China: A Century of Revolution Part 2

Movie Review of China: A Century of Revolution Part 2, the Mao Years 1949 to 1976cultural-revolution-2-1 (Directed by Sue Williams, Zeitgest Films, 1994)
reviewed by Prairie Fire (

China: A Century of Revolution, The Mao Years, is part two of a three part, six hour, documentary directed by Sue Williams in 1994. This documentary is in the class of Morning Sun (Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé, 2003) and Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (with Philip Short, 2007). In fact, Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) borrows much of its narrative structure, to the point of plagiarism, from this earlier documentary. The interviewees include many of same individuals in Morning Sun (2003) and the Philip Short documentary (2007). This class of documentary film is far superior to sensationalist and trashy ones such as Mao Declassified (2006), which has recently been broadcast on the “History” Channel. Like other films in the genre, the rare footage makes the film worth watching. This film has rare scenes of Red Guards, and a rare recording by Jiang Qing instructing that Liu Shaoqi should “die the death of 1,000 cuts.”

In the opening, the film touches on what it perceives as positive and ambiguous aspects in the immediate post-1949 period. 1949 was the year the People’s Republic as declared. Ge Yang, a Communist Party member, describes the immediate post-1949 period, “Communism meant political equality for everybody. The people would be masters of the country. That was the propaganda. People would have enough to eat and wear. Poverty would be a thing of the past.” Another quote, “Nearly half of all of China’s  aridable land was distributed to poor peasants.. Our life became better.” “Now it was the people who were the masters. They really liked that. Land and houses were taken from the landlords and given to them. People saw that they benefited, so they supported the Communist Party.” The narrator states of the land reform period, “Officials encouraged peasants to humiliate and beat their landlords… across China, hundreds of thousands of land lords were killed.” The film’s ambiguous attitude toward land reform was captured in the story of Li Maoxui, son of a class enemy:

“It was fierce. The whole village, hundreds of people came, beating drums. They dragged me to the meeting ground and wanted to beat me. I said don’t hit me. I know my family has exploited the people for generations. I’ll give you my house, land, everything. After they discussed it, they labeled me an enlightened son of a landlord family. They let me keep my house. Although there wasn’t much left in it. But in fact, I did well. Many people died.”

Despite the impression left by the film, the land reform movement was one of the most liberating events in all of history. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population stood up and broke the chains of feudalism. Many were able to live with dignity for the first time. The feudal fetters on development were removed. The cycles of starvation were finally broken in China, saving countless lives. Health and sanitation practices were implemented, also, saving untold millions from disease. The violence that the masses inflicted upon class enemies pales in comparison to the violence that would have resulted had the old system continued.These important facts are mostly ignored.

To its credit, the film praises advances in gender relations. Li Xiuying reports, “Before liberation women had to do whatever they were told. They had no rights. There were three obedinces and four virtues: obedience to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to your son after your husband dies. You had no rights at all.” Also, Ge Yang, a Communist Party member reports, “Marriages arranged by parents or matchmakers were stopped. Women could marry the men they loved. So they were very happy.” The film comments that the first legislation after 1949 was to grant women equal political rights. A quarter of the world’s women went from feudal oppression to full citizenship, having democratic rights. Thus, the Chinese revolution should be seen as the single greatest feminist advance in history. However, the film goes downhill from here.

Like similar documentaries, China: A Century of Revolution’s (1994) casts a negative shadow on socialism overall. This negativity does not approach the level of “Mao’s China=hell on Earth.” The same criticisms of Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) can be made of China: A Century of Revolution (1994). The film does not even attempt to understand the Mao years from the point of view of the Maoists. The conflicts of those years are not explained as struggles between antagonistic classes, proletarian and capitalist. The narrative does not explain events in terms of two different futures for China: a socialist one and its current capitalist one. Instead, according to the bourgeois narrative, the events of the Mao era are a result of Mao’s personal quest for power and his attempts to impose a utopian fantasy on the reluctant people of China. If there are any heroes in this bourgeois narrative, then they are Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, who try to rescue China from Mao’s whims. In the bourgeois narrative the leaders are above sociological forces. This film is yet another version of the great man theory of history. In this bourgeois narrative, history is not the result of contradictions and power struggles between sociological forces. Rather, in the film’s bourgeois account, explanation ends with great men, in this case, the top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party. In the film’s bourgeois narrative, why leaders act as they do is either a function of their psychology, or is a complete mystery. Contrary to the idealist view found in China: A Century of Revolution (1994), the scientific view of history is materialist. In the materialist approach social evolution is a result of contradictions between sociological forces. And, historical materialism is scientific because it provides greater predictive and explanatory power.

