Censorship and passing down the generations

April 2, 2017

I’m in a class this semester about the Cultural Revolution in China, a tumultuous decade from 1966-1976 where social and cultural upheavals were the norm rather than the exception. Here at the University of Hong Kong, nobody pays attention in class. It’s fine, even accepted: my hallmates here brag about how they haven’t been to class in weeks (I suppose they do that in the US, too). But the Cultural Revolution class, according to my professor, boasts “the highest attendance rate of any class at HKU” according to my professor. Hard to do, in a class of 300+ students. (Nevermind the fact that participation is required and each week students have to turn in answers to those questions).

Anyhow, people don’t usually pay attention in that class. The buzz about the room quite often resembles that of your average Starbucks (I’m sitting in one right now).

So when our professor revealed her true identity to our class, an uncharacteristic silence swept across the room. An underground artist during the third phase of the Cultural Revolution, quietly subverting the power of the Party. She painted after work into dusk, constantly dodging the watchful eye of the Communist Party. She was part of the wuming “gang” of artists (which translates to “Anonymous” or “No name”). This group consisted of counterrevolutionaries of all different backgrounds, tired of the persistent waves of supposed “revolution” that Mao was calling for. My professor’s name is Wang Aihe.

Now she’s a professor with two Harvard degrees, teaching a class that inspired many of the students involved in the 2014 Yellow Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. Once a counterrevolutionary, always a counterrevolutionary.

I often forget how my parents’ generation was a part of this history. My parents, and the parents of many other Chinese-Americans my age, were children and teenagers during the Cultural Revolution in China. All of them came to the US for a reason. Maybe it was the memory of the Cultural Revolution and the fear of history repeating itself, the pro-democracy sentiments like those of the students in Tiananmen in 1989, or a more mundane desire for a better life in the free world.

I only just recently learned that my dad was sent down to the countryside for re-education at the end of the the Cultural Revolution. My parents were third-wave red guards; my grandparents once wore tall dunce hats and wooden boards while so-called revolutionaries berated them.

In China, there’s no doubt that that decade is a forgotten part of history. Government censorship and a party-enforced taboo on the topic has all but erased the event. But it cannot be forgotten.

The number of books written about the Chinese Cultural Revolution does not match the scope of the event. In fact, both of the required reading books for our class were written by white male professors specializing in Chinese history. That is not to say that they are poorly written or factually incorrect; they are packed with facts. On the other hand, they lack the intimately personal narrative of a well-written memoir. I’m willing to put out two theories as to why a memoir does not exist:

  1. Writing about authentic personal experiences during the CR in China is essentially marking yourself as a political dissident if you’re in China. And if you’re trying to publish the book, forget about it.
  2. The people who have left China who can write about the Cultural Revolution often work in technical fields. Immigration policies around the world give precedence to people specializing in STEM fields. This means that emigrants in free countries are not necessarily focused on telling their stories. They’re not historians or authors or even that good at English.

I think that these are pretty convincing, though there are absolutely more reasons for the lack of literature on the Cultural Revolution. Needless to say, more stories need to be heard and preserved.

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