Rethinking Is Not Demonizing: A Conversation with Cao Zhenglu about His Novel Lessons in Democracy

By Hairong, Yan | Monthly Review, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Is Not Demonizing: A Conversation with Cao Zhenglu about His Novel Lessons in Democracy


Hairong, Yan, Monthly Review


Cao Zhenglu is a well-known contemporary Chinese realist writer. His stories "Na 'er" ("There, " about the tragic experience of a union cadre in a state-owned enterprise undergoing "structural reform") and "Nihong" ("Neon," about the life and death of a laid-off woman worker) expose the predicament of Chinese workers in the reform period. His novel Wen cangmang (Asking the Boundless-an allusion to a line from one of Mao's poems, "I ask, on this boundless land, who rules over man's destiny") has a Taiwanese-owned factory in Shenzhen as the central theater, around which different characters struggle to understand and play their roles in the larger context of "investment. " This novel has been celebrated as "the first novel that uses Chinese reality to explain Das Kapital." His most recent novel, Minzhu ke (Lessons in Democracy [Taipei: Taiwan shehui yanjiu zazhishe, 2013]), initiates a further reflection on the Cultural Revolution. Cao's novel re-narrates the Cultural Revolution in terms of its historical unfolding-its aims, processes, contradictions, and significance, and links this story with the contemporary problem of China's path today.

Since references to the events of the Cultural Revolution may be obscure to many readers, a historical glossary at the end covers numerous key terms and events referred to in the interview.

Yan: In the past you set your stories in the present but Minzhu fee (Lessons in Democracy) takes place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. How did the Cultural Revolution enter into your storytelling?

Cao: In fact I am commenting on the present as I write about the Cultural Revolution, since a lot of the intellectual debates of the current moment are linked to the history of the Cultural Revolution, and even the history of revolutions in general. Whether we can scientifically understand history and realistically sum up our historical experiences will determine what road China takes into the future, and even may impact the political legitimacy and sovereign independence of China. Therefore, I need to express my views, for which writing the novel is one way. Many intellectuals in China sincerely devoted themselves to the revolution when they were young, or were swept up into the revolutionary ranks by the tide of history. In any case they are loyal supporters of the revolution, and have been able to find their own place in society via the success of the revolution. But most of these individuals have a skewed understanding of revolution. They believe that it is fine for the revolution to happen to someone else, but not to them. So they have made a huge deal about how they were wronged or impacted during the Cultural Revolution and have resented it all their life. I have many friends who live in that kind of mental state. It would not be important if it were just some isolated individuals that thought this way, but this type of sentiment has turned into a tidal wave of opinion and is being used for political purposes. It's been thirty years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, but it is still being used as the reason why China had to "change its banner." As someone who lived through that period of history, I feel obliged to stand up and speak the truth about it. I have a modest goal in writing my stories: to write about the historical transformations that I myself witnessed, and to write the mental anguish that I am able to feel. It's up to others to determine whether I have succeeded or not.

Yan: I'm most interested in your understanding of the Cultural Revolution, as this is a core part of the novel. At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the '80s, the so-called "scar literature" began to appear. Even to this day, it is still a taboo to reconsider the Cultural Revolution from the standpoint of the logic of revolution or that of socialist democracy.

Cao: The Cultural Revolution has become a focal point of debate. Why? Because the elite that advocate capitalism understand that there is a crisis at present. …

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