Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ji Xianlin, _The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution_, trans. Chenxin Jiang

THIS WAS ACTUALLY published in China, which amazed me. It came out in 1998, "a politically relaxed moment," according to the introduction (by Zha Jianying). The Cultural Revolution was such a god-awful moment--like Tiananmen Square or the famine of the late 1950s or what is happening right now with the Uighurs--that the Chinese authorities prefer to limit discussion, and a lot of the available writing about those events was published only outside China's borders. This is an exception, and it's surprisingly powerful. Slender, plain-spoken, undramatic, but powerful.

Ji Xianlin was an eminent Sanskrit and Pali scholar who taught at Peking University. He came from a peasant  family and was an early supporter of the Communist revolution, so one would think he would be immune from the kind of accusations the Red Guards trafficked in...but no. Turns out he was on the wrong side of a divide in departmental politics and made an enemy of a colleague he calls "the Dowager Empress." And that was enough.

So Ji too is hauled before a "struggle session," in which the accused stand in humiliating, awkward poses while being insulted and hit with plastic-coated chains, and he too winds up in a "cowshed," a kind of work barracks where supposed capitalist-roaders learn their lessons through starvation diets, manual labor, more insults, and more beatings with plastic-coated chains.

Zha's introduction mentions that Chinese people writing or talking about "seething anger" or "unbearable pain" will often resort to "black humor or sarcastic hyperbole." Ji certainly does, providing some of the text's more remarkable moments, as when he notes what quick studies the Red Guard students were as torturers:
In fact, my students improvised ingeniously on what they had gleaned from their studies [of Buddhist hells]. Without having to build mountains of knives or fill vats with boiling oil, without any demonic aid, the Red Guard created an atmosphere of terror that far outstripped that of Buddhist creations.
A+, Red Guards!

The book's most moving moment, though, comes when Ji, dreading the summons he feels is imminent, gathers enough pills to die by suicide. He is minutes from doing so when he is arrested and hauled before his first struggle session. And...he survives it.
I realized that being stubborn towards wicked people has its advantages; after all, I am only alive now because I was too stubborn before. It turned out that I could endure greater pain than I had realized.

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