The film relies heavily on anecdotes, mostly from those who were allegedly persecuted in some way during the Mao years. Rather than a scientific analysis of the events, the viewer is witness to a series of personal stories, mostly horrific recollections of violence during the Cultural Revolution or famine during the Great Leap Forward. The film estimates that 30 million died during the Great Leap Forward and 400,000 died during the Cultural Revolution. The figures used in the film are  conjectures turned into imperialist propaganda. (1) (2) Nonetheless, the film presents them as facts. At the same time, the film ignores the indisputable advances made during the Mao years. For example, life expectancy doubled in the Mao years, reaching nearly Western levels. (3) Infant mortality dropped significantly. (4) Industrialization has always been a violent process. For example, modern capitalism in the United States was accompanied by industrial slavery in the South and a continental genocide. Massive man-made famines in Europe, especially Ireland, caused migration to North America, ensuring a cheap labor pool at the expense of human life. Whatever violence accompanied China’s democratic revolution and industrialization was, all and all, far less than that which accompanied the birth of Western capitalism. In addition, the figures for Cultural Revolution deaths, besides being made-up, is de-contextualized. The narrative paints a picture where the majority of the dead are “moderates” and those who opposed the Cultural Revolution. The image in the film is one where these victims die by the hands of Maoist mobs. This is a complete distortion of reality. Many of the deaths of the Cultural Revolution were not at the hands of Maoist mass movements as the film implies. Many deaths were a result of confrontations that involved the army or state apparatus being used against the mass movements. The mass movements were the ones on the receiving end of the violence more often then not. Rebel students and workers were often severely repressed. Massacres occurred, especially in the provinces where the PLA was not under Maoist control. (5) This context is lost in the film’s biased parade of anecdotes.

The film glosses over the line struggles within the Maoist left. Instead, loyal to the film’s unscientific approach, every twist and turn during the Cultural Revolution is presented merely as Mao’s whim or as a complete mystery. The only exception to this is the line struggle between Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yi versus Lin Biao on foreign policy. The film correctly identifies this as one of the reasons for the conflict between Mao and Lin Biao. Mao and Zhou Enlai’s group favored opening up to the United States, Lin Biao opposed reconciliation. However, the film does a disservice by not addressing other conflicts leading to Lin Biao’s demise: the struggle over agricultural policy, the militarization of society, and, the continued conflict between Lin Biao versus Zhou Enlai and the Adverse Current, the right wing of the PLA. (6)

The film juxtaposes the leftist mass movements of 1967 and the counter-revolutionary demonstration against the Gang of Four on the 5th of April, 1976. On the Qingming festival to honor the dead, a memorial to Zhou Enlai turned into a political protest against the Maoist left. By 1976, the Maoists did not have a vibrant, spontaneous mass movement to challenge revisionism in the streets. Jiang Qing ordered the demonstration at Tiananmen square broken up by the militia. The film accurately captures the shift in public opinion that occurred between the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and the last years of Mao’s life in the 1970s. By the 1970s, the gains of the Cultural Revolution were threatened. Without a Maoist “street” movement from below and without the PLA under Lin Biao’s command at the center, in Maoist hands, there was little hope of a repetition of the kind of power seizures witnessed in 1967 and 1968. With little support, the remaining left had little chance of victory after Mao’s death. Unfortunately, this level of analysis is absent from the movie.

China: A Century of Revolution (1994) is one of the better bourgeois films portrayals of the Cultural Revolution. Yet it suffers from the standard problems of bourgeois historical analysis. Films like Morning Sun (2003), Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) and China: A Century of Revolution (1994), are the best that can be expected within the framework of bourgeois history. These films are informed by academic sensibilities, so they are more sophisticated than films such as Mao Declassified (2006) with its “Mao’s China=Hell on Earth” narrative.


1. Ball, Joseph. Did Mao really kill millions in the Great Leap Forward?

2. MC5. Myths About Maoism.

3. ibid.

4. MIM. World Bank on Infant and Child Mortality.

5. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Free Press. USA: 1986.

