Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng - review by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

Chuang Shang Wen-Xue

Life and Death in Shanghai

By

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One of the Selected Thoughts of Chairman Mao begins, ‘A revolution is not a dinner party,’ and during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (to give it its full name) everyone quoted that Thought as a favourite. They even sang it. Singing the Thoughts was considered the true test of Maoist sincerity, and in fact every Thought in the Red Book was set to music and made singable. Red Guards beat people insensible, burned mosques, marched to Mao’s birthplace, picked tea, made pig-iron, lettered big-character posters, threw intellectuals out of the window, built bomb shelters, and all the while they sang, ‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind , courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.’

But class-warfare does not describe the Cultural Revolution. Apart from the fanatics and the purists and the self-interested Party members, the Red Guards were the mob and the sustainers of the terror, and they were nearly all youths and most of them teenagers. The screamers and sloganeers were not simply

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