From a Confucian/Daoist perspective, the suffering or prospering of the people is the best metric of a ruler’s merit. Confucianism heavily emphasizes duty of both parties in asymmetrical relationships such as that between ruler and the people.
Going back to the dawn of imperial China, the official histories contain accounts of “the people [eating] each other” during the rule of various emperors due to bad economic policies bringing on famine. Bringing on this level of suffering to the people is the most damning legacy a Chinese emperor could have.
In our modern world, we can very easily gauge Mao’s legacy in this area:
· “cannibalism Cultural Revolution” 37,300 results on Google* · “cannibalism Great Leap Forward” 12,900 results on Google
Mao made foolish decisions, and in the ensuing famine and chaos, the people** ate each other. That will be his entry in the history books 1000 years from now, and that’s the worst judgment he could get.
He violated his duty to the people in causing them to go through that kind of suffering not once, but twice, due to his folly and vanity, while much of the rest of the world prospered and grew into modernity. Mao died in 1976. Just twenty-five years later, China had managed to raise 400 million people out of extreme poverty.***
- There is a piece of scar literature (one of the important post-CR literary genres http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sca…) in which the author juxtaposes classical themes (a scholar on his way to take the imperial exam, as if in a dream, falls in love with a beauty in a tower hidden among gardens and vows to return) with cannibalism (he returns to a Mad Max-style wasteland and finds his love on a butcher block, rescues her before all her limbs are harvested, mercifully puts her out of her misery, and buries her) in order to illustrate the damage of the Cultural Revolution to the Chinse national psyche.
[When I first wrote on this subject, I had just read this story in a literature class. Shortly thereafter, I was researching first-century Chinese economic policies, specifically looking for tone and critique of the emperors. It was jarring to see account after account of “the people eating each other” described so dryly in the imperial annals so shortly after studying the tragic echoes in modern times.]
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), economic activity came to a virtual halt. All resources were put towards “making revolution.” Education stopped. People were encouraged to destroy anything of cultural or historical significance during a campaign to “smash the four olds”. Denouncements and struggle sessions (where mobs of “the people” were encouraged to throw the worst “reactionary” allegations imaginable against the “enemies of the people,” who then might tortured and/or killed) were daily occurrences.
I didn’t recall anything I had read about cannibalism in the CR, so I turned to Wikipedia. Its description of CR-era cannibalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cul…) reads as folllows:
Some of the most extreme violence took place in the southern province of Guangxi, where a Chinese journalist found a “disturbing picture of official compliance in the systematic killing and cannibalization of individuals in the name of political revolution and ‘class struggle’.” Senior party historians acknowledge, “In a few places, it even happened that ‘counterrevolutionaries’ were beaten to death and in the most beastly fashion had their flesh and liver consumed [by their killers].” Not even the minor children of “enemies of the people” were spared, as more than a few were tortured and bludgeoned to death, dismembered and some of their organs - hearts, livers, and genitals - eaten during “human flesh banquets”. As a result of this frenzied killing and “obligatory cannibalism”, an estimated 100,000 people were killed in Guangxi alone.
Mao instigated the Cultural Revolution because he was paranoid and wanted to make sure everyone around him believed in the Revolution and weren’t just yes-men. His actions and motivations weren’t those of a noble revolutionary serving the people. Take the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius Campaign for example. Lin Biao was being groomed as his successor, but Mao turned on him when he began to view him as a political rival. Including Confucius in the mix was just good marketing; it would gain support from the women’s rights movement, and the people were already in a frenzy smashing the four olds.
** One of Mao’s important early writings was regarding who qualified as “the people.” He excluded several categories, such as landlords, rich peasants, and petty bourgeoise. “The people” consisted of the poorer sorts of peasants as well as less affluent city dwellers.
In the Great Leap Forward, a systematic tendency to overestimate crop yields resulted in the national government exporting large amounts of grain and moving most of the rest into cities. Rural areas were left with almost no food, and 20-30 million peasants (“the people”) starved to death.
For environmentalists, here’s a less-known anecdote about the GLF: a full 10% of the country’s trees were burned in the so-called backyard furnaces (which were supposed to complement the better-known agricultural communes in the two-pronged industrial-agricultural plan to leap into a state of Communist utopia). Steel production tripled that year, but only 30% was usable. Virtually all metal produced (i.e., melted down from the peasant’s woks and pans) was so low-grade as to be worthless. Mao was a ruler who failed heaven, man, and earth.