Journey to China
Justice to a Small Potato
Thoughtcrime at the Museum of the Cultural Revolution
“If it’s difficult to establish the truth, there’s a reason: 37 years after the Cultural Revolution, it’s still impossible to research, discuss or publish about it freely in China.”
—New York Times, February 2, 2013
“Everything is turning upside down. I love great upheavals.”
—Mao Zedong, 1966
By Jennifer Ruth
ost of what I know about the Cultural Revolution that doesn’t come from books comes from Yee Jinping, who goes by the English name Jonathan. (Some names and locations have been changed at the request of individuals.) Jonathan teaches English in Guangdong Province. When on a Fulbright in China in 2008, I’d submitted a list of lecture topics for distribution to Chinese Universities. If a topic interested a Chinese professor, they asked me to their university, and I met Jonathan when he asked me to his. Were I less green to China, I would have hesitated to accept an invitation to Kaochow University. It’s a backwater, both academically and geographically. In fact, as I learned later, it is not even on the list of approved universities to invite an American professor. Jonathan petitioned Beijing for special permission.
Getting to Kaochow is a headache. From Wuhan, where I was teaching, the trip took sixteen hours: a flight to Shenzhen, a taxi ride to the bus station, extended purgatory in said station, and then an eight-hour bus ride. It was worth it. The Kaochow students’ excitement at hearing a native speaker was touching, and Jonathan’s delight in giving this to his students was itself moving. When Jonathan talks about his students, it’s clear that in some important way he identifies with them, though in most respects he could not be more different. The students are hardscrabble kids from rural families, while Jonathan is a classical pianist and longtime New Yorker subscriber. For that matter, Jonathan and I are also quite different—a gracious single Chinese man in his fifties, a loud American mother of two in her thirties (and now forties)—but his friendship has become very real and important to me. When, two years after meeting Jonathan during my Fulbright trip, I decided to visit the Museum of the Cultural Revolution in Shantou, China, I asked Jonathan to go with me. This article is—eventually—about that trip.
A balding, bespectacled man in his early fifties, Jonathan is average height for a man in China, and heavier than most, but sturdily so. (He swims regularly.) He is soft-spoken and appears to hold himself apart, as if bemused by the messiness of life. This impression he gives of handling the world from a measured distance is somehow reassuring rather than off-putting.
His academic career began promisingly in 1982, when he began teaching at Chengdu University. In 1983, however, a student reported him for straying outside the approved curriculum during the campaign against spiritual pollution. Jonathan was teaching Saul Bellow’s Herzog and the student—almost certainly someone applying for Party membership—seized the chance to ingratiate himself to higher-ups. The Dean summoned Jonathan to his office and demanded he surrender all his banned Western novels. Jonathan refused. “The Cultural Revolution is over,” Jonathan said, “This is my private property.” “You do not have the party in your eyes,” the Dean retorted. When he relays this exchange, it is clear Jonathan has replayed the moment many times over the years. He says now, “If he had asked me, maybe I would have given him the books. But he ordered me.” This came off at first like odd bravado, but I’ve come to understand that when Jonathan says things like this, he makes an important point. The Dean treated him as if he were a child. There is nothing unusual in that, given the absolute authority wielded by the Party, but by interpreting the Dean’s behavior as if it were a breach of etiquette, Jonathan retained his dignity. By force of will, Jonathan has kept alive in himself a reality separate from the one he inhabits.
Sure enough, within months of the exchange, Jonathan was sent to a more obscure institution thousands of miles south. A similar incident occurred there in the 1990s, dropping him further down the academic ladder—to Kaochow University. “If you don’t drink the respectful wine, you’ll drink the punishing wine,’” he once remarked with a rueful smile. At the time, he was referring to things that happened to people in general during the Cultural Revolution, but the expression also applies to his life.
