On the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Thought Exercises for the 21st Century

On the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Thought Exercises for the 21st Century
ON OCTOBER 9, 2021, LARB hosted a conversation with four scholars with recent work on the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Lingchei Letty Chen, Nan Z. Da, Frank Dikötter, and Jie Li. The panel was introduced by LARB Executive Director Irene Yoon and Humanities Editor Anna Shechtman. It was moderated by Nan Z. Da.


IRENE YOON: Good morning, I’m Irene Yoon, the executive director at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Thank you all for joining us for today’s event, “On the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Thought Exercises for the 21st Century.” This month here at LARB, we’re celebrating 10 years with what we’re calling the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions, a series that brings together some of our favorite writers, critics, scholars, and readers in sharp and thoughtful conversation about pressing issues of the day, from the state of cultural criticism to criminal justice reform; from the impact of big tech to the future of genetic editing. If you’re interested in learning more about some of these events, you can do so at lareviewofbooks.org/events. In the meantime, we’re pleased to welcome you to this very first satellite event of the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions, in which our distinguished guests — Lingchei Letty Chen, Nan Da, Frank Dikötter, and Jie Li — tackle the legacies and ongoing difficulties of public and scholarly apprehension of the Cultural Revolution today. I’d also like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Nan and our wonderful Humanities Editor here at LARB, Anna Shechtman, for convening this fantastic panel.

ANNA SHECHTMAN: Thank you, Irene. This panel would not exist were it not for the creative vision of Nan Z. Da, who approached me this summer with the hope of bringing together authors and translators with new works apprehending the legacy of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Nan is an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange (2018) and is completing a book called The Chinese Tragedy of King Lear. She is also the author of a beautiful and important essay in n+1 on the epistemological vacuum created in the wake of Maoist violence and Chinese state propaganda — and on the role of literary criticism in filling their historical and ethical voids.

Though not everyone on this panel is a literary critic, we might think of the tools she employs and promotes in that essay — intellectual discernment, inductive and deductive reasoning, and disambiguation — as the methodological touchstones for this panel on the Cultural Revolution, or what Nan calls “one of the most cognitively difficult objects of our time.”

NAN Z. DA: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for coming today — and thank you to the editors of Los Angeles Review of Books for hosting this conversation and for framing it with such sensitivity. The video forum is a strange new form of broadcasting, and it’s a fitting medium for our conversation, broadcasting being a source of trauma and reclamation. I’m honored to be able to host today some of the most intelligent and unflinching historians of the Mao era. This is, of course, just a small group of people among a much larger community endeavoring to truly reckon with the Mao era and its large-scale crimes against humanity, which, because of their design, including failures of witnessing and failures of attestation, have caused a crisis of representational parity. To that end, for the sake of representational parity: first, we want to say that even the name itself, China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is misleading. It fails to acknowledge the degree to which what happened between 1966 and 1976 was an inevitable outcome, a tripling down of practices established in the earliest parts of the Mao era, and hardly the beginning of even that scale of destruction and mass mobilization. Nor is it, of course, the end.

With this caveat in mind: The Cultural Revolution, does not have enough representational parity in academia or the public sphere. Compared to, say, intra-ethnic persecution of Zoroastrians in Iran, for example, the Mao era and its atrocities and complexities have had plenty of coverage. But given 1.) the sheer scale — in volume and severity — of the purges, censorships, and social engineering campaigns that took place before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution, 2.) the sheer difficulty of the undertaking, and 3.) the absolute relevance to our contemporary society, it has not been studied well enough or discussed well enough. Part of our purpose here is to say that all of this is understandable given what happened — to acknowledge that this was an event that took a long time to understand. Because falsification and distortion and manipulation of new media technologies figured in almost every layer of this world and its self-reporting, it will take a very long time to get it right.

The panelists here today will go over the challenges of historicizing and memorializing this period of history, and the moral and professional paradoxes of even trying to touch it at all, but one of the challenges worth mentioning now is the degree to which the harms and psychic infrastructure of the Mao era — the totalitarianism that by Juan José Linz’s definition meant the mobilization of citizens against one another, the near total collapse of the personal into the political and vice versa — all of this created victims who are still stigmatized. After all, this kind of harm tends to create people with whom you would not wish to associate — if that were not the case, there would never be any reason for its mitigation.

