Fifty Years Later, How Is the Cultural Revolution Still Present in Life in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Fifty years ago this May 16, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a chaotic, terrifying, and often deadly decade-long campaign to “purify” C.C.P. ideology and reassert his political dominance. Despite its profound and traumatic impact on Chinese society, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution is seldom formally addressed in public. —The Editors


The Cultural Revolution was a period of violent passions and deep traumas. Violence was committed in the name of the noblest ideals or out of the darkest human motivations.

Public apologies from some of the perpetrators of indiscriminate violence do not come easily. Yet two high-profile apologies were made in recent years. In 2013, Chen Xiaolu, son of Marshall Chen Yi, publicly apologized to the teachers at his former school who were subject to torture in the Cultural Revolution. On January 12, 2014, former students in the Experimental Middle School of Beijing Teachers University apologized to their former teachers for the violence that had occurred in their school. The deputy school principal Bian Zhongyun was cruelly beaten to death by students on August 5, 1966.

We still know little about how individuals deal with their personal traumas of the Cultural Revolution. For many, the pain lives on. In a study published in 1994, for example, anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman find that those who suffered personal misfortunes in the Cultural Revolution continued to have bodily complaints such as dizziness, exhaustion, and pain, which they argue are expressions of their traumatic experiences.

There are also stories of extraordinary courage.

I interviewed Ms. Wang, one of Bian Zhongyun’s daughters, in August 1999. After many years, we reconnected in 2014, and finally met again in Beijing in March 2015. I was struck by how little she had changed after 15 years. Ms. Wang is a person with a quiet demeanor and amiable appearance, but extraordinary inner strength. Since retirement, she has devoted herself to a project called Baoquan Tea House, named after the place where the founders of this tea house had been sent down during the Cultural Revolution. Not exactly a tea house, the project runs regular cultural events related to the history of the sent-down movement with a mission to “critically reflect on half a life’s road of passion, loss, and hardship.”

I was surprised and moved to hear that Ms. Wang and her friends were conducting a survey of the current conditions of former sent-down youth in Beijing, and the questionnaire they used for their survey was based on the one I designed and used for my own research in 1999. They even gave me a copy of my original questionnaire, which Ms. Wang had kept since 1999!

After the 2014 public apology by former students of her mother’s school, I sometimes wondered how Ms. Wang would respond to those acts of apology. But I did not ask her anything. Seeing how committed she was to her Baoquan Tea House project and to the experiences and stories of her fellow sent-down youth-turned retirees, I seem to get an inkling of the deeper meaning of their project. It is a project of preserving and understanding history and memory with a silent bravery, the kind of silent bravery that I saw in Ms. Wang’s attitude toward the history and memory of the traumatic experiences of her own family. Through their own example, Ms. Wang and her friends show how closely connected to that history they still are and how courageously they bear the burden of the passions and traumas of the past.

I would agree with Yang’s comment that we still know little about how individuals dealt with personal trauma during the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, given the sharp restrictions put in place in late 2012, we likely never will if the archives in China remain inaccessible.

Given the current situation in China, I would be surprised to see many more public apologies the likes of which Yang mentioned coming out in the next few years. Unlike Mao, Xi Jinping desires authoritarian stability over revolutionary chaos. Furthermore, in light of recent unexpected economic setbacks, sustaining a high rate of growth in the national GDP stands, more than ever before, at the core of China’s most strident preoccupations. To speak out against the crimes committed against ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution would be seen as undermining the legacy of the Chinese Communist Party, its grip on power, and its authority over China’s citizens. The paradox is stark since that same party had, by 1981, already distanced itself from policies carried out during the Cultural Revolution, officially defining the movement as a mistake.

Today, that same party is very much in power, and it comes as no surprise that silence was chosen over both condemnation and glorification. The CCP still is recovering from the damage the Cultural Revolution did to its legitimacy. One can argue that the Party never fully recovered the authority that it possessed before Cultural Revolution began.

