The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Part 2 (Review)
Welcome to Part Two of my two-part review of the book, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Ji Xianlin. To read Part One, click this link.
Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,
Book Review, Part 2 of 2
After about a month of planting sweet potatoes, Ji was hauled back to Peking University, where he and other persecuted professors were forced to build their own makeshift prison. These types of prisons were being built on university campuses all over China, to house counterrevolutionary intellectuals. They were called “Cowsheds.” They got this name because the prisoners were insultingly referred to by the Red Guards as “Cow Devils.”
The prisoners were usually professors and school administrators. Many of their guards were their own students.
Ji describes the horrific conditions of the Cowshed that housed him as a prisoner. And in the analytical style of a professor, he presents a theory, which he calls the Law of Maximum Torment. It states that whatever the Red Guards did, it was calculated to inflict the maximum pain possible on their victims, both physically and psychologically.
The Cowshed was poorly built, and not very sturdy. It was damp, musty, and full of webs and pests. The convicts were required to sleep on bamboo mats over a thin layer of hay, that failed to block the dampness. They were constantly bitten by mosquitoes and other insects.
Every morning they rose at exactly 6:00 am, and were required to jog around the prison yard. By the time they were finished jogging, they were worn out, yet had to begin the day’s labor.
They were required to always gaze at the ground and never look up, even while walking. They were given an allowance, which they were required to use to pay for food. It was barely enough, and left them feeling constant hunger. Their meals consisted of cornmeal buns and pickles. They were not allowed any meat.
Those who were employed as university workers, such as janitors and maintenance personnel, were no longer required to work. Instead, they could come down to the Cowshed every morning and choose convicts to do their work for them.
But before beginning the day’s labor, every convict had to memorize the Mao saying of the day. Then throughout the day, if a guard asked them to recite it, they had to get it perfectly right or risk being beaten. And if a guard recited the first phrase of any quotation from Chairman Mao, that would be the convict’s cue to complete the sentence or receive a beating.
However, the guards themselves were often too stupid to memorize Mao’s sayings. So when Ji made an error in completing a sentence, he acted as if he’d done it right, and the guards rarely noticed.
Ji was required to perform a variety of jobs, as a prisoner of the Cowshed. These included stacking bricks, pulling nails from boards, carrying 130 lb baskets full of coal, hauling rocks, and plowing paddy fields.
For all these dark days that Ji endured, kindness sometimes shone through. On one occasion, Ji was selected by a plumber, to be his assistant. The plumber did the hard work, and only required Ji to perform light fetching work. This plumber was neither friendly nor hostile toward Ji, but Ji felt very grateful for the reprieve from hard work that he allowed.
Convicts were required to submit written thought reports every day. At the end of the day an evening assembly was conducted. Roll was called, and then a speaker gave a lecture. That speaker would choose an inmate to pick on, and then seize on various faults he found in the inmate. Or he would find political errors in the inmate’s thought report. The inmate would be criticized, slapped, and beaten.
Even though Ji was now a convict, he was still subject to Struggle Sessions. On some mornings, instead of being selected for hard labor, Red Guards would show up and haul him off to a Struggle Session. There, he was subjected to the usual public show trial of accusations and beatings.
Ji describes acts of brutality committed against other inmates, as well. He writes of an inmate who was particularly despised by the guards, and who was forced to stare into the noonday sun without blinking, under threat of a beating.
Gradually, his incarceration and the Struggle Sessions became less severe. In February of 1969 he was allowed to return home and sleep in his own bed. Eventually he was ordered to return to the university and resume teaching students. He had survived the worst of the Cultural Revolution. But in spite of that, he found it very difficult to adjust back to a normal life.
The Communist Party had been decimated by the Cultural Revolution. Most of its members had been persecuted and kicked out, and there was no one left to run the Party. In order to save the Party, many of those who had been persecuted, including Ji, were allowed to return through a special rehabilitation procedure. But Ji describes this procedure as a farce.
16 years after the Cultural Revolution ended, Ji wrote his book. He offers some reflections about this revolution, in his book.
First, he concludes it was neither cultural, nor revolutionary. It was instead a ten-year-long disaster with incalculable cost, both intellectually and economically. The only thing received in return for the high cost is a lesson on what not to do. And this can only be learned if it is ensured that it is not forgotten.
He argues that those who were persecuted carry with them a lingering resentment and simmering bitterness.
Ji recounts how in the early days after the Communist revolution, he transformed from being nonpolitical to supporting Mao and the revolution. But he also recounts how the Cultural Revolution left him disillusioned with Mao and the revolution. And so, rather than being revolutionary, it was counterrevolutionary, and counterproductive.
This leads Ji to address the question, what made the Cultural Revolution possible? He admits he is ill-equipped to answer this question. And he claims that the only people in a position to tackle it refuse to do so and do not seem to want anyone else to try. He believes that if this question were addressed seriously, those who were persecuted would be able to set aside their resentment and work collectively toward the harmony and progress of their socialist society.
Ji nearly attempted suicide when he was 56 years old, immediately before his first Struggle Session. He wrote his book when he was in his 80s, and at that time he expressed ambiguity about whether or not suicide would have been the best course of action. He writes of a shame for his cowardice of choosing the humiliation and torture of the Struggle Sessions, over taking his own life. He may have kept his life, but he laments that he lost his sense of honor.
But in 1989 he was able to regain some of his lost honor. During the Tiananmen Square uprising, he publicly showed solidarity for the rebelling students. And after their movement was put down, and the students were arrested, he refused to denounce their movement, even after this was demanded of him.
Instead he went to the police station and asked to be locked up with the students, declaring, “I’m over seventy, and I don’t want to live anymore.” He was forcibly returned back to the Peking university campus where he worked, but was never punished for this bold act of rebellion.
Ji often employs dark humor in his writings about the atrocities he suffered during the Cultural Revolution. But this is the Chinese way to cover up unbearable pain from horrific memories. The Chinese have been conditioned to repress and hide their pain, for the greater good.
In spite of his near suicide, all the torture he endured, and emotional trauma he carried with him, Ji went on to a long life. He finally passed away in 2009, at the age of 97.
I found The Cowshed to technically be an easy read. However the accounts of torture and beatings sometimes left me wincing.
Ji’s character left me wincing from time-to-time also. He admits he was partially complicit during the first stages of the Cultural Revolution, and even during repressive movements that occurred prior to 1966. He admits to turning against his colleagues a few times, and throwing them under the bus, and readily confesses his guilt for falling for Mao’s propaganda.
He even admits to being so incredibly stupid that he supported the Cultural Revolution all the way until it ended in 1976. And so it can be easy for me to find ways to criticize the author. Ji makes it easy.
But I hesitate to do so. After all, hasn’t he been criticized enough? Between the Struggle Sessions and his time in the Cowshed prison, this man had flaws in his character, both real and imagined, flung in his face many, many times more than most of us endure in our entire lifetimes. He had enough. So I will leave him alone.
I say, let’s keep Ji out of the Cowshed.
But I highly recommend his book, The Cowshed, for anyone who likes history told in an easy-to-read and forthright manner. You can find The Cowshed at Amazon, by following this link.
Thanks for reading this review of the book, The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
We’ll be continuing our exploration of China in a few days, when I’ll begin a multi-part series on the Cultural Revolution, and the life of Mao Zedong, entitled The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao. So don’t throw away your passport. China is a big country, and there’s much more to see.