The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Part 1 (Review)

Welcome to Part One of my two-part review of the book, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Ji Xianlin. Part Two will be posted tomorrow.


The Cowshed:
Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,
Book Review, Part 1 of 2

In 1966 a madness swept over China, called the Cultural Revolution, and Ji Xianlin found himself at the epicenter. Ji was a professor, and head of the Eastern Languages Department at Peking University, in Beijing. He was an intellectual, and that made him a target.

He endured terrible beatings and persecution during the Cultural Revolution, and spent time in a type of prison known as a Cowshed. But Ji was lucky enough to survive.

He went on to become a popular writer in China. When Ji became an old man, it troubled him that of the millions who had been persecuted and survived, none had written about their horrible experience. So he decided that since he had nothing to lose, due to his advanced years, he would write such a book.

Ordinarily it would be impossible to publish such an honest and critical book in Communist China, but the publication was approved during a politically relaxed time, in the late-1990s. Ji’s first-hand account of the torture, pain, and suffering he went through opened a rare window into a period of time the Communists had been trying to forget.

Ji’s book is called The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I found it on Amazon, and purchased it as a Kindle book for $14.99. To me, that’s a lot of money for a few electrons, and I’ve never understood why electronic books cost so much. What the hell! There’s no physical material here, publishers! Downloading an e-book is about like receiving a very large email, so I don’t get these big price tags. The printed version is about twenty or so dollars, and that is more understandable to me.

But I was curious about the Cultural Revolution, which left me willing to pay their ransom price. I’d heard about this revolution a few times, and the name of it sounded wonderful. But it had always seemed tinged by a dark, evil shadow.

I couldn’t find a whole lot of books about the Cultural Revolution on Amazon, so I guess there’s not a whole lot of interest in it. Of the few, Ji’s memoir seemed the most fascinating and, importantly for me, one of the cheapest.

The Cultural Revolution for Ji, as well as for the rest of China, began in May 1966. That’s when the head of Peking University’s Philosophy Department, Nie Yuanzi, crafted a poster that criticized the university’s Communist Party committee. On June 1, 1966, Chairman Mao praised the poster. After that, all hell broke loose.

Students at universities all over the country were encouraged by Mao’s praise of the poster, and abandoned their classes and studies so that they could devote all their time to creating their own posters critical of the Party. It was like Arts & Crafts class gone wild. And this criticism was like a cancer. It spread to include university administrators, and then to the professors and anyone else in any position of authority.

A Red Guard was quickly formed, composed of angry students and young hooligans, who went on a rampage. They began accusing intellectuals and Party officials of being counterrevolutionaries. They arrested them and subjected them to Struggle Sessions. A Struggle Session was a public trial where the accused was forced to stand or squat in an awkward position, while terrible accusations were leveled at him or her. They ended with the crowd in attendance beating the accused, sometimes to death.

Ji had already survived several persecution campaigns against intellectuals, since the establishment of communism in China some 17 years earlier. And he endeavored to survive this one also. His strategy had always been to keep a low profile and make as few waves as possible. Nothing succeeds like success, so he tried to employ this strategy again, to survive the Cultural Revolution.

It worked for the first year-and-a-half. During this time he saw many of his colleagues hauled before Struggle Sessions and endure the worst kind of public humiliation possible, and he witnessed terrible beatings. He’d been informed by Red Guards that he was not a target, but that he was “on the edge”. This was a scary time for Ji, as he endeavored to keep from falling over whatever that “edge” was.

But eventually he voluntarily went over the edge. The Red Guards on his campus split into factions. Nie Yuanzi headed a faction called New Beida. New Beida’s rival faction was called Jinggangshan. Both pressured Ji to join them. Ji knew he’d have to choose sides. The safest side was New Beida. It was strongest, and controlled most of the campus.

But Ji disliked Nie. She was a tyrant. Both factions were equally cruel toward those they persecuted. But Nie herself was very vindictive and Ji harbored a personal disdain for her. So he joined the weaker faction, Jinggangshan.

Now he was expected to work for Jinggangshan’s cause, and so he helped them create posters that excoriated his colleagues, accusing them of being counterrevolutionary. And he also helped create posters and write speeches that attacked New Beida and Nie Yuanzi. This was a big mistake, due to Nie’s vindictive nature.

On November 30, 1967, Red Guards from New Beida raided Ji’s house, searching for any evidence that might incriminate him as a counterrevolutionary. A few days later he was interrogated by these Red Guards. Some of them had been his own students, whom he’d gone out of his way to be kind to. But they turned on him during the interrogation and insulted him and twisted his ears.

They confronted him with a photograph of Chiang Kai-Shek, which they had discovered when they ransacked his home. Ji had never been a supporter of Chiang Kai-Shek. The photograph had been given to him by a student many years before, and he had kept it because he was one of those types of people who never threw anything away. But the Red Guards accused him of keeping the photo so that if Chiang Kai-Shek ever retook mainland China, he could use it to prove his loyalty to him.

Ji knew his situation was hopeless. For several days he brooded, worrying that he would not be able to endure the inevitable Struggle Session that was coming. He finally decided to commit suicide, like so many of his colleagues had done. But just when he was about to take an overdose of sleeping pills, Red Guards came to his house and hauled him away to the thing he dreaded the most. A Struggle Session.

The beatings began. At the Struggle Session he was slapped in the face and kicked in the back. He was forced onto a stage, where he was compelled to bow down so low that he nearly collapsed. He had to hold his arms out to maintain his balance. This was a newly invented torture by the Red Guards, called the “airplane position.”

He nearly fell over, but knew he would be severely beaten if he did. Suddenly he was hauled off stage and herded into an open truck, along with others who had been accused, to be paraded publicly. People threw stones at him, hitting his face and body. They kicked, punched, and spat on him. Finally they literally kicked him off the truck. Someone he knew punched him square in the face, making his mouth and nose bleed. Then he was ordered to go home.

Ji realized that in spite of this horrible experience, it had saved his life, because if the Red Guards had not shown up when they did, he would have committed suicide. He decided that if he could survive this he had nothing more to fear, and changed his mind about suicide. Yet even at the time of writing his book, in his eighties, he expresses uncertainty as to whether or not this had been the best choice.

More Struggle Sessions followed, leaving Ji beaten and bloodied nearly every time. They continued until the early spring of 1968. Then he was sent into the countryside to perform hard labor planting sweet potatoes.

His overseers beat him if he didn’t work hard enough to please them. One day he was beaten so badly, he collapsed. His testicles became swollen, and he could no longer stand or walk, so he was forced to crawl upon the ground and move bricks. Finally, he was ordered to crawl to a military clinic for treatment. But the doctor there refused to treat him, and he had to crawl back. It took him several hours each way.


In the next post, Ji finds himself living in a Cowshed. Come on back tomorrow for Part 2, and the conclusion to my review of the book, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Ji Xianlin.

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