There are many popular history books that portray societies at moments of triumph or disaster, or which diagnose their state of mind during periods of wrenching change. James Palmer's The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China does something less common. It captures a society harassed to the point of almost complete exhaustion.
Not that 1976 was an uneventful year in China. It saw the death of Mao Zedong, the country's absolute ruler, which followed hard on the death of his longtime sidekick, the chronically ambivalent but genuinely loved Premier Zhou Enlai. For another, it was the year in which the Tangshan earthquake killed more people in a comparatively small area of north-eastern China than died across Asia from the 2004 tsunami.
It was also the last year of the Cultural Revolution - the "10 years of chaos" unleashed on the population of China through Mao and his close associates' desire to engulf the whole of China in permanent revolution. It's difficult to get a grip on the consequences of that decision for the country as a whole without confirming the adage that one death is murder while a million is a statistic. Palmer does it, in part, by telling the story of the village of Niulang, where somebody inadvertently broke wind at a political meeting. This incident unleashed a dizzying spiral of authoritarian psychosis, until, Palmer writes, "the end result of one fart in a small village was 1,300 arrests, 32 executions and 263 people left permanently injured by torture".
One of the strengths of The Death of Mao is that it makes sense of events by concentrating on the personal and particular, so avoiding the Great Eventitis that tends to be an occupational hazard of books about China. Elsewhere in Palmer's account of the Cultural Revolution, we have the slogan "Long Live the Red Terror" written in human blood on the wall of a Beijing music conservatory; the poet Wen Jie, who committed suicide after falling in love with one of the Red Guards tormenting him and a boy from a "bad" family background, tied up in a sack and casually beaten to death by his schoolmates. He notes that swallowing pesticide was a favourite method of committing suicide simply because there was a lot of the stuff hanging around from a previous mass campaign to rid the country of vermin.
Against this background of essentially random, lethal violence, Red Guards mounted a comprehensive erasure of traditional pastimes, cultural practices and folk beliefs. In the name of attacking the "Four Olds", China's entire common culture was devastated.
The Red Guard movement itself was hopelessly split into warring factions, each redder than thou, all working to seize power in their localities. In 1968, two years after launching the movement, Mao called in the People's Liberation Army to end the chaos, disarming the revolutionary students and packing them off to the countryside. That did not signal the end of the Cultural Revolution as a whole. Instead, the chaos unleashed by the Red Guards was replaced by a rolling programme of political campaigns, as major power holders targeted factional enemies and the party as a whole purged its way back to a kind of equilibrium. Figures in the central leadership were usually the designated victims, but their fall would take thousands of others down with them through a viral application of the principle of guilt by association.
By 1976, this process was more or less accomplished. Permanent revolution had subsided into a daily grind of pointless meetings, rallies and ritual exhortation. The economy recovered somewhat: most people had just about enough to eat. In Beijing, though slowly succumbing to multiple chronic illnesses, Mao remained lucid enough to choose a successor, Hua Guofeng. Various factions circled around the throne, with nothing on their minds but the health of the Great Helmsman.