In​ the winter of 1994, while I was living in the northern Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, I decided to flee the sub-zero dry cold that grips the region for half the year by making the two-day train journey via Beijing to the most southerly province of Guangdong. Even at that relatively early period in the post-1978 Reform era, Guangdong felt like a different China – more developed, more urbane and more laid back. Soon after my arrival, the friend who was hosting me told me we were going to have lunch with someone he described simply as ‘a poet’. This was to be my first encounter with a genuine Chinese writer. The man we met a few days later (whom for simplicity I’ll call Zhang) was dressed in a suit and at first spoke more like a government official than a poet, extolling the virtues of the Communist Party. But by the time his wife had started serving the fruit at the end of the meal, the copious and highly alcoholic Chinese white wine had taken its effect. As he plied me with thimble-sized cups of the drink, his hospitality turned almost aggressive. ‘Mao Zedong was a great, great leader,’ he declared, clashing his glass in a toast with mine.

At that point I asked him what he remembered of the Cultural Revolution. Part of the reason I had come to live in China in the first place was to research the period of late Maoism, from 1966 onwards. For years I had been intrigued by this mysterious movement that had aspired, in the slogans of the time, to ‘touch the soul’. Here was a chance to hear a real eyewitness talk about it. But Zhang immediately withdrew into a sultry silence, putting his glass down and saying nothing. The strenuous hospitality ceased. A few minutes later, having read the situation, my friend indicated that it was time for us to leave. Zhang and his wife saw us off in the formal Chinese fashion, taking a few steps after us as we went out the door. As I walked away I caught sight of his face: he looked haunted. Why had my question troubled him?

Zhang had given me one of his recent publications, a collection of poems. When I got back to the north I took the book to my Chinese teacher, a professor of literature at the local university who had lived through the Cultural Revolution too. She looked at it and frowned, then started rifling through reference books until she found what she was looking for. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s who I thought it was.’ She showed me a page with Zhang’s name and his biography on it. He had been active as a writer through the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period during which the vast majority of writers, willingly or otherwise, had produced nothing. In 1971 he had published an encomium to one of the most infamous members of the adminstration, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. ‘Only collaborators had stuff coming out then,’ the professor said. I understood Zhang’s silence. He was a person of a type I soon found to be surprisingly rare – someone I could be sure had not been a victim of the Cultural Revolution, but one of its enforcers.

Most of China’s current leaders were in their adolescence when the 16 May Circular was drawn up in 1966. This document, issued by the central government as a nationwide instruction to Party officials, transferred responsibility for the ‘cultural revolution’ from the so-called Five Man Group chaired by Peng Zhen to the Cultural Revolution Group, which consisted mostly of radical supporters of Mao, including Kang Sheng and Jiang Qing. It is widely seen as marking the Cultural Revolution’s formal launch – though Frank Dikötter in his new history of the period points out that it was only made public a year after it was issued to the administration’s inner circle.* Xi Jinping, China’s current president, was sent away from Beijing to a remote inland province to work on a farm in 1968. The family of his politburo colleague Yu Zhengsheng was dealt with harshly because his father had briefly been Jiang Qing’s lover in the 1930s before she married Mao. These are people who like to talk, particularly about anniversaries, yet the current leadership has said next to nothing about the most formative era of their lives.

The Communist Party is of course not averse to forgetting inconvenient historical episodes. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the Party’s most recent great taboo, has been the subject of energetic rewriting and ‘clean-ups’. But the ‘disremembering’ of the Cultural Revolution has taken longer, and involved more work. The establishment’s tactic seems to have been to cast the ‘turbulent decade’ as a time of mass insanity that is best either left unmentioned or anaesthetised by kitsch, as in a much condemned Chinese TV extravaganza aired earlier this year that featured cute-looking young dancers dressed as revolutionaries and striking exaggerated postures of struggle and exertion. It seems, for now, to be working. People are not silent because they have forgotten, or are frightened: they are simply ashamed and would rather talk about something else. The sole event marking the fiftieth anniversary this May was an editorial in the state newspaper, the People’s Daily, which declared that the country would never again revert to that time. There has been no other official statement.

