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'Red Memory' aims to profile people shaped by China's Cultural Revolution

W. W. Norton & Company

China should be a reporter's dream: more than one billion people, a rich history, and extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity. And yet China-reporting these days resists the profile. Rarely do journalists based there get enough material to write up convincingly full-bodied portraits.

There are obvious obstacles to reporting that humanizes, such as the constant surveillance and the threat of state retaliation taken against foreign and Chinese reporters. The state often intimidates sources for speaking to journalists as well, and a nervous interviewee will not divulge enough detail to create an intimate rendering of a person's life.

But I found people with weighty stories were still willing to talk in China. The problem was they themselves had yet to sort through and make sense of China's turbulent past, and they struggled to articulate it in full to an outsider.

These conundrums — the slipperiness of memory and the intractability of talking about trauma — are at the heart of what makes Tania Branigan's book Red Memory: Living, Remembering, and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution so compelling.

"I wanted to understand not only what the Cultural Revolution had done to China but how it was still shaping it," Branigan writes, about a decade beginning in 1966 of extreme political violence and, frequently, physical violence against anyone deemed bourgeois and counterrevolutionary. Chairman Mao Zedong instigated the movement to distract from his massive political blunders earlier (including a famine that killed tens of millions) and to depose his political rivals.

The state turned a blind eye as personal grudges were amplified by political campaigns. During its worst, most fevered years, students beat teachers to death, marauding gangs of student Red Guards fought bloody battles against one another, and family members turned each other in for execution. Schools and universities shut down entirely as students were drafted as full-time activists. Later. He banished about 17 million students (including future Chinese leader Xi Jinping) to remote rural outposts to do hard labor.

Branigan, a former China correspondent and now London-based reporter for the Guardian, found those painful memories lingering just beneath the surface of everyday conversations among a generation of Chinese, yet when she probed deeper, people clammed up. Counterintuitively, the past is too close to talk about.

"This wasn't history. It was life," she realizes, after a simple café chat with a friend who reveals his father-in-law had been murdered during the Cultural Revolution. "This was prosaic in its horror, and only an arm's-length away — so immediate it came up over coffee, so commonplace that people wondered why you'd bother searching for a body."

The Cultural Revolution is a subject that is doubly hard to humanize: Branigan attempts to profile people shaped by a still-sensitive political disaster, and one that occurred more than four decades ago, with memories that have inevitably warped with time and self-censorship. The people she decides to profile are now well into their 60s and 70s — and some are recalcitrant subjects, preferring to forget the past rather than recount it. (I once asked a newspaper editor about how he had escaped being deported to a village, then entered a prestigious Beijing university as soon as the Cultural Revolution ended. "What does that have to do with anything?" he scoffed at me. "Well, everything," I said. The interview ended shortly after.)

"The Chinese called it eating bitterness — suffering and enduring," Branigan writes of this self-imposed silence. "Yet it embodied powerlessness, a tragic fatalism. It was all that was left when everything had been stripped from you — the choice of those who had no choice."

Some of the profiles in the book thus feel a little thin, the key players in certain events either unwilling to share more and admit their culpability or suspiciously made unavailable at the last moment, almost certainly under state coercion. One gets the sense reading Red Memory that Branigan is racing against time as much of the public record is erased or roped off. When she tries to visit a museum for victims of the Cultural Revolution, she finds it bolted shut for "maintenance" just seconds before she reaches the entrance.

Where Branigan does her most profound writing is when she digs deep into the politics of the apology and the purpose of reconciliation, deliberately pushing on the points that hurt.

In one of Red Memory's most disturbing chapters, she follows Zhang Hongbing — a man who, in his childhood, turned his own mother in to authorities for denouncing Mao Zedong. His mother was eventually shot in the head on the side of the road, a spot Zhang later fought to have commemorated with a tombstone.

Branigan accompanies him, with reservations, to pay his respects to his mother, Fang Zhoumou. "He began his prostrations as the video camera rolled. 'Mother! I am an unfilial son!' And then: 'Mother! I have brought the Guardian to see you!'" Here, then, is a double betrayal: turned in by her own family, and in death, Fang's memory invoked for someone's ends.

Then there are the former students who stood by as they witnessed the fatal beating and humiliation of their former teacher, Bian Zhongyun. Decades later, Song Binbin, one of the students, decides to publicly apologize for her complicity in her teacher's death. She bows in front of a memorial statue for her teacher, tears glistening in her eyes. The reader feels a moment of hope; perhaps this is a turning point in the bleak, multigenerational suffering Branigan has eloquently narrated so far.

Instead, critics pile on, pointing out that by acknowledging that the cruelty of that decade was systemic, former Red Guards also escape any individual culpability. The teacher's husband rejects Song's apology; her former students are seeking forgiveness for themselves and not truly trying to atone.

"Justice is a sharp instrument; it must draw fine distinctions. Conciliation depends on finding commonalities. It might require a little blurriness," Branigan observes.

In the end, some things can never be forgiven. No apology can bring back the dead or right a wrong. Song Binbin must have known that was impossible, but she tried to apologize anyway. The act itself was meaningful.

Red Memory is also an exercise in attempting the impossible, of trying to reconstruct what it was like to live through and then live with one of the most brutal periods of modern Chinese history. Branigan comes closer to doing so than anyone else has in the English language.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.