Mao’s Cultural Revolution via Twitter

Giles Marshall
17th September 2015 at 16:30

Giles Marshall, Subject Genius, Mao

The new Key stage 4 specifications have some interesting options, although some of these had already been available previously.  The opportunity to stray between medieval and modern periods, and to locate studies in geographically diverse regions is a welcome one, although the challenge of then engaging our A-level students in forms other than the lecture from the front can prove more difficult.

I must confess that I too often lack the faith I should have in my A-level students, and resort to the hugely unimaginative powerpoint and talk structure.  This is partly because I don’t trust them to read much on their own and feel that I am fulfilling my obligations by passing on the information they need in this clearly identifiable fashion.  But it is also partly because I am worried that A-level students can look a bit askance at ‘different’ or ‘trendy’ methods of teaching.   They too rather like the reliabilities of being told what they need to know and think.

That assumption above could lend itself to a range of pieces looking at different A-level methodologies for history teachers, and some fine work on this has been published over the years.  I want to consider one simple idea which I’ve used to try and untangle some of the competing views surrounding China’s Cultural Revolution.

We’ve been teaching twentieth century Chinese history for some years now and we have decided to hold on to it in the new specifications.  Although we have lost the early twentieth century history – China from 1911 to Jiang Jieshi’s defeat at Mao’s hands in 1949 – we are able to keep a study of Mao Zedong’s China on our course.  Mao is one of the twentieth century’s most abominable and hugely charismatic characters, and his rule was so capricious and brutal that it can hardly help but be engaging.  He is also remarkably difficult to get to understand.  The author Jung Chang, who was able to leave communist China for England, popularised a vivid, articulate and wholly antipathetic view of Mao through her very successful books “Wild Swans” and “Mao: The Untold Story”.  Other modern historians such as Philip Short and Rana Mitter have provided more nuanced accounts – though not particularly sympathetic – while an earlier generation of readers might have been influenced by the hagiographic work of the American journalist Edgar Snow.  

The interesting thing is that views on Mao were varied and controversial even when he was at the height of his power, and at no time more so than the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao had famously complained of being treated like “a dead ancestor” in the aftermath of his disastrous Great Leap Forward, when he was pushed from the front-line of decision making so that Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi could point the communist revolution in a less traumatic and – they hoped – more productive direction.  After just two or three years of this second class treatment, Mao was ready to fight back, and the Cultural Revolution was his chosen method. 

One of the difficulties here – and one which offers such a rich vein of debate for student essays – is consideration of what exactly Mao’s aims were.  How far was he motivated by sheer lust for power as opposed to genuine ideological concern for the direction of his revolution?  How far was it purely personal pique?  This is not, however, purely material for the good old A-level essay.  It can be used to get away from the didactic lesson on which I find myself too dependent.

Sixth form students may be suspicious of anything that appears too overtly trendy in teaching, but they do love discussions and they are inveterate users of social media.  I tried to combine these two characteristics with a “China Question Time” lesson, using the format of the well-known BBC show but allowing students to tweet their opinions throughout.  These – rather daringly – would appear on the interactive whiteboard as they were tweeted, by the simple ruse of putting twitter on the computer and using a hashtag (#ChinaQT in this case) to ensure ready and immediate access.

Twitter is not apparently the preferred method of social communication amongst students – they are more into Instagram, Snapchat or Whatsapp groups I’m told (sorry to sound like an old fogey at this point) – but they do nearly all have a twitter account and, with notice, one is easy to set up.  The virtue of this set-up was that it allowed for all students to be getting their opinions in front of the class, not just the ‘panellists’ who were in character, or the always vocal members of the class.  The twitter aspect was a gimic, yes, but one which interestingly kept the discussion going when it hit occasional stalls (honestly, give them a mobile phone touchpad and sixth formers’ fingers never stop working) and allowed the quiet student the chance to express an opinion without the trauma of vocalising it in front of a lively group of peers.  As for the panellists, by giving them the generic appointments of “Maoist supporter”, “right-hand man to Deng Xiaoping”, “Beijing party official” or “young communist lecturer”, we were able to cover the range of opinions that were so vigorous just before the full outbreak of Mao’s last and most extraordinary revolution.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution was controversial, vigorous, brutal, dynamic and unpredictable and it is difficult to convey this range of aspects in the classroom.  There are certainly some first class books on this (and if you are teaching Maoist China then look out for the last of Frank Dikkotter’s remarkable and vivid accounts which is due to cover the Cultural Revolution).  But getting the nature of its divisiveness can be difficult, and the Question Time with twitter lesson certainly proved to be helpful in illustrating the hot-house nature of Chinese politics on the eve of Mao’s cataclysm.  Vigorous opinions and social media – what could possibly go wrong?

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