It is hard to comprehend the human cost and impact of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which Mao Zedong unleashed on China in 1966. Over the next ten years 2 million people died and 35 million suffered in lesser ways. 17 million were forced from their homes, schools and universities and made to work in the countryside or in mines or factories far from their own communities. They were variously hounded and humiliated. Mao literally gave permission to fanatical young Red Guards – more often little more than adolescents – to wreak havoc untethered from any control by the Party or State. In so doing he sought to reassert his autocratic leadership of the Communist Party and to reinforce revolutionary commitment among a younger population with no personal memories of the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation in the 1940s.

Whatever his intention, that was not what he achieved. Chaos ensued. Disruption and calculated feuding became goals in themselves. Scores were settled, families divided, scapegoats sought and invariably found. It was clear it could not be allowed to continue, as even Mao had come to realise by 1968. The Red Guards were reined in but what replaced them was a further eight years of more systematic state-controlled repression. Only with Mao’s death in 1976 was it possible for new Party leaders to devise a more settled national pathway. 

Despite all the suffering there is no memorial in China to those who died. There isn’t any longer a museum since – only recently – the one built in a remote province has been closed. There are just private memories and private shame. It is an episode in Chinese history shrouded in a determined forgetfulness. Many would doubtless agree with words written only a few years before it all began by the novelist L P Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But though individuals scarred by the Cultural Revolution may prefer to forget, the Communist Party and its leaders have not forgotten and the lessons they took from the Cultural Revolution still motivate their actions today. Chaos must never be allowed to “come again”.  

Tania Branigan’s “Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution” is an attempt to chart the tensions left behind and unresolved. Tensions that have been generated by an implied alliance between those Chinese – the great majority – who want to avert their eyes from a painful past and focus on a better and more prosperous future and a Party leadership intent on avoiding responsibility for the events and horrors of the Cultural Revolution. In between the apparent majority and a wilful Party Branigan has sought to accommodate those survivors and their families for whom the past is not “a foreign country” but a painful part of their lives and those of their families. 

Relying more on anecdote than an overarching analysis, Branigan draws on interviews conducted whilst she was working as a journalist in China to open spaces in the memories of survivors of the Revolution and its shocking abuses. “Red Memory” is not a history of the Cultural Revolution, nor does it criticise those who want to remain silent or attach blame to individuals who acted in ways we would find inexplicable or even despicable. We – as Branigan frequently reminds her readers – weren’t there and are not in a position to wholly understand, let alone to judge.

A particular strength of “Red Memory” is that individuals emerge in all their complexity and contradictions. Reactions to the Cultural Revolution are not uniform or monochrome. Among a small cast of survivors and witnesses willing to be interviewed, some stand out particularly sharply in Branigan’s account as I have tried to capture below. 

Yu Xiangzhen was a schoolgirl in 1966 but decades later started a blog online to record her life as a Red Guard. She did so simply in order to record and share with others what had happened. What she sought was a degree of liberation from her past.

Wang Xilin, a composer, suffered systematic and horrifyingly crude forms of torture; but, amazingly, he later benefitted from a local Party leader’s need for some music to be written to accompany an educational drama. Wang thereafter flourished more than he could have ever hoped. 

Wang Jingyao was a teacher and very early victim of the Red Guards. She was physically assaulted to within an inch of her life and then wantonly left too long without medical treatment and died as a result. Her husband took great risks to preserve some of Wang’s belongings and most poignant of all hid her ashes behind some bricks in the wall of the family home as a kind of shrine to her memory. 

And the tragic fate of Fang Zhongmou was far from uncommon. She was accused by her own husband and son of speaking ill of Mao and effectively turned over by them to the authorities and subsequently executed. 

Doubtless innumerable other victims or witnesses of persecution, physical and psychological, could be added to Branigan’s slim list. As she relates, most Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution want to suppress their memories of it whilst younger people know little of it except what their parents may have told them. That is perhaps understandable; but suppression of memory can have unintended consequences across the generations. Branigan’s interviews with a few Chinese psychotherapists (a discipline not officially recognised in China until 2013) show how painful memories can lie hidden from view and how episodes from a victim’s past can impact the family born subsequently.  

The Party leadership remains complicit in the suppression of memories of the Cultural Revolution. But the Cultural Revolution taught Mao’s successors that uncontrolled change could produce anarchy; and the brutal repression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 showed how determined they have been never to allow chaos to reign again. Whilst to label it a conspiracy of silence would be misleading, for the post-Mao political leadership as well as many ordinary Chinese people, there is a common inclination to “move on”. 

The current President of China, Xi Jinping, wants to move on, too. With history ever a cautionary guide, Xi and those who owe him allegiance have placed their hopes in controlled economic success and restored national prestige. Even if the economic engine has stuttered somewhat of late, the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong reflects a continuing determination by the current leadership to do whatever is necessary to retain control.

“Red Memory” is a lament above all for the horrors inflicted on so many ordinary Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. It is a lament for memories suppressed and the damage caused to individuals and their families as a consequence. And perhaps it is a lament also for what Branigan appears to see as a disappearing opportunity for China better to respond to individual citizens’ personal hopes and aspirations.  

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