Today on December 21, 1965: Mao’s statement in Hangzhou

On December 21st 1965 Mao Zedong made a speech at Hangzhou criticizing the historians Wu Han and Jian Bozan. At the time Mao was operating out of retreat off of Hangzhou’s scenic west lake.

At Play at the Time

This speech ratcheted up Maoist criticism of the influential academic historians, which had started with the publication of Yao Wenyuan’s article “On the New Historical Play ‘Hai Rui Dismissed from Office’” in the Shanghai newspaper Wenhui Bao on November 10th . (Reprinted in the nationwide People’s Daily on November 30th). Jian and Wu, who was vice mayor of Beijing, were political allies of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s main rivals within the party. Yao and Mao saw Wu Han’s play as a criticism of Mao’s purge of Marshall Peng Dehuai who had spoken out against the agricultural policy of the Great Leap Forward. Mao used the occasion of this speech to make that accusation explicit.

Abbie adds: “Jian Bozan was a prominent Marxist historian criticized during a set of rectifications from 1964-65 set in motion largely following a speech by Jiang Qing in May of 1964, her first public address, in which she argued that “our foremost task’ was performing operas on ‘revolutionary contemporary themes which reflect real life in the fifteen years since the founding of the PRC” in addition to “historical operas ‘portraying the life and struggles of the people.” The statement led to the creation of a leftist oppositional clique within the party. Later, Jian Bozan was critiqued for his argument that historical “facts” needed to be seen on an equal ground as “theory.”

 This rectification was set about largely behind the scenes through critiques in Shanghai, culminating with Yao Wenyuan’s polemic against Wu Han printed in Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao November on November 10, 1965. The piece followed a long period of discussion among allies of Jiang and Mao who sought to “set a fuse” against a bureaucratic opposition. This was unbeknownst to the party establishment, who proceeded to defend Wu Han, a central figure in the Beijing power elite, and suppressed the circulation of the article. The following statement by Mao to allies in Hangzhou who included Ai Siqi, Chen Boda, Tian Jiaying, and Hu Sheng, signaled his support for Yao’s polemic, but it was not publicized at large, and defenders of the establishment continued to defend Wu Han for the subsequent month.” See Roderick Macfarquar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 3, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, 390-452.

 Evan adds: The influential Maoist theorist Chen Boda, was in the audience of this speech, and may very well have helped Mao write and edit its contents.”


At Play at Present

This speech raises several questions for the present day: What is the relationship between personal conflict in the course of political struggles and class conflict? What is the relationship between book/classroom learning and practical education in the field? What is the class content of different forms of education? In what ways does the rarified environment of the academy stifle the generation of a genuine working class understanding of history?

Mao writing at his desk in Hangzhou

While certain historians simplistically critique Mao’s speech and actions as being cynically driven by a desire to purge his enemies from positions of power in Beijing’s city government and universities, he puts forward significant ideological positions on the politics of history and radical educational reforms in this speech.

Mao criticizes Jian for putting forward a theory of peasant revolt that deemphasized class conflict. Jian stressed the landlord class’ strategy of making concessions to peasants in order to mollify rebels, or potential rebels. Mao argued instead that landlords never made concessions to the rebellious peasantry, and always brutally repressed rebels, and potential rebels. Mao argues that any historical progress made on the part of the working classes was not gained through concessions from the ruling classes, but instead hard struggles seized by the revolutionary working classes.

“I hope that those who are engaged in philosophical work will go to the factories and the countryside for a few years. The system of philosophy should be reformed. You should not write in the old manner and you should not write so much.”

Mao criticizes Jian’s historical viewpoints as being un-dialectical as a result of his being out of touch with the actual conditions of production. He uses the opportunity to enumerate key elements of Mao Zedong thought, which would become to central to Cultural Revolution politics and educational policy. Students and professors who spend all of their time reading and attending class have no material basis for their education, making it useless for real world application. Mao’s strongest evidence is the victory of uneducated Communist peasant generals over the highly trained graduates of the Whampoa academy who staffed the Nationalist armies. Mao recommends, in a call back to the Yan’an rectification campaign of the late 1930’s, that intellectuals should go down into the fields and factories and learn from experience. The length of schooling should be cut down, and the emphasis of education should be placed on practical learning.

“A man should work in many fields, have contact with all sorts of people. Leftists should not only meet leftists but also rightists. They should not be afraid of this and that. I myself have met all sorts of people; I have met big officials and small ones.”

Link to the full English text of the speech:

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