Xu Youyu, or How to Write the History of the Cultural Revolution so as to Set China on the Right Future Path

At a time when China, after twenty years
of reforms, is preparing for the fourth generation of Communist Party leaders
to take power and sees itself increasingly acknowledged as a force in international
diplomatic and commercial relations, a few voices are being raised in the interior
of the country to recall, in the wake of Ba Jin
that the Cultural Revolution is a page of history that has never been turned.
How could it be, when those events, over which the Party asserted its control
in 1981 during the Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee
remain a blank page, still devoid of meaning, in the collective memory? Chinese
society has never been permitted to speak about this episode of its recent history,
an episode that was both the hope and the tragedy of a whole generation and on
the altar of which were sacrificed the lives and the destinies of millions. And
for what, exactly? In the period following the Cultural Revolution, the Party
rebuilt its power by reaffirming its control over history and memory: this was
a fundamental element in its domination, preventing any political opposition from
taking shape, while Deng Xiaoping recalled the regime’s unchanging foundations
by setting out his Four Principles theory (1979)
It looked as though the Cultural Revolution, sinking into oblivion at the very
moment when the social consequences of modernisation are investing the Maoist
experience with renewed prestige, could be repeated.

That is what motivates the intervention of Xu Youyu, whose
writing we are examining here. He was born in Chengdu in 1947 and has lived through
all the upheavals that have punctuated the history of the People’s Republic
and, in particular, the Cultural Revolution, in which he took part as a faction
leader among the Red Guard rebels. During the back-to-the-countryside movement,
Xu lived for three years in a village in northern Sichuan, and then returned to
Chengdu where he worked as a labourer for six years. In 1977, he passed the first
university entrance exam to be set since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and
the following year he joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Peking
where he now occupies a research post in philosophy. Along with many young people
who, having being sent to the countryside, opted subsequently for careers as intellectuals,
Xu Youyu embraced the cause of liberalism after reflecting on his experience of
the Cultural Revolution. Thus, during the 1980s, he took part successively in
the thought liberation movement and the New Enlightenment movement((4)
as a member of one of the best-known editorial committees, Culture: China and
the World
. Xu Youyu’s writing
is remarkable both as evidence of his systematic and long-term struggle to set
down a non-official history of the Cultural Revolution and also for the special
emphasis it puts on the role of memory and history in offering guidance to modern
China and building a political opposition able to draw lessons from the past.

Writing history as a way out of totalitarianism
and to prevent a repetition of the Cultural Revolution

Those in power have closed the Maoist period
with the announcement that what Mao did contained 70% positive elements and 30%
negative elements. The percentages make little sense other than to “condemn
completely” (chedi fouding) the Cultural Revolution in order to rebuild
the regime without attacking its charismatic leader, so that his successors should
appear legitimate to the people. This total condemnation, which is at the heart
of the resolution passed during the Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee
is aimed not so much at doing justice to the victims among the people or at challenging
the regime’s foundations as at reaffirming these while taking leave of the
theory that there remain contradictions within the people under a socialist regime,
which had enabled Mao to justify his resort to mass movements. Yet, the campaigns
against “spiritual pollution” that recurred throughout the 1980s and
the recent campaign against “anti-scientific superstitions” that was
aimed at the Falungong are evidence that those in power have not totally
given up such movements. Conversely, a people that has not learned from the past
is not prepared to oppose it. Xu Youyu notes, indeed, that some former Red Guards
have retained a false, mythic conception of the Cultural Revolution, in other
words, a conception analogous to the discourse of the leaders of those times
By seeing themselves as a generation of “teenage students” who voluntarily
gave up their schooling to share the peasant life to the greater glory of their
country, they lay claim to have been hardened in the fire of an invaluable experience.

