Review part 3: Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (edited by Zueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di). Rutgers University Press. USA: 2001. Review by Prairie Fire (llco.org)
Overall, the autobiographical writings in Some of Us are reactionary. Most of the perspectives in Some of Us are those of elite Chinese women, many of whom pursued academic careers in the West. Even so, the book contains important insights into gender in the Mao era. Some of Us undermines both the official, Deng-era and Western, revisionist narrative. It also undermines the cartoonish anti-communism so popular in the bourgeois media. For this reason, the book is a valuable tool.
The Cultural Revolution, whether intentional or not, was the greatest instance of youth liberation in history. The Cultural Revolution was not conceived in official documents as a movement to liberate youth from patriarchal oppression per se. However, this was one of its effects. In its opening years, the Red Guards were to be revolutionary successors. Before the this road was defeated, the youth wielded political power through their own independent, mass organizations. In the first year of the Cultural Revolution, the “young generals” were allowed to seize real political power. The youth movement played a key, vanguard role in the struggle against the four olds, the power seizure phase, and the struggle against Liu Shaoqi. The youth movement played a key role in the first radical, utopian trend in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 into 1968. A side effect of empowering youth was the weakening of the gerontocracy within the Party and state for at least a few years. Later, Mao turned against this road. Even though short lived, the empowerment of youth was one of the reasons that the Cultural Revolution, at its height, was the furthest advance toward communism in human history.
Bai Di gives an account, albeit dismissive, of how she, as a youth, seized power in her family:
“Mother sat at the other end of the table. She was more patient with us now because my father was home. She kept saying that she had to thank the Cultural Revolution for giving back her husband. She often said, ‘Huaishi bian haoshi [A bad thing can turn into something good],’ quoting Chairman Mao.
As dinner drew to an end and as my mother’s newly learned dish, fried pork loin, settled in our bellies, my father’s out-of-tune humming serenaded us. Overcoming my intense uneasiness, I finally mustered up the courage to announce to them that I would like to duaquan (seize power) in our family.
‘What? What power?’ Mother shouted back.
‘We should have a power seizure struggle in our family,’ unable to explain myself, I merely repeated my statement.
Why did they need an explanation? I wondered. They surely understood the meaning of ‘seizing the power.’ Outside, the deafening sound of gongs and drums celebrating victory of Shanghai’s January power seizure had been going on for nearly a month now. Following Shanghai’s example, geming zaofanpai (the revolutionary rebels) in at least ten provinces tried to gain provincial power, but only in our Heilongjiang Province rebels had succeeded. Besides, my mother was trying very hard to join the power-seizing Red Guards in her school, and father’s power had been taken away by the students at his university. Actually, power seizure was one of the main topics at the dinner table between my parents those days if they ever talked at all in front of me and my brother.
‘Seize what? Cooking is the power here. All right, from tomorrow on, you cook!’ My mother conceived of a way out partly to deal with my rebellion, partly to gain relief for herself from the pain of kitchen work. Our family nanny had left at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.
Father was quiet during my mother’s counterattack, but the bewildered look on his face clearly showed that he needed some clarification from his adored daughter. Clarification I gave, but I cannot recall the exact words I used. With some revolutionary mumbo jumbo, I managed to make my point: I wanted to have some economic power, which boiled down to money. Yeah, I needed pocket money. In the end, my mother’s anger ebbed, thanks to my father’s mediation, and a middle ground was found among all the parties. I would have some pocket money under the condition that I take charge of buying food for the family, which meant I was responsible for going to the market each day. ‘Money is earned,’ Mother said, not forgetting to throw her motto at me when the ordeal had ended.
Power seizure at home was a collective action. While I was negotiating with my parents for the first time in my life, I knew I was not the only one being rebellious zaofan toward my parents. A somewhat similar situation was staged in two other households in our residential courtyard… It was joy, but, more than that, it was newly found confidence in myself. I had a face-off with my parents, especially my mother, and I won the battle. For me, nothing could be a greater achievement than having my own voice heard and my desires recognized and satisfied by my parents, the ultimate authority figures in my life.
Thanks to this well-thought-out plan in which we had decided to satisfy our personal needs under the guise of fashionable politics, we got what we wanted from our miserly parents. To be honest, I hadn’t the faintest idea then what duoquan meant. It was just a powerful word with which one could get what one ordinarily could not. How we translated the personal into the political while plotting power seizure, I have no recollection.” (pp. 81-83)
Bourgeois narratives often portray the early Cultural Revolution as Lord of the Flies-type chaos manipulated by those at the heights of power for their own cynical ends. Some of Us has a different outlook on the decade. Bai Di’s account of how power seizures spread to the domestic realm is an example of how social forces are bigger than any particular conflict between leaders. Regardless of the motivations or intentions of the leaders at the heights of institutional power, the struggles of the early Cultural Revolution liberated youth by giving them real independent power. What is important is that these struggles involved broader social forces regardless of the conceptions of those involved. And, in those early years, the Maoist leadership was on the side of youth rebellion against gerontocracy, against patriarchy, and against the bourgeoisie headquarters.
Bai Di’s account even if dismissive of the Cultural Revolution shows how the language of rebellion was pervasive, even in the domestic sphere. Even though to Bai Di her own words were “mumbo jumbo,” she is able to use the language of the times to re-negotiate power within her family. The speech acts are imbued with power separate from the particular understanding of the individual articulating them. The culture is one where the tools of revolution have become available as the language of the everyday. Speech acts to overthrow authority are ready-to-hand such that even the young and uneducated are able to wield them against authority. In a similar way, the “Red Book” made it easier for the masses to invoke the legitimation narrative of society, Mao’s words, for their own ends. The linguistic habits of the early Cultural Revolution challenged authority in general even if those habits re-inscribed Mao’s own authority as absolute. Later, this situation would change as Mao pulled back from the more radical aspects of the Cultural Revolution.
What is important to highlight is just how the Cultural Revolution revolutionized everyday life for youth. Some children formed their own Cultural Revolution acting troupes. Others set off on marches to distant places to demonstrate on behalf of Maoism. Authority at almost every level could find itself challenged by youth. This did not just affect the public realm, but also the private realm of the family. In the Manifesto Marx wrote, “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” The early Cultural Revolution, more than any other period, realized the communist goal of youth liberation. The brief passages in Some of Us give us glimpses of how the growing political power of youth manifested itself. Insofar as youth liberation is touched on at all by bourgeois historians, the early Cultural Revolution is represented as a time of youth run amok, Lord of the Flies writ large, Lord of the Flies multiplied by about a billion. Some of Us, despite its own bourgeois outlook, challenges typical, one-sided bourgeois narratives.