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Red Memory: Potent insights into Cultural Revolution’s impact on modern China

Tania Branigan explores the horrors of Mao’s decade of turmoil and disruption and how it relates to Xi’s preoccupation with order and discipline

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution
Author: Tania Branigan
ISBN-13: 978-1783352647
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £20

Yan Xuetong, one of China’s leading political scientists, has started giving his students at Tsinghua University a new assignment to encourage them to learn more about the Cultural Revolution.

“We gave students a question to talk to their parents about at the end of each class,” he told a conference at the university in January.

He said that students had gained a better understanding of current affairs and international relations after talking to older people about what they experienced during the Cultural Revolution. And he drew parallels between fake news on social media and the vicious, anonymous articles that were widespread during the tumult that engulfed China in the final years of Mao Zedong.

Yan’s initiative was so unusual as to be newsworthy, reported first by news channel Phoenix TV and then by the South China Morning Post. Although the Cultural Revolution is described by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a catastrophe, it is one that is not commemorated or memorialised and little discussed in public.


Tania Branigan, who was the Guardian’s correspondent in Beijing from 2008 to 2015, argues that it is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution. In this powerful and important book, she explores how participants in that decade’s upheavals have dealt with its memory under a political system where the interpretation of history is closely monitored.

At the heart of Branigan’s book is a series of remarkable interviews which she says would not be possible to conduct under the more restrictive environment for reporters in Xi Jinping’s China today.

Yu Xiangzhen, who became a Red Guard when she was in secondary school, describes seeing a basketball court covered with the bodies of people beaten to death. But she recalls the autumn of 1966 when she and her young comrades travelled halfway across the country on free train tickets as a golden one.

“I was just – very happy. For us, the Cultural Revolution was something fun. We didn’t need to go to school; we could criticise our teachers; we could go to places,” she tells Branigan.

Zhang Hongbing was trying to protect the grave of his mother, Fang Zhongmou, who was executed as a counter-revolutionary in 1970 as a new development threatened to obliterate it. With the support of his father, Zhang had denounced his mother when he was 17 after she criticised Mao in a conversation at home.

“I knew that in this case she would be executed. So in my report, I said, ‘Crack down on counter-revolutionary Fang Zhongmou! Shoot Fang Zhongmou!’” he said.

Launched by Mao in 1966, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as it was officially called did not end until his death 10 years later. By then, tens of millions had been persecuted and up to two million killed in the terror and chaos it unleashed.

The Great Leap Forward, a drive to collectivise China’s agricultural and industrial output, had led to a famine that left at least 20 million dead and perhaps twice that number. In its aftermath, some of the collectivisation measures were reversed and Mao feared that some of his lieutenants and designated successors wanted to lead China back towards capitalism.

He closed the schools and encouraged young people to test the ideological credentials of teachers and public officials by publicly criticising and shaming them in “struggle sessions”. Mao’s young zealots organised themselves into groups of Red Guards to attack the Four Olds – old ideas, old customs, old culture and old habits – and he told the police and the army not to interfere with them.

The Red Guards subjected their older victims to physical as well as verbal abuse, sometimes including beatings that left them dead or seriously injured. Leading communist party officials were removed from power and entire regional committees were thrown out and economic activity collapsed in the ensuing chaos.

When Red Guards splintered and turned on one another in violent confrontations, Mao agreed to allow the army to restore order and the first phase of the Cultural Revolution ended after two years. Educated young people were sent down from the cities to the countryside to work in the fields and acquaint themselves with the values of the rural poor.

Among them was Xi, whose father had been purged from his position as a leading figure in the Communist Party, and who spent much of his teens working on a farm in the countryside. His older half-sister, Xi Heping, was “persecuted to death” by the Red Guards, according to official reports which also say that her death was one of four occasions in his life when the Chinese president has cried.

The final years of the Cultural Revolution saw power shift back and forth between reformers around Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping and the hardline Gang of Four that included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. After Mao’s death, the Gang of Four were put on trial and millions of those who had been persecuted were rehabilitated.

An official Communist Party assessment in 1981 said the Cultural Revolution brought turmoil and disaster to the Chinese people and to the party itself. It held Mao responsible but said he had been manipulated by radical elements and Deng declared later that Mao had been 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad.