Moreover, a gulf has opened up between the generation that
lived through the Cultural Revolution and the one that did not. To write history
is to fill the “memory gap” that separates them by lessening the feeling
of foreignness that they feel towards each other. Those who lived through the
Revolution feel themselves misunderstood by those who, coming along behind, take
absolutely no interest in that period. Xu Youyu evokes memory as a symbolic filiation:
“Where do we come from? What came before us?” Recalling his own expectations
from an old gentleman of Hu Feng’s generation((8),
Xu draws the following conclusion: if the Red Guards’ generation do not write
their own history, the coming generations will hold it against them
The question of identity is coupled with what is at stake politically. What is
needed is a “structured and structuring memory
one that allows readers to draw lessons from history. Young people must be helped
not to fall into the same traps as their elders, and to think and act in response
to the past. The leadership’s control over history and the collective memory
has prevented the different democratic movements, having scanned the history of
the People’s Republic, from capitalising on their experience
it is true that common demands were made by the Hundred Flowers movement of 1957,
the rebel movement of radical Red Guards, the Peking Springs of 1976 and 1979,
and the 1989 democratic movement, yet no movement made any reference to those
that had preceded it
Being unaware of its place in a continuing process, each movement is condemned
to start again from scratch
Thus, Xu Youyu points out that the students in 1989 reproduced the same mistakes
as the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution: in both cases, the students
referred to the official ideology, as well as to the constitution and to the regime’s
laws, in order “to make proposals to the leaders”—and they were
suppressed. In both cases, they based their actions on the belief that the CP
represented the people’s rights; in both cases they submitted themselves
to the state authority so as not to be classed as “counter-revolutionaries”;
then, and only secondly, did they challenge the supremacy of the Party

If it is an urgent task to write this history, this is also
because the blank space created in people’s memories, combined with the resentment
felt by the section of the population paying the price for modernising the country,
is likely to make the Chinese particularly receptive to the discourse of new anti-establishment
intellectuals—known as the New Left—who, looking back nostalgically
to the Maoist period and particularly to the Cultural Revolution, hope to revive
their “positive aspects”. The aspiration to democracy and to greater
social justice must be prevented from taking the form, once again, of revolutionary
utopia; and they must be given the means to engender a real opposition to the
regime. Lastly, writing this history is a weapon that Xu is using to fight the
“political cynicism” that, with the authorities’ encouragement,
is gaining ground among the population and among intellectuals styling themselves
as neo-authoritarian or neo-conservative((15).
Indeed, the disenchantment is manifest, whether it be among the generation of
the Cultural Revolution who have “passed from extreme belief to extreme disbelief”
or among the “playful generation”
that followed it, deliberately turning away from any political commitment and
giving itself instead to a form of individualistic self-indulgence. Xu points
out that in China today the words “politics”, “history”, “home
affairs” (guojia dashi), or “ideal” meet with sniggers and
Conversely, they arouse fear and doubt among some intellectuals favouring a form
of modernisation that is exclusively economic, driven by a strong state and opposed
to the exercise of any individual rights—all in the name of that sacrosanct
demand for stability that is assumed by the pursuit of the reforms.

How can the Chinese people be brought to understand that such
words are not always deceptive, manipulative, loaded with ideology or portending
chaos, but stand for issues that are fundamental for China? The answer is by giving
new meanings to these terms, that is to say, by creating a non-official history
and drawing the people into taking part in an effort of memory.

Building up a method: giving society
a chance to speak out against the state authority

Because the historical truth is here played
out in opposition to the official interpretation, Xu bases his analysis of the
Cultural Revolution on society: what were the causes and the nature of the Red
Guards’ rebellion? What were its consequences for Chinese society within
the development of its mentality, its thinking?

