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Mao Zedong and All That

A telling battle over China’s history curriculum.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The millions visiting World Expo in Shanghai find no mention at the China pavilion of Mao Zedong. Nor did those attending the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 encounter any mention of Chairman Mao. Yet while the Communist government tries to present an apolitical and cosmopolitan face to the “international community,” the balance sheet on the PRC’s founder is hotly disputed among Chinese educators and officials.

Mao Zedong and All That

Photo Credit: Newscom

Recently, a six-year-old Beijing boy, shown by his father an old magazine cover featuring Mao, said: “Yeah, I’ve heard of him! It’s Chairman Mao.” The boy knew Mao’s face from bank notes. “Certainly, I know of Mao,” the child added omnisciently. Actually, his knowledge of the dictator—like that of hundreds of millions of young Chinese—is close to zero.

Grandfather may have related stories of the Mao era (“my three years feeding pigs in the countryside”). Father may have told the boy of farmers clutching pictures of Mao as a talisman in the surging flood waters of the Yangtze River in 1991. But the child regularly sees more images of Colonel Sanders, Yao Ming, and Kobe Bryant than of Mao. Isn’t Mao, who died in 1976, a dead issue? Hasn’t China joined the world of the G-20 and the WTO? Not quite.

In Shanghai, a high school textbook, History, painstakingly crafted a mile or two from the Expo site and launched at schools in 2006, suggested what reformers think should await the six-year-old. Here Chinese history is less conflicted and more “harmonious” (a tactful nod to President Hu Jintao’s favorite term for his governance) than in previous Chinese textbooks. There is less about political leaders, battles, and China’s past sufferings, more about technology, economic forces, religion, environment, and social behavior. 

The deputy editor of the volume, Zhou Chunsheng, told a Chinese newspaper, “We want pupils to understand the background of what they see around them outside the classroom.” What Shanghai pupils see around them includes World Expo pavilions, cranes expanding the city’s size by the month, foreign businessmen hopping out of limousines, China’s manned space flights returning to earth, and shops where a pair of Italian shoes goes for $500. Professor Zhou, praising the Western Enlightenment, rejecting struggle and mayhem, asserting “knowledge is power,” predicted that “the 21st century will bring a ‘Battle of the Talents.’ ”

Following the French historian Fernand Braudel, the authors of History deemphasize the nation state. The violent unification of China in 221 b.c. by strongman Qin Shihuang, a hero of Mao’s, is not dwelt upon. Nor are famous peasant rebellions and Machiavellian coups that brought down dynasties. Indeed, as the textbook’s title implies, this is not Chinese history at all, but the story of civilization, with China spliced in to illustrate its themes. Globalization impinges, naturally giving a lesser role to nativist Mao. Said chief editor Su Zhiliang, “We hope our book reflects mankind’s actual existence.”

But, revealingly, History was canceled in 2007 and hurriedly replaced by a more politically correct and nationalistic text. Attacks on the book had rolled in from the left (“Bill Gates has replaced Mao Zedong,” “Where is Marxism?,” “Where is class struggle?”). Pathetically, Su defended himself: “Putting Chinese history together with world history under the banner ‘Civilization’ avoids much repetition.” But three years of pilot use and repeated prepublication consultations with Beijing did not save his textbook. Su remarked bitterly of his aborted child: “This must be the shortest life of any textbook in the six decades of the PRC.”

The hot potatoes of Mao and Chinese nationalism doomed History. It is not easy to discuss Mao, but it is unacceptable to omit him, especially if left-wingers are watching. Prosperous post-Mao China adjusts to the international community—or does it?

A joke used to circulate in the Soviet Union: “The future is certain; only the past is unpredictable.” The quip mocked the cockiness of Marxist historical optimism and Moscow’s faking of the Stalinist past. China, wrestling with its past, limns its future.

The Su-Zhou textbook had asked excellent questions of the pupils at the end of each chapter. “Compare and assess the contribution of Arab, Chinese, and Ancient Greek cultures to modern science.” It introduced the 19th century not with Western imperialism against China, but with Western leaps in science and technology. It hailed inventions in electricity, mechanics, and other fields as “advancing mankind.” The account of Einstein spoke of this “American contribution to the age of nuclear energy.” The book was full of an excitement at the West’s modern progress conspicuously lacking, for example, in Howard Zinn’s dismal People’s History of the United States.

A table listed 12 key innovations in science and technology during the 19th century and noted that 4 were German, 3 French, 2 American, and one each from Sweden, Britain, and Italy. None was Chinese. “Why was it in Western Europe that science flourished?” the pupils were asked in an exercise. Modestly, the book omitted Xian and Beijing and other Chinese cities from its choice of world history’s three most notable imperial capitals; Rome, Istanbul, and Paris got the nod. The students were asked: “Why do no Chinese capitals make the list? If one were to be included, which would you choose and for what reasons?” The book gave more credit than Western leftists do to benefits from the Cold War’s “order for stability and peace,” even, very boldly for China, noting that it led to the “eventual democratization of the formerly oppressed.”

Defending his upbeat textbook, Su pointed out that because Marx spoke of progress in history, all progress can be said to be a fulfillment of Marx. The text’s stress on how experimentalism undermined theology in the history of Western science could be taken—probably was meant to be taken—as analogous to the post-Mao undermining of Marxism-Leninism in China by the policy of “seeking the truth from facts.” But left-wing nationalists rejected the whole notion of Chinese history as just one part of world history.