Branigan tells her subjects’ stories well and she is an excellent listener, so that they speak frankly about how they felt then and now as well as describing what they experienced. She makes no effort to conceal her distaste for Mao and for the Chinese Communist Party but one of the strengths of her book is that she gives others plenty of space to make the opposite case.

“Thirty per cent of the Cultural Revolution was wrong. Because of that 30 per cent we had this suffering and death. But any kind of social revolution will have necessary sacrifices. From that viewpoint, it was necessary. The American Civil War killed how many people? Was it necessary or not? Liberation, here, killed how many people? Necessary or not?” one former Red Guard says.

“The second World War against the fascists – how many did that kill? Necessary? Or not?

Branigan sees echoes of the Cultural Revolution in today’s China, including in the toppling of tycoons and senior party figures in Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns. She finds parallels too in the crackdown on news media, the policing of private conversations and the shrinking of space for discussion and debate.

But while Mao celebrated turmoil and disruption during the Cultural Revolution, Xi is preoccupied with order and discipline, particularly within the Communist Party. It is impossible to imagine China’s current leader making Mao’s call to “bombard the headquarters” or to declare that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent”.

Xi has described his own experience during the Cultural Revolution as formative, recalling how hard manual labour in harsh conditions helped him to learn from the peasant farmers whom he in turn helped to develop.

“When I arrived at the Yellow Earth, at 15, I was anxious and confused. When I left the Yellow Earth, at 22, my life goals were firm and I was filled with confidence,” he wrote.

Branigan dismisses Xi’s account as a creation myth but it reflects something shared by many of the survivors, a determination to cherish what was positive in their otherwise traumatic experience. She remarks on how many of her interviewees laugh and make fun of parts of the horrific stories they are telling and notes that Chinese people speak of dealing with adversity by “eating bitterness” or sucking it up.

Branigan does not offer a prescription for how China should deal with the memory of the Cultural Revolution and none of the models favoured in the West are suitable. Germany’s post-war Errinerungskultur (culture of remembrance) requires an entire society to take responsibility for the crimes carried out in its name, which would not be appropriate in this case.

It is incompatible with the Communist Party’s view of its history since 1949 as an unbroken line despite errors and deviations. Besides, the German model has run up against its limits in recent years as it failed to halt the resurgence of the far-right and has become an impediment to the exploration of Germany’s colonial past.

A South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission is unthinkable in today’s China and it is difficult to see what it could achieve apart from reopening old wounds and stoking bitterness. Although Branigan praises Britain’s debate about its imperial past, that country’s failure to establish a system for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is more illustrative of how difficult it is to address more recent crimes.

Another option is the trauma model and Branigan speaks to psychotherapists about the impact of the Cultural Revolution down the generations and attends a conference in Shanghai where foreigners lecture a Chinese audience about it.

“Why do they keep reminding us about this?” a young woman next to her says.

Branigan is shocked when one psychoanalyst suggests that trauma can keep human beings progressing through each generation and another tells her he admires older survivors simply for staying alive.

“The attitude of most people and the government is that you forget it. The page has turned; don’t read it again. Life goes on. That’s also the eastern attitude to life,” he says.

Further reading

Zhang Yueran’s novel Cocoon (World Editions, £13.99) deals with some of the issues raised in Red Memory as two friends investigate a secret from their grandparents’ lives during the Cultural Revolution. It tracks the legacy of bitterness and hatred through generations of two dysfunctional families and the importance of friendship for those born under China’s one-child policy from 1980 to 2015.

The World According to China by Elizabeth C Economy (Polity, £25) looks at how China wants to shape the world by supplanting the United States as the dominant power in Asia, extending its influence in the Global South through its Belt and Road Initiative, becoming more technologically self-reliant and wresting influence in international organisations away from the West.

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua (Duckworth, £8.99) is a collection of essays that considers recent Chinese history and social changes including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and China’s economic modernisation through 10 two-character words. The essays tell personal stories that illuminate and help to explain modern China.

Denis Staunton is the Beijing Correspondent of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times