Academic journal article China Perspectives

Finding a Place for the Victims: The Problem in Writing the History of the Cultural Revolution

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Finding a Place for the Victims: The Problem in Writing the History of the Cultural Revolution

Article excerpt

Prologue: A Blocked Web Memorial

In October of 2000, I launched a website, www.chinese- memorial.org, to record the names of the people who died from persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Through years of research, involving over a thousand inter- views, I had compiled the stories of hundreds of victims, and placed them on the website. By clicking on the alphabeti- cally-listed names, a user could access a victim's personal in- formation, such as age, job, date and location of death, and details about how he/she was murdered or committed sui- cide after being tortured and humiliated.

The web memorial reached many Internet readers in China, and I was soon receiving several emails every week, even though Chinese people had much less Internet access then than they do today. Most readers saw this as a very valuable project and some offered me help. However, in March 2002, seventeen months after the Web site was launched, Beijing authorities blocked it, and readers in China cannot visit it anymore.

Why did the Chinese government block a web memorial that contains nothing but the names and life stories of vic- tims? What harm do the authorities find in such information after the Chinese government announced the rehabilitation of all of these victims as long ago as 1979? How much dis- tortion has historical writing on the Cultural Revolution suf- fered through lack of a record of the victims? The blocking of the website raised questions that had been on my mind for years before I was invited to contribute a paper on the topic "official history and parallel history" of the Cultural Revolution.

In this paper I will argue that acknowledging individual vic- tims has been a crucial problem in writing the history of the Cultural Revolution and represents the major division be- tween the official history that the Chinese government has allowed to be published and the parallel history that cannot pass the censorship on publications in China. As of today, no published scholarly papers have analyzed the difference between the two resulting branches in historical writings on the Cultural Revolution. Given that the authorities who con- trol China's Internet and media have demonstrated their "sensitivity" and have resorted to silencing the voice of the victims, comparative research on the issue is required. I will discuss the victims in the history of the Cultural Revolution from factual, interpretational, and methodological aspects. The discussion is based on the documents and interviews I have collected on the Cultural Revolution over the last 20 years, and on how the history of the Revolution has been written during this time.

Facts: The Forgotten Victims of the Cultural Revolution

Naming Ordinary Victims

A huge number of people died from persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Most victims died at their work units rather than in remote concentration camps. They were at- tacked at so-called "mass struggle sessions" and murdered under the so-called "dictatorship of the masses" advocated by Mao Zedong.((1) The murders were never a secret, but rather were used to terrify the public into submission. In- deed, widespread knowledge of this ruthless oppression was one of the major reasons why so few people openly resisted the Cultural Revolution.

Two years after Mao Zedong's death, the Chinese regime began rehabilitating victims of the Cultural Revolution and paid the families of each 420 Yuan (approximately half a year's salary on average at that time) in compensation. Nev- ertheless, the new leaders did not publicize the names of the victims, and did not give ordinary researchers access to the statistics and archives that the "political work division" of each work unit was required to keep on individual employ- ees. In addition, the authorities strictly controlled the official press (there is no non-official press in China), prohibiting publication of books or articles on the Cultural Revolution. …

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