The Place of the Individual in Chinese Communism

Both Hung-Yok Ip's article on revolution and individualism, and Lu Xiuyuan's article on popular violence in the Cultural Revolution, shed light on the role of the individual in Chinese Communism, and provide the background for understanding Wang Ruowang's memory in the "Hunger Trilogy." In Ip's article, we are given an explanation of the heroic and aesthetic approach to death and suffering by the Communist revolutionaries, as a way to display the grandeur of the Communist cause, and the larger-than-life persona of the Communist individuals. 

In a way, this was a change in the traditional Chinese stereotyping of social elites. Historically, in China's social hierarchy, only the scholar class--successful candidates in the imperial examinations who would then be promoted to government offices, would transcend the social class structure and become elites not by birth, but by merit.  They were described as "stars in the sky."  Now the Communist revolutionaries took over that trope, and infused in it the Marxist emphasis on class struggle--that the enemy was cruel and relentless, hence the revolutionaries who were most heroic at repelling the enemies either physically or spiritually would transcend their individual selves and become the true elites of society.

In Wang's descriptions of his early revolutionary experiences, even though he himself was often described as young and inexperienced, there were always some larger-than-life figures who were brave and strong and guided the rest to victory or safety.  Glorification of Communists and Communism remained an important part of the first two chapters in Wang's Hunger Trilogy.

This glorification of Communism, however, was to contrast with the lack of it in Wang's chapter 3, when he was incarcerated in a Communist prison in the Cultural Revolution.  The lack of larger-than-life figures (chief among whom was the hunger strike leader in the first chapter, who was being tortured to death in chapter 3) in the third chapter was also an illustration of how revolutionary heroism was replaced by petty individual concerns in the CR. As explained by Lu Xiuyuan, however, such individual concerns were really not a complete change of heart of Chinese revolutionaries, but very much the result of the redirection of Communist party policies.  These policies included the following:

1. Social classification

Instead of having an apparent enemy out there as during the war against Japan or the civil war against the Nationalists, Communist China practiced a nationwide classification of its people into different social classes after 1949.  The rationale behind the classification was the Marxist argument that while the ultimate goal of Communism was a classless society, before that happened, there would be a preparatory stage called socialism where old class distinctions would be eradicated.  The social classification would be made so that people from bad or not so good class backgrounds (the good, or red ones were: poor workers, poor peasants and Communist soldiers), would either actively transform their mentality or be transformed by the socialist regime.  Reflected in the educational policies after the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s, since class origin, political performance, and academic achievements, were all counted as criteria for college admission before the CR, (Lu, p.544) confrontations between students of good class background but bad academic scores, and students more academically prepared but from bad family backgrounds, led to clashes between the two groups in the first waves of the CR.  The dual educational system in China, where most kids went on to vocational high schools and only a select few went on to high schools that served as prep schools for universities, made prep school and university attendance a highly selective process, contributing to tension between these two groups of high school students.  Added to the tension was a tightening of the job market: the steady growth of the Chinese population, from 450 million in 1949  to 700 million in 1970, and the Communist policy that every one would have a job, became quite irreconcilable and even in the mid 1950s, the Communist government encouraged urban high school students to work in the countryside during the summer, and relocating to the countryside as farmers after graduation. 

During the Cultural Revolution, these two groups of Red Guards formed into different factions. Those from a good family background were the first to start the Cultural Revolution.  They advocated the ˇ°blood pedigree theory:ˇ± you are revolutionary if your father is a revolutionary, and you are anti-revolutionary if your father is a counter-revolutionary.  They emphasized the purity of the revolutionaries and to be considered a revolutionary Red Guard one had to prove they belonged to the "red" classes: poor peasants and workers, in the previous two generations.  Later Red Guards, also called rebel Red Guards, adhered to a newer social classification and focused only on the capitalist-roaders as the enemy.  They were called rebel Red Guards because they were to rebel against the existent establishment where it was occupied by the capitalist-roaders.  But they did not discriminate between people's traditional backgrounds, whether one's father was a capitalist or landlord before the Communist takeover.  So long one was a revolutionary now, it was fine.

