Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am

Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement
by Andrew Walder
Harvard HK$431

The previous scholarly consensus on Mao Zedong's's Red Guards is that their warring factions split according to prior social status. Children of the Red elite, the story goes, fought to maintain their revolutionary privileges. New China's have-nots, meanwhile, fought to overturn bureaucratic privilege and inherited 'redness'. Scholars divined this dynamic beneath the orgy of murderous violence and paranoia that exploded once lines of authority were shattered and all bets were off.

Stanford social historian Andrew Walder overturns the consensus in Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. It turns out that students' initial responses to the thought-rectification 'work teams' sent to campuses in the first salvo of the Cultural Revolution, and the resulting political designations ('counterrevolutionary', 'good', 'relatively good', 'anti-Party', etc) those work teams conferred on students and cadres, set in motion a series of priorities and allegiances.

These twisted through the mixed messages sent by Mao's lieutenants, eventually determined factional affiliations when massive, deadly brawls broke out on campuses across Beijing. Compelling and well-supported though it is, Walder's thesis will not be of much interest outside a narrow circle of academic specialists. Nor will the casual bedtime reader make easy headway through a blizzard of unfamiliar names, locales and contexts.

China is no longer fixated on 'class struggle' and today's helmsmen have steadier hands. But the Cultural Revolution wasn't just the lunatic extreme of a system that survives today. It was also a searing, formative experience for many, not least the current and incoming generations of political leaders. We see the Cultural Revolution's legacy in modern China's pervasive fear of something Mao embraced - luan, or chaos in Chinese.

Walder takes us into the teeth of the luan. His command of the documents and personalities that drove Beijing's students into a frenzy permits a dizzying depth of detail. As a sociologist, his analysis of power is bloodless and clinical, laying bare the perverse twists and turns of the logic beneath the violence. Walder's rigorous documentation shows us top leaders' callous indifference to violence and various students' idealism and cynicism.

His thesis is hard to evaluate. His 'it's not as simple as you thought' point is well-taken. But it's not clear what insight his new framework adds besides 'this whole thing was really, really, really complicated'. Large charts detailing various factional outcomes at various campuses seem needlessly dry. It seems childish to say that a work of academic sociology didn't contain enough pictures, but more visual context - shots of 'big-character posters' covering campuses like snowflakes - would have helped illustrate the scrambling of information and authority.

In any event, there is no knowing modern China without understanding this all-too-recent past.