n 2008, Jonathan met me in Shenzhen so he could chaperone me to Kaochow. On that bus-ride, our paraphernalia (iPod, pistachios, sunglasses) slipping off our laps to be repeatedly retrieved from under the seats, we talked about his childhood. Jonathan’s experience of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 was typical for a city youth from a “good” family background. A ten-year-old when the Revolution began, he remembers the teachers reading aloud scripted denouncements of specific writers and actors. Later, workers from the factories showed up at school to quote Chairman Mao to them. “Many of them were barely literate, and stumbled over the words,” Jonathan told me. From there, school life devolved into chaos. “School was a jungle,” he explained. “If you were from a bad family background but were tall and strong, people left you alone. If you were from a bad family background and were little, you got beaten up.” Once it became obvious that normal life was indefinitely suspended, Jonathan stayed home and read books. I asked if he attended the numerous struggle sessions that occurred in the streets and other public places during that time. “Sure, sure,” he said, “Too many to count. Let me put it this way: very often. The tragedy is that you could not not attend. Otherwise people might turn on you.” When I asked if a person risked attracting suspicion if they did not participate in the struggle sessions, he mildly repeated, “Sure, sure.” After a long silence he glanced quickly at me sideways and added, “I did not beat anyone up.”
When he turned 17, he was sent to the countryside to labor alongside peasants in the people’s communes. This was ostensibly for educational purposes but, really, there were no jobs and nothing for the city kids to do once they were too old to call themselves students. ‘The CCP always works,” he said, and then said a word I couldn’t make out. About once every two or three hours, I don’t understand an English word he uses, either because of his pronunciation or because he’s using it in an unusual context, so we bat the word back and forth until we settle on what he means. In this case it was “surreptitiously.” “The CCP always works surreptitiously.”
Food at Jonathan’s commune, as at all of them, was scarce, but he survived by spending longer days in the fields earning extra yams. (Yams were the only food available. Unlike the other crops, which were rushed to the cities upon harvesting, they spoiled too quickly to be transported.) I had assumed that everyone got the same ration of food regardless of the type or amount of work they did on the commune. In my mind, the disconnect between what one did and what one got was a central feature of communism. “Maybe money didn’t change hands,” I stubbornly said to Jonathan that day, as if we were in economics class rather than on a bus inching through southern China, “but that’s basically wage-labor capitalism.” He gave me a look—the facial equivalent of a shrug. “Anyhow,” he said proudly, “the point is I survived.” I remember feeling irritated. He had lived when others died through no fault of their own. What was there to feel self-satisfied about in that?
Jonathan worked longer hours at the commune than the others, and steeled his mind against his teenage hormones. The “good girls and boys,” Jonathan said, avoided falling in love, because any hint of romance or sexuality would get them in trouble—love itself was bourgeois, after all.
Mao famously said women hold up half the sky, but this only meant they could be expected to work the same hours as men. It did not mean they were liberated from harsh sexual double standards. The girls were caught in the bind hypocrisy breeds everywhere sexism thrives: they were damned if they became involved with a peer, but becoming involved with a cadre might be of some benefit. “Often,” Jonathan told me, “girls slept with officials in order to escape the countryside. Of course, this was very risky, because before a girl could leave the commune, a doctor had to verify she was a virgin.” This stunned me more than the fact that some girls felt desperate enough to trade sex for an opportunity to leave. “For a girl to get permission to leave, a doctor had to examine her and report on whether or not she was a virgin?” I repeated. “Sure, sure,” Jonathan replied. Both of us studied the profiles of the people sitting in front of us, because we didn’t want to look at each other, and also to make sure they weren’t listening. “Did the boys have to do the same?” I asked indignantly. Jonathan laughed. “No, of course not.” Then he said something that I went on to think about for the next few years. Shaking his head, in an even quieter tone of voice than usual, he said, “What happened to that poor girl.” That’s all. An incomplete sentence. “What happened? What happened to that poor girl?” I asked. He fumbled around for a Snickers bar in his backpack and handed it to me, saying that he knew Americans liked those.
