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Book Review on Tania Branigan's Red Memory

发表于 5-20-2023 12:28:31 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式
Stephen R Platt, The Chairman's children. The terrors of the Cultural Revolution lurk behind the Chinese government's claims of harmonious, orderly leadership. Mao Zedong was the movement's omnipresent symbol. Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2023, at page C7.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/red ... ill-echoes-6c02e9ea
(book review on Tania Branigan, Red Memory; The afterlives of China's Cultural Revolution. WW Norton & Co, May 9, 2023)

(a) "in 1970, a woman named Fang Zhongmou [方忠谋]"

律师文革时举报母亲致其被枪决 10年后案子平反. 新京报, Aug 7, 2013
(photo caption about the son: "张红兵 59岁,北京博圣律师事务所律师。原名张铁夫,1966年自己改名张红兵")
(b) "A privately built museum of the Cultural Revolution [汕頭文革博物馆] in Guangdong province where Ms Branigan, trailed by plainclothes police, fails to gain entry. A park where former 'Educated Youth [知识青年,简称知青]' meet regularly to reminisce about their lives of deprivation in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution's later years."
(c) "This is all part of Xi Jinping's crackdown on what he calls 'historical nihilism [历史虚无主义; zh.wikipedia.org says the term started in 1974]'—an Orwellian phrase that means its own opposite. 'Nihilism,' in Xi Jinping's usage, means believing any version of China's history that differs from the Party's carefully curated narrative. To believe in anything but what the Party tells you is to believe in nothing."

One evening in 1970, a woman named Fang Zhongmou reached the end of her patience with the Cultural Revolution. She had put up with the torture and beating of her husband by adolescent Red Guards for being an alleged “capitalist.” Bowing to their demands, she had even denounced her husband herself, before they beat him until his urine turned red. This same woman had tolerated years of interrogations at her workplace based on charges that her father was a landlord. She suffered all this without once speaking out against the architect of the chaos that was engulfing China: Chairman Mao.

But on that night in 1970, while doing laundry at home, something gave way. She launched into a tirade against Mao. There was no one there to hear her except her son. That was enough. “If you go against my dear Chairman Mao,” he told her, “I will smash your dog head.” He reported her. Officials took her away, and two months of violent “struggle sessions” followed—Fang on her knees, a sign around her neck, beaten, shouted at, denounced. Then, like countless others, she was executed.

This son who sent his mother to her death is one of Tania Branigan’s many compelling subjects in “Red Memory,” a book about how the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 is remembered in China today. In this case, the son grew up to be a guilt-ridden adult who has tried to preserve the derelict site of his mother’s execution from encroaching development. “Mother! I’ve come!” he shouts when he brings the foreign reporter to her grave.

The Cultural Revolution is the monster that lurks behind the Communist Party’s claims of harmonious, orderly leadership in China. Under Mao’s direction, fanatical youth turned on their teachers, their parents, all figures of authority. This was an era of torture and violence, committed in many cases by mere children. Nobody was safe—perpetrators became victims, and victims took revenge. As many as two million died, and tens of millions had their lives destroyed.

Mao was the Cultural Revolution’s omnipresent symbol—millions marched with his Little Red Book held high, and the violence was committed in his name. The party attempted to diminish his stature after his death in 1976, but never renounced him fully. His portrait still hangs over Tiananmen Square, his face still graces China’s currency.

In the early decades after Mao’s death, reams of anguished memoirs and “scar literature” gave a voice to the Cultural Revolution’s victims, but those public reckonings have long faded. In “Red Memory” the author explores how people in 21st-century China continue to process a collective trauma that the government would prefer to erase, even as the Party itself cannot put Mao behind it. The book unfolds as a series of portraits of people and settings tied to the events from half a century ago.

A Red Guard cemetery in Chongqing—the only official site of commemoration in the country—that is almost never open to the public. A privately built museum of the Cultural Revolution in Guangdong province where Ms. Branigan, trailed by plainclothes police, fails to gain entry. A park where former “Educated Youth” meet regularly to reminisce about their lives of deprivation in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution’s later years. An internet site where former Red Guards share their stories. Most jarring, perhaps, is the nostalgia for the era she observed—themed restaurants, Mao impersonators who rent themselves out for birthday parties (“what was not permissible as history in China,” Ms. Branigan notes, “was allowed as entertainment”).

The stories the author relates are not, strictly speaking, secrets—most of the people Ms. Branigan interviews are already looking for listeners; they want to be heard, to perform, to share, to connect—and she gives them the opportunity to do that for a foreign audience. This is a book about their search for meaning, even when the search comes up short. A music composer who was savagely tortured tells Ms. Branigan that he used to think there was some catharsis at work behind the violence, a correction of some kind to help bind people together. But there was not. “I wasn’t helping them at all,” he said of his tormentors. “They just wanted to beat us to death.”

Ms. Branigan is a sympathetic narrator, but not a naive one. She notes that the Educated Youth who gather in the park had not been sent down to the countryside together; no one can correct them if the stories they tell are wrong or incomplete. When talking to the son who sent his mother to her death, she detects a note of insincerity in the self-flagellation of his older age. (“My reservations began with Zhang’s tears, and my own dry eyes,” she says.) But she recognizes that even the most self-serving renditions of the past can have profound meaning for those who believe them. “We think of remembering as retrieval,” she writes, “but in fact it is an act of creation.”

The reporting in this book was gathered between 2008 and 2015, when Ms. Branigan was a Guardian correspondent in China. Poignantly, she observes that she could not have conducted such interviews today. In the past several years, even greater pressure has come down on those who wish to remember a past the Party wants to forget. People who spoke freely with her 10 years ago might not risk doing so today. The internet sites of commemoration have been shut down. This is all part of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on what he calls “historical nihilism”—an Orwellian phrase that means its own opposite. “Nihilism,” in Xi Jinping’s usage, means believing any version of China’s history that differs from the Party’s carefully curated narrative. To believe in anything but what the Party tells you is to believe in nothing.

But the past, as Ms. Branigan shows in this evocative book, is not so easy to suppress. The cover image of “Red Memory” depicts a ceramic souvenir of the Cultural Revolution. Two Red Guards with rosy cheeks are flanked by a worker brandishing what looks like the shaft of an ax. At their feet, an ashen-haired man kneels, eyes down, his lowered head hung with a sign. (As Ms. Branigan notes in the book, those signs could be heavy, and were strung with thin wire that lacerated the neck.) The perversely cheerful figurine is an example of what Ms. Branigan calls the “red, bright and shining” art that the Communist Party prefers. But it evokes nostalgia only if the viewer identifies with the joy of the Red Guards, not the suffering of their victim. All the same, the figurine captures something essential about the memory of the Cultural Revolution today: not forgotten, but remembered publicly only in a sanitized caricature, even as the trauma of the victims quietly endures. In its bright and shining form, history is turned into kitsch. Inside the colorful trinket, a dark force nevertheless remains, alive and brooding, like a genie trapped in a bottle.

Mr. Platt, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.”

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