Mistranslating Mao in Chengdu, 1958

[Updated on 1 July 2021]

The question of Mao Zedong’s personal role in triggering massive famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) brings us into an important debate. In recent years, big histories in English have been published of the Great Leap by the historian Frank Dikotter and journalist Yang Jisheng, new sources compiled and translated by Zhou Xun, and excellent comparative monographs and edited volumes produced by Felix Wemheuer, to name a few. 

Academic articles by a small but productive and intrepid group of Chinese academics are steadily being rendered into English and drawing from county archives in Sichuan and Anhui, two of the hardest-hit provinces. In addition to this work by Cao Shuji at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Kimberly Manning (of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute) writes about the role of women cadre and work team leaders in the Great Leap Forward, and a few dozen medical history articles delve into the long-term health effects of the famine for the women, men, and children who survived.

But do we know the whole story? Surely not.

Mass education in China results in very little understanding of the campaign or its negative effects, and family histories are fragmented and unsupported by larger state narratives. Graduate students working on contemporary history in China are increasingly steered away from the 1950s and toward safer and more politically palatable topics within Qing dynasty history or the ubiquitous (and yet continuously morphing) War of Anti-Japanese Resistance (1937-1945). Work on history of food controls, inner-Party debates of the 1950s, or the Great Leap Forward itself probably needs to occur outside of China, far from the original sources. As even casual readers of the New York Times can tell you, the Chinese Communist Party is less than forthcoming when it comes to the release of archival or official sources from the Great Leap Forward which might paint Mao or the CCP in a negative light. When Xi Jinping rails against “historical nihilism,” party secretaries at universities and workers for publishing houses know what that means when it comes to the worst atrocities of the Mao years.

But what happens when the relevant Great Leap Forward sources are not repressed by the state, and indeed, are readily available — and scholars outside of China still manage to butcher the interpretation?  

Let’s take one comparatively small corner of the Great Leap Forward historiography — the Chengdu conference of March 1958. This work meeting was one of a series of high level gatherings at which Mao Zedong held forth as the maestro of collectivization that year, and into 1959. The Chengdu conference lasted from 8-26 March, and was a vital stepping stone to the launching of the Great Leap Forward a few months later.

Mao gave no fewer than six speeches at the Chengdu meeting — none of which was publicised at the time. Indeed, it took nearly thirty years for scholars outside of China to put together a reasonably accurate full table of such meetings during the Great Leap Forward.

Since the CCP was (and remains) a generally secretive body when it comes to its internal workings, few knew at the time that the meeting was taking place at all. Even in Sichuan province, the fertile and heavily-populated centre of Chinese food production, the public in spring 1958 was not aware of Mao’s visit to the Hongguang Commune or the Dujiangyan dam in Sichuan until nearly a month after the Chairman had left the province.

As for the content of Mao’s speeches at Chengdu, these were only made public knowledge nearly a decade later, when, in 1967, Red Guards raided any number of provincial archives and published essentially unedited versions of Mao’s works. Known as Mao Zedong Wansui (Long Live Chairman Mao), these editions were quickly made known in Hong Kong and the West, and translated by, among others, Stuart Schram.

Schram’s translations of three of the Chengdu speeches have been around for a while, and are easily available (without attribution) via the Marxists.org website.

Using Mao’s speeches along with some memoir literature, scholars seem to agree that Mao managed to both impress and intimidate his comrades at Chengdu into supporting his “rash advance” towards communism. Yang Jisheng’sTombstone cites speeches by Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, summing up that “During the Chengdu Conference, everyone surrendered to Mao…participants pandered and toadied, bringing Mao’s viewpoints to the extreme.” But Yang largely stays away from exegesis of Mao’s statements at Chengdu, bringing the reader instead into a new range of perspectives on Mao’s on-site inspections around Sichuan during the conference, and then burrowing into the (devastating and disturbing) local effects for the next three years. 

Frank Dikotter’s treatment of Mao’s speeches at the Chengdu conference completely agrees with Yang Jisheng’s verdict on the toadyism of the cadre present at the conference. But, perhaps not surprisingly, Dikotter goes further into idiosyncratic territory. 

In Mao’s Great Famine, Dikotter covers the Chengdu conference quickly, in the space of about a page (pp. 19-20), noting that at Chengdu, Mao had pushed for faster movement toward his economic line and depicted himself as the sole interpreter of the revolution, and did so without any resistance from the slavish subordinates around him. So far, so good.  

Citing a file in the Gansu Provincial Archives (91-18-495), Dikotter leads up to Mao’s speech of 10 March. 

Creative thinking was needed to find China’s own path to communism, rather than rigid adherence to Soviet methods, now frozen into socialist dogma. China should ‘walk on two legs’, simultaneously developing industry and agriculture, tackling heavy as well as light industry. And Mao, as the leader on that road, now demanded full allegiance. ‘What is wrong with worship? The truth is in our hands, why should we not worship it?…Each group must worship its leader, it cannot but worship its leader,’ Mao explained; this was the ‘correct cult of personality.’