In the next hour and a half, which will include two rounds of conversation and a Q-and-A, we will be touching on the panelists’ recent books on Mao era and the Cultural Revolution’s intricacies and ongoing confusions, and the challenges of truth-telling that arise in connecting the personal to the political. It is important to know the details, which we will only be able to touch on. It’s important to know the sequences, which we won’t be able to touch on at all. Felicitous and infelicitous comparisons are made between our current society and the Mao era all the time; in order to judge their fairness, you have to immerse yourself in what is arguably one of the most cognitively difficult objects of our time, worth reexamining not only for the sake of justice and the historical record but also for our collective grasp of contemporary phenomena.

I will therefore begin by posing a straightforward question to our panelists, and begin with Profesor Dikötter. Who are you writing for? Who have you been writing for?

FRANK DIKÖTTER: You mentioned crimes against humanity, which I think is the key term here. And of course, these crimes start right after 1942 and go all the way up to the present. But who am I writing for? It’s very selfish. I write for myself to start with. I’ve always lived in fear of ignorance. If you are a historian of modern China, how can you live with yourself if you spend your career tiptoeing around all these crimes against humanity. Once you start working on this period, going to archives, you have the privilege to read through extraordinary amounts of material that comes straight from the party investigations into massacres in the countryside, detailed reports about a quarter of a million homes ransacked by Red Guards in Shanghai in the month of September 1966. What do you do once you’ve seen all of that? To me, it would be inconceivable that you then somehow let your notes gather dust. It is troubling for me that a historian might participate in the silence, become an accomplice to the silence, by not squaring up to the evidence and writing as one should about what one has discovered about this horrendous period. As Elie Wiesel once said, “The executioner always kills twice, the second time through silence.”

LINGCHEI LETTY CHEN: I’m not a historian, and I don’t always deal with archives, but I’m a literature professor, and I wrote this book, The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years, also for myself. It has been one way for me to understand the kind of propaganda that I was fed when I was growing up in Taiwan by the other side — by the Nationalist government, the Japanese government. I needed to know the truth of Socialist China. In my years of reading contemporary Chinese literature, I was struck by the grotesque imagery, the extreme hunger, the recurring nightmare. I began to ask myself this first very first question: What would be at stake if we did not take a humanist approach to understanding the millions and millions of Chinese lives that were lost? What would that do to us today and to our future generations? And this is really what motivated me to write this book. If I take this long stream of Maoist suppressions and persecutions and put it in the same category of the Nanjing Massacre, the Holocaust, and other genocidal events across the world, how would that affect our understanding of the Socialist period in China?

JIE LI: Thank you for this great question, Nan. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and actually just listening to Professors Dikötter and Chen, I was thinking about how I came to be interested in this period. I have family that lived in the Shanghai homes that were ransacked in the Cultural Revolution. My grandfather, he was always afraid that his house was going to be searched by Red Guards, so he had actually destroyed his own college diploma. My father didn’t even know that he had graduated from St. John’s College. And so I started by writing my own family history, wanting to overcome my own ignorance about the past by asking just family members what they had experienced, and what their neighbors experienced, and that circle kept on expanding. So it was a quest for knowledge.

As I was writing, I also realized that I was also writing for my students and for my children. I started from the position of a listener. I really want to listen to more and more experiences from the entire revolutionary period, not just the Cultural Revolution decade, and somehow pass that on. In my most recent book, I have a whole section on notes for future curators. The whole book is based on the writer Ba Jin’s call for a Cultural Revolution Museum to pass on memories to future generations, but this is obviously not possible in China today. So there is also that future audience in mind — and also the people who would be carrying and collecting and passing on those memories.

There are some people who have very traumatic memories of this historical period, and there are many who also have very nostalgic memories. I find that to be a really interesting paradox. Is it that those who are nostalgic are merely brainwashed by the state? By the propaganda? Or is there some reason for their nostalgia? What is it that they have experienced? I started to realize that there are many Cultural Revolutions, that there are many different experiences of this period, and especially from the bottom up, it is extremely important for us to document and witness and pass them on.

NZD: You have such a wonderful theoretical apparatus for talking about the unevenness of the timing of the arrival of the Cultural Revolution itself. That for some people it arrived in this way, at this moment; and that for others, it arrived much later. And that the timing of the arrival of that severity is confused with real nostalgia. I know this personally. My parents are like this. My mother’s side of the family especially experienced real atrocities during this time, but she loves the Yangbanxi, the model Peking operas that were performed at this time. She loves them in a way that’s ungainsayable — that cannot be detached from who she is. And these attachments are very, very painful because for this generation, for people who are my age and your age and younger, the Cultural Revolution might arrive even later in the kind of psychic terrors of the home and parents who somehow internalized the mechanisms of this persecutory apparatus, but who pass it on in a way that’s both historical and ahistorical.

