The Cultural Revolution and the Need for Repentance

I found Deng Yuwen‘s   邓聿文 2013 article on “Why Do Chinese People Feel Regrets About Their Behavior During the Cultural Revolution”  moving.  China media controls, the rationale for them —  the reluctance of leaders to go beyond scapegoating a few individuals to avoid putting blame on the Chinese Communist Party — and the official line on the responsibility of Mao for the at last two holocausts he visited on China (the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution or three if you could the one million or so people killed off as “landlords” in 1949 – 50) or standard decision (Mao two-thirds good, one-third bad) prevents getting beyond the past.   Deng Yuwen’s article appeared on many websites and a later version appeared on the most useful Financial Times Chinese language website from which many good albeit articles by Chinese scholars have been helpfully free of the censorship or quick deletion they are often subject due to Propaganda Department orders within China.  Speaking out is dangerous.  Deng Yuwen himself, for instance, was fired from the publications department of the Central Party School in 2013 for proposing that China dump its long time ally North Korea.

My translation of the beginning of Deng Yuwen’s article as it appeared on the Financial Times Chinese language website:

For some years now there have appeared one article after another by people wanting to apologized to people they hurt during the Cultural Revolution. The letter from of apology from Chen Xiaolu, son of Chen Yi, has gotten attention. In his letter, Chen Xiaolu wrote, “As one of the student leaders at Beijing Middle School #8 and the the chair of the school revolutionary committee, I was directly responsible for the struggle sessions against the school leadership and some of the teachers and fellow students and for having them sent away for re-education through labor. He made an earnest apology “to all the school leaders, teachers and fellow students” whom he had harmed. He furthermore said that the Cultural Revolution was “an era in which people were terrorized”, that he had taken too long to apologize, but must apologize. He said “if you don’t reflect on your past, you can make no progress!” He added that those violations of the Chinese Constitution and human rights and those inhumane actions that occurred during the Cultural Revolution must never recur in China in any form!

Chen Xiaolu’s apology represents the thinking of many people who experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. Many, perhaps because of their own lack of courage or other reasons, have not taken this step. There have been many dark ages in Chinese history. The darkest one for the several generations living today was the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Not matter whether we are discussing the history of the Chinese Communist Party or the history of China, the Cultural Revolution has been determined to have been set into motion due to the error of the leader of the country, then used by some counter-revolutionaries to create a great disaster for the Chinese state and the Chinese people.

Official revisionist history is naturally limited by the particular purposes for which it is written and by the values and the judgements of the officials who write it. They use their own standards and measuring sticks to tailor history for their own purposes. Official histories generally lack the details and people generally remember them only for their abstract conclusions.

An earlier Deng Yuwen article on the same theme, more moving for people more personal and less abstract, appeared on many Chinese websites in 2011.  I haven’t found it but I will share the link if I do.  For now, I will share the first few paragraphs from a translation done by the U.S. government’s Open Source Center to show what I mean.

Guangzhou Policy Research Journal Reflects on Cultural Revolution

Deng Yuwen: Why Should We Repent?

Lack of Repentance Is a Fatal Defect 

Repentance goes side by side with forgetting. I recently read some articles that played on my heart strings: A story dictated by He Fang about how he hit Zhang Wentian when he was down, and Li Hua’s recollections that the “reactionary officers” he denounced in his salad days were actually anti-Japanese soldiers, and that a few former Red Guards of the Beijing Foreign Studies University had apologized to the teachers who were slapped by them or their “comrades in arms.” He Fang was once Zhang Wentian’s secretary; Li Hua was originally a youth from the country and later became a member of the Hebei Arts Association, and those who slapped the teachers were all students at the time. In fact, these articles are impressive — not because of the betrayal, ignorance and violence typical of those crazy days, as have been recounted time and again in the memoirs of the witnesses of the “Cultural Revolution” — but because of their deep repentance and expiation for such betrayal, ignorance and violence.

The repentance and expiation from victimizers for victims are precious, though they come too late. There have been many dark periods in the history of the Chinese nation. I will not mention what happened too far back in time. What is related to those of the recent generations, alive or dead, is the 10-year “Cultural Revolution,” which has been defined as a catastrophe in the history of both the party and the nation. From the national perspective, however, because the official historical data are devoid of historical details, it is difficult for posterity to get a sense of being there and to empathize with those who were part of that particular time slot in history. So what we can get out of those historical data are some abstract conclusions, which may fade over time unless you have a zest for history.

End translation.

