Research Notes: Free Thinkers in Communist China

I came across an essay by Mao Zedong entitled 反对党八股, or anti party jargon, in a Language Arts Textbook the other day. In the essay, Mao criticized party propaganda and party doctrine as being disadvantageous to the development of China. He also praised the May Fourth thinkers (a group to which he, once upon a time, once belonged); the May Fourthers were original in their thinking and their plans, and that plethora of ideas caused great development in the new China. This was somewhat reminiscent of Mao's 100 Flowers campaign, which came to a screeching halt in the 1950s when Mao decided to arrest and kill all those scholars he previously told to voice their criticisms. In the article, he claims that Anti party jargon is similar to what Lu Xun taught, and these, which propagate democracy and science, are very good for the party.

There is no need to point out the inconsistencies here, since most of what was included in the textbook was government propaganda. But the theme here I think is worth mentioning, because this is not the only time that the "be original and go against the grain" raised itself in language textbooks. Many of the stories also praise children for going against authority, for being creative and leading others in a new direction, etc. Very few stories praise people for simply following what everyone else was doing. For example, one girl who is so dedicated to the Communists kills herself rather than work for the other side during the Civil war in the 40s. Another group of children help to do a lot of yard work for their teacher even when she doesn't ask for it, calling it their secret (hence the name, the "Secret" of the Little Red Guards). One other example was about children who secretly studied Chinese during the war of Japanese resistance, which was illegal.There are even stories of children standing up to adults, such as one story where a child recognizes an adult stealing sheep from their neighbor, and the child confronts the man and tells him that is not right.

While these stories obviously teach moral lessons about the importance of following party doctrine, it also seems to glorify children who are extraordinary, not ordinary. The idea is that once people have the right basis to stand on, being the party doctrine, they should be creative and original, because that leads to a better China.

I think what I found most interesting about this theme is that it goes against much of what we think of when it comes to the Communist Era. Most pictures and representations and stereotypes of the time imply that everyone was meant to do nothing but follow orders, and that the Communists created a bunch of sheep. Instead, they inspired a generation of people who wanted to stick out and do what was best for the party through extraordinary and creative acts, not just by following what everyone else did. In practice, this is obviously not necessarily what happened. But the fact that this "free thinking" was part of the education I think is revealing about the Communist period. We should not shove off this period as being one of total control and authoritarianism, but rather, a time of creativity within a certain framework. This framework stifled most, but inspired others, such as the people in the stories or even real memoirs. We should also not just pass of textbooks as being simply government propaganda, but accept the possibility that they reflected a feasible reality. What that reality was, however, is much harder to discover.

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