I wish to ask a question now about the extent to which knowledge about the Cultural Revolution actually is suppressed. This is a very, very difficult question. From what I could gather, going back to China every year over the past decade, I’ve heard that it is taught, but that the manner in which it is taught, the scale, the account of cause and effect, and the level of participation is often wrong. There are many places where the accounting goes wrong, for example, in suicides — suicides being one of the easiest places to detach cause from effect. That’s just one example. So it’s talked about, but it’s also suppressed. It’s talked about sometimes opportunistically and suppressed opportunistically, so the degree to which the archive is or is not available is a real one. Could you speak on these lacunae and your own experience of it?

JL: If you go to Tiananmen Square and the National Museum of China looking for some kind of representation of the Cultural Revolution period, you will probably find it in the corner of the exhibition of the central permanent collection — like a single photograph of a Red Guard rally. It’s not emphasized at all. What we have, for the most part, is Socialist modernization and all the achievements of the period, and most of the exhibit actually doesn’t focus on the three decades of the Mao period at all.

But if you go outside of Tiananmen Square, even to the tourist markets, you’ll find a lot of memorabilia from that period on sale. And if you go beyond Beijing, there are places that are not necessarily called Cultural Revolution museums. They’re private museums called Red era museums, and there’s actually some kind of Red theme-park-like restaurant in every single city. There are propaganda posters decorating the walls, and there are waiters and waitresses dressed up like Red Guards and doing dances from the Revolutionary Period. There’s music playing from that period. So the Red era culture seems to be very much set up and reproduced in these nostalgic spaces.

If you actually talk to people there who are of a certain generation, they have really interesting memories of the periods, and there’s a lot of conversation going on. But it seems like each is remembering their own social groups and not really talking across the divide. So the memory of the Cultural Revolution is very fragmented, and oftentimes, the traumatic memories are not really in conversation with others. The peasants, workers, and soldiers each seem to have very different kinds of memories, so it really depends on where you are looking for memories of this period, and which are the most traumatic elements for different individuals. For some, it might be the sent-down youth movement, where urban youth were sent out to the countryside. But then for others, it might have been the Socialist Education movement, rather than the Cultural Revolution in the countryside, when work teams came, and there were the first cadres for workers, for students, and for peasants. The revolution arrived at very different moments. So I think that the memorial landscape is actually a very complicated one, that there is actually widespread popular memory, but manifested only in a way that doesn’t criticize the current Communist Party. So it’s not so much that there’s no talk about the Cultural Revolution, it’s just not official and not centralized.

LLC: You mentioned nostalgia, which is not a neutral concept. When people are feeling nostalgic about a particular past, it usually is a manifestation of how that particular individual feels about the present. And the kind of nostalgia for the Socialist period in China, I see that as quite intrinsically linked to our identities, to identity politics among different generations of Chinese who were at different stages in their life throughout the entire Socialist period.

Jie also mentioned that there are so many different Cultural Revolutions; different people have different memories of their experience during those 10 years. And so it seems to me there is a kind of parallax: depending on where you stand, where you were positioned, from where you look at the totality of the Cultural Revolution, you’ll get just a piece of it. So what do we do? What are what are our tasks for facing this surfeit of discourses? There’s still a whole lot of work that needs to be done. I personally believe in the testimonial function of literature, and I think we need to read deeper and between the lines of the literature written by Chinese authors to find a different interpretive frame.

FD: Well, I am a historian, and I don’t really trust my own memory. I’m not quite sure of what I said to my students a week ago, never mind 30 years ago when I was a student. Do I trust my own memory? No. Do I trust yours? No, not really. You can speak to people about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but one thing is for sure, you will not be speaking to the dead. The victims have gone, so there’s a discrepancy there between who you speak to and who lived at the time. That’s the first thing you want to take into account.

The second point really is that memory, a week after traumatic events, never mind 10, 20, or 30 years, is a very, very difficult object to study. I’ll give you one example, which is actually not from China, but it indicates the distance that there can be between something that happens and the memory of something. This was an interview conducted with a Jewish woman in Britain, who told her interviewer that she had managed to leave Nazi Germany in 1936 and had grown up in Britain. Now the historian started looking at her account and discovered that she had not left Germany in 1936, but she had gone to a camp with her family members, all of whom were exterminated. She managed to migrate to Britain, and she’d spent decades building up a story in her head to erase the Holocaust from her memory. That’s the extent of the trauma: the gap between the memory and the events is indicative of the pain of the trauma that some people have to live with.