I remember feeling queasy. “You just now started to say something about that poor girl, right? Didn’t you say that?” I insisted. “Really, that is something...that is something too terrible,” he answered. A feeling of unreality washed over me. “Please tell me,” I said, ashamed but at the same time convinced that we had wandered where normal rules no longer applied. He looked out the window. “When the bus stops for lunch, I’ll tell you.” We watched the rice paddies pass by, dotted with the occasional water buffalo.
The bus stopped a half-hour later at a sweaty roadside stand to eat. I waited for Jonathan to tell me about the poor girl, but he didn’t. Sitting there, while he ate noodles stir-fried with some kind of meat and I drank soda that looked like Orange Fanta and tasted like pepto-bismol, I wanted to remind him, but didn’t. Instead I told him about a discussion I’d had with my class of literature students, a graduate class at the Chinese University where I’d been posted. We were beginning the novel Beloved and I’d asked, not entirely innocently: “Who is the Chinese Toni Morrison? Someone who does for, say, the Tiananmen Massacre or the Cultural Revolution what Morrison did for America’s history of slavery?” Someone mentioned the title of a novel about the Nanjing Massacre. “But that’s an event that brought, and continues to bring, the Chinese nation together against an outsider—the Japanese. I’m talking about the kinds of catastrophes that threaten to tear a nation apart from the inside,” I’d said, referring them again to the Cultural Revolution. Someone explained that there had been a brief period in the 1980s when people wrote about the Cultural Revolution, but that the Party then placed a ban on the subject. I asked Jonathan a question I’d had since that day with my students: “Why did the Party ban writing about the Cultural Revolution when they’d already pinned the blame for it on the Gang of Four [Mao’s wife Jiang Ching and three officials]? By blaming this group, hadn’t they exonerated the party as a whole? What were they afraid of?”
Jonathan explained that the Party’s line is that it is too early to talk about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “Deng Xiaoping said, ‘Let our grandchildren talk about it,’” Jonathan said. “But the grandchildren won’t be able to, because they won’t have heard anything about it!” I objected. “Anyhow, the point is,” Jonathan replied, “if we talk about it, we might realize that nothing has changed. The system is still fundamentally the same.”
At Kaochow, the taxi dropped me at what Jonathan assured me was the city’s fanciest hotel, a well-appointed but soulless place with a lobby full of men smoking cigarettes. An hour later, Jonathan collected me for a dinner with other faculty. Ushered into the private room of a restaurant, we talked about the local weather, local delicacies, and local industries. At one point I brought up the Opium Wars, but Jonathan waved a hand at me to cut me off. Later, he told me that such unpleasant things are not discussed at dinner.
Walking around downtown Kaochow after dinner, I mentioned Mao, curious to see what the men would say. Only one responded. “Mao was a great, great man. We owe him everything. Take, for example, this beautiful city,” he said, sweeping his arm to indicate the surrounding area. And the night scene was indeed idyllic. A breeze off the coast bathed the town square. Parents strolled with children licking ice-cream cones. Middle-aged and elderly people practiced dance steps near a large water fountain. “We would have none of this without Mao,” he concluded. I replied with the Party’s official line: “I think Mao was 70% good and 30% bad.” Since this is sanctioned sentiment I thought it would go over well, but the man frowned at me. There is no other way to describe the expression on his face—an almost cartoon-like frown with disapproving eyes, furrowed brow and downturned lips. He probably thought I had missed his point, which perhaps I had, or that I was mocking him. Were I to trot out the 70/30 platitude now, I would be. At that time, though, my ignorance made me sincere. Someone quickly changed the subject.
I gave lectures at other Chinese universities that spring, but the audience of Kaochow students the following day was the biggest and most attentive. About 150 students stayed admirably upright while the guy who had frowned at me fell asleep in the front row. When I’d finished talking, one student asked, “Are you scared when you go to class?” I stared at him. “Aren’t you scared, with all the shootings at universities in America?” he explained. Oh. “No, I’m not scared,” I answered, though I acknowledged the ridiculous inadequacy of gun control in the United States. Next question. I pointed to a slight woman in the back whose voice carried forward with surprising force. “Is it true that women in America have sex with men they don’t love?” People tittered. Frowning guy sat up in his seat. The girl looked at me bravely, without a trace of a smile, so I took a breath and gave her a straight answer. “Yes,” I said, “American women can enjoy sex without necessarily being in love. But I imagine that American women are not so different from women anywhere, and women not so different from men, and that it is hard for anyone to feel the things one feels in sex without starting to have feelings for the person who’s helping you feel those things.” Nobody asked a question about anything I’d spoken about in the lecture.
