Kerry Brown

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.

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[*] The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History (Bloomsbury, 396 pp., £25, May, 978 1 4088 5649 9).

[†] It has now been published in an English translation by Chenxin Jiang (NYRB, 188 pp., £14.99, March, 978 1 590 17926 0).