6. Prairie Fire. Two Roads Defeated Part 2. Monkey Smashes Heaven. September 17, 2008.

Review of Morning Sun

Review of Morning Sun (2003, Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé)
cultural-revolution-propaganda (available at 
by Prairie Fire

“You young people are full of vigor and vitality. You are full of life. You are like the morning sun. You are our hope.” — Mao Zedong

“When we saw the light of dawn, we felt as if this was the dawn of a new era for mankind. We felt we were about to embark on an unprecedented revolution. It would bring about a society that was truly egalitarian and democratic.” — ex-red guard Tang Rae

Morning Sun, directed by Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé, is one of the few documentaries that examines China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in any detail or complexity. It contains amazing revolutionary footage:  of red guard rallies in Tiananmen, of Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Wang Li and Guan Feng. There is also footage from model operas and the mass movements. The film is a gem for this footage alone. The footage shows an image of revolution that challenges the caricature of socialism in by the mainstream, bourgeois media. It presents an image of socialism that is creative and dynamic, full of energy and fun. This image of socialism is a stark contrast to the grey world that is presented by the bourgeoisie.

The film mostly focuses on the official Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969. However, it also covers the events leading up to the Cultural Revolution: Liu Shaoqi’s rise after the Great Leap, Lin Biao’s elevation of politics in command in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Jiang Qing’s work in the arts, the rise of new, proletarian culture, the growing frustration with bureaucratic privilege and problems in education. It covers  the revisionist, Liu Shaoqi’s counter-revolutionary, suppression of students, and the rise of the red guard and rebel worker movements. The campaign against the Four Olds that began in August of 1966 and the power seizures of 1967 are portrayed as a frenzy of violence. The mass movement power seizures ended and “consolidation” began as Mao took a rightist turn, shifted toward the cadres and against the mass movements late 1967 through 1968. The film covers the rise of the cult of personality. It covers rise of the PLA in politics and the PLA’s role at the Ninth Congress in April of 1969. The film briefly covers Lin Biao’s fall and death in 1971. Except for Lin Biao’s death, the film skips the years of the early 1970s, except to comment on Nixon’s visits and the changes in Chinese foreign policy influenced by Zhou Enlai. It covers the demonstration at Zhou Enlai’s memorial on April 5th of 1976. It briefly shows Jiang Qing at the trial of the “Lin Biao and Gang of Four anti-party cliques.” The film is a good history lesson for so-called “Maoists” who have the simplistic notion that the “Cultural Revolution decade” was a single event running from 1966 to 1976, as though red guards were running around seizing power in 1976. The glory days of the Cultural Revolution existed between 1966 and 1969 or 1971, at the latest. The many phases of this decade will be an eye-opener to some. However, those who know something about this history will feel that the struggles involved are only barely touched on in the film.

The film is clear that the rebel movements were genuine expressions of discontent. However, rather than taking the Maoist view that the Cultural Revolution was a real struggle between two classes, the film instead characterizes these struggles in bourgeois terms. The film compares rebel youth to The Gadfly, a Russian tale of “revolutionary idealism and romantic love” dubbed into Chinese with a score by Shostakovich. The title,  an allusion to Socrates, is a bit misleading. The protagonist of The Gadfly is a byronic hero, a scarred outlaw figure. He is contrasted by interviewees to the image of Lei Feng, the model PLA soldier and altruist, “the bolt that never rusts,” who serves the people. Lei Feng was promoted in Chinese propaganda of the time as a hero to emulate. Thus the film implies that most the young rebels of the Cultural Revolution were originally moved only by romantic notions of liberation and not moved by notions of altruism, equality, proletarian dedication and discipline. Thus, the film peddles the revisionist criticism that the socialist conception of human nature and socialist art of which Lei Feng is an example reduce life to stick figures. Yet the film reduces the Cultural Revolution to its own stick figure explanations: teen rebellion, mob violence, religious fanaticism and lack of bourgeois democracy. One example of the film’s bourgeois outlook is given by ex-red guard Zhu Xue Qin’s description of his rebellion: “this was part of a universal and timeless adolescent impulse. If I was emerged in religious thinking, perhaps I would have become one of the faith.” The film constantly downplays class struggle. Yet the film’s view, albeit bourgeois, is not entirely negative. The film implies that the act of rebellion is deeply human, but the humanistic side was lost to extremism and conformity in the late 1960s. While there is some truth to some aspects of the film’s criticisms, the film’s overall outlook is wrong.