“They didn’t understand any of it,” I told Jonathan when he came up to me afterwards. I was red-faced at having misjudged the situation so drastically, discoursing on Victorian literary criticism to an audience with rudimentary English skills. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, smiling broadly and seeming genuinely pleased. “They got to see a real American professor, someone who stands up and talks about ideas without fear,” he said.
returned to Portland in early summer, but kept thinking about the Cultural Revolution. The documentary Though I am Gone was freely available on YouTube for a few years, and I watched it over and over that summer as if it were a riddle I had to solve. The film is about the first teacher killed in the Cultural Revolution—Bian Zhongyun. A vice-principal at an elite girls’ middle school in Beijing, she was bludgeoned to death with nail-spiked clubs by her students. She was forty-eight years old. She understood she was in danger—she’d been struggled against multiple times—but she had refused to leave Beijing. She had done nothing counterrevolutionary, after all. On the contrary, she was an enthusiastic Party member. In her satchel the day she died were five books: The Little Red Book, On Self-Cultivation of Party Members, Never Forget Class Struggle, and The Soul-Stirring Revolution.
“Men are taught that they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime,” Hannah Arendt wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism. One’s actual behavior had little or nothing to do with one’s fate during the Cultural Revolution. Mao ordered the police and the army to refrain from interfering with the actions of the Red Guards. After all, there is no need for laws to regulate people’s behavior when the much greater laws of history are working through the people: “The socialist system will eventually replace the capitalist system; this is an objective law independent of man’s will. However much the reactionaries try to hold back the wheel of history, sooner or later revolution will take place and will inevitably triumph,” Mao wrote in 1957. Around the same time Mao wrote these words, Arendt was busy explaining to the West that “totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong.” In Mao’s China, as in Stalin’s Soviet Union, as in Hitler’s Germany, some people were good because they were on the side of the future, and some bad because they embodied the past—they were labeled dying classes, or considered races unfit to live. Whatever is meant to be is what will have been. Under totalitarianism, man’s capacity for judgment—his potential to independently determine right from wrong—is beside the point.
Mao called for a new phase of revolution. Many of the very people who had made the 1949 liberation possible—men and women just like Vice-principal Bian Zhongyun—were henceforth to be considered dangerous, back-sliding bureaucrats. As China’s Minister of Public Security told police at the time, “If in anger [the Red Guards] beat some-one to death then so be it. If we say it is wrong, then we’ll be supporting bad persons. After all, bad persons are bad, so if they’re beaten to death it is no big deal!” Give the inherently ideologically correct young people the power to purge these parasites, this attitude suggested, and the socialist dream will be renewed. Lin Biao explained this at the Tshusan conference in 1966 by saying that since these young people had grown up post-Liberation, untainted by the corrupt and feudal past, their instincts were pure and to be trusted.
You might say that Mao created a situation in which people were not held accountable for their actions, but that would still be the naive American’s way of putting it. It’s not that people were not held accountable, in the way Americans commonly use that phrase when appalled by something like subprime lending. Rather, people were enjoined to overcome society’s prohibitions on violence in order to take part in the higher laws of dialectics. To succumb to pity or to shrink from beating the drowning dog—that is, to prefer non-violence to violence—was to reveal a bourgeois softness in oneself. It was to declare that one is on the wrong side of history, the walking dead. To make revolution, however, is to prove oneself alive and correct.
