How the Cultural Revolution Played Society Against Itself
Tania Branigan on the Enduring Impact of Collective Intergenerational Trauma in China
“This is not the end of an incident, but just the beginning. Lies written in ink cannot cover up facts written in blood. Blood debts must be repaid in kind. The longer the delay in payment, the higher the interest!”
I knew that political repression in China had muted discussion of the Cultural Revolution. Only gradually did I realize how large a part personal trauma had played in the national amnesia. I spoke to former Red Guards regretting their cruelty; a composer who narrowly escaped death; Zhang Hongbing, who, as a teenager, had denounced his mother, leading to her execution.
What made my interviewees truly unusual was not what they had done, or what was done to them, but their willingness to speak about it: many people will not discuss the era even with their families. Yet despite, or perhaps because, of this silence, the trauma continues to be transmitted through the generations.
Not long after my visit to Zhang Hongbing, I met a novelist for coffee. I’d heard she was interested in the era and its parallels with more recent events; we talked of her work and how it was inflected by what happened all those years ago. She spoke a little of how she understood the Cultural Revolution, and I paused to clarify. Some used the name to refer to only the first years of Red Guard violence, and others included the full decade of hatred. When did she believe it ended?
“Last April,” she replied. I wasn’t sure if she’d misunderstood my question, or I had misunderstood her answer. Seeing my confusion, she elucidated: “We didn’t escape until my father died last April, still arguing with the Red Guards. They didn’t let him sleep for seventeen days—his brain became chaotic. So his thoughts stopped at the Cultural Revolution.”
Her response leveled me. I suppose I had known, from my first meeting with Yu Xiangzhen, that the past walked with all survivors. Friends edged around family secrets and tensions, glancing at the causes. I sensed it in the rage and volatility of some I met, and in the fractured recall of others: trauma punches the holes that power must drill into language, memory, families. But, really, it was everywhere, a pain that ate people up and wore them out.
It corroded their stomachs, acid, relentless, or came in spasms sharp enough to paralyze. Piercing headaches reduced them to tears and rage. They shut their eyes but sleep never came, or they drifted and dozed and jerked awake, clammy, and lay cold and hot and cold. They lived in a grey world of exhaustion, worn thin. They tried Western medicine and Chinese, and tablets found online or pressed on them by friends. It wasn’t an ulcer. It wasn’t cancer or migraines.
Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan has been shortlisted for the 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize.
They went again to doctors who inspected tongues, took pulses, drew blood, ordered scans, wrote prescriptions, stuck them with needles, shrugged their shoulders, rang specialists. Eventually, sent on and on, they found themselves, resentful and wary, in another office. Their answers were terse. Suspicious. Little hard beads of fact and complaint, unstrung; it was a struggle to order them. Most just wanted the pills.
The children and grandchildren came. Sometimes their bodies had the same sicknesses, the sharp pains, the unexplained lethargies. Occasionally they spoke of other troubles, admitting that they were stressed and depressed and anxious, and did not know why. Last year there had been a student—a dutiful young man, a little quiet, but friendly enough with classmates.
His grades had been high, his behavior immaculate, until the day he posted a precise description of how he wanted to kill his teacher: how he woke up in his dorm room and seized a viciously sharp knife; how he walked into the room and saw his tutor; how he threw the man’s scalding tea… It ran on and on, and the university authorities, when they read it, asked the mental health staff for help, who sought help from specialists, who, in turn, approached a psychoanalyst.
No one could reconcile those graphic words with this pleasant, unremarkable boy. His parents had a good relationship; they got on well with their son. They rushed to the college when they heard of his trouble and rented a flat so his mother could live with him while he underwent treatment. His father was almost silent, but supportive; over the weeks, it emerged—to the family’s shock, but not entirely to the psychoanalyst’s—that he had lived with deep depression for years.
Throughout his son’s life he had drummed in the same lessons: Keep your distance. Keep your guard up. Don’t trust anyone. Never, ever let them see you are angry. He drove the message home again and again, and never told his son why. He had watched his own father murdered by Red Guards. He suppressed the pain and fear and rage for almost half a century, and still it had betrayed him, and his child.
Family after family hid their past. Some would not discuss their suffering even with the husbands or wives who had witnessed it. Others told brothers and sisters to forget the events that had scarred their childhood. Sometimes, scared by psychotic episodes or anxious at strange obsessions, adult sons and daughters brought their parents directly to psychiatrists.
More often, patients came for physical ailments that had found no relief. They had seen that speech had unimaginable consequences and that a surface harmony, however tenuous, should not be broken. Silence was safety, however dearly bought. The misery stretched back fifty years and ran onwards; you could not see its end. The trauma would not die with its victims: it had already replicated itself in their children, and their children’s children. Like cancer cells, it could not mature, only reproduce itself, mutating in grotesque immortality.
Few professionals were willing to speak about their work with survivors. Some published nothing, others worked anonymously with Western colleagues. Those who spoke to me did so, eventually, on the basis that they would not be identified, and some of those were so elliptical that I gave up hope of answers after several meetings. I met the man I’ll call Dr. Yang at an international psychotherapy conference in Shanghai. The Europeans wore expensive linen and designer spectacles: they were recognizably a caste, despite their differences.
The Chinese dressed like bank clerks or PE teachers or artists. They had not coalesced into a profession. They nodded at mentions of Klein or Lacan—they had the training and the jargon. But when they spoke they told stories and joked, and used words like “love” and “contentment” as often as “cathexis” and “anaclitic.” They were unabashed and unironic about their attempts to heal themselves and others; they saw no shame in sincerity, even as they recognized the complications of their feelings and their goals.
“I saw enough of people torturing people. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to bring happiness and joy,” said Dr. Yang. He tapped a cigarette from its packet and smiled: “This is also the outcome of the Cultural Revolution. Our parents had no time to take care of us, so we learned bad habits. These were one of the limited ways of destressing. Everyone lived in the fighting state, in a very hostile environment. The basic instincts and drives were activated.”
He inhaled, turning his head politely to blow the smoke away from me. He was a stocky man, with an easy manner at odds with his subject: struggle, hate, execution. He talked about the “so-called” confession meetings he had watched; the public sentencings—twenty thousand people gathered in a square, waiting for the revolutionary committee to pronounce the death penalty. Beatings. Political currents and campaigns that might ensnare you at any moment. It wasn’t so much the violence as the instability that defined the Cultural Revolution.It wasn’t so much the violence as the instability that defined the Cultural Revolution.
“Everyone was involved. Everyone was anxious. It was a zero-sum game—and it could flip. This group of people was successful and superior. But that could become an inferior status—it could all overturn. They were cadres and took power, and then power disappeared in one night and the family experienced a total reversal in life that they could never have imagined. People could not keep a stable, permanent and successful status.”
In other catastrophes the line between victims and perpetrators was clearer. When the target was defined not by race or custom but by what was purportedly in hearts and minds; when what was right today was wrong tomorrow; when the means of destruction was mass participation—then certainty, like innocence, was an impossibility.
How had people endured these years? Some had already learned, by then, to bear unbearable abuse. (“We’ll be all right as long as we keep going,” Ba Jin and his wife would tell each other. They weren’t, though, in the end.) Some attempted to comfort themselves with traditional beliefs and philosophy, though only in secret because such things were forbidden.
Humor, also in private. (Jokes were no joke: humor, which depends upon a sense of proportion and incongruity, was inherently a rebuff to Maoist zealotry, and in the worst instances a capital crime.) Self-recrimination, allowing themselves some illusion of potential control: they had done something to bring this disaster upon themselves. And psychosis itself was a kind of protection: when the mind could no longer bear reality, it broke before the person did. Other people, without psychoses, killed themselves.
“The second defining characteristic was what happened in the aftermath,” the psychotherapist continued. When the Second World War ended, the Japanese occupiers had been expelled—the enemy was gone. Two million people fled to Taiwan when the Communists defeated the Kuomintang. But after the Cultural Revolution everyone had to live alongside each other as if nothing had happened. They remained in place: “In the same country, in the same workplace and even in the same families.”
Chinese culture had long existed as a web of relationships. Family hierarchies both echoed and formed part of the imperial order. To be a person was to be a link between ancestors and descendants, bound into a greater scheme that ran both vertically through time and horizontally through society: “The path runs from the self to the family, from the family to the state, and from the state to the whole world,” wrote the sociologist Fei Xiaotong. Nothing could be more menacing than a figure unknown and untethered to society.
In the eighteenth century a panic over “soul-stealing” swept the land, with mob attacks on those suspected of sorcery, in a phenomenon in some ways analogous to the Maoist hysteria, as the historian Philip Kuhn has described. But suspicions attached themselves to “wanderers, strangers, people without roots, people of obscure origins and uncertain purpose, people lacking social connections, people out of control.”
The Cultural Revolution showed that one thing was more terrifying than a stranger: someone close to you. To know a person was no longer the kernel of trust but of suspicion. Those around you, those who knew you best, had the greatest power to harm. In the immediate years after the turmoil, “people might speak to strangers on trains about what they had seen—but never to their colleagues,” said Dr. Yang. And morality itself was now betrayed: for traditional Confucian precepts had no ethical concepts, Fei Xiaotong wrote, which transcended specific types of human relationships. When you could not trust those beside you, trust itself was destroyed.
“Was surviving the revolution a stroke of good or ill fortune? Even now, I cannot say I know the answer to that question,” one victim wrote, decades later.
Excerpted from Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.