2. Communist moral indoctrination

The fervor of the Cultural Revolution was also due to Communist policies that directed each political campaign as a military campaign--the emphasis was on a continuation of revolution in peace time.  Mao believed that since the goal of socialism was to transform the non-revolutionary social classes into the mentality and behavior of the revolutionary ones, and according to Marx, before classes ended, class struggles were always on.  an emphasis on struggle/battle should be the norm.  Even though Mao distinguished between "antagonistic" and "non-antagonistic" social relationships between classes before and after the Communist takeover, indicating conflicts between social classes in Socialist China could be reconciled peacefully most of the time, this was no longer his position during the Cultural Revolution.  Mao used military rhetoric such as "bombard the capitalist headquarters" during the CR, and told the early Red Guards that "to rebel [against their capitalist roader teachers] is justified."

The young Red Guards during the CR had never experienced a real military campaign, and to visualize a life and death struggle with class enemies, they could only resort to Communist descriptions of enemies.  And there had been constant exhortations from Communist propaganda machines that one should be ruthless in suppressing the enemy, because the latter was cruel and relentless. One of Mao's favorite parables was an Aesop's fable, about a farmer taking pity on a frozen snake, wrapping it in his jacket to revive him. And when the snake came to, it gave the farmer a fatal bite.  The moral: never take pity on your enemy even when it looks defeated. Mao constantly reminded people revolution had not ended.  For many young Red Guards, it became their justification why they needed to beat up many helpless victims, sometimes leading to the latter's deaths.

Another aspect of Communist education was moral indoctrination that emphasized a total selflessness toward the Communist cause: almost all Chinese heroes were young soldiers who mostly either died a heroic death in wartime or a death in peace time to save the lives of others.  Individualism as such was not encouraged.  This called for young people's modeling after the selflessness of the heroes and reflections in the self-transformations Mao called on the Chinese to make, many people felt it a painful thing to do at the personal experiential level, but something they felt obliged to do because of their years of moral indoctrination to abandon the self and any private thoughts.  "There is a split personality, a power struggle within individuals -a conflict between conscious disciplinary ideology and personal feeling/unconscious protective resistance as well as conscious reflexivity on the most local level." (Lu, p.553)  Their painful experiences of wanting to redefine their identities embody the confrontation between disciplinary ideology and personal feelings. Since class feelings should surpass humanitarian feelings, by breaking intimate relationships with loved ones (parents orspouse), one could keep or change one's individual identity to "revolutionary" status.  For many people, overacting or overreacting in the Cultural Revolution represented this confusion over how far one should go in order to prove one had overcome one's own feelings and become totally "revolutionary." By abandoning the self and the validity of individual thinking, many people lost the compass that would tell right from wrong.

Chaos and violence during the Cultural Revolution also came from the nature of the social classification itself: ocial classes were more status of honor than real social groups (Lu, pp.556-557): revolutionary cadres, revolutionary soldiers, revolutionary martyrs, anti-revolutionaries, rightists, capitalist roaders, reactionary intellectuals, etc.  Class was not just to suppress and punish, but to transform: one could transform their own classifications through hard work,, denouncing parents/relatives of a negative class background, joining the party, marrying into red families, divorcing their spouses of negative class backgrounds, etc. (p.558) The internal conflict between the policies that called on distinguishing people by their social classes and recognizing people's positive behavior also led to confusion, chaos, and violence.

Therefore the lack of heroes in Wang's chapter 3 was not just a depiction of what went on in a Communist prison, but also an indictment of Cultural Revolution policies.  The depiction of mutual suspicion (result of people telling on one another) and shame (confusion over whether one was in jail because one was not sufficiently transformed into the right classes in socialist China) could all be explained by the CR emphasis on a revolutionary transformation of the (not so red) social classes, including the new bad elements, the capitalist roaders, into completely revolutionary ones.  Self-uncertainty over where one belonged on the revolutionary spectrum caused many to believe they were wrong and the Communist Party was right, or at least to deny to themselves that they could be right, hence they withstood the cruelty in the Communist prison without protest.