This meant, of course, that people got away with murder, but the less obvious consequence was that not only actions, but language itself disappeared down the rabbit hole. Holding people to positions they take is, it turns out, the only way such positions have any hope of enduring from one day to the next, rather than dissipating as soon as they form. It is the only way meaning can outlast rumor, propaganda, accusations of hypocrisy, and quick-reversals of policy. In the Cultural Revolution memoir My Name is Number Four, Ting-Xing Ye recounts being forced to yell, “Down with Lin Biao, the rightist traitor!” when only the day before, they’d all been told that “Whoever opposes Lin Biao or Chairman Mao is a counter-revolutionary. They are not the masses, but the enemies of the masses.” Reality blurs, mirage-like, in environments where cause-and-effect cannot be traced, where one cannot test one’s arguments against others, or even test one person’s opinion against the same person the next day. People change their mind in normal settings, of course, but these changes usually happen over time, in reaction to unfolding events, and it is the unforced evolution of one’s opinions that allows others (and oneself) to believe in their integrity even when they reverse themselves.
In Though I am Gone, Bian Zhongyun’s husband, Wang Jingyao, opens a suitcase and pulls out the clothes she was wearing the day the girls killed her. “Are you saving these for the future Cultural Revolution Museum?” the filmmaker Hu Jie asks from off camera. Wang Jingyao nods. Arendt writes, “We may reclaim our human dignity, win it back, as it were, from the pseudo-divinity named History of the modern age, without denying history its importance but denying its right to be the ultimate judge.” Of course history needs first to be recorded before it can be the material from which we make our independent judgments. The CCP has repeatedly refused Wang’s petitions to address his wife’s death, and when Hu Jie tried to show Though I am Gone in 2009, Beijing shut down the entire film festival of which it was a part rather than allow it to be screened. When journalist Tom Lasseter visited Wang Jingyao at his Beijing apartment in 2010, Lasseter wrote on his blog that Wang Jingyao asked him how many people might see the film and, thus, know his wife’s story. Lasseter wrote that he couldn’t bring himself to answer the question.
Sitting in my office one November day two years after returning to Portland, I happened upon a website that mentioned a Museum of the Cultural Revolution. I didn’t think one existed. I emailed Jonathan. “Will you come with me to the Museum of the Cultural Revolution this summer?” I asked.
SHANTOU, GUANGDONG PROVINCE, 2011
he Museum of the Cultural Revolution was created with private funds by Peng Qian, a vice-mayor of Shantou who used his own money and private donations to open the museum after he retired (“He had nothing to lose at that point, so he could do that,” Jonathan says.) Because he’d been a government official, Qian knew how to get permission. There is no law, after all, that prohibits the establishment of a museum. Qian is, however, forbidden to advertise the museum. (“The government wants us to look towards the future and forget the past,” Jonathan says.) There is no airport in Shantou, the city in southern China where the museum is located. There is no bus to the museum once you’re in the city. And it is located outside the city, where one cannot hail a taxicab. All of this meant that the only feasible plan was for us to hire a driver for 6 hours, so that he could take us to the museum and then wait for us while we visited. Our driver, as it happened, had lived through the revolution, and was excited we were going to the museum. He was always too busy to go himself, he said, and was glad to have this opportunity. I wondered if he’d think it strange that a Westerner was going, if he’d feel a foreigner was prying into his country’s dirty laundry, but he was not at all defensive. In fact, he was proud. He seemed so proud of what he called Shantou’s “long-standing revolutionary spirit” that I began to think that his idea of the museum was not my idea of the museum. “Does this man think the museum celebrates the Cultural Revolution?” I asked Jonathan. “Sure, sure,” he said. “There is probably a small minority of people in this country who look upon the Cultural Revolution as the glorious climax of their careers as revolutionaries. Everything has two sides.”
