Wemheuer, A Social History of Maoist China: Conflict and Change, 1949-1976, 2019

Felix Wemheuer's book was reviewed for the History of Asia discussion list by Matthew Galway. It is republished here via Creative Commons license.

October 22, 2019

In a 2016 interviewYu Xiangzhen reflected on why she, at age thirteen, had become a Red Guard (紅衛兵 / Hong Weibing): “We all shared the belief that we would die to protect Chairman Mao.… Even though it might be dangerous, that was absolutely what we had to do. Everything I had been taught told me that Chairman Mao was closer to us than our mums and dads. Without Chairman Mao, we would have nothing.” But this revolutionary belief soon gave way to terror: “Each time we fell asleep the screams woke us up. The screaming never stopped.”[1] Likewise, Jan Wong’s memoir, Red China Blues (1996), details her shift from true believer and Maoist romantic during the late Cultural Revolution to disillusioned critic of the Chinese party-state. Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1986) and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans(1991) mirror such harrowing accounts of the darker side of Maoist China, whereas Joseph Escherick’s family history, Ancestral Leaves (2011), tracks members of his wife’s (and his) family as they experienced first the sanguinity, then the harsh repression of the People’s Republic (PRC). But not all remember the era this way. Dai Cheng, whom South China Morning Post journalist Jun Mai interviewed in 2016, exclaimed: “We will never forget the Mao era” because Mao “made us secure throughout our lives. We didn’t need to pay for medicines, education or housing. And there was no corruption.” Another respondent, former Chongqing Red Guard leader and onetime vice director of the city’s revolutionary committee Li Musen, said that he “admire[ed] the revolutionary committees during the Cultural Revolution” because “it was a reform of the government. There’s no more supervision now.”[2] Some recall the Mao years fondly as an era of social mobility, improved living standards, and educational access; others remember the instability, Mao-frenzy, violence, starvation, and death.

How one might gain a fuller understanding of an often tumultuous period from as wide a variety of perspectives as possible is no easy task, especially in such a way that is equal parts specialist and accessible, balanced and candid. A Social History of Maoist China by Felix Wemheuer takes on this ambitious task in a comprehensive microhistory of the PRC’s first quarter century. A leading expert on twentieth-century Chinese political history, Wemheuer picks up the mantle carried by the pathbreaking edited volume Maoism at the Grassroots (2015), whose contributors examined Maoist China “from the bottom up, and in everyday contexts that make the familiar analytic categories of ‘state’ and ‘society’ impossible to clearly distinguish from each other.”[3]Wemheuer accounts for a broader range of social groups that comprised the Maoist everyman and everywoman, providing a comprehensive study that, like Maoism at the Grassroots, negotiates space for urban and rural workers, and Maoist devotees themselves in a way that engages China’s socialist transition from below. Also like its predecessor, which identified everyday life, the grassroots, and high socialism as its three guiding keywords,[4]A Social History approaches its topic by peering through the scopes of three principal lenses, or “dimensions” as Wemheuer puts it: 1) social change, as China’s economic landscape opened new avenues for upward (and downward) social mobility, migration, socialist welfare, and new breakthroughs in gender relations; 2) classification, whereby the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as “gatekeeper” assigned labels (of class status, gender, and ethnicity) that became the metric by which the Chinese state measured who merited a better job, access to higher education, and party or army membership; and 3) conflict, both within the CCP and without, in the rural and urban sectors, arising principally as a response to crises that the CCP’s self-appointment as sole arbiter of its subjects’ welfare had wrought (p. 6).[5] Thus, despite the party-state having made the elimination of social divisions a sine quo non within official propaganda, Wemheuer's goal is to show that labels and difference survived, and even thrived, in the Mao years and beyond.[6]

As Gail Hershatter once observed—and A Social History identifies early on—“even the most prescriptive edicts of a centralized state must be implemented in widely varied environments, by local personnel who interpret, rework, emphasize, and deflect according to particular circumstancesThe working out of state policies was everywhere contingent upon geography, prior social arrangements, and local personalities” (p. 12).[7]Instead of providing “the history of a people with the politics left out,” and in line with Hershatter’s contention, A Social History represents “a multifaceted, multi-source approach to the social history of Maoist China” that challenges false micro/central, local/national dichotomies (pp. 13-14).[8] To capture local perspectives, Wemheuer consults sources including reports, statistics, official newspapers, databases and files from county archives, and respondent data from interviews that he conducted over fifteen years (2001-16) with Beijing-based intellectuals, peasants in Henan province, and Cultural Revolution-era rebels in Shandong and Shanxi. In so doing, the author provides a genuine social history of Maoist China that examines the perspectives and lived experiences of members of the abovementioned social groups through specters of “class, gender, ethnicity, and the urban-rural divide” (pp. 4-5).