Dikötter’s overview of the era suggests that Mao is largely to blame for the Cultural Revolution. This is what historians outside China, and even in China, when they have been allowed to speak, have often claimed – though the Party chooses to argue that he was duped and misled by his closest advisers, especially the ‘Gang of Four’ led by Jiang Qing. Against this, the historians point out that the Cultural Revolution was one of the few events in Mao’s long career that he was evidently proud of, alongside victory in the 1946-49 Civil War; he said as much when he was interviewed by the American journalist Edgar Snow in the 1970s. It was also the most dramatic expression of his antagonism towards intellectuals, a consistent trait in his otherwise capricious career. From 1951, campaigns of increasing severity were conducted against the very figures to whom the Communist Party, trying to establish itself in the 1930s and 1940s, had once promised most: writers, academics, teachers and professionals, many of whom had joined the Party on the basis of Mao’s assurances. Mao had sought recognition from them, but saw their criticisms of party policy in the 1950s as a rejection. He invited others to join him in taking revenge for this ‘betrayal’, giving people a chance to exorcise their feelings of inferiority and resentment towards the intellectual class. The tone of the language used in Red Guard pamphlets, and in the mass meetings and struggle sessions of the period, was highly personal – a product of ancient animosity and deep-seated grudges.

When I talked in the 1990s to those who had been involved in the Cultural Revolution, almost all of them portrayed themselves as victims and had evidence to prove it. One man told me he had been hauled through the street, as a 15-year-old schoolboy, with a placard around his neck. Another had seen his pregnant mother strung up and beaten with sticks. But accounts from the activists who had done the denouncing were hard to find. Photos from the time, in almost every case, showed the victims on their own surrounded by a crowd. The modus operandi of the movement was to single out, isolate and humiliate. But where had all the activists gone? Surely they belonged to the majority and should be easy to find? As I quizzed those with recollections of injustices a bit more deeply, the explanation became clear: victims and activists were one and the same. In almost every case the people telling me their story had been Red Guards, or members of radical groups, before the movement turned on them. There were dozens of radical groups, even in a city as small and marginal as the one I was living in, each with scores of members and each fiercely critical of the others, all fighting their battles.

Ji Xianlin’s memoir of the Cultural Revolution, The Cowshed, appeared in China in 1998. Ji was a professor of Sanskrit and Pali at Beijing University, and thus a member of the intellectual class Mao detested. His nemesis was Nie Yuanzi, a philosophy lecturer, wholly obscure until elevated by Mao’s commendation, who had been collecting personal grievances for years before the Cultural Revolution started, and who seized the chance to act on them when it came. Ji’s account, like that of the novelist Yang Jiang, published in the early 1980s, is brief to the point of being elliptical. He was put through the standard rituals of abasement: his house was searched, defamatory public posters were hung on the walls, then he was subjected to violent struggle sessions before finally being dispatched to the ‘cowshed’, a sort of makeshift prison. It is unclear from the book whether Ji was accused of a specific crime apart from the usual one of being a scholar in an area regarded as reactionary and suspect, and of being overexposed to foreign culture. ‘To this date, no one has been able to explain what caused the Cultural Revolution,’ Ji admits, but he goes on to offer something like a confession: ‘I was deeply ashamed of having been so naive.’

In the 1981 Resolution on Party History, officials declared that the Cultural Revolution had been an aberration from Maoist thought, and largely absolved Mao himself from blame. But for Ji and Yang, who felt ashamed, exoneration did not come easily. It was the Chinese people who had been duped, they suggest, and mostly by themselves. Ji talks about how the rats in his prison became emboldened around him – ‘When I tried to chase them away, they glared at me with their little eyes’ – because the Cultural Revolution had led people to compromise their humanity to such a degree that the rats no longer respected them: ‘Perhaps even the rats had realised that the building was inhabited not by ordinary human beings but by blackguards whom they could bully if they felt like it.’ Borrowing the language of Marxism, he says he felt ‘alienated from myself’. He tells the story, familiar from memoirs by the likes of Wu Ningkun and Ba Jin, of the posters that would appear naming ‘traitors’; of how those ‘traitors’ would then be picked up in the middle of the night, endlessly interrogated, incarcerated and forced to endure attacks from former friends and colleagues and members of their family. Ji, a scholar of Buddhism, likens these ordeals to the 18 circles of hell, which function to strip away a person’s humanity and undermine their sense of self. The erosion of people’s ability to see themselves as people was what led Ba Jin to characterise the Cultural Revolution as a ‘spiritual holocaust’.

The Party leaders in Beijing understood the power of depriving people of their reputations and inculcating shame, and they deployed the tactic ruthlessly over the Cultural Revolution decade. They were veterans from an era of war in which levels of violence across Chinese society were shockingly high. Once the external causes for this brutality had disappeared they created internal psychological ones, as though they wanted to continue what they had grown used to. Kang Sheng, a native of Shandong like Jiang Qing, oversaw the Party’s internal security apparatus. Like some of the top-level Nazis, he was a man of erudition. There is a photo of him in Dikötter’s book stooped over a sheet of paper writing calligraphy: unlike Mao’s, his was a cultured, controlled hand. He also helped himself to much of the most prized booty stolen during the house searches that became a signature tactic of the Red Guard. In the standard Chinese accounts of the period, mostly written in the 1990s before it became such a sensitive subject, he comes across as a character of almost pantomime wickedness. But for Dikötter his behaviour is representative of the wholesale viciousness and inhumanity of the elite in general: even Zhou Enlai, Mao’s premier, who is usually let off the hook, comes in for condemnation for being the Chairman’s willing executioner. Dikötter writes from a somewhat Manichean moral position which leaves little room for ambiguity or nuance. Key figures are introduced with a string of descriptors, which gives the narrative a cartoonish quality: Chen Boad, Mao’s chief ideologue, is a ‘mean, petty and ambitious man’; Zhang Chunqiao, one of the Gang of Four, was ‘taciturn, brooding’; Mao himself ‘combined grandiose ideas about his own historical destiny with an extraordinary capacity for malice’.