To get to the museum, you drive through a security gate at the bottom of a small mountain and then wind your way to the exhibits at the top. On the way to the top of the mountain, you pass a few branches off the main road where you can visit the graves of several hundred people who were killed, or who killed themselves, during the Cultural Revolution. The site was chosen, in fact, because of the large number of people buried here. When we got to the top, the driver parked his car in the vast lot, which was entirely empty except for two other private cars. There were no tour buses or schoolbuses or taxis like you see at the museums the Party considers important for “patriotic education.” After we’d unfolded ourselves from the car, Jonathan looked around and said, “So lonely a place.” “A very lonely place,” he repeated later, as if to make sure I’d noticed the fact that aside from one young family taking pictures of their toddling daughter in the parking lot, we were the only visitors. “No VIPS would want to be seen here,” he told me. “Who do you think does come here?” I asked. “Nobody, except maybe those family members of the people who are buried here,” he said.
There were soda cans and cigarette butts on the ground, but no trace of whoever had left them. There was none of the hustling-and-bustling tourism one experiences elsewhere—nobody foisting postcards or fake handbags on you, no stalls selling duck necks. On the steps of what appeared to be the main building, an old mutt slept as if he hadn’t been disturbed for years. Curious about the extensive cross-hatching of scars on his coat, I walked towards him, but Jonathan put out his hand to stop me. “He’s alive,” Jonathan said. “What do you say? Oh yes, let sleeping dogs lie.”
The building was pagoda-like, with a spiral staircase that leads up to a vista where you can see the layout of the museum, its cluster of small buildings, sculptures, and plaques. Inside, we saw the only museum attendant we would see all morning. He, too, was dozing, feet up on an empty glass case that looked as if it had been intended for selling memorabilia. On the wall was a list of the people and groups who donated money to establish the museum. Jonathan smiled when he saw that the Party contributed. They’d given a token amount—100,000 yuan, or around $15,000. (“The CCP is shaping themselves as philanthropists, but people know they used to be executers,” Jonathan says.) The biggest contributor was a Hong Kong billionaire who was born in Shantou.
Outside this building was the first of many plaques. Walking around the open air space, one felt dropped into a giant’s book, its pages the granite walls inscribed with quotes emphasizing the importance of remembering history in general, or the Cultural Revolution in particular. The first plaque was unusually big—twenty-feet high and about 60-feet wide—with a quote from the 1981 CCP statement etched on it: “History has proved that the Cultural Revolution was a domestic disaster started by leaders in the wrong way and utilized by an anti-revolutionary group and was a great catastrophe to the party and people of different nationalities.” “History is a mirror,” a nearby plaque asserts. Another reads: “All the evidence should be shown to the grandchildren.” Deng Xiaoping’s words are not explicitly invoked, but they don’t need to be. The reference is clear. In fact, most of the quotes on the walls are from leading Party members. By finding what needs to be said buried in the words of official Party documents, Peng Qian has implicitly suggested, Hey, these are your words, not mine! It was probably the best strategy to keep the museum from being shuttered as soon as it opened.
We headed toward a second building, stopping at another plaque along the way that listed all the Party campaigns since 1949, with the date when the directive was issued and the name of each movement: “1954 Purge of anti-Bolshevists,” “1956 Purge of Trotsky sympathizers,” “1958 Suppressing Anti-revolutionaries,” and so on. There is no commentary or contextual information. Simply listing the titles of the movements, the exhibit makes no judgment, but the visitor, taking in their sheer number and how quickly they followed one another, concludes that the Party had barely gained power in 1949 before succumbing to a cannibalistic spiral of ever-intensifying paranoia, culminating in the Cultural Revolution. The spiral shape appears—for this reason or coincidentally, I have no idea—throughout the museum, from the spiral staircase in the first building, to steps that spiral leading to other exhibits, to a spiral sculpture which is left tantalizingly unmarked. The last movement on the list is poignant in its attempt to erase all others that came before: “Struggle Against the Gang of Four.” Struggle against the group who brought you the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the first place. Condemning Jiang Qing and her group was, on the one hand, an acknowledgement that the Cultural Revolution was a tragic mistake, but at the same time it was another of the Party’s desperate acts of self-preservation. If the deaths of all those suspected of harboring revisionist motives was what Mao claimed would protect China from capitalism’s revival, then the public trial of the Gang of Four was what the Party hoped would save it from becoming the Revolution’s final victim.
