Book review: Chinese professor's frank Cultural Revolution memoir
Some are surprised that one of China’s most prestigious universities was allowed to issue Ji Xianlin's The Cowshed, his memoir of social upheaval during the Mao era, now available in English for the first time
The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
by Ji Xianlin
New York Review of Books
China’s central government doesn’t make it easy for its people to openly discuss sensitive issues. Some were surprised, then, when a professor at one of the country’s most prestigious universities published this memoir in 1998 of his abuse during the decade-long, deadly social upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution.
This book is a short, clear read, and now it’s in English. Ji Xianlin writes that he had waited years for someone to step up and explain for younger generations the chaos of the 1960s. Under Mao Zedong, youth turned on their elders and historical objects were smashed in a political frenzy that, to many, still makes no sense at all.
What worried Ji was that so many of the perpetrators silently moved on with their lives as China opened to the world and transformed.
“They are the cancer cells of our socialist society, and letting them off the hook for their crimes was a mistake,” Ji writes in the preface. “Chinese society today appears peaceful and harmonious, and things seem to be going well. But our society is ethically hollow, local government is often corrupt, and many individuals are incompetent. If we trace these problems to their roots, we are likely to find them in the Cultural Revolution and in the people mentioned above.”
Back in the chaos, everyone was blinded by partisanship, Ji writes, himself included. In the swirl of the Peking University campus, the ageing scholar eventually was targeted as well.
SEE ALSO: Lessons from 1966 – why we should never forget the disastrous consequences of the Cultural Revolution
His memoir could use more context for readers who’ve never come across the Cultural Revolution, but his details bring the upside-down world into some focus: the mass denunciations while he stood looking at his feet, a wooden board with his “crimes” hung around his neck with steel wire. Being pelted with stones. Being forced to plant sweet potatoes on a collective farm until his fingertips bled.
“My testicles became so swollen that I couldn’t even stand up or close my legs,” he writes. Allowed by his guards to report to a military clinic, he crawled two hours to reach it. But when he announced his political status, the doctor ordered him away.
The swelling eventually eased. So did the chaos. Ji slowly was allowed a return towards normal life. The respected scholar of Sanskrit was given a job as a campus security guard. Thinking the post would be his lifelong fate, he quietly began a translation of the longest and most difficult text he could find, the Indian epic Ramayana. With his tainted political status, no one would ever publish it, he decided.
Even then, he didn’t dare bring the text to work with him, where people might notice. Instead, he slipped translated bits of the text into his pocket every day and spent his hours thinking them into rhyming verse.
“As I stared into space, no one could have known what I was thinking,” Ji writes.
It is the kind of self-protection that some in China continue to exercise even today.