Now, I would like to add one thing. Jie is absolutely right: it’s a big country. And even in a small country, there are all sorts of people from all walks of life. Some people managed to get through the Cultural Revolution without much damage, some of them actually thrived. So of course there’s the huge diversity of experience, and not just from city to countryside, but also what just happened to people: whether they were perpetrators who then became victims, or whether they somehow sailed through the whole thing without much impact, there’s an enormous task there to reconstruct that huge diversity of experience. But I would still maintain that the sheer wealth of material in the archives, including, of course, interviews with people of that time, is an unparalleled resource to gain a better understanding of that diversity under such difficult circumstances.

NZD: I don’t mean at all to discount these historiographic endeavors, but new students of history — and I consider myself a new student of history — should be made curious by some of these events because their unraveling requires inductive and deductive reasoning. Anna was so kind as to introduce my own thinking on this at the beginning. And I really believe this — there are moments where you must, because of the silence of the archive, work forward and backward from certain facts. So, for example, the Four Pests campaign should be so interesting to a student of history. Why is it that over a million sparrows were killed in the mass mobilization of a health campaign, but most of them were left uneaten during famine? A student of history ought to be curious about the historical sequence that led to that particular event, even if they cannot speak to the dead, right? That’s deduction: what had to have happened so that this bizarre thing could have happened?

And then there’s induction: what kind of a world is created when you have a sentence that begins, “Who are our friends? Who are our enemies?”? (1926) That’s in Mao’s literature, a very early document written long before the Cultural Revolution. But what kind of a world is engendered in this utterance is a question left to inductive reasoning, as well as, of course, archival pursuit. And so my next question has to do with some of the really intellectually challenging parts of the work that you’ve all done, and I’ll begin by mentioning Letty’s work, because in your work, Letty, you mention what a problem of morality it is to touch the Mao era. It’s to reckon with morality’s counterfeits; it’s to reckon with its abuses and its misuses and its truest role in historiography, which is something that historiography wishes to basically keep out, right? That we should be objective is to keep out the variable of morality. Except that in this particular case, morality is so important to understanding what happened, and because morality is so friendless in its own way, that it becomes a cognitive difficulty. So, maybe I can ask you this question: what is it about this work that is really so difficult for the mind?

LLC: This was probably the hardest issue for me to grapple with when I was writing this book: the moral and ethical responsibility in bearing witness to a historical atrocity. That is what Freitas said: there are people that cannot speak for themselves; they rely on us, the living, to speak for them. We have to speak for them, and that is a moral and ethical responsibility. In terms of the Cultural Revolution itself, we have, years later, decades later, people coming forward to put forth their accusation or their confession and so on. We have to ask, and this is where the moral line becomes slippery, how do we bear witness to history when any individual could at one time be a victim and a perpetrator, a bystander and a collaborator? One person can be all of these, so for this individual, years later, to come forward and talk about his or her victimhood, how then do we read it? How do we understand it?

Memories are a representation. You cannot say that it is my memory, therefore I possess the authentic truth. No, memory is your present-day reconstruction of what you think has happened to you. And that is why I think that for us to understand historical documents and archival materials is very important, but we also need to understand how memory functions, and how memory is a representation through language. Let’s not forget the mediation of language. So then, circle back to this question of morality and ethics. When you are writing your memory of what happened to you and what you witnessed, how do you write it? How do you represent your memories? When any person steps forward to say, “I’m a witness to a historic event,” that person is automatically charged with an ethical responsibility.

JL: On this note of memory, I think there’s also memory in the making. It’s not just retrospective memories, but it’s also the way that some people in their own time are trying to anticipate how the future will remember them — and how they’re trying to bear witness to their time, and pass on their witnessing into the future. One of the figures I treat is a student, Lin Zhao, who was writing in prison in her own blood, hoping that her writing would circulate beyond the prison archives and be read by the future. Filmmakers have taken her testimony and made it available to a broader public. So memory is not necessarily opposed to the archives, but archives are also a form of memory that only really becomes living memory if it is actually used by historians and made available to a wider public.

