Historian: Mobo Gao

mobo gaoHistorian: Mobo Gao

Lived: 1952-

Nationality: Chinese-born Australian

Books: Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China (2007), The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).

Profession: Academic, historian, writer

Perspective: Neo-Maoist

Mobo Gao is a Chinese-Australian academic. Born Mobo Gao Chang Fan in a small village in Jiangxi province, he was the son of poor peasants. As a child, Gao spent the difficult years of the Great Famine by foraging for wild plants. According to one profile, the young Gao also worked “collecting night soil [sewage], cleaning pigsties and pushing a wheelbarrow”. During the Cultural Revolution, the literate Gao also worked as a village teacher. In 1973 Gao relocated to Fujian to undertake studies of English at Xiamen University. He later completed higher degrees in Britain. Gao has since worked as an academic, including stints as a visiting fellow at Oxford and Harvard universities. He emigrated to Australia in 1990 and became a popular lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Tasmania. In 2008 Gao relocated to the University of Adelaide to head its Confucius Institute, a centre for the study of Chinese language and culture.

Historiographically, Gao is a neo-Maoist whose work defends Mao’s socialist reforms, including the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Communes and the Cultural Revolution. Gao acknowledges that errors were made and excesses occurred, though he attributes few of these to Mao. Instead, Gao lays much of the blame on urban and party elites, the same groups who have demonised Mao since his death. Gao has written two prominent books. The first of these, Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China (2007), was a memoir and close study of his home village and how it was impacted by Maoist policies. According to Gao, his village was not severely affected by the Great Leap Forward, nor did it experience the intense violence of the Cultural Revolution. Communist reforms brought his village some minor improvements in healthcare and education, though these advances were offset by population growth and higher taxes in the post-Mao era. Gao’s second book, The Battle for China’s Past (2008), is a fascinating study of how the Cultural Revolution has been interpreted and represented, both inside China and in the West. Again protective of Mao’s legacy, Gao criticises the works of writers like Jung Chang and Li Zhisui, claiming they embrace a Western perspective without understanding Mao’s significance to rural development in China.


“The Gao villagers are mostly illiterate or semi-literature but they are not, as some Marxists and elite Chinese intelligentsia would like us to believe, a backwards-looking or feudalist reactionary mass… ‘sacks of potatoes’… an obstacle to the advance of socialist history.”

“Ironically, most of the ideas of the Great Leap Forward did not come from Mao himself. According to one version of events, the idea of overtaking Britain in 15 years in steel an iron… was inspired by Khrushchev’s slogan of the Soviet Union overtaking the United States in 15 years.”

“The idea of everyone eating together in a public canteen was again a kind of experiment originating from the local authorities… There were eight advantages for having a public canteen, including the promotion of efficiency in work because everyone could eat and go to work at the same time; the liberation of women from the kitchen; provision for the elderly and the disabled, and the reduction in family quarrels and hygiene.”

“Because China is a so-called communist country, there is a tendency by the mainstream media in the West to perceive China as an undifferentiated block in which everyone everywhere has to be the same… [They do not] take into consideration how local conditions and traditional influences have interacted in rural development since 1949.”

“There are two Chinas: a rural and an urban China. Rural China is not only different from urban China economically but also politically. What has happened in urban China can never be taken as the same as in rural China or vice versa.”

“I would like to argue that the Great Leap Forward idea was not some kind of madness but theoretically guided rationality.”

“If Chang and Halliday’s 38 million toll [of the 1959-61 Great Famine] is correct that means on in 20 Chinese died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward, something that could not be hidden away no matter how hard the authorities tried.”

“Mao should certainly be held primarily responsible for the consequences of the Great Leap Forward… But to identify Mao as the person responsible for a policy disaster is not the same as to say Mao was the murderer of so many people.”

“One of the easily accepted arguments in attacking Mao the man is that he was a person of no original ideas, whose dark political manoeuvring was simply aimed at gaining and maintaining personal power. Looking from the perspective of this power struggle thesis, all the costs and victimisations [of the Mao era] were not only senseless and tasteless but actually evil.”

“How one sees the worth of the Mao era depends not only on what one’s present circumstances are but also on one’s present values and beliefs. In other words, the way we conceptualise ourselves in the present frames our perception of the past.”

“In the area of industrial development, Mao took a strongly socialist view, concerning himself with eradicating the usual divide between rural and urban… It was proposed that the rural population could become industrialised without a need to build cities or urban ghettos, a strategy initiated during the Great Leap Forward, shelved because of the famine disaster but picked up again during the Cultural Revolution.”

“There was no such singular entity as the ‘Red Guards’ or the ‘Red Guard’. We must differentiate between university students and school students. It was the latter who invented the term ‘Red Guards’ and who engaged in acts of senseless violence in 1966.”

“What were the roles of ordinary Chinese men and women during the era of Mao [according to post-Mao historians]? They are depicted as simply misled, deceived and cheated. The Red Guards were fanatical mobs and the workers and peasants were uneducated idiots who only knew how to follow their emperor blindly like ants.”

“Jiang Qing is often accused of not only being a third-rate actress but also being responsible for wiping out artistic expression and creativity… What Jiang was trying to do, with the full support of Mao… was to create new arts, both in content and forms.”

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