The Communist party of China has an intrinsically fraught relationship with history, which it variously comprehends as a mirror (reflecting back uncomfortable truths) or war (a determined battle for ideological supremacy). But mostly, says Guardian journalist and former China correspondent Tania Branigan, the party views history as a tool. “It can be adjusted as necessary yet appears solid and immutable: today’s imperatives seem graven in stone, today’s facts the outcome of a logical, inexorable process. Life as it is meant to be.”
When the facts don’t fit the script, as Branigan illustrates over and again in this glorious, patchworked study of the legacy of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s leaders are brazen in enforcing forgetfulness. There is a long precedent for such edicts, she notes, citing the Qin dynasty eunuch described as “presenting a deer and calling it a horse, to find out which officials would obey without question. Some were quick to agree with him; he had the others executed.”
The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, heralded a decade of hysteria, upheaval and relentless persecution. But it is now barely mentioned in Chinese textbooks, never mind that in 1981 the 11th party congress defined it as a historical “catastrophe”. At the National Museum in Beijing the display case devoted to mobile phone tech overshadows the dingy corner commemorating the Cultural Revolution. There’s nothing there about the mobs of marauding youths who killed artists, teachers and members of the pre-revolutionary elite, all branded class enemies; the scholars who hanged themselves or the party veterans who jumped out of windows. Following Mao’s death there was a brief glut of “scar literature” which honestly recounted the events of the period. But as China turned in on itself anew, a wall of silence fell. Victims and perpetrators alike were obliged to live with their trauma. Elsewhere, indifference became a form of self-defence.
Branigan arrived in China to report for the Guardian at a fortuitous moment in 2008, when people refused to remain silent about what they’d been through – or done. Moved by suffering and by guilt, they met in groups to air the wounds of the past, took to blogging to grieve for lost loved ones or to apologise for crimes once styled as patriotic acts. Branigan left in 2015, knowing that if she had embarked on this monumental project then, in the era of President Xi Jinping, people would have refused to speak to her. We’re lucky to have, then, this richly polyphonic testimony to the power of memory, to recollection as repair. Using methods popularised by Svetlana Alexievich, Branigan interviewed dozens of people many times, over many hours, distilling their experiences and interweaving them with deeply informed analysis of her own.
She met middle-aged women who told her about a teacher beaten to death by her pupils during the madness of Red August. How she was dragged on to a stage in shackles and struck with a nailed club. How this abuse continued after she collapsed, was hauled to her feet and kicked down again. Other teachers had boiling water poured over them, or their heads dunked in glue.
Loyalty to Mao trumped everything for those Red Guards who crisscrossed the country by train, meting out rough justice to anyone suspected of lacking ideological purity. Branigan interviews one man who had mercilessly denounced his mother, condemning her to death. He had believed her to be a “monster”, but now he was full of remorse.
Fed up with the chaos stirred up by the Guards, Mao decided to banish 17 million young people to remote country villages, there to be remade: poor farmers would be the engine of his revolution. Half a century on, most remember poverty and misery, the loneliness of being torn from home, unwanted by their hosts who saw them as just an extra mouth to feed. Millions spent years stuck in rural limbo, unable to get back to the city. When they did return they felt like aliens, their adolescence and education stolen (after Mao’s death there was a surge in university applications). President Xi is unusual in mythologising his rural upbringing in Shaanxi province, hauling coal carts, carrying manure, building dykes – enduring the cold, fleas and bad diet while reading books at night. But then, as numerous commentators point out, Xi is resolutely building a personality cult of his own. Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s leaders promised that “never again would a strongman ride roughshod over his peers”. Yet a national amnesia seems to have set in once more.
Of course, China is not the only country to engage in studied forgetting. The US has largely rubbed from its national conscience the mass extinction of Indigenous populations. The British have selective amnesia when it comes to the sins of empire, applauding themselves for exporting railways and education while neglecting to talk about bleeding its colonies dry of resources. The difference is that China turned its murderous ire on its own people, brainwashing them with propaganda, drip-fed for years, leading them to tear each other limb from limb. We saw it in Rwanda, too, a hate-mongering that led one half of the population to set upon the other, leaving 800,000 dead. But while Rwanda began its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in 1999, China has witnessed no such internal reparation.
Branigan’s book is investigative journalism at its best, its hard-won access eliciting deep insight. The result is a survey of China’s invisible scars that makes essential reading for anyone seeking to better understand the nation today.
• Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.