In terms of speaking for the dead, that’s definitely a really important ethical responsibility. A lot of parallels have been made between what happened in China and the Holocaust, and I know that’s a very important paradigm for my understanding about how to memorialize this period. But I think that one really key difference is that the victims and the perpetrators are not very clear cut in the Chinese case. And oftentimes, those who are revolutionaries will be revolutionized in the next cycle. Accounting for this past also means accounting for violence and trying to understand how that violence even occurred, how people can become violent, and that means actually understanding mass participation in the revolution. Why were there so many supporters? Were they directed by Mao? Was Mao so powerful that he mobilized so many people? What is it that enabled this? And this is not something I worked on in Utopian Ruins, but something I’m working on now is thinking about the Chinese revolution also as a media revolution. What were the mass media that enabled that kind of mobilization? What was the role, for example of loudspeakers?

You mentioned the Four Pests campaign, which I’m actually very interested in now, especially the sparrow campaign. The sparrows were killed primarily by noisemaking, so people were actually being directed by loudspeakers to make noise all day long until the sparrows fell from the sky. I think it was 2.1 billion sparrows killed, which is four times China’s population, so on average, every Chinese person killed four sparrows in 1958. Violence through the noise of loudspeakers being used as a weapon was pervasive in the first years of the Cultural Revolution. It was almost a soundscape of loudspeakers that generated violence, terror, but also in a sacred acoustic landscape, promoted the Mao Code, and so on. So I’m really trying to understand what are the mechanisms of horror and what motivated people to participate ­­­­— including the ideals, including the really genuine beliefs.

We’ve been talking a lot about testimony, and one of the findings for me is that these testimonies sometimes have turned into testimonies of revolutionary faith, almost like a religious kind of manifestation: “I believe in the utopian visions that have been put forward by Mao and also the mass media, so we’re going to make that come true, regardless of the costs.” Or if you think about a word like the purge, purge is a really interesting word because it means cleansing. And oftentimes, the greatest violence happened during these almost, I would say, utopian quests to cleanse the ranks of the people, and to make sure there are no more class enemies. So understanding the motivations of the masses, and not just elite politicians, is extremely important for understanding this historical period.

NZD: One thing that you mentioned in your book, which I thought was really important, was the scale of media, of technological manipulation, that begins very early. One of the most striking pictures from your book is Chairman Mao taking part in volunteer labor at the construction site of the Ming Tombs, Water Reservoir, and this is 1958. By 1978, the person who’s standing next to him has been edited out. This is just a tiny, tiny example of how difficult the whole thing is, and tossed in with that is this real ambiguity about moral panic, right? Because on the one hand, people will say in an unconsidered way that persecutory regimes begin with moral panic, which is both true and not true. Because of course, for the victims, for people who are trying to do right by themselves and by their lives, the immediate feeling of the times is moral panic. You are morally panicked; you are responding too hastily to haste. You are confused, literally confused, by what has just happened in front of your eyes. Can that kind of moral panic be disambiguated from a calculated program of persecution that is often called moral panic, but instead is just iterating over human behavior looking for pre-political or political inclinations that then can be delivered to the prosecution? In essence, these are two very similar mechanisms. The feeling is very similar. But of course, media changes and surveillance make the determination even more difficult.

Frank, I’m returning to you one more time to ask after a concrete example of a practitioner’s difficulty in the writing of your history.

FD: I’m not sure I’ve got a real practical example, but the immensity of the task is daunting. You must bear in mind that when it comes to the issue of motivation — did some people truly believe in these ideals? — you are faced with a methodological problem. The problem is that I don’t know what you believe. And you will not find out what people at the time believed. This is particularly true with dictatorships: you can talk about what Germans believed or did not believe under Nazi Germany, or what Soviet citizens believed or did not believe under Stalin, or under Mao during the Cultural Revolution, but you will not find out. There is no freedom of speech, and nobody is at leisure to openly proclaim what they believe. You do what you’re told to do. It may very well be that there are true idealists, I have no doubt. I’ve no doubt that there were opportunists as well as thugs, who eagerly embraced the cause during the Cultural Revolution. But there’s a simple methodological point that you’re not able to truly find out and prove it, you can only go by what people do.

Now, the point of history is not to judge other people. Lin Zhao, mentioned by Jie, is, of course, well known for having written her testimony in blood in prison, but she tortured people described as landlords in the early 1950s. She participated eagerly in that revolution. So the point really is not that we are living in a world in which we judge as historians, but we’re here to understand the key values. We need empathy: feel the pain, but also feel what it is to torture someone else and then go back home.

