Dylan Suher reviews The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Ji Xianlin

Translated from the Chinese by Chenxin Jiang (New York Review Books, 2016)

On August 26, 1966, a Shanghai resident, bewildered by government-backed gangs of youths ransacking homes and beating people in the streets, wrote in his diary: “I can't explain what the actual task of the Red Guards is supposed to be. I don't know, and that's it.” Fifty years later, as we seek to understand the disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), our guess is as good as his. Confusion just as much as terror was the order of the day, and the historical record remains murky. The Cultural Revolution began with little fanfare, as a minor political dust-up over a stage play that Mao felt was critical of his leadership, but quickly expanded into a nationwide political campaign against his rivals in the Party. The unprecedented scale and anarchy of the campaign caught Mao's rivals by surprise, which was precisely Mao's aim; modeling himself on the Monkey King Sun Wukong, the mischievous deity who challenged the Jade Emperor in the novel Journey to the West, Mao declared that he wanted to “create havoc in heaven.” And indeed, havoc ensued: the schools were emptied so that the students could criticize and attack their teachers and other “bourgeois authorities,” and the economy was brought to a standstill as political factions warred in the streets. As the Revolution proceeded, the political campaigns became more extreme and less explicable. In the campaign against the “May 16 Conspiracy,” over three million people were arrested in connection with a treasonous conspiracy that seems to have been entirely fictional. After the Revolution subsided, the new guard that took power—largely the old guard that Mao had sought to ouster—were dedicated to reestablishing order. They arrested the highest-ranking extremists (the so-called “Gang of Four”), and purged the most egregious offenders at the local level, often with the same arbitrariness and brutality that characterized the purges during the Cultural Revolution. However, they left many of those who participated untouched, and after issuing an official report vaguely condemning the “mistakes” of the Cultural Revolution, they closed the book on the whole disaster. To this day, the official archives on the Cultural Revolution remain firmly sealed. What began in obscurity is now consigned to historical oblivion.

Amid the chaos, ordinary citizens struggled to predict the shifting political winds. The interpretation of vague injunctions from propaganda organs to “bombard the headquarters” and “seize power” was left to the people on the ground. The right political moves could lead to a stratospheric promotion. Wang Hongwen, for instance, was a minor functionary at a cotton factory in Shanghai and the first worker savvy enough to put up a “big character poster” (a poster criticizing insufficiently revolutionary authorities). Six months later, as the head of the Worker's Revolutionary Rebels General Headquarters, he was one of the most powerful men in all of Shanghai, and by the end of the decade, he had managed to become Mao's presumed successor. While some gladly took the opportunity to further their own careers, most people just feared making the wrong move. Those perceived as reactionary or insufficiently revolutionary were targeted for nightly interrogations, humiliations, and beatings. Hundreds of thousands died in the political violence of the Cultural Revolution. With their lives on the line, the average Chinese person sought simply to fulfill her expected political role. Analyzing the Beijing Red Guard movement, a headache-inducing multitude of groups with fiercely revolutionary names and no clear political platform, the sociologist Andrew Walder concluded that the Red Guards were not “fighting over the status quo. They were fighting not to lose.”

In The Cowshed, the bracing memoir of the Cultural Revolution recently released by New York Review Books, Ji Xianlin testifies not only to the brutality, malice, and cynicism of the movement, but also to its absolute confusion. The book catalogues all the events that, even decades later, Ji does not understand.  When Mao commends a big-character poster put up in Peking University as a “Marxist-Leninist poster,” Ji, a prominent Indologist at the institution, is flummoxed: “I didn't know what a Marxist-Leninist poster was back then and still don't know.” He does not know why a crowd is protesting in front of a high-ranking general's home, but he tags along anyway. Ji eventually decides to involve himself more actively in the Revolution, and joins one of the two feuding factions on the Peking University campus. Unfortunately for Ji, he picks the weaker faction. Targeted by the rival “New Beida” faction and dubbed a counterrevolutionary, he is imprisoned on the campus of Peking University in a ramshackle “cowshed.” There the mysteries become more sinister. He does not know why one of his fellow prisoners has her arm broken during a nightly interrogation and does not dare to ask. He does not know who invented the “airplane” position (standing, bent over at the waist, with arms extending back as far as they can go) used to torture him and his fellow counterrevolutionaries. As he bitterly notes, “to this day, no one has come forward to patent it.” Finally, and most bleakly, having survived to tell the tale, Ji is still unsure decades later whether surviving the Cultural Revolution was “a stroke of good or ill fortune.”

In an irony he confronts repeatedly, Ji and his colleagues at Peking University, for all their learning, had no greater understanding of the Cultural Revolution than anyone else. Ji's memoir is filled with quotations, metaphors, and allusions to Chinese culture, from the fourteenth-century novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the fourth century poet Tao Yuanming to the eighteenth century Yongzheng emperor. In one grim chapter, Ji, preparing to kill himself, researches the most popular methods of suicide throughout history, starting with the legendary poet Qu Yuan. Imitating a technique popular among Chinese historians, Ji devises a unifying theory to explain the senseless degradations and abuses of the “cowshed”: “the law of maximum torment.” According to “the law of maximum torment,” everything the Red Guards did, including forced marches and beating prisoners who did not manage to memorize paragraphs written by Mao, was aimed not at any political goal, but only at inflicting the maximum amount of pain possible. These references and pseudo-theories are all deployed sardonically. No theory or precedent explains the Cultural Revolution, just as no amount of learning could prevent or attenuate its brutality. On the contrary, Ji observes, all that knowledge may have only created a more refined form of cruelty. With black sarcasm, he wonders if any of the Red Guards had attended his lectures, since the “cowshed” so resembled Buddhist hell. If so, he concludes, “the decades I spent teaching at Peking University were not in vain.”

