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Mao and the Marriage Counselor: The Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957

“People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.” – Somerset Maugham

“As a scientific truth, Marxism fears no criticism.” – Mao Zedong

Like so many other hasty marriages, by 1956 the relationship between Mao and the Party had begun to suffer from a seven-year itch. Still only in their first decade of rule, the CCP were shocked by events in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s legacy vexed the aging Mao, while the Party leadership (more concerned with maintaining order and control in the “here-and-now” than protecting their legacies in the forever after) listened warily to the news out of Hungary and Poland.

At the same time a lot was actually going right in the PRC. It’s easy to forget this now: but between the end of the Korean War and the start of the Great Leap Forward, there was a period of increasing prosperity, economic recovery, and a certain relaxation of ideological and social controls. It was all relative of course–this was still Mao’s China–but compared to later periods of PRC history, the mid-1950s had much more in common with the early years of the Deng Xiaoping regime than with the dark days which lay just around the corner.

In what may have been a legitimate (but perhaps overconfident) move to let off some steam and forestall a Hungarian-style uprising, or, as others see it, a cynical scheme to root out disloyal elements in the Party, Mao began privately kicking around an idea to encourage the people to openly and honestly express their views about the Party leadership.

Needless to say, the rest of the Party leadership didn’t warm to the notion.

So Mao took his plan quasi-public in a famous speech, given in February, 1957, entitled “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.” 《关于正确处理人民内部矛盾的问题》Mao’s belief was that the Party could only remain unified and ideologically pure through struggle, and struggle existed as a result of contradictions. The problem was how to keep up struggle when things were going well, and then how to manage that struggle so that it might add spice to a relationship grown stale without leading to broken china (ahem) and bruised feelings.

Like a lot of marriages, Mao and the Party were in a bit of a rut, the passion was gone, they were missing the “ZazaZoom.” Not completely sure how best to rekindle the spark, Mao fell into a pattern that any $150/hour marriage counselor would quickly identify as ‘passive-aggressive.’

First of all, his speech relied on the oft-used but fatally flawed strategy of fishing for compliments, essentially Mao asked:  “You don’t really love me that much, do you?”  Confident in his heart that there could be but one correct answer: “Yes, of course! Of course we love you Mao…”

….but if you could just change a couple of things that have been driving me nuts recently…

…and you know, there’s this thing you do, that really, really bothers me…

…and wow, you know, if you could only do this a little more, it would really be helpful….


Likewise, through the summer of 1957, intellectuals, students, and rank-and-file party members hung posters and published essays critical of CCP policies and the Party leadership.

“Our guiding theoretical ideas have been conservative and profoundly influenced by doctrinairism from abroad, which has hindered and stunted the development of literary and artistic enterprises…”

“I think a party leading a nation is not the same as a party owning a nation; the public supports the Party, but members of the public have not forgotten that they are masters of the nation…”

“True Socialism is highly democratic, but the socialism we have here is not democratic. I call this society a socialism sprung from a basis of feudalism…”


The intellectuals and Party members who voiced their concerns fell into a trap all too familiar to young husbands the world over: “Do you think I’m getting fat, be honest with me…”

Double whoops.

By the summer of 1957, the criticism threatened to spiral out of control. Mao had asked for honesty, but what he really craved was love, and all he got in its place was a raft of crap about how things should be but weren’t. It hurt, and as is sadly common with aggrieved partners in any dysfunctional relationship, Mao got nasty and in his anger lashed out at the ones he felt had spurned him.

For their part, the CCP leadership, never wild about this whole plan in the first place, were relieved when Mao reversed course. By the time Party brass finally got around to publishing Mao’s February speech (in June), it contained a new caveat: Ideas could only be judged ‘correct’ if they strengthened socialism and helped to consolidate party control and democratic centralism.

The worm had turned.

Between 1957 and 1958, over 300,000 intellectuals were branded as ‘Rightist Deviationists,’ forced out of their jobs and/or sent to labor camps for following Mao’s own call to “Let a hundred flowers bloom and let 100 schools 0f thought contend.” Faced with public excoriation and professional ruin, many committed suicide.

With the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Mao established his threshold for ‘acceptable’ criticism, and all it cost him was a whole generation of intellectuals, experts, and scientists purged from society.

The new group who took their places in academia and government was made up of cadres whose ‘revolutionary credentials’ and willingness to toe the party line made them politically less suspect even though many were grossly under-qualified for their new positions.

