We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: The Cultural Revolution on Trial: Mao and the Gang of Four, published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is Alexander C. Cook, a Columbia PhD who teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.
The trial of Cultural Revolution leaders, including Mao’s widow and her Gang of Four, was the signal event in China’s post-Mao transition. In its wake, Chinese socialism emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution to create the China that we know today. This spectacular show trial was a curious example of transitional justice, marking a break from the trauma of the past, a shift to the present era of reform, and a blueprint for building a better future. In this groundbreaking reconstruction of the most famous trial in Chinese history, Alexander C. Cook shows how the event laid the cornerstone for a new model of socialist justice; at the same time, a comparison of official political and legal sources with works of popular literature reveals the conflicted cultural dimensions of this justice. The result, Cook argues, saved Chinese socialism as ruling ideology, but at the cost of its revolutionary soul.
We thank Professor Cook for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
What led you to pinpoint the trial of the Gang of Four as an ideological turning point for the modern Chinese state?
The Chinese state intended the Gang of Four trial to mark the historical transition from the Cultural Revolution to a new era of reformed socialism. This entailed a major shift in ideology, and at the heart of ideology are moral values and ethical norms that form the precepts of justice. A legal trial provides a window into official ideas about justice, including how abstract ideals are implemented and contested in practice. Of course legality is just one aspect of justice; my research also tries to locate the position of legal justice relative to the deeper moral and ethical concerns of the time.
How would you describe ‘transitional justice,’ and what is the trial’s relation to that concept?
Transitional justice is the use of law or other remedial measures (such as reparations or truth commissions) to address systemic past injustices, thereby bringing about a more just present. It occurs in societies that have been rent by conflict, and it is typically accompanied by political transition. Since the end of WWII, this often has meant a transition to some form of liberal democracy. The Gang of Four trial is somewhat unusual in this regard, since it marked a political transition to reformed socialism. Nevertheless, the trial articulated the goal of building a more just society, in this case based on rationalism and socialist legality.
How is the trial popularly understood in China today?
Today, the trial is seen as having delivered retribution upon the disgraced radical leaders of the Cultural Revolution—especially Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, who is universally reviled as a despicable figure. It was an exclamation mark on the end of the Cultural Revolution. To a lesser extent, the trial is also understood to have exemplified, for all its many flaws, a move away from the rough justice of the Mao period and toward a more formal approach to elite conflict resolution.
What are some of the archives and materials you consulted in researching this book?
The main archival materials from the trial are not open to foreign researchers, which means a direct approach to studying the trial is blocked. However, there are ways around this obstacle. For example, the Supreme People’s Court published a classified collection of court documents in 1982 and this collection has since been made available. The trial was also a public spectacle, and so there was extensive media coverage. Finally, my research tracks the rise of Marxist humanism in post-Mao China, which was both a rejection of the Cultural Revolution and also a critique of rationalism and socialist legality. This aspect of the research led me to delve pretty deeply into popular literature.
What were some challenges you encountered when researching this topic?
The main challenge was building my own “archive” of sources. To be honest, I expected to encounter more political resistance to my research, since the Cultural Revolution is still considered a sensitive topic. I was denied access to many materials, but this was done in a very matter-of-fact way. There were a few touchy moments, to be sure, but for the most part people were very kind and welcoming.
How would you like this book to add to–or complicate–our understanding of the post-Mao era in China?
The Cultural Revolution did not end overnight, and the post-Mao era did not emerge fully formed. There was much hand-wringing and debate over what post-Mao China should look like.
What is your next project going to be about?
I am working on the international Maoist movement in places like India, Peru, and Nepal, especially the development of Maoism outside China after the death of Mao. I am also interested in a larger phenomenon to which Maoism contributed: the development of a global “aesthetic of insurgency.”