Forty-one years ago in Beijing a young Chinese couple married, with a toast to Mao Zedong and with high hopes for the future.
Their story is told in ''The Blue Kite,'' a Chinese movie now playing the art-cinema circuit in the United States. By 1968, the woman has buried three husbands and survived the Rectification Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
All these propaganda names were in the news while the events happened, but what did they really mean? I remember an amateur Sinologist in 1966 painstakingly explaining that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution meant pretty much what the words implied -- a repudiation of traditional Chinese Mandarin culture in favor of democratic modernization.
What's wrong with that? The world moves forward. Traditions survive only so long as they are useful. Who would defend such traditions as ''one for the road?'' It was OK when the horse knew the way home, not OK for the age of high-speed motor travel.
''The Blue Kite'' shows how big ideas of progress and modernization affect folks at home who are just trying to teach school and get family dinner on the table. The movie is banned in China, regarded as the most explosive criticism of the Maoist years yet to appear. Yet the movie is no political tract. Mao disappears after the newlyweds toast him in the film's opening moments. The awful things that happen over the next 15 years don't seem to be the fault of anybody in particular; they simply follow from, in Hannah Arendt's phrase about the Holocaust of European Jewry, ''the banality of evil.''
First there is the ''Hundred Flowers'' campaign, which encourages friends of the revolution to speak up critically, so that the best ideas may win out. Later, it transpires that this was a ploy to ''lure the snakes from their holes'' -- that is, to entrap and purge, or ''rectify,'' the critics.
The subsequent ''Great Leap Forward'' sought a brute-force industrialization of China within a decade. Farms, schools, neighborhoods were to become back-yard steel producers. Trees were felled to feed the fires of the back-yard smelting pots. Kitchen utensils, balcony railings, shaving kits and any other bits of metal were fed to the furnaces to make steel.
Soon there was famine, as agriculture was neglected in favor of steel-making. A scapegoat was needed, and was found in the sky -- sparrows. These birds steal grain from a hungry populace, and so a nationwide campaign was launched to exterminate them. Little children were made to beat drums, bang pots, shriek continually, the object being to keep the sparrows in a state of nervous exhaustion, unable to perch until they fell dead from the air.
The Cultural Revolution that came a few years later was an effort to undermine all authority. Scholars now say it was a desperate throw of the dice by Mao Zedong, staking his personal prestige against a Communist Party that had turned against him. Bands of teen-age Red Guards ran amok, accusing school principals, factory directors, office managers, family patriarchs of deviation. Museums were ransacked and cultural treasures destroyed.
How many died in the upheavals of Mao's China? Nobody knows, maybe as many as 50 million. If so, that would Make Mao the century's champion mass-murderer, equal to the combined slaughter of Stalin and Hitler.
But 50 million is only a statistic. In families, most days continued to be organized around making dumplings, getting fireworks for the holiday, enforcing homework discipline. ''The Blue Kite'' provides the human dimension to the Mao years in the small dramas of an ill brother, a true-believer sister, a mischievous small boy, an unlucky husband.
Human dimension is supplied also by a young man I met last year in a southern Chinese city. His father was a Communist Party member who fell afoul of the Cultural Revolution. In 1971 he was sent to the countryside for political re-education. To protect her career, his mother, a physician, was prevailed upon to divorce her husband. But it had been a true marriage, and when the father was rehabilitated in 1979, the young man's parents remarried. He seemed to think the happy ending was more important than the disruption of his childhood by eight years of forced separation.
How could it be that Chinese people were made to do such un-Confucian things as denounce teachers, disrespect elders, betray families, defile antiquities?
My friend's answer was not entirely satisfactory. The people had suffered so much in pre-revolutionary China, he said, that their desire to change China was sincere. But Mao exploited the people's enthusiasm.
I wonder. Can politics make us violate our bedrock values? A demagogue might steer Frenchmen, for example, to the hard left or extreme right, but could he cause them to uproot all the vineyards of Bordeaux and smash all the bottles in all the cellars?
My Chinese friend became a high- level government interpreter, then was himself purged for signing a statement of support for the Tiananmen Square protesters five years ago.
It's not so bad, he said. He got to choose his place of exile, so he chose the city where his girlfriend's (now his wife's) parents live. Anyway, things are getting better now.
That is the hope that drives us humans. Despite all the havoc wrought by the political giants who insist upon improving our lot, we believe that in the end life will improve.
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.