Sinocism Podcast
Sinocism Podcast: Tania Branigan on her book Red Memory: The Afterlives of China's Cultural Revolution

Sinocism Podcast: Tania Branigan on her book Red Memory: The Afterlives of China's Cultural Revolution


Episode Notes:

Tania Branigan and I discuss her excellent new book “Red Memory: The Afterlives of China's Cultural Revolution”. Tania writes editorials for the Guardian and spent seven years as its China correspondent, reporting on politics, the economy, and social changes. We overlapped in Beijing and became friends. I have also published an excerpt from the book here. You can purchase the book on or on Amazon. The audio edition will be available from Tantor starting 7/11/23 wherever audiobooks are sold.


China's Cultural Revolution remembered by artist Xu Weixin - video | The Guardian

2012 - China's Cultural Revolution: portraits of accuser and accused | The Guardian

Xilin Wang: Music by a Survivor | Hamburg International Music Festival - YouTube

Wang Xilin ( 王西麟 ): Yunnan Tone Poem (1963) - YouTube

At Xu Weixin’s studio on 2009-photo by Bill Bishop


[00:00:00] Bill: Welcome back to the occasional Sinocism podcast. I know I've been absent for a while, and now that I do the Weekly Sharp China podcast, I've realized I like podcasting. So we'll be recording more Sinocism episodes with guests I think are really interesting.

[00:00:11] Bill: Today. We are very lucky to have Tania Branigan to talk about her excellent new book Red Memory: The After Lives of China's Cultural Revolution. As Tania writes, it is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution. That is something I agree with wholeheartedly. So much so that I even wrote my grad school thesis on Mao badges.

[00:00:30] Bill: I will also be running an excerpt from her book in the coming days, which is released in the UK already and will come out on May 9th in the United States. Tania writes editorials for the Guardian and spent seven years as its China correspondent reporting on politics, the economy, and social changes.

[00:00:45] Bill: She lives in London. Welcome Tania, and congratulations on this great book. 

[00:00:50] Tania: Thank you so much for having me on.

[00:00:51] Bill: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's great to see you. It's been it's been a few years and I appreciate it. I got an advance read of the book last year and it [00:01:00] really is it really is, I think, an important book and an important contribution.

[00:01:03] Bill: So can you, just for the listeners, can you just talk a bit about your background? So when you first started working in China and what you did when you were there. 

[00:01:12] Tania: So I came out to China in 2008 just ahead of the Olympics, right at the start of what turned out to be an incredibly news packed year, as you may recall, right?

[00:01:22] Tania: And I had never particularly wanted to be a foreign correspondent per se, but I just felt that China was the story of our time, really. Which is only proof to be truer perhaps as time has gone on. And because it's a pretty small bureau there were never more than two of us, max. And quite often there was one of me, I was covering absolutely everything.

[00:01:44] Tania: So from natural disasters through to politics, through to culture, business even very occasionally when I couldn't help hit sport. But I became particularly fascinated by this topic and by [00:02:00] China's more recent history, 

[00:02:02] Bill: one question on your time there. When you arrived, was it already past the Wenchuan earthquake?

[00:02:07] Tania: No. And in fact that was one of the sort of formative moments, for me reporting on, yeah, 

[00:02:15] Bill: it's 15 years next in two weeks. It's crazy. 

[00:02:18] Tania: It's hard to believe it's gone past so fast. I still think about those parents who lost kids. 

[00:02:24] Bill: And that, no, it's terrible. Terrible 

[00:02:29] Bill: So what led you to this book?

[00:02:33] Tania: You did actually, as I say in, as I say in the book, I probably wouldn't have written it without you. So I was obviously aware of the Cultural Revolution. I knew something about it. I'd read a little around it. But then it was just when I had that lunch with you and then over coffee, you started telling me about your father-in-law and about going to try to find his body, which I feel is probably a story actually [00:03:00] at this point, that you should.

[00:03:00] Tania: Tell rather than me. 

[00:03:02] Bill: And just for listeners the, I actually tried to have my wife be a special guest but she didn't want to do it, but Tania has interviewed her. I'll put a link in, into the story. I think we you did that great story about the artist Xu Weixin 徐唯辛, which maybe we can talk about too.

[00:03:20] Bill: But no, sadly, my. Like many Chinese families people had horrible experiences in the Cultural Revolution. My father-in-law killed himself in 1967 1968 when my wife was like a year old, a year and a half old. And it, it just, it was a, he did it in Miyun outside of Beijing and involved a train.

