Van der Zouw and Zürcher, eds., Three Months in Mao's China - Between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, 2017

Zixian Liu's review first appeared on the History of Socialism discussion list and is reprinted her via Creative Commons license. 


Kim van der Zouw, Erik-Jan Zürcher, eds.  Three Months in Mao's China: Between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Acumen Research Editions Series. Amsterdam  Amsterdam University Press, 2017.  144 pp.  $24.99 (paper), ISBN 978-946298181-2.

Life in Mao's China 

In recent years, scholarship about the Cold War has stepped beyond its traditional parameters in terms of high politics and has expanded its scope to include social and everyday life histories. The new trend has enabled historians to incorporate a fuller range of primary sources into their scope. _Three Months in China: Between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution_, the publication of Erik Zürcher's diaries and letters, written in 1964, __comes at the right time to help us think about the Cold War's influence on daily life in China and the historical context that framed the worldview of a generation of leftist China observers.

Zürcher (Chinese name 许理和) was a famous Dutch sinologist whose expertise focused on the history of Chinese religion. On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by Gan Tjiang-Tek (颜昌德), a curator at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Zürcher traveled to Mao's China to set up an academic exchange project. His role as a sinologist and a critical sympathizer of the Chinese revolution distinguished him from ordinary travelers. His supportive attitude toward the Chinese revolution and the future of China cannot be separated from his critiques of the Chinese Communist Party's questionable political practices.

Zürcher's writing reflected common anxieties among left-wing intellectuals about the future of socialism during the Cold War. In his diaries and letters, he expressed his disillusion with Soviet socialism when he traveled through that country and witnessed its rural poverty. After arriving in Beijing in September 1964, Zürcher reflected on the extent to which the Maoist regime had changed the country. His conclusion was positive: "it is truly phenomenal what this government has done for the masses.... China has enormous potential and will develop into [a] first-class world power in the coming twenty years" (p. 109). Wherever he visited, he paid close attention to the well-being of the common people by focusing on such problems as food shortages and workers' exploitation. His assessment was positive regarding the progress the socialist state had made, especially the improvement of working conditions and the amelioration of food shortages. Given the fact that all factories and villages he visited were "exemplary models" with better food and consumer goods supplies, Zürcher's perceptions were certainly mistaken. As the editors of the volume remind us, Zürcher disapproved of China's authoritarian style of governance, but he nonetheless made excuses for it: "We [Westerners] would not be able to live in such a system ... but for them [the Chinese, it] is the only way" (pp. 15-16). This quote gets to the heart of Zürcher's naïveté. Historians, however, need to delve into the problematic of how the state exhibited itself and how a leftist intellectual was influenced by state-approved "showings."

As a book written by an informed outsider with a keen interest in ordinary people, this book sheds new light on the history of everyday life. Zürcher portrays in detail people's leisure activities, clothing styles, living conditions, and attitudes toward foreigners.

In Zürcher's opinion, the Chinese were much more open-minded than what Cold War biases had led him to assume. They were not afraid of talking with foreigners. He also experienced the country's regional diversity by traveling to Beijing, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Xi'an, and other cities. His observations undermine the totalitarian understanding of Mao's China as a state of dull uniformity. For example, he observed that people in Shanghai had adopted more Western-style fashions compared to other regions. In industrial construction projects and urban cleaning campaigns, he witnessed the party's mobilization campaigns that were intended to instill a collective lifestyle in "socialist" factories and cities. The party's ambition to revolutionize everyday life by regulating and reforming leisure activities, including the Peking Opera and wrestling, in working-class neighborhoods drew special attention from him. These rich details of everyday life in Cold War China will be of special interest to historians. 

Zürcher's diaries and letters provide insightful portraits of the Chinese diasporas that had returned to China after the revolution and the dilemmas they faced during the Cold War. Through their personal connections, Zürcher and Tjiang-Tek visited many Chinese Indonesians. Zürcher sensed that many felt "miserable" in their new homeland because of the poverty, intensified political inspections, and deteriorated working conditions. Some even hoped to return to Holland. On the other hand, he also witnessed people's "personal pride in seeing the new China" and, in his opinion, their "over-pronounced tendency to gloss over certain evident problems in a naïve manner" (p. 110). Zürcher concluded that "only idealism and the irrevocability of one's choice could keep one going in such circumstances" (p. 52). Intertwined nationalist and idealist sentiments conflicted with the harsh political realities of China's attempt to incorporate its diasporas into the project of constructing socialism. _Three Months in Mao's China_ is valuable for historians who wish to examine the Chinese diaspora experience during the Cold War. 

_Three Months in Mao's China _offers a means to understand the complex, orientalist, and leftist sentiments that were entangled not only in Zürcher's thoughts but also in the perceptions of other Cold War era intellectuals and supporters of the Chinese revolution. He regretted the demolition of Beijing's old city walls and the decline of Buddhism, but he supported the revolutionary project passionately because he felt it would help emancipate China. Nonetheless, he disliked the increasingly Americanized consumption culture signified by "business-like superficiality and mindless pleasure-seeking" (p. 142). He also could not resist purchasing luxuries, clothing, and more for himself. In his role as a foreigner and China specialist, he noted that "the way Chinese people live and think here is so totally different that any Western European who imagines that he can put himself in the position of a Chinese is simply deceiving himself" (p. 133). In contrast to his open-minded perception of the Chinese revolution, he claimed that the only characteristic that he "really cannot bear" is "the cruelty towards animals," a reference to the consumption of dog meat in China (p. 117). 

Zürcher's _Three Months in Mao's China _is an important source for scholars interested in the society and culture of the Cold War, and in everyday life and the politics of traveling in Mao's China. It also sheds much light on the Cold War generation of leftist Chinese observers. Thanks to the editors, Zürcher's rich and valuable comments on modern China are retained in this edited work. As a primary source, I recommend it to scholars and teachers of both modern China and Cold War history.