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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"The Killing Wind" The barbarism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution

It was 1986, and Tan was one of two journalists assigned to report on the 1,300-person task force canvassing Daoxian county and surrounding areas to tally the murders of more than 9,000 people between August and October 1967.

When Tan Hecheng was a teenager in 1967, he and his cousin happened to pass through the country town of Daoxian in Hunan, south-central China. The boys could not figure out why everyone in the restaurant they visited stared as they wolfed down their fish, which came “incredibly cheap and in an amazingly large serving”.  Nearly two decades later he found out.

It was 1986, and Tan was one of two journalists assigned to report on the 1,300-person task force canvassing Daoxian county and surrounding areas to tally the murders of more than 9,000 people between August and October 1967

Local Communist party officials, whipped up in the hysteria of the Cultural Revolution and fearing a counter-revolutionary insurgency, had instigated and organised the killings of villagers unlucky enough to be branded as landlords or “bad elements”

Bloated bodies floating downstream befouled the county reservoir, forcing the townspeople to forego fish. The 1984-86 task force simply documented who died and who killed them. But Tan wanted to know why

The question consumed his life long after the official investigation wrapped up, and The Killing Wind is the culmination of a two-decade effort to uncover the answer. The book’s publication in English comes as the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution acquires new urgency in China, with “leftists” turning nostalgic for Mao’s time and an increasingly authoritarian Communist party clamping down on dissent. 

Ageing witnesses have seized the chance to remind their fellow citizens of how destructive the Cultural Revolution was. Scholars have published books that attempt to explain how a political system can descend into chaos. But most accounts reflect the experiences of the party elite and urban intellectuals, whose tales of fanatical Red Guards or “sent-down” youth exiled to the countryside have defined the Cultural Revolution for readers worldwide. 

By contrast, Tan’s investigation rarely mentions Red Guards or the destruction of the “Four Olds” (old customs, habits, culture and thinking) that wiped out so much of Chinese culture. In his reading, the Daoxian killings cannot be understood solely as a consequence of the fervour of the Cultural Revolution; rather, they were the culmination of a much longer sequence of events, with origins in the violent early years of Maoist rule

Daoxian was an extreme example but similar killing sprees swept China in the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. Later, many rehabilitated intellectuals, rightists and party members would become enthusiastic supporters of market reforms. But rural victims remained silent in villages dominated by their former tormentors. They have rarely figured in the accounts that shape popular understanding of the era. 

The reason reaches to the core of the ruling party’s legitimacy. After the Communist party came to power in 1949, it instigated the deaths of about 1m “landlords”, the majority of them small farmers with a few hired hands. Their families became a caste of outcasts. 

During the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, “bad elements” suffered disproportionately as local officials monopolised what little food was left in the villages. Survivors became targets in the Cultural Revolution. 

Tan believes dozens of Chinese counties witnessed massacres but few were investigated in detail like Daoxian. That is no accident. Unlike the Cultural Revolution, which the party acknowledges was a mistake, Land Reform is sacrosanct. Even today it claims that the campaign improved the lives of China’s peasantry. What other secrets do Chinese archives hold, and will they ever see the light of day? 

This does not seem likely in the current climate but it will be necessary, nonetheless, if the ghosts of the past seven decades are to be laid to rest. 

The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution, by Tan Hecheng, OUP, RRP$34.95, 536 pages Lucy Hornby is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief

The Killing Wind by Tan Hecheng — anatomy of a massacre Lucy Hornby Feb 24 2017

The first time she saw a human brain she thought it looked like a pancake as it spilled from a broken skull amid the barbarism of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Still a young child, Xue Xinran stood just inches from the body as it landed.
It belonged to a professor who leapt to his death, broken by the brutal regime of persecution that gripped the country from May 1966 under Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
It is hard to believe that what is now the world’s largest economy was 50 years ago plunged into a hell of murder, rape and torture, where millions were killed some even eaten in a monstrous cannibalistic drive to purge any trace of the bourgeoisie.
Family members denounced one another as traitors and children were recruited to the Red Guard militia to help do Mao’s dirty work.
At one school in Wuxan, in the south of the country, students beat to death ­geography teacher Wu Shufang then forced another teacher to rip out his heart and liver, which the pupils barbecued and ate.
Xue’s earliest memory is seeing one gang of savage youngsters burn down her family home near Beijing.
They were just teenagers,” she says. “They were running in and out throwing things on the fire, I can still remember seeing all my dolls and toys in the flames.
“I remember them burning our furniture, books, and the radio. To them they were all ‘foreign’ influences.
“Our furniture was from the UK because my grandfather worked for the British General Electric Company.
“Many of the books were also in English and people thought having a radio meant you were a spy.
“They told me my parents were bad people and my grandfather, who liked red wine, drank blood.”
The hysterical crowd then turned their attention to little Xue herself.
“I remember a woman coming up to me with a large pair of scissors,” she says. “She lifted up my long hair, which went down to my shoulder, then just cut it off. Women weren’t meant to have long hair, high heels or make up. They said it was capitalist.”
After this her family lived in a building with three other professors and their families. The first to commit suicide was the academic who landed at Xue’s feet from a second-floor window. Within a month the two others had also killed themselves.
Xue’s parents and grandfather were jailed as “traitors”. Her parents have never talked about their experience in prison, but her grandfather, who also survived jail, provided some insight.
“He said many people died because they put human waste in the food,” she says. “Many refused to eat, but my grandfather was strong. One boy in the Red Guard stood in front of him and peed into his soup. My grandfather still ate that soup.”
With her family locked up she became a “political orphan” and, at the age of seven, was sent to a school on a military base for 10 years with other children of traitors. They were regularly subjected to beatings.
“There were 14 of us in a house, and we were guarded by Red Guards,” she says.
“Nobody would play with us or dare talk to us, as we walked to school people would spit on us, one boy even urinated on me.”
Aged eight she attempted suicide for the first time, cutting her wrists. She tried again aged 11, drinking poison, but she was rushed to hospital and saved.
She went on to make two further attempts to end her life, driven to despair by horrors that no little girl should have to witness – and which still haunt her now.
The Cultural Revolution destroyed my childhood,” she says. “Even now I wake up in the night terrified, having nightmares about what happened.
“It will be the same for the millions who suffered in the Cultural Revolution.”
Xue is now 57 and a writer living in London with a bestselling book, The Good Women of China (Vintage, £9.99), telling others’ stories of growing up amid the turmoil.
She says: “I was one of the lucky ones, I survived without going mad. But still there is a national self-censorship going on. Even 50 years on people still won’t, or can’t, talk about what happened.”
As many as two million people perished during The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as Mao sought to consolidate control 17 years after taking power in 1949.
All professionals – doctors, teachers, lawyers – were targeted in the great purge of the middle classes. Millions of pet cats were killed too, because they were seen as a bourgeois affectation.
Even those with interests such as fashion or literature were seen as traitors. Friends, neighbours and even family members denounced each other, guilty or not.
China expert Frank Dikotter says: “There were several dozen cases of ritual cannibalism. It was about not just eliminating your class enemy, but devouring him.”
Executions included beheadings, ­boilings, live burials, stonings, drownings and disembowellings
Professor Dikotter says: “In Dao County, thousands were eliminated by driving them over cliffs to plunge to their deaths – men, women and children. The fear was that if you killed the adults the children could return to reap revenge, so it was better to wipe out the family line. In one case a grandmother and her granddaughter were buried alive.
“Then, after 1968, millions were sent to the countryside after they finished school, some of whom were girls as young as 14. Thousands of young girls were left at the mercy of villagers and raped.”
For Dikotter the Chinese Revolution cemented Chairman Mao 's place among the world’s most twisted tyrants.
“Stalin may have killed people, but he used his security forces. Mao, however, turned his own people against each other.
But by the time Mao died on September 9, 1976, the most frenzied era of the Cultural Revolution had already lapsed and the Red Guard was being dispersed.
Five years later the Communist Party denounced the decade as “the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic”.
Mao left behind economic ruin, stagnation and a country which, half a century later, is still too traumatised to come to terms with his cruel Cultural Revolution.

Little red book that inspired a huge terror

The flames of the Cultural Revolution were fuelled by Mao’s Little Red Book, which was filled with slogans to inspire Communist Party members, such as:
  • Every Communist must grasp the truth: political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
  • All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful.
  • A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery... A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
  • Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.
  • War can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.
  • We should support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.
    The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing) is on sale now.

    Torture, mass murder, rape and cannibalism ... the horror of Mao's Cultural Revolution 50 years on 20 MAY 2016 ROD MCPHEE 

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