[00:03:47] Bill: And so we went. We had a family member a brother of his who was dying, who came back to say goodbye, and the family went out to this train embankment with this idea that maybe they could dig up the [00:04:00] bones and no one could figure out remember where it happened. Someone went to the village and found an old lady who remembered, and the old lady's warning was just be careful because that time that year, a lot of people jumped in front of train.

[00:04:15] Bill: So just make sure you get the right bones. It was just like, oh my God. It was just like this collective ..I mean it was just, it was quite chilling, but it was also like, this is what every so many people of a certain age in China bear these kinds of memories. 

[00:04:34] Tania: And so that I think was really what struck me.

[00:04:37] Tania: Obviously the sort of the cruelty and the loss and the fact that so many people are still living with loss now. And then as you said, the fact that the villagers were matter of fact about it. I remember you saying, they were sympathetic in some ways, but just uncomprehending of your mission in another way.

[00:04:59] Tania: And [00:05:00] I think in many ways it was the fact that it was so commonplace, really, that stuck with me because there were so many horror stories you hear from the Cultural Revolution, horrific atrocities that have taken place, but here was a loss, which in a way was sort of typical and that people were still living with the consequences of.

[00:05:25] Tania: And so I remember Carol saying to me, You know that even though she was now a mother herself, she couldn't imagine what it would be like to have a father, that there was this kind of space in her life and she couldn't imagine it being filled. And I think that really said so much about the way that people are still living with the consequences all these years on.

[00:05:50] Bill: And it really, I think, and it's how people process lost and process the anger and the grief and so much. A lot of it is repressed and we've [00:06:00] seen cycles over the years of expressions or people trying to express, we had  right after Xi Jmi came into power, I think one of the, one of the earliest red guards trying to make an apology.

[00:06:10] Bill: And, it angered Xi Jinping. It's one of those things where in many ways there were periods where there's been an allowance or it's been allowed to talk about it and then it gets pulled back and you can't really talk about it. And I think we're now one of those periods, but back to where we were talking about it, it was also really around that, around the artist Xu Weixin and what he was doing.

[00:06:37] Tania: That's right. . And so you suggested I go off to see him, which was an extraordinary experience because he has this, or had this studio full of around a hundred paintings and they are just immense. It's, I think it's quite hard for people who haven't seen them to imagine them, isn't it?

[00:06:53] Tania: Because they're. So daunting when you look at them, they're two and a half meters tall. They're monochrome. [00:07:00] 

[00:07:00] Bill: And you, I have you did a video for The Guardian. I'll put that in the show notes for people. We've been there. We took our kids cuz my wife's dad and her grandparents were in it.

[00:07:10] Bill: So three, three of her family members are in it. And they are, you went there and then were you in Beijing for his show or you missed, you were, you came after? 

[00:07:17] Tania: No, I came after. And of course that was the only show that he had on the mainland. Of these works we should probably explain. Yes, go ahead.

[00:07:25] Tania: It's a series of a hundred portraits of people who were caught up in the Cultural Revolution. And so some of them are obviously very famous figures, Mao himself and others from the era, but many of them are also ordinary people who were just Swept up in it all. And there are people who are clearly recognized as being perpetrators, people who are clearly recognized as being victims, but of course many people were both as well.

[00:07:55] Bill: And it was interesting he found some of the more ordinary people because he put out a call on social [00:08:00] media. For people to, if you're interested, and that's actually one of my, one of my wife's cousins sent in a bunch of information and he picked, he said, oh, this is an interesting story, or this is a sad story.

[00:08:11] Bill: And he did it. So I actually, we did go to his show. It was at the, today, if people lived in Beijing. Remember the Today Art Museum, museum down in the the Pinguo apartment complex down south of Guomao Qiao. And we went opening day and it was packed. And then it was like, that's it. There was a little bit of coverage and then it was gone.

[00:08:34] Bill: And I don't think the show lasted very long. It was it, but it was really moving to be there because it was just packed with all these people who, it wasn't like your typical sort of Beijing art show back in the sort of go-go years. It was just, it was a really remarkably moving and disturbing show.

[00:08:56] Tania: And I think that's what's so fascinating, isn't it? Because it shows that [00:09:00] there is that appetite for recalling, for looking back at this time. You see it again with the Cultural Revolution Museum that was set up on the outskirts of Shantou where when it first opened, there was actually quite an influx.

[00:09:15] Tania: Of visitors and then there was obviously a bit of a panic and the ruling goes out no more coverage in such Chinese media. Thank you very much. And the signposts are taken down and so it slows down to a trickle. 

