Inside Story

The silence that makes sense of modern China

Two new books excavate everyday experiences of the Cultural Revolution

Linda Jaivin Books 13 June 2023 1530 words

Imaginary enemy: the governor of Heilongjiang province, Li Fanwu, falls victim to the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Li Zhensheng 

It’s generally accepted that China’s ultra-left, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution ended shortly after Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in late 1976. But such extreme social, political and psychological turbulence, set in motion more than a decade earlier, doesn’t just come to an end when the powers-that-be say it does. A minority of Chinese people, outraged by contemporary inequalities and nostalgic for an idealised era of egalitarianism and ideological purity, believe it should never have ended. For many more, ongoing and intergenerational trauma has ensured that it still hasn’t.

Postwar Germany dealt openly, painfully and at length with the history of the Nazi era. After apartheid, South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at restorative justice, another harrowing but necessary process. Argentina and Chile have undergone similar processes, and so too have other countries, some with more success than others.

For the Communist Party of China, though, the most relevant, instructive — and alarming — precedent for dealing with past injustice comes from the Gorbachev years, when the Soviet leadership allowed access to historical records, including those of the Stalinist era, with its purges, labour camps, man-made famines and killings. As the Chinese communists witnessed with alarm, it was not long after glasnost and its accompanying program of political reform, perestroika, that the Eastern bloc disintegrated and the Soviet Union collapsed.

None of China’s post-Mao leaders have permitted a full and honest reckoning with the Cultural Revolution (or other inglorious episodes in the party’s past for that matter). But Xi Jinping has made it a personal mission to eliminate what he calls “historical nihilism,” which is essentially any version of history that contradicts the highly sanitised party-approved version: something something misapprehension something something counter-revolution.

This historical obfuscation has been so effective that I was once asked by a young person in Beijing whether the Cultural Revolution took place “before or after Liberation [in 1949].” Yet, as Tania Branigan puts it in Red Memory, understanding what happened in the Cultural Revolution is vital to understanding China today. It is nothing less than “a silence, a space, that [makes] sense of everything existing above or around it.”

Red Memory is one of two important new books that offer English-language readers a look at the history of that period and how it continues to affect society and politics in China today. Both Red Memory and Wang Youqin’s monumental Victims of the Cultural Revolution shift the usual focus from the pronouncements and machinations of the top leadership to the experiences of the people, inside and out the party, who were directly affected by them.

Branigan, who reported from China for the Guardian for seven years beginning in 2008, interviews survivors, victims and perpetrators, and their children, an artist who paints them and psychoanalysts who treat them. She meets people whose actions — or failures to act — led to the torment, torture and even murder of friends and family, and who must cope with that hard truth every day, and others whose lives and families were destroyed by the violence. She shows how the trauma inflicted by the Cultural Revolution was not just national and individual but intergenerational as well.

Given that it was “an age of betrayal, of political choices fuelled by fear, idolatry, adolescent rage, marital bitterness and self-preservation,” Branigan is impressed by how many “stood firm” and refused to bend under pressure. She is taken aback by those who cling to the ideas and ideals of the period, whose phones ring to the tune of the “Internationale” and who organise trips to North Korea “to admire society as it should be.”

Among Branigan’s interviewees is the author of Victims of the Cultural Revolution. Wang Youqin was fourteen when her Red Guard classmates battered their teacher to death in what would later be seen as a pivotal moment in the movement’s violent turn. She reflected in a secret diary at the time that she was powerless to change the “bad things” that were happening all around her, but she could at least record them. Wang, who counts Anne Frank and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn among her inspirations, has since moved to the United States, where she teaches university-level Chinese while continuing the documentation that has become her life’s work.

Conservative estimates place the number of unnatural deaths associated with the Cultural Revolution’s violence, including murders and suicides, at nearly two million. Most victims have never had their stories told or their sacrifices honoured. To date, Wang has interviewed more than a thousand survivors and witnesses, meticulously checking archives and other sources to corroborate their testimonies and fill in, or correct, details. Since 2000, she has been publishing the results on her Chinese-language website Chinese Cultural Revolution Holocaust Memorial. Unsurprisingly, the website is blocked on the mainland.

