RESEARCHING AND WHITEWASHING THE THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

RESEARCHING THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION


Cultural Revolution book criticizing Confucius

Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books, “By now, it has been nearly forty years since the Cultural Revolution officially ended, yet in China, considering the magnitude and significance of the event, it has remained a poorly examined, under-documented subject. Official archives are off-limits. Serious books on the period, whether comprehensive histories, in-depth analyses, or detailed personal memoirs, are remarkably few. [Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016]

According to the New York Times: In China any detailed study of the Cultural Revolution is still too sensitive to be explored publicly Today, that era has been all but obliterated from the official history of the People’s Republic, its horrors glossed over in history books and the period is simply written off as ten years of madness. While many younger Chinese know that the country passed through a period of turmoil, scholars say, few have any idea of its wild extremes. [Source: Xiyun Yang and Michael Wines, New York Times, January 25, 2010]

A lot of materials on the Cultural Revolution and other periods of recent Chinese history have been obtained at flea markets. Jeremy Brown told the New York Times: “I learned it from Michael Schoenhals, a Swedish expert on the Cultural Revolution and the pioneer of what he calls “Sinological garbology.” Back when I started collecting documents in the early 2000s, there was an amazing amount of stuff you could simply buy at flea markets or online. Smaller neighborhood offices were renovating and moving, so they got rid of old files they did not need anymore — some of them found their way to the markets. These days the flow of grass-roots documents has slowed; it’s more of a trickle than a torrent. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 10, 2016]

Websites and Books on the Cultural Revolution

Good Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution cnd.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun morningsun.org ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; The South China Morning Post has produced a wonderful multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. multimedia.scmp.com. Posters: Cultural Revolution posters at The Ohio State University online exhibition Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution and the University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection huntingtonarchive.org ]

Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle chronicle.uchicago.edu ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article paulbogdanor.com ; Death Tolls erols.com People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Wikipedia article on propaganda Wikipedia ; Cultural Revolution sino.uni-heidelberg.de; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters chinaposters.org ; Yet more posters Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn

Books on the Cultural Revolution: "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History” by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury 2016); “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin (New York Review Books, 2016); "Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, an international bestseller; “Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of the Cultural Revolution” and “One Hundred People's Ten Years” by Feng Jicai. “The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Cultural Revolution” by Chen Jo-his; Life and “Death in Shanghai” by Nien Chang; “Enemies of the People” by Anne F. Thurston.

“Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen (Random House, 2000) is a coming-of-age set in the Cultural Revolution. It was described by Newsweek as "surprisingly free of cynicism or bitterness...all the more poignant by the wonder and vulnerability in the voice of their child narrator." “The Lily Theater: A Novel of Modern China” by Lulu Wang is an entertaining and interesting depiction of the Cultural Revolution originally written in Dutch by a Chinese woman with a strong, eccentric voice.

The human costs of the Cultural Revolution have been best captured by Simon Leys (the pen-name of the Belgian sinologist and literary critic Pierre Ryckmans) in his books "Chinese Shadows" (1974) and "The Burning Forest" (1987). "Voice from the Whirlwind" by Feng Jicai is a collection of oral histories from the Cultural Revolution. Also worth a look is "My Name is Number 4: A True Story of the Cultural revolution" by Ting-Xing Ye (Thomas Dunne, 2008). Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution can be found in “Red Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey Through the Cultural Revolution,” edited by Robert Pledge and published by Phaidon Press in 2016. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Writing a Book About the Horrors of the Cultural Revolution


In a review of “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin, Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books: ““To mentally relive such darkness and to record it all in such an unswervingly candid manner could not have been easy for an elderly man: Ji was over eighty at the time of writing. In the opening chapter, he confessed to having waited for many years, in vain, for others to come forward with a testimony. Disturbed by the collective silence of the older generation and the growing ignorance of the young people about the Cultural Revolution, he finally decided to take up the pen himself.[Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016 \*\]

“Originally published by an official press in Beijing in 1998, during a politically relaxed moment, The Cowshed probably benefited from the author’s eminent status in China. A celebrated Indologist, Ji was also a popular essayist and an avowed patriot who enjoyed good relations with the government. With genial, grandfatherly manners, he had become, in his august age, one of those avuncular figures revered by the public and loved by the media. The book has sold well and stayed in print. But authorities also quietly took steps to restrict public discussion of the memoir, as its subject continues to be treated as sensitive. The present English edition, skillfully translated by Chenxin Jiang, is a welcome, valuable addition to the small body of work in this genre. It makes an important contribution to our understanding of that period. \*\