Dikotter finishes the paragraph, and his treatment of the conference, with a nugget from Li Rui’s memoir on Lushan:

The message was immediately picked up by Ke Qingshi, who quivered enthusiastically: ‘We must have blind faith in the Chairman! We must obey the Chairman with total abandon!’ Having consecrated his own cult of personality, Mao handed over the proceedings to Liu Shaoqi, his political crony. 

And thus ends his treatment of the conference. Damning stuff, if broadly in line with the general historiography of the meeting.

But there is something slightly off about it when you read the passage again. It becomes clear that Dikotter has not only twisted the Mao quote’s context, he has specifically mistranslated it completely. And his follow-on “quivering” quote from then-Shanghai party secretary Ke Qingshi also stretches credulity. 

Let’s start with the “the truth is in our hands” quote from the 10 March speech. Here is the Stuart Schram translation (again, available here), with the bold-faced text being the same passage covered in Dikotter’s book:

Khrushchev’s complete demolition of Stalin at one blow was also a kind of pressure, and the majority of people within the Chinese Party did not agree with it. Others wished to submit to this pressure and do away with the cult of the individual. There are two kinds of cult of the individual. One is correct, such as that of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the correct side of Stalin. These we ought to revere and continue to revere for ever. It would not do not to revere them. As they held truth in their hands, why should we not revere them? We believe in truth; truth is the reflection of objective existence. A squad should revere its squad leader, it would be quite wrong not to. Then there is the incorrect kind of cult of the individual in which there is no analysis, simply blind obedience. This is not right. Opposition to the cult of the individual may also have one of two aims: one is opposition to an incorrect cult, and the other is opposition to reverence for others and a desire for reverence for oneself. The question at issue is not whether or not there should be a cult of the individual, but rather whether or not the individual concerned represents the truth. If he does, then he should be revered. If truth is not present, even collective leadership will be no good.

Is it “revere” or “worship”? Either is fine, as the Chinese word used repeatedly by Mao is chongbai. But is the truth to be worshipped in the hands of Marx/Engels/Lenin/Stalin (as per Schram), or Mao/the CCP (as per Dikotter)? This is not a small matter — Dikotter is telling the reader that Mao is demanding fealty to his own ‘truth’ from his comrades, and showing that Mao is further demanding ‘worship’ from his comrades. But it’s obvious from both Schram — and the original Chinese version in the Red Guard documents, as below — that truth is in the hands of the German theorists and Soviet leaders.

screenshot 2019-01-07 at 09.02.45

In this respect, the summary of this section of the speech in Li Rui’s memoir is the same as the Red Guard document.

As for the “every group must worship its leader” offered by Dikotter, it’s a generalisation from the Mao statement that “every squad must worship its squad leader / 一个班必须崇拜班长.” In other words it might be plausible (if not perfectly accurate) as a paraphrase, but not a direct quote.

So Dikotter has managed to fail to put the quote in the context of its role within the speech: that’s fine, it happens all the time, and he’s writing a fast-paced history for a general audience. Ronald G. Suny, in a recent roundtable on Anne Applebaum’s dust-up with Sheila Fitzpatrick over the Ukranian famine, calls the genre “history light.” If you want a more contextual look at the speech, read a bigger book by Roderick Macfarquar or some of the other sources cited at the end of this post.  

But Dikotter hasn’t cited the Red Guard collection, nor any standard English scholarship on this meeting. Indeed, instead he has cited a source in the Gansu archives inaccessible to anyone else — perhaps this acts as a buffer for such liberties, allowing him to argue that his source in fact uses not “their hands” but “our hands” when it comes to truth. But this would be very strange given the uniformity of even differing versions of the same speech on this specific point, and the fact that his other source for the speech, Li Rui, does not put truth in “our hands.” 

As for the Ke Qingshi “immediately quivered” quote sourced from Li Rui — Dikotter has written to give this passage real drama, as if Ke shouted this comment in fervent and immediate worship of Mao at that very moment in the speech. The picture then becomes a party that is not simply pliant but brainwashed and not unlike the fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution, in which Ke Qingshi played a trailblazing role for Mao. Unfortunately the source, Li Rui’s memoir, does not allow for such extensions. (See p. 279 of the book pdf, 庐山会议实录.) Ke’s comment is simply made at some point during the Chengdu conference, and not necessarily interjected at all during a Mao speech.

It reads:

1958 年 3 月 成都会议上,当时华东协作区负责人兼上海市委第一书记柯庆施,就提出:“相信毛主席要相信到迷信的程度,服从毛主席要服从到盲从的程度。”“正 确的个人崇拜”,自然得到党内高级干部的赞同,可以说,当时都以推行对毛泽东的个人崇拜为荣。

Li Rui uses his recollection of the Ke Qingshi statement to cinch his argument that Mao’s move toward a cult of personality had been successful at Chengdu — so Dikotter is perfectly correct to cite it here and quote it. But Dikotter appears to have invented the interjection, or is being rather flexible with his “immediately” adjective, since his source simply remembers that it was said at some point during the conference. In neither case does it inspire confidence.

Likewise, one can judge for oneself Dikotter’s approach to translation and interpretation of Mao’s words during the Great Leap Forward by reviewing his approach to a Shanghai plenum nearly exactly a year after the Chengdu meeting, in March and April 1959. Here, Dikotter is on an island of one (in terms of scholarship) by insisting that Mao literally meant that he would be perfectly happy to see half of the human beings in China starve to death. In a 2017 interview with Qin Shao, Dikotter concludes his review of controversy over the document by saying “it is not a metaphor, it is a description of what happened.”

But is this propensity to stretch entirely Frank Dikotter’s fault? Perhaps, as he says to Qin Shao, it is merely a case of professional jealousy on the part of his critics, who do not sell as many books and for whom no Orwell nor Samuel Johnson prizes for non-fiction are offered? Not necessarily.

Part of the grounds that Dikotter has for ambiguous treatment of sources can be traced back to the Chinese Communist Party, namely the CCP’s own reluctance to come clean and publish a complete version of Mao’s writings and speeches during the Great Leap Forward, including his remarks at the Chengdu conference.

The Chengdu speeches of Mao Zedong have never been incorporated into the more standard official English translations of The Selected Works of Chairman Mao published in Beijing, a collection which faltered in 1960 with Volume 4 — materials which ended in October 1949. The inclusion of some of his major speeches and a handful of documents from the 1950s were included in the quickly renounced Volume 5 of Mao’s Selected Works in 1977. The inclusion of the speeches from the Great Leap Forward on the online Marxists archive as part of “Volume 6” of the Selected Works is a creation of an external body and the internet borrowing from Stuart Schram without attribution, not of the CCP.

Therefore there is no official English translation of the work as mandated by Beijing. Instead, translator-scholars are left to deal with the Red Guard materials and what Timothy Cheek called “a gold mine of political and psychological data for Mao studies [which] is also a cesspool of run-on sentences, obscure grammar, and simple nonsense for the translator.”

This is not to say that the Party presses have been silent about Mao’s speeches at the conference; quite the contrary, although it has taken an awfully long time to get to it.

In 1990, the Party press published a thirteen-volume collection of Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong Wengao (The Manuscripts of Mao Zedong after the Founding of the Republic), which included Mao’s speaking notes from the Chengdu conference, but not verbatim reproductions of the speeches themselves.

I have included a short extract from the published notes of Mao’s 10 March speech below, to show that the piece on personality cults and Stalin is the one section of the speech that Mao had fleshed out extensively in his notes for presentation. It is being used, to be sure, as leverage toward his coming attack on those who oppose ‘rash advance’, and it is an elliptical way of discussing the fall of Stalin and by extension his own role within the Party. But it is also clear that Mao was careful to anchor the discussion of “truth” — the one pinpointed by Dikotter — within a Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist frame before doing so. 

mao zedong 10 march 1950, jianguo yilai adam cathcart

The 2013 publication of the Mao Nianpu (or Mao Zedong Chronology) excerpts this section of the speech as well, and with a few slight differences from the Red Guard compilation. I plan some future posts on the Nianpu coverage of the Chengdu conference, a very interesting subject which I have lectured on for my students but not yet seen written up in any academic journals or blogs. In the meantime, I hope that visitors to this blog will continue their reading of Frank Dikotter, but take care to consult the original documents. 

Short listing of sources on the 1958 Chengdu conference:

Roderick Macfarquar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 2: The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960 (Oxford, 1963), pp. 35-50.

Jianguo Yilai Mao Zedong Wengao vol. 7 (Beijing, 1990) pp. 108-112

Stuart Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-tung, pp. 127, 154.

David S.G. Goodman, Centre and province in the PRC: Sichuan and Guizhou, 1955-1965, pp. 144-145.

Li Zhisui, The Private LIfe of Chairman Mao: The memoirs of Mao’s personal physician Dr. Li Zhisui (London: Chatton and Windus, 1994), pp. 232-236.

Stuart Schram, ed., Mao Tse-Tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters: 1956-71 (Penguin, 1974).

Timothy Cheek, “Textually Speaking: An Assessment of Newly Available Mao Texts,” in MacFarquar, Cheek and Wu, eds., The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward (Harvard, 1989), pp. 75-112.

Image: A well-thumbed copy of an Engels treatise, published in East Germany in 1948 and in the 1950s holdings of the Shanghai Public Library. Photo by Adam Cathcart of the text on display in Shanghai, November 2018. 


  1. Hasn’t he written a book which maintains that opium had no lasting effect on Chinese people? (!!)

    At other times, he leaves out crucial information giving the reverse message.

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