When the Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966 as a “revolution from above,” the relationships between Mao and those who responded to his call were highly fragile, and political messages were interpreted in different ways by different agents. In responding to contradictory central policies, grassroots activists also responded to their own socioeconomic and political circumstances, and the forces unleashed by Mao often took on lives of their own. As Yiching Wu shows in The Cultural Revolution at the Margins, new this month, the disorder caused by mass activism from below and power conflicts and paralysis at the top created a genuine political crisis, the suppression of which became the starting point for a series of measures that eventually led to the momentous changes in Chinese politics and society a decade later.
Below, HUP Editorial Assistant Shan Wang relates a bit of family history that Wu’s work on the tangled ideology of the CR has helped bring into focus.
In a scene from the 1965 Chinese animation film Havoc in Heaven, the Monkey King Sun Wukong enters the undersea realm of the Dragon King in search of a weapon befitting his stature. Preternaturally strong but also enormously arrogant, Wukong poo-poos the best of the Dragon King’s offerings, until the King challenges Wukong to pluck from the seafloor a ten-ton pillar used to stabilize the oceans, certain that Wukong wouldn’t be able. Not only does Wukong lift the pole, he is also somehow able to control its size. The Dragon King looks on in anger and disbelief as Wukong swims back up to land with his new weapon in hand, leaving in his wake the now-turbulent waters of the Eastern Sea.
Havoc in Heaven, which I watched regularly growing up without realizing the precarious political backdrop against which it was released, was the last film my great grandfather Wan Laiming directed as head of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio before studio operations came to a standstill in 1966. When the first half of the film was released in 1961, state and public reception was glowing, but by 1965, when the second half was completed, it became impossible not to recognize in it revolutionary undercurrents. At first, Mao was compared favorably to the mischievous Sun Wukong, wreaking havoc in “Heaven,” overturning the Chinese bourgeoisie. But by the same metaphor Mao had also plucked away the country’s “stabilizing pillar” with his disastrous Great Leap Forward. By the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s China could be seen as “Heaven,” Mao himself its stuffy Jade Emperor, and the disenfranchised groups living under his regime, the monkeys.