Cultural Revolution

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By Xujun Eberlein

The new issue of Remembrance (<记忆>) continues to review Mao’s Last Revolution (by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals; Chinese translation can be found here). The four articles in issues 55 and 56 discuss the book from different angles, with thoughtful comments and legitimate questions. All are well worth reading.

Coincidentally, nearly two years ago, it was Michael Schoenhals who had this to say about the journal (阅读中文):

Remembrance (记忆, jiyi) is an electronic journal edited by Cultural Revolution historians in China in the May 4th tradition of the joint intellectual venture that does not so much put a premium on uniformity of opinion — and even less on common party political affiliation — as on a shared desire to explore a subject without prejudice in the pursuit of historical truth. … The journal is a Chinese venture, but in the 21st century that no longer prevents it from being a globalized one.

Schoenhals nailed the main characteristic of the e-journal precisely: it is non-partisan and it is without prejudice. One can often find opposite opinions in feature articles and readers’ letters to the editor. Meanwhile, the journal consistently provides high-quality research and well-written memoirs. For anyone who is interested in learning about the true history of China’s Cultural Revolution, or contributing to the research, Remembrance is the one reliable place to go.

Another book discussed in the current issue is Fighting for Mao – Chongqing’s Large Armed-Fights (《为毛主席而战—文革重庆大武斗实录》) by He Shu, newly published (in Chinese) by Joint Publishing (H. K.). I’ve read He Shu’s articles on this topic before, and I believe his new book is a significant contribution to the CR research. It is a valuable book to possess and I certainly am going to buy it.

Remembrance is published every two weeks. To manage in the reality of China’s internet censorship, the journal maintains a low-key, high-quality policy, and it does not have an official website in the mainland. As such I volunteered (with the editors’ permission) to host the journal on my website. I will update every two weeks as soon as the e-journal arrives in my inbox.

My only regret is that I don’t have the time to translate all the articles into English. Hopefully, as the journal content gets compiled into books, professional translations will also become available. For now, those of you who can read Chinese have the clear advantage of “a waterside pavilion getting the moonlight first.”

This post was first published at Inside-Out China. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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In his review of Andrew Walder’s Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement, John Gittings discusses the July 1966 murder of Bian Zhongyun, deputy principal of the Beijing Normal Girls’ High School. Gittings mentions that Bian’s story has been told in a moving documentary that features interviews with her husband, who shares photographs that he took at the time of her death. The entire movie, Wo sui siqu (我虽死去 Though I Am Gone), is available on YouTube; below, we’ve embedded the first section of the film (in Mandarin with English subtitles).


By John Gittings

Fractured Rebellion coverAndrew G. Walder, Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2009).

A group of former Red Guards at Beijing’s Qinghua University, interviewed in spring 1971 about their recent factional struggles, laughed loudly (always a sign of uneasiness) and made their “frank confession”: yes, they had not always behaved in a spirit of proletarian comradeship, they admitted. “We used to sit on either side of the table and agree to make up our differences, but even while we shook hands we were kicking one other under the table!”.

If only it had been confined to kicks. This account, given to a delegation from the Society of Anglo-Chinese Understanding (I was a member of it on my first visit to China), was a highly sanitised version. William Hinton, author of Fanshen — the classic account of rural revolution during the communist-led civil war in the late 1940s — heard a much bloodier tale when he interviewed at Qinghua. Hinton was told how the struggle on the campus in April 1968 had escalated “from cold to hot weapons”, from stone slingshots and wooden spears to revolvers and hand grenades. One group welded steel plates onto the body of a tractor to convert it into a tank. Ten students were killed and many more badly injured in the next three months till July 1968 when Mao Zedong finally sent in groups of local workers, backed by the army, to restore order.

Hinton’s account caused quite a stir on the left outside China when it was published as a special issue of Monthly Review (July-August 1972) under the title “Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University”, but even so his discussion of Red Guard violence was limited to the final months of the first phase (1966-68) of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). For many Chinese who remember these times, especially among the families of teachers, intellectuals, artists and “cultural workers”, government officials dubbed “bureaucrats”, and others labelled as “capitalist-roaders,” the most severe Red Guard violence in Beijing — which set the tone for elsewhere — had occurred two years earlier. By mid-1968 the survivors of these first months were simply keeping their heads down while the factions fought it out.

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(Part One)

Understanding jokes in another language is often the highest test of fluency, based as they often are on puns and insider cultural knowledge. When Guo Qitao, professor of Chinese history at University of California, Irvine, mentioned to us that he collects clever Chinese jokes, we asked if he might share a few at China Beat. Even better–he offered to translate and gloss them. The first set we offer here are of jokes from the Cultural Revolution, a period when political rhetoric and in-fighting predominated in the public sphere. Through these jokes, we see the way that Chinese people skewered national political campaigns by punning their dogmatic rhetoric.

Translated and Glossed by Guo Qitao

(1) Something Is Missing

During the Cultural Revolution, all kinds of “bad elements” were punished for no reasons, and the ordinary people suffered a lack of necessary goods (food or materials). In the midst of the absolute poverty, the following rhyming couplet was posted:

One, two, three and five,
Six, seven, eight and nine.

