Memories of the Mao Era

Memories of the Mao Era

Ji Xianlin’s memoir is the most widely read account of the Cultural Revolution in China. Has it changed the country’s amnesia about its bloody past?


When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to purge purported traditionalists and bourgeois revisionists from China’s new socialist society, his student followers started building “cowsheds.” These ramshackle jails took their curious name from their prisoners, known as “cow devils” after the demons familiar from Buddhist folklore. Most cow devils were intellectuals treated as class enemies: writers, professors, even party loyalists. The overseers of the cowsheds were usually Red Guards, militant college students who had seized power on campuses across China and enjoyed lording it over their former teachers.

Ji Xianlin was among the many bewildered professors who found themselves locked up in a cowshed at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, the Cultural Revolution’s first site of radicalization. More than 20 years later, on the brink of the Tiananmen Square protests, Ji wrote a memoir of his time in the cowshed. It was published in 1998 as Niupeng Zayi, or Memories of the Cowshed, and has become the most widely read account of the Cultural Revolution. (New York Review Books has just published my translation of Ji’s memoir as The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.) Despite his book’s passionate critique of the Communist Party’s uneasy relationship to its own recent history, Ji was not a dissident. On the contrary, he remained a party member after the era, using his political connections to sidestep the official restrictions on writing about sensitive historical subjects in order to get his eyewitness account into print. Then as now, very few books were published in mainland China about the brutal ideology and actions that stained Mao’s legacy. Forthright discussion of the Cultural Revolution is still scarce. The Cowshed is even more rare: an expression of dissent from within the Chinese establishment.

Ji Xianlin was born in 1911, to a peasant family in the impoverished flatlands of Shandong Province, just a few weeks before the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the last of China’s imperial governments. After completing his education in China, Ji spent a decade studying in Germany, specializing in Sanskrit and Pali; he returned to his homeland shortly after the Communists took power in 1949. He soon became the chair of the Eastern Languages department at Peking University.

Ji’s perfect class background shielded him from a series of increasingly savage political purges. But when the Cultural Revolution broke out, authority figures were the Red Guards’ first targets, and as a prominent professor he was especially vulnerable. Ji further jeopardized his position by openly criticizing Nie Yuanzi, a powerful leader of campus radicals. Nie’s cadre retaliated by raiding Ji’s house and destroying his belongings. Ji contemplated committing suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, but before he could act he was arrested and hauled away to a mass rally. The cowshed where he was eventually confined was steps from the classrooms where he used to teach.

In his memoir, Ji vividly describes the degrading tasks assigned to him and other cow devils as part of their “reform through labor.” They were humiliated at interminable “struggle sessions,” forced to memorize long passages from Mao’s sayings, and often viciously beaten or tortured. In one especially gruesome episode, Ji was forced to stand in an awkward position while wearing a heavy wooden board around his neck bearing his name; the board’s wire necklace ate into his flesh. He was also brutally beaten. The following day, barely able to walk, he was made to plant sweet-potato seedlings. His body collapsed from the strain; his testicles became so swollen that he couldn’t stand up.

Although Ji was released from the cowshed after nine months, he was stripped of his teaching job and given a lowly position as a campus security guard. Yet when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with Mao’s death, Ji still considered himself a supporter of the movement that had nearly wrecked his life. He was willing to overlook the personal injustice he had experienced and to continue to believe that the party was just.

Like many intellectuals, Ji had experienced communism as something of a conversion experience. He recalls in his book that when he first made a speech in the 1950s criticizing himself in an early thought-reform campaign, he “came away feeling lighter, stronger, cleansed.” Before long, Ji had internalized the party line that workers, soldiers, and peasants were heroes, whereas intellectuals like himself were to be distrusted. He castigated himself for not having taken part in the war against the Japanese. He had been stranded in Nazi Germany during the war, or, as he put it, “selfishly pursuing my own academic career thousands of miles away.”

Only much later, during the liberalizing 1980s, could Ji admit to himself that Maoist indoctrination had blinded him to the party’s explicitly anti-intellectual biases, which had culminated in the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Writing The Cowshed made him rethink his unquestioning support of the party and its policies. Ji saw himself as speaking for an entire generation of intellectuals who had supported the Communist Party and had been disillusioned by the brutal treatment they had received.

Many elite intellectuals of Ji’s generation didn’t survive the Cultural Revolution. The novelist Lao She, often mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender, drowned himself in Beijing’s Taiping Lake. Fu Lei, an influential translator and cultural critic, hanged himself. Intellectuals were not the movement’s only victims: Scores of rebel Red Guards were slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army or in factional violence; in the countryside, class enemies such as landlords and rich peasants were executed. Yet intellectuals were one of the Cultural Revolution’s prime targets, especially in its early years. Several intellectuals later wrote about their experiences, often in valedictory end-of-career essays, but few of those who’d stayed in China described the violence in damning detail. Ji waited in vain for another survivor to write about the cowsheds. He eventually realized that instead of “waiting for someone to write the book I wanted to read, I thought I might as well roll up my sleeves and write it myself.”

* * *

As soon as Ji finished his manuscript, it became clear that publishing it would be out of the question. The manuscript is dated April 5, 1989. Ten days later, the death of popular leader Hu Yaobang sparked massive protests in Tiananmen Square. Once more, as during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing’s universities were at the center of a nationwide political movement, burning with talk of democratic reform. Soon, hundreds of thousands of students would be demonstrating for democracy in cities all over China. But in June, the brutal repression of the protests in Tiananmen Square abruptly quashed any hopes for reform. Ji was sympathetic to the students’ demands and horrified by the crackdown, which killed hundreds of protesters. Yet like many other victims of the Cultural Revolution, he was still working alongside his erstwhile persecutors at Peking University, and revisiting the past would deeply embarrass colleagues who had opposed him. Ji shoved his manuscript in a drawer.

For years after the June 4 military crackdown, any criticism of the party was extremely fraught. But the mood changed in the late 1990s, once former premier Deng Xiao- ping’s economic reforms had taken hold. Bill Clinton spoke at Peking University during a high-profile visit in 1998—the first such appearance in China by a US president since 1989. Observers hoped that Zhu Rongji, the new premier, would be a reformer, but most important, “Made in China” goods were finding their way to shelves the world over, which encouraged talk of China joining the World Trade Organization.

In Ji’s view, China’s startling economic ascent has been fueled by a deliberate and unconscionable attempt to erase its recent history. Failing to look squarely at its traumatic past “threatens to endanger China’s progress,” he wrote—perhaps even with the events of Tiananmen in mind. At the time, Ji was nearly 90, so he decided not to delay publishing his memoir any further. He’d even rewritten the manuscript to tone it down and avoid naming his colleagues, although he figured several acquaintances would inevitably recognize themselves in his descriptions.

But finding a publisher for The Cowshed wasn’t easy. Although it was gradually becoming possible to speak more openly about the Cultural Revolution within China, much of the information available to Western readers about the movement’s worst excesses was still banned. Copies of Jung Chang’s best-selling 1991 memoir Wild Swans, for instance, could only be illicitly obtained from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Public discussion of Mao’s failings was still taboo. In an interview he gave to his assistant Cai Degui shortly before his death in 2009, Ji spoke candidly about how he got The Cowshed published. He knew of other authors whose books on the Cultural Revolution had been turned down, so he went directly to the top, approaching an editor at the publishing press affiliated with the Central Party School, a Marxist training ground for cadres. The editor, Qu Wei, loved the book and advocated for it, calling it “a warning to every Chinese person with a conscience.” Incredibly, Ji made his political statement against the party through the publishing arm of a major party institution.

Given his fidelity to the party, Ji was an ideal candidate for public reflection on the Cultural Revolution. If Beijing was feeling confident enough to allow a modicum of discussion about the past, who better to write about the cowshed than a loyal scholar whose reputation hadn’t suffered? After all, despite his misgivings, Ji had remained a party member, and his name had been officially cleared. His self-proclaimed political naïveté notwithstanding, Ji’s political star had continued to climb. In 1978, he was named vice president of Peking University. He’d even served on national advisory bodies such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

As things turned out, however, the authorities were nervous. An unofficial injunction restricted media coverage of Ji’s memoir to no more than 100 words. Beijing’s unease was somewhat justified: Not only did Ji have the political connections necessary to get a sensitive book published; he was also a well-known essayist with a large following, and many of his readers were young. Despite the press embargo, word of his new memoir spread. An initial print run of 80,000 copies sold out almost immediately. Before long, street sellers were hawking pirated copies. The Cowshed has never been out of print, and has in fact acquired something of a cult status. A facsimile edition of Ji’s handwritten manuscript was recently published. Ji lived to be 98, and in the final years of his life his reputation as a public intellectual continued to grow. Even former premier Wen Jiabao let it be known that he considered Ji a mentor.

Because Ji was a party member, and an elite one at that, his criticism of the Maoist persecution of intellectuals carried a certain weight for mainland Chinese readers: He couldn’t be dismissed as a crackpot dissident or embittered failure. In one telling anecdote, Ji describes receiving years’ worth of back pay in an envelope stuffed with cash, long after having been released from the cowshed. As a faithful party member, he resolved to donate it to the national coffers. But then he received the news that he would not be fully redeemed right away, as he had expected, but placed on probation for two years. “I was livid,” Ji writes. “I had practically paid for my opposition to Nie Yuanzi with my life.” He then simply notes without comment that he kept the money he’d been planning to give away.

But while he criticizes Mao for instigating the Cultural Revolution, Ji never goes so far as to altogether reject Mao’s leadership. Even at his most sardonic, Ji doesn’t directly contradict Deng’s famous assessment of Mao as “seven parts good, three parts bad,” or attribute the human cost of the Cultural Revolution to Mao’s blunders. There is no record that specific passages of Ji’s original manuscript were ever censored, and he may well have remained a loyal supporter of Mao. But with decades of experience writing in post-1949 China, Ji would also have known exactly what not to say if he wanted his story to reach a broad Chinese audience.

* * *

Ji reserves his sharpest criticism for the party’s present attitude toward history. He argues that collective memory of the Cultural Revolution has been artificially and hastily blotted out. He even implies that the integrity of Chinese society is endangered by Beijing’s refusal to redress past wrongs, tracing back to the event what he calls the “ethical decline of Chinese society” and the pervasiveness of petty corruption. He Guanghu, an outspoken professor of philosophy at Beijing’s top-ranked Renmin University, agrees with Ji’s diagnosis: “Keeping quiet about something that’s clearly evil, because speaking up will only irritate your superiors and cause trouble for yourself—that’s something people learned to do during the Cultural Revolution,” he told me. “Flattering one’s superiors, finding fault with unconventional opinions by calling them counterrevolutionary—that’s the legacy of the Cultural Revolution too.” Like Ji, He argues that failing to openly discuss this legacy makes it harder to root out its ill effects.

Using patriotic language familiar to his readers, Ji urges them to take history seriously. “Today we stress the importance of social harmony, without which the economy cannot grow, and politics cannot fulfill its intended function,” he writes. “But while many intellectuals, and older intellectuals in particular, are still filled with resentment, the true unity and harmony we need has not been achieved.” Ji’s choice of words anticipated the “Harmonious Society” slogan that Hu Jintao’s administration introduced in the 2000s. Yet even the policy of “maintaining stability” (weiwen) by suppressing protests and the official emphasis on the importance of harmony (hexie) suggest the presence of disharmony. The notion that stability needs to be constantly maintained implies the presence of instability beneath a veneer of calm.

Ji argues powerfully that failing to face historical fact undermines the fabric of society. His critique speaks to what remains a burning issue for the nation: the crisis of faith that pervades many aspects of daily life. Chinese people have told Pew researchers that food safety, air pollution, and corruption are their biggest concerns. In a way, these worries all boil down to a lack of trust in public institutions. You are more likely to believe stories of cooking oil being collected from city sewers, rat meat being sold as mutton, and soy sauce being made from human hair when you can’t trust any government agency, much less a private corporation, to give you a straight answer. Modern China seems to bear out Ji’s warning that cover-ups can erode societal trust to a dangerous degree.

The willful amnesia that Ji censured still dominates today. There is a certain irony in the fact that China routinely criticizes Japan’s revisionist attitude toward its wartime atrocities, given that Chinese history lessons are no more illuminating on the subject of the Mao era’s famine and purges than Japanese ones are on comfort women. In fact, the censors may be getting stricter: “Ji Xianlin was able to publish his memoir in 1998, but there’s no way he could have published it in 2015,” says Dai Jianzhong, a research fellow at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. As long as the party’s legitimacy is bound up with Mao’s flawed legacy, official accounts will continue to gloss over embarrassing events in post-1949 history. “Peking rules an incredibly vast mass of people by means of an enormous and far-flung bureaucracy,” the historian John Fairbank wrote, seeking to explain the Chinese regime’s need for prestige. “The rulers must seek by all means to bolster their public image, show themselves successful, and make good their claims to wisdom and influence.”

Fairbank wrote these words in 1966—on the eve of the Cultural Revolution—but they read as though he could have written them today. In 1998, the year The Cowshed was published, a retired cadre named Peng Qi’an discovered a cemetery outside his native Shantou, in the southern province of Guangdong, where 70 victims of Mao’s violence are buried. He has spent years fund-raising to turn the site into a museum commemorating the victims, which is quite possibly the only one of its kind in China, tucked away outside a third-tier city thousands of miles from the capital. But even Peng’s modest memorial site has encountered official opposition from Xi Jinping’s regime, which aims to centralize power and smother dissent. Last year, due to pressure from the government, the museum’s annual ceremony in memory of victims was quietly canceled for the first time.

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