According to the film, the world of the cultural revolutionaries lost all subtlety. Like a model opera, the world was stark, only black and white. Thus the film fails to understand the art and cultural of the period in its own terms. The starkness in socialist art of the time sought to draw out, to make visible, the underlying power dynamics that shape the world. People with pre-scientific and bourgeois outlooks fail to see the power struggles in the “everyday.” Rendering of the world in unequivocal terms, so the theory goes, provokes them into seeing through the bourgeois and pre-scientific matrix of the “ordinary” and “everyday.” In addition, the world itself can be a very stark place. What they fail to see is that the Cultural Revolution appeared to participants like a model opera because class struggle had become so acute. The film fails to connect how both socialist art and the phenomenology of the cultural revolutionaries traces back to the power struggles taking place around them. The film also fails to understand why socialist culture appeared so simple and cliche. Culture is social programming. Making revolution requires changing the social programming. However, reactionary culture developed over centuries. It is very difficult to replace all the reactionary culture with new culture overnight without the new culture beginning to look forced and cliche. The film fails to even attempt to understand these issues from the Leading Light communist point of view.

Ex-red guard Zhu Xue Yang remarks on what the film sees as a paradoxically romantic and violent time: “the zeal for revolutionary ideals was accompanied by an underlying fear. It was a time of the poet and executioner. The poet scattered roses everywhere and the executioner cast a long shadow of fear.” Chen Boda, nominal head of the Cultural Revolution Group that directed the Cultural Revolution, quotes Lenin’s comparison of Bolsheviks to Jacobins in his 1944 essay on Mao’s Hunan report. Mao’s Report was often alluded to during the height of the cultural revolution. “It’s excellent!” appeared in the Chinese press during period of red guard activism. Mass movement leaders often rejected calls for “moderation” and non-violence. This radical sentiment was expressed in a red guard leaflet, “We revolutionaries are monkey kings. We will turn the world upside down… the messier the better.” The film sees this mix of idealism, rebellion and violence as paradoxical because the film fails to grasp the Cultural Revolution as a life and death struggle between two classes and what this inevitably means in the real world. Revolutions are Jacobin ruptures. There is no revolution without poetry, or terror.

Song Binbin, famous for having pinned a red guard armband on Mao, regrets the role she played. She states that “violence spread out of control like a plague.” More time in the film is spent describing the red guard and rebel worker violence than either the systemic violence of capitalism, the violence of Liu Shaoqi’s revisionist white terror, or, later, the revisionist Adverse Current violence against the mass movements, or the violence of capitalism in today’s China. This leaves one with a skewed picture that the mass movement and its leaders were the main perpetrators of violence. The film spends a disproportionate time on the suppression of the counter-revolutionary demonstration at Zhou Enlai’s memorial in 1976. Zhou Enlai’s memorial was used as a protest against socialism. The Gang of Four put down the demonstration using the militia loyal to them. By then the Maoists lost the battle in the streets; there were no more mass movements. They lost the PLA when Lin Biao fell. And they had very little institutional power. They had to protect the left line through the use of police powers. A left that has to use the police as the main institution to advance or protect its programme is in trouble. By the last years of Mao’s life, Mao had shifted rightward and  the momentum was with the revisionists. The Gang of Four were quickly overthrown after Mao died that year. This emphasis on leftist violence is all out of proportion and is typical of narratives on the Cultural Revolution. Most of the interviewees are open rightists, revisionists or those who present themselves as onetime true believers who claim to now be disillusioned with socialism entirely. There is no reason to think that the interviewees have any special insight; anecdotal recollections are notoriously unreliable, they are not a scientific basis for summing up something as complex as the Cultural Revolution. Of all the interviewees, Liu Shaoqi’s wife, Wang Guangmei, probably has the most air time. We hear Wang Guangmei speak about having to wear a ping pong ball necklace and her “humiliation” by Kuai Dafu, but she says nothing of her role suppressing the students, the “white terror” at Qinghua, or how the trend she represents dismantled socialism fully under Deng Xiaoping. Even if every act of violence of the Cultural Revolution years could be placed at the doorstep of the Maoists, this blood would be a drop in the ocean compared to the horrors of capitalism inflicted on the Chinese people, a fifth of the world’s population, today.

In a similar vein, the film criticizes lack of bourgeois legality and lack of bourgeois democracy during the Cultural Revolution. One interviewee says:

“The people in power had always suppressed the masses while taking good care of themselves. So, when Mao said to overthrow those taking the capitalist road, all those in authority were dumped. The masses couldn’t careless who was taking the capitalist road. Initially, it was liberating. But, without the rule of law, the mob mentality took over.”

Another says:

“The cultural revolution was the first time people had a chance to challenge the privilege of the Party, nobody had any legal protection..”

Li Rae, purged one time secretary of Mao:

“The real problem of unrestricted power was never really addressed.”

