Never forget

A memoir about the Cultural Revolution appears in English


Ji Xianlin, who died in 2009, wrote a memoir about past wrongs

On Monday this week, a grim anniversary was marked. Exactly 50 years ago Mao Zedong plunged his country into the decade-long madness of the Cultural Revolution. According to the New Yorker: “By the time the Cultural Revolution sputtered to a halt, there were many ways to tally its effects: about two hundred million people in the countryside suffered from chronic malnutrition, because the economy had been crippled; up to twenty million people had been uprooted and sent to the countryside; and up to one and a half million had been executed or driven to suicide.”

WiC has written about these events before – detailed with particular brilliance by the historian Roderick MacFarquhar in Mao’s Last Revolution (see WiC174). His account depicts a nation in turmoil. However, one of the oddities of the period is how little in the way of first-person memoirs has emerged from the victims of the period.

One exception is Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed, an English language version of which came out earlier this year. The distinguished Peking University linguist wrote the book in 1992 but did not publish it till 1998. And until now it has been unavailable to those unable to read Chinese.

In his introduction Ji writes that he felt compelled to put his own experiences into words, not in order to gain personal attention, but to ensure that this horrific period of history was not forgotten.

As a survivor of that chaotic era, Ji said, with each passing year he was surprised that no one else had stepped forward to describe what had happened to them.

This airbrushing of the past worried him: “Young people hardly know anything about the Cultural Revolution, which is little more than a fairy tale to them. This troubles me: if they barely know what happened who can guarantee they won’t make the same mistakes themselves?”

Ji admits that few older Chinese like talking about the period, but says that all share his own verdict: “The Cultural Revolution was neither cultural nor revolutionary: everyone agrees it was a 10 year-long disaster.”

His book begins by describing the days leading up to the Cultural Revolution, when Mao encouraged students to write criticisms of Party figures and their college professors on campus walls.

Students at Peking University were at the vanguard of this activity, embracing the idea of permanent revolution and the cult of Mao to accuse their teachers of being capitalist roaders and worse.

The more zealous agitators would go on to form the Red Guards, and would justify torture and the destruction of ancient artifacts by waving Mao’s Little Red Book and quoting lines from it.

“Red Guards were never prosecuted for any deaths they caused, and their cudgels and spears were the law,” Ji notes.

A Sanskrit expert who was educated overseas in Germany, Ji watched as his more senior colleagues were persecuted, but tried to avoid the same fate himself.

However, when the campus descended into factional warfare – with one set of Red Guards denouncing another – he had to choose a side. He picked the wrong one, and worse, he’d failed to destroy “evidence” that could be used against him, such as his diaries.

Late at night on November 30, 1967 six men with wooden cudgels arrived at his door. They were students from his own foreign language department, but now their “faces were arrogant and frosty”. He had been close to one of the students, teaching him Korean, “but now we were enemies,” Ji recalls.

First they made Ji, his wife and an aunt cower on the kitchen floor while they systematically destroyed his “beloved library” and turned his rooms upside down in search of ‘evidence’.

The author recalls he had “previously worshipped the notion of making revolution” but after this night of wanton destruction he saw that many of the Red Guards were “psychopaths indulging their sadistic instincts under the cover of revolutionary instructions”.

The next day as he rode on his bicycle into the campus, the loudspeakers blared out “Down with Ji Xianlin”. Knowing what lay ahead, Ji came up with a plan for committing suicide, opting to overdose on sleeping pills, and thinking it would be best not to do so at home as his wife might then be blamed.

Ji opted to kill himself at a spot in the Summer Palace, but before he could act the Red Guards suddenly arrived again and took him away.

Thus began his first Struggle Session – a format in which victims were held in the highly uncomfortable ‘airplane position’, as crowds lined up to shout accusations and beat them.

In Ji’s case, the charges against him were lifted – out of context – from his diary and used to prove he was a counter-revolutionary. Ji recalls that just as he was about to pass out, he felt someone spit on his face. As he was later paraded through the streets “the crowd began to throw stones at me”.

This would be the first of dozens of Struggle Sessions he’d face. Yet worse was to follow. Ji was made to help build an on-campus prison to house “blackguards” like himself. These unfortunates were taken from their families and forced to do hard labour on little or no rations. Such prisons were the cowsheds of the book’s title (‘cowshed’ was the common term for these makeshift detention centres).

The normal hierarchy was completely reversed during this period of tumult. Now the workers at the university were the bosses, ordering the professors what to do, while no longer having to work themselves. “I realised the Cultural Revolution was merely an elaborate excuse for workers to persecute intellectuals,” Ji writes.

He and his fellow victims were told that they must walk with their eyes on the ground and they were beaten for the mildest offence, like crossing their legs. Ji says he was fortunate not to have been paralysed or beaten to death, like many others. But the brutality was still vicious: one night a guard inflicted such damage that even in the darkness Ji was aware of the congealed blood covering his body. His tormentor’s favourite tool for such abuse was to wrap a bicycle chain in rubber.

Such was the madness that Ji even remembers an eight year-old child calling out to him “Come here. Let me hit you!” This was made more menacing by what the child had in his hand: a brick.

On another occasion when he was too ill to walk, Ji crawled for two hours to get to a hospital. Hearing he was a “blackguard” the doctor refused to treat him and forced him to crawl back to his ‘cowshed’.

After nine months of cruelty, Ji’s ordeal ended almost as inexplicably as it began. He was – to use his own term – “liberated” and rehabilitated of his blackguard reputation. He was given a job as a doorman and regained his Party membership.

“My experience of the Cultural Revolution was over and my story draws to a close,” he writes in the penultimate chapter.

In the subsequent decades Ji became a prominent author but said that his experiences during the period scarred much of the remainder of his life (he died in 2009). He even wondered whether he would have been better off had he succeeded with his plan to commit suicide – the course taken by many of his similarly persecuted peers.

“I have written a total of eight million characters in my lifetime, about 70% of which were written after the Cultural Revolution,” he noted. “Had I succeeded in my attempt to commit suicide at the time, none of these works would have been written. Was surviving the revolution a stroke of good or ill fortune? Even now, I cannot say I know the answer to that question.”

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