Review of Some of Us, Part 1

Review of Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era (edited by Zueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di)

14 February 2008

“[At the fifty-first annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in 1999 panel discussion ‘Memory and the Cultural Revolution,’ during] the question-and-answer period, someone stated that she had a different kind of memory about the Cultural Revolution, not just the gloomy and dark kind, or of being a victim or victimizer, but also of the high and youthful spirit that strongly affected many youngsters. How, she asked, does one account for this kind of memory? In response, the chair of the panel used an analogy: according to him, there were Nazi concentration camp survivors who still get excited upon hearing Nazi music, the kind they used to hear in the concentration camps. The underlying statement is clear: you poor creature, you are so brainwashed that you don’t know what’s good or bad for you.” (p. xviii)

“The dark age master narrative in turn reinforced the long-existing Mao-era-being-a-dark-age narrative in the West, especially in the United states, where stories exposing the tragedy of the communist rule found a huge market among Americans, ranging from liberals crusading for human rights to anticommunist conservatives… The collective imagination of the Mao era in America, in turn, becomes heavily shaped by these dark age narratives… In many ways, the dark age narrative commands a stronger popular imagination in the United States than even in China.” (pp. xx-xxi)

Some of Us complicates the mainstream anti-communist narratives on the Cultural Revolution decade. Specifically, it challenges the flood of dark age victim/victimizer stories that are currently popular in the West. The book is a compilation of autobiographical writings by Chinese women from petty-bourgeois backgrounds who moved to the West to pursue academic careers. The authors are in no way representative of the majority of Chinese women. Even though many of the authors are hostile to the Cultural Revolution, they have all found the standard narrative of “GPCR = hell on earth,” as conveyed in the popular but trashy memoirs of enemies such as Jung Chang, to clash with their own experience. The editors ask why some autobiographical accounts count and some do not. (pp. xvi) The editors have no in-depth answer to this question. Leading Lights do: Whose experience counts and whose does not is a function of power. Historical narratives are constantly changing depending on the unfolding of social contradictions. Today’s popular anti-communist narrative is one that serves to legitimate particular social orders, the order of capitalist China and the order of Western imperialism. Not surprisingly, the bourgeoisie discovers a history of proletarian rule that is one horror show after another. Leading Lights ask: Whose history? Exploiter or exploited? Theirs or ours? (1) By no means a revolutionary work, Some of Us complicates the mainstream, reactionary narrative and sheds new light on our own.

On the urban experience of the countryside

Some of Us challenges the standard narrative of the urban experience of the countryside in the Maoist years. During the Cultural Revolution decade millions of urban people were sent to countryside to carry on revolution and socialist construction. Most famously, this was the case with the red guards, but this was also the case with the zhiqing, the 16.23 million urban youths that went to the countryside throughout the entire Cultural Revolution decade. (p. 1)

The standard narrative is that the years spent in the countryside by youth, red guards, cultural workers, “sent down“ cadres, and others, was wasted time. For example, the typical “sent down” red guard narrative is that the red guards were used and abused. They were punished, sent to the countryside, only after they had served their purpose by toppling Mao’s opponents, especially Liu Shaoqi. They were disciplined by the PLA and worker organizations, disbanded and punished for their alleged excesses during the power-seizure phase (1967 and 1968) of the Cultural Revolution. Those who went to the countryside, red guards and others, had their lives interrupted and wasted in the bleak wasteland of rural China. So goes the “typical” story. Naihua Zhang, a zhiqing who went to the countryside in March of 1969, gives another impression:

“My memory is a nostalgic one. It is about finding a home away from home. It is about finding myself — as a girl/young woman and as a zhiqing, with my specific family class origin. And it is about taking a journey to womanhood with two young rural women, about the friendship that developed among us, which bound our lives together even though we ended up going separate ways.” (p. 2)

“Living their [the peasants’] lives in a remote village in northeast China, with little involvement in the welfare system of the state, they were more independent in their minds and maintained their unique perspective. They watched what a person did and determined whether the person was honest, could ‘eat bitterness,’ and was willing to toil. Their roundedness, wit, openness, and trust were sharp contrasts to what I had experienced in Beijing, the center of fierce political struggle and division among people. It was in Momoge that I began to heal from the discrimination I had experienced in Beijing. I began to regain hope, confidence, and trust in people. I also got to know the peasants and the countryside, knowledge essential to a better understanding of agrarian China. In some memoirs or literary works, zhiqing are portrayed as victims of corrupt local officials, and the period in the countryside is seen as a waste of time in their lives. I have always felt a deep sense of gratitude and nostalgia toward the people in my village, a place I devoted a full eight years of my youth and from which I have also gained much in return.” (p. 6)

“Yes, we encountered many difficulties and endured hardships, but all in all, we were happy. At that time, all organizations or projects had to be self-reliant. We had to support ourselves before we could have money to do experiments or other tasks. We were proud that, as a result of our efforts, both the brigade orchard and the commune experimental farm were doing well economically… Most important, we liked the challenges and we rose to meet them. The specific time and circumstances under which we lived provided opportunities for us to engage in a variety of activities and made our experience fulfilling, enriching, and empowering.

