No Looking Back – China Would Rather Forget the Cultural Revolution

It started with an orgy of violence – 50 years ago Mao Zedong initiated the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution". The effects can still be seen in today’s politics. At the event series "Engaging with China" authors and scientists discussed how the revolution is interpreted and remembered today in China.
Robert Bosch Stiftung | July 2016

50 years ago, Mao Zedong initiated the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." On the occasion of this anniversary, the Robert Bosch Stiftung held an event from the series "Engaging with China." Held at its Berlin office, the event focused on how the revolution is interpreted and remembered today in China. Moderated by the ZEIT journalist and former China correspondent Angela Köckritz, the author Xujun Eberlein, Professor Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania, and Sebastian Veg, Professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris, and Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong, discussed the topic at a roundtable.

To start things off, Christian Hänel, head of the topic area International Relations America and Asia, looked back at the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution: "It began with a two-year orgy of violence by the Red Guards, who jailed, tortured and killed many teachers, party members, political opponents, and even family members." Schools and universities had to close, cultural monuments and artworks were destroyed. When Mao recognized that he was losing control of his followers, he sent millions of young city dwellers to the countryside, where they were to learn from the farmers. One of these young men was the current President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.

Young city dwellers experienced the reality of rural socialism: hunger

How did the decade of the Cultural Revolution impact these people? Based in the USA, Guobin Yang is currently undertaking research on the Red Guard generation. Even though the generation’s entire life experience is not a result of the years of the Cultural Revolution, Yang believes, the period was certainly formative: many only knew about how farmers lived from films or books; and suddenly, they were confronted with the reality of rural socialism. "What they experienced was poverty," said Yang. Xi Jinping was in Shaanxi during this time – a province that was particularly afflicted with hunger. How does that affect current policy? Guobin Yang sees the strong focus on control, security, and social management by the current regime as being rooted in the experiences of their youth. "They want to avoid political instability and revolutions at all costs." He also sees the increasing ideological controls that have been observed over the past three years as a consequence of this. "According to the experiences of this generation of politicians, people can be more easily mobilized if they are anchored in an ideology."

The Communist Party declared the Cultural Revolution a mistake in 1981. There was no official ceremony of remembrance to mark its 50-year anniversary this year. "But can history simply be locked away and forgotten? And how can a society be prepared for the future if it is only allowed to look back through the lenses of the state’s prescribed discourse?" asks the Head of Department Christian Hänel.

"There were many cultural revolutions"

Author Xujun Eberlein, who was born in Chongqing and currently lives in Boston, experienced the Cultural Revolution first-hand as a teenager. She presented her experiences in the award-winning anthology Apologies Forthcoming. Personal stories and memories abound in China. Guobin Yang notes that there was no singular Cultural Revolution. "There were many different ones, depending on the individual experiences." Today, everyone has a different approach to processing this period of history: some are traumatized, others nostalgic. Some focus on traditions like Confucianism and calligraphy, while others push their children towards a better education because they did not have the opportunity when they were young.

Sebastian Veg criticized the fact that China lacks a public forum for discussing different interpretations of this chapter in its history. Xujun Eberlein also sees a problem here. Yet she also placed blame on the older generation, who often hid their experiences from their children and grandchildren. According to Veg, however, this phenomenon is seen in other historical contexts, such as the postwar era in Germany. And that is why public monuments and discussions are so important. This is possible in China at a lower level: some of Veg’s Chinese students have documented the memories of their relatives on video and published them on a website that is still accessible in China. They also performed theatrical pieces on the topic.

A question posed by a member of the audience asked why such reports almost always come from the victims and rarely from the perpetrators. Some members of the Red Guard did make a public apology, but they were widely criticized, explained Xujun Eberlein. Furthermore, the distinction between perpetrator and victim is not as easy as one might think: "Many were not purely one or the other, but a mix of both." According to Veg, this is a reason why working through the topic is so difficult. "These ten years cannot be easily extracted from the surrounding history."

(David Weyand, Juli 2016)