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.

Related Posts:

Cultural Revolution Tea

Farewell to a China Hand

Three Decades in China; Four Trends

China Under Mao

I recently stumbled across a great new blog called Everyday life in Mao’s China. Each post is a photo or photos taken in China when Chairman Mao was in power. They are very interesting glimpses of a China that is hard to imagine these days. Here are a couple of my favorites:

St. Joseph’s Church in China, taken over by the red guards:

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Little red guards:

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Watching a movie outdoors:

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Click on over to the site to see lots more!

An Insane Collection

I was recently talking with a Chinese friend in Minnesota who had just returned from a road trip to New York and Washington with her husband. “Tell me something interesting you have observed in your travels around the US this year,” I said to her.

“Every little town has a museum,” she told me. “In China,” she said, “only the government runs museums and they are mostly about ancient history. But here, there’s a museum about everything.”

I thought it was a brilliant observation.

Shortly after that conversation, I ran across this short film at China File about a man in Sichuan who runs a bunch of small museums near Chengdu. These museums house millions of items he has collected over the years, many of which represent events and eras the government would rather people forget about. The title of the film is “Collecting Insanity.” From the introduction:

Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

If you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, please click here.

 

Two of My Favorite Things

 

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I have lots of favorite things, but two that are right up there on the list are road trips and Chinese history.

Last week I found a way to combine those two loves by listening to episodes of the fantastic China History Podcast while driving across Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

If you are  a Chinese history buff or just want an accessible way to learn a bit more, then this podcast is for you.

It is the brainchild of Lazlo Montomery, a businessman from Southern California (not originally, as you can tell by his accent) who started it for the joy of educating people about Chinese history. What’s not to love about that?

On this last road trip, I learned about the Kaifeng Jews, and knocked off the 10-part series on the History of Hong Kong. Trust me…it’s more interesting than you think it might be.

For my next road trip, I’ve got the 8-part History of the Cultural Revolution cued up.

You can listen to the podcasts directly from the website, or subscribe in iTunes.

I would love to have listened to these on our drive to Alaska in June, but Chinese history is NOT one of my sister’s and mom’s favorite things, so they put the kabash on that idea from the get-go.

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Holy Trinity Church, Shanghai

This is one of my favorite photos from this weekend in Shanghai.  Holy Trinity Church, opened in 1869, was the cathedral church for the Anglican Diocese of North China. It continued to function as a church until being closed in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike many other churches in Shanghai and all  over China, this one has yet to re-open. Over the past few years it has undergone major renovations, and was expected to open late last year. I’m not sure what the delay is, but hopefully it will open soon.

The Los Angeles Times did an excellent piece on the history of this church and the renovation project.It is titled “Red Church Rising.”

“Empire of the Sun,” J.G. Ballard’s atmospheric novel about his coming of age in China, opens on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Shanghai Cathedral choir boys are being marched to the crypt to watch newsreels of Royal Air Force fighter planes falling in flames to the English countryside.

The cathedral’s actual name was Holy Trinity, and Ballard, the son of expatriate Britons, attended the cathedral’s prestigious boys school.

Built in a Victorian Gothic style in the 1860s, Holy Trinity served for nearly eight decades as the spiritual home for colonialists who flocked to Shanghai after Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars opened the port to trade. With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place.

Along with the men-only Shanghai Club and racehorse owners’ Shanghai Race Club, “the cathedral was a central feature of British life in a faraway land,” said Peter Hibbard, a British expat and president of the Royal Asiatic Society China in Shanghai. Here in the Red Church, as many called it, babies were baptized, couples were married and parishioners were laid to rest in a homey refuge complete with manicured lawn, gargoyles and spire.

Now, after decades in the control of local politicians, during which it was revamped as a theater and meeting hall and later left to deteriorate, the cathedral is nearing the end of a painstaking renovation by a Chinese Protestant organization. Later this year, this historic church will reopen to what is expected to be a crush of worshipers once dozens of faux stained-glass plastic windows have been replaced with the real thing.

Under the Red Church’s watch, this tumultuous city has come full circle — from anything-goes capitalism to the birth of communism to war with Japan to the religion-crushing Cultural Revolution to, once again, unfettered commercialism and even a robust revival of Christianity.

As they say, please read the whole thing.

 

 

Sneaking a Piano into a Labor Camp

During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Xiao-mei, a budding pianist at the Beijing Music Conservatory was sent (along with some of her classmates) to a labor camp near Zhangjiakou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. She would remain there for five years.

Life in the camp was brutal, but security was lax enough that she was able to escape for a time and make arrangements to have her piano secretly sent to the labor camp. With her beloved piano nearby, she was able to sneak off to practice, developing skills and using the piano as her means of coping with and healing from the brutality she suffered.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, she was allowed to return to the Conservatory to continue here studies. It soon became clear to her that there were no avenues in China to pursue her music, so she left for Hong Kong. From there she went to the US, and finally to France, where today she is an accomplished concert pianist.

Zhu Xiao-mei tells her story in the book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

I HIGHLY recommend it.

She has also just released a new CD called Bach: Goldberg Variations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(photos: Amazon.com)

The Bells of St. Paul’s Church

As Amy and I slipped quietly into the church pew at the old St. Paul’s Church in Qingdao (now known simply as Guanxiang Road Church) one of the ushers spotted us, smiled, and came over to where we sat. “Aren’t you the two ladies who were here yesterday asking about the old church bell?” he asked, through a big smile.  “Yes,” we replied. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll ask someone to take you up into the tower to see the old bell right now.”

We looked at each other in bewilderment because the previous afternoon when we had stopped by the church to inquire about the bell, this very man had treated us with suspicion (wouldn’t you?) and told us that if we wanted to know anything about the church we had to first go through the municipal church office. Yet here he was, all smiles and donning the role of Mr. Welcome!

We suggested that we would be happy to wait until after the service but he was insistent that we follow him now.  He introduced us to another usher and told her “these American friends are here to learn about our church and our bell.  Please take them to see the bell.” Up we went, our dashed hopes of yesterday being rekindled with every step we climbed.

I actually hadn’t known about this church until Mr. D., usher/tour-guide at the other church down the street (Qingdao Christian Church) told us about it on Saturday.  “You should go up the street to St. Paul’s Church,” he said.  “They have an old bell.” After we were turned away on our first visit, I decided to go back and find Mr. D. and see what he could tell me about St. Paul’s Church and its bell.

He told me that the church had been built in 1938 by German Lutherans and most likely the bell was installed at that time, or shortly afterwards. I specifically asked if he knew what had happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution.  He told me that it had been taken away and installed in a factory in another city in the province where it was used to mark the beginnings and endings of the shifts. Someone from Qingdao recognized the bell and somehow spirited it away and hid it. (How do you steal and hide a cast iron bell?)  Somehow the bell resurfaced in the last few years (I missed the details), and just last year the church purchased the bell back at an auction for the sum of RMB 40,000.

The inscriptions on the bell were written in German, which we couldn’t read, but we could make out the date: 1883. I took photos of the inscriptions and sent them to a friend of mine who is an amateur genealogist. In order to trace his family history he has learned how to read German and Danish.  Within ten minutes, he had them translated:

 Bochumer Verein Gussstahlfabrik 

(Bochumer Union Cast Steel Factory)

Der Gerechte Wird Seines Glaubens Leben 

(The just[righteous] will live by [his] faith)  (Romans)

 1883

After taking a few pictures we went back to the sanctuary for the service. At 9:25, the bells were rung, each ring announcing the truth of the inscription.

Another bell, another story of sustaining grace.

(Note:  the bell at the other church has a story as well, but that will be in yet another post.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural Revolution Tea

I have long been a student of Chinese history, with a particular interest in the now 62 years of The People’s Republic of China. Compared with China’s dynasties, which often lasted 300-400 years, this one is just getting going. Yet, during the relatively short time of its existence, the PRC has had more than it’s fair share of ‘turbulence.’

 

A particularly turbulent time was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Often referred to as ‘the ten-year chaos,’ The Cultural Revolution was a mass political movement ostensibly designed to give a new generation the experience of revolution. In fact, it was an outcome of a power struggle between Chairman Mao and the leadership of the Communist Party. For ten years, the country’s economic, social, and intellectual life came to a halt as people engaged in mass political campaigns, the schools and colleges were closed, and intellectuals were persecuted. This, of course, is a very brief, and general, description of the era, but it will suffice for this blog post.

 

Today, when one thinks of The Cultural Revolution, images that come to mind are Red Guards, socialist operas, and propaganda posters.  We don’t generally think of tea.

 

That changed for me a month ago when I was at a teahouse in Beijing run by a close friend of mine. It’s a great place to hang out on Sunday afternoons, chatting with Ms. M and her two nieces who help her in the shop. Since she is from Yunnan Province, her specialty is Pu’er Tea, so whenever I am there, that’s pretty much what we drink.

 

Pu’er tea is one of the only teas which, like wine, improves in taste and value with age. Whenever she makes a pot of tea she is careful to tell me what year it was harvested in. The older the better. And when she gives me a “cake” or “ball” of tea (dried, in patties or small balls), she tells me to throw it in a closet and forget about it for 5 years, something I rarely do.

 

Anyway, last month a colleague from the US was in town, so I decided to take him to the teahouse. He’s been in Beijing dozens of times and wanted to do something different. She was particularly excited to see me that day because she had a new tea (well, it was actually really old) she wanted me to try. “What’s it called?” I asked her. “Its’ Cultural Revolution Tea.”

 

Come again??

 

What she was making for us was a pot of tea from a “Cultural Revolution Brick” (the shape/form of the dried tea). She told us that it was a brick of tea dating back to the late 1970’s, and was a collector’s item — very expensive. She was serving it this day to teach her teahouse assistants about it.

 

Graciously she shared it with us, and I will say that it was one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had.

 

 

Oh, and yes, it is available in the US….from Amazon….where else?