Chinese Gerontocracy and the Cultural Revolution
In their studies of Mao Zedong, Chinese party historians have drawn a clear distinction between the "great Mao" of his prime and the "erroneous Mao" of his later years. They describe both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as mistakes made by an aging leader. They also compare Mao to Stalin in his later years and suggest thereby that mighty leaders who rule too long engender political instability. Few of these scholars, however, have tried to elucidate what it was exactly that differentiated the "great Mao" from the "erroneous Mao." Even among the more extensive and diverse studies of Mao by Western scholars, only a few offer analyses of Mao's physical and psychological problems in his later years.1
Any inquiry into the probable physical and psychological effects of aging on Mao leads one to the concept of gerontocracy, government by the elderly, and to gerontology, the study of the effects of aging on human behavior. It is not my purpose here to make a systematic study of the elderly Mao exclusively from a gerontocratic or gerontological perspective. It is, rather, to draw connections between the Cultural Revolution and Mao's personal circumstances, including the fact that he was 73 years old in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began. One of the most important features of national politics during the Cultural Revolution was Mao's continuing purge of high officials. More or less suddenly, Mao turned against almost all his longtime party comrades. This behavior suggests that Mao suffered from what psychologists call senile paranoia. That diagnosis does not answer all questions about the Cultural Revolution, but it does add insight and information to discussions of the origin and course of the Cultural Revolution.
According to general theories of social gerontology, the physical and psychological changes many people undergo in later adulthood can affect