“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.” \*\

Obstacles to Researching the Cultural Revolution

In a review of “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin, Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books: The Chinese government has a “quiet ban on any deep probing of the subject, a policy still in effect today. First and foremost is the question of Mao. Everyone knows that Mao is the chief culprit of the Cultural Revolution. Well-known historical data points to a tangle of factors behind Mao’s motivation for launching it: subtle tension among the top leadership of the CCP since the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine with an estimated thirty to forty million deaths; his desire to reassert supremacy and crush any perceived challenge to his personal power by reaching down directly to the masses; his radical, increasingly lunatic vision of permanent revolution; his deep anti-intellectualism and paranoid jealousy. But, from the viewpoint of the Party, allowing a full investigation and exposure of Mao’s manipulations would threaten the Party’s legitimacy. If the great helmsman gets debunked, the whole ship may go down. Mao as a symbol is therefore crucial: it is tied to the survival of the Party state. [Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016 \*\]

“Then there is the thorny issue of the people’s participation in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards were only the best-known of the radical organizations. At the height of madness, millions of ordinary Chinese took part in various forms of lawless actions and rampant violence. The estimated death toll of those who committed suicide, were tortured to death, were publicly executed, or were killed in armed factional battles runs from hundreds of thousands to millions. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bring all of the perpetrators to account. \*\

“Consequently, the situation has been handled in a manner that reflects both cynical and pragmatic calculations: After arresting and blaming it all on the ultra-leftist Gang of Four, the government officially condemned the period as a “ten-year disaster,” tolerated a short period of limited public ventilation, then moved to contain the damage. It’s one of those noiseless bans done through internal control; investigation, discussion, and publication have been variously forbidden, discouraged, or marginalized. Over time, the topic has faded away as though it all happened quite naturally. \*\

“This situation is especially unsatisfying and unfair to those who suffered untold atrocities. Most of the teachers who were beaten up by their Red Guard students never received an apology. Most of the scholars who were tortured in the countless cowsheds continued, as Ji did, to live and work among their former persecutors. Some of the former perpetrators thrived in the new era, building successful careers and lives. \*\


Red Guard map of Beijing


“Ji himself worried about “stepping on people’s toes.” After writing the first draft of his memoir in 1988, he kept it in a drawer for years, for fear it might be viewed as a personal vendetta. He then revised it heavily, toning down his prose and keeping most of the persecutors unnamed. He said he wanted no revenge, just to write a honest historical document, so that young Chinese would know the past and would not let it happen again. He sounded apologetic about letting his emotions get the better of him in the earlier draft. Still, the reader can probably catch a strange tone of sarcasm and self-mockery in the narrator’s voice. \*\

“I found Ji’s tone odd and puzzling at first until it occurred to me that this is not an uncommon rhetorical device in Chinese writing or talking: to control seething anger or to deflect unbearable pain, one often turns to black humor or sarcastic hyperbole. A Chinese elementary school teacher who was tortured and jeered at in public struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution told me that the sense of physical and psychological violation was so ferocious it felt like being gang-raped. He had nightmares about it for years. Later, a friend pointed out that he would adopt a facetious tone whenever he spoke about the experience. “I hadn’t noticed the tone myself,” he told me. “I think I turned it all into a joke because I can’t bear the pain and the shame with a straight face.”“ \*\

Whitewashing the Cultural Revolution

Kwan Hing-ling wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Attempts to whitewash the Cultural Revolution have surfaced” during the presidency of Xi Jinping “even though a party document, the 1981 “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of the Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic”, had long ago laid down the official line. It was “a period of civil strife plotted by the leaders and exploited by counter-revolutionary groups, bringing about disaster for the party, the state and the people”, it said. [Source: Kwan Hing-ling, South China Morning Post, May 28, 2016 <<<]

“Despite this, some people have been doing everything possible to reverse the verdict. The internet has been full of chatter distorting history, including praise for the Gang of Four. Strangely enough, such absurdities which defied Beijing’s verdict were allowed to spread. By contrast, articles critical of the Cultural Revolution, especially those commenting on errors made by Mao Zedong in his twilight years, were labelled “improper discussion of central government policy”. Even senior officials have jumped on the bandwagon: the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently published a lengthy commentary affirming Mao’s doctrine of “continuing revolution under the dictatorship of proletariat”, the theoretical basis for launching the Cultural Revolution.” <<<

The revisionist movement appeared have reached fever pitch in May 2016 during the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. “Commemorative activities looking fondly back on the national disaster have been held across the country. Participants not only criticised reforms and the open-door policy, but also denounced reform-minded state leaders as “capitalist traitors”. Some even called for another Cultural Revolution.” <<<



China Barely Recognizes the 50th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution

In May 2016, Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “Exactly 50 years ago, China embarked on what was formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a decade of tumult launched by Mao Zedong to revive communist goals and enforce a radical egalitarianism. The milestone was largely ignored Monday in the Chinese media, reflecting continuing sensitivities about a period that was later declared a "catastrophe." Authorities have generally suppressed discussion of the violent events, now a couple of generations removed from the lives of young Chinese focused on pursuing their own interests in an increasingly capitalistic society. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 16, 2016 *=*]

