The Power of Words: Labels and their Consequences in Mao’s China (1949-1976)
When Mao and the Chinese Communist Party became supreme in 1949, they used their power to control words. They suppressed words that expressed ‘incorrect’ ways of thinking, they taught everyone a new political vocabulary, and they required people to recite political formulae and scripts that gave correct linguistic form to correct thought. As part of this project of linguistic engineering, they introduced a system of classification and political labelling that located every individual within a ‘good’ class, a ‘bad class’, or an intermediate class. They supplemented this with a system of ‘Red’ (good) and ‘Black’ (bad) categories that enabled even people of good class origins to be stigmatised. This essay will explain how this system of classification and labelling affected people’s life chances, showing that it was especially devastating when the labels were combined with the language of class war during the repeated ‘class struggles’ that Mao instigated to attack alleged class enemies and promote revolutionary consciousness. The damage to people’s lives reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao for a time lost control of the process of labelling and the country descended into low grade civil war. After restoring order by the use of force, Mao brought the process of labelling back under centralised control and used it to condemn the young revolutionaries who had pinned invidious labels on their opponents and attacked them in his name. He then ensured that labelling remained a fundamental technology of social control, using it to institutionalise the Cultural Revolution and instigate new class struggles right down to his death in 1976. From beginning to end, the labelling system was a weapon that advanced the interests and objectives of those who controlled it.
Studi di Storia
EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste
Ji Fenguyan, "The Power of Words: Labels and their Consequences in Mao’s China (1949-1976)" in: "Words of Power, the Power of Words. The Twentieth-Century Communist Discourse in International Perspective", Trieste, EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2019, pp. 381-399
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