50 Years from the Cultural Revolution

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, a political campaign launched by Chairman Mao. The purpose was supposedly to give a new generation the experience of revolution; however, it was actually an outcome of a power struggle between Mao and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

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During the ten years that it lasted (ending with Mao’s death in 1976), the nation was thrown into chaos. Schools and colleges were closed, intellectuals were persecuted, religious activities were banned, and there was little economic activity, much less growth. A cult of personality was built up around Chairman Mao that allowed him to rule as an absolute dictator.

By the time Chairman Mao died, the country was on the brink of economic bankruptcy and the people were emotionally exhausted. Chinese young people who came of age during that time period are sometimes (still) referred to as “the lost generation.”

When I was studying with a professor in Beijing nearly twenty years ago, I was able to get him to talk to me about his experiences as a youth in the city during the Cultural Revolution. I was also seeking some personal insight on how it could have happened.

“Simple,” he said to me.

“Chairman Mao went crazy and we all went with him.”

To many working in China today—a land of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and high- speed trains—the Cultural Revolution may seem like ancient and irrelevant history. That is not the case, however, since the scars left on Chinese society, politics, and individuals remain today.

In China, very little is written or said about the Cultural Revolution because it is still considered a “sensitive topic” to discuss or research. That’s not the case outside of China, however, and this past month has seen a veritable flood of articles examine the the Cultural Revolution and its enduring legacy.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker in a piece titled “The Cost of the Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later,” says this:

In examining the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the most difficult measurement cannot be quantified so precisely: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on China’s soul? This is still not a subject that can be openly debated, at least not easily.

On May 3, The New York Times published a Q and A with Rod MacFarquhar, a Harvard scholar of Chinese history and politics, in which he discusses the enduring legacy of the Cultural Revolution today:

However, there is a strong resemblance with the Cultural Revolution in Xi’s anticorruption drive. Mao tried to make the country revolutionary by unleashing the Red Guards. Xi Jinping tries to make the people good, to purify them, by the anticorruption campaign. Both Mao and Xi wish to change the Chinese people.

NPR’s Fresh Air program posted an interview with historian Frank Dikotter in which he discusses newly available archives which reveal the chaos of the decade.

In Shanghai alone, a quarter of a million homes of ordinary people are raided by Red Guards. Much of what is seized is being destroyed. And then, of course, Red Guards attack the very people they believe are opposed to communism, attack them physically. Tens of thousands are hounded out of cities like Shanghai and Beijing in an effort to purify these cities. 

It is my belief that having at least a working knowledge of the Cultural Revolution is important for anyone serving Chinese people today, whether in China or in their home countries.

For those of you who like to learn by listening and or watching, these are your best places to start:

The China History Podcast: The Cultural Revolution (an 8-part series)

This is one of my favorite sources of anything related to Chinese history. Hosted by the indomitable Lazlo Montgomery, and California-based businessman, these podcasts are a great way to soak up history while driving or exercising or doing whatever it is you like to do while listening to podcasts. The 8-part series on The Cultural Revolution is outstanding.

Video: China: A Century of Revolution, 1949-1976 (PBS)

This excellent series produced by PBS traces the upheavals in China from 1911 to the 1990’s. This particular episode looks at the early days of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the Cultural Revolution.

And if you prefer to expand your knowledge base the old-fashioned way, by reading a book, these are the ones I would recommend. Some are historical accounts, and others are memoirs.

The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976, by Frank Dikotter

Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquar

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution, by Ji-Ji Jiang

Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Cheng

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, by Zhu Xiao-mei

Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Finally, if you are a Twitter user,  you can track the campaign “in real time” as @GPCR50 live-tweets the Cultural Revolution.

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was first published at ChinaSource on May 9.

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Life in a Nail Neighborhood

Perhaps you have heard of nail houses in China–dwellings whose owners have refused to move in defiance of demolition orders. As Chinese cities continue to expand, they are swallowing up villages and land in the countryside.

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The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog recently published a photo series documenting a nail neighborhood in Shanghai. In this case it isn’t just one homeowner that has refused to move — it’s an entire neighborhood.

Go here to see all of the fascinating pictures.

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Why Are They Lining Up?

In what has to be one of the most fascinating lenses through which to observe history and societal change, this short film chronicles recent Chinese history by looking at the different things Chinese people have lined up for over the years. It was posted to the BBC website under the title “China’s History as Told Through Its Unbelievable Queues.” Here’s what the photographer has to say about the queues:

“Times have changed. Lives have changed. The reasons people queue have also changed. We are a huge country — 1.3 billion people — the biggest in the world. There will always be queues here; the reasons will be different. Who knows what we will be queueing for next?”

(email readers: go here to see the video)

My most common experience with queues in China was on Sunday mornings, standing in line to get into church. People would begin lining up 30-45 minutes in advance to be sure to get a seat inside the sanctuary as opposed to the overflow room or stools in the courtyard.

And the most amazing queue I saw was on Christmas Eve, 2009, outside Gangwashi  Church in Beijing. The church had Christmas Eve services scheduled every hour from 5pm to 11pm. Those wanting to attend had to line up.

When the sanctuary was full, the would close the gates to the church courtyard and those still in line would have to wait until the next service. I talked to one lady in line and asked her how long she’d been waiting.

“An hour and half,” she said happily, despite the bitter cold.

Behind her the queue wound its way down the block and around the corner.

What was most interesting, though, was the police presence — not to prevent people from getting into church, but to make sure everything was safe and orderly so that people could get in.

I just wish the photographer had included church queues in his film.

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Orthodox Easter in China

On May 1, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter, or Paschal. In Catholicism and Protestantism the date is set according to the Gregorian Calendar, but in the Orthodox faith, it is set according to the Julian Calendar.

Harbin Orthodox Church

In China, this Easter marked the first time in 16 years that an ordained Orthodox priest was able to preside over Easter services, in the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. Here’s how it was reported by the AFP (from The Daily Mail):

His red and gold vestments bathed in candlelight, the first mainland Chinese Orthodox priest ordained for six decades led an Easter service on Sunday — one of the most surprising fruits of warming ties between Moscow and Beijing.

Alexander Yu Shi said prayers in the Church Slavonic language and in Mandarin beside the Church of Holy Protection in the northeastern city of Harbin, surrounded by local worshippers.

“It is a happy day. We are welcoming the resurrection,” he said. “And for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Harbin, it’s also a resurrection.”

The small and elderly Orthodox community -– mostly descended from Chinese and Russians who intermarried in the city’s cosmopolitan heyday a century ago -– lacked a priest for 15 years.

Shi, a soft-spoken former bank manager, is the first ever Chinese to have studied at an Orthodox seminary with backing from China’s avowedly atheist Communist Party.

“With the help of the governments of both countries, I was able to learn theology systematically,” he told AFP in his office, sitting below photographs of himself alongside bearded Russian church luminaries.

Shi, who has Buddhist grandparents, converted while studying business in Moscow in the 1990s. He returned a few years ago to enrol in the St Petersburg theological seminary.

Ordained last year, he led the most important festival in the church’s calendar for the first time.

Shi presided at the altar of a Catholic church opposite his parish since his Holy Protection Church is undergoing state-backed refurbishment.

He led a procession to the scaffolding-clad structure, swinging a thurible of incense and declaring loudly in Chinese: “Christ is risen!”

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Image: AFP

I was excited to read this article, because I immediately recognized the priest. When Amy and I were on a bell-hunting trip to Harbin in the fall of 2012, we visited the small Orthodox Church there. The Chinese man in charge of the church told us that he was the only Chinese person (from Mainland China) studying to become an Orthodox priest. He was also the one who finally allowed us to go up into the tower to see the ancient Russian bell.  You can read all about that in these two blog posts: A Russian Bell in Harbin and Memorial Cookies,

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How wonderful to read that this tiny congregation now has a priest!

He is Risen Indeed! 耶稣基督复活!

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Voices from the Past

In a world where we are bombarded daily by voices from our phones, TV’s, and radios, sometimes it’s good to put them all down and listen to some voices from the past. My friend Andrew Kaiser has just published an e-book that allows us to do just that.

Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China is a collection of 30 extended quotations from past missionaries in China.

Voices from the Past: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in China

Here’s what Andrew has to say about his book in the preface:

Over the years, the words of wisdom contained in the letters and diaries of these spiritual ancestors have profoundly shaped my own sense of purpose and calling, informing my identity and my life and work in China. This booklet is an attempt to share these lessons from history with other expatriates around the world who are committed to building God’s Kingdom in China. The quotations contained herein were chosen for purely subjective reasons, betraying my own struggles and interests. The selections are arranged in no particular order, with only the briefest comments added to provide sufficient context for understanding. Readers are encouraged to linger over each quotation, perhaps reading only one entry a day, and to spend time afterwards in prayer, reflecting on the theme in light of their own experiences.

Whether you are serving in China, thinking about serving in China, or are just interested in a broader historical perspective of the history of Christianity in China, this book is for you!

And here’s the great news — it’s only $0.99 on kindle!

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Eric Liddell, Running the Last Race

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots Of Fire, which told the story of Eric Liddell, a Scot who ran in the 1924 Olympic Games, and who later went on to be a missionary in China (where he had been born). Here’s the official trailer for that 1981 film:

(email readers, go here to see the clip)

Now, 35 years later, a sequel to that movie has been made, and it’s been made in China. Starring Joseph Fiennes, and directed by Stephen Chin, a Chinese Christian filmmaker,  The Last Race tells the story of Liddell’s life after the Olympics.

He returned to Tianjin, the city where he had been born, but when the Japanese invaded he, along with the foreign community of North China was sent to a Japanese prison camp in Shandong Province. While in the camp, he taught science to the children and took on a mentoring role for the young people. He died of a brain tumor in the camp before the end of the war.

Doing a movie about a foreign missionary in China wasn’t without it’s challenges. According to The Beijinger, Chin had this to say about those challenges:

“Christianity is a very sensitive subject in China,” Shin told China Film Insider on the sidelines of the Beijing International Film Festival. “Everyone knows that it is not easy to bring that message here. But now, luckily, the censorship is quite reasonable. We are not pushing other people to accept Christianity or promoting any religious message.”

Director Shin said he first heard of Liddell’s story when he was working in Shanghai in 2008 on business related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, by which time The Last Race script had been written and revised for almost eight years.

”Luckily, two years ago, it got through censorship and we see ‘Okay, it’s good.’ It’s okay to make this movie [starting] last year,” Shin said. ”We want people to come to China to make movies. It is not so strict as we might think. If you can handle the topic in the right way, it should be okay.”

Here’s the trailer for the film:

(email readers, please go here to see the clip)

I don’t know about you, but I’m anxious to see this movie when it is released in June.

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