“Despite the party's formal repudiation of the movement five years after it ended, vestiges of the Cultural Revolution continue to echo in China's authoritarian political system, the intolerance of dissent and uncritical support for the leadership, said veteran journalist Gao Yu, who was a university student in 1966. Gao and others say cynicism in Chinese society still lingers from the Cultural Revolution, when students were called on to denounce authority figures, including teachers and even parents. Traditional morals and philosophy were attacked and Buddhist temples were defaced and destroyed. *=*

“No official events were held to commemorate Monday's anniversary, although neo-Maoists have been staging private commemorations. Many are motivated by nostalgia for a simpler time and alienated by a growing wealth gap brought about by the government's pursuit of market economics and abandonment of the former command economy that provided jobs and welfare to its citizens, even amid widespread poverty. Newspapers monitored in Beijing provided virtually no coverage of the anniversary apart from small articles mentioning demand for antiques dating from the era. *=*

“Asked whether the government had any comment on the anniversary, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said only, "Regarding this issue, the Chinese government has made a correct conclusion long ago." The national curriculum offers students only a minimal account of the events, although a number of former Red Guards have written about their experiences and some have come forward to apologize to those they persecuted. *=*

“Despite the official silence, recent years have seen the growth of informal discussions online, in private magazines and at social gatherings of those who lived through the events. Revolutionary songs and operas from the period also remain popular, often divorced now from their original context. "Memory has dwindled, but discussion of the Cultural Revolution has significantly expanded online," said Yang Guobin, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

People’s Daily Breaks Silence on the Cultural Revolution

In May 2016, the 50th the anniversary of the formal beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, broke its general silence on the Cultural Revolution. “History always advances, and we sum up and absorb the lessons of history in order to use it as a mirror to better advance,” said a commentary on the newspaper’s website. People’s Daily, after a day when official news outlets were mostly mute about the anniversary. “We must certainly fix in our memories the historic lessons of the Cultural Revolution.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times. May 16, 2016 |:|]

Chris Buckley wrote in in the New York Times: The article was the party’s most high-level public comment so far on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Mao’s effort to cleanse and reinvigorate Communism by attacking his own colleagues and unleashing the Red Guards, fervent student militants recruited to enforce his cause. It also appeared in the print edition of People’s Daily on an inside page. |:|

“But the commentary broke no new ground. It asserted that the Communist Party’s verdict condemning the Cultural Revolution, delivered in a resolution in 1981, was “unshakably scientific and authoritative,” and urged Chinese people to rally around President Xi Jinping and his policies. “There will not be a re-enactment of a mistake like the Cultural Revolution,” it said. |:|

The commentary was unlikely to satisfy historians and people who lived through that time and have called for a more candid and thorough examination of its lessons. Chinese news organizations, under the weight of censorship, have overwhelmingly ignored the anniversary, and have found no room to note the traumatic turning point in modern Chinese history, during which perhaps a million or more people were killed. “The more time passes, the more difficult it’s become to acknowledge these mistakes,” said Dai Jianzhong, a sociologist in Beijing who attended the high school that was the birthplace of the first Red Guards. “Intellectual closure has left the younger generation almost completely ignorant of the past.” |:|

“Another exception to the silence was Global Times, an avidly nationalist newspaper that speaks more bluntly than most of the state-run news media. It also issued a commentary that dismissed the idea that China could ever undergo a repeat of the Cultural Revolution and urged people to focus on the party’s achievements. “We’ve said bye-bye to the Cultural Revolution long ago,” said the commentary, written under a pen name usually used by Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the newspaper. “Today, we can say one more time that the Cultural Revolution cannot and will not stage a comeback.”|:|

“The party condemned the Cultural Revolution decades ago, but leaders have been hesitant to openly air controversies from recent history, and that reluctance has intensified under Mr. Xi. Since taking power in 2012, he has sought to shore up Mao’s revered status as the founding father of Communist rule. The general silence surrounding the Cultural Revolution anniversary has reflected that political mood, according to historians and people who lived through that time. “The official summary was very simple — that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster, a calamity,” said Zheng Yi, a former Cultural Revolution student radical who became a writer and now lives in Virginia. “But nowadays, China discourages even studying the history and lessons of the Cultural Revolution.” He added, “In some ways, the social divisions are even bigger today than they were then, and the leaders don’t like to expose how they could fall from power.”“ |:|

The silence has not been total. Throughout 2016, “liberal journals and websites have published memoirs and essays urging greater reflection about the lessons of the Cultural Revolution. But there have also been commentaries on far-left Chinese websites defending Mao’s policies, and one even suggested that the country needed a “Cultural Revolution 2.0.” (That article was later removed from a neo-Maoist website.)” |:|

