Reflecting on the Cultural Revolution, 50 Years Later

Reflecting on the Cultural Revolution, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago, Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, initiating a decade of chaos and violence that is still reverberating in Chinese society. To mark the anniversary, Alexander C. Cook interviews six historians in a roundtable discussion of the period for the Los Angeles Review of Books blog. In the first installment, they elaborate on how the Cultural Revolution is publicly discussed in China:

ALEXANDER C. COOK: How different is the standard view in China?

[…] DANIEL LEESE: As for Chinese textbooks, they contain little or nothing about the Cultural Revolution and render the period as a distant and irrelevant past, akin to Neolithic history. A disturbing consequence is the near complete lack of knowledge about the Cultural Revolution among the younger generation. Nevertheless, there is definitely a standard or official view that still predominates. That view is largely negative. The party resolution of 1981 still defines the boundaries of permissible interpretation, and describes the Cultural Revolution as an aberration of the otherwise correct path of party-led socialist construction.

DENISE HO: In China the standard narrative is one of chaos, describing the Cultural Revolution as a “turbulent decade” in which not only were lives lost but also lives wasted. The official Party line is to lay responsibility at Mao’s feet but also to rescue his legacy; despite the Cultural Revolution being a mistake, the Party says, Mao was still a great revolutionary. Was the Cultural Revolution an aberration? To answer yes is to say that this was an extremist period and China has since returned to a path of modernization and development. To answer no is to suggest firstly that the Cultural Revolution came out of longer traditions, and that it has left a lasting imprint on Chinese politics, society, and culture. As historians I think we’re all trying to look for elements of both change and continuity. […] [Source]

While the government has never allowed a full public accounting of the events of that decade, individual reminiscences and accounts have contributed to the global understanding of the time period. In particular, “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” written by Peking University professor Ji Xianlin, was published in China in 1998 and became one of the most popular memoirs, despite official efforts to limit its influence. New York Review of Books has now published a translation of Ji’s work by Chenxin Jiang. In The New York Times, Richard Bernstein reviews the book alongside a memoir by dissident and astrophysicist Fang Lizhi:

Ji Xianlin’s haunting “The Cowshed,” however, which focuses on the 10-year period of the Cultural Revolution, was published in the People’s Republic in 1992 (sic) and remains in print, though as Zha Jianying points out in her informative introduction, “the authorities also quietly took steps to restrict public discussion of the memoir, as its subject continues to be treated as sensitive.” Ji, who died in 2009 at the age of 97, was a German-educated scholar of Pali and Sanskrit. Like Fang, he supported the Communist revolution, but less critically, and in his memoir, he confesses some shame over his obedience to the party’s authority. “I never once gave a thought to the feelings of the people wearing hats,” he admits — meaning the people singled out by Mao for national condemnation, people whom Ji duly criticized in China’s Orwellian rituals.

Ji had a rude awakening when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, and he found himself wearing the “hat” of a “reactionary capitalist academic authority.” Before he knew it, he was a victim of one of Mao’s chief contributions to 20th-century totalitarian practice, the “struggle session,” during which, over a period of weeks and months, the targeted person was harangued, humiliated, starved and beaten in front of mobs howling slogans. [Source]

In an interview with The New York Times’ Jane Perlez, writer Zha Jianying, who wrote the introduction to Cheng’s translation of Ji’s book, talks about why authorities attempted to muzzle the book after it was published:

Q. When “The Cowshed” was published in China in 1998, it is supposed to have been widely read. Was that really the case? These days in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution is a rare topic. People shrug their shoulders and barely recall Ji or what he went through. How do you account for this?

A. Time is obviously a factor. A less obvious but more important factor is censorship. The forgetfulness hasn’t happened naturally; there is something insidious behind the phenomenon. The human desire to turn away from past trauma is perhaps universal, but the amnesia many Chinese display these days is highly selective. If you ask them about the Opium War or the Japanese invasion, for instance, they won’t shrug their shoulders; they are likely to treat you with a lecture. Those events occurred much earlier, yet are well remembered because the state constantly reminds people about China’s humiliation at foreign hands. Every Chinese kid is schooled in those history lessons. But an internal mess? That’s a totally different matter. The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao, supported by the entire party leadership, with millions of Chinese participating in the violence and persecution. It’s a thoroughly homemade nightmare. And the same party continues to rule today. So is it surprising that the topic has been quietly muzzled? Do you wonder why the government would like people to forget about it and why many Chinese happily obliged?

