Chinese exercises

16th February 2001 at 00:00
(Photograph) - For a Westerner the most remarkable aspect of this scene is that these thousands of people are performing their morning exercises in public. Can you imagine that in Trafalgar Square? It suggests a less individualistic, more conformist society than our own. But behind this picture from China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) lies a history of struggle and terror.

In 1938, China's communist leader, Mao Zedong, declared: "We must affirm anew the discipline of the Party, namely: the individual is subordinate to the organisation; the minority is subordinate to the majority; the lower level is subordinate to the higher level; the entire membership is subordinate to the Central Committee. Whoever violates these articles of discipline disrupts Party unity."

Mao could allow for no doubt. He had just led thousands of his followers on the Long March across freezing desert to escape the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek's ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) party. Doubt would have destroyed any chance of ending the millennia-long oppression of the Chinese peasantry.

The Chinese Communist Party did indeed come to power in 1949, after a long, bitterly fought civil war. But Mao's experiments in decentralised industrialisation - for instance, building thousands of backyard steel furnaces instead of large mills - and collectivising agriculture were wildly overambitious.

There was mass starvation in 1959, and by the mid-1960s the revolution had stalled. Mao's economic policies had destroyed much traditional agriculture and industry without putting any workable modern structures in their place. Factions opposing Mao had appeared in the army and in the party bureaucracy. Ma decided to act.

Extolling the necessity of permanent revolution, in which the "will of the masses" was constantly being reborn, Mao exploited the revolutionary fervour of the young to shore up his position. He closed schools and universities staffed by "revisionists"; incited students to denounce their teachers for crimes ranging from the colour of ink used in marking to writing romantic poetry; and applauded attacks on China's cultural heritage. Religion, art, history and "bourgeois alliances" (love affairs with capitalists) were all damned. As a result the Red Guards ruled.

Elders lived in fear of the young, teachers of their students. Being the butt of "constructive criticism" could lead, at best, to slave labour; at worst, to torture, imprisonment and death.

Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and three colleagues - later to become the Gang of Four - restricted all cultural expression, right down to the colours that brides could wear. It must have been a relief to get out there in the morning and do your physical stretches. At least you couldn't be criticised.

Behind the scenes, there were economic disasters, power struggles, murders and bitter fighting between the army and the Red Guards. But in public the people seemed to move as one. Mao, the Great Helmsman of the ship of state, was regularly pictured swimming the great Yangtse river. Physical fitness demonstrated civic fitness. Get those arms swinging, comrades. Photograph by Felix Greene.

Victoria Neumark


Cultural Revolution: www.infoplease.comce6historyA0814235.html

Quotes from Chairman Mao: art-bin.comartomaotoc.html

Communism: encarta.msn.comfindConcise. asp?ti=05135000

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