Confessions From the Cultural Revolution

July 12, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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SHANGHAI — He beat his teachers, terrorized his neighbors, spat on his enemies. But last month, nearly four decades later, the former Red Guard Liu Boqin published in a progressive magazine an apology to nine of his victims. Liu was in junior high school at the start of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and, like the rest of the nation’s youth, was encouraged by Mao’s government to turn on intellectuals, teachers and others in positions of authority.

Now in his sixties, Liu claims that his recent act of contrition is the “painful result of reflections from the autumn of my life.” Certainly, it is a rare admission in a country that has largely brushed aside its traumatic history.

The Chinese Communist Party officially repudiated the Cultural Revolution in 1981; nonetheless it has stifled widespread discussion of the era, for fear of undermining its legitimacy. There are no public memorials to the two million people thought to have died during that time, and classroom lessons skirt around the issue. “Scar literature,” a genre of fiction describing the abuses of the era, petered out in the 1980s following a government campaign against it.

In the few accounts of the Cultural Revolution that do come out these days, authors tend to depict themselves as victims rather than perpetrators, according to Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher of memoirs from the era. They view themselves as the casualties of a larger, and more tragic, historical event. In an essay published in 1998, the writer Zhang Kangkang bemoaned that “most of us today still shift all responsibility” for the Cultural Revolution “onto ‘the times,’ and thoughtlessly declare ourselves free of all guilt.”

Individual confessions like Liu’s are still rare, but they have multiplied in recent years. In 2010, a former Red Guard wrote an article for the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu revealing that as a teenager he had beaten to death a boy from a rival Red Guard faction. A Beijing-based lawyer has disclosed that as a teenager he recommended that his own mother be executed for defacing posters of Mao (she was shot at a public trial). Most recently, a retired cadre divulged in a letter to the outspoken newspaper Southern Weekly that he had once denounced and humiliated a mentor. He also enjoined other Chinese of his generation, “Friends, if you once hurt someone else, let’s apologize and confess, not only for our inner peace, but also for facing our children and history with courage.”

In March, Zhang Hongbing, the lawyer whose tip against his mother led to her execution, sent me an unpublished confession of more than 14,000 words. (He has asked me not to quote from it.) He said he had written it during a single sleepless night and that he was outing himself for fear that once again children might turn on their parents and students on their teachers if the truth about the past were not addressed.

Zhu Xueqin, a history professor at Shanghai University, is also worried about history repeating itself. He fears that the country is “falling backward,” with “more and more Cultural Revolution-style behavior.” He cited the case of the nationalist academic Han Deqiang, who slapped an elderly man for insulting Mao during an anti-Japanese demonstration last year.

The political career of Bo Xilai, once a princeling in the southern city of Chongqing, may have ended in disgrace, but he first rose to prominence partly by tapping public nostalgia with a campaign of “red songs” reviving old tunes from the Cultural Revolution. Failing to reckon with the past can mean misplacing sentimentality.

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