Great Achievements, Big Failures: How to Evaluate the Social Changes of the Mao Era

A public talk by Dr Felix Wemheuer, Professor for Modern China Studies at the University of Cologne.


When the Chinese communists came to power in 1949, they promised to “turn society upside down”. Efforts to build a communist society created hopes and dreams, coupled with fear and disillusionment. The Chinese people made great efforts towards modernization and social change in this period of transition, but they also experienced traumatic setbacks. How to understand the CCP’s achievements and failures related to economic growth, access to basic entitlements, and social mobility and change in the last 70 years? Covering the period 1949 to 1976 and then tracing the legacy of the Mao era through the 1980s, Felix Wemheuer focuses on questions of class, gender, ethnicity, and the urban-rural divide in this new social history of Maoist China. He analyses the experiences of a range of social groups under Communist rule - workers, peasants, local cadres, intellectuals, “ethnic minorities”, the old elites, men and women. To understand this tumultuous period, he argues, we must recognise the many complex challenges facing the People’s Republic. But we must not lose sight of the human suffering and political terror that, for many now ageing quietly across China, remain the period’s abiding memory. 


Dr. Felix Wemheuer is Professor for Modern China Studies at the University of Cologne. His research focuses on the social history of China from the 20th century to the present, especially the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution era. His publications include Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (Yale, 2014) and A Social History of Maoist China: Conflict and Change, 1949-1976 (Cambridge, 2019). Between 2008 and 2010, he was a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center at Harvard University.


This event is open to the public and free to attend.

Chair: Dr Adam Cathcart
Organiser: School of History, University of Leeds