An unofficial history of China’s Cultural Revolution

An unofficial history of China’s Cultural Revolution

The diaries of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution may show the ‘10-year catastrophe’ in a new light, writes SHAN WINDSCRIPT.

When I first told my mother about my research project she looked somewhat bemused and then asked, ‘But what good are those diaries?’ Like millions of other Chinese people, she had been an ardent Mao supporter during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but could not immediately see the point of my research into diaries written by ordinary Chinese individuals in that past.

To her, the scribbled personal accounts are just like her memory of the prolonged political event, full of nostalgic warmth, yet of little relevance to the current age. She appeared to think they were just remnants of a bygone era; an era whose nature had already been officially determined by the Chinese government, and insistently enriched by memoirists, novelists, artists and film-makers, both at home and abroad. What, then, is the point of looking at private diaries of ordinary people—many of whom were barely literate—when there are so many influential, well-educated voices out there speaking about the Cultural Revolution?

Mao poster
Cultural Revolution propaganda poster.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76)—later often referred to as the ‘10-year catastrophe’—erupted nearly half a century ago. It raged across China for about a decade, plunging the country into unprecedented upheaval. Today, scholars and the society in general often lament the lack of a ‘satisfactory’ official history of the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its extremes and extraordinary impact on Chinese society, the political event has never been properly addressed in the nation’s official discourse. The only state-authorised historical assessment, the 1981 Resolution generated by the Dengist regime, provides no objective or adequate assessment about the event. Instead, it completely negates the effect of the Cultural Revolution, and brushes over its many atrocities.

Our current historical perception of the political movement is, so far, like a huge landscape painting being viewed only from afar.

In the absence of an adequate official Cultural Revolution history, unofficial historical and memory discourses have flourished. They range from films, literature and art, to commemorative sites such as museums, memorials and theme restaurants. All have contributed to influencing and enriching the public understanding of the Cultural Revolution, thereby challenging the official voice that downplays the complexity and significance of the event.

What have been overlooked in the miscellaneous discourses, however, are the narratives of non-elite Chinese individuals about their experiences during the historical period. Much has been discussed from the perspectives of political leaders and influential figures. But the voices of ordinary people, the central components of history, the driving forces of the Cultural Revolution, are largely obscured.

Our current historical perception of the political movement is, so far, like a huge landscape painting being viewed only from afar. While marvellous rivers and mountains dominate our visions, the small-scale human figures are barely visible. The main aspiration of my research is to bring us closer to the ‘scene’ so that the human elements can be perceived. And no other source can furnish better support for my pursuit than diaries written by ordinary people during the historical occurrence of the Cultural Revolution.

Unique nature

The values and significance of the diaries, to be more specific, are determined by the unique nature of the genre. This can be elaborated, broadly, in relation to the two fundamental characteristics of the diary. The first is related to the temporal immediacy of diary writing.

It goes without saying that, in writing a diary, the author records his or her immediate experiences without much foresight of the future. Compared with narratives constructed retrospectively after an event has finished, such as autobiographies and memoirs, the temporal constraint of writing a diary means that its narratives are much less mediated by the passage of time and subjective experience. They can render individuals’ historical existences with a vivid sense of immediacy and intimacy, and illuminate their historical milieus more effectively than other forms of life writing.

Another feature of the diary that assures its importance is the genre’s heterogeneity. Anyone who can put pen to paper is able to keep a diary. And no one produces a diary the same as the other. As personal documents of people’s most intimate opinions and histories, the private chroniclers are as unique as the individuals who created them.

For this reason, the genre is recognised in scholarly fields` as a highly versatile and diverse cultural–historical source, capable of opening up to a wide range of possible interpretations to the same past. Defying generalisation, diaries underpin an expansive, plural approach to history ‘from below,’ calling attention to the dynamic relationship between individual subjects and their personal historical realities.

With these unique qualities of diary in mind, we can begin to see the potential contributions of a study on Cultural Revolution-era diaries to our existing knowledge of the period. Not only can such an undertaking foster a richer historical rendition of people’s everyday lives, but perhaps more importantly, it also calls into question of the validity of any grand master narrative on that period.

The diaries of the Cultural Revolution—the voices of people—speak for a pluralised history of the political movement, one that is rather more complex and textured than many mainstream retrospective accounts suggest. They bring common people’s existences to the foreground, restoring to them a much-needed sense of place and agency in history. Though their narratives have all been circumstanced and shaped by the same social collective forces, each one of them offers a distinctive, personalised version of the Cultural Revolution. Together, they tell us that there exist as many histories of the Cultural Revolution as there are people who experienced it, and that the human element of history is no less important than the great figures.

It is in these terms that I managed to convince my mother about the worth of the diaries and my research. It is my great hope that by now I may have also convinced you and, in the near future with a much more in-depth study, a wider audience of the academic community and general public.

Main photo:
Three young Chinese Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution (Wikimedia Commons).

Shan Windscript is a PhD. candidate in History at the University of Melbourne, researching Mao-era diaries and contemporary Chinese history.

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