[00:09:28] Bill: And you visited that museum, right? Yes. 

[00:09:33] Tania: As best I could, because by the time I got up there, it had been hastily locked up.

[00:09:38] Tania: But it's a very small museum with a very big sort of memorial. Garden around it with sort of statues and statues of victims and these very big sort of walls with pictures engraved on them and so forth which have now been covered up with propaganda posters and [00:10:00] so forth

[00:10:00] Bill:. Ah, and I wonder what it looks like now, because it does seem, it not does seem, it is true.

[00:10:06] Bill: Xi Jinping has very clearly. Has made it clear that, while he, everything he's doing is the opposite of a Cultural Revolution, mass movement. It's also very clear that. That part of the, that part of the PRC history, the to up the Mao era, including through cult through Cultural Revolution.

[00:10:26] Bill: There is no reopening of the sort of official verdict on the Cultural Revolution and Mao's mistakes. Look forward, move on, don't look back. 

[00:10:36] Tania: Absolutely. Which obviously has always really been the Party’s belief. So even when the official verdict was drafted in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, in the aftermath of Mao's death Deng says very clearly to the people drafting it the point of this is to get people to unite and look ahead. In other words, it's not that kind of [00:11:00] memorialization where you say, Let's draw up a verdict on this that the nation can keep looking back to and remembering and using to make sure this doesn't happen again. It's about saying, let's draw a line under this and then we can all move on.

[00:11:13] Tania: So the Party obviously hasn't changed that judgment, that it was a catastrophe that it was an error and so forth, but, it definitely doesn't want people to dwell on it. And as we've seen over time the subject's been more or less sensitive and I would say history generally has become both more important and more sensitive since 2012.

[00:11:35] Bill: Yes. One of the things I hear people talk about culture evolution as It why it doesn't matter. It's in the past, and especially like, why do you foreigners keep bringing up? It doesn't matter. We have to look forward. You've talked to so many people. You did this amazing book. How do you react to that? I. 

[00:11:59] Tania: I understand where [00:12:00] that comes from and I think there is a sort of justified question in the eyes of some people, which is particularly when you saw this number of books following Wild Swans. It seems as if there were a lot of these books coming out in the west.

[00:12:15] Tania: And I think people felt, what is this fascination with Maoist trauma when you are not willing to look at your own past and at the less savory aspects of that, whether that be the opium walls or slavery or whatever. So I understand where that comes from. And I was very conscious when I wrote the book that I didn't want it to be voyeuristic.

[00:12:38] Tania: I didn't want it to be about trying to find the worst things that had happened. It was much more for me about exploring what it means to people within China. And I suppose that would be my response, which is that a lot of Chinese people as your account of the exhibition being packed out shows a lot of Chinese people do care about this, [00:13:00] even if they're often reluctant to talk about it and they are interested, they want to know, or they want to be able to reflect upon this.

[00:13:09] Bill: Yeah. And it is also, I guess with the passage of time, the next generation, the folks in their sort of thirties, forties it does it. They don't even know in some ways unless there's some passing down in inside families. 

[00:13:27] Tania: Absolutely. And in fact, as you know people are often so reluctant to speak about it.

[00:13:32] Tania: When I started. Looking at this, I thought it was more about political repression and about how people aren't allowed to talk about the past in, except in certain ways. And obviously that is a huge factor, but actually it just became clear to me how much the personal trauma had affected people and how much of it was about people being unwilling or simply feeling unable to speak.

[00:13:56] Tania: And so I think for the people who do return to the past, and that's what sort of is striking about the people in red memory. They're all people who chose to look at that history in one way or another, or keep it alive in some way. That's a really unusual thing, and I think it's not necessarily that they want to hark back to the past, but that they feel they have to, or that it's inescapable in some way. And so I suppose part of my sort of response to why do people keep talking about this is that our pasts matter and they define us. And in the same way that it's really important for us, we are seeing people looking back upon slavery. And the fact that, particularly if you grew up in Britain, you grew up being told, it's all about the abolition of the slave trade and you don't really learn anything about how important Britain was in creating this right system of industrialized slavery.

[00:14:54] Tania: So in the same way that we need to go back and revisit our past, if we are to understand ourselves and who we are as a nation I think that has to be done. And the silence in China has been so profound that's, that I think many people there feel this urge to address it, even if they sometimes don't quite know why.