Liu Shaoqi’s daughter, Liu Tiang:

“The words of a single person, of Chairman Mao, could override Party policy, and Party policy could override the law.”

Instead of examining these struggles through the lenses of power analysis, the film opts for cliche bourgeois reflections about violence and lack of so-called “democracy.” Contrary to the bourgeois view, the struggle between two antagonistic classes could not have been anything other than violent. Revolution is not a dinner party. Rather than seeing social change as a function of power struggles by groups, the film takes a naive bourgeois outlook. Abandoning power analysis, the film seeks answers about the Cultural Revolution in an eternal so-called “human nature,” in Lord of the Flies youth behavior and, typically, even sexual repression.

The film shows the heights of Mao’s cult of personality. Ex-red guard Wang Lixiong compares the admiration of Mao to the admiration of rock stars. Clips of PLA soldiers allegedly curing deaf mutes through loyalty to Mao and the practice of acupuncture are shown to highlight the level the cult had reached as it filled the void after the end of the mass movements. This needs to be seen in perspective: Are not fraudulent claims of all kinds made even more often in the United States’ media?

Pre-science and religious thinking existed in China during the Cultural Revolution, just as it has in all societies. Capitalism is filled with cults of all kinds: religious cults, celebrity cults, political cults, cult pyramid schemes, sex cults. More pseudo-science and religious thinking exists in the United States today than existed in socialist China. In China under Mao, the masses were encouraged to see the world through the lenses of power struggle and revolutionary science. In the United States, with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, people spend their time wading through tomes of how birthdays and the planets relate to love lives. Significant numbers of the Chinese masses, emerging from feudalism, entered the matrix of Mao’s personality cult. However, from the standpoint of science, such is preferable to being in an American Idol matrix of western capitalism. Our bourgeois critics need to get a grip here and see this in perspective. Whatever errors were made in socialist China need to be seen in context and compared to conditions in the rest of the world.

Loyalty to Mao and practicing revolutionary science are not the same thing. This is something that is often confused, even by those calling themselves “Maoist.” Leading Light Communists face the truth about the successes and failures of the great social experiments in China from 1966 to 1976. Leading Lights are revolutionary scientists, not merely fans of Mao. Leading Lights don’t cherry-pick historical facts to soft-peddle errors by the Maoist camp in those years. Even among those calling themselves “Maoist” today, the cult of personality still casts a long shadow. The cult is a two-edged sword. It comes down to the issue of proletarian power. If the cult can be means toward that end, then it is not necessarily a bad thing. If it gets in the way of that end, it becomes a tool of reaction. The cult may have been necessary to dislodge Liu Shaoqi, but it also was turned against the left. Did not Hua Guofeng use the cult to suppress the leftists in 1976?

The film correctly highlights the role of Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution and Lin Biao’s role in promoting the cult. The film does  not look into the issue deeply. Different kinds of cults of personality exist. There is the cult of the father, the provider, or the relative: “Uncle Joe” or “Uncle Ho.” Stalin’s cult was of a very patriarchal type, for example. Che Guevara’s cult of the heroic guerrilla is another very patriarchal cult. It is James Dean mixed with the romantic, tragic hero. It is macho to boot. Both are images of the revolutionary that tend to push women to the side. The men are on the barricade and the women tend the wounds. The kind of cult that Lin Biao seemed to be pushing was a cult of the mastermind or genius. This kind of cult was seen around Lenin to an extent. The onetime “Shining Path” in Peru also pushed this image of their leader. As far as cults go, the cult pushed by Lin Biao was probably the better of the options. A cult of the mastermind or genius is more in line with the ultimate goals of communism than the alternatives.  People project their aspirations through the cult. The aspirations of intelligence and science are more in tune with elevating the masses, elevating them so that they are capable of ruling themselves without a state  so that they can  advance to communism. For one thing, such a cult is not as exclusionary toward women. It was certainly better than Mao-as-father-figure and provider pushed by Hua and, to a certain extent, the later revisionists. Lin Biao’s conception of the cult was one of the reasons he was deposed. The film highlights the demoralization that the masses faced following the end of the mass movements in late 1967 and 1968 and Lin Biao’s downfall in 1971. Liu Tiang says:

“Lin Biao was the one who attacked my father [Liu Shaoqi] most viciously. And, then, suddenly, Lin Biao was not chairman Mao’s successor. He had been plotting to assassinate the chairman? This had a profound effect on how the people saw the cultural revolution.”

The film does not weigh-in on the later frame up of Lin Biao.