Each chapter in A Social History begins with an individual’s reflections on the chapter’s main theme (except for the Cultural Revolution chapters, where Wemheuer relies on interviews). The introduction provides a story of sorts that is equally important as a point of departure for the pages that follow, with the author introducing the framework, situating it within the broader scholarship of PRC history, and accounting for major accessibility changes vis-à-vis archival access under Chairman for Life (終身製主席 / Zhongshen zhi zhuxi) Xi Jinping. Despite such obstacles, Wemheuer succeeds in striking a good balance of micro- and macro-history through close exegesis of “garbage” (or grassroots) materials and the “commanding heights” of the CCP running the show, especially since his three scopes were not just vertical (top-down) processes, but also horizontal (interpersonal) social relations (p. 13).[9]

The first chapters explore Chinese society in transition from semicoloniality and underdevelopment to the implementation, consolidation, and edification of state socialism. In chapter 1, Wemheuer tracks how inextricable official classifications of class status, urban/rural registration, gender, and ethnicity affected “social hierarchies and structures of distribution” (p. 14). A particularly fascinating part concerns the treatment of Xinjiang and Tibet, where the CCP—long a bastion of anti-imperialism—sought to establish control over its new boundaries through “encouraged” migration, including sending over one hundred thousand criminals to Xinjiang in the 1950s (pp. 43-44).[10] Such measures were part of a strategy to ensure that Han Chinese were predominant, particularly in the borderlands where CCP control was especially tenuous.[11] Chapters 2 and 3 explore the CCP’s implementation of socialism on a national scale. The former focuses on the CCP’s 1950-51 Land Reform, which turned the existing socioeconomic structure in the rural sector upside down and attacked “semi-feudal landlords,” thereby representing the “most radical” project of the early PRC years (p. 50). Aside from supplanting rural elites and ushering in peasant landownership, the CCP enjoyed some early successes that some Chinese identify as halcyon days: the party curtailed inflation and oversaw economic recovery against the backdrop of brutal purges, the 1951-53 Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (鎮壓反革命 / Zhenya Fangeming), the Three-Anti Campaign, and attacks on Chinese businesses. One manifestation of this success was the 1950 New Marriage Law (新婚姻法 / Xin Hunyinfa), which as a “microcosm of New Democracy” raised the marriage age, forbade non-consensual marriages and landlords’ sale of women, made it so that women could marry freely, and established a civil registry for marriages (p.74). Chapter 3 shifts the attention to social groups’ experiences of China’s mid-1950s transition into a planned economy in the Soviet mold. Urbanite workers and the party were disunited on matters of unions and worker representation, whereas in the rural sector “massive peasant resistance” was a response to agricultural product (grain) falling under a state monopoly (p. 87). Those whom the party-state deemed “enemies” were to reform through labor (勞動改造 / laodong gaizao), and the launch of the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns signaled the “end of the de facto United Front between the party and the intelligentsia” (p. 87). Despite the period’s darker side in the form of the harsh repression of the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns, Wemheuer reminds that the 1953-57 years represented the “most fundamental social revolution of the Mao era” (p. 86). Indeed, as Chinese journalist Liu Binyan recalled, many Chinese “felt nostalgic for 1956 and regarded it as the best period in the history of the People’s Republic, calling it ‘the golden year,’” whereas the official party historiography evaluates this period “as golden years characterized by the successful construction of socialism.”[12]

