Cultural Revolution in China, seen by victim and victimizer

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng. New York: Grove Press. 547 pp. $19.95. Born Red, by Gao Yuan. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 380 pp. $39.50

China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is a movement best described in oxymorons. It was a crusade of organized anarchists; a cleansing operation that despoiled an already fragile social system; a puritanical orgy that sanctioned violence in the name of the public good. Political Luddites, its Red Guards, sought to dismantle an established apparatus, turning society on itself. Children were led to attack their parents, students their teachers; everyone turned against those called ``revisionists'' or ``capitalist-roaders,'' no matter how fervent their commitment to communism. Using the cryptic clich'es of an aging Mao Tse-tung - ``If we do not destroy, we cannot establish'' - all that was noteworthy in Old China, and much of what he himself had constructed, was to be eradicated in the rampaging campaign of righteous renovation.

Nien Cheng was one of the victims, Gao Yuan, one of the victimizers. Their books, read side by side, offer a Chinese version of ``Rashomon'' - only here what the ``reporters'' have to tell of the crime varies little, despite their very different vantage points. It is a common story of class struggle, family disruption, unrelenting upheaval, and occasional heroism.

Prior to 1966, Nien Cheng, a worldly, wealthy, English-educated Christian, had been exempt from many of the restrictions of her fellow countrymen because of her background and status as a liaison between the Shell Oil Company and its workers' union. She had inherited the position with the approval of the Chinese authorities upon the death of her husband, a former general manager of Shell. From the onset of China's reign of terror, she was a target of extraordinary opportunity for Red Guards seeking to bring ``imperialist spies'' and ``running dogs'' to ground.

Her ordeal began when the likes of Gao Yuan, middle-school youngsters, and older cadres, acting on orders to destroy such enemies of the proletariat, broke into and ransacked her Shanghai home and arrested her. For being who she was, and what she was, Nien Cheng was imprisoned in solitary confinement for nearly seven years. In the house of detention, she was urged to confess her bourgeois ``crimes,'' but, somehow, she found the strength to resist all efforts to break her.

Her book - written in an amazingly calm, orderly, understated manner - is a memoir of an indefatigible woman struggling to maintain her pride, dignity, sanity, and faith in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. That she managed to do it - and to write about it afterward - is a testament to her indomitable will and individual courage. ``Life and Death in Shanghai'' is a volume that belongs on the shelf alongside the writings of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Dith Pran, and other chroniclers of ideological fanaticism, its dehumanizing consequences, and its all too rare resisters.

One favorite technique used by those who seek to abruptly change the course of history is sloganeering. It is a common first step in exciting unwitting patriots to join a political adventure. Mao rallied his youth corps by exhorting them to rid the country of ``The Four Olds'': old culture, old customs, old habits, old ways of thinking.

Across China, Gao Yuan and millions of other young people heard the message and answered the call. His book tells of what it was like to be caught up in the fervor of the revolution. Reading it reminded me of Melita Mauschmann's ``Account Rendered,'' the autobiography of a young German woman who believed that by joining the Nazi movement she would help to shape a new world.

Gao Yuan's volume, while lacking both the word power and the majesty of Nien Cheng's, does provide a clear sense of the appeal of the Red Guards' cause, the mobilization of troops to do battle against the often ill-defined class enemies, the headiness of early successes, the factionalism that arose, and the ultimate collapse of a now-discredited episode.

What is striking in both these personal accounts is the objective assessment each author makes of the circumstances that brought their country to the edge of ruin; the intimate characterizations of specific individuals - family members, friends, members of various units - with whom they had to deal, defying the idea that the Cultural Revolution was simply an uprising of faceless masses; and their combined ability to transport readers into situations where, one hopes, they will never have to find themselves.

Peter Rose, a sociologist, teaches at Smith College.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Cultural Revolution in China, seen by victim and victimizer
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today