In the textbook’s account of World War II and its aftermath, Mao was mentioned only once, for his welcome on August 9, 1945, to the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan, at the eleventh hour before Japan’s surrender. But room was found for two lyrical paragraphs about Christmas Day, 1914, when on the Western front German and British soldiers “laid aside weapons, shook hands, sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, played soccer together, and took photos of each other.” The textbook remarked poignantly: “The Christmas Day ceasefire did not endure and ferocious fighting resumed, but for a season these enemies deep in a chasm of hatred built a bridge to their common human feelings.”

As Internet debate raged, one opponent of the new text was unexpectedly insightful: “If pupils do not understand the rise and fall of Western nations, they cannot understand China’s modern humiliations; if they do not study the Bolshevik Revolution and the French Revolution, they will not understand the concrete record of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong.” The last name jumps out like a red light on a German freeway. In China you must not link Hitler with Mao! Nor are you allowed to analyze the link between Mao’s actions and the political system of China!

Defending his book against the left, Su reached for an amusing backhanded compliment to Mao: “During the 20th century, Mao from the start recognized the historical realism of Deng Xiaoping.” True, Mao did not kill Deng. But he did twice purge him, in 1967 and 1976, as blandly as if swatting away a mosquito.

Left-wingers continued their potshots. In one of 39,200 items posted on the Internet about the book up to September 2009, a teacher complained, “Where is the cruel story of colonialism? It seems in future students will have to go to a museum to learn the humiliations of China’s modern history.” Another disagreed: “Stressing the history of colonialism doesn’t help cultivate pupils’ talents.”

One admirer of the new text said, “Here is the full shape of history.” Another declared, “A textbook cannot refrain from either affirming or rejecting our actual way of life.” But a critic laid down, “Cultivating patriotism is the most important goal of history education.”

To change the historical emphasis, as the Shanghai educators attempted, from tyrants and wars to people and societies, from national stories to a story of civilization, was reasonable. I live in the primarily black Roxbury section of Boston, where schools stress white racism and African cultures, and Zinn’s virtually anti-American book is popular. Some of us try to explain the connection between such syllabi and the difficulty young African Americans have getting jobs. I applaud the Su-Zhou textbook for downplaying great moments in the Chinese farmers’ rebellion and Chinese resistance to imperialists in favor of understanding historical forces that flavor the present.

Yet amnesia about Mao’s destructive leftism would be disturbing. The textbook’s accounts of his utopian Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were perfunctory. A decade from now, the six-year-old grown to be 16 should be taught more about Mao than that he “made errors” and that his “wildly ambitious” wife and defense minister led him by the nose to “orchestrate ten years of chaos.” How could a Communist party—still in power in 2010—produce and for decades tolerate a Führer?

Hu Jintao on occasion dons a Mao tunic, cast aside years ago by most top Chinese leaders in favor of Western suit and tie, as if to draw a line between China and the “troubled” West. Someone (probably Hu) this year pushed Mao’s grandson, a man of few gifts and less charisma, to the rank of general in the military. Bo Xilai, the Communist party boss of Chongqing, a huge city in the southwest, seeking to crack down on crime and corruption, promoted what he called a “Red Storm” in Mao’s name. This ambitious young politician, whose father, Bo Yibo, was a senior figure in Chinese politics during the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an eye on the power struggles in Beijing, uses Mao songs and quotations to whip up public opinion against crooked cops and judges.

At the grassroots, Mao endures in abstract art galleries and sentimental pictures in farmers’ living rooms. Tourists to Mao’s former guerrilla war base of Jinggangshan toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. Some taxi drivers still hang a Mao portrait as a talisman on their steering wheel or stick it to a window to ward off accidents and traffic cops. In a Shanghai department store window I saw Mao serving as a mannequin for green silk pajamas. But all this trivializes evil. Germany has dealt seriously with Hitler, while China pushes Mao into folklore.

Debate over Mao and whether China’s current rise is a “Chinese story” or a “world historical story” involves the future as well as the past. If the 21st century is China’s under continuing Communist party rule (not very likely), Mao may endure in Chinese textbooks as a successful warrior and unifier, his failed social engineering glossed over. A six-year-old might say to his mother, “We heard about Mao in school today. Was he China’s George Washington?”

Should China continue to flourish but renounce Marxism (quite likely), Mao might be blamed for the entire Communist experiment on Chinese soil. China, with its rich tradition of political ideas, would declare it did not need to import Marx and Lenin in the first place. Europe’s Enlightenment philosophy and America’s technology were superior imports missed by Mao. World Expo-type events would draw the millions, not Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing. “Mao was a narrow man,” a boy might chirp in class.

If China encounters severe adversity—not to be ruled out—Mao could be summoned, along with other Chinese authoritarians, to justify even tighter rule than today in the name of unity and cultural nationalism. The 21st century would be not Professor Zhou’s international “battle of the talents” but a battle of frustrated China against a still-dominant West. 

History moves on, and society changes. In 19th-century Britain, the utopian socialist and designer William Morris wrote in the novel A Dream of John Ball, “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” Morris saw the limits of politics as well as its promise. Mao achieved one of his goals for China: national strength. But the economic policies fueling China’s current rise canceled his top-down utopianism. In fact, China turned to American-driven values of free markets, free trade, and scientific inquiry for its present phase of catching up and trying to become number one. The American left is equivocal about these values, but Chinese education reformers love them.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao (currently a bestseller in China), The New Chinese Empire, and Madam Mao.

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