How China Remembers the Cultural Revolution

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

How China Remembers the Cultural Revolution

50 years later, China still has yet to come to terms with Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

How China Remembers the Cultural Revolution

Graduates dressed up as Cultural Revolution-era Red Guards pose for a picture in front of a statue of Mao Zedong at a university in Shanghai.

Credit: REUTERS/Aly Song

The 50th anniversaries of the opening salvoes of China’s Cultural Revolution, a frontal assault on Chinese values in which a million or more people died, are upon us. The salvoes were several, and it is not clear which should count as the beginning. On May 16, 1966, Mao Zedong suddenly indicted some of his rivals; on August 5 he published a call to “bomb their headquarters;” and on August 8 he announced the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” To associate all of the mind-boggling mayhem that followed with any particular day—in the way, for example, we use “June Fourth” as a tag for the massacre of unarmed protesters in 1989—seems almost trite. Individual dates are but flotsam on an ocean of suffering that seethed in China for several years and that has affected the national psyche ever since.

Chinese people, like most, understand the value of facing disasters squarely. Clear vision can help victims to come to terms with their losses and to move on; it can also bolster a nation’s resolve that no such thing happen again. The Chinese people’s will to examine the Cultural Revolution emerged very quickly after Mao died in 1976. From 1977 through 1980, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, allowed writers to explore at least part of the truth about what had happened during the 1966-76 decade, which by then Deng had dubbed “ten years of catastrophe.” Readers were ebullient, and the circulations of magazines that offered “scar literature” skyrocketed. Then, in late 1980, Deng suddenly ruled that exposure of the Cultural Revolution had gone far enough. Further probing might lead to public rejection not only of the late-Mao years but of the Communist Party itself—and that, most certainly, Deng did not want. He ordered an end to scar literature and instructed the Chinese people to “set aside residual fear” and “look forward.”

Painful memory cannot be so easily erased, however.  The actual effect of Deng’s order was not to halt memory but to drive it into private spaces—individual minds or the confidence of trusted friends—while a wall separating public and private memory grew taller.  In textbooks, classrooms, and the media, very little was said about the 1966-76 decade while the Party-packaged memory that reigned in public grew as cryptic as myth.

The Party’s version of events had its origins in the Cultural Revolution itself. I recall from my first visit to China, in May 1973, a visit to an art class at an elementary school. The children were drawing pictures of an airplane crashing in flames. It was the crash of Lin Biao, Mao’s deputy-turned-rival who was said to have died while trying to flee to the Soviet Union in 1971 after failing in a coup against Mao. Every child’s sketch was the same. Even the angle of the plane hitting the ground was the same. The children were drawing what they had been told, “exactly” as it happened. Today the teaching of young people in China is less regimented, but it remains true that when asked about the Cultural Revolution, some cannot go beyond one or two packaged phrases from textbooks.

In the 1980s the distinguished writer Ba Jin called for a Cultural Revolution museum, but to no avail. Government archives closed, and most remain closed today. A few determined Chinese historians have made progress nonetheless, but they may share their findings only among small groups of peers. When they compare themselves to German, Italian, or Japanese writers after 1945, or to South Africans after 1994, they complain of a major disadvantage. To write about a brutal regime that has fallen is one thing; to write under an altered form of that very regime is quite another.

Accounting for the Cultural Revolution is especially difficult because of the immense complexity of what happened. Mao’s Delphic directives from the top might seem simple, but the reverberations on the ground were incalculably various. Each locality has its own story to tell, but fifty years later still cannot—at least not in full.

