“At some level it seemed incomprehensible that hundreds of millions of people ignored ten years of their lives that had shaped them profoundly. Some have not been allowed to discuss it. Some fear the practical repercussions of raising it. Some simply cannot bear to address it. Others hush as if it were a curse, so powerful that its very mention darkens current peace and prosperity. It is, to them all, unspeakable. And the Party and those it rules have conspired in amnesia. A decade has disappeared.”
A very necessary reminder. This tragic, shocking & even unheimlich chapter of human history – when a civilization/society essentially attacks itself – is required study in these tormented & precarious times. Oddly, considering the extremity of events & their residual ramifications & scarring, it is rarely penetrated, even less so by the voices of those that experienced it.
“It is impossible to understand China today without without understanding the Cultural Revolution. Subtract it and the country makes no sense: it is Britain without empire, the United States without the Civil War.”
Britain has suffered it’s own malformation of Cultural Revolution (minus the violence) recently in the shape of Brexit; in incalculable action of extreme self-harm (plus the fraud).
“why do some stand strong when others fold? Why tell the truth when a lie would be safer?”
The author of Red Memory is The Guardian newspaper’s long-term Asia correspondent Tania Branigan. Tania has done some quality journalism over the years, especially when she is free to expand into more in-depth analysis & less formal coverage. She has distinguished herself from the starter pistol here by selecting one of the most interesting & neglected subjects within an already urgent phenomenon (the Cultural Revolution) – the infamous Red Guards – a kind of quasi-civilian militia of Maoist fanatics with a license for lynch-mob hooliganism & vicious public persecution of fellow citizens (other Red Guards & cadre included) under an extremely flexible criterion that could basically be grafted to anybody.
They were authorised & provoked by “The Great Helmsman” then released onto society with the instruction to destroy, reform or “re-educate” what were described as bad elements or 黑五类.
Conceptually it looked great, landlords, “rightists”, rich farmers & the bourgeoisie, but it was wildly extended to intellectuals, musicians, artists, teachers, academics & anyone else, as well as being frequently seized as a pretext to settle personal scores or sate psychopathic whims.
Red August kicked-off an enormous nationwide ebullition of bloodletting, murder & extreme violence along with brutal persecution & targeted destruction through “thought reform, struggle sessions, (denunciation rallies), self-criticism, systematic purges and witch hunts.”
“The strange thing was how normal it all became. Repetition made the bizarre routine. The routine could not, by definition, be remarkable, and since it was drummed in from morning to night it was all soon taken for granted. What ought to be became what was, and what was became what ought to be.
Branigan has gone much further with this historical pursuit – she has interviewed a sizeable selection of former/participant Red Guards, victims & perpetrators, repentant & defiant. It is their accounts that comprise the core content of Red Memory, with Tania providing responsive & supporting investigation & conclusion.
Obviously this is amazing & necessary work.
There are just too many parallel or reflective threads with neo-political-instability, even though the Cultural Revolution is a unique & extreme case, without peer in modern history.
It is not to say that Red August & it’s results are poised to repeat themselves, rather that such astonishingly improbable & extreme events are possible, & lurk within human capacity, & that the conditions & “petri-dish” from which such abnormal strains can emerge needs urgent study & attention, especially given the current menace of authoritarian, scape-goat obsessed & fraudulent politics & political movements (not to mention the new technology that provides them with such artificial power & influence).
“Repression will soon move from the familiar realms – religion, academia, law, civil society, minorities – to areas of society and culture that the Party gradually retreated from after Mao’s time, targeting everyone from entrepreneurs to entertainers.”
Tania Branigan, 2023, Faber & Faber, 254 pages.