Deng’s Yuwen’s two essays help us understand the thinking of Chinese as they try to understand their past, and older people their responsibility for it. This problem of how to get past the past is not uniquely Chinese; certainly one can think of Germany’s dealing with its fascist past and American parallels such as our reflections on the history of race 51cWwwpy8VL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_relations and injustices in our own country. After reading Professor Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers — Private Life in Stalin’s Russia ,   I thought of China and the suffering and moral choices Chinese face under their own repressive regime.  Prof. Figes discusses the psychological and social adjustments people need to make (some refuse and suffer the consequences) of living under an oppressive system and the guilt they feel for making those adjustments.

When mentioned I mentioned Figes’ book to Chengdu writer Ran Yunfei,  he said that he too felt that it had a lot to say about what Chinese people feel today even though it is about Communist Party rule under Stalin in the former Soviet Union.

Ran told me that he too has a copy of The Whisperers at home — and that Figes’ book is now (2011) being translated into Chinese. Ran told me last year he has been encouraging over a dozen retired cadres in the Chengdu area to write their memoirs. He said many of these memoirs are very impressive.  I hope that those memoirs will be published some day.  There is a great amount of fine literature that must stay locked up in desk drawers in China — even given the name to a non?-literary genre desk drawer literature 抽屉文学.

Ran Yunfei said remarked on his blog a few years ago that reading about the Soviet Union helps understand what the PRC is today. I had been skeptical since the Russians seem Russian and the Chinese Chinese and whatever was imported must have been changed in a radically different Chinese interpretation, but Figes book has now made me think differently.

土匪冉云飞 四川,成都博客:  (deleted)  一个码字的乡下蛮子。大学本科,监狱硕士。著有《沉疴:中国教育的危机与批判》、《吴虞和他生活的民国时代》等十几种著作。现供职于某刊

Ran’s comment on China and the USSR

@土匪冉云飞 : #冉氏荐书#83沈志华主编《苏联历史档案》(34卷,社科文献2002年版,定价四千元),这是了解苏联帝国最为重要的巨型汉文文献,编者公开声称仅供省部军级领导、正高以上学者、计划单列市以上图书馆弆藏。不过网上有电子版,在下也以极低价得一套纸版。不了解苏联就不能了解今天的中国及我们的苦难

Ran recommends Shen Zhihua (ed) Historical Archives of the Soviet Union in 34 volumes, Chinese translation 2002 and comments “If we don’t understand the USSR, we won’t be able to understand today’s China and our difficulties.”

It can be so very hard to imagine what it could have been like to live in such a society. While I worked in the S&T section at U.S. Embassy Beijing in China, I knew the Chinese 20061123225638920environmentalist Tang Xiyang.   Tang (pictured at left) had been condemned for his “rightist views” during the Great Leap Forward.  Later his wife Zheng Zhaonan ,  then a middle school teacher, was murdered by her own students because she refused to divorce her husband.  Tang wrote about the oppression many Chinese suffered in a section that was censored from one of his books.  He gave me the censored parts so that I could pass them along.   Here is my translation of Tang’s censored section from his book A Green World Tour in which he reflects on the Great Leap Forward (1957) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) :

Begin censored section (p. 408):

What was the people’s greatest agony during the ‘cultural revolution’?

    “They had no freedom to commit suicide.”

     “ My listeners looked shocked, so I tried to explain, “Intellectuals have strong self-respect, so to avoid suffering, they felt the best thing to do was to take one’s own life.  Even some very famous people chose this way out: the editor-in-chief of People’s Daily, Deng Tuo, the writer Lao She,  the Peking Opera performer Ma Lianliang, the world champion Ping-Pong player Yong Guotan, the renowned Ping-Pong coach Fu Qifang and many others.   The authorities, however, decided such a great number of suicides were giving a bad impression, so they began to take measures to prevent suicide.  They started with what were called negative methods, taking away anything that might be used such as knives, scissors,  light cords.  

Where I was interned, nothing of metal remained.  They also took the latches off the toilet doors and always had someone accompany us to the toilet.  Still people found means. They hid razor blades and used them to slit their throats; they opened the vein in their wrist at night with their own fingers to let the blood out.; an animal expert who had a hypodermic syringe he had been using on his animals injected air into his bloodstream.  One night I heard Liu Qin, associate editor of Beijing Daily, in the room next to mine crying out as he was beaten.  The next day he asked the guard to give him some sneaker since he wanted to exercise; that night he used the shoestrings to hang himself.   Since these negative measures weren’t working, the authorities tried what were termed positive methods: If someone attempted suicide but failed – such as jumping off a high building, but not killing oneself – both he and his family would be maltreated.  For instance, if he were badly injured in the fall or paralyzed, he would not be given medical treatment. 