The originality of the writer’s approach lies in his
perspective on the Cultural Revolution—how to understand this revolt that
drew in all China’s young people within a totalitarian regime?—and in
the method that it leads to. When Xu challenges the Party’s monopoly on history,
he does it right from the start by the standpoint from which he speaks. As a historian,
he takes his stand with the international scientific community: he has read its
writings on the Cultural Revolution, having benefited from two study vacations
in the UK and from the support of Hong Kong’s Chinese University, which allowed
him access to documents unavailable in mainland China. As a passionate campaigner
for the opening of the country’s archives—and after a hard-fought struggle—Xu
has also acquired the right to consult some publications by the various Red Guard
But above all, the historian is informed by his own Red Guard experience, by his
own effort of memory (a task he had carried out beforehand in publishing his autobiography
and by the 131 interviews he conducted throughout the provinces of China—including
their townships, villages and national minority regions—with former Red Guards.
He took account of every educational age-group in 1966: from those in their final
year at university to those in their first year of secondary school, a spread
of ten years. To that he added the pupils at technical colleges and those who
started in secondary school in 1967. He was determined that all factions within
the Red Guards should be represented, from the former “teenage students”
(lao zhiqing)
to the most radical rebels. In other words, the survey takes account of people
from different social origins, who did not have the same status at school before
or during the Cultural Revolution, whose opinions have evolved in divergent directions
and who occupy different positions in present-day Chinese society. By rediscovering
the Chinese tradition of oral history, while deploying it with full sociological
rigour, Xu Youyu’s intention is to give society its chance to speak out against
those in power.

Thus, rather than ideology, rather than any pre-established
explanatory pattern including that of historical determinism, Xu brings to bear
the memory of individuals and an empirical approach((22).
He is scrupulous in tracking the failings of memory and in countering the “dominant
discourse of the Cultural Revolution
which still mark people’s ways of thinking, while making use of his own work
of recollection as well as Western historiography. The writer quotes from Anita
Jonathan Unger
Stanley Rosen
and Roderick MacFarquar
who have the merit, in his eyes, of having restored the study of the Cultural
Revolution to the analysis of the political regime in the People’s Republic.
That may seem obvious to Western readers, but we should not lose sight of the
context in which Xu is expressing himself: there exists no political history of
the People’s Republic; personal memoirs—toned down and drained of any
political dimension—are only just beginning to be published; and historians
do not have access to Western publications. Holding such historians up as an example,
particularly where their methods are concerned, Xu adopts a pedagogic approach
towards them. He reproaches them for bowing to the imperial historiographic tradition,
which consisted in looking at history through its leading personalities, and thus
failing to study the issues, whether political, economic or social. This method
is in fact the one adopted by Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao in what was the first attempt
to write an independent and personal history of the Cultural Revolution, but which
approaches it “top down”, from Peking and the struggles between the
various personalities in power
Without actually quoting it, it is clear that Xu has in mind this book. It was
published in Hong Kong in 1986 and, at the end of that year, briefly distributed
in China in an expurgated version. Even so, it found a wide readership and played
an important role in raising questions about the Maoist period among intellectuals.
Xu, on the other hand, takes his stand on the analysis of social contradictions
favoured by Western historians in order to rebut the dominant thesis in China,
which is that what principally motivated the Red Guards was the revolutionary
ideal. This thesis (which Xu observes to have “contaminated” the memories
of those people he interviewed), by imparting a heroic, disinterested and altruistic
dimension to the Cultural Revolution, is likely to contribute towards its rehabilitation,
in a context of crazed individualism and official indifference towards the suffering
of the poorest people.

While placing himself in the tradition of Western historiography,
Xu insists equally that the Chinese people must make their voices heard. Indeed,
it is up to the Chinese themselves to say what their history was, and to pass
it on to future generations. On this point, we can only support the writer, so
true is it that, in acquiring political consciousness, an important step is to
retake possession of one’s own history. Above all, however, Xu seeks to bring
a new dimension to this shared enterprise. His interest in the Red Guard movement
is mainly from the point of view of the history of mentalities. He introduces
the subjective dimension—often absent from Western studies—and offers
a personal insight (that outside observers can inevitably not provide) into the
Red Guards’ deepest motivation, the way they saw their own political attitudes
and actions, and the meaning that they attached to them at the time((29).
Also, alongside social and political parameters, Xu brings into his work “psychological”
provided by interviews that benefit from an empathy based on shared experience.
Lastly, this historiographic contribution claims to correct certain errors. Indeed,
in Xu’s eyes, several Western historians are guilty of having created a false
interpretation of the Cultural Revolution that is eagerly snatched up by those
who feel nostalgic for the Maoist period: this was a time, such historians suggest,
when society enjoyed a democratic truce and really confronted those in power to
win its autonomy

