... detailed, deeply researched ... packed with detail, carefully tracking the moves and countermoves of bureaucrats and rebels, the frequent reversals of fortune that suddenly turned heroes into enemies and vice versa, the constant maneuvering in the corridors of power and Mao's fickle decision-making. In that sense, the book feels both authoritative and not for the faint of heart. Yang does not go out of his way to arrange the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution into an easy-to-digest narrative. Instead, he presents the facts and mostly lets them speak for themselves, only occasionally dropping in a personal anecdote ... Which isn't to say The World Turned Upside Down lacks perspective: Yang's careful accumulation of facts becomes a moral accounting, providing a model for how rigorous scholarship can penetrate ideology and arrive at something like the truth. The World Turned Upside Down may be the definitive account of a tragic historic episode.
A thick catalogue of gruesome atrocities, blunders, bedlam, and ideological dissimulation, by the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng ... Yang’s book offers the most comprehensive journalistic account yet of contemporary China’s foundational trauma. Memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, first appearing in the nineteen-eighties, belong by now to a distinct nonfiction genre ... Yang provides the larger political backdrop to these granular accounts of cruelty and suffering. At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, he was studying engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, and he was one of the many students who travelled around the country to promote the cause. In 1968, he became a reporter for Xinhua News Agency, a position that gave him access to many otherwise unreachable sources ... Yang describes, in often overwhelming detail, the intricate internal power struggle that eventually erupted into the Cultural Revolution—with Mao variously consulting and shunning a small group of confidants, including his wife, a former actress; China’s long-standing Premier, Zhou Enlai; and the military hero Lin Biao, who had replaced Peng Dehuai, a strong critic of Mao, as the Minister of Defense in 1959, and proceeded to turn the People’s Liberation Army into a pro-Mao redoubt ... Yang, although obliged to omit Xi’s personal trajectory—from son of Mao’s comrade to China’s supreme leader—nonetheless leaves his readers in no doubt about the 'ultimate victor' of the Cultural Revolution: what he calls the 'bureaucratic clique,' and the children of the privileged.
... unsparing ... Yang still dwells very much amid the trees, but he now brings vividness and immediacy to an account that concurs with the prevailing Western view of the forest ... Yang, who retired from Xinhua in 2001, didn’t obtain as much archival material for this book, but he benefited from the recent work of other undaunted chroniclers, whom he credits for many chilling new details about how the violence in Beijing spread to the countryside.
... has the heft and pedigree to achieve a long desired goal: an objective, monumental history of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ... Yang’s work fails to be the important work it could have been. It disappoints for a host of reasons, including issues concerning the translation that render what value the book does have opaque to the non-specialist ... I cannot recommend the volume ... The problem is that Yang’s treatment of history is rooted in the limited methodology of the Yanhuang Chunqiu, which is historical exposé. Yang applied it to writing a macroscopic history, and it doesn’t fit. Almost all the book’s limitations are rooted in this central issue, and they are only exacerbated when presented to an English-speaking readership ... First and foremost, Yanhuang Chunqiu tended to concern itself heavily with righting the historical record, which assumes a reader’s prior awareness of the story as it stood ... He approaches history as if he was writing for eyewitnesses, and that means he often takes it for granted that his readers have necessary background knowledge to fill in major gaps. For a Chinese readership, this is not a difficult challenge. But, in translation, it is crippling ... for all its promise, The World Turned Upside Down is far from a triumph of the historian’s art.
Ably translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, this book doesn’t manage the gut-wrenching impact of Tombstone, but that is a high bar. Rather, The World Turned Upside Down reveals the unexpected — but usually rational — twists of Mao’s war against his own party and compellingly demonstrates that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) set the stage for Deng Xiaoping’s China that emerged afterward ... The Cultural Revolution is an enormous topic, and Yang doesn’t shy away from it ... As is often the case, this book’s greatest weakness is also its strength. I randomly flipped to five pages and found an average of more than eight proper names per page. This is a clumsy measure but suggests the level of detail that an author conveys. Such detail can be daunting even for specialists, but it is not superfluous ... In Yang’s presentation, the Cultural Revolution is always understandable. While events were often out of control, and consequences frequently unanticipated, there were always rational decisions to be analyzed. Yang’s major contribution is his reevaluation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its culpability in the GPCR ... Yang Jisheng has written an essential work for those wanting to understand China’s modern history. Not as provocative as Tombstone, The World Turns Upside Down nonetheless provides a compelling argument, damning evidence, and authoritative sources to tell the definitive history of the Cultural Revolution.
... [a] great slab of a book ... Scrupulous in his detailing of the Cultural Revolution's horrors and insanities, Jisheng often fails to explain just how such a thing came about. The numbers and dry descriptions of atrocities stun but also numb. He explains the god-like status that Mao was held in, and goes into quite lengthy detail about the behind-the-scenes Beijing machinations that started as power plays between varying Mao rivals and sycophants before rippling out into China proper ... But too much of the book is spent on palace intrigue and not nearly enough on the devastation and trauma that this decade-long eruption of mass violence and erasure of culture inflicted on the people who survived. By quoting one of the perpetrators of the Daoxian massacre answering an official questioner years later and describing how bureaucrats felt safer over- than under-reacting to rumors of reactionaries, Jisheng shows the extent of the fanaticism. But he never illuminates just how Mao and his clique turned so much of the country so savage so quickly ... Although The World Turned Upside Down is a staggering piece of documentation, it still often misses the intimate scope which would have helped bring this epic tale to life. There are times when Jisheng's writing resembles that of a court document ... a necessary book, and it's an admirable attempt to get the record down. But that does not keep it from resembling a massive research archive with crucial information, rather than a work of human-scale history.
Though not the most elegantly written—or translated—study of the Cultural Revolution, this exhaustive and sometimes horrifying account demonstrates how deranged governments become when unconstrained by democracy and individual rights.