And then the final point, as the case of Lin Zhao indicates, many people are both perpetrators and victims. This reminds me of Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who managed to survive Auschwitz and wrote very searingly about the experience of the Holocaust. He pointed out that the very victims themselves become perpetrators, if only by keeping a little bit of food for themselves and not sharing it with others. He called it a grey zone. In other words, not a world of white and black, perpetrators and victims, but a gigantic grey zone. And that’s what I would call the Cultural Revolution, as well as the preceding decades: a grey zone.

AS: I will interject here with a few questions from the chat. This is from Dora Zhang: “I’d love to hear the panel’s thoughts on the challenges of talking about the Cultural Revolution and its legacies, specifically in the West. The critique of this period has been co-opted by the right, often made opportunistically and in bad faith. At the same time, many Western leftist intellectuals have found the Cultural Revolution to be a source of inspiration, often with limited knowledge about what actually happened. Today, there are also young Chinese diasporic people who have glommed on to the CCP in the name of a critique of Western US imperialism. How do we cut through all of this talk about the Cultural Revolution on its own terms, especially in the current climate of Sinophobia?”

NZD: Thank you for that question. In this past year of the pandemic, I’ve actually learned quite a lot about systemic racism. What does it really mean to outsource your disregard for other people’s lives because of their race or ethnicity — to outsource that disregard or outright animosity to systems working exactly as they should, or systems evolving to work in a particular way? And I don’t know how to answer some of your other questions, Dora, but I think that there’s this discrepancy between theory and praxis. That’s always been true in our discipline, but also in academia at large — whose theory is being paid out by whose lives? Rey Chow has this wonderful line from Writing Diaspora, where she talks about the eroticism that is built into Western fetishization of the successes of the Mao era — that eroticization being a paying out in real lives of an idea, of someone else’s idea, a thought experiment. So this divide is an East-West divide; it’s a hegemonic divide, actually. There are many ways to think about how that disregard, how that callousness, can manifest in discourse and in institutional practice.

LLC: And if I may jump in to answer Dora’s question, I don’t think we can ever talk about the Cultural Revolution on its own terms. It’s impossible. And I’m not even sure if trying to talk about the Cultural Revolution on its own terms is necessarily a productive exercise. I don’t think so. And that is why today we have discussed or alluded to the Holocaust and other different frameworks, because something as complex and as long-lasting as the Mao era has to be understood vis-à-vis something else. The historical incident has to be in contextualized.

FD: This is very tricky. You cannot suppress truth because you are fearful of what your political opponent might do with it. It’s not a good excuse. You cannot tiptoe around crimes against humanity, committed anywhere on this planet, just because you fear that someone on the right or in the middle or on the left might do something with that truth that you don’t like. It’s not, I think, a very productive way of going about it. I would say one of the great issues about these crimes against humanity committed in the People’s Republic of China, and in other socialist countries, is precisely that so little has been written about it because there is the fear that the right might use it somehow to uphold this neoliberal model, or whatever the current theory might be. It’s a very dangerous thing to think because, as I said, you become, then, an accomplice. You contribute to maintaining silence over something. So I understand it is politically difficult, but silence is not an answer.

JL: Just quickly, I think that comparisons can be productive, as well as unproductive. It is productive when you also point out the differences rather than just the similarities. What is it that reminds you of the Cultural Revolution at this particular moment? I think that when the statues came down last year, for example, racist and Confederate statues came down, and there were a lot people who experienced the Cultural Revolution and the smashing of the Four Olds campaign, and I think the trauma of that made them react against this sort of monument war. But to say that this is like the Cultural Revolution, I don’t know if that’s so productive. I think it’s more productive to ask them what kind of monuments should be placed there in their place. And then we can actually look at various cases of how people have dealt with difficult pasts. Because there was a reason for that violence against the statues that have been toppled. I think the main question is actually, if the Cultural Revolution is brought up as a hot topic that’s relevant to the present, what exactly is relevant? And we have to point to the differences as well as the similarities.

