Between Fact and Fiction: Classification and Liberation in Mao’s Rural Revolution

Brian DeMare, associate professor of history, Tulane University

Teaching East Asia

Scholars have long appreciated how narratives, by transforming complex and messy events into tidy stories with linear plotlines, have shaped our understanding of the historical record.  This talk investigates a moment when an invented narrative had drastic consequences for the very contours of the historical record: Mao Zedong’s agrarian revolution.  During the 1930s Mao crafted a tale of peasant liberation through violent class warfare under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.  Between the years of 1946 and 1952, the party brought this narrative to life in every Chinese village, regardless of local conditions.  Mao’s story of revolution was a compelling tale, and it was reproduced in novels, operas, and even “documentary” accounts of village life under Communist rule.  But when party work teams arrived in village China, the fictions embedded in their revolutionary story clashed with rural realities.  This talk focuses on class division and peasant liberation, two critical moments in the process of rural revolution.  Aided by Mao’s vaunted “cultural army,” work teams attempting to classify and liberate Chinese villagers struggled to distinguish fact and fiction, with deadly results for their revolution.