Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Many have been remembering in 2016 the anniversary of both start and finish of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and many scholars used the moment to publish their views on this ground-shattering event in the country´s recent history. Journalist Ian Johnson, author of the upcoming book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao reviews some of the milestones in the troublesome academic research for ChinaFile.

Ian Johnson:

Obtaining this sort of material can be a laborious process, as I found when I went with a Chinese scholar of the Cultural Revolution to explore the Panjiayuan antiques market on Beijing’s east side. Most of this vast market is given over to selling reproductions of Ming vases and Chairman Mao statues, but one row of 50 or so stalls has something more valuable: old books, magazines, newspapers, and handwritten material of all kinds—diaries, notebooks, and sometimes even just loose sheets of hastily scribbled notes.

We spent a Saturday morning rummaging through notebooks filled with math and physics equations, as well as a draft of an unfinished novel from the 1950s. Four hours later, the researcher had spent $500 of his own money on hundreds of sheets of paper, diaries, and jottings from government officials. He would spend the week digesting them and then come back the next Saturday for more sinological scavenging.

All this paper was the detritus disgorged by the dying and dead men and women who won China’s civil war, founded the People’s Republic, grew up as the flowers of the nation, were persecuted, and then regained power; their scribblings are now being thrown out by their children or grandchildren. Sold mostly as scrap paper, some of them have been identified by crafty garbagemen as valuable and offered to the Panjiayuan merchants. In the past, so many diaries and notebooks were thrown out that Western libraries built entire collections based on them. Now, as the older generations fade, the flood is slower but it still casts new light.

Best of all, local historians continue to defy the government by plowing through this material. Many cannot get their work past the censors, so they self-publish online. Their work is sometimes censored, but an amazing amount still gets through. In May, on the first day of this year’s anniversaries for the Cultural Revolution, I opened my WeChat social media account and found half a dozen unofficial articles commemorating the dead and condemning the culpable. I also found a new edition of the biweekly underground journal Remembrance, with over 80 pages of articles on Mao, his security chief, the students, and the youth.6 With much still to be learned, the period of the Cultural Revolution continues to fascinate and reveal itself as a touchstone for understanding China’s past and its present.

Much more in ChinaFile.

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