If there is one theme in the film, it is that revolutions eat their own. Some of the first, early red guards, the sons and daughters of “red” backgrounds, were swept away as the tide turned against them when the Cultural Revolution Group refuted the red-lineage theory — the theory that people are born red. Ex-red guard Yu Luowen:

“What Jiang Qing said then really appealed to the common people. She criticized the saying ‘father a reactionary, son a bastard.’ She said, ‘that’s garbage.’ Her apparent outrage made us feel that she was our savior.”

Like the earlier red guards criticized by Jiang Qing, later red guards also ended up on the losing side in late 1967 and into 1968. One of the interviewees criticized the Cultural Revolution Group for taking no responsibility for the fires they had helped fan, even as Mao later sought to put out the fires in late 1967 and 1968. Many in the Group and their allies fell from power for the “excesses,” including Wang Li, Guan Feng, Qi Benyu, and later, Chen Boda and Lin Biao. As the tide turned in late 1967 and 1968 and purges swept through the mass movements and the left, one interviewee felt betrayed by Jiang Qing who, like Chen Boda and Lin Biao, had taken very militant stances in support of the mass movements but now changed her tune a bit. Opportunism was a big problem within the Maoist camp. Opportunism hurt the struggle for socialism and communism. Later, there is the trial of the “Lin Biao and Gang of Four anti-party cliques.” And, finally, even Mao falls posthumously as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist counter-revolution runs its course. This is not a case of revolutions eating their own. Rather, this as the result of life-and-death struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. In the real world, revolutions are messy affairs.

The film quotes Lin Biao that the spiritual atom bomb of Mao’s Thought is the most powerful weapon. It is a weapon that the imperialists are unable to wield. Ex-red guard Li Nayang:

“We were taught at a young age the purpose of life was not to seek happiness for yourself, that was embarrassingly vulgar. A glorious and fulfilling life can only be achieved by dedicating yourself to a great revolutionary cause.”

Even though this film has obvious flaws, it still has educational purposes for serious students of revolutionary science. The film ends ambiguously with a Leading Light Communist sentiment: “The specter of Mao is never far away. When people feel oppressed and powerless, when a system permits no legitimate protest or dissent, Mao emerges as a possibility, a champion of “it’s right to rebel!’”

Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed

Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (with Philip Short, 2007) 
reviewed by Prairie Fire (

Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) is hosted by Philip Short, BBC correspondent and author of Mao: A Life (2000). Bloody Revolution can be divided into two parts. The first half of the documentary covers the course of the Chinese revolution up to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The second half covers what is referred to as the Cultural Revolution decade of 1966 to 1976. About three quarters of  the second half focuses on the height of the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1969 or 1971; the remaining time mostly focuses on 1971 to 1976 and Mao’s death. Bloody Revolution contains much boilerplate anti-communism of the ‘Mao was a butcher’ and ‘people ate their babies’ variety that has been addressed numerous times and in different ways. (1) (2) The narrative of Bloody Revolution is a convergence of the revisionist Chinese state’s account and traditional western anti-communist ones. This review is not going to bother refuting every little bit of tabloid anti-communism in Bloody Revolution. Rather, this review will focus on the broad methodological problems of the film and questions that the film raises regarding the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

Like Morning Sun (2003),  Bloody Revolution contains some of the best footage of the Chinese revolution, footage of the Maoist left, the mass movements and their leaders. Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Wang Li, Guan Feng and others make appearances. Black liberation fighter Robert F. Williams makes an appearance. There is even footage of Jiang Qing’s acting career before she joined the communists. The film relies mostly on anecdotes from those who were at one time close to Mao or other top-inner circles. Those interviewed include: Mao’s one time secretary, Li Rui; Liu Shaoqi’s daughter, Liu Tingting; Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, who was crippled during the early Cultural Revolution; Zhou Enlai’s niece, Zhou Bingde; and others. Many of the interviewees have close connections with the top revisionist leaders who presided over the restoration of capitalism, those who ended the socialism and brought the horrors of capitalism to a billion people. Yet the revisionists are portrayed in this narrative as victims who were persecuted by the Maoists and the crazed Chinese masses. Bloody Revolution draws on many of the same interviewees and sources as Morning Sun. The most interesting of the interviewees include Sidney Rittenberg and Nie Yuanzi. Sidney Rittenberg was associated with Wang Li and the mass movement left in the Foreign Ministry in 1967. He was later jailed for years, released, then joined the right and revisionists. Mass leader Nie Yuanzi is also interviewed. She was most known as the Communist Party secretary at Beijing University’s philosophy department who authored of the “first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster” on May 27, 1966. Both ex-radicals are no longer Maoists. Of those interviewed, Rittenberg is the most sympathetic. Despite himself, Rittenberg is correct when he says that, “Up to the present, history, at least the cultural revolution outstandingly is swept under the rug and ignored, studiedly ignored. And I think it is very unfortunate. I think they need to study Mao very carefully. Both what was right about Mao, which was a great deal, but also what was wrong about Mao, which was also a great deal.”

