Excerpt of the Week: Zha Jianying on Ji Xianlin’s “The Cowshed”

Nearly 20 years after the appearance in China of one of the most shocking first-person narratives of the Cultural Revolution, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (牛棚杂忆, 季羡林著), The New York Review of Books has published the book in English. Written by Ji Xianlin, the account appears with a new introduction by Zha Jianying (查建英), a writer and media critic based in New York. The following is excerpted by from NYT’s interview with Zha Jianying (Remembering the Cultural Revolution):

Q. When “The Cowshed” was published in China in 1998, it is supposed to have been widely read. Was that really the case? These days in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution is a rare topic. People shrug their shoulders and barely recall Ji or what he went through. How do you account for this?

A. Time is obviously a factor. A less obvious but more important factor is censorship. The forgetfulness hasn’t happened naturally; there is something insidious behind the phenomenon. The human desire to turn away from past trauma is perhaps universal, but the amnesia many Chinese display these days is highly selective. If you ask them about the Opium War or the Japanese invasion, for instance, they won’t shrug their shoulders; they are likely to treat you with a lecture. Those events occurred much earlier, yet are well remembered because the state constantly reminds people about China’s humiliation at foreign hands. Every Chinese kid is schooled in those history lessons. But an internal mess? That’s a totally different matter. The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao, supported by the entire party leadership, with millions of Chinese participating in the violence and persecution. It’s a thoroughly homemade nightmare. And the same party continues to rule today. So is it surprising that the topic has been quietly muzzled? Do you wonder why the government would like people to forget about it and why many Chinese happily obliged?

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