Monday, January 25, 2010

文革. I still want to cry.

I can hardly write these lines. I still feel a sense of tremendous sorrow, a terrible chill, when reading works about the Cultural Revolution and examine this period and its impacts on society and on human lives.

As the New York Times reports, in 2009, China "quietly opened the archives of selected declassified government files from that era, in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an" and lifted a little the veil on that period, revealing some of the prosaic stories of the Cultural Revolution. These are not the worst excesses, only some of the pedestrian issues of the time -- though there are still hints of the revolutionary fervor and the cruelty and inhumanity of the period.

Stitching the Narrative of a Revolution
By Xiyun YANG and Michael WINES
The New York Times / January 25, 2010

Peasants recited quotations from Mao's “Little Red Book” before toiling in the fields in a village near Beijing in July of 1967. (Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
The files of the Cultural Revolution, which raged from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, make up a mere 16 of the 21,568 volumes that the Beijing Municipal Archives has made public in four separate releases — in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2009. (The other files cover periods of Chinese history from 1906.)

The yellowing files give scant insight into those days’ atrocities: the denunciations of parents by children; the humiliation of intellectuals; the millions of lives ruined by Red Guards ordered to remake society through upheaval. Mao’s personality cult made him a living god, and armed violence broke out over his affections. Everything was politicized. Many committed suicide.

Today, that era has been all but obliterated from the official history of the People’s Republic, its horrors glossed over in history books. While many younger Chinese know that the country passed through a period of turmoil, scholars say, few have any idea of its wild extremes. Events that were “earth shattering have now turned into words with vague and sketchy meanings,” Chen Xiaojing, a Communist Party official from the time, wrote in a carefully hedged account of his experiences, “My Cultural Revolution Years.”

... The files apparently have been filtered for anything dealing with deaths and imprisonment, and they describe a country still fervently Communist, and unrecognizable today. They narrate the story of a country in the throes of madness, when 'Mao Zedong thought'" was supposed to cure "everything from truancy to traffic jams to agricultural chemistry to illegal pigeon sales."

... In a handwritten series of 1972 speeches, many of them heavily edited in pen, a teacher from Beijing’s outskirts recalled how his comrades “patiently and delicately” sought to reform a teacher who was not a worker, but a member of the wealthy class. Rounds of criticism had little effect, so the group chose to help him realize his mistakes through physical labor, by weeding farmland. “He pulled grass,” the speech read. “At first, he was squatting, but he couldn’t handle it after two days. Then he pulled the grass while kneeling. Finally, he did it while crawling.”

What a horrific era; yet even today, a real societal discussion and full accounting of the past has not taken place. How can healing occur, and give rise to a greater sense of national understanding (and a commitment to never allow such violence to take place against a people or its heritage) when such a pivotal and destructive period in Chinese history remains hidden? Intentionally blocked by the government. How many lives were ended or irreparably harmed? How many cultural artifacts were destroyed, how many ideas, customs and practices lost? How many innocents were persecuted under the name of "revolution"? Without facing its history, how can China look to the future?

No comments: