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Red Memory:
The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution

by tania branigan
w.w. norton, 304 pages, $29.95

At a 1979 White House dinner, actress Shirley MacLaine told Deng Xiaoping, China’s new leader and the guest of honor that evening, about a Chinese scientist she had met. He said that he’d been happier and more productive when he worked on a Chinese farm. Deng cut her short: “He lied. That was what he had to say at the time.” Deng spent three years working in a tractor factory during the Cultural Revolution, and he refused to romanticize it. The memoirs of Cultural Revolution survivors written in the 1980s echo Deng’s view that it was a brutal and pointless experiment.

Today, there is widespread nostalgia in China for the Cultural Revolution. President Xi Jinping has reflected positively on the time he spent exiled in the remote town of Liangjiahe in Shaanxi province, living in a cave, hauling coal carts, carrying manure, building dikes, enduring bitter winters, flea bites, and hunger. This experience, Xi claims, bonded him with China’s common people and prepared him to be an empathetic ruler. Liangjiahe is now a “red tourist” attraction where students can visit Xi’s old home and admire the well he built.

Xi’s glamorization of the Cultural Revolution is reflected in Beijing’s chic dining scene. In Red Classics Restaurant, for example, waitresses in Red Guard uniforms serve meat and vegetables in plain style to invoke an era of stark living. You can have a fully themed wedding in this restaurant, posing for photos in matching Mao suits on a tractor parked in one corner.

In her new book, Red Memory, Tania Branigan describes the clashing memories of the Cultural Revolution. Those who suffered under the brutality of the Red Guard describe an infernal decade when Mao turned his murderous paranoia on his own people, leading them to tear each other to pieces. Children denounced their parents, and students murdered their teachers. In Mao’s campaign against the four “olds” (Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits), traditional Chinese culture and morality became targets for destruction.

But Branigan also tells stories of people who are nostalgic for a time when life was more austere and when people lived for a cause other than individualism and materialism. Some former Red Guards have set up a bookstore and website called Utopia. Others organize trips to North Korea to admire society as it should be, or set up rural communes for students. One Utopia co-founder, a professor, made headlines for slapping an eighty-year-old “traitor” who had dared to criticize Mao.

Red Memory is full of chilling stories of brutality and betrayal. Fang Zhongmou witnessed the torture and beating of her husband by adolescent Red Guards. She endured years of interrogations at her workplace because her father had been a landowner. One night in 1970, while doing laundry at home, she launched into a tirade against Mao. Her son told her, “If you go against my dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog head in.” He reported her to officials. After two months of violent “struggle sessions,” Fang was executed. The son grew up to be a guilt-ridden adult who agonizes over his mother’s gravesite.

Song Binbin was eighteen when she viciously denounced her school’s deputy principal, Bian Zhongyun. Bian had told the students that they should run out of the building in the event of an earthquake. Because she did not instruct the students to take Mao portraits with them, Red Guards hunted her down and beat her to death with nailed clubs. As the Cultural Revolution swept China, beatings and executions became increasingly baroque. Students poured boiling water over teachers' heads and made them swallow excrement, crawl over embers, drink ink and glue, and beat one another.

Branigan writes that foreigners sometimes summon Lord of the Flies when they talk about the Cultural Revolution, but “the carnival of violence and hate—young girls remorselessly stalking their Piggy,” was worse than fiction. It happened not on a desert island but in the midst of a civilization founded on reverence for scholars and elders.

Branigan concludes her book with a meditation on how the suppressed memories of the Cultural Revolution haunt a society that has never had a proper reckoning with the horrors of its past. The Cultural Revolution is barely mentioned in Chinese textbooks. At the National Museum in Beijing, one photograph and three lines of text commemorate the revolution. There is no mention of the mobs of Red Guards who killed artists, teachers, and class enemies; the scholars who hanged themselves or the party veterans who jumped out of windows. Following Mao’s death there was a brief spate of “scar literature” that honestly recounted the events of the period. But under Xi Jinping, China has constructed a wall of censorship. Victims and perpetrators alike are living with their trauma in silence.

Branigan gathered the interviews for her book between 2008 and 2015, when she was a reporter for the Guardian in China. She writes that she could not have conducted such interviews today. In the past decade, China’s surveillance state has come down hard on those who wish to remember a past the party wants to forget. Websites where survivors could openly discuss the Cultural Revolution have been shut down. This is all part of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on what he calls “historical nihilism,” a dystopian phrase that means believing historical narratives that stray from the official Communist party narrative.

What happens to a society where painful memories are not allowed to be aired or shared? Today’s China is a land of raw suffering and need, driven by impulses it cannot understand. “You turned the pages of a paper and counted the crises,” Branigan writes. “Eighteen people walked by as a two-year-old, run down by a truck, lay dying in the street. Children died when a kindergarten owner laced yogurt with poison to smear a competitor. There was a spate of knife attacks on schools.” Collective traumatization demands collective meaning and a common attempt to work through the loss and humiliation of the past.

A topic that Branigan mentions briefly, but inadequately, is the extraordinary return of religion that is sweeping China. The Communist party’s inability to meet the psychic needs of its people has led to an explosion of religious observance. The country now has perhaps 100 million Christians in both officially recognized and underground house churches. There are more than 20 million Chinese Muslims. There is a surge of people practicing traditional Chinese religions, often in exotic manifestations. Anarchic and menacing religious cults are popping up in the countryside.

While Han Pingzhao, both a victim and a perpetrator of violence during the Cultural Revolution, was being held in a black jail, he remembered passages that he had read in a discarded Bible. Han turned his back on vengeance and embraced teachings that seemed to be the antithesis of Maoism. “Love is very simple,” he told Branigan. “Accepting guilt—that is hard, God is justice and honesty. If you believe in God, there is a conscience in your heart.” In the last seventy years, the Chinese Communist party has embarked on countless experiments that have left its subjects exhausted, cynical, and demoralized. Perhaps Han Pingzhao has discovered an antidote to the malaise that afflicts so many of his fellow survivors.

Robert Carle was a professor of theology at The King’s College in Manhattan from 1999 to 2023. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Society, Human Rights Review, Public Discourse, and more.

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Image by White House photo by Byron Schumaker licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped

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