This sort of thinking, of course, can’t capture, let alone explain, the way culprits turned victims, and vice versa, even at the elite level. You don’t have to go through the provincial archives to see how complex the issue of agency and complicity among Chinese leaders in this era was. Revolutionary Rebellion Groups (the technical name for local Red Guard activists) were keen publishers: as well as pamphlets they produced news-sheets and sometimes lengthy handwritten works. In April 1967, after Inner Mongolia had been convulsed by internecine fights and riots, the local leaders were sent to Beijing for a series of meetings at the Great Hall of the People, and accounts of these meetings were issued almost immediately in dialogue form by various Rebellion Groups and given the grand title of Reports and Documents by Central Leaders on How to Handle the Problem of Inner Mongolia. Nowadays pamphlets like this would be impossible to get hold of but twenty years ago I could pick up a copy in a street market for pennies. If the text is to be believed the activists, foot soldiers of the Cultural Revolution, sat at the meetings among the top political figures in Beijing. Kang Sheng, Zhou Enlai and Jiang Qing were all participants and argued fiercely with figures from different Rebellion Groups. There was a measure of unscripted and unco-ordinated interaction that would be unimaginable between central leaders and the grassroots today. At times, the debates exposed real, and significant, differences between them: how to approach the issue of ethnicity, what to do about party organisation, how to interpret language used by Mao. On 6 April there was a midnight meeting attended by delegates from Inner Mongolia, while the central leaders were represented, most notably, by Kang Sheng and Zhou Enlai. Confronted by a local activist called Zhang, who tried to give some context to the bedlam that had unfolded in the province, Zhou Enlai and Kang both erupted in rage. Kang demanded that the speaker stand up, cursed him as a traitor, and denounced him so fiercely that he was reduced to silence. Zhou declared that the local leader had ‘departed from the side of the masses’. But he didn’t stop there: Zhang has been exposed as a traitor today, Zhou says, but was always a traitor, to the Nationalists, to the Russians and to the CIA spies.

Humiliation like this was often followed by annihilation. Once the condemnation had been uttered, the networks of the condemned – their friends, associates and colleagues – became contaminated by fear. Ji gives an example. Having fallen ill at one of the ‘Cadre Training Schools’, where intellectuals were sent to gain experience of ‘real work’, swapping their philosophy, science or literature for clearing out ditches or digging up fields, he tried to get treated by a doctor. But as soon as the medic realised he was a class enemy he was turned away.

The Cultural Revolution was recognised as a mistake almost from the moment it formally ended, when Mao died in late 1976. Scholars inside and outside China began trying to understand why, and how, this highly abnormal event had taken place. But the question of agency, of who was responsible for what, stymied domestic accounts (at least those that could be published openly) from the start. The Party’s absolution of Mao was one of the biggest problems. Making the whole episode into the fault of the Gang of Four and Kang Sheng produced accusatory tracts, not credible history. For very different reasons, the first Chinese accounts and Dikötter’s share a common fault, in that they fail to acknowledge that the Cultural Revolution was, for the first few years at least, a popular movement: Chinese people across the country, in huge numbers, threw themselves energetically and idealistically into it. As one Chinese friend mused some years ago, it was about the only time in modern Chinese history when people had been, briefly, afflicted by something approaching religious ecstasy. It was a period of exuberance and idealism, which makes its position in the Chinese collective memory all the more uneasy.

To show how people actually felt about what was going on would mean looking at diaries and letters – the sorts of thing that only ended up in state archives when they were used as grounds for denunciation. Sources like this are rare because many felt ashamed of setting down the thoughts they were supposed to be reforming and destroying. If they expressed themselves they did so in the exaggerated, politicised language of the revolution. Working out what was really going on in people’s heads at the time, and trying to answer the question of why they followed the movement so fervently (and tens of millions did), is difficult, just as it has been for historians of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. Very few people want to implicate themselves by being candid about what they did, and how deeply they believed in now discredited ideas.

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