The commitment to liberalism as against
the historian’s objectivity

Unlike those who liken the Cultural Revolution
to a real democratic experiment, whether to condemn it or to associate themselves
with it, Xu Youyu seeks to show that the period was revolutionary only in name:
it represented, on the contrary, the climax of the totalitarian regime. The official
interpretation, as expressed in the resolution approved during the Sixth Plenum
of the Eleventh Central Committee in 1981, likens the Cultural Revolution to an
anarchic experiment arising among the people outside Party channels or the mass
organisations. Later on, the leadership concluded from this experiment that “Western”
democracy was unsuited to China’s situation. This interpretation is taken
up by the neo-authoritarians, who consider that the Chinese people are not yet
mature enough for democratisation and that any concession in that direction would
plunge China into chaos. According to the “New Left”, on the contrary,
the Cultural Revolution was a successful experiment in direct democracy: it was
part of those “innovations” introduced by Mao to China’s political
system (zhidu changxin)
that ought to be restored so as to combat the regime’s drift towards inequality,
as attested by the rise to power of a capitalist bureaucratic class

As suggested by the sub-title of All Sorts of Rebellions:
Formation and Transformation of the Red Guards’ Spirit, if Xu favours
the longer historical period (his study extends from the start of the 1950s to
the late 1970s), it is to show from the earliest point how much the Red Guards’
revolt owes to the totalitarian regime, its ideology and its institutions; and,
from the final stages, to present the rustication movement as a moment
of reflection that enabled many young people to escape from ideology.

First of all, Xu’s entire argument is aimed at illustrating
the thesis that the Red Guards were totally manipulated: “Given that the
Cultural Revolution takes place under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it
is a mass movement controlled by the communist leaders and not a spontaneous revolution.((34)
While we go along with Xu in this assertion (which seems obvious to us but, doubtless,
is not obvious to the uninformed readers that are his compatriots), his analysis
of the insurrectionary period, properly speaking, which was between June 1966
and July 1967, seems to us more questionable. Xu, who is concerned with analysing
the regime’s institutions, denies that society enjoyed any form of autonomy
vis-à-vis the state authorities: since the “Sixteen Points
had never been given any institutional guarantee, there existed at that time neither
freedom of opinion, nor freedom of expression, nor freedom of association. Xu
declares that “the actions and thoughts of the Red Guards had no value”:
their theoretical output could be nothing more than the exact replica of the official
ideology. This was not just because the system of education, propaganda and mass
organisations that had fashioned them since childhood prevented them from developing
an autonomous capacity for thought, but also because “while there were at
that time people ready to form organisations that might have a real impact, they
were arrested one after another
In this perspective, the Red Guard factions are reduced to mass organisations,
nothing more, whereas Xu considers that people or groups who achieved an independent
thought—such as Yang Xiguang
Yu Luoke
or the members of the Li Yizhi
collective—“were not Red Guards: they grasped the opportunity offered
by the Cultural Revolution to express their points of view
Furthermore, even if their writing “did have great influence [over the rebels],
virtually no group dared to make it the guiding principle of its policy or theory.
On the contrary, in order to demonstrate that their policies were in line with
those of the Centre and so as not to be classed among the losers in the struggle
between the factions, most of the groups issued critical attacks on these writings
To strengthen his manipulation argument, the historian seeks to establish that
the various Red Guard factions were completely in step with corresponding factions
in the leadership. He shows in particular that, in a context where no individual
or civic rights were guaranteed, political ideas quickly gave way before the necessity
of protecting one’s personal interests, or those of one’s faction, or
quite simply one’s life, with the help of political support. Thus, each Red
Guard faction represented the position of a faction in the leadership, and received
support from it in return: the conservatives supported Liu Shaoqi’s position,
the moderates backed Zhou Enlai, and the radical rebels lined up with Mao.

The second part of the study is devoted to the rustication
movement. Xu shows how the Red Guards, helped by furtive reading and faced with
the poverty and harshness of peasant life, harboured the feeling of having been
deceived and began to question the regime as well as the ideology that sustained
it. He analyses the evolution in attitudes prompted by the move to the farms;
and he highlights the conditions under which the thought liberation movement and
the new enlightenment movement appeared; such movements embodied the flight from
ideology and laid the foundations of liberal thinking in the 1980s.