China Urged to Confront its Own History

Dan Levin of the New York Times wrote: “The tour guide outside the bloodstained classrooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the high school in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh transformed into a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge, paused to ask whether any tourists in the group were from China. Visibly relieved when no hands were raised, he went on to describe the enabling role that Beijing played in the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rampage that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians beginning in 1975. Later, he explained why he asked whether there were Chinese among his audience. “They get very angry when I say it was because of China that Pol Pot was able to kill so many people,” he said with evident frustration. “They claim it’s not true, and then say ‘We are friends now. Do not talk about the past.’” [Source: Dan Levin, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 3, 2015 ***]

On top of this “China’s insistence that Japan face history is raising uncomfortable questions about Beijing’s own practice of suppressing historical truths about trespasses domestic and abroad.... The Chinese government has been just as adamant in rejecting any parallels between Tokyo’s revisionist tendencies and its own refusal to acknowledge the tragedies that scar the nation’s recent past. “They are like wind, horse and cow, completely unrelated,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote. ***

“The Chinese government’s effort to shape the narrative about the nation’s past begins in schools. Four of the most widely used high-school history textbooks avoid any mention of the Khmer Rouge. They also omit China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, a monthlong war launched by Deng Xiaoping to punish the Vietnamese for toppling Pol Pot’s regime. ***

“Unlike China’s battles against the Japanese, which often dominate prime-time television slots, the invasion of Vietnam gets scant screen time. The effort has been so successful that many university students in China have no idea that the war even took place. The enforced historical amnesia about China’s invasion of Vietnam has come at a price. For years, thousands of the war’s veterans have complained of being denied benefits and adequate compensation for their role in the conflict. Many have been detained for protesting. “I don’t think the government values us enough,” said Li Zizhong, 60, a veteran from the coastal city of Qingdao who has been petitioning the government for six years to increase his 350 renminbi (about $57) monthly subsidy. “Apart from that I have nothing.” ***

“By contrast, Chinese textbooks go into great detail about the Korean War, officially known in China as “The War to Resist America and Aid Korea.” But Chinese textbooks ignore one pivotal detail of that conflict: that it started when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950. Instead, they state only that war “broke out.” According to “War and Peace in the Twentieth Century,” a textbook published by the Chinese Ministry of Education, after United States troops “lit up the flames of war,” China was forced to secure the country’s “national safety and support the just cause of North Koreans which greatly enhanced the international status of China.” Zhang Lifan, a respected historian, “says the Communist Party’s refusal to permit an honest historical reckoning ultimately undermines China’s global standing. “If China acknowledged its past one day and stopped hiding from history,” he said, “it would help on the world stage and win the party a lot more support from the Chinese people.” ***

China’s Hypocritically Condemns Japan for Whitewashing History

In 2015, Dan Levin of the New York Times wrote: “As China prepares to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II... the state news media has been hammering away at a central theme underpinning the government’s narrative about the suffering China endured under Japanese occupation: Tokyo must “face history,” goes the storyline and reaffirm its admitted wrongdoings.” The “People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a series of articles that accused the Japanese government of “whitewashing its wartime past” and warning that right-wing nationalists were plotting to return the country to its militaristic ways, potentially jeopardizing regional stability.[Source: Dan Levin, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 3, 2015 ***]

Premier Li Keqiang of China raised the issue during a televised news conference this month. “For leaders of a country, while inheriting the historical achievements made by their predecessors, they also need to shoulder the historical responsibilities for crimes committed by past generations,” he said. Pivoting off such statements, a number of independent Chinese historians have tried to highlight the Communist Party’s role in the deaths of tens of millions during man-made famines and the political terror that marked its first decades in power—episodes that are erased from the nation’s official history. “The Chinese government propagandizes the parts which it finds useful while ignoring aspects that could draw criticism,” said Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian who has sought to illuminate the party’s selective approach to its history, which is enforced through media censorship and book-publishing bans. ***

“The Japanese, too, have been calling on China to acknowledge its role in some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Writing for the Japanese website JBpress, Kuni Miyake, a retired Japanese diplomat, castigated the Chinese government for mocking “the global standard of intellectual fairness” by refusing to accept accountability for the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed industrialization effort during the 1950s that some historians say led to the death of 45 million people by famine and other causes, as well as the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that killed thousands and traumatized a generation. “If China asks others not to whitewash the history of 80 years ago, Beijing should be able to also face the modern history of China in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and, of course, in 1989,” Mr. Miyake wrote, the last date a reference to the year Chinese troops gunned down unarmed civilians during the protests at Tiananmen Square. “So far, there are no history museums in China that face such history.” In recent months, Beijing has repeatedly expressed consternation with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a conservative who has sought to play down his country’s wartime atrocities in Asia while denying that thousands of “comfort” women and girls were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. ***

Image Sources: Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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