Victimhood and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Chinese Cultural Revolution, despite being generally referred to as the “Ten Years of Chaos,” was in fact preceded by a much larger human disaster - at least in terms of death toll. The Great Famine (1959-1961), which accompanied the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), resulted in an estimated 40 million deaths. The Cultural Revolution paled in comparison, with around two million deaths.1 However, casualty figures alone did not lead the Chinese community and Western observers to categorize this period as a human tragedy on a grand scale.2 The traumatic impact of the Cultural Revolution arose from the permanent destruction of

The Language of Trauma 33 social relationships, such as trust, love, and friendship, through the violent purging of anyone and anything suspected of sympathizing with the capitalist and bourgeois “old world.” The victims, who were dehumanized and villainized under the label “ox-ghosts and snake-demons,” included professors, artists, landowners, teachers, principals, and officials. Nor did their parents, relatives, friends, and lovers escape. Books, scripts, and other cultural treasures, especially those related to Confucianism, were mercilessly destroyed. Although the Red Guard’s most extreme atrocities, such as beating victims to death and even cannibalism, lasted for less than two years, the public humiliations, the betrayals by loved ones, and the destruction of cultural artefacts continued until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

One of the many prominent writers and intellectuals to face the Red Guard’s ruthless purges was Ba Jin, author of the modern Chinese literary classics Family (1931), Spring (1938), and Autumn (1940). He recollects one of his many experiences of being purged as follows:

In 1966,1 was performing laojiao [re-education through labor] duties in the kitchen of the Writers’ Association [Shanghai Office], A junior high school student kept whipping me, and eventually ordered me to take him to my home. I knew that my whole family would be in trouble if I obeyed. He kept on whipping, but I could not retaliate. I was only able to run for my life. The student did not know what my occupation was. But once he had heard I was a “villain,” he stopped treating me as a human being. He kept chasing after me, and I kept escaping. It was a hopeless struggle!

(“On Humanitarianism” 23-24, translation my own)

Ba Jin is regarded as one of China’s greatest modern writers and was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature before his death in 2005. During the Cultural Revolution, however, he had been “the target of a hundred purges,” undergoing so much public humiliation and criticism that he could barely remember the details (“On Dissecting Oneself’ 131-133, translation my own). In “Writer’s Courage and Responsibilities” (1962), Ba Jin further recalls that the primary evidence adduced for his “counter-revolutionary” behavior was his deliver}' of a speech that reminded writers of the importance of critical thinking prior to the Cultural Revolution.

It seems clear that Ba Jin was a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Yet in many of his post-Cultural Revolution essays, he complicates the idea of victimhood. In “On Dissecting Oneself,” he suggests that if he had been “liberated” and promoted to an influential position at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he would also have committed “many idiotic things, maybe even evil acts” (131-133, translation my own). Rather than blaming the Red Guards for his suffering, he chooses to first “dissect himself’ and inspect his personal shortcomings:

How could anyone keep a cool head when all they could hear were chants and slogans such as “every sentence Chairman Mao speaks is true, and just one of his sentences equals ten thousand of another person’s”? Who could have resisted that? Hindsight always comes too late. But I am fortunate to have rediscovered my long-lost sense of critical thinking”

(“On Dissecting Oneself” 131-133, translation my own)

Ba Jin’s introspective account presents the Cultural Revolution less as a time of collective madness than as a sign of individual weakness. For Ba Jin, the loss of independent thinking was a key factor leading to the Cultural Revolution. He confesses that during those tumultuous times, his mindset was no different from anyone else’s, including that of the perpetrators of his abuse. Ba Jin the victim was also Ba Jin the perpetrator.

As I shall elaborate in later sections, Ba Jin’s “auto-dissecting” approach to his personal guilt and responsibility contrasts starkly with the narrative of a collective Cultural Revolution experience promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since Mao’s death in 1976. More importantly, Ba Jin’s emphasis on introspection paves way for Gao Xingjian’s portrayal of the Cultural Revolution trauma from the lens of individualistic and detached introspection or being without isms.

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