Understanding Modern China: The Cultural Revolution and Now

Understanding Modern China: The Cultural Revolution and Now

I lived in China for 3 years. I speak the language conversationally, and I have a Chinese girlfriend.

So, when people complain about China or refuse to do so under the banner of cultural relativism I feel compelled to throw my two cents into the ring. Doing as such without establishing a context (historical, sociological, or otherwise) would be disingenuous to empathy.

I will, therefore, outline how I see the connection between China’s present and the turbulence of its recent past with both personal anecdotes and historical analysis; this is incredibly important when considering China’s ominous rise to global prominence and they got to be where they are.

Now and Then: China’s Present and Dark Past

Guiyang, Southwest China: December 2019

I’m often awoken around 6 or 7 AM by screeching car horns. It’s not that a single beep sounds through the crack in my window; it’s that a car feels the need, among the hearty acoustics of my claustrophobic pewter apartment complex, to honk incessantly until the object of that car’s ire has relented, or moved, or whatever.

The worst part about this is that I can hardly blame the noisy malefactor here. Some of Guiyang’s driving practices have floored me. Not just scooters but full-size SUV’s can be seen driving on the sidewalk. Cars will park in the middle of the road. As in, the drivers will up and leave their vehicle there. People stop for any number of reasons from answering phone calls to taking a nap with their feet out the window.

An ‘ancient’ city in Guiyang – most ancient cities and China had to be rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution

In the book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the narrator gives an account of China’s history from before the Warlord Period to the Cultural Revolution’s end by tracing a matrilineal arc that ends with her.

This book provides one of the most thorough accounts of pivotal 20th-century Chinese history available (most of the available literature is secondary, whereas her manuscript serves as a primary historical document and a secondary historical analysis thanks to the author’s acuity and general knowledge outside her experience).

In this book, family ties and other social bonds remain unbreakable, even as we see China’s social structure bend under the invisible Confucian thumb (China pre-CCP [Chinese Communist Party] had serious issues but also merits, of which the aforementioned is an obvious one).

That China, however, was thrown into chaos with the invasion of the Japanese and the ensuing civil war between the Chiang Kai Shek’s government and the Communist Party.

What’s striking, however, is the image of China presented before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. History, relationships, and general courtesy were respected and even revered as irrefutable virtues. Politeness was of due course and expected between neighbors and strangers alike.

The CCP began its campaign to overthrow ‘guan xi (关系)’ (or finding favorable opportunities via ‘relationships’ i.e. nepotism) soon after its victory over Chiang Kai Shek. This managed to do some good by overturning the often strenuous and arbitrary system of politeness that was culturally ingrained at the time.

Everything changed for the worse, however, during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Extreme boredom plagued the Chinese population after the Cultural Revolution had been going strong for several years. There were no movies to watch, books to read, or ideas to discuss with friends. Mao empowered the youth with leftist revolutionary fervor against bourgeois capitalists, real or imagined. 

Soon, these youths were warring it out in the streets in bloody, factional power struggles.

All was propagandized, every ear was bugged in Mao’s favor (or out of fear from spies), and schools were closed indefinitely. Among this atmosphere of terror and hostility (there were now legion warring rebel factions, denunciation meetings, widespread panic and violence, and the deification of the man who made it all happen) the old courtesy system cracked.

Respect for elders had been overturned completely (students often beat their teachers and sometimes to death) and with nothing to do even families began to quarrel among themselves. According to the author, everywhere one looked fights would break out, between shopkeepers, peasants, workers, officials, and everyone else. Tension boiled in the air and often spilled over into random violence.


Chinese New Year in Hainan

It’s plain to see (for anyone with a nuanced eye) that the Cultural Revolution continues to affect China’s population, and profoundly. Interestingly, the old ways very much remain – relationships are the key to getting things done efficiently and older people, especially parents, command respect again – but these are often juxtaposed with what can only be interpreted as social remnants from the Cultural Revolution.

Arguments are quick to flare up among strangers, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve many times found myself engaged in them, sometimes without due provocation (I was extremely good about yelling at line-cutters in half-fluent Chinese). Though actual scams are more subdued than many places, mistrust of anyone outside of the family unit is rampant.

Care for strangers, or general politeness, are no longer a part of the culture. They’ve been usurped by an inevitable weariness spawned during the Cultural Revolution. This, especially for newcomers to this country, is extremely hard to get used to. Many never do.


West Lake in Hangzhou

There’s a blaring contradiction that exists among this chaotic social environment: ‘face culture’. To insult and openly criticize people is tantamount to physical attacks under certain circumstances. One must be careful not to offend established manners in certain areas and with powerful people.

This is a nearly skull-splitting ideal to reconcile with the shouts, petty fights, and passive-aggressive stabs that people direct at each other all the time. I can only imagine that being a Chinese national is taxing; the tightrope between saving/giving face and a habit of explosive argumentation and mistrust is taut to the point of snapping (in fact, this pressure was one of the factors contributing to the manic agitation shown during the Cultural Revolution).


Shanghai from Shanghai Tower

Forget bringing this up to the locals for an explanation. I’ve been told (not the least bit by my girlfriend) that their China and their culture is their problem, beyond interference and beyond foreign understanding. Unfortunately, this is in line with how the CCP presents the view of their China. Like themselves, these things are beyond criticism.

This leaves one with a rather bleak vision for the future. Those things that are beyond criticism are inevitably the things that have worked tirelessly to stifle such criticism.

Because of this, they’re likely also the values and tenets that are based on the flimsiest arguments. A brick foundation can withstand a gale; a bamboo hut can’t. One can only divert the wind for so long.

For anyone thinking of moving to China long-term, or dropping in for a visit, or getting ready to condemn the myriad flocks of new-money Chinese tourists abroad, or just trying to understand the place politically, I entreat you to contextualize the country through its recent history.

Turning a blind eye to it will result in mis-conceptualizing China on the world stage. It’s not skipping back from a few troubles: it’s rocketing forward with the abandon of a new superpower that isn’t even accountable to its own people, history, or culture. Global freedom beware.

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