Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture and Communication

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Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture and Communication, by Xing Lu. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 2004. xiv + 250 pages, US$49.95 (hardcover).

In recent years, analysis of the specific language used during the Cultural Revolution period has received increasing scholarly attention. This builds on an earlier awareness of the particular idioms and metaphors in the language of the Cultural Revolution and their impact on users' thought and behavior (the earliest studies appeared in 1967).

Xing Lu's book is an ambitious look at the whole period of the "greater" Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) through a wide variety of genres-from bigcharacter posters, to model operas, to the sorts of language deployed in struggle and criticism sessions, study sessions, "learning from past bitterness" meetings and so on. The book is based on Lu's own experience of the period (she was an adolescent in northern China at the time) and her subsequent career in the US as an academic specialising in communication studies. This is a fortunate combination-she is able to bring recent communication theory to the study of the highly politicized discourse of the Cultural Revolution. She largely avoids overly personalizing her accounts of the impact of language on people's thought and action by referring both to field research she has conducted with Cultural Revolution veterans and to a number of secondary sources in Chinese and English.

Very specific language forms were sanctioned and empowered, and others marginalized and in some cases obliterated. Lu is right in locating the main ideological inspiration for this in the commitment to a particular approach to class and the promotion of a rhetoric of class struggle, but perhaps she overstates hatred as the main motivation. True, the discourse sanctioned and employed during the Cultural Revolution period did promote a specific moral vocabulary and a narrative of history in which "good" classes battled against "bad" ones. And it did attempt to fire up, in its speakers and in the audience, a sense of outrage and fervor. But whether the main motivation behind this was hatred is not so clear. The speakers of this language must often have felt that they were making the world a better place, despite the evident chaos and dislocations happening around them. Many accounts of the period by participants capture some of this innocent idealism, contrasting it with the real damage that resulted. …