A high official,  Luo Ruiqiang, jumped from a high window, but didn’t die.  Since he was unable to move, he was stuffed into a shoulder-pole basket and taken to a meeting to be criticized.  Another suicide died, but he was stripped of his clothes and hung with a placard saying, ‘Counterrevolutionary death.’  His family was also labeled counterrevolutionary. It’s perhaps hard for foreigners to realize the severity of this. It was just as if the label had been printed on his face for all to see. In China, it was a very powerful method, like Hawthorne’s scarlet letter.  Since people were not willing to have their families suffer, they refrained from committing suicide.  However, a university professor who didn’t want his family to suffer, chose instead to burn down his house with all his family inside.  An Army officer used dynamite to blow up his entire family. “

   “These were all ‘cultural revolution’ matters.  My thoughts then turned to the earlier anti-Rightist campaign and I told me listeners about that too.  “In June 1957 the staff of the Beijing Daily was called to the fourth-floor auditorium to attend a general meeting criticizing Liu Binyan, then with China Youth News.   A colleague of his, Qi Xueyi, opposed the meeting, so to show his support for Liu, he jumped from the auditorium window into the hutong below and was killed.

    “Since I had already been labeled a Rightist, I was not allowed to attend this meeting, but my wife, Zheng Zhaonan (photo below), who also at that time worked for Beijing Daily, did attend.  Like 0706p55pixeveryone else, she looked out the window where Qi had jumped, and perhaps thinking of me and our situation, stayed there for a long moment.  This was noticed and reported to the newspaper’s leaders, who immediately called another meeting, at which Qi was first criticized.  His deed was called counterrevolutionary; he had substituted for a Rightist; it was a bad act to try to stop the meeting;  if he could kill himself, he could kill anyone, so he was the worst kind of class enemy.  Then Zheng was criticized for feeling sorry for him;  she was the same sort of ‘raccoon dog’, the epigram about the fox that was sorry after the rabbit died because now it had nothing to eat was used to describe her;  she was criticized for even thinking about her husband.

    “That night Zheng cried bitterly and said that she was afraid.  It would never have occurred to me that ten years later it would be she who was killed and not I.  She was only one of many.  The statistics were later printed in a book.:  In Beijing, between August 19 and September 30, 1966, over 1,700 people were killed; 33,600 houses were searched and the residents’ property was confiscated; 85,000 people belonging to  ‘bad’ categories were exiled to distant parts of the country.  My wife was killed during those forty days too. Human nature, human sympathy, human rights, human dignity, human value – the most essential human qualities – were all suppressed during the ‘cultural revolution’.  It was the twentieth century’s greatest world tragedy. I have tried to forget but I cannot.

   “Did you think of committing suicide, especially after your wife was killed?”

“ How could I?  I had two daughters, the elder one twelve years old, the younger one only six. How could they bear losing their father just after losing their mother?  Yes, if it hadn’t been for them, I would have committed suicide ten times over. “

“You were imprisoned, weren’t you?”

   “Yes, but in the beginning I was permitted to go home at night.  I had to write out my ‘confessions’ under ten at night and be out sweeping the streets by five in the morning, so it was about ten-thirty when I got home and only 4:30 when I left.  The children had already fallen asleep when I arrived and had not yet awakened when I left, so my eldest daughter and I had to write notes to each other in a diary. I told them to diligently study Chairman Mao’s quotations, to struggle against selfish motives, to criticize revisionism, and to save their small change and to keep on good terms with the neighbor’s children.  When my house was later searched  and all my possessions seized and broken, only the diary survived, which I now keep as a treasured document. “

End translation of one of the censored sections of A Green World Tour.

I heard many, similar stories from other Chinese wronged by the Chinese regime during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and even more recently during the ten years I worked in the PRC.  Attacks against teacher even by middle school students were common during the Cultural Revolution — see the article by University of Chicago Prof. Youqin Wang  “Student Attacks Against Teachers: The Revolution of 1966“.

Prof. Wang’s article mentions Tang Xiyang’s murdered wife:  “At Beijing Fifty-second Middle School, Zheng Zhaonan (鄭兆南), a Chinese teacher, was tortured and jailed in her school and died on September 8, 1966. ”

Reference:  Open Magazine (Hong Kong) 反右五十年專題〉環保活動家唐錫陽妻子之死  柳孚三






About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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