The Cultural Revolution was one of the greatest disasters to hit modern China, but it was also an event shaped by random personal connections. A woman named Liu Suyuan, who served in the marvellously named “Air Force Political Department Song and Dance Troupe” had developed a close relationship with Mao over a decade.

In May 1967, under attack from a radical faction denouncing her stage routine as bourgeois and decadent, she pulled strings to have a loud hailer blare out on stage that Lin Biao, the minister of defence, “supports the performance!” Troops who had been ready to storm the stage, keen to eliminate the “old culture” of feudal China, had to slink off while Liu finished her big number in peace.

Liu Suyuan’s story is one small detail in Yang Jisheng’s monumental history of the Cultural Revolution. Yang is, quite simply, a phenomenon. He became famous for his 2008 book Tombstone, a devastating account of the famine during Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958-62. He grew up in a peasant family in Hubei province, and spent decades working for China’s official Xinhua News Agency, a position that gave him access to archives that documented the famine.

Yang now brings his reputation as one of China’s most daring historical writers to another open wound in modern Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, during which Mao Zedong demanded that insurgents rise up against the Communist Party that he himself led.

Historians have debated how much the event was a power ploy by a sidelined Mao, and how much a genuine provocation to renew China’s class struggle. But the end effects were clear. Rivals to Mao were forced to confess their sins in public, and China’s middle classes were denounced as bourgeois revisionists for crimes such as knowing a foreign language. Over a decade, as many as 2m Chinese died in the struggle or were bullied into suicide.

Yang’s broad story is familiar from previous books: Mao’s calling of the nation’s youth to arms in 1966, the rise of the Red Guards determined to destroy people and artefacts that embodied a pre-revolutionary culture and to foster a personality cult of Mao, the sending-down of the Red Guards and the rise of control by the People’s Liberation Army in 1969, and the eventual conclusion with the death of Mao in 1976 and the arrest of the “Gang of Four” leaders associated with his policies.

Yang’s account concentrates on the actions of the top leaders, although it has fascinating snapshots of the numerous “Red Guard” factions of mobilised youths. (Train travel was made free, allowing what Yang calls “The Great Networking” of revolutionary youth to make their way across the country.) Yang also rightly stresses the deadly role of the PLA in worsening the violence. “An army draws vitality from war,” he notes drily, “and peace is the worst corrosive.”

The World Turned Upside Down is a formidable work of research and analysis, and Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian’s lucid translation is a major achievement, but this book does not pack quite the punch of Tombstone. To be fair, the latter is one of the most important books of history published in China, so Yang has set his own bar high. Where Tombstone had a range of devastating interviews with people who had experienced the famine, there are fewer raw, human moments in this book, which draws on intraparty documents and memoirs.

The Cultural Revolution itself sits in a somewhat different place in the Chinese imagination to the Great Leap Forward. The great hunger is essentially a taboo subject within China; the Cultural Revolution is not. There have been several histories of the period published in China (all meticulously footnoted here), and in more liberal periods, movies such as Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994) have showed aspects of the horror of the period.

However, particular aspects of the Cultural Revolution are off-limits in China, in particular attaching blame (as Yang does) to figures who were complicit with Mao’s actions, but absolved because they were later associated with reform, such as the prime minister Zhou Enlai, and future paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Today, self-declared Chinese neo-Maoists, brilliantly analysed by Jude Blanchette in his book China’s New Red Guards (2019), have created internet communities where they declare that the Cultural Revolution was in fact a glorious utopia of true socialism. Yang’s book is a reply to their fantasy world.

And it is a reply of breathtaking courage in an era when historians in China are feeling increasing restrictions on their work. Yang is unambiguous about the meaning he draws from the period: “constitutional democracy is an effective system for applying checks and balances”, Yang observes in his conclusion. This statement might seem no more than a bland piety, but it is an act of immense political courage. Ever since the secret issuing of “Document no. 9” by the CCP in 2013, “constitutional democracy” is now a forbidden subject in Chinese politics.

Western readers will find that Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals’s monumental Mao’s Last Revolution (2006) is more immediately accessible as an account of events, and for those who seek a Chinese account of the horrors of persecution during those years, Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed (2016) is gripping. But there is a fierce moral power that runs through Yang’s writing that is distinctive to him.

Read this book to be reminded about one of China’s darkest periods, and to mourn that so much of its modern history is still, ironically and tragically, best told outside the country’s own borders. While Yang still lives in Beijing, the Chinese original of this book could only be published in Hong Kong. It will be a profound test of that city’s freedoms to make sure that it remains available there.

The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, Macmillan, RRP£30.99, 768 pages

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford and author of ‘China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism’ (Harvard)

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