens of the Cultural Revolution that we can understand how contemporary China came to be, and Yang Jisheng has provided us with an invaluable resource for doing so.

The World Turned Upside Down is of similar value in helping us grapple with the nascent Cultural Revolution revealing itself in the West, one that obviously differs in degree and kind from its forebear but has certain similarities all the same. When one first encounters the Red Guard obsession with rooting out “ox demons and snake spirits,” one thinks of such rhetoric as curiously retrograde. Now we find that the California Department of Education is recommending an “ethnic studies community chant” in which, as Christopher Rufo reported in the City Journal,

teachers lead their students in a series of indigenous songs, chants, and affirmations, including the “In Lak Ech Affirmation,” which appeals directly to the Aztec gods. Students first clap and chant to the god Tezkatlipoka—whom the Aztecs traditionally worshipped with human sacrifice and cannibalism—asking him for the power to be “warriors” for “social justice.” Next, the students chant to the gods Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Xipe Totek, seeking “healing epistemologies” and “a revolutionary spirit.” Huitzilopochtli, in particular, is the Aztec deity of war and inspired hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices during Aztec rule. Finally, the chant comes to a climax with a request for “liberation, transformation, [and] decolonization,” after which students shout “Panche beh! Panche beh!” in pursuit of ultimate “critical consciousness.”

Sacrifices must be made, and struggle sessions undertaken, as we attack our own “Four Olds,” though a neoliberal corporatist regime will naturally suppress ideas, habits, customs, and culture in a very different manner than that of a self-styled dictatorship of the proletariat. But one thing is sure: we will not subdue the self and return to propriety. Instead, we will keep pulling the rug out from under ourselves. The Audubon Society will renounce John James Audubon, the Sierra Club will abjure John Muir, Alexandria’s Christ Church will remove a monument to former congregant George Washington, the University of Edinburgh will efface the name of David Hume from its buildings, and so on. Every institution will be hollowed out by self-loathing and bureaucratic incapacity — such is the inexorable logic of perpetual revolution.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution amply demonstrated the dangers inherent in the all-encompassing hyper-politicization of daily life. Instead of meeting the material needs of the people, having failed to do on a catastrophic scale during the fatal Great Leap Forward, Mao settled on culture wars and damnatio memoriae as a substitute. For Yang Jisheng, writing in a more innocent time five years ago, this all could have been avoided had the Chinese state simply adopted the “checks and balances over power and controls over capital” provided by “constitutional democracy.” Yet constitutional republics are not immune from the temptation to engage in cultural revolutionary behavior, as demonstrated in, for example, Jean-François Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era (2009) and Ryszard Legutko’s brilliant The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (2016). That communism and neoliberalism share this same self-flagellating impulse is more evidence of G. K. Chesterton’s incontrovertible maxim that ultimately “the chief parts of human doom and duty are eternal.”


In the Shapingba district of Chongqing, behind a wrought-iron gate, and beneath a lush veil of greenery, lies an obscure cemetery filled with victims of the Cultural Revolution, “masterless corpses” interred by the hundreds in 1967 and 1968 after a series of clashes between rival Red Guard factions described by Yang Jisheng as an “incessant barrage.” There used to be 20 or so more such cemeteries in Chonqing; only this one has survived, owing to its obscure location and the efforts of a politically moderate city party secretary. It is open to mourners only during the Qingming Festival, when the family tombs are swept. A sign warns the visitor: “Historical preservation, no photographing,” which is something of a non sequitur, it must be said. “History has frozen here,” says Zhou Ziren, a former Red Guardsman, “into a pile of stones,” one of which bears the engraving “Heads can roll, blood can flow, but Mao Zedong Thought must never go.” An odd venue for such an inscription, one would imagine, but as Yang points out in The World Turned Upside Down, “even those who killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution left behind suicide notes declaring their loyalty to Mao.”

For Zhou Ziren, the Shapingba cemetery is an important lieu de mémoire: “Just like you can’t avoid the Auschwitz concentration camp or the Hiroshima nuclear bomb when discussing the Second World War, we need to remember this period of history so that it cannot happen again.” Chairman Mao, for his part, was definitely concerned about his reign of terror being thought of in such terms. Yang Jisheng suspects that an offhand remark by First Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi on March 17, 1962, regarding the regime’s human rights abuses — “If the living don’t uncover it, the next generation will uncover it after we’re dead” — haunted Mao and fueled his desire to eliminate ideological enemies in life, the better to avoid Stalin’s posthumous fate at the hands of Krushchev. Thanks to the Herculean undertakings of historians, researchers, and “collectors of songs” like Yang Jisheng, subsequent generations have managed to uncover what the CCP sought to conceal. But just as Zhou Enlai, when asked about the significance of the French Revolution, was reported to have responded that “It’s too soon to tell,” it is likewise too soon to assess the overall historical significance of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, however much we now know about it. It may prove to be a cautionary tale, or a harbinger of enormities to come, depending on how well its lessons are learned in China and beyond.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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