Mao during the early 1960s was hanging on to power by a thread. The Great Leap Forward, which was supposed to bring industrialisation to China, had failed. Mao had spearheaded the collectivisation of agriculture and spurious agricultural theories that were supposed to produce a vast food surplus. This abundance of food would then be used to subsidise the development of modern industry and allow China to catch-up with the modern world. That was the theory. The reality was a man-made famine that caused the death of millions.
Much of the Chinese leadership turned against Mao after the nightmare of the Great Leap Forward. The problem was that they couldn’t get rid of him as he was a globally significant figurehead at a time when China was at odds with both its communist allies and the West. To have removed him from power would have been a sign of weakness that outsiders could have exploited. Also, as the charismatic father-figure of the Chinese revolution, who had united the country after decades of war and avenged the wounded national pride of a nation exploited by outsiders, he was immensely popular. In effect, Mao had become a substitute Emperor figure for a country that had been ruled by despotic leaders for millenia.
So the rest of the Communist leadership cooked up a plan in the early 1960s to slowly and carefully shunt Mao to one side and relegate him to hand-shaking and ribbon-cutting duties. China would be ruled by practical men. A rational authoritarian government would cautiously lead China from now on. They had tried Mao’s radical ideas and they had led to disaster. There was no way they were doing that again. But Mao struck first. Using his considerable charisma and power, Mao whipped up the youth of China into a frenzy and then unleashed them against his enemies in the Communist Party in what became known as the Cultural Revolution. The result was a decade long descent into near anarchy and social chaos for China.
Mao was a writer and he had produced a considerable body of work explaining his ideas of how revolutionary communism had been successfully adapted for Chinese circumstances. Mao wanted to be regarded as the revolutionary philosopher-king who would inspire the repressed people’s of the world to rise up. His theories even got a fancy name: Mao Zedong Thought. Later, a quick and handy guide to the important bits of Mao’s scribblings entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao, more popularly known as the Little Red Book, was put together by his crony Lin Biao (who later attempted a failed coup and was killed in a plane crash in an attempt to flee the country). The Little Red Book became the bible of the Cultural Revolution. No decision could be made without first consulting your personal copy of the Little Red Book and finding a quote from Mao that told you what the correct thing was to do. The credit for every success was down to Mao. But the flip side was that any failure was your fault; you must not have followed Mao’s teachings correctly. Utter rubbish of course, but in a totalitarian regime questioning nonsense like this can be the difference between life and death.
But the stain on Mao’s reputation caused by the Great Leap Forward remained. After all, his insane agricultural policies had caused the famine. This was the annoying loose end that threatened to pull down his carefully constructed image as the benevolent all-knowing messiah, adored at home and abroad. A new story needed to be told, one in which Mao emerged as a visionary who could inspire miracles amongst the faithful. The result was Tachai.
Tachai (now spelled Dazhai – the method by which Chinese characters were translated into the Latin alphabet was changed, hence Mao Tsetung becomes Mao Zedong) was a small agricultural commune in Shanxi Province. Located in the mountains, Dazhai was an impoverished village with poor agricultural land. It first came to prominence after a week of flooding in August 1963 swept away much of the houses, harvest and crops produced by the commune. Instead of asking for help to cope with this natural disaster, the leader of the commune, Chen Yonggui, announced that Dazhai would go it alone. All of Dazhai had read Mao’s writings and decided that it would pull itself up by its bootstraps through sheer hard graft.
By 1964, Mao already hatching his plot to finally overthrow his leadership rivals, had fully embraced Dazhai as a model that the entire country should emulate. The idea that an impoverished group of peasants scraping a living on the side of a mountain could overcome natural limitations through manual labour and wishful thinking became a way of refuting criticism of the nightmarish famine that Mao’s policies had unleashed during the Great Leap Forward. Inspired only by the guidance of Mao Zedong Thought, this commune had triumphed over adversity. So the argument now put forward was, if a group of poor farmers can work miracles on bad land then it proved that Mao had been right all along. He had been correct. Somebody else must be to blame for the failures of the past. And the logical conclusion followed that hidden enemies in the leadership and bureaucracy were the ones to blame for the famine and mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward.
Published by the Foreign Languages Press in 1969, The Red Sun Lights the Road Forward for Tachai is an exploration of this showcase commune at the height of the Cult of Mao Worship during the Cultural Revolution. The tone, as you’d expect, is decidedly upbeat and cheerful. Beginning with the requisite portrait of Mao followed by dedications by Lin Piao (this was before his attempted coup). The introductory pages show panoramic views of the verdant landscape around Dazhai and the neatly terraced mountainside fields along with the neat new houses built for the commune members. These are contrasted with images of muddy scrub-land and the dilapidated cave houses that had existed only a few years previously.