She has now produced from these materials the prodigious Victims of the Cultural Revolution. Superbly translated, annotated, edited and abridged by Stacey Mosher, it tells the stories of 659 people. They include famous writers and political figures as well as cooks, police, factory workers, farmers and sports coaches, among many others. But the majority are educators, from primary school teachers up through professors and university presidents. Educators were archetypal targets of the violence and students among the worst perpetrators.

The Chinese original was ordered alphabetically by name (according to Pinyin romanisation), which would have condemned the book to obscurity in English, a resource for specialists only. By working closely with Wang to reorganise the text with attention to chronology, theme and place, Mosher has helped craft a compelling and contextualised narrative that is essential reading for anyone with an interest in modern Chinese history.

One breakout from the text is a table that lists sixty-three victims from Peking University alone. The table has columns for names, gender, ages (ranging from twenty to seventy-seven), status (typist, professor, worker, librarian, canteen cashier, student, “father of legal department administrator,” equipment room manager), department (name it), Communist Party or Communist Youth League membership (which twenty had) and cause of death (beatings, leaping from heights, poison and vein cutting, shot in crossfire, hanging, lying on railway line and so on).

Wang doesn’t spare the reader the details of the physical and psychological savagery experienced by the victims. The images of the Cultural Revolution encountered by most Western readers probably include pictures of Tiananmen Square crowded with Red Guards ecstatically waving Mao’s Little Red Book, and kitschy stills from Red Detachment of Women, as well as the odd photo of a struggle session with victims kneeling on a stage wearing giant dunce caps and placards around their necks, perhaps with a Red Guard gesturing above them, belt in hand. Wang tells us how heavy those caps were, and how some people were whipped so fiercely with the belts that their shredded clothing was embedded in their broken flesh.

Woven throughout these stories of terror, moral plight and violence are Wang’s astute observations and analyses, personal stories from her meetings with witnesses and survivors, and comparisons both with other repressive historical eras in Chinese history and with the Stalinist purges and the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

She shows that both Mao and premier Zhou Enlai (generally seen as a mitigator of the movement’s worst excesses) knew, often in significant detail, about specific acts of violence. Their enthusiastic support for the Red Guards meant that the murders, especially on campuses, “were carried out with great fanfare and were considered meritorious and honourable.” They received appeals from some victims, and occasionally intervened on their behalf; but Mao ignored a personal appeal from Li Da, the president of Wuhan University who, along with Mao, was one of the dozen or so founding members of the Communist Party. The seventy-six-year-old was “struggled” outdoors multiple times in the furnace heat of Wuhan’s summer, soon after which he collapsed and died.

Wang writes of how her immersion in these tragic stories has affected her. She admits that friends supportive of her work worry about her mental health. Yet “now that I’ve started,” she writes, “I have to continue, even if it tears at my soul like a wire brush.”

Strikingly, the longer biographies in Victims often include the victim’s role in the many political campaigns from the early 1950s onwards: some were victimised again and again. Others were former models of official thought reform, and even participated in the persecution of “class enemies” or “counter-revolutionaries,” never dreaming that they would one day find themselves so accused. “People who helped build the machinery of persecution,” Wang observes, “risked being crushed alive by that very machine.”

As for those who, under torture or threat, made false confessions or incriminated others, she comments: “It is futile to hope for people to be impervious to gun and knife; the best we can do is glean some kind of truth from history and use it to establish a system under which human flesh is no longer obliged to withstand the cold, hard steel of autocracy.” •

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
By Tania Branigan | Faber | $32.99 | 304 pages

Victims of the Cultural Revolution: Testimonies of China’s Tragedy
By Youqin Wang | Oneworld Academic | £50 | 592 pages