The aftermath? Well one result was that three years later when the lunatic plans of the “Great Leap Forward” were being implemented throughout the country, nobody was left with either the expertise or the temerity to step forward and say, “Planting all the seed in one big hole doesn’t make the wheat grow higher,” and “Hey, you can’t make industrial steel by melting farm tools and cooking pots in backyard furnaces” and/or “If you melt all the farm tools and cooking pots, the people won’t be able to harvest whatever grain does survive and they’ll have to eat that raw.”

Instead, party officials competed with each other to set ever more impossible production quotas; nobody wanted to be the one to tell Mao that the goals set for his county were too high. Harvest time came, the quotas were non-negotiable, and the government took what it was owed.  The result was mass starvation and misery.

In the marriage of Mao and the Party, the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957 could charitably be called a ‘rough patch.’ Ten years later, the same motivations would lead to utter disaster, when Mao looked outside the wedding bed and found a new, younger and more energetic fling in the Red Guards. But that’s a story for another time.
Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 571-573
“On the correct handling of contradictions among the people,” and “Intellectual opinions from the Hundred Flowers Period,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume II. Edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano. (Columbia Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 459-468

Images from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages.
Top right: “Bring positive forces into play, correctly handle contradictions among the people.”
Bottom right: “Savagely attack and hurt the rightist elements to protect the results of socialism.”

10 Comments on Mao and the Marriage Counselor: The Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957

  1. Ah, you’re back!

    Have you slain ‘the beast’ now?

  2. Hi

    Great summary of the situation. Really enjoyable.

    Any chance you’ll be continuing your this day in Chinese history posts?


  3. Those are some great ‘criticism’ excerpts – and still shockingly relevant today.

    I’m guessing that the authors of those remarks didn’t survive that long – but what about the survival rates for the purged 300,000? Surely they didn’t all die, or spend the rest of their life in labour camps?

  4. John,

    Intermittently. This was a “This Day in History” that spun out of control. It’s tough for me to do it every day, but if there’s an important event for a particular day, I’ll try to do at least a quick post.

    Thanks for suggesting and for stopping by.

  5. Froog,

    My understanding is that the ‘body count’ wasn’t that high and that most were “only” imprisoned or exiled to work in camps or in the countryside (which given conditions a few years later, could have been tantamount to a death sentence.) The tragedy was that the list of the purged was like a who’s who of the best and brightest in academia and the arts: Fei Xiatong, the celebrated Chinese sociologist, Fang Lizhi (who would have his encore in the 1980s), the author Ding Ling, who was exiled to Heilongjiang. It wasn’t the Cultural Revolution, but it was certainly a harbinger of tougher times ahead.

  6. I do enjoy reading your blog.

    Maybe it wasn’t the plan but one has to wonder whether if Mao’s seeming weakness or openness to criticism (or praise) was not in fact a ploy to reveal his critics. I mean he let them have their head for a while and then he knew who they were. He offered them the chance to say too much. Problem solved and no need to go searching for them.

    Great posters and even better (long) titles. I could learn a thing or two from those.

  7. x@y,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    The journalist Liu Binyan, one of the victims of the Anti-Rightist campaign, argues something similar to what you suggested: that it was all a ploy to get Mao’s enemies to reveal themselves. It’s hard to guess intentions and we don’t really have the evidence to say for certain what Mao’s motivations might have been, but if that was the plan, it couldn’t have worked any better.

    The long titles are translations of the slogans on the posters.

    Given your interests, I might suggest checking out Stefan Landsberger’s site, I think you would find it fascinating.

  8. I would think that the current US administration has been using this history as guide to shaping events here. Not quite as bloody, yet, but the whole ‘getting rid of people w/ knowledge and experience and replacing them w/ good, solid, if inept, party loyalists’ rings true.

    Excellent post, and I really like the “this day in history” posts, but understand that it takes a lot of time to do it well.

  9. This is where I come – and recommend my students to come – for a more objective view of Chinese history.

    I think you should be working with the Ministry of Education to ‘tell it like it really was’ and put the bits back in that have been conveniently swept under the carpet.

    This post, together with the one over at ‘The China Beat’ offer some insight into the origins of China’s sensitive (and often punitive) reaction to the critical or dissenting voice.

    Essentially I see this reaction as a product of authoritarian rule, but there does seem to be something deeper within the Chinese psyche that demands praise and denounces criticism.

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