Interview with Dongping Han, Author of The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village


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Dongping Han will be present at a book release event on December 12 at Revolution Books in New York City as part of a three-day symposium “Rediscovering the Cultural Revolution: Art and Politics, Lived Experience, Legacies of Liberation.”   (For more information, call 212-691-3345,

 The Unknown Cultural RevolutionQ: What overall themes do you take up in your book, The Unknown Cultural Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2008), and what is your assessment of the effect of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s on Chinese people in rural areas?

DP: The major theme of the book is about how during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese farmers were empowered through education and other aspects of their lives.  One thing I talk about is how Mao’s writings and quotations became an instrument of empowerment for the farmers.  The reason why farmers, including illiterate farmers, wanted to recite some of Mao’s works and quotations is because Mao said what they wanted to hear.  His words represented the farmers’ interests at the time.

Another important theme of the book is the expansion of rural education during the Cultural Revolution years.  In Jimo County, the research site of my book, each village built one primary school, four villages built a joint middle school, and each commune built four high schools during the Cultural Revolution years.  By the end of the Cultural Revolution, school age children were able to finish high school free.  This was unprecedented.  Before the Cultural Revolution, there were almost no high school graduates in the rural Jimo County.  In 1974, almost 100 people from my village alone graduated from high school with me.  We brought back to the village knowledge and many other things the rural areas needed.  And we played very important roles in the modernization of the Chinese countryside.

I also discuss the democratic practices in the rural areas during the Cultural Revolution years.  Production team leaders were democratically elected by villagers.  Production team leaders and village leaders were all working with villagers in the fields.  The rural areas reached a very high level of equality with a very strong sense of community.  People, both leaders and the led, worked together to improve their lives.  Our grain yields increased from 100 pound a Chinese mu to 500 pound a mu during the Cultural Revolution years.  Farmers had more than enough to eat, and their income increased significantly as well.  Chinese farmers had a strong sense that they controlled their own destiny at the time.  We did not have unemployment or homelessness.  We had free education and free medical care in the village.  Social vices like prostitution and drug abuse were completely eliminated.  For ten years, we did not have any crime in the village.

Q: You are talking at a book release event and discussion of your work at Revolution Books in NYC on Friday, December 12.  What do you think this book has to say to people in the United States?

DP: This is a long journey for myself.  Before I came to the U.S. I used to imagine how wonderful, how wealthy America was.  I’ve lived here for about 20 years.  This is no doubt the wealthiest country in the world.  At the same time I’ve seen things that disappointed me.  There are hungry people in America.  Certainly there are people with too much, but there are people who are hungry, who do not have access to medical care.  There are too many people in prison.  In today’s financial meltdown, many people are living on the edge, worrying about losing their jobs and homes.  We do not have to live like this and with this.  We can build a better society and better world.  We have the productive power to produce enough for everybody to live adequately and meaningfully.

Q: Why do you think this story has been so hard to get out?  Why is it that in the U.S. we hear nonstop that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster and a horror for the people of China?  Why does the Chinese government today promote a similar narrative?

DP: It is a political issue.  During the Cultural Revolution, most Chinese, not just farmers and workers, but professors and artists, were sincerely convinced they were building a better society for themselves, and not just for the working class.  They had a new life.

I knew people, officials, high officials in my county, who were willing to ask their children to work with farmers, and to take the hardest assignments to be challenged and to build up good character.

We also need to understand that there was a coup in China after Mao died.  The leaders of the Cultural Revolution were wiped out by this coup.  The Chinese government under Hua Guofeng, and later under Deng Xiaoping, purged all the people who supported the Cultural Revolution over the years.  Millions of former Red Guards were imprisoned.  The Chinese government created a white terror in China against the Cultural Revolution.  People were not allowed to say good things about the Cultural Revolution.  In order to publish and keep their jobs, Chinese writers and artists could only condemn the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution years, many outsiders from the U.S., and the West, went to China, and saw a brand-new society full of vitality, where the people were experimenting with a completely new way of life.  Many of them said that China was the model of the Third World countries.  At the time, the Western nations began to develop environmental awareness.  When they saw China’s very green lifestyle, they even went so far as to say China was the hope of the human race.

But after the government changed, many of the scholars who were previously pro-Cultural Revolution had to change in order to be on the good side with the Chinese government so they could go back to China.

Q: What do people you know in China think about the lessons from the Cultural Revolution era?

DP: The last 30 years are necessarily a part of history.  The Chinese working class failed to respond to the reactionary coup quickly and effectively at the time, because they were not sure of the implication of the coup at the time.  Deng Xiaoping came back, but he never said he wanted to restore capitalism.  He said China was a socialist economy with a market and “Chinese characteristics.”  So it took a long time for Chinese people to realize what Deng wanted to do in China, and what it meant for them that he did away with socialism.  Millions of people lost their jobs and medical benefits.  Free education, free medical care, free housing — all became things of the past.  Now the Chinese government is boasting about how many new buildings have been built during the reform era.  But they do not talk about how many people lost their opportunities for education in the countryside.  They do not mention how many people lost basic medical care.  Young people are looking at the government propaganda more critically today.  I think the social climate is changing and people are waking up.  I see positive signs of change in China.

Q: Can you talk about the “Rediscovering China’s Cultural Revolution” symposium happening in NYC from December 12-14?  Why is it significant to have a discussion of this history now?

DP: We have a financial crisis in the U.S. and in the world now.  The Chinese government is facing a huge and serious economic crisis as well.  It’s time for us to pause and reflect.  People don’t have to suffer this way.  There are better ways to organize society, better ways for the future.  I teach my students that despite the efforts of the last 30 years to bury the Cultural Revolution, this era will stand out for people in China, in other Third World countries, and in Europe and in U.S. and the rest of the developed world as well.  People will look back for better ideas.  In 2000, Time magazine had a listing of the most important events in human history at the millennium, and it named Mao’s Long March.  But I seriously think Mao’s Cultural Revolution should be the most important event in human empowerment in humanity’s 2000-year history.  This was a new model for government, a new society, where farmers and workers became the government.  No longer were people just represented in the government.  We talk about democracy a lot of times, but the democracy we have here is to elect elites, who supposedly represent our interests.  But once they are elected, it is hard to control them.

But in the Cultural Revolution every level of government was filled with workers and farmers.  These people continued to do manual labor even after they became government officials.  This is a powerful legacy of the Cultural Revolution.  It’s significant to our time, because we don’t need to have a homeless population, to have people go hungry, to keep people from receiving health care.  We can provide everyone around the world with a job and enough to eat.  There are better ways.

Dongping Han teaches history and political science at Warren Wilson College.