Yet Ji's memoir has at least one great insight, still disappointingly rare in Cultural Revolution literature: that not everyone in the Cultural Revolution was a victim, and that some were more responsible for the suffering than others. Ji usually refers to people by their last names only, but he insists on identifying those he sees as opportunists and sadists by their full names. Ji calls out Nie Yuanzi, for instance, who wrote the first big-character poster and whose group of Red Guards first used violence. And we also learn the full name of Zhang Guoxiang who, with a smile on his face, beat Ji savagely with a bicycle chain wrapped in rubber.

And Ji acknowledges that he himself was not blameless. When the university president Lu Ping was attacked as a “reactionary,” Ji joined in, putting aside his collegial relationship with Lu Ping for what he believed to be the national interest. Ji was motivated to join the minority faction at Peking University out of a personal animosity toward Nie Yuanzi, who led the rival faction. Once immersed in factional politics, he participated as vociferously in the verbal abuse as anyone else. Ji holds himself responsible for his political naiveté, and feels he can only atone for his errors by recording his experience of the Cultural Revolution: “If no one wrote about this disaster, our children's children wouldn't learn from our mistakes, and the next time a similar situation arose, someone else would do something equally stupid and brutal.”

Here we should acknowledge the translator Chenxin Jiang [full disclosure: Jiang serves as a senior editor for this journal], who, by translating Ji's memoirs, aids him in his mission to make sure future generations are aware of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Ironically, Jiang's decision to translate this work into English will allow for it to be taught to Chinese students studying abroad in classrooms in which the Cultural Revolution can be freely discussed. Furthermore, Jiang's translation captures excellently Ji's bitter, mordant wit without overplaying the jokes. It should be noted, however, that Jiang's translation reins in much of the allusive and elegant style of the original. For example, a line Jiang translates as “We were about to be herded into the prison we had built with our own hands,” (我们亲手把牛棚建成了,我们被“请君入瓮”了), could be literally translated as “Having built the cowshed with our own hands, we were 'invited into the urn.'” The phrase 'invite the gentleman into the urn' (请君入瓮), which Jiang excises entirely, is what's known as a chengyu. These four-character-long idioms are everywhere in refined Chinese writing (to the great frustration of the student of Chinese). This particular chengyu can be roughly translated as “get a taste of your own medicine,” and it refers to an episode related in the eleventh-century history Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, in which the early Tang official Lai Junchen asks another official, Zhou Xing, to recommend a torture method. Once Zhou recommends placing the prisoner in an urn heated over a fire, Lai reveals to Zhou that he has been implicated in a treasonous plot, and “invites the gentleman into the urn.” How much of this information should a translator provide? Clearly providing all of it would make the book unreadably dense, just as it brings this review to a screeching halt. Nor would it faithfully represent the feel of reading the original; a Chinese reader might understand the idiom perfectly well without knowing its origin. At the same time however, it is precisely this kind of cultural information that entices people to read literature from other parts of the world, and while Jiang could not have represented all the allusions and rhythms of the original in her translation, I do wish at some points that the balance were shifted more toward fidelity rather than economy.

According to a banal anecdote that is unfortunately still often quoted, Henry Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai in 1972 what impact the French Revolution had had on Western civilization as a whole. Zhou was famously said to have responded, in a clear allusion to the Cultural Revolution, “Too soon to tell.” His response is often held up as an example for the caution, patience, and sagacity for which the Premier is known both domestically and abroad. But like that reputation, the story is actually just self-serving nonsense. First, the anecdote is apocryphal: Zhou apparently thought Kissinger was asking about the events of May 1968. But even if Zhou were commenting on the French Revolution, his answer would merely testify to the moral cowardice that characterized Zhou's career. Just as the verdict on the French Revolution was clear to the innocents on the scaffold, neither was it too soon to judge the Cultural Revolution for those who endured nightly interrogation and humiliation, or for those whose family members were beaten and left to die in the street. The fact that historical understanding only comes belatedly does not excuse anyone from moral responsibility—if it did, it would excuse everyone.

Those rare perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution who are held responsible now ask for a perpetually suspended sentence from history. Nie Yuanzi, still alive at the ripe old age of ninety-five, tells anyone who will listen that she was a pawn, and that, having spent nineteen years in prison, she too was a victim. It is impossible now to correct every injustice inflicted over the course of that horrible decade, but it is possible to refute the claims of people like Nie that they had no choice but to swim with the current of history, and that they did nothing but what everyone else did. Not everyone was without malice; not everyone was, as Andrew Walder put it, fighting not to lose. Nie and many like her, eager for personal advancement, pounced on their personal rivals. Indifferent to the pain of others, they were savage even when they could afford to be merciful. They did not hesitate but instead rushed to conform to, and in many cases even exceed, political dictates that ruined lives, the meaning and purpose of which neither they nor their leaders understood. In the bleakest of ironies, their behavior fit perfectly Marx's definition of ideology: they did not know what they were doing, but they were doing it.