In the 1990s, something odd happened in Beijing’s burgeoning fine dining scene. Among the chic eateries, restaurants emerged with very simple dishes: meat and vegetables cooked in plain style with few frills. The diners were not there just for the cuisine, but to relive the experience of a period generally considered a disaster: the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The plain dishes were meant to invoke a time of restrained, austere living, when people thought of the collective rather than the individual. Only the sky-high prices reminded diners that they were living in a time of Chinese capitalism.
This recasting of the Cultural Revolution as a period deserving of nostalgia began in the 1990s, but it is still in full swing, and it shapes a struggle for ownership of history in today’s China. In Red Memory, Tania Branigan tells a dark, gripping tale of battles between Chinese whose views of the period – violent nightmare or socialist utopia? – still divide family and friends. Branigan was the Guardian’s China correspondent between 2008 and 2015, and during those years interviewed people whose lives were formed, for good or ill, by the Cultural Revolution. This book is not primarily about what happened, but the way that memories of that time shape, and distort, the very different China of today.
Branigan speaks to people who suffered from the attacks of the youthful Red Guards in the first years after the storm broke in 1966; their stories of being beaten for “crimes” such as knowing foreign languages or wearing “bourgeois” clothes are no less powerful for being familiar. Less well-known are the memories of many who experienced a kind of liberation during those years; free cross-country train travel for youths (“the Great Link-up”) let them see China in revolution on an epic scale.
But the most disturbing element of her story is the refusal of perpetrators, even half a century later, to take responsibility for their actions. The most chilling case is a man named Zhang Hongbing, whose mother was executed as a counter-revolutionary. Zhang takes Branigan to his mother’s grave, rather jarringly crying for forgiveness while bragging that he has brought the Guardian to come and see her. But the real shock is how she died. She had become disillusioned with Mao and even ripped down the picture of him in their home. Unprompted, Zhang and the other members of his family denounced her to the Communist party, knowing that she would be arrested and shot. Zhang now feels remorse, yet he still seeks to divert blame. His mother, he said, should take some responsibility because she “hadn’t told us that as a person you should have independent thinking”.
Similarly, friends of Song Binbin, a Red Guard who denounced a teacher, Bian Zhongyun, who was beaten to death in Beijing in 1966, try to argue that Song was a victim as much as the dead instructor. The party has acknowledged the Cultural Revolution as a dreadful mistake, but its implication that nobody was individually to blame, and its refusal to allow detailed research in China on the topic, has allowed the generation who lived through it to remain hazy about causes and consequences too.
Branigan ends with an excellent analysis of how contemporary Chinese politicians seek to mimic the Cultural Revolution while following very different paths. She recalls Bo Xilai, who ran the mega-city of Chongqing until 2012 with an ideology based on “singing red” (encouraging mass performance of Cultural Revolution-era songs such as The East Is Red) and “smashing black” (destroying organised crime gangs). But her main attention is on President Xi Jinping. Xi, she notes, seeks to create a cult of personality that can look like the kind of semi-religious devotion demanded by Mao. Yet unlike Mao, who delighted in the chaos that he had unleashed during the Cultural Revolution, Xi has clamped down on any signs of grassroots activism. Shaped by his own experience of rural exile in those years, Xi clearly has no intention of letting any kind of uncontrolled politics return to China.
In the years that Branigan reported from China, there were still cracks in the authoritarian system that allowed her to collect stories that went against the official grain. By the time she left, the new crime of “historical nihilism” made it much harder to recover those memories. That makes the preservation of oral histories outside China even more crucial.
One of Branigan’s interviewees was Wang Youqin. In 1966, Wang was a schoolgirl who witnessed the hounding of Bian Zhongyun. Her response was to gather oral histories of the period, which are published next month as Victims of the Cultural Revolution in a lucid translation by Stacy Mosher. Her book is less a narrative and more a chronicle of deaths until now untold. Her teacher’s death is described, but so are countless others, mostly far less high-profile, like the 60-year-old Li Jingpo, who worked at the elite Jingshan high school in Beijing and was killed in August 1966. But he was not a teacher or administrator: he was just the doorman. Being a bona fide proletarian didn’t save him from the students who used to call him “Uncle Li”. Wang’s account of what happened during one of China’s darkest moments is a powerful companion to Branigan’s compelling account of why it still haunts the very different country of today.
• Rana Mitter is author of China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism. He is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University
• Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply