Series (History): The Cultural Revolution

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.

The Cowshed:
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 Xianlin at age 41, in 1952, 14 years before the Cultural Revolution began.

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.

45 replies »

  1. I’ll pass on reading the book, Tippy. Your synopsis of Ji’s struggles covered them in as much detail as I can stand. What possessed you to read this? Are you a history buff? Has the state of affairs here in the USA made you curious about how a revolution might go down?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Was it a little too graphic for you?

      I’d always wondered about the Cultural Revolution, so this was an exotic unicorn running around Asia that I decided to capture. But also, the current state of affairs in our country has left me curious. There are some parallels, and if things get much worse I can see how we can end up like China. Especially if the police are defunded. But I doubt things will come to that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not TOO graphic, but definitely on the borderline. Kind of like watching Special Victims Unit on TV, sometimes the tortures thought up by twisted minds cause nightmares. You, having contemplated suicide in utero rather than endure the tortures of life as a human, probably have more in common with Ji than I do. But if the country goes to hell in a handcart, it’s helpful to know what I might be up against.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I cannot begin to imagine enduring what Ji did. Just putting me in a cowshed where I had to sleep with creepy crawly critters is bad enough!!
    I did like the part of him joining the kids in jail! He does have spirit, thats for sure!
    Thanks for sharing his story, but yes, like Joan I will pass on reading the book. There are certain things I just can’t tead. But I do admire his courage in writing the book. My heart feels for the many that suffered like him and like you said have to suppress memories,never really getting help in dealing with the trauma. Very sad!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I was reading your review, I had completely lost track of when all this was taking place. When you then mentioned 1969, I was taken aback. To think something like this could have been going on during my lifetime is shocking. I always think of such inhumane behavior taking place during the Dark Ages, and that we are better than that. I guess we aren’t…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow… I fell off the wagon and this all rolled along without me!
    The communist ideal may have been a “workers’ paradise”, but the power-struggle path to leadership results in a great deal of governance by insecurity. Even the current crop has a “fascinating” history. Rank has more to do with maintaining “face” while establishing the connections necessary to consolidate power and removing any viable opposition… more like a Mafia Don than what Westerners ordinarily think of as a political leader. This inevitably drives cults of personality, thought-policing of intellectuals, and putting enforcement in the hands of some more-or-less ignorant portion of the population. Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge child army took it to the extreme.

    I have an acquaintance, an engineer who just recently returned from about a decade in Guangzhou. His wife is Chinese, and she’s mentioned that her father survived the Red Guard. His parents didn’t. Apparently, it’s something not openly discussed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I get the sense that there’s a lot of behind the scene politics that goes on in communist government. It seems to be about building alliances with various people in power, and using that to rise in power. I like your comparison with the mafia.

      I find it strange that in Chinese culture, people don’t like to talk about traumatic things that have happened to them, such as surviving the Red Guards. Seems to me, that can’t be good for mental health. But perhaps it has some advantages.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The death of Neil Heywood represented the end of the current administration’s initial struggle for power. But the entire Standing Committee of the Politburo have disappeared from public view for the last several weeks. Interesting timing…

        I think the avoidance is a combination of two things. There’s an idea called “wa” (和) that also transferred to Japanese culture. It’s a concept that a correct space has a sort of “harmony” to its contents, which discourages bringing up potentially painful or disturbing topics. It causes some things that would seem odd to Americans, or that might be taken as a form of denial when that’s not really what it reflects. There are also Confucian attitudes that discourages anything that might be seen as disrespectful to ancestors or to a previous generation. And at the same time there’s no Eastern equivalent to generational “sin”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hadn’t heard of Neil Haywood before, so you prompted me to do a little research. Sounds like some high-level intrigue was going on, related to his murder.

          I get the sense that if you’re in the Communist party, and you commit a crime, you become vulnerable to having your power usurped by those who expose your crime.

          Wa does seem odd to me. I’d probably have to spend some time in Chinese or Japanese culture to understand it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • If you’ve heard of the 2015 disappearances (mainland kidnappings) of the “Causeway Bay Books” sellers in Hong Kong, it was because they were selling publications regarding the same kinds of stories about the current bunch. “Face” is a big deal in Chinese culture, and especially so with leaders who can use charges of “corruption” to bring down their opponents.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I hadn’t heard, so I checked out a Wiki article on it. I guess Xi has long arms, and could reach into Hong Kong in 2015. Nowadays he probably has even better reach.
              Apparently, Xi didn’t like that they were going to publish some salacious books about him, so he had them kidnapped.
              That’s rather scary, and it highlights what you say, that “face” means a lot to Chinese leaders.

              Liked by 1 person

              • This is why the protests in Hong Kong last year. I posted something on October 6, 2019. The territory’s mainland-controlled government was about to enact a law that would have allowed the extradition and trial of Hong Kong residents in the mainland, officially bypassing Hong Kong’s independent rule-of-law. Regardless, the recent mainland extra-territorial national security law now authorizes the arrest and extradition of anyone anywhere who criticizes Xi or the CCP, effectively ending the “One Country, Two System” agreement for Hong Kong. Pretty desperate act from the mainland since HK is where it launders its hard currency, indicating some turmoil in the politburo. But there’s also significance to the timing, 2020 being the self-imposed deadline for the CCP to “re-unify” it’s territorial claims. This is why two US carrier groups were recently moved into the South China Sea for “military exercises”.

                Sorry about the long comments. (-_^)

                Liked by 1 person

                • I like your long comments. It helps tie current events together. With Hong Kong’s money laundering capability diminished, there must be some very concerned members of the Politburo, who are a little upset with Xi. Xi’s been in power for eight years now, so they might be figuring that it’s time for him to go.
                  But I doubt he’ll go easily. He kind of reminds me of Mao, with his cult of personality that he’s trying to establish, as well as his treatment of the Uighurs.
                  The South China Sea territorial claims of China seem bogus as hell to me. But I worry we’re going to get into a war over it.


                  • Xi had just recently managed to have the PRC Constitution changed to allow him to serve indefinitely. Losing power for any Chinese leader would almost certainly result in ending up in prison, so there’s a big incentive to stay in power.

                    Regionally however, the Philippines has had it with China, and is now offering the possibility of a new US naval base. Vietnam has also suddenly become very friendly with the US after the Chinese sank several of their fishing boats. Taiwan is now making a huge arms deal with the US. Singapore just broke off a massive technology deal with China. Malaysia has started confronting Chinese warships in their territorial waters and recently sank a Chinese fishing boat right in front of a Chinese “Coast Guard”. The two carriers are like the US soldiers in South Korea… sacrificial in order to show that the US would be committed to a response. The US knows both carriers would likely be destroyed within hours of a real shooting war. But the PRC military also know that it would amount to a sort of mutual assured destruction. Despite the lack of news coverage, we’re presently in a Cold War with China.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • I’m aware of the term limit change, but I don’t think anyone can stay in power if enough people in high places want them out.

                      I thought Deng Xiaoping changed the precedent, so that Chinese leaders can be “retired” without being imprisoned. Seems maybe things or going back to pre-Deng days.

                      I agree that we’re in a Cold War with China. It would be ironic if Vietnam became an ally of the U.S. But nobody would win, in a shooting war with China, so hopefully they’ll back off and become more reasonable with any territorial claims.

                      Liked by 1 person

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