Bloody Revolution relies heavily on personal anecdotes. Anecdotes are not the best approach to understanding something like the Cultural Revolution. While they make for decent entertainment, anecdotes are not a real basis for arriving at scientific conclusions regarding massive upheavals like the Chinese revolution in its many phases. Just because an individual was in the thick of events does not make her an expert on the big picture. Revolutions are scientifically understood as power struggles between antagonistic groups that reshape society at the deepest levels. Being in the middle of the Chinese mass movements in the late 1960s, for example, may have been a great ringside seat. However, there is the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees. Endless anecdotes, mostly from the revisionist anti-communist side of the struggle, do not necessarily increase our understanding of the big picture. Endless anecdotes can divert our attention from the underlying social processes that produced these personal experiences. It is no accident that biographical accounts of the Cultural Revolution flood the market with the blessings of the revisionist Chinese state today. The focus on the biographical is itself a product of bourgeois ideology. Even so, some of the anecdotes are revealing. One of Mao’s doctors Wang Hebin described Mao’s speech:

“When Mao Zedong made a speech, he had the attention of everyone in the audience. The language he used was fresh and he had the knack for explaining profound things in a simple way. He spoke to people’s hearts.”

Another methodological problem is the film’s overemphasis on Mao’s and other top leaders’ psychology to explain revolution. For example, Jiang Qing is described as “emotional and extreme,” as though her psychology is key to unlocking her politics. The film is informed by a kind of dressed-up great man theory of history. Rather than the Marxist view that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” the film sees history as the product of larger than life men, their genius and personality. Fans of Mao often fall for a version of this unscientific outlook. The lack of any serious Maoist critiques of Mao, after a half century since the Cultural Revolution began, shows that even those calling themselves Maoist haven’t made the leap to scientific knowledge when dealing with history. Instead of discussing the mistakes of Mao, people feel compelled to defend Mao the man, to make excuses, as though Maoism’s validity as science hinged on Mao. One big mistake people don’t seem willing to fully face up to is that Mao and the Gang of Four had a shoddy global class analysis. They had a very poor understanding of the First World.  (3) Other mistakes include: the purging of the mass movement left from the Cultural Revolution Group at the end of 1967 and after; the treatment of Chen Boda and Lin Biao; the shift away from the Lin Biao’s global people’s war line and toward Mao’s accomadation with the West; and the rehabilitation and promotion of Deng Xiaoping; and elevation of revisionists in the PLA in the 1970s. Fans for whom Mao can do no wrong and the psychologizing detractors of the Philip Short variety are the janus face of a flawed approach to history. A reflective ex-Maoist-turned-revisionist like Sidney Rittenberg, despite himself, does more to advance scientific knowledge than many of the dopey fans of Mao who populate the so-called communist movement today. Maoism is not a fan club for Mao. Maoism is about proletarian truth, a scientific approach to history, society and revolution.

Like Morning Sun, Bloody Revolution covers events leading up to the Cultural Revolution and the different phases of the Cultural Revolution decade from 1966 to 1976. It covers the rise of Liu Shaoqi after the Great Leap and the early struggles. It covers the mass movement phase from 1966 to 1968, the Ninth Congress, the rise and fall of Lin Biao, the shift toward Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and the rightist PLA in the 1970s. It covers Mao’s death in September of 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four. Like Morning Sun, this film will be a history lesson for those who think that Cultural Revolution was a single event lasting a decade — as though red guards were running around seizing power in the 1970s. Most of what is thought of the Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to 1969 or 1971. Most of what is thought of as the Cultural Revolution was over after the mass movement period of 1966 through 1968 and the fall of Lin Biao in 1971. Real Maoism is more a product of the late 1960s than the 1970s. As far as history lessons go, Bloody Revolution is inferior to Morning Sun.

