Precious Windows into an Opaque Period

By Sarah MellorsNovember 23, 2015

Precious Windows into an Opaque Period

Maoism at the Grassroots by Matthew D. Johnson and Jeremy Brown

IN BOSTON 2015, my mother, the daughter of a Newsweek correspondent, recalls her childhood in Soviet Russia during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Having left that country for France in elementary school, my mother’s memories are choppy and scattered. Yet, she remembers with clarity attending preschool everyday in Moscow where she and her classmates were served a breakfast of salty, bright orange red caviar and a cup of café au lait beneath a giant portrait of Vladimir Lenin. After breakfast, my mother recalls her class singing tunes reminiscing about Lenin as a little boy.

These recollections, though fleeting, offer a precious window into a nearly opaque period in Soviet history, and remind us how much history is overlooked when we focus solely on politics and the lives and writings of elite political figures. Particularly in former socialist states where access to information about the everyday was and remains quite limited, it is doubly valuable when we gain insight into the lives of individuals at the “grassroots.”

Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism, co-edited by historians Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson, takes up this task of chronicling the everyday struggles and victories of ordinary Chinese during the period that the authors describe as that of “high socialism.” The era from the mid-1950s to 1980, marked by agricultural collectivization, nationalization of industry, and politicization of everyday life, is often depicted as highly repressive with no room for individual negotiation. As a work of cultural history, Maoism at the Grassroots seeks to complicate interpretations of China’s Mao era (1949–1976) through an examination of diverse and shared experiences of everyday life.

The book’s four thematic sections address repression and Maoist political labels, mobilization, culture and media, and discontent. The initial section on political labels demonstrates how people negotiated political categorizations assigned to them and the deep and longstanding consequences such labels had for individuals and their families. Political and class categories were often in flux and meant different things at different times. Of particular interest is the chapter on Zang Qiren, a young man whose homosexual relationships ultimately trumped his class background, leading to criminal charges of “bad” behavior.

The section on mobilization demonstrates how a group of rural women, youth sent to the countryside for reeducation, and a young man in urban Tianjin experienced various national campaigns. These case studies highlight the gaps between political rhetoric and practice and the extent to which individuals internalized and adapted state narratives.

The book’s third section, on culture and media, undermines the prevailing belief that the Mao era had little room for dissent and instead reveals the pluralism at work in Red Guard publications, film media, and communal religious organizations. While the state penetrated deeply into some aspects of people’s lives, the effectiveness of propaganda was not uniform, leaving space for alternative voices within the propaganda machine and within personal networks. The book’s final section demonstrates the various methods individuals deployed in resisting or co-opting the authority of the Communist Party. In Western China, minority groups led uprisings, cultivated alternative ideologies, and played the political system in efforts to exercise agency. A fascinating chapter on redemptive societies explains how individuals countered state power by declaring themselves emperors with links to imperial China and creating flourishing underground religious sects. As in the best edited volumes, each section of this book is nicely linked to the others and the authors make connections across the chapters rather than writing in isolation.

Though highly specialized, this book is a must-read for scholars who work on the People’s Republic of China and will prove rewarding as well to anyone curious about ordinary life under Communist Party rule. Maoism at the Grassroots also makes an important intervention in the larger project of writing modern Chinese history. Until recently, Western books on China were primarily written by white men and the occasional white woman. This volume features scholarship from an impressive array of both Western and Chinese academics, many of the latter being translated into English for the first time. This marks a turning point in the production of historical scholarship on the Mao era, and hopefully is an indication of growing collaboration among scholars in different parts of the West and in China.

Maoism at the Grassroots, like my mother’s accounts of her childhood in Moscow, highlights the multiplicity of lived experiences under authoritarian rule. Same-sex relationships, anti-government writings, and the worshipping of forbidden deities all in fact took place even during the height of Maoism. The growing body of literature about ordinary lives in Mao’s China leads one to wonder, as Brown and Johnson do, “whether ‘Mao’s China’ ever existed at all.”


Sarah Mellors is a doctoral student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mellors is a doctoral student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. She spent nearly four years in China. Find her on Twitter at @s_mellors.


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