Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China's Cultural Revolution

Policies of Chaos: The Organizational Causes of Violence in China's Cultural Revolution

by Lynn T. White III


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, October 25


The tumult of the Cultural Revolution after 1966 is often blamed on a few leaders in Beijing, or on long-term egalitarian ideals, or on communist or Chinese political cultures. Lynn White shows, however, that the chaos resulted mainly from reactions by masses of individuals and small groups to three specific policies of administrative manipulation: labeling groups, designating bosses, and legitimating violence in political campaigns. These habits of local organization were common after 1949 and gave the state success in short-term revolutionary aims, despite scarce resources and staff—but they also drove millions to attack each other later.

First, measures accumulated before 1966 to give people bad or good names (such as "rightist" or "worker"); these set a family's access to employment, education, residence, and rations—so they gave interests to potential conflict groups. Second, policies for bossism went far beyond Confucian patronage patterns, making work units tightly dependent on Party monitors—so rational individuals either pandered to local bosses or (when they could) deposed them. Third, the institutionalized violence of political campaigns both mobilized activists and scared others into compliance. These organizational measures were often effective in the short run before 1966 but accumulated social costs that China paid later. The book ends with comparisons to past cases of mass urban ostracism in other countries, and it suggests how such tragedies may be forecast or prevented in the future.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691609164
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1031
Pages: 382
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Policies of Chaos

The Organizational Causes of Violence in China's Cultural Revolution

By Lynn T. White III


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00876-9


What the Cultural Revolution Was, and Why It Happened

Why is fire hot, or water deep? — Chinese Proverb

Why did the Cultural Revolution occur? What made urban Chinese attack each other in the streets? How could a polity whose precepts of organization came from either Lenin or Confucius fall apart so completely? Why in 1966 did so many Chinese — as most of them now think — go politically berserk? This remains a question on China's agenda, even though there are reasons for many Chinese to forget about it. Such a searing experience shapes attitudes toward the future.

Because this mass movement wounded many patriotic Chinese deeply, they ask how it happened, who or what gave rise to it, whom or what to blame. Uncertainty about the Cultural Revolution's cause haunts current politics, even though many Chinese look back on their actions in that time with a sense of embarrassment. The major novelist Ba Jin, whose wife died during the turmoil, expresses a commonly held view: "I am sure it would be impossible that anyone who did not experience the Cultural Revolution directly, or has never been forced to dig deep into his soul and reveal all the ugliness that he found, could understand what actually happened." Yet Ba Jin does not pretend to tell us why the Cultural Revolution occurred. It was, for many, a personal experience so traumatic that a rational or cause-seeking analysis of its origins, such as this book attempts, may seem too shallow an approach. Many people nonetheless want to know why the violence occurred, because they want to prevent anything like it from happening again.


The CR, or Cultural Revolution, is often understood in narrow and official terms, as the peak of Party Chairman Mao Zedong's reign in China. Its beginning is ordinarily defined by events in high-level politics (even though most Chinese best remember its effects at street level). Some say it started with a speech that Mao's defense minister Lin Biao gave in September 1965; others refer to an editorial that Yao Wenyuan published in October of that year. Some say the CR started with an inspirational statement by Mao himself on May 16, 1966.

The end of the CR is even harder to pinpoint, but it is also usually measured by the headlines of high politics. A Party Congress was held in 1969, after most of the random violence had subsided; and this meeting ended the Cultural Revolution, according to some. Lin Biao's power and life ended in September 1971; if the CR is conceived as a gradual military takeover, this reversed it. Mao finally died in 1976, so that year is most often (and officially) taken as the end of the Cultural Revolution. Such a view implies Mao should be credited or blamed for the whole episode.

Chinese memories of the Cultural Revolution make it a time of apparently senseless violence, a holocaust-like event that needs to be understood so it will never be allowed to recur. If this definition becomes primary, the most relevant years are 1966–68, when the ordinary lives of many Chinese urban people were most disrupted. This book defines the CR mainly in terms of its violence and chaos. But the origins of the movement may at first seem harder to think about when its definition becomes less superficial and less dependent on news stories about high-level politics and ideas from Beijing. One of the purposes of this book is to show that the Cultural Revolution's standard definition, in both scholarly and official literatures, has obscured a search for the roots of its violence. The Cultural Revolution is defined in this book on a scope appropriate for that search — even at the risk of using its name in a new way.

"Gang of Four" Maoist leadership is still the usual answer to questions about the cause of the Cultural Revolution: a few high-placed members of the Party elite inspired hundreds of millions of people to work for a more egalitarian China — and to throw out their rivals in Beijing who had different goals. Mao condoned the criticism even of Communist officials in order to realize his own visions. This kind of explanation is useful for an analysis of Mao and a few of his friends or rivals. They had remarkable passions, which had important effects.

But China is a big place. Its politics cover more than four or five people. The usual elite-oriented explanation of the Cultural Revolution throws light on some of the causes of the movement, but it begs too many important questions: Why were revolutionary ideas growing so luxuriantly in large urban groups by the mid-1960s? Why did individuals become so interested in them? If the radical seed germinated in the minds of a few national leaders, how could they scatter it with such signal success, so widely and quickly? What was in China's ground to make it flourish? Were the underlying reasons for the Cultural Revolution's violence explicit in statements of that time? Why were the victims of such diverse kinds, including previous officials as well as previous outcasts? To what extent were the motives of the city people who made this "revolution" all the same, irrespective of the groups from which they came? Why were the conspirators and the victims in this movement at various stages so often similar (or indeed, the very same people)? Is it most persuasive to place blame for this holocaust only on Mao, or on Chinese traditions that change very slowly, or on some inherent flaw of socialism, or on the means by which the state activated any such broad factors in the specific motives of millions?

Such questions cannot be answered if the CR is seen as comparable only to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, whose causes may never be adequately known. Many presume that something in the psychology of mass behavior, some native human aggressiveness — but random, inexplicable, indelible, like a lightning bolt or wildfire, a deep fault in the earth or original sin — is the center of the problem. The causes of such disasters can seldom be sufficiently shown. "Herd instinct" was important at this time; people were afraid of being left outside the circle of the legitimate community. In a slogan of that period, people said they would "rush wherever Chairman Mao points." The application of physical and animalistic metaphors to the Cultural Revolution seems difficult to avoid, because they accurately describe the terror that many Chinese still recall. But such metaphors cannot be completely satisfactory. This book tries to go beyond them. Even if they are true to the underlying causes of the event, they do not show conditions whose absence would have precluded the Cultural Revolution. Even natural disasters have causes, and it is worthwhile to try and understand them. In any case, it will not do to begin with concepts implying that the explanatory task here is mostly impossible.

Even if there are frightening monsters in the caves of the human soul (or the Chinese soul), their existence would not explain why they emerged in 1966 — and why they stay safely underground most of the time. Comparisons of paranoia and conspiracy terrors under Mao with those under Hitler or Stalin show that social doctrines do not account for the intensity of activities such leaders foster. But why do such fearsome options in politics become attractive to wide masses of people at some times and places and not at others? Why do people make these choices, rather than select alternatives equally available in their cultures and ideologies? If high leadership was the only cause, why were so many followers enthusiastic enough to obey orders for violence against their neighbors?


The answers we find depend largely on the questions we ask. The main characteristic of the Cultural Revolution — the main thing to be explained about it — is in retrospect its violence. Yet many past writings have centered on other aspects of it. The best Chinese book on the Cultural Revolution, and most Western books about it, are play-by-play narrative accounts. Interpretive studies have emerged in both Chinese and other languages, and it is clear that many possible questions about the Cultural Revolution are legitimate matters for study.

If this event is seen mainly as a psychological ordeal for millions who survived it, then a current practical issue is one of therapy. Major national officials have said that about one hundred million people (one-tenth of the country's population) suffered in the Cultural Revolution. Some were victimized directly; others, by association with close relatives. Some say that twenty million people died in the Cultural Revolution. A much lower estimate of these fatalities (by a Western scholar who successfully debunks inflated casualty figures in Chinese campaigns) numbers the deaths at about one million. But as this same, more conservative estimator points out: "The Cultural Revolution, even aside from its deaths, was a tragedy of immense proportions, devastating in its impact on the Chinese people." No one knows the exact number of deaths or victims in this event. The meaning of statistics in holocausts is difficult to comprehend. Not enough can be done to alleviate the sense of guilt among survivors, their fears that the movement might recur, and the wounds that many Chinese still feel. An outsider may be in a position to offer clinical advice for the victims, but that is not the aim of this book. An attempt to understand the hurt in terms of its social causes is the main goal here.

If the Cultural Revolution is conceived as a set of policies handed down from Beijing — and this is the most common conception of it — then a careful look at very few top leaders should suffice to describe it. But in this book, the CR is defined as an act of violence by and against millions of people. So it is necessary to look for explanations broadly, among a great many actors. Studies of labeled social groups, of dyadic relations between monitors and clients, and of the results of institutionalized campaign violence will forward an understanding of why old authorities collapsed and new local leaders became so ambitious so unexpectedly.

This book aims at finding the reasons for massive political frustration among many urban Chinese by the mid-1960s. It is partly concerned with leaders — official local bosses, as well as informal leaders of self-conscious groups that were not necessarily official. But the main question concerns both leaders and their followers: Why did people ostracize each other? Why did they cut each other off, within their daily work units? Why did they go on the streets to attack many whom they did not even know? The isolation and humiliation were even harder for many victims of the CR to bear than was the torture. Perhaps widespread frustrations would not have erupted so violently without encouragement from Mao and his well-known "gang." But it is unclear how four or five people could have produced such extensive, thorough, highly motivated fury among millions, however much their policies justified violence.