Society had become very stagnant and bureaucratized at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg reports that Mao used to say that there is nothing worse than a stagnant pool. The film does not hide that it favors Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. It favors the stagnant pool over the Maoists. (4)The Maoists are painted as extremists, idealists, utopians, fanatics who led China on a “descent into hell.” Along with this caricature, all the violence that happened during those years is attributed to the Maoists alone. The Cultural Revolution was a revolution, a class struggle. Revolutions are violent and messy affairs, they are not dinner parties. However, the film makes no distinctions between the violence of the rebels and the rightist violence of the counter current that often suppressed the rebels by force of arms in the provinces, for example. Rather, the film tends to portray the Cultural Revolution on the streets as merely an epiphenomenon of byzantine court politics. While it is true that one aspect of the Cultural Revolution was the removal of top leaders in authority taking the capitalist road, the Cultural Revolution, in its most farsighted moments, was more than that. It was a movement of “big debates,” “big democracy,” aimed at “touching people’s very souls” and remaking society at every level. The vision of the rebel mass movements for a commune of China with mass democracy and the left PLA vision of an egalitarian Yanan-like society of study, whether practical or not, were important to keeping the movement alive. These radical programs for society energized the masses and reset the coordinates of what people conceived as possible. The Cultural Revolution aimed for communism — the end of all oppression. With the ending of the mass movements in 1968 and then the fall of Lin Biao in 1971, the revolutionary energy dissipated. According to the film, “By 1969, however, the Cultural Revolution was running out of steam, the spontaneity had gone. Even Mao seemed bored.” Nixon visited in 1972. In 1973, “To take Lin’s place, Mao rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, the second biggest capitalist roader he’d purged in the Cultural Revolution. The radicals led by Jiang Qing could hardly conceal their dismay.” Bloody Revolution comments on the fall of the Gang of Four, the last leftists standing at the time of Mao’s death. Zhou Bingde, Zhou Enlai’s niece, stated, “The moment I heard the news [of Mao’s death], I thought now Jiang Qing will really get what’s coming to her because the entire Chinese people hated Jiang Qing’s guts. She made them mash their teeth. They loathed her.” Whether this statement is exactly true or not, it seems to be the case that the Gang of Four were not very popular with the masses. There were no massive uprisings with their fall, shock-waves did not ripple throughout society. This shows how the masses were fairly depoliticized in the 1970s.

Bloody Revolution covers the growth of Mao’s cult of personality as though the cult phenomenon is unique to socialism. Cults of all kinds exist in Western capitalist societies: leader cults, celebrity cults, religious cults, and so on. All things considered, following a cult around a revolutionary leader who smashed imperialism, smashed feudalism and brought socialism to a quarter of humanity is more rational than obsessing over a celebrity who makes sex tapes and drives drunk. (5) The film compares the Mao cult to “a religion in its most naive and primitive stage.” The cult released tremendous energy among the masses; it was used to dislodge capitalist roaders like Liu Shaoqi. However, there can be no doubt that the cult also substituted itself for scientific understanding. Even today, most of those who praise Mao  know next to nothing about the Cultural Revolution. Was there an alternative to the cult given the circumstances that existed in China at the time? Is the broad dissemination of scientific knowledge possible without the use of pre-scientific packaging? If not, then is there a better way? These are important questions that revolutionary scientists should think about.

The film correctly comments on Lin Biao’s erasure from history by the revisionists. The same could be said of Lin Biao’s treatment by many Maoist parties. Lin Biao all but vanishes from both the revisionist orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of many of the Maoist fans of Mao. Sidney Rittenberg’s comment about the Cultural Revolution being decidedly ignored rings true for both present Chinese society and the Maoists in the so-called international communist movement. At best, the fans of Mao can only regurgitate Beijing Review from the mid-1970s or Zhou Enlai’s Tenth Congress Report.  Upholding the Cultural Revolution means knowing something about it, asking hard questions and actually being able to say something about how things could have been done better. The Cultural Revolution began a half century ago. Yet none of these dopey organizations are capable of saying anything in-depth about it. To uphold the Cultural Revolution requires taking a stand. Only Leading Light Communism truly understands the Cultural Revolution.

1. Ball, Joseph. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?” Monthly Review Commentary September 2006:
2. Maoist Internationalist Movement. “Myths about Maoism”
3. Monkey Smashes Heaven. “1967: Robert Williams on the principal contradiction (Beijing Review reprint with commentary)” Monkey Smashes Heaven 31 August 2007:
4. The pool wasn’t really stagnant in a literal sense since there is always class struggle. There is always the problem emerging capitalists within the party and state itself during the socialist period.
5. “Paris Hilton says DUI arrest ‘was nothing’” Associated Press 7 September 2006: