Reflections on the Cultural Revolution

Personal reflections can reveal some of the most intimate details from history, but as they involve personal perspective they often only reveal one part of the story. In China, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution affected millions of Chinese, particularly intellectuals and their families, as evidenced in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and _Wild Swan_s. Both works are either partly or solely based on the personal experiences of the authors, dealing with the period in their life affected by the Cultural Revolution. Sijie’s story of reeducation highlights the stark differences between city intellectuals and Mao’s beloved peasants and how they ‘reeducate’ one female peasant with Western literature. Chang tells her own story of growing up in a society deeply affected by Mao’s political indoctrination and an education system where role models such as Lei Feng sprang from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda campaigns. Much can be learned from their depictions of communist China and the terrible legacy of Mao’s policies. However, it must also be recognized that both authors had migrated to European countries, receiving a European college education, and were from fairly wealthy and comfortable backgrounds. While their removal from China allowed them the freedom to criticize elements of their past, they only represent one small part of those affected by Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Sijie opens his semi-autobiographical novel with a scene depicting the local peasants passing around and examining the narrator’s violin. The imagery is reminiscent of caveman or a child discovering some fascinating new item to explore, serving perhaps to belittle their intelligence and highlight the peasant’s backwardness. The narrator and Luo seem to be indifferent to communist propaganda and Chairman Mao, although they go to the countryside without protest. There they develop a relationship with the little seamstress, exposing her to Western literature and ultimately inspiring her to leave her rural home for the city. Her ‘reeducation’ seems to highlight that even the ignorance and lack of knowledge that ties peasants to Mao’s revolution can be broken.

In Wild Swans, Chang appeared more susceptible to the propaganda machine of the CCP. She describes how all were to learn “love and devotion” to Mao from the famous soldier Lei Feng. Although Lei Feng may have been a real person, it is quite apparent from his biography and its title, that his story was being used as propaganda by the CCP to encourage acceptable behavior and adherence to the party line. Chang’s depiction of the Cultural Revolution is very revealing and her work serves to highlight just how deeply the political indoctrination of Mao affected her and other Chinese youth through the education system. The most profound effects of this period in China were on intellectuals and Chang’s work deals intimately with the consequences for those who denounced Mao and his policies, as did her parents.

While the two authors focused on different periods of their life in communist China and their acceptance of Mao’s propaganda differed, they both came from intellectual backgrounds and did not truly experience a peasant’s life. It is true that Sijie underwent reeducation, but he was not raised as a peasant nor would he have to remain in the countryside for long, returning to the city and escaping to France. Chang also experienced reeducation before she moved to Britain in 1978, where she realized how blind she had been in the “cult of Mao”; but like Sijie she enjoyed a wealthy upbringing and her experience as a peasant was brief. Looking back on his time in China, Sijie seems unable to see any happiness in the peasants or to question whether they felt any more freedom under Mao, depicting them primarily as unintelligent and unaware. Chang attributes any love of Mao to their falling victim to Mao’s propaganda, without attempting to delve deeper into other reasons why millions of Chinese would follow his campaigns that left millions dead and livelihoods ruined. While their personal stories shed light on a difficult and emotional period for these individuals, their removal from the situation and a privileged upbringing have perhaps affected their ability to see outside of their own world and explore how it affected other groups.

In their work, both Sijie and Chang expose the harsh treatment that intellectuals and their families experienced during the Cultural Revolution and the effective propaganda machine used by the communist party. Indeed, the negative impact of Mao’s rule is well documented and there is little doubt many suffered under his rule. However, Sijie and Chang’s accounts deal mainly with their own experiences, showing little regard for how Mao’s China affected anyone outside of their social class and we see only one part of the story. There is also the danger that their migration to a Western and capitalist nation has distorted their memories and affected their judgment. In fact, Chang attributes her turning away from Chinese communism to the “freedom of London” and appropriately, in Sijie’s work it is the Western author Balzac that awakens the little seamstress from her ignorance and sends her to the city to seek her own future. While their stories serve as excellent examples of one side of Mao’s China they fail to significantly encompass the other classes or peasantry which makes up the vast majority of China’s massive population. It would seem that their stories alone cannot provide the whole and most accurate impact of Mao and the Cultural Revolution on China.