[…] Q. Of the Red Guards, many of whom have gone on to successful careers, Ji says: “Strangely none of them appear to regret their deeds. Are they all profoundly forgetful or have they no conscience?” How would you answer Ji?

A. Actually the situation is mixed with the former Red Guards. Many have grown profoundly disillusioned; some have become reformers or even dissidents. Others, I suspect, don’t like what they see when they look in the mirror but won’t admit it because they don’t have to. But I certainly cannot rule out the “no apology, no regret” camp, just as we cannot rule out the existence of pure evil. Which is to say some people have not a shred of conscience. [Source]

Zha further explores the issue of guilt and conscience in a piece in New York Review of Books:

Reading Ji’s account again, however, has also renewed some of my old questions and frustrations. How much can we really make sense of a bizarre, unwieldy phenomenon like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution? Can we truly overcome barriers of limited information, fading historical memory, and persistent ideological biases to have a genuinely meaningful and illuminating conversation about it today? I wonder. The delicate circumstances surrounding Ji’s memoir in China, in a way, demonstrate both the entangled complexity of the events and the precarious state of historical testimony.

[…] A noteworthy feature of The Cowshed is its entangled theme of guilt and shame. In memoirs about Maoist persecutions, authors typically portray themselves as either hapless, innocent victims or, occasionally, defiant resisters. The picture is murkier in Ji’s recollection. He writes about Chinese intellectuals’ eager cooperation in ideological campaigns and how, under pressure, they frequently turned on one another. He mocks his own “aptitude in crowd behavior” and admits that, until his own downfall, he had also persecuted others:

Since we had been directed to oppose the rightists, we did. After more than a decade of continuous political struggle, the intellectuals knew the drill. We all took turns persecuting each other. This went on until the Socialist Education Movement, which, in my view, was a precursor to the Cultural Revolution.

And what was his involvement in the Socialist Education Movement? “Without quite knowing what I was doing, I joined the ranks of the persecutors.” [Source]

Xi’s acknowledgement of guilt in discussing his actions during the Cultural Revolution is rare in such memoirs. In an interview published in January, Hong Kong-based publisher Bao Pu told The New York Review of Books’ Ian Johnson why he had not published more Cultural Revolution memoirs:

Unfortunately they’re not very interesting. Everyone feels he was a victim. If you look at them, you wonder, What the fuck were you doing in that situation? It was everyone else’s fault? You can’t blame everything on Mao. He was responsible, he was the mastermind, but in order to reach that level of social destruction—an entire generation has to reflect. But they all say they were victims. [Source]

In The Nation, translator Chenxin Jiang writes about Ji’s efforts to reflect honestly on the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and his own role in it in a bid to root out its lingering destructive effects:

Like many intellectuals, Ji had experienced communism as something of a conversion experience. He recalls in his book that when he first made a speech in the 1950s criticizing himself in an early thought-reform campaign, he “came away feeling lighter, stronger, cleansed.” Before long, Ji had internalized the party line that workers, soldiers, and peasants were heroes, whereas intellectuals like himself were to be distrusted. He castigated himself for not having taken part in the war against the Japanese. He had been stranded in Nazi Germany during the war, or, as he put it, “selfishly pursuing my own academic career thousands of miles away.”

Only much later, during the liberalizing 1980s, could Ji admit to himself that Maoist indoctrination had blinded him to the party’s explicitly anti-intellectual biases, which had culminated in the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Writing The Cowshed made him rethink his unquestioning support of the party and its policies. Ji saw himself as speaking for an entire generation of intellectuals who had supported the Communist Party and had been disillusioned by the brutal treatment they had received.

[…] Ji reserves his sharpest criticism for the party’s present attitude toward history. He argues that collective memory of the Cultural Revolution has been artificially and hastily blotted out. He even implies that the integrity of Chinese society is endangered by Beijing’s refusal to redress past wrongs, tracing back to the event what he calls the “ethical decline of Chinese society” and the pervasiveness of petty corruption. He Guanghu, an outspoken professor of philosophy at Beijing’s top-ranked Renmin University, agrees with Ji’s diagnosis: “Keeping quiet about something that’s clearly evil, because speaking up will only irritate your superiors and cause trouble for yourself—that’s something people learned to do during the Cultural Revolution,” he told me. “Flattering one’s superiors, finding fault with unconventional opinions by calling them counterrevolutionary—that’s the legacy of the Cultural Revolution too.” Like Ji, He argues that failing to openly discuss this legacy makes it harder to root out its ill effects. [Source]

Read more about the Cultural Revolution, via CDT.


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