Boooks: Ten Years of Madness

So James Palmer of @BeijingPalmer fame recommended me Feng Jicai’s Ten Years of Madness as a good book on the Cultural Revolution. It’s all that.

The best biog of Feng I’ve found is this French one, much better than the frankly thin Wikipedia coverage. He is a product of the old-school scholar gentry, a significant painter (and basketball player) as well as a novelist, who was persecuted during the CR and played an important role in the re-establishment of Chinese intellectual life during the 1980s.

As the end of the cold war closed the postwar era, there was a global current of concern for memory and history as a means to post-conflict reconciliation. Germany, of course, was central to this. They started with advantages, having a Saudi-sized resource of things to memorialise, and ended up exporting the ideas all around the world. For a while you couldn’t move without tripping over some Vergangenheitsbewältigung or Geschichtsaufarbeitung happening. I remember a Tim Garton-Ash essay that suggested half-jokingly that Memory Studies was likely to become an academic discipline. Then my sister actually wrote that dissertation.

I think it makes sense to place Ten Years in this context. Feng’s introduction to the book uses the memorable image of a snow-cap of tragedy that has to melt in the spring and flow away through thousands of individual streams of consciousness. The essay is important as otherwise, we don’t get much of Feng himself in the book. Concretely, he placed adverts in the press asking for people to send him their CR experiences and got over 4,000 letters. Out of those he carried out several hundred interviews, and eventually selected fifteen as the most emblematic. He also interviewed a dozen or so people born after 1976 who had no CR memories in an interesting sidelight on the project. The book consists of Feng’s introduction, fifteen testimonies each with a classical epigraph commenting on them, and Feng’s epilogue based on his conversations with the post-1976 control group.

Not surprisingly, once you get into the experiences, it’s a plunge into the darkness. The very first begins by announcing “I am a non-participant!” but within seven pages a church has been desecrated, a library torched, and a child tortured. A succession of memories of appalling violence, public humiliation, atrocious exploitation, shameful compromises, private grief, and emotional self-torment follow. A bulldozer is driven into a crowd and acid is sprayed from it onto people’s faces, until the vehicle gets stuck and the driver is lynched. If you had any doubt that the CR was characterised by direct physical violence, you won’t after this.

Going back to the non-participant for a moment, Feng has his reasons to lead off with this story, the memories of a minor Red Guard’s involvement in the early CR and his subsequent revulsion and disenchantment. A classic distinction in German debates about the past is that between the idea of inner emigration – opting out of the bullshit, not getting involved, keeping your head down – and the doctrine that there is no true life in falsehood. The first is associated with Thomas Mann and later with the so-called “Resistenz” scholars in the 1980s, the second with Theodor Adorno, whose quote it is, and Hannah Arendt.

This latter argues that just refusing to get involved in evil is an act of moral abasement just as damning as actual participation, perhaps even more pernicious because of the self-delusion involved. Only the most full-throated condemnation on principle, and indeed actual violent resistance, is acceptable. The idea of being a non-participant while the library burns is itself an atrocity. You can see the point, even if in practice it’s hard advice to follow and a powerful encouragement to the self-righteous. On the other hand, tyrants always want participation, your heart as well as your mind, and this was never more true than during the CR. If we accept the enormous power of propaganda and intellectual corruption, we must also accept that refusing to be convinced is worth something in itself.

Ambivalence between the two is an important theme of the book. The participatory nature of the CR gives this an special twist. Many of Feng’s witnesses argue something along the lines that Mao’s top-down impulse reactivated a vast network of pre-existing hostilities, jealousies, and factions in Chinese society that predated Communism, the Republic, and maybe even the empire, like seismic faults jerking back into action. 1957 and the Mass Anti-Rightist Campaign of that year are central to almost every narrative, as a force that created even more feuds and rivalries waiting to break out.

Some of this reminded me of Mike Martin’s An Intimate War and its Helmandi clans with members on every side of the conflict, making a mockery of naive abstractions like “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”, “the 205th Corps of the ANA”, or “the Taliban”. As such it makes a great deal of sense. On the other hand, it can also be read as a powerful defence of the Chinese Communist Party as Deng Xiaoping remade it, as the only authoritarian force that can keep Chinese from slaughtering each other. In some sense, and Feng definitely feared this, it’s a preview of Xi Jinping’s future.

6 Comments on "Boooks: Ten Years of Madness"

  1. A short correction:
    Thomas Mann and Adorno constituted a mutual admiration dyad. Since Mann was both the most famous and one of the most outspoken among the German literary émigrés, he can hardly be considered an example of “inner emigration”. Benn and Jünger would fit the bill – as would the author whose name may have been on your fingertips when confusion reared its head and simultaneously chopped off another: Gerhart Hauptmann.


  2. Chine, the US and Russia all have this in common – that they are deeply riven by hostilities, jealousies, factions, rivalries, clientages…(they all have a recent history of major civil war). Such states can only be governed in two ways – loosely, accepting local turfs, power-bases and deviations (the US, the later Soviet Union, traditional China) or with the heaviest of hands (Stalin, Xi…). The latter tends to come unstuck badly if it does not revert to something more permissive.

    Maybe it’s an effect of sheer size? Anything over 300 million or so seems to strain at the bureaucratic seams.


    1. That is a very popularly held belief among (for example) Chinese people trying to explain why the CCP is a Good Thing.
      On the other hand, how does it hold up when you think about other very large polities, like India and Indonesia?
      Or indeed other smaller polities? Are we just saying “governments either have to be loose and federal and decentralised, or not?”


    2. Also, Russia doesn’t fall into the over-300-million bracket. It’s less than half that (144m), not far above Japan (127m) which isn’t governed particularly loosely or with a particularly heavy hand.


      1. I’m not offering a simple answer. I just think there are limits to the scaleability of bureaucracy and with them the reach of effective governance (these limits are not fixed – they have demonstrably risen over time). Population is one factor, geography another, diversity a third. India is large and diverse, and very loosely governed. Indonesia has a geographic issue, but is ethnically dominated by Javanese/Sundanese. Russia has a problem with distance and, historically, with poor communications much of the year.

        There’s also historical momentum – Russia has always tried to compensate for administrative weakness with autocracy, China has a deep-seated fear of division, the US has the persistent legacy of slavery.


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