Horizontal coda: South & North

What’s missing?

“Four and ten” (sishi) and “east and west” (dongxi)

Translator’s notes: The last phrases are puns on shishi, meaning “facts,” and dongxi, which as a compound also means “things.” The implication is that “bad elements” are being punished based on groundless assertions (without “facts”), while people are deprived of basic consumer goods (“things”).

(2) “You’re Late!”

Once, the Central Political Bureau convened an expanded meeting. Several founding marshals including Chen Yi, He Long, Xu Xiangqian, and Nie Rongzhen were notified to attend.

The time for the start of the meeting had already begun, but after waiting and waiting, the several marshals still had not made an appearance

Finally, the marshals all arrived together. Wang Hongwen (the youngest member of the Gang of Four who was promoted from a factory worker to the vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party) pointed an accusatory finger at them and said: “You’re late! How can you be so lackadaisical?!”

Marshal Chen Yi explained, “You dropped in suddenly from Shanghai via helicopter lift; we came from Yan’an riding “Mao” donkeys—how could we possibly get here as fast as you?”

Translator’s notes: There is a pun at work in the reference to “furry donkeys from Yan’an.” The “fur” or “mao” is a subtle reference to Mao Zedong. The implication in Chen Yi’s retort is that “we have been with the revolution (with Mao) from the Yan’an years,” whereas “you (Wang Hongwen) are just an upstart from Shanghai who has been ‘lifted’ to power quickly through your connections with Jiang Qing.”

(3) Nothing Can Stand without Destruction

Wang Hongwen went to see Marshal Zhu De, requesting him to hand over power. “You may take over, but only if you can make this egg stand upright,” Zhu said, while handling him an egg.

After trying for several days, Wang was still unable to make it stand, so he went to see Deng Xiaoping for help.

“This is easy,” said Deng, and he forcefully smashed the egg down into the table.

“Ai ya, it broke!” Wang exclaimed.
“Chairman Mao has said, ‘nothing can stand without destruction,’” said Deng, “look, isn’t the egg standing upright now?”

Translator’s notes: The phrase “nothing can stand without destruction” was a revolutionary slogan that encouraged destruction of old, feudal things.

(4) Mao’s Statues

The Lin Biao clique drafted a directive ordering the erection of statues of Mao throughout the country. Mao intercepted it and refused to send the order out saying, “You all get to sleep, while I’m going to have to stand on guard no matter whether rain or shine. I won’t do it!”

(5) From Sun to Son

During the Cultural Revolution, all middle schools stopped offering classes in Russian (to show opposition to Soviet revisionism), which were replaced by English. All of sudden, the country became notably short of English teachers. One school had to select someone with little English to teach the language. As it turned out, one day in class this teacher misspelled the word “sun” as “son.” Right then and there, a student pointed out the mistake. As a result, the teacher was publically accused of having “venomously belittled our Great Leader, Redder than the Sun,” and dismissed from the school.

Translator’s notes: Mao was likened to the Red Sun during the Cultural Revolution.

(6) The Color of the Sun

A woman poet had to do physical labor while being investigated for her reactionary words and deeds. One day, after working in the fields, she wrote in her diary the phrase, “The golden-yellow sun casts forth its brilliant rays…” The diary was discovered by the Red Guards and became new evidence of her “venomous slander against our Great Leader.” The Red Guards organized a struggle meeting to criticize her at which they said: “Chairman Mao is the Reddest, Reddest sun in our hearts, but you dared to say that the sun is golden and yellow! What’s gold? Gold is the stuff of the capitalist class. As for yellow, it represents decadent and dirty things! If this isn’t an attempt to humiliate and vilify Chairman Mao, then what is?!”

Translator’s note: The color yellow is used to denote pornographic literature or matters, much the way in English we might use “blue” or “red” (as in a “red light” district.) In Chinese, that would be a “yellow district.”

(7) Go Ask Liang Shengbao

Liang Shengbao is the protagonist of Liu Qing’s novel Making History, and his lover, Xu Gaixia, is its female protagonist. At a struggle meeting, the Red Guards interrogated Liu Qing: “Why did Liang Shengbao dream about Xu Gaixia when he fell asleep at the Guo County railway station? When he took a break from cutting bamboo on Southern Hill, why didn’t Liang Shengbao organize the masses to study Chairman Mao’s works, instead playing the chess? When he served as a leader of a mutual aid team, why did he focus on peaceful competition, but not on the class struggle?”

To these questions, Liu Qing said, “I, too, am puzzled, you should go ask Liang Shengbao.”


A friend of the blog forwarded to us information about a current exhibition in Shanghai, “Beijing Sixty Six,” which features startling photographs of the Cultural Revolution by Solange Brand. The curator of the show, Jean Loh of Galerie Beaugeste, kindly agreed to write a piece for us about reactions to the exhibit, as well as allowing us to share a few of these recently-uncovered photographs. You can learn more about the exhibit at Facebook, City Weekend, or about Galerie Beaugeste (located on Taikang lu) at its website.