Chapters 4 and 5 analyze the Great Leap Forward and post-Leap retrenchment periods, respectively. Chapter 4 shifts our attention from “successes” in the mid-1950s to catastrophic “failures” in the form of the dependency-inducing “disaster” of the People’s Communes, resurgent paternalism, the end of the CCP’s alliance with Tibet’s theocratic elite, and of course, the Great Leap Forward and accompanying famine. The CCP policymakers’ pursuance of the “Chinese Way to Communism” depended too heavily on following the Soviet model of urbanization and industrialization to the letter, even to the point of focusing energies on urban workers, the military, and intellectuals at the expense of peasant welfare. A comprehensive plan to end the Great Leap famine was thus “not the chairman’s top priority,” which is one reason why one cannot view Mao as an “innocent party” (p. 141). In the next chapter, Wemheuer focuses on the so-called good years of the post-Leap retrenchment period, during which Mao “retired” and Liu Shaoqi was tasked with righting the ship, so to speak (p. 189). Senior CCP officials such as Chen Yun and Li Xiannian served as the “architects” of China’s post-Leap economic reconfiguration, overseeing “the great downsizing” (p. 169) of China’s urban workforce in pursuance of austerity and subsequent dualist reforms to address such shortages. The CCP also launched the 1963-67 Socialist Education Campaign (or “Four Cleanups Movement” 四清運動 / Si Qing Yundong) to target “capitalist roaders in power” and the subversive “second economy.” But Liu Shaoqi’s “dual system for the labor market and education” (p. 170) occluded large segments of China’s rural folk from access to the regular school system; workers did not enjoy increased entitlements; as many as twenty-six million urbanites and townsfolk were forced to the countryside between 1961 and 1963; and upward social mobility remained limited. The party may have succeeded in righting the national economy and lifting China out of the Great Leap famine, but in terms of social programs to aid those most affected, plus ça change.

Rather than try to “reinvent the wheel” in the next two chapters on the Cultural Revolution, Wemheuer focuses on the conflicts and social change that marked a period that official CCP historians refer to as “ten years of upheaval” and “the decade of disturbance” (十年動亂 / shinian dongluan) (p. 197). Chapter 6 examines how Mao’s “coalition” with the radical, iconoclastic rebel movement of students and workers against classificatory labels and status came undone with the party-state subduing the mass movement. After an overview on the debate over the Cultural Revolution’s periodization, Wemheuer discusses how in the early CR years mass “worker rebel” organizations within the CCP emerged as mouthpieces and agents of the masses in the party-state. But by the end of the decade such bodies had fallen apart, and their membership—now without alternatives and divorced from a rural support base—sought to remain influential and relevant individually, either through CCP membership or through “sitting on the Revolutionary Committees” (pp. 228-29). Thus while the mass politics of the Cultural Revolution opened a window into politics for workers and students, it closed the door at the grassroots. The “balance of power” remained with the CCP Central Committee, although rural cadres “highjacked” the Cultural Revolution to “turn central policy to their advantage” (pp. 229-30). Chapter 7 shines light on rural society during this time, where intraparty divisions over agricultural policy fostered the establishment of a black market “second economy,” whereas grain supply shortages and other factors led the CCP to “continue grain imports well into the 1970s” (pp. 245-46). In addition, many “sent-down youths,” who relocated to the countryside in 1966 and had returned to the cities, now paled in comparison to their former, fanatical selves. Wemheuer concludes with an overview of the Mao era’s achievements and failures in the realms of economic growth, social welfare, access to education, social mobility, and political participation.

In the final chapter, Wemheuer outlines the afterlives of the Mao era since 1978 and how the period and culture thereof remain influential in terms of the book’s three main dimensions. Most interesting here is the author’s perspective on the conundrum of new class categories and social hierarchies, notably the emergent Chinese middle class in the era of socialism (or capitalism, more like it) with “Chinese characteristics,” and the stark inequalities of the preceding period. Continuities, the author concludes, do indeed exist between Maoist and post-Maoist China despite these glaring socioeconomic disequilibria, especially in terms of the “strictly hierarchical” and unequal social relations that persisted—and continue to persist—from Mao until now.

Overall, there is no denying that A Social History succeeds in providing glimpses of China’s socialist transformation from varied perspectives “from below” with acknowledgement of the important “from above” details and machinations at work. Wemheuer deserves plaudits for writing such a comprehensive single-author social history of the Mao era that is accessible to specialist and nonspecialist alike. Its inclusion of excerpts of primary sources in English translation makes it an excellent practical text for a broad readership, including in undergraduate courses on modern China (this reviewer has already included half of its chapters in a forthcoming syllabus). In particular, this reviewer appreciated its organized structure, survey of extant scholarly debates over periodization, and the author’s willingness to take on the ambitious task of drawing on such a richness and diversity of sources. Also noteworthy is the book’s multilevel approach to grassroots history, which is no easy task to complete effectively in a few hundred pages.

