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China’s New Cultural Counter-Revolution

Remember the times when peasants, not the proletariat, were the vanguards of China’s communist revolution?

July 22, 2013

Credit: leungchopan -

In 1956, Chuck Berry, the iconic rock star, first sang his smash hit: “Roll Over Beethoven.” The second verse goes as follows:

You know, my temperature’s risin’
The jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse.
My heart’s beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps a-singin’ the blues.
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikowsky the news.

The 1950s were the first decade after the Second World War had ended. The onset of the iconoclastic rock-and-roll music brought a musical-cultural revolution against the schmaltzy melodies of earlier decades. (My sister and I were forbidden to play Elvis Presley records!)

Ten years after Chuck Berry first recorded “Roll Over Beethoven,” in 1966, another cultural revolution broke out. This time, it happened in the People’s Republic of China.

The episode lasted ten years, until Mao Zedong’s death, and was officially known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was directed principally at urbanites, elites, intellectuals and party cadres who were denounced for having abandoned the “mass line” and forsaken “the people.”

They were forced to engage in humiliating self-criticism and were then “sent down” (xiafang) from urban areas to the countryside. There they would clean pigsties and participate in the backbreaking work of the peasants.

This was also a time when China’s universities were in turmoil, run by the Red Guards. Students were enrolled not because they were expert in any particular discipline, but because they were “red.”

Hence the slogan, “Better Red than Expert.” Being red was to be able to recite the greatest possible number of quotations from Mao’s Little Red Book.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921 and, under the guidance of Moscow, initially followed an orthodox ideological line.

However, in April 1927 the CCP suffered a rout at the hands of the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek and consequently was forced to flee the cities for the countryside.

A month earlier, in March 1927, Mao had published his seminal work, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan.” The document set out the “importance of the peasant problem” and that henceforth the peasantry, not the proletariat, would be the “vanguards” of the Chinese communist revolution.

Another slogan that vociferously emerged during the Cultural Revolution was the “three-anti campaigns.” The first campaign was anti-Lin Biao, Mao’s erstwhile number two, who was accused of seeking to usurp power.

Lin died in 1971 in a plane crash in Mongolia, while — according to the “official” version of events — trying to escape to Moscow, with which Beijing was on bad terms ever since the Sino-Soviet split of 1960.

The second campaign was anti-Confucius. In fact, Confucius and his teachings had been under quite virulent attack by Chinese modernizers, notably in what was called the 1919 May Fourth Movement. It was argued that Confucianism was the cause of China’s backwardness.

Confucianism seeks to achieve social harmony through a rigorous adhesion to the Five Basic Relationships, the first four of which (sovereign-subject, father-son, elder-brother-younger-brother, and husband-wife) are absolute vertical hierarchical relationships, with only the fifth (friend-friend) equal and horizontal.

Respect for elders and especially filial piety feature as absolute cardinal principles.

A key endeavor of the anti-Confucius campaign during the Cultural Revolution was to have sons denounce, indeed often beat and torture, their fathers.

And the third campaign of the Cultural Revolution was anti-Beethoven!

Beethoven was seen as the symbol of decadent bourgeois western culture, in contrast to the great Chinese proletarian revolutionary culture, the champion of which was Mao’s wife, the former actress Jiang Qing.

How about today?

China has been witnessing the greatest rural-urban migration not only that the world has ever witnessed, but could ever have imagined. Already, the urban population in China is greater than the rural population.

The current plan is that by 2025 there should be another 250 million urban migrants, which comes to an average of 21 million moving each year, equivalent to the total population of Australia!

This arises not solely, by any means, from economic forces. It is now also part of the CCP’s ideology — or dream! Its vision is one of a China that is a modern, urban, industrialised country and not one of poor backward peasants!

As to Confucianism, its official revival has been going on for a few years. This can be seen, among other things, in the proliferation of “Confucius Institutes” around the world, through which Beijing hopes to spread its soft power.

But there is no starker example of Confucianist fundamentalism than in the exhortations — backed up by law — that children should look after and regularly visit their aging parents. Patricide is out, filial piety is back.

Filial piety, however, is easier when there are a lot of filii about — but when, as a result of the one child policy and massive landflight, there is a single filius, things are more difficult.

With the rapid aging of the Chinese population, a pension and healthcare crisis could be looming in the form of a major social disaster.

Younger generations, however, do not necessarily see things the Confucianist way.

In any case, with all the internal migrations in China over recent decades visiting parents living in distant provinces is not that easy. Thus, the CCP is now actively promoting urban and Confucianist values.

As to Beethoven, well, he (along with Tchaikovsky) can now roll back. There is a deep love in China for Western classical music that is manifested in many ways.

There is the new opera house in Beijing designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, which was inaugurated in December 2007. There is the Beijing International Music Festival for youth from throughout the world, held annually in the last two weeks in August since 2004.

The Chinese violinist Lang Lang played at the special Bastille Day (July 14th) public concert in front of the Eiffel Tower this year.

While exact figures are hard to come by, estimates are that some 50 million Chinese children study the piano.

For adults, there is the annual Beijing Music Festival held in October, which some compare to Salzburg. The opening concert last year was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E Flat major (aka the “Symphony of a Thousand”), played by the China Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit.

And in Qingdao, there is a magnificent, indeed monumental, monument to Ludwig van Beethoven. Qingdao, famous for its production of beer, had been a German sphere of influence during the Western imperialist period.

This is just one more illustration of the fact that no country in the history of humanity has undergone in such a short period such profound topsy-turvy transformations.


Remember when peasants, not the proletariat, would be the "vanguards" of China's communist revolution?

The Communist Party's vision is a modern, urban, industrialized China, not a land of poor, backward peasants.

The Chinese Communist Party is now actively promoting urban and Confucianist values.

The foremost example of Confucian fundamentalism is the law that children must care for aging parents.

There is a deep love in China for Western classical music.