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Looking back at China’s Cultural Revolution — through personal accounts

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Looking back at China’s Cultural Revolution — through personal accounts

Monday, 23 September 2019 | Roshen Dalal

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasised equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to illogical extremes. Higher education suffered, scholars were condemned. Behind this revolution were political struggles and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution

Many years ago I was involved in a project on post-Mao China. Reading through copies of the Beijing Review, I was captivated by the Chinese method of encapsulating long statements and concepts in a couple of words. Of course, the ‘double hundred’, was easy to understand, it was Mao’s policy stating “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” but several others were not so simple. The ‘two whatevers’  referred to following whatever policy Mao laid down, and whatever instructions he gave, which in the post-Mao period was not recommended.  ‘Eating from the same pot’, meant that everyone got the same payment, regardless of the amount and quality of the work done, while ‘the iron rice bowl’ was a term for a permanent job, which could not be terminated on any grounds.  Even some longer phrases were intriguing, for instance, “The Kremlin wants to pluck the ripe apple and put it in the basket.” In this case, the ‘ripe apple’ was a reference to Iran.

I was reminded of all this when I read several memoirs relating to China’s Cultural Revolution. Among them were Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl, Ji Xianlin’s, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; and Anchee Min’s Red Azalea. In the Cultural Revolution, key phrases, included the ‘Four Olds’ and the ‘Four News’. Red Scarf Girl, is actually a book for young people, describing Ji-Li’s life between the ages of 12 and fourteen, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976. The red scarf they proudly wore was a symbol representing communism and Mao. The name ‘Ji-Li’ means ‘lucky and beautiful’, and Ji-Li was a happy young girl till she was twelve. In the prologue to the book she says, “I never doubted what I was told: Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao.”

Unfortunately for Ji-Li her father was the son of a landlord, and this meant the family was under threat, landlords being among those out of favour in the new China. Every day the people of China listened to Chairman Mao on the importance of removing the ‘Four Olds’, old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.

As the Cultural Revolution set in, the names of shops reflecting old culture had to be changed, for instance ‘Great Prosperity Market.’ ‘Prosperity’, ‘good fortune’, ‘innocent’ and even ‘peace’ were among names considered part of old culture. ‘Prosperity’, for instance, could only be achieved by exploitation, and ‘good fortune’ indicated superstition. Clothes too reflected the old, such as pointed shoes and pants with narrow legs. Gradually Ji-li felt increasingly confused, as the ‘Four Olds’ were extended to all walks of life, and youngsters gained the right to torment others. Respecting parents, teachers and elders, long hair worn in braids, the prevailing educational system, protecting one’s own property, storing old clothes of the pre-revolutionary period, reading stories from other lands, were all among the ‘four olds’. Even pictures of people of the past wearing long gowns or mandarin jackets, were burnt. Weak students used the opportunity to criticise those who did well. Getting good marks in school was a hazard. Youngsters became Red Guards while those even younger were named Red Successors. Final exams were abolished in Ji-li’s school. She could not go to the high school of her choice. Red Guards approaching with gongs and drums ransacked houses looking for ‘four olds’. Punishments began to be meted out to older people by these young Red Guards. When Ji-li’s house was searched even her stamp album was taken away. Her father was detained, her mother and grandmother suffered.  Things improved after Mao’s death, and finally, Ji-li moved to the USA in 1984, where she wrote this book.

Anchee Min too moved to the US, and began writing books, Red Azalea, being the first, an account of growing up during the Cultural Revolution. She and her family lived in Shanghai, and she describes how from the age of six she took care of her younger brothers and sisters. Soon she became a Red Guard, she was called on to give speeches, as she was well-versed in Mao’s Little Red Book. A poignant incident takes place when she is brainwashed into speaking against her beloved teacher, and denouncing her as an American spy. Her mother, a former school teacher, sent to work in a shoe factory, is deeply disturbed by this, and Anchee too knows it is wrong. Later, she is among the other young people sent to work in a farm under harsh conditions, producing food for the people. Even there the young women did not lose their faith in Mao, doing everything and undergoing all hardships for him. These books record how Mao had become a kind of god, with his picture everywhere, and people bowing to it, perhaps even praying.

The Cultural Revolution had some good points, it emphasised equality, the dignity of labour and the need to forget about a ‘glorious heritage’ and move into the future. But everything was taken to illogical extremes. Higher education suffered, scholars were condemned. Behind this revolution were political struggles and Mao’s attempts to retain his power. Gradually the extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution subsided, and after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to rethink its policies. According to statistics 1.5 million people died during the Cultural Revolution. Many were killed by Red Guards, others committed suicide. Fighting among Red Guard factions killed some more. Did this phase in China’s history have long-term effects? Was eliminating aspects of the past a contributing factor in making China an economic super power?

The effect of dictators such as Mao also raises questions on the forces of history. Can one person actually take a country in a different direction? What were the other forces at play? Were youngsters, who chiefly participated in killing and violence against older people, yearning to break free from the confines of a traditional society? What were the economic factors that allowed this to happen? And what psychological factors can lead to mass worship of one individual? Historians have attempted to answer these questions, but an analysis of these memoirs would also reveal some answers.

(A PhD in ancient Indian History, the writer lives in Dehradun and has authored more than ten books)

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