If any sign of the Cultural Revolution was presented in the daily life of contemporary China, the CCP would quickly suppress it. The real question isn’t ‘How Is The Cultural Revolution Still Present in Life in China?’ but rather, ‘How Is It Possible for the CCP to Consolidate Power While Simultaneously Criticising Atrocities Committed During the Revolution?’

Today the nation risks becoming a divided society. But China cannot afford to be embroiled in the sort of impasse that caused the People’s Liberation Army to resort to restoring order forcefully during the Cultural Revolution. Any flicker of sharp internal division that recalls the rifts of the Cultural Revolution in the minds of many Chinese politicians is likely to be silenced.

The problem with the Cultural Revolution in China is not simply that of the bitter or sweet memories and regrets of participants; it is not that of the moral wounds and scars millions had to bear walking out a decade of upheavals (a whole literary genre, popular in the 1980s in China, was called ‘the literature of scars’).

The real issue is that the Party was against the Party.

The leaders who emerged in the 1980s and took China on the path of reforms were people “struggled against” during the Cultural Revolution, they were survivors of the Cultural Revolution. They survived Mao and his red guards because while Mao took power in China and struggled with them he didn’t kill them as Stalin had his adversaries in the U.S.S.R. some decades before.

In this very complicated picture there are two more twists. The Cultural Revolution was violent, but it also was a cry for freedom, an uproar for liberty. The Democracy Wall of the late 1970s was the creation of former Red Guards who wanted freedom of expression and democracy as the ‘fourth modernization.’ Moreover, the Cultural Revolution recalls a period of youth for people now in their 60s; it was an idealistic and deceptive—but no less appealing—drive for equality in a world where, today, the undeserving spoiled brats of rich second generation (fu er dai) literally kill poor peasants.

This complex tangle of sentiments is fit for the plot of a Greek tragedy or a Tang Dynasty poem where all is grey. But it can’t blend in a couple of easy black and white formulae of the simplistic propaganda machine.

To this we can add that unlike in the West, where redeeming confession—to a priest or to God, in private or to the assembly of the Church—has been a tradition for centuries, in China there is no consistent tradition of confession. In fact, confession often leads not to forgiveness but to greater punishment. This was patently true during the violent self-criticism sessions of the Cultural Revolution where victims were forced to confess their “crimes.”

All in all, either the Party or the common people have no urge to confront the Cultural Revolution, they don’t know how to cope with it, and it remains an unresolved, tortured knot in the souls of a generation of Chinese people, to kept swept under the carpet, festering under the skin for decades to come.

Leading up to this year’s 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, individual reckonings in China have taken on two forms. On the one hand, people who were Red Guards and participants in violence have stepped forward to apologize to their victims, often their former teachers. This has been taking place quietly for more than two decades though, as Guobin Yang points out, the recent high-profile apologies have reignited debate over responsibility. Who should apologize? On the other hand, as Yang’s previous research has shown, people across the political spectrum have taken to the Internet as a public space, writing blogs, collecting accounts, and publishing articles. These forms of commemoration are heralded as ways to provide a people’s history vis-à-vis the 1981 Party Resolution that remains the official line.

While these types of reckoning are indeed laudable, I am concerned about their individual form. That is, even if apologies acknowledge personal responsibility for another human’s suffering, even if a memoir adds a brick to our historical understanding, I wonder how they will add up. Is it not just more literature of the wounded for our digital age? Reading over the linked articles in the popular press, it appears that we are repeating old tropes about the Cultural Revolution: the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, it was demented/madness, it was a nightmare/trauma/disaster/chaos. The descriptions are the same, and the categories of agents to which journalists gesture are the same: Red Guards, Mao, Beijing, and China. Writing over 25 years ago, Lynn White stated that “the Cultural Revolution’s standard definition, in both scholarly and official literatures, has obscured a search for the roots of its violence.” It seems that we are still searching for a new definition.

For a real definition would require not only individual repentance and accounts. A true history would study agents, individual and systemic; it would seek to understand power and how it was wielded. The counterargument to this, of course, is that the Cultural Revolution developed when a system was under attack, when there was a power vacuum. Indeed, instability and confusion are persuasive explanations. In sociologist Yang Su’s study of Guangdong and Guangxi, for example, he analyzes county gazetteer data to show how the further a community was from a center of power, the more likely a breakdown in authority would lead to collective killings. But at the same time, Su explains, this violence was a product both of breakdown and of state policies and their local interpretations. So even chaos has a system; behind disaster is the state.