From a historical point of view, Xu’s thesis is questionable:
many studies have shown that there was a real power vacuum during the insurrectionary
period of the Revolution, that a certain number of organisations had developed
the most radical lines of thinking and really endangered the Central Group of
the Cultural Revolution and, lastly, that the Red Guards had manipulated the local
cadres against whom they were able skilfully to turn the leadership’s rhetoric,
just as much as they were manipulated by that leadership((42).
But it is from a political point of view that the thesis takes on its full meaning—when
directed against the “New Left”. Their adherents present the Cultural
Revolution as a democratic advance that improved people’s well being, and
they revive the myth of a united people, of a unified and homogeneous society,
at a time of growing social inequalities and injustices. Xu’s answer to them
is that the people did not have the freedom to speak out, and draws attention
to the complete destruction of social ties. His analyses support those of Claude
Lefort: while denouncing the illusion of a unified totality, the historian sheds
light on the paradox that lies at the heart of modernity: it is only when the
individual is recognised and respected that social ties can be maintained
This historical work is still aimed at rebutting the argument that there were
two Cultural Revolutions: one controlled by the authorities (zhuliu de, guanfang
de wenge
) and a popular one in which the masses acquired a certain degree
of autonomy and freedom vis-à-vis those in power. This thesis, “a
heresy that arises from Western historiography”
is current among some liberal intellectuals who see in the Cultural Revolution
the premises for democracy and for the formation of a civic conscience
By contrast, in the political context of present-day China, Xu Youyu is determined
to strip the Cultural Revolution of any power of seduction: it represents the
climax of the totalitarian regime and the liberal position must be based on total
condemnation (chedi fouding), and in particular on the appeal for the separation
of Party, state and society by creating a parliamentary and pluralist democracy,
and for the guarantee of individual and civic rights. Lastly, if the writer applies
himself so obstinately to denying, as he puts it, any “value” in the
action of the most radical rebels, it is in order, addressing his compatriots,
to put himself in a position to draw the lessons from history: the state authority
has always hijacked any revolt, whether in the 1960s or in 1989, and been strengthened
by it. Xu’s historical analysis bears the stamp of the liberal reformer who
considers that change can only be driven from above.

The campaign for a Museum of the
Cultural Revolution: the effort of memory and the appeal to public responsibility

While one of the main lines of reflection
for the historian is to ask himself how the barbarity of the Red Guards could
have been possible and to throw light on the totalitarian mechanisms that spawned
this “foul beast” (yeshou), the liberal intellectual appeals
to the people to make an effort of memory and to take public responsibility. Explaining
is not the same as being proved innocent. In June 2000, Xu Youyu published in
the well-known weekly Southern Weekend
an article entitled: “The Act of Repentance is Absolutely Necessary”.
Taking upon himself the mission undertaken by Ba Jin in the mid 1980s, “Not
to allow history to repeat itself”
Xu calls on the Chinese people to “face up to their history”. Even now
when the reforms are in full swing, when China has recovered its pride, and has
entered the modern era, there is no guarantee that the Cultural Revolution could
not be reproduced so long as no effort of memory has been undertaken. Xu reminds
people also of their duty to the victims: repentance is the only form in which
justice can be offered them. Indeed, no legal proceedings have ever been initiated
against their executioners. If they do not repent, “Chinese people will have
admitted that the tragedy of the “Cultural Revolution” was nothing more
than a farce, a comedy.” As the writer points out in his article, repenting
is ceasing to pose as a victim: it is considering oneself also as guilty, that
is to say, as responsible. In our view, that appeal to public responsibility is
significant in two important respects. On the one hand, it is a way of recognising
the individual as partly autonomous vis-à-vis the state, that is,
as morally free and responsible for his or her acts. The appeal to repentance
is an appeal to the individual conscience. On the other hand, it may help to rebuild
the social ties that, as Xu has shown, were systematically broken during the Cultural
Revolution. How can this social link be repaired? In part by making forgiveness
possible, and in part by bridging the “memory gap” between the generation
that has lived through those times and the one that has not.

In support of Ba Jin, Xu Youyu calls for a “Museum of
the Cultural Revolution” to be founded, as a repository for memories and
for acts of repentance; its purpose would be to prevent any idealising myth from
being created. The individual memory is to be used against the official memory
so as to help create a collective memory. Xu seeks to create this monument out
of the accumulation of his writings, in which his memories and those of former
Red Guards are set down. He had planned to publish Oral Histories of the “Cultural
, which was banned((48).
For the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Revolution in 1996, a special
issue of the magazine Focus
devoted a special feature to the effort of memory, mainly composed of interviews
conducted by Xu with former Red Guards. That edition was also banned as it came
out. On the other hand, thanks to official support within the Research Group on
the Party History of the Central Committee, the writer was enabled to bring out
in the same year a collection of writings under his editorship, entitled 1966:
The Memories of our Generation
Xu continues to collaborate with other intellectuals, Li Hui and Ding Dong among
them, who are dedicated to the same cause as he. The fruit of this collaboration
is a book such as Maimed Shutters: Red Guards in History
which brings together about sixty contributions and is divided into two parts;
one is devoted to historical reflections, and the other to personal accounts,
which are “striking scenes”
compelling the reader not to forget “what is past”, and to struggle
against the feeling that it is “all over”


One can only be struck by the link between the approach of
Ba Jin and Xu Youyu on the one hand, and on the other that of Vaclav Havel, whose
political writing has proved never to be purely speculative or abstract, but always
intimately related to personal experience((54).
As to our writer, one understands that the personal accounts collected in this
way reintroduce the individuality, the plurality and the heterogeneousness attached
to subjective consciences; furthermore, they make the past believable. The museum’s
function is to vouch for the fact that this past really did exist, and that it
concerned individuals who think, suffer and act. So it restores a place for the
individual conscience and the personal feelings that are banned under totalitarian
regimes and it may constitute a first step towards the development of a civic

Xu Youyu’s approach places him within the tradition of
those who, from Michnick to Ba Jin, from Solzenitsyn to Havel, have shown how
vain are the efforts made by totalitarian regimes to abolish memory and to falsify
history. Writing history is an act of resistance to totalitarianism, the pinnacle
of this history is represented by the Cultural Revolution in China. Allowing the
people access to understanding amounts to a first step towards the demise of this
regime: “The power of those without power [begins] with a reflection on the
nature of the power in which [they] are acting,” Havel has written((55).
And if for him,
as for Xu, the source of history is personal experience above all else, it is
because this individual dimension is denied by totalitarian regimes. The “Museum
of the Cultural Revolution”, by restoring the right to speak to those who
do not enjoy it, enables individual memories, coming out against the lies of the
leadership, to express themselves in the public domain. But it is equally important
to challenge the hegemonic position of Westerners in the interpretation of the
Cultural Revolution: it is up to the Chinese to say what their history was, for
it is in retaking possession of it that they become conscious participants capable
of directing the future in accordance with the lessons of the past. The aim the
writer has set himself—sometimes even at the cost of historical distortion—is
to structure memory so as to allow the emergence of a political opposition capable
of proposing a “modernisation” project that, unlike that of the “New
Left”, would not repeat the mistakes of the Maoist period. Admittedly, one
may reproach Xu for the fact that his approach might seem to contradict the aim
he has set himself. His wish to lend weight to the thesis that the Red Guards
were totally manipulated—despite the subtleties and the complexity of the
historical reality—is also a form of manipulation; it cannot be justified
from the scientific point of view, a view that the writer claims to respect. But
we should remember that, in the Chinese context, there is no freedom of speech
or of publication, no established scientific community—at least in those
most sensitive disciplines of contemporary history and political science—and
no opposition, in other words, that would enable the people to assert their subjective
autonomy. Faced with the urgent need to fight the “New Left”, perhaps
the historian has no choice other than to adopt a resolutely partisan stance?


Translated from the French original by Philip

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