It would seem impossible to forget or minimize the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, resulted in an estimated 1.6 million to two million deaths and scarred a generation and its descendants. The movement, which under Mao Zedong’s leadership sought to purge Chinese society of all remaining non-Communist elements, upended nearly every hallowed institution and custom. Teachers and schools long held in esteem were denounced. Books were burned and banned, museums ransacked, private art collections destroyed. Intellectuals were tortured.
But in China, a country where information is often suppressed and history is constantly rewritten — witness recent government censorship of Covid research and the obscuring of Hong Kong’s British colonial past in new school textbooks — the memory of the Cultural Revolution risks being forgotten, sanitized and abused, to the detriment of the nation’s future.
The Chinese government has never been particularly eager to preserve the memory of that sordid decade. When I spent six weeks traveling in China in 1994 — a slightly more open time in the country — I encountered few public acknowledgments of the Cultural Revolution. Museum placards and catalogs often simply skipped a decade in their timelines or provided brief references in the passive voice along the lines of “historical events that took place.”
But in her new book, “Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution,” the journalist Tania Branigan notes that under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, efforts to suppress this history have intensified — with troubling implications for the political health of the country at a time when it looms larger than ever on the world stage. “When you’ve had a collective trauma, you really need a collective response,” Branigan told me recently. “I can see why the Communist Party wants to avoid the rancor and bitterness, but when you don’t have that kind of acknowledgment, you can move on — but you can’t really recover.”
Though Xi himself was a victim of the Cultural Revolution — reportedly betrayed by his own mother, exiled into rural poverty — he “is more conscious of the uses and disadvantages of history than any leader before him, bar perhaps Mao himself,” Branigan writes in the book. In 2021, Xi warned the Communist Party against “historical nihilism” — any unflattering portrayal of the party’s past — an existential threat as great, in his estimation, as Western democracy.
High school textbooks in China now reduce the Cultural Revolution to just a few short paragraphs. The only national heritage spot devoted to it was closed to visitors when Branigan, who reported from Beijing for The Guardian from 2008 to 2015, tried to enter. Those who had lived through the Cultural Revolution were often reluctant to speak with her. Some of her excursions to research the movement were monitored, and relevant sites were closed off. “The party and those it rules have conspired in amnesia,” she writes. “A decade has disappeared.”
In the absence of real history, a small nostalgia industry has arisen in China around the Cultural Revolution, which includes themed restaurants, re-enactments, costumes and associated kitsch that bear a distinct resemblance to our own country’s Civil War re-enactments, Confederate statues and wedding-venue Southern plantations. The United States has in recent years reconsidered some but far from all of this disturbing nostalgia, as Clint Smith powerfully documented in his 2021 book, “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America.”
But whether in China or in America, when a country avoids a full reckoning with its darkest periods, such nostalgic impulses tend to foster wishful thinking and facilitate propaganda. In China, many young people who never experienced the horrors of Maoism now yearn for its “idealism” and clarity; former Red Guards recall the unity and purpose missing in today’s materialist society. Such distortions can also lead to what Branigan refers to as “a tragic fatalism” — what the Chinese call “eating bitterness” — renouncing the power to enact personal, societal or political change.
Another term Branigan uses when accounting for the price of enforced forgetting is “the hum of shame.” Even those who were otherwise patriotic described their fellow Chinese to Branigan as “ethically hollow.” They lamented a kind of numb passivity, an absence of conscience, a “sickness of the soul.” According to Branigan, the Chinese consider “moral decline” to be the country’s most pressing threat, ahead of both poverty and crime.
Such is the inevitable legacy of a political trauma as totalizing in scope as the Cultural Revolution. “No workplace remained untouched,” Branigan writes. “No household remained innocent. ‘Complicity’ is too small a word — comrade turned on comrade, friend upon friend, husband upon wife and child upon parent. You could build a career on such betrayals, until the currents shifted once more and the victims turned upon you. Such intimate treacheries and abrupt reversals rent the very fabric of China, Confucian ideals of family obedience and newer Communist pledges of fraternity.”
When the Cultural Revolution comes up in American conversation, it’s generally in debates over the rise of group think and mob mentalities, performative outrage on Twitter and on college campuses. Parallels certainly exist: Political leaders fomenting cultural wars, polarization reducing differences of opinion to signifiers of ally and heretic, and the media resorting to shouty sloganeering over considered debate.
But Branigan’s book offers an equally important cautionary lesson: the perils of ignoring or distorting history. What a country downplays in its historical record continues to reverberate, whether it’s the Cultural Revolution in China or the treatment of Native Americans and the legacy of slavery in the United States. And just as Xi Jinping can censor China’s recent Covid record, so can America attempt to whitewash events — the results of the 2020 election, the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — in its own recent past.
Near the end of Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed,” the author describes his grandparents’ experiences of segregation in the South, which took place just a decade before China’s Cultural Revolution. “Black-and-white photographs and film footage can convince us that these episodes transpired in a distant past,” he writes, “untouched by our contemporary world.” But as his grandmother tells him, “It was for real, and I had lived it.”
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