Because we were completely immersed in what we were doing at the time, I don’t think we gave any specific thought to what led us there. Now, in retrospect, I have begun to see how the CR ethos of equality, and ‘men and women are the same’ rhetoric, our autonomy in an all-girl setting away from home, and the prolonged, much protected, and privileged stage of youth all worked together to allow us to have these special and remarkable experiences.” (p. 14)

Another zhiqing, Wang Zhen recollects her time in the countryside:

“Lin and I talked all the time in the fields, whenever we were not out of breath. Actually, she talked modestly, and on one topic: the significance of the Cultural Revolution.. She enlightened me within only a couple months. Her description of of the goal of sent-down youth (zhiqing) fit well with my childhood utopian dream, that Communism aims to make the whole world a beautiful garden where everyone lives happily without exploitation and oppression: ‘From each according to one’s ability and to each according to one’s needs.’ Now we revolutionary youth were in the position to make our country a beautiful garden.. It cannot be more difficult than the Long March… I enthusiastically began to work toward this glorious dream, imagining myself among the ranks of revolutionaries who heroically endured hardship and pain for the sake of all people’s everlasting happiness.. I wrote a letter to the brigade leader sincerely asking for the lowest salary. I reasoned, ‘When the Red Army soldiers were on the Long March, each had only five cents a day for food. I have no reason to ask for more than what I need to feed myself since our country is still poor.’ I was soon identified by the party leaders as a promising ‘revolutionary seedling.’” (pp. 47-48)

For others, the experience of the countryside was more mixed. Xiaomei Chen writes of the experience of her parents and herself in the countryside:

“The Maoist rhetoric that privileged the common people (for example, workers, peasants, and soldiers) ensured that any sense of elitist glory such as had once been planted in me as a child would be uprooted because of the contemporary insistence that an acting career was no more glorious than any other occupation. In fact, long before the revolution was won, Mao Zedong had already laid down, in 1942, his principles in regard to literature and art. They should serve the interests of the working classes, then considered to be the backbone of the Chinese Communist Revolution and, later on, the masters of a new, socialist China. Thus, whereas, heretofore my head turned by my parents’ scintillating careers and star status, I now noticed that in their midnight conversations they spoke with excitement about their upcoming tours of factories, mines, and remote rural villages, which had never seen drama by a renowned national theater. They also thoroughly enjoyed tutoring the local people in all parts of China on creating their own modern spoken drama.” (p. 59)

“When my parents returned home from these trips, sometimes after a year-long separation from me, I was supremely happy. I absorbed the inspiring messages they gave, chief among which was their ardent desire to travel again to the remote regions of the country, to experience again rejuvenation by the spirit of the common people. It was the responsibility of the socialist artists to be accepted by the ordinary folk, for only this approval could qualify them to depict the latter’s revolutionary acts on stage. My parents’ passionate belief in ordinary people, and their sincere efforts to reform themselves into revolutionary artists, deserving of the working class’s trust, remain among my most prized impressions from the time I spent with them at the dinner table.” (pp. 80)

Xiaomei Chen writes of her own experience:

“While I would not deny the sometimes dispiriting effect on me of back-breaking labor and my longing to return home, I can still say that spiritually and emotionally I was not as devastated as many authors of the Cultural Revolution memoirs would have us believe everyone was. I never felt totally alone. Caring and supportive people accepted me for who I was. Thus in that cold, wintry, snow-covered northeast wilderness I knew a kind of real love that gave me hope and brought warmth to me heart.” (p. 74)

These accounts paint more complex pictures of the “sent down” and the urban experiences of the countryside generally. They capture the optimism and heroism of a time where millions of youths, activists, and ordinary people, fought to radically change the world for the better, sacrificing comfort, even going into the poverty of the Chinese countryside to push the revolution forward. The standard narrative dismisses the movements to the countryside as a cynical ploy by the Communist Party to deal with rebellion, factionalism, unemployment, delinquency and so on. The narratives here are very different.

To ask to what degree the typical revisionist and Western narrative is true misses the real point: social forces are bigger than any particular struggle between leaders. Social forces are bigger than attempts to solve any particular economic difficulty. And, whatever the motives of top leaders at the heights of power, popular social forces were unleashed in the cities and, then, in the countryside, to forward the cause of socialism. The anecdotes in Some of Us give a glimpse into this utopian, altruistic impulse during the Cultural Revolution decade that motivated so many urban Chinese to gladly throw in their lot with those who toiled in poverty in the countryside.

Endnotes for the first part of this series

1. This constant re-writing of history, contesting of the narrative, is not just limited to non-proletarian societies. At the height of proletarian power, during the Cultural Revolution decade, history was re-written more than once depending on the unfolding of various contradictions within the proletarian leadership. Yesterday’s heroes became tomorrow’s villains. Most famously, this was the case with Lin Biao, but also with many others. We should adopt the method of “stepping back” when evaluating the conflicting proletarian narratives of the Cultural Revolution decade. Rather than dogmatically adopting one narrative, be it pre-69, pre-72 or pre-1976, rather than accepting at face value the various police narratives generated by competing power blocs, we should step back and focus on the larger picture. When was proletarian power at its height? When was the dictatorship of the proletariat ascending? When was momentum lost? Next time, how can we do better?


Zueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di (Ed.). Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era. 2001. USA: Rutgers University Press.

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