With passing time, the accuracy of memory becomes a problem. Human memory not only fades with time but becomes more selective.  Stories re-told from memory tend to smooth out as the raw data of initial impressions either disappears or conforms to the stories.  A tendency toward self-protection distorts memory even in people who wish it were not so. People who behaved badly tend to erase details that make them look bad, and victims, too, tend to remember what they most need to remember. In a brilliant essay called, “Cultural Revolution, Memory, and Shame,” the Chinese writer Shi Tiesheng recalls a 1974 visit from police who came to his home demanding to know the name of a friend who had given him a piece of underground fiction. Under pressure, Shi divulged the name, putting his friend at serious risk. As he writes his essay 14 years later, though, Shi scours his memory and finds within it two versions of the crucial encounter with the police: in one, he is already aware that another friend, at another location, has leaked his friend’s name, making his own betrayal, at least in practical terms, irrelevant; in the second version, he learns about that separate leak only later. Which memory is accurate?  Aware of the penchant toward self-protection in human memory, Shi judges that version two is more likely the truth.

Personal struggle with conscious memory such as this is an immense and unfathomed (and perhaps by now unfathomable) part of the Cultural Revolution’s legacy. But it is not the most powerful part, in my view. For Chinese society as a whole, the two earthquakes of late Maoism (the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) were so fundamental and so pervasive in their consequences that people who are living through the continuing undulations are better described as still coping with the Cultural Revolution than as struggling to recall it. The Great Leap caused more deaths than the Cultural Revolution—at least 20 times more—but the Cultural Revolution’s assault on time-honored Chinese values (Denounce your parents!  Attack your teachers!  Destroy temples!) was far more devastating to the society’s shared values and social trust. Five decades later China’s social ethics have not recovered from Mao’s body-blow, and it may be several more decades before normalcy is possible.

As of the mid-1970s, the popular mood in China—repressed but widely-shared—was “Anything but this!”  Everyone from farmers in Anhui who wanted their land back to students in Shanghai who wanted their universities back was pressing for “reform.”  In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping was credited as the “architect of reform,” but this euphemism, which was designed to burnish Deng’s image, was misleading. Deng was hardly reform’s prime mover; he was, indeed, an “architect,” but an architect of policies on how to handle pressures from below while keeping the Communist Party on top.  If forced to say which Communist leader was most responsible for causing reform, one would have to name Mao, not Deng.

Mao’s contribution was unintended, of course—indeed, it was nearly the opposite of what he intended—but that, like a net-cord winner in tennis, did not make the effects less valuable. The great Chinese journalist Liu Binyan once observed that the strongest free-thinkers ever to emerge from China’s communist years came from the generation who missed school during the Cultural Revolution and spent time instead “making revolution” in the countryside.  Liu Xiaobo, Hu Ping, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu and many other of the most effective critics of the Communist regime set out as ardent red youth eager to learn from the politically-advanced peasantry, were shocked by the poverty and oppression they actually found, suddenly saw communist theory as a fraud, and resolved from that moment on to think for themselves.

The main principle in Deng Xiaoping’s reform, especially after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, was to segregate the freedom to make money, which Deng allowed, from freedoms in politics, religion, and any other kind of “thought” that might give rise to independent organization. All this remained forbidden. The Chinese people, now allowed at least one outlet for their continuing rush out of the Mao era, pursued the money-making route with passion. How much they had left the Cultural Revolution can be measured by how Maoist notions of “bourgeois” life—fast cars, slick clothing, banquets, mansions—remained in their thinking conceptually, but now were a model not of iniquity but of success.

Riding a supply of workers so numerous, so eager, and (by international standards) so underpaid and underprotected, the Chinese economy boomed and the Communist Party took credit. Now, as the boom is receding, the Party is looking for another way to stay on top and seems to be exploring the possibility that chauvinistic nationalism might be that way. For cues on how to do it, Xi Jinping has been looking in part back to Mao and the Cultural Revolution: concentrate power in a single person; grow a personality cult; try to identify the Communist Party and its new great leader with a show of pride to the world.  How this will end is hard to say.

Two major conferences on the Cultural Revolution will be held in June of this year in Massachusetts and California. Scholars from China will attend, but will be understandably regretful that they cannot meet in China. Imagine, for a moment, what American historians might feel if they had to go to Paris or Sao Paulo for a retrospective on Nixon and Watergate, or on the U.S. Civil War.

Perry Link is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside.