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.