In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, writer Lijia Zhang has invoked—as many will this year—the Cultural Revolution museum that Ba Jin called for in 1986. Why, she and other Chinese intellectuals ask, hasn’t there been a Cultural Revolution museum? In fact there have been Cultural Revolution museums, but they are virtual, they are unofficial, and—as Jie Li and I have written of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster—they are private memorials. There hasn’t been either an official Cultural Revolution museum or a public Cultural Revolution museum. If the former is truth and the latter is reconciliation, only official reckoning will make public acknowledgement possible. But left with a narrative of chaos and personal memories, we speak not of power nor of responsibility.

In 1958, Mao's Great Leap Forward policies began to starve to death huge numbers of Chinese villagers. But villagers seldom write memoirs or have intellectuals inquire about their continuing traumas. One scholar who asks about the traumas suffered by the 82% of the Chinese people who were living in rural areas during the Leap is Professor Ralph Thaxton. Imagine what it was like for a woman to go to the village party secretary and have to offer her body to him in order to get food to keep her baby alive.

The manuscripts I have read on this topic of famine and rape/prostitution are by Chinese women who still felt uncertain about publication, but had spent much time gathering the data and privately shared their work with me.

The sad facts are that (a) Maoism was far more inhuman that most of us even now can imagine, and (b) the suffering of the poorest and most marginalized was worst, and is least known.

How is the Cultural Revolution, to quote our question, “still present in Chinese life today”?  The contributors so far have made points on how ripples and waves from the tumult still persist in memory.  They make excellent points.  I think, though, that we should also try to measure not just visible waves but underlying undulations of tsunami size—effects that are almost too large to be captured by “memory” and too pervasive to be regarded as anything but normal to people still caught in their mid-stream. Late Maoism—by which I mean the Great Leap famine and the Cultural Revolution—was an epochal turning point for life in China.

In the 1980s, Westerners were mistaken to look at the exciting new Chinese pursuit of “reform”—freedom, democracy, markets, and so on—and to assume that the ferment all sprang from the inherent attraction of “Western” ideas. The attraction was, to be sure, real, but it was superficial compared to the much deeper wellspring of reform, which was widespread popular revulsion against the disastrous conditions that the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution had left behind. In the mid-1970s, “Anything but this!” was the mood of the day among everyone from farmers who wanted their land back to intellectuals who wanted their universities back.

Beijing calls Deng Xiaoping the “architect of reform.”  But was he?  He was an architect—and a good one—of techniques for handling reform demands from below while keeping the Party on top. But he was hardly the origin of demands for reform. If we ask which Communist leader, objectively speaking, was most responsible for the rise of the reform surge, then surely the answer is Mao, not Deng.

Deng’s most crucial act in handling reform was the June Fourth massacre of 1989.  He could have used billy clubs, tear gas, or water hoses that night, but chose tanks and machine guns in order to deliver an unmistakable message, all across China, that enough is enough and political “trouble-making” will end. Where, then, could the surging and still-discontent populace turn? It went in the only direction that was open to it: money-making. Material values now ruled, and the devil could take the hindmost. There is irony in the fact that the symbols of bourgeois success in Chinese society—fancy cars, expensive handbags, slick hair-dos, and the like—that were excoriated under Mao now were marks of success.  People knew what the bourgeois model was, and now that the Party said it is good, not bad, then OK, they went for it.

Today China’s economy is slowing, and Xi Jinping faces the puzzle of where to turn next to keep the Communist Party atop the turning ball of Chinese society. In the 1950s, the Party’s claims to legitimacy were grounded in social idealism; in the 1980s “reform” was the basis, and beginning in the 1990s it was the economy. But now? A virulent form of nationalism seems next in line. I don’t know what will happen. But are today’s surging tides related to the body-blow that Mao Zedong delivered to the country in the 1960s? Without a doubt, in my view.