The second building we approached was locked. Peering through the windows, we saw photographs of struggle sessions mounted on the walls. Another large plaque outside the building listed the crimes people were accused of during the Cultural Revolution. Again, a simple list—no commentary, only titles of official crimes. Four hundred and sixty-four of them. I was struck by how many were tailor-made for terror: crimes like “pretending to put a premium on the role of the masses, while in actuality seeking to downplay the importance of party leadership” or “waving the red banner in order to oppose the red banner” or “true rightist, forced leftist.” One had to wave the red banner. How was a person supposed to prove that she was not secretly opposing the red banner while she was waving it? During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese entered an Orwellian world of thoughtcrime, in which a person could be persecuted simply because someone else accused them of not having the Party in their heart or in their eyes.
Nothing at the museum was in English and, while I speak some Chinese, I can’t read or write it. After reading the first column of crimes to me, Jonathan said, “We cannot read every one,” so I asked him to skip to the end. The last crime listed is “ox-devil, snake god,” a jeering insult. It’s as if in the 1980s, when kids called each other “fag” and “lesbo,” the government had thrown all the weight of state-sanctioned violence behind those words. Walking on, Jonathan said, “I was taught 1000 times that Mao and the Party are glorious, great, and correct. I make bold to say that this [museum] would darken the radiance of the Party.”
“I make bold to say” is a phrase Jonathan used several times with me—“bold” is an important word for him. He once described his father as “not a bold man, a careful man.” And when I asked him if he considered himself a dissident, he said, “No, no, I am not bold. I am only an ordinary person, but I have kept my independence of mind.” When I went back and re-read some of Mao’s little red book later that evening in my hotel room, I noticed for the first time how often the word “bold” appears. I can see how “bold,” a word I’d always associated with courage, might carry complex signification in China. To some, it is an adjective to describe strong communists, those who understand that revolution is not a dinner party. To others, it names those eager to throw off the civilizing protocols and manners that protect society from devolving into savage violence. “By the way,” Jonathan added, “in China dissidents are not called dissidents. They are ‘counterrevolutionaries.’”
We followed a stone path that led through the trees toward a large sculpture, on the way passing another plaque, this one listing the punishments meted out to those identified as enemies of the people. To someone accustomed to American movies like Reservoir Dogs and No Country for Old Men, the punishments do not immediately sound so horrific: “Crawl through sewage, wear thorns, pour cold water over while standing in snow, make stand on chair for hours in sun without food or water, put in airplane position...” But I remember from memoirs like Confessions and Gang of One how debilitating many of these tortures in fact were. In Confessions, Keng Zhongguo describes a Chinese Christian who is made to do the airplane at a labor camp for hours on end because he will not renounce his God. Much later, Zhongguo sees the man sitting in a field, his arms paralyzed, his hands useless blocks of flesh.
A popular refrain during the Cultural Revolution was, “Harden our hearts, fear not sacrifices, overcome ten thousand obstacles, to achieve the ultimate victory!” Harden our hearts, show no mercy! At dinner the night before we visited the museum, Jonathan had told me that he remembered, in elementary school, his teacher condemning a man who had “donated” his factory to the party. Through the thin walls of their apartment building, this man’s neighbor, the teacher told the kids, had heard him crying over the loss of his business. This, she said, showed that he was a forced leftist, true rightist—a secret counterrevolutionary. “Jesus, you couldn’t be human, could you, with normal human emotions?” I said when Jonathan told me this. “The man did what was expected of him, he donated his factory, but he was denounced for privately mourning the loss?”
“But we were not supposed to be human,” Jonathan said, smiling as if he’d caught me in a childish mistake—which I guess he had. “Stalin had said that the communist is a new kind of being, made of special material. And we all wanted to become this new kind of person.”
[Continue to Part Two]
Jennifer Ruth is the author of Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. She recently wrote about the films of Hu Jie, and reviewed Slavoj Zizek’s Demanding the Impossible and Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview.