The Cultural Revolution has been, and continues to be, intensely studied outside China. Within the country, particularly in recent decades, things are more sensitive. But even if repressed, it is still part of the life stories of most people over the age of 65 – which means a good number of the political elite running the country today. We know much about how the events from 1966 unfolded in urban centres like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou through the excellent work of, amongst others, Andrew Walder. Song Yongyi runs a tremendous internet resource on the era with thousands of documents (https://socialhistoryportal.org/news/articles/109609). Even in more remote parts of the country, we have some good material, much of it from Chinese writers themselves who were witnesses originally and then went on to study it. The remarkable `The Killing Wind’ by Tan Hecheng about the horrifying events in Daoxian, Hunan province in 1967 springs to mind here.
On the three main so-called autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, the situation is somewhat patchier. The first region has been addressed most fully by the work of Qi Zhi, (啓之，内蒙文革实录，Hong Kong, 2010). The second and third however are areas where much is suspected, and little really known.
One of the many remarkable things about Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser’s book, `Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution’, now handsomely translated into English by Susan T Chen and furnished with an excellent introduction by Robert Barnett (Potomac Books, Nebraska 2020- ) is the ways in which, through the collection of her father’s photographs from the period, we see the act of revolution as it was undertaken at this time. Mao Zedong was right: revolution was not a dinner party. This book shows people in the midst of violence, verbal and physical. They are depicted being struggled against, forced to bow their heads while being marched through streets with the various paraphernalia of the era hung around their necks and bodies, and in some cases taken from trials to execution. Not a dinner party indeed!
Those who have been to Lhasa, where most of these images were shot, will be familiar with some of the locations. The area in front of the revered Jokhang Temple, for instance, or the square underneath the Potala Palace. They are places of largely placid sightseeing and tourism today, though heavily securitised. Tsering Woeser’s father was an official photographer for the People’s Liberation Army in the 1960s, meaning that he was allowed access to the events which unfolded from August 1966 when the Cultural Revolution hit China’s provinces after being announced in May in Beijing. He did this work for the following two years, before being relocated with his family to neighbouring Sichuan province. The fact that his daughter was able to keep his collection of negatives, and that she is also in a position to supply such detailed notes and explanations, means that there is nothing remotely like this archive for the other autonomous regions.
The act of revolution in this period involved the singling out of specific individuals who were associated with the `Three Great Masters’ of the old Tibetan society – members of the former government, monasteries and aristocratic classes. The campaign to eliminate the claimed influence of these was folded into the national `Smash the Four Olds’ that was waged elsewhere in Mao’s China. The ways in which the national and local dynamics related to each other, particularly in how actions like Struggle Sessions and political campaigns to `root out’ evil influences, were adapted to local circumstances, is captured both in the images, with their haunting power, and the texts. They are only moments in a dynamic process, frozen for one moment, but this does not detract from their great symbolic power. Around them, we can construct a little of what this whole experience of revolution at this time and its aftermath must have been like. We can also understand the traces it leaves to this day.
It would be easy to start imposing strong moral parameters to this story to make sense of it – the victimised Tibetans and the evil Han colonisers is one that springs to mind. But this book is a corrective to this. As Barnett explains in the introduce, and as Woeser and the photos reinforces, the vast majority of those persecuting, not just those being persecuted, were Tibetans. Many of the activists were classified as `emancipated serfs.’ Some came from the underclass – beggars, thieves, those on the fringes of the traditional society that had prevailed in the region till the fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959. The question of motivations is not an easy one to unpick. For some, as elsewhere in China, it was a case of settling scores with people they felt had done them done. For others, it was more about keeping themselves safe in an era when everyone was under suspicion. Even the most powerful Communist Party appointed leader of the region in 1966, Zhang Guohua, and his deputy Ren Rong, ended up getting consumed by the events, removed to elsewhere or side-lined. In the aftermath, yesterday’s victims, sometimes, became the new masters, co-opted by the Party State in the reform era after 1978 to be members of the notional governance structure of Tibet as it emerged from the trauma of this time. In most of the images, at least from the era of its greatest intensity over 1966 to 1967, the thing that is striking is the ways that people of Han ethnicity – either as soldiers, or party members – when they are visible at all, are more often than not on the edges, and figure as onlookers. Only once or twice do they seem to take an active, leading role.
One of the most powerful and important aspects of this book, which was originally issued in Taipei, Taiwan in Chinese in 2006, is the ways in which it expels anonymity. Often, except for absolutely key figures, images from the Cultural Revolution elsewhere in the country have people in them who carry no names, and about which nothing seems to be known. Who were they, what had they done before getting involved, why were they there, and, most importantly, what happened to them afterwards? The work of Li Zhengsheng, who only recently died in the US, typifies this. While the publication of his collection of images from the north east of China at the same time as Woeser’s sometimes indicate who the figure is being struggled against or attacked, for those engaged in doing this there is largely silence. Woeser’s approach to her father’s work is different. She conveys a vast amount of information about even figures that are in the background of some of the photos. She is able to track what happened to them – how some of them spent much of the rest of their lives reverting to Tibetan religious practices in an act of repentance, and how others remained unapologetic, and even enjoyed success. For some, the updates fade away, with only `they died sometime in the 1990s’ finishing off the descriptions of them. But all of this does help give depth and human context to scenes which can all too often seem distant because of their almost nightmarish quality.
In the end, though, dwelling on the stories that we see through the book of those who took the brunt of this cataclysmic event – Ba Jin called it a `spiritual holocaust’ – is where the real comprehension of what it might mean, and how it should be remembered and understood today happens. Images of the figure of Shatraba Decho with a huge paper notice stuck to her front in Tibetan denouncing her crimes for instance. Or the horrible fate of Tsadi Tseten Dorje whose aristocratic background meant he was singled out for particularly nasty treatment, with a concoction of barley and thorns forced down his throat at one meeting, and a dunce’s cap placed on his head. Maybe of all the images, that of the bewildered expression of the elderly Pelshi Po-la, standing being humiliated in public, looking straight at the camera, is the most haunting (117). These four images raise the kind of questions about complicity, accountability, the role of an observer like the photographer, and in what ways their act of recording is crucially necessary, but also profoundly painful. It might be my own over-delicate liberal sentiments, from another place, and another time over fifty years in the future, but there is a sense in which his look captures the sense of shame, incomprehension, and accusation not just for those actively persecuting him that day, but we, as readers, sitting comfortably observing decades later. The Cultural Revolution was China’s; the human tragedy of it however, as this book so forcefully shows, relates to us all.