This book argues that the specific causes of the Cultural Revolution as a mass movement lay in administrative policies used in the whole pre-1966 history of the PRC. Especially important were three institutionalized policies whose effectiveness cumulated only gradually. These implementing, administrative policies were means by which the Party tried to achieve ambitious goals with scarce resources.

1. Official good and bad labels for groups, such as "cadres" or "proletarians," "rightists" or "capitalists," made people acquire concrete interests in seeing these labels used in their favor and not to their harm. These labels created "status groups," which became conscious of their shared interests in official allocations of jobs, housing, services, places in schools, and rights to live in cities. The labels created new kinds of collective group consciousness.

2. Official support for designated bosses and monitors raised individuals' dependence on particular leaders in units where they worked or studied. This dependency also lessened individuals' ability to find alternative livelihoods outside those units. Such policies forced people into clientage more surely than the feudal legacy of Confucian patriarchy ever did. State support for strong hierarchy in local units created a situation that made it "rational" for individual actors to behave as if maintaining links with their official bosses was the touchstone for all they did in public. These policies bred both adulation and resentment of patrons. By the mid-1960s, many urbanites were ready to follow orders for "struggle" against either the designated leaders or their local rivals, depending on how they had fared as individuals with the pre-CR local monitor.

3. Official campaigns frightened citizens into avid compliance with state policies. These movements reduced short-run administrative costs for an understaffed Party needing support for revolutionary social programs. But the campaigns also legitimated violence. "Killing chickens to scare monkeys" (sha ji jing hou) had become normal workaday policy by August 1966, when a relaxation of previous police controls on urban politics allowed many new groups and individuals to conflict with each other — and to use similar violence for their own ends.

None of these policies was foreordained by Communist or Chinese traditions, both of which come in many possible forms. Unstable policy has usually been explained as the result of tensions among elites, though not on the local level. This may seem tenable, or at least interesting, when a central participant was that most engaging loose cannon, Mao Zedong. But a reason for the ever-changing policies from Beijing lies in the results, for gaining mass compliance, of vacillation itself. Constant unpredictability, when backed by state force, tends to scare people. It is an administrative policy that raises the chances of (and lessens the costs of) public compliance with any other policies.

An emphasis on tensions among the national elite obscures this link. All top leaders benefit from the effects of their unpredictability at lower levels. The habit of campaigns strengthens the government, no matter which faction wins in Beijing. The dependence of subordinates on monitors is also an interest of all members of the Party's highest ranks, whatever their policy differences on more substantive issues. The broad constituency that positive labels created for the Party also was a benefit for all of the most important leaders. For the whole period from 1949 to 1966, and for all top leaders, standard operating procedures involved labeling people, enmeshing them in hard-to-change patronage networks, and legitimating campaign violence. These were general habits that cut the expense of garnering mass compliance with revolutionary rule. Such patterns had long-term costs (the most important was the Cultural Revolution), but these were not easy to foresee. For a decade and a half, many immediate victories of good-label groups, tight hierarchy, and brief campaigns obscured the bigger, unintended consequences of these effective techniques of short-term manipulation.

The widespread habit of force arose not just from struggle among a few politicians, or just from patriarchal flaws in Chinese culture, or just from the allure of proletarian social ideals or contrastive, vivid political symbols. It stemmed mainly from the gap between the Party's shortage of capable revolutionaries and its need for mass compliance. The socialization of Chinese to follow the Party Chairman was important, especially in 1966 when the movement began. But groups' and individuals' accumulated reaction to administrative policies in the entire period after 1949 was the main cause of the Cultural Revolution's forcefulness.


This chapter contains generalizations that later evidence will confirm; but first, the theses set forth above deserve to be made more explicit. The inherent confusion of the Cultural Revolution militates against any final analysis of it. The constituencies most relevant to this mass movement were not just elite factions in Beijing. Nor were they economically generated classes. They were status groups. The first topic concerns how they arose.


Excerpted from Policies of Chaos by Lynn T. White III. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 What the Cultural Revolution Was, and Why It Happened, 3,
CHAPTER 2 Workers and Managers: New Democracy vs. Socialism, 1949–1956, 50,
CHAPTER 3 Students and Residents: Policing vs. Patriotism, 1949–1956, 87,
CHAPTER 4 Workers and Managers: The Transition to Socialism, 1956–1957, 104,
CHAPTER 5 Students and Residents: Flowers, Coercion, and Minds, 1956–1957, 130,
CHAPTER 6 The Great Leap Forward and Salvation by Work, 1958–1962, 148,
CHAPTER 7 Exhaustion in the Leap among Residents and Intellectuals, 1958–1962, 163,
CHAPTER 8 Tightening Control over the Economy, 1962–1966, 180,
CHAPTER 9 A Standardized System for Urban Statuses, 1962–1966, 200,
CHAPTER 10 Maoists Try to Remake Management, 1966–1968, 221,
CHAPTER 11 Conflict among Local Symbol Makers, 1966–1968, 270,
CHAPTER 12 Conclusion: Causes and Lessons of the Tragedy, 306,
INDEX, 353,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews