Maoism at the Grassroots: An Interview with Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson

Book cover of Maoism at the Grassroots by Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson.

The cover of Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press, is a revolutionary departure from standard depictions of the Chinese Communist revolution. Instead of attracting readers with images of violent land reform, marauding Red Guards, or militant propaganda posters, the cover features a mundane array of kitchen items—symbols of everyday life. Four identical drawings of a smiling Mao Zedong hover above, well removed from the kitchen, their presence serving as a reminder that historical writing on China’s revolution remains fundamentally intertwined with the figure of “Chairman Mao.” In this conversation, Jeremy Brown (JB) and Matthew D. Johnson (MJ) discuss how revolution affected Chinese society after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and explain their book’s controversial contention that “There is no single grassroots narrative to replace the voice of the center. Instead, we are left to ponder whether ‘Mao’s China’ ever existed at all.”

MJ: Jeremy, what do you think our colleagues in other fields would want to know about how grassroots perspectives are reshaping how we understand revolution and its aftermath in China?

JB: Our contributors’ thirteen chapters present diverse local accounts of people’s experiences between the mid-1950s (coinciding with the collectivization of agriculture and the nationalization of industry) and the end of the 1970s. We captured this diversity thanks to an avalanche of newly available documentation, including archival reports, diaries, bureaucratic forms, Red Guard leaflets, and police files. Michael Schoenhals of Lund University contributed a chapter on independent newsletters produced at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. Schoenhals is the founder of “Sinological garbology,” which refers to the uncovering of sources discarded by individuals and work units.  These sources are often found in flea markets or are in private hands. Because the documents tell local and personal stories—Yang Kuisong’s essay about a factory worker who was labeled as a “bad element” because of his sexual relationships with his coworkers, for example, or my chapter about villagers whose official class status labels changed during the 1960s—we see multiple and overlapping identities that were affected by Maoist categories, but also by romance, personal enmities, ethnic strife, and teenage angst.

Matt, how do you think our overall picture of the Chinese revolution differs from previous scholarly studies?

MJ: As you note, there’s been a major shift in the kinds of sources that are available, and many of these sources provide a new perspective on state-society interactions within the contexts of revolution and post-revolution—perspectives that were largely unavailable to previous researchers. I would say that the sense of geography now is both broader and more diverse, and we’re able to see how movements did, or didn’t, unfold across different locales. One upshot is that, following Gail Hershatter’s monumental The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (University of California Press, 2011), we’re able to get beyond “campaign time,” and capture a great deal more diversity in local experience, when looking at how events unfolded during China’s era of high socialism. In contrast to studies which use political culture as a window on popular consciousness, we’re seeing a wider range of belief and less focus on the figures of Mao and other elites. Religion is reemerging from the shadow of politics. More troublingly, we’re seeing signs that both state and anti-state violence were common in everyday life, particularly along the frontier. Another key finding, and one of great relevance for understanding contemporary China as well, concerns the figure of local and middle-level party and government functionaries—the largely anonymous cadres whose activities represented, for most people, the reality of the party-state. Here we’re seeing an unexpected, and largely unexplored, facet of the totalitarian Maoist system in the form of officials who shirked their duties, engaged in political conspiracy, and attempted to defend their constituents from the worst excesses of the state. It’s a potent reminder that we not confuse policies and other, more easily observable aspects of the political system with life on the ground.

Speaking of which: In a recent essay, Harvard political scientist Elizabeth J. Perry claims that we have been “intoxicated by the wealth of newly discovered sources” and have accepted a “division of labor in which social scientists explore the ‘commanding heights’ of the Chinese state and its policies, while historians grub for diversity in the dustbins of grassroots society.” She continues, “To relegate historians of the PRC to this janitorial role seems to me unfortunate.” What do you think of this characterization, Jeremy?

JB: When social scientists wrote the first draft of the history of the People’s Republic of China, they got a lot of things right. They found plentiful evidence of conflict, tension, and variation, while primarily focusing on policy formation and implementation.  Now that historians are taking a fresh look at China’s 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it’s natural that we are looking in different places and asking different questions. The questions that interested earlier generations about ideologies, policies, and systems have themselves become relics of history. What Perry sees as lowly custodial work has yielded a view of Chinese society that includes people and places that social scientists never saw. Focusing on grassroots society has also revealed what previous generations of scholars were wholly unaware of: such major rebellions as the Mashan uprising of 1956, described in Wang Haiguang’s chapter, and such major events as the rural anti-rightist movement of 1957-58, uncovered by Cao Shuji.

Matt, what lessons can we offer for the study of revolution more broadly?

MJ: Reviewers seem to have appreciated the diversity of the book’s contributors and of its contributions, so I’d say in general that the identities of those participating in revolutions or living through revolutionary moments (as well as those writing about them) are likely to be more important going forward. We’re all familiar now with categories like “party,” “state,” and “society,” as well as with perspectives on revolution that privilege one or the other of these categories. But if part of history is recovering the past—rescuing it from the categories of leaders’ speeches and official documents—then it falls on historians to get creative about source-gathering beyond the archives.

While it may be a stretch to call China’s revolutionary society “pluralist,” we’ve found that grassroots sources—archival documents included—suggest a wide range of self-ascribed identities and local state agendas that are missing from previous scholarship, with its preference for top-level sources and tendency to conflate official policy wording with actual agendas, experiences, and outcomes. China’s people were not solely automatons or victims, though state control and violence may have, at times, loomed large in their lives. Being a Chinese state subject was never indistinguishable, on a day-to-day basis, from working in a particular region, belonging to a particular religious community, or being assigned a particular class label. In short, I think the book shows that limited pluralism (along with what now might be called intersectionality), along with geography, middle- and lower-tier state agendas, and the existence of competing legitimization strategies within a single political system all impacted a broader sense of what revolution may have meant within the context of a single national, or imperial, framework of analysis. Cross-cutting state and social factors were surely important as well, but as equals on a crowded playing field of particularistic interests and agendas, even at the elite level.

In sum, I think we share an excitement that the future of historical research seems to be trending away from models that fail to capture what we know from our own everyday lives to be true: that causality is complex, outcomes often escape the planning that precedes them, and the difference between how events are experienced and how they are represented publicly is often vast.

Jeremy Brown is a social historian of modern China and is the author of City Versus Countryside in Mao’s China: Negotiating the Divide (Cambridge University Press, 2012).  He can be reached at and on Twitter at @JeremyJierong.

Matthew D. Johnson writes about propaganda, media, China’s political economy, and U.S.-China relations. He is a co-founder of The PRC History Group ( He can be reached at

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