Naturally, it would be near impossible to cover so many social groups across several languages and in the face of strict limitations on archival access. Thus the criticisms below are more about the book that Wemheuer did not write than the one that he did, which undoubtedly represents an invaluable contribution. Minor criticisms include the book’s attempt at intersectionality, which in this reviewer’s view seemed like a missed opportunity to convey something especially new that incorporated biopolitics into the equation. A truly intersectional social history of Maoist China may wish to do more to bring into the conversation perspectives from those with nonheteronormative sexual orientations. Wemheuer provides a brief overview of gender and sexuality in Maoist China, which does well in communicating to the reader the party-state’s views on such matters. But the author does not explore the contradiction between the CCP’s emancipatory rhetoric/inclusionary impulse and the exclusionary practice of its morality policing. The section also does not bring in any particular “voice” to speak to anything experiential of LGBTQ persons during the Mao years. Wemheuer almost does this in his excellent summary of Yang Kuisong’s chapter, “How a ‘Bad Element’ Was Made,” in Maoism at the Grassroots (p. 12), and acknowledges Yang’s success in negotiating space for an LGBTQ figure in Maoist China: the closeted former Communist Youth League secretary Zang Qiren. As Yang shows, factory and public security officials had labeled Zang as a “bad element” (壞分子 / Huai fenzi) and “hooligan element” (流氓分子 / Liumang fenzi)—first for his pre-1949 ties to reactionaries, then for his sexuality—and ultimately sent him down to reform through labor. Zang’s tragic story thus exposes the CCP’s conservative moral standards in its relentless pursuit of producing “proper” subjects irrespective of its emancipatory rhetoric (a prime example of Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality); the reveal, reprimanding Zang for his sexuality and not his counterrevolutionary political involvement.[13]Yang also shows how amorphous labels were in the Mao years, as the party effectively made Zang into a “bad element.”[14] Though a “descriptive summary” of an “individual file,” which Wemheuer wishes to go beyond in his study, Yang’s chapter contextualizes Zang’s individual file within the broader descriptive summary of CCP morality policing, which may have been an avenue worth building upon somewhere in A Social History’s pages.

Another, rather minor, point of critique is that all of the opening vignettes are from presumably Han Chinese reflecting on their experiences of Mao years. One ponders whether reflections on Maoist China from ethnic minority persons (from Xinjiang, Guizhou, Yunnan, Xinjiang, or nationwide for that matter) were unavailable, did not fit, or archive access restrictions/censorship prevented such sources from due attention. One may also wonder: what were the firsthand experiences and memories of ethnic minority persons or cadres, whether from above or below (or both)? Chapter sections on Xinjiang and Tibet would have profited from interviews with non-Han respondents to lead into the principal loci wherein the CCP attempted to answer the “ethnic question,” and for which the book accounts but often seems to relegate to the background. For instance, Wemheuer does well in covering the CCP’s “success” in its early treatment of ethnic minorities. The author notes that although the party drew from the Soviet approach, it did not, like Stalin’s government, banish or forcibly transfer thousands of minority persons to the frontiers.[15] However, as the “real successor to the Qing imperial project” (p. 76) it did pursue policies that guaranteed that Han Chinese “would outnumber local ethnic groups” (p. 44) in China’s borderland territories. No wonder Xinjiang has been, and so remains, a locus of contestation. Upon the United Front’s failure to produce the kind of Uighur representation for which either side had hoped, and wanting tighter control in the region, the Chinese state established in 1954 the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (新疆生產建設兵團 / Xinjiang shengchan jianshe bingtuan; XPCC). The principal organ with which the CCP established its domain over this part of its periphery, it operated simultaneously as “public security, riot suppression, and border control” and under the “guise” of a broad-based infrastructure development project run by demobilized soldiers of whom the “overwhelming majority” was Han Chinese (p. 81). This is an excellent framing of the Chinese state’s concerted effort to marginalize, suppress, and ultimately limit the upward social mobility of Uighurs. But what is missing is Uighur voices, and the same goes for other minority perspectives. To bring in, say, lived experiences in Tibet of Tubten Khétsun, the nephew of arrested senior government official Gyatso Tashi Khendrung after the 1959 Tibetan peoples’ uprising, may have added such a perspective across several periods of Maoist rule.[16]

Such minor criticisms notwithstanding, A Social History deserves commendation, and its chapters’ breadth and depth make it compulsory reading at any level. Although like Maoism at the Grassroots its main contentions are not altogether new, A Social History’s author exhibits mastery of the literature and rare sources, bringing together many moving parts into a comprehensive and wonderfully readable whole. This book is a superb reference guide for scholars of Maoist China and social history more generally. A highly readable history “from below,” Felix Wemheuer’s A Social History of Maoist China is essential material for anyone seeking to understand more fully the specific mechanisms of the Maoist party-state and, more broadly, contemporary Chinese history.


[1]. Tom Phillips, “Fifty Years on, One of Mao’s ‘Little Generals’ Exposes Horror of the Cultural Revolution,” The Guardian, May 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/07/mao-little-general-horror-cultural-revolutio...