NZD: I think there’s also a lack of knowledge on both sides. People who have experienced extreme-left totalitarian regimes tend not to know what extreme-right totalitarian regimes feel like, viscerally. Although we know that documents from Nazi Germany had arrived, and Schmittian forms of thinking continually arrived in Socialist China. And so the methods of persecution are not clear cut; a lot of what happened in China from 1949 to 1980 and beyond, are modeled after extreme-left and extreme-right regimes. But still, I think there’s a lack of adequate appreciation of other traumas among people who survived the Cultural Revolution. It’s a lack of appreciation in both directions: a lack of appreciation that [an analogy] might be over-scaled — it might be escalated for no reason — and that we’re witnessing a kind of scare tactic; but also lack of appreciation of the fact that what is happening [elsewhere] can be a combination of regimes. It can be Maoist, parts of it; parts of it can be expressions of the excesses of late capitalism; parts of it can be the worst vulgarities of American racial neoliberalism. So things become more and more complex. But I agree with Frank as well, that the fear of the immediate political interpretation can be parochial and can perpetrate an injustice of scapegoating. Many of those who suffered the most during the Cultural Revolution were somehow “reactionaries” when, in fact, many of them were liberal progressives. So that label itself [reactionary] often makes no sense. Again, the imperative is always to be as detailed and specific as humanly possible.

AS: We have another question from Luming Zhang about how or whether women experience the Cultural Revolution differently from men. She says, “Jie Li mentioned the role of the mass media in mobilizing the masses, and it reminds me that the scope of mass media is different in rural and urban space, in private and public space. So, for example, can we ask how housewives experienced the Cultural Revolution?”

JL: I think that the best book that would address, not how housewives experienced the Cultural Revolution, but how rural women experienced the Mao era would be Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory. One of the most interesting conceptual distinctions that she made was between campaign time and domestic time — that women don’t remember the campaign so much as their own life cycles. Among the rural women that she interviewed in China during the 1950s, especially their experience of collectivization had to do with their own lifecycle and their own gendered experiences.

We were talking about how the revolution did not arrive at the same time in the same places, and maybe for those who went who were in Yan’an in the 1940s, they had already experienced a kind of revolution in their souls, or a Cultural Revolution in the 1940s. And then for others, the revolution came to them in the 1950s and ’60s; maybe in the countryside, they really felt the impact of the revolution during the land reform in the ’50s and in the Socialist Education movement prior to the Cultural Revolution. I’ve actually been working on both the spread of loudspeaker networks and also film networks, and cinema really only arrived in the most remote areas of the countryside in the 1970s. So for some very marginalized rural folks, they had never seen these films until Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, promoted the revolutionary model works. And so they got exposed to revolutionary culture and ideas much later on through the medium of cinema. So how mass media spreads really does have an impact on when and how people experience the revolution.

NZD: So it’s a really good question because of the gendered nature of the idea that the atrocities themselves were very yin. They are, in a different cosmological order, figured as feminine, because they hide what they do; they’re backstabbing; they’re backhanded. And, of course, there’s also this extraordinary association of identity with socialism, which, even in my own family, growing up and being taught to sing 红色娘子军 , The Red Detachment of Women, or watching partisan films — The Dawns Here Are Quiet [1972], Walter Defends Sarajevo [1972] — these partisan films that figured women in authentic heroic roles are really important to self-identity well after the Cultural Revolution. And again, this is just to underscore the difficulty of it, they continue to be transmitted by people who really bore the brunt of the [Mao era].

LLC: I constantly go back to my reading of Chinese postmodern literature, in which women are often cast as, not exactly feminine, but as extremely capable caregivers. They would steal, they would rob, they would do all kinds of things to provide. Of course, there is the belief or doctrine that “women can hold up half the sky,” so yes, I think women experienced revolution very differently.

NZ: I don’t mean to sideline Frank here, as I’m sure he has very important things to say. But it’s actually a much harder question than one might think. Some of the worst crimes were perpetrated by school girls, so it really puts pressure on the way we think we can look at different -isms with moral clarity. Do we have time for one more question?

AS: Yes, this a question from an anonymous attendee who is asking about whether there’s a meaningful difference between the top-down suppression or erasure of archives, and what they call the “kind of paradoxical forgetting-not forgetting that Benedict Anderson draws out in Imagined Communities, that which must be covertly preserved, but overtly forgotten in the formation of national identity.”

LLC: The government’s deliberate erasure of archival evidence and material is done with the intent to eradicate, but in terms of the forgetting — remembering the dynamics between remembering and forgetting in what we call the formation of memory — that’s different. These are two different matters. In my understanding of memory theories, what we call what we remember is actually what’s left of what we have already forgotten, and that is memory. So the mechanism of memories is always a constant tug and pull between remembering and forgetting, and that is a very different issue from the government’s purposefully closing down archives and burning books. These are two very different issues.

