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Red Memory

Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution

Tania Branigan, February 2023, Faber & Faber, 304 pages

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Front cover of the book




Covering the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, Branigan argues that this violent and traumatic period, when Mao Zedong incited students against their teachers and neighbour against nieghbour, was formative for modern China.

I found this a grimly fascinating, yet empathetic and enlightening book, covering what happened and how it is remembered today.


Review by Anthony Webb, 8 December 2023

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were f*cked up in their turn
By fools in navy-blue one-piece suits,
Who half the time were marxist-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin

The Cultural Revolution in China started in 1966 17 years after the actual revolution - the civil war - had been won by the Communists in 1949.

The civil war pitted the Chinese Communist Party against the Chinese Nationalist Party. The side which you happened to be on could be quite arbitrary, not least because most of the civil war was conducted at the same time as a war against invading Japanese forces - who most people agreed were the biggest enemy. Join up and fight the Japanese could later easily morph into a battle against the communists.

Struggling to discern friend from enemy

If the distinction between Chinese friend and foe was a fine one at that time, in the Cultural Revolution the dividing lines were even more tenuous and malleable. On the surface it was a campaign against “capitalists” and “traditionalists” still lurking in Chinese society. But because no-one knew who these elusive targets were, they could be anyone, and everyone was a potential suspect - apart from the chap who kick started the whole campaign: Mao Zedong.

As Branigan describes it:

Ignite the Cultural Revolution! The words appeared on a big-character poster attacking Peking University’s leadership: an arresting handwritten protest1. Within hours, on Mao’s instruction, it was read over the radio. And in the heat of his encouragement it all burst into life, scrawled white sheets blossoming across the walls of schools and colleges. Lecture and lessons were cancelled, the students freed.

Tania Branigan, Red Memory

The most famous cadres of the Cultural Revolution were the Red Guards, armband toting students who worshipped Chairman Mao and were prepared to go to almost any length to demonstrate their zeal. Teachers were prominent among their targets: sometimes they would beat them to death directly, at other times causing their suicides after months of abuse. This was particularly shocking in China where - in theory - learning in general and teachers in particular were and are held in extremely high regard.2

A revolution is not a school dinner party

But it wasn’t just school kids and teachers that got caught up in the excitement. “It was truly universal.” Branigan tells us. “Its victims included Mao’s two heir apparents and some of the country’s most revered artists and scholars, but also schoolchildren and impoverished farmers in remote provinces. No part of the land remained untouched; no part of the people unscathed.

Estimates are that 2 million people died during the Cultural Revolution and tens of millions more were persecuted, beaten, hounded.

The story told in Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution is through a first person ‘reportage style’ by interviews with people who lived through this time, including:

  1. Yu Xiangzhen - a (then) 13 year old schoolgirl, who first rebelled against her teachers and later took advantage of the free “Red Guard interrail pass” to travel around the country.
  2. Wang Xilin - a composer and committed communist who was too frank in criticising his superiors and had been denounced, persecuted, beaten and imprisoned for years.
  3. Wang Jingyao - the husband of Teacher Bian who had infamously been beaten to death by students at Beijing Normal University.
  4. Zheng Zhisheng and Han Pingzhao who fought against each other (and a confusing patchwork of other groups) both in the name of Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution in deadly factional warfare in the city of Chongqing.
  5. Members of the (current day) Chongqing Educated Youth Friendship Group who like to socialise together, bonded by their shared experience of being sent away to the countryside to work in conditions of often extreme hardship and loneliness.
  6. Fan Jianchuan - millionaire entrepreneur and Cultural Revolution memorabilia collector and museum builder.
  7. Gao Xiguang - a professional impersonator of Lin Biao, once Mao’s right hand man, then his vilified and disgraced victim towards the end of the Cultural Revolution.
  8. Zhang Hongbing - who had denounced his mother for insulting Mao knowing that this would lead to her execution.

The idea is that we appreciate what happened then, and how this decade is viewed now - both from an ‘ordinary person’ perspective (who tend not to dwell on it) and from an official communist party perspective (who would rather forget all about it).

They may not mean to but they do

But, says Branigan, even though Chinese people don’t acknowledge the Cultural Revolution it is actually a crucial event because it was so traumatic that it not only f*cked up the people who took part, it also f*cked up their children, and their children’s children. This trauma has impacted everything from politics, to family relations, to fashion.

The scar ran through the heart of Chinese society, and through the souls of its citizens. The Cultural Revolution was a national trauma as well as a mass of personal ones.

Tania Branigan, Red Memory

This idea is emphasised by the fact that it is contemporary interviews that form the core of the book. Each interview is therefore two simultaneous accounts: what happened then, and how this is told and remembered now.3 (The third layer is that it is consciously being told to a journalist who has the potential to project your story around the globe.)

The bias is of course that her sources are by definition those who were most impacted by the Cultural Revolution or those who are keenest to remember. This can be seen as the tip of the iceberg which undoubtedly is bigger, it is just very hard to tell how deep and wide underwater the iceberg goes.

Secret source?

I think that Branigan succeeds in her aim of providing a broad overview of what the Cultural Revolution meant for different people, and in conveying the ambivalence with which it is viewed today.

But I am less convinced that the Cultural Revolution is the secret sauce of the Chinese psyche.

In part this is because I worry that when people read Branigan’s (uncontentious) statement “It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution” it risks underplaying all sorts of other things that have happened before or since. To reverse the statement: if you only know about the Cultural Revolution you know only know a very little about China today.


If you are looking for an introduction to the Cultural Revolution in China and how people in China look back on the event I would recommend this book. It gives you the lowdown on what happened through the eyes of people who had very different experiences, and how these experiences have been reinterpreted and remembered (or suppressed) over time.

Red Memory is an interesting and enlightening book - that tells of a critical part of the story of China. But it is important not to mistake it for the whole story, and not to assume that the state of the nation is irredeemably f*cked up.

  1. This big-character poster (大字报) was, I was surprised to learn, penned by a mid forties university and communist party bureaucrat rather than a student. Wikipedia has a photo that is labelled as this original poster. ↩︎

  2. A few years ago my wife and I went to visit her old primary school teacher who had now become the headmaster of the small Chinese town primary school in which she grew up. I was amazed when we were directed to an enormous top floor office that was bigger than many Beijing apartments, with leather sofas against the walls and a 1920 CEO style desk at one end. ↩︎

  3. Almost all the stories told are pretty grim as you might imagine. But there is the odd moment of humour such as this anecdote: “An elderly man tried to blow up a bus with a home-made grenade from the Cultural Revolution in what was described as a revenge attack - on previous journeys the driver had halted five metres short of his stop. The device rolled down the bus but did not detonate. Its effectiveness had long expired; the rage kept burning. ‘I was too rash,’ the man told the court.↩︎


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