By Jean Loh

In 2002, the cofounder of the Pingyao International Photography Festival, Alain Jullien, invited an unknown amateur photographer to participate in the annual visual feast that went on to become the landmark of Chinese photography today. Solange Brand, then the Art Director of the newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, mentioned in passing to Alain that she had been in China from 1966 to 1968, and had not set foot on the Mainland since. When Alain asked if she had taken any pictures of China; that innocent question turned out to be a major discovery: Her Agfa color slides and prints buried in a shoe box for all those years emerged to become an award-winning book.

That same year in Pingyao I was privileged to be in Solange’s hotel room where she first showed her sensational pictures on my laptop screen. Everyone in the room was awestruck. And I was captivated by the freshness of the images as if they were snapshots made just the day before. Later during the al fresco projection, many of the Chinese photographers were moved; all were fascinated by this very rare natural portrait of “Beijing ’66,” and in color! The projection was accompanied by revolutionary songs Solange has collected during her stay and a tape she made from the demonstration at the gate of the French Embassy. The commotion amongst the Chinese photographers was incredible: after the show some of them marched on the main street of Pingyao singing aloud the Red Sun Rising on the East and other vintage revolutionary hymns before settling down for baijiu and huangjiu at the main tavern where Marc Riboud’s pictures were hanging on the wall.

John Lennon said (in “The Beatles Anthology”); “The sixties saw a revolution among youth, not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking; the youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution.”

Far from the Beatles in Beijing 1966 there was another King of Pop, another Idol who had millions of teenagers rocking and rolling.

Solange Brand was 19 or 20 years old, the same age as these young Red Guards, when she was sent to work as a secretary at the French Embassy in Beijing. Unknowingly, with her Pentax she captured the beginning of the Great Cultural Revolution.

What, with indescribable emotion, the Chinese photographers in Pingyao saw was perhaps a “self-projection” or “self-identification” with the faces of these young men and women, even children, who could have been themselves from a long lost memory.

Here lies the power of photography: What the Chinese viewers experience is like taking a swab of reality—an operation of “cut and paste”—and transposing it to fill in the void in our imaginations, to fill in the empty place in our collective memory, to fill in the absence as in our absentmindedness. We are confronted again by Roland Barthes’ famous “Ça a été—that has been.” Photography’s immediacy acts to set up an instantaneous observation of the experience of its author. As a result of the cut and paste, this transposition becomes an affirmation of “I have seen this” or “I have been there.” Hence the excitement we feel in the possibility of scrutinizing each face in the crowd and asking of ourselves: Was that how we looked at that time?

With incredible conviction the Chinese public of a certain age – those who were at least 6 years old in 1966, and who have never set foot in a gallery or a museum – came to our exhibition in Shanghai and proclaimed in front of the enlarged print: “I was there! Exactly at this spot!” One former Red Guard asked me to specifically take a picture of him standing by the enlarged print as if to finally own a picture certifying he had been there. They all told the same story: it was the most exciting years of their youth; UNFORGETTABLE – that was the word they keep mumbling. With agitation they pointed to the Mao pin and said everyone had at least a few pins, later on even giant size pins, that some of the most fanatic pinned directly on their flesh.

Below is the Baidu Encyclopedia definition of the “Great Rally” (Da Chuanlian):

In 1966, the Central Committee of the Cultural Revolution expressed support for students throughout the country to come to Beijing to exchange revolutionary experiences, and also supported the Beijing students to carry out the revolution throughout the Great Rally. On September 5, 1966 “The Notice” was published, and the Great Rally activities developed rapidly.

Between June and July around the country the “Rally” between teachers and students was formed. Many of those coming from the provinces came to Beijing to receive the “Bible of Cultural Revolution Rebellion” and to take part in Chairman Mao’s reception for teachers and students. Those who left Beijing were to carry out the revolution and to fan the flames around the country for the “Destroy the Four Olds” movement. There were mainly teachers and students, the Red Guards, “the External Red Circle” and ordinary high school students, but some were also primary school students accompanying their brothers and sisters.

Chairman Mao Zedong received the Red Guards on eight occasions in 1966: August 18, August 31, September 15, October 1, October 18, November 3, November 10, November 26. From all over the country, young people and students of more than 13 million people came to salute Mao. Teachers and students of the Great Rally traveled by all means of transport; accommodation and meals were all free of charge. That was a very special moment of the “Cultural Revolution.”

Diane Arbus had the conviction that there are things people would never have noticed had she not photographed them. Thanks to Solange Brand we relish the opportunity to take in every detail of the clothing, of every particle in the air, of every expression on the faces in this “Beijing Sixty-Six,” and ask ourselves: Where have all these heroic faces gone? The students with their uniforms; those “lake hero” figures (Jianghu Renwu) with their fur coats of another age; those dancers on the train expressing their revolutionary fervor with a martial choreography; and those pilgrims on the road beaten by sandstorms but bravely carrying the icon of the holy idol on their backpacks. Where have all these Red soldiers gone?

Exhibition of Solange Brand’s Beijing Sixty Six through May 22 in Shanghai Taikang Road Lane 210 Building 5 Space 519 Beaugeste Photo Gallery (Tel: +86-21-6466-9012).