Then the narrative moves on to the central reason for this transformation; Maoist ideology. Images of Chen Yonggui (in his trademark white turban) appear showing him leading study sessions of the local communist party branch, reading copies of Mao’s works, putting Mao’s picture up on the wall and taking time out from digging the fields to lecture farm workers. Mao is everywhere. Maoist ideas, quotations and his portrait appear on almost every page of this book. The cult suffocates everything else. Interestingly, in any photograph where a Mao portrait appears in the background, it has been retouched so that it stands out and no distortion whatsoever appears.
After a brief look at the bad old days when Chen Yonggui lectures the youngsters about just the dark past, we move on to the core ideological message of the book; self reliance, hard work and complete devotion to Maoist ideology will deliver a better world. Meeting after meeting is documented where serious groups of communist cadres and farmers all shown intently studying Mao’s writings. Then we move on to the back breaking labour that was required to transform the landscape itself; unproductive mountainsides are to be turned into terraced fields with nothing more than picks and shovels. Snowstorms will not stop these dedicated true-believers. Any obstacle can be overcome through sheer will power.
After all that toil we are shown the fruits of victory. The new terraced fields carved into the inhospitable topography of the area are now full of crops. Nature has been tamed by man and the barren landscape made productive. The bountiful harvest is in. Wheat, maize, peas and sorghum now grow upon the once bleak mountainsides. Images of happy farmers inspecting the fruits of their labour prove their success. Their hard work has also paid off in terms of the improved living conditions they now enjoy. Children go to clean and bright schools, they shop in the commune’s department store and modern medical treatment has made life better for all. Things are on the up in Dazhai.
But the broader context is not forgotten. The narrative now reiterates the need for constant struggle and vigilance against enemies. A key double page colour spread shows Mao inspecting Red Guards in Tiananmen Square before we see the conscientious farmers of Dazhai lend their support to the Cultural Revolution by writing posters denouncing in Orwellian terms the President of China Liu Shaoqi. He now becomes the arch traitor and “Capitalist roader” who was conspiring to destroy the paradise they were creating. The loyal farmers of Dazhai are shown as fully united in their active support of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The final section of the book deals with visitors coming to view the spectacular achievements of Dazhai and it became a site of pilgrimage. The slogan “in agriculture, learn from Dazhai” became the new mantra. Here we see awe-struck visitors from all parts of China and abroad coming to see for themselves the miracles performed by the Dazhai farmers. Furthermore, they were expected to copy these methods themselves and apply them to their own areas. But the result was yet more disaster. In a country the size of China with a huge variety of climatic, topographical and soil conditions, the simplification of farming to a one-size-fits-all model just does not work. Luckily, famine did not return. But the legacy of Dazhai was long-term environmental destruction in the Chinese countryside as Maoist zealots cut down trees, leading to soil erosion and desertification in futile attempts to increase the harvest.
In a very effective piece of design, quotations from Mao are printed in white text on revolutionary red boxes which has the effect of making them really stand out. Furthermore, any sayings or other Mao quotes used in the captions appear in bold text. The result is to distance Mao from the everyday world. The words of mere mortals are of no consequence. He stands above his people as a quasi-divine being whose every utterance is treated as a direct message from God. Horizons are narrowed. Mao Zedong Thought simplifies the world. All problems, no matter how layered or complex they are, can only be resolved through the correct application of Mao’s sayings. Images of the industrious farmers of Dazhai consulting their copies of the Little Red Book appear again and again throughout the narrative.
Most of the imagery in the book consists of black and white photographs documenting the everyday life of this agrarian paradise. These are punctuated periodically by vibrant colour images that help to produce a very rosy view of this utopian paradise we are viewing. When combined with the bold red blocks of Mao quotations, the net effect is to produce a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. The sense of frenzied fervor in the book is something that a cult leader would approve of.
After Mao died in 1976 the truth slowly emerged. Dazhai was a complete fraud. It was not some magical fairyland where nature could be overcome by wishful thinking. The bountiful harvests claimed by Dazhai were not the result of hard work and reading the Little Red Book. Huge amounts of state aid had been secretly funnelled into Dazhai and the army had been drafted in to provide the vast labour power needed to transform the mountainsides. The harvest figures were fabrications. There was no magic, only lies. Mao’s ideas were the delusions of a paranoid madman, a tyrant intoxicated by power and utterly divorced from reality.