[2]. Jun Mai, “Why Are So Many Chinese Nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution?,” South China Morning Press, June 9, 2016, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/1970331/why-are-so-many-chinese-nostalgic-.... On similarly selective memories of the Mao era, see Anita Chan, Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1985).

[3]. Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson, “Introduction,” in Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism, ed. Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 1.

[4]. Brown and Johnson, “Introduction,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 2-7. On campaign time, the inspiration for high socialism as a concept in Maoism at the Grassroots, see Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 26-27. Brown and Johnson acknowledge this fact. Maoism at the Grassroots, 369.

[5]. On the importance and effects of class labels in Maoist China, see Jeremy Brown, “Moving Targets: Changing Class Labels in Rural Hebei and Henan, 1960-1979,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 51-76.

[6]. On labels in the CR, see Lynn T. White, Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China’s Cultural Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[7]. Hershatter, The Gender of Memory, 14.

[8]. George Macaulay Trevelyan, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria (London: Penguin, 2000). See also G. J. Renier, History: Its Purpose and Method (London: Allen & Unwin, 1950), 72. The sources with which Wemheuer informs his grassroots history serve his approach effectively, as he draws from a mix of archival documents, internal reports, and “garbage material” to shed new light on everyday people’s perspectives of the encompassing socialist experiment around them. By “garbage material,” Wemheuer means private collections of hitherto undervalued sources that at once capture and throw into sharp relief how certain social groups experienced Mao’s China: from reports on public security and rising hooliganism to precipitous grain shortages and corresponding unrest; from notices of counterrevolutionaries’ rehabilitation to personal letters, such as schoolteacher Li Qinglin’s 1972 note to Mao to criticize the nepotism in the sent-down youth system that secured well-connected families preferential work conditions for their children (pp. 276-77).

[9]. On “Sinological garbology,” the collection and analysis of “garbage materials” (垃圾材料), see Brown and Johnson, “Introduction,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 4-5; and Michael Schoenhals, “China’s ‘Great Proletarian Information Revolution of 1966-1967,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 230-58.

[10]. Shi Jijin, 師吉金, 中國當代社會史. 第一卷 [The History of Contemporary China. Volume 1] (Changsha: 湖南人民出版社Hunan renmin chubanshe, 2011), 186, cited by Wemheuer, 43.

[11]. On tensions between Han and Uyghur cadres in Xinjiang, and the process whereby anti-Han ethnic nationalist Uyghur leaders joined Han Communists in a coalition and ultimately became disillusioned, see Zhe Wu, “Caught between Opposing Han Chauvinism and Opposing Local Nationalism: The Drift toward Ethnic Antagonism in Xinjiang Society, 1952-1963,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 306-39.

[12]. Liu Binyan, A Higher Kind of Loyalty (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 61; and Felix Wemheuer, “’The Grain Problem is an Ideological Problem’: Discourses of Hunger in the 1957 Socialist Education Campaign,” in Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and Famine, edKimberley Ens Manning and Felix Wemheuer (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011), 108-09.

[13]. Yang Kuisong, “How a ‘Bad Element’ Was Made: The Discovery, Accusation, and Punishment of Zang Qiren,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 19-50.

[14]. Another chapter in Maoism at the Grassroots by Jeremy Brown also covers label revisions (in rural Hebei), noting that it “came down to distant history and recent misdeeds” for one to be classified in such a way to affect their status and relationship to the party-state. Jeremy Brown, “Moving Targets: Changing Class Labels in Rural Hebei and Henan, 1960-1979,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 57. On similar processes of label revisions, see Cao Shuji, “An Overt Conspiracy: Creating Rightists in Rural Henan, 1957-1958,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 77-101; and Daniel Leese, “Revising Political Verdicts in Post-Mao China: The Case of Beijing’s Fengtai District,” in Maoism at the Grassroots, 102-30.

[15]. See Norman Naimark, “Soviet Deportation of the Chechens-Ingush and the Crimean Tatars,” in Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 85-107.

[16]. Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, trans. Matthew Akester (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Citation: Matthew Galway. Review of Wemheuer, Felix, A Social History of Maoist China: Conflict and Change, 1949-1976. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54429



September 24, 2020 - 2:00pm

Join the USC U.S.-China Institute for a conversation with U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Demers.

October 15, 2020 - 4:00pm

Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute for a book talk with author David Lampton. His new book examines China’s effort to create an intercountry railway system connecting China and its seven Southeast Asian neighbors.