FD: I’m not entirely sure I understand the question. I’m always very suspicious of theory and abstraction. I mean, an archive is a real thing. Once you start talking about archives as a metaphor for something else, it all becomes very slippery. In particular, I’m keen on bearing in mind that we’re talking about real people, not some theoretical thing about memory. But what I find interesting is that both after Franco in Spain, but also after the collapse of the Soviet Union in Poland, these two countries were free to examine their past, but more or less remained silent for a decade or two. Such was the trauma. In other words, Poles and Spaniards who have the freedom to examine their own past, to interrogate each other, to go to the archives and read material, to write up their memories, they don’t do this, to a great extent, for a decade or two. That’s the amount of time it takes for this to somehow settle — for people to establish some sort of perspective and distance and to gain the courage to go back into the past and to look at these crimes against humanity.

So imagine what that means in the PRC, where to this day, it is pretty much a taboo to peer into the past. And when I say the PRC, you can add Hong Kong right now. As you know, the museum for Tiananmen in Hong Kong has been closed down recently. So we are seeing memories very gradually being officially erased. You have to bear in mind that it takes a lot of work — and a lot of freedom and space and perspective — to actually start wrestling with these issues.

JL: There’s definitely state-sponsored amnesia, but I would say that at an everyday level, because of a lot of the violence and denunciations from the Cultural Revolution — between people who know each other, between even family members, between people who live in the same community, and neighbors and colleagues — if these issues are brought up, then it’s like the continuation of the earlier conflicts that there has been a deliberate hope to forget, to put that contentious past behind themselves, so that they can still live together.

It’s not like those people who betrayed each other and denounced each other are living and working separately. They still have to live and work together. So the time that’s also needed is not just for processing psychologically the trauma that has happened, but also to let the wounds heal a little bit so that the social fabric doesn’t tear apart. And I think that actually gets into the production of the archives, because the production of the archives actually is full of violence to begin with. Everyone had to write these denunciations of each other. My grandfather told me that he was asked to write about his cousins — to write about his Nationalist past — and that was a denunciation enough that it caused him to be exiled to the countryside where he eventually died in a labor reform camp. And so what we see in the archives are truly sort of the remnants of human life. They’re not just there; they’re not just representations.

Because there’s so much violence going into the archives, it also raises the question of how do we then read this stuff. Sometimes one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to reproduce materials from archives was that they said, “Well, there’s a name.” There are issues of privacy; these archives used to belong to someone else, and sometimes their existence has to do with the fact that people have been forced to denounce or report on each other. In some ways, all of these words are written in blood, not just the ones that are literally written in blood.

NZD: I really can’t think of a better way to close than that. In this circle, we are speaking with people who have extensive knowledge of these events, but if you just poke a little bit outside of the circle, there’s very little knowledge of these events — regardless of your politics, regardless of where you stand, regardless of your own line in this trauma. To risk an understatement, the Cultural Revolution is not a very clean thing to tackle. We just hope that you will read these books, and, if there’s someone in your intellectual community who has real testimony to give, who’s trying their best to reckon with the past, we hope that you will extend your hand to them and not avert your gaze. Thank you, everyone, for coming. Thank you to the Los Angeles Review of Books.


Lingchei Letty Chen is professor of Modern Chinese Literature and currently serves as Chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Nan Z. Da is an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Intransitive Encounter (Columbia University Press, 2018) and is completing a book called The Chinese Tragedy of King Lear.

Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

Jie Li is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. In addition to Utopian Ruins, she is the author of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life and co-editor ofRed Legacies in China: Afterlives of the Communist Revolution.

LARB Contributors

Lingchei Letty Chen is professor of Modern Chinese Literature and currently serves as Chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her most recent publication is The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years (Cambria Press, Cambria Sinophone World Series, 2020).
Nan Z. Da is an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Intransitive Encounter (Columbia University Press, 2018) and is completing a book called The Chinese Tragedy of King Lear.
Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. Before 2006 he was Professor of the Modern History of China at the University of London. He has published a dozen books, including a trilogy that documents the impact of communism on the lives of ordinary people in China on the basis of new archival material. The first volume in the People’s Trilogy, entitled Mao’s Great Famine, won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011. He is also Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and holds an honorary doctorate from Leiden University.
Jie Li is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. In addition to Utopian Ruins, she is the author of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life and co-editor of Red Legacies in China: Afterlives of the Communist Revolution. Her forthcoming book, Cinematic Guerrillas: Maoist Propaganda as Spirit Mediumship, explores film exhibition and reception in socialist China. Li’s writings have appeared in journals such as Grey Room, Screen, positions: asia critique, The Journal of Chinese Cinemas, and Public Culture.


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