[00:15:16] Bill: That's the thing is there're just millions and millions of human tragedies, right? And so you can abstract it away into sort of this broader political question in history but as I think you bring out in the book, and as you just said, it's on an individual basis, it's just there's so many human tragedies and so much pain and so much grief and so much anger and so few ways to express it.

Tania: Yeah, absolutely. 

Bill: And over time, I've, I. We see it on a daily basis because my mother-in-law lives with us. And you just, we've, anyway, just, you just see how people have to, you have to survive and you have to deal with stuff, and you have to internalize stuff. And it is a remarkable [00:16:00] I don't know.

[00:16:02] Bill: It just it's just that generation had so much trauma. Lots of people are fine and deal with it, but they're just it's just a, I don't know. It's why, like I said earlier, I, when I was there in the early nineties I got into trying to understand the whole Mao Badge phenomenon because for me it was like, it was just a sort of an entry point into trying to understand this just collective insanity. And how does a society go to just become basically insane for several years? 

[00:16:34] Tania: I think you put your finger on something important there as well beause you talk about it as a collective insanity. And that's one of the issues one of the sort of Sinologists who's looked at this says, it's a collective trauma and therefore you need some kind of collective resolution.

[00:16:51] Tania: And so even when people do address it as individuals, It's very hard to try and make any sense of it or come to terms with it without having any sort of broader social reckoning or even recognition really of what happened. 

[00:17:08] Bill: Yeah, and I don't think, clearly in the current trends, it's not gonna happen.

Tania: Absolutely

[00:17:14] Bill:And the Xi Jinping, his family had their own traumas individually and as a family in the Cultural Revolution and around the Cultural Revolution. And they've obviously, they've dealt with it and they're moving forward. And so it's in some ways I can't imagine he's that sympathetic.

[00:17:33] Tania: look at all the. All the sort of the leadership of China over recent years who had all gone through it, endured it in some way or another. The Party elders who had devoted their lives and sacrificed so much to the cause of the revolution only to be devoured by it. And then somehow coming to terms with that and believing that the answer had to be to [00:18:00] maintain the system in some way or be in a radically transformed kind of way.

[00:18:03] Bill: And that's one of the reasons why I, there is a kind of a cult of she underway, but I've been skeptical that, there'll be, people say, oh, it'll be a new culture evolution. It, I think everything, for example, that Xi's doing is the opposite.

[00:18:19] Bill: It's all about centralizing power. It's about controlling the masses, not unleashing or harnessing the masses, which is what Mao seems to have done. 

[00:18:28] Tania: Yes. And in fact, there's a fantastic Economist podcast on this very subject drum tower, if anybody listens to it. 

Bill: Yes, it's a great podcast. Which has just dropped precisely about the differences.

[00:18:38] Tania: But one of the things that's so striking is that so many people within China. Have clearly seen parallels. Yes. And see echoes. And I think what they see is firstly the sort of reinsertion of the Party and towards these spheres from which it had retreated like private life [00:19:00] and even things like sort of culture and arts and so forth.

[00:19:04] Tania: And business obviously. But also this sort of arbitrariness in what’s done. And so if you look at the fact that some people during covid were talking about white guards all these people who were enforcing the covid policies, obviously harking back to the idea of red guards.

[00:19:26] Tania: So people see these parallels and as you say, they're obviously dramatic differences and Xi is somebody who's so wedded to the idea of order and discipline. But it's really striking how many people have seen those parallels, and I think it's very different. It's partly very different because he's in charge of a very different nation. But there are some striking echoes, aren't there? [00:20:00] 

[00:20:00] Bill: And it was interesting, I think when we were together at the artist Xu Weixin’s studio you were interviewing him for that piece you did. Where you talked to several family members or people who are the of family members of people in the portraits.

[00:20:16] Bill: Xu, who's now in the US, I remember him talking about how he wanted to lead because he thought Xi was gonna bring back the new Cultural Revolution. And it was very striking because it was very, it was a, it was just a very dark at the time, seemed to be a very extreme view, but it was from somebody who obviously was very, was very steeped in history and what had happened.

[00:20:40] Bill: And I remember thinking like, wow, that's a pretty scary contemplation, but I think, it hasn't happened as extreme as he suggested, but to your point, I think the, especially under Covid, there were again this just how the system can [00:21:00] mobilize and just effectively the realization that when the system decides you have no rights, you have no rights.

[00:21:08] Tania: Yes, absolutely. And the other thing of course is having a single figure with this sort of untrammeled power. And clearly not, again, not the full extent of power that Mao had but none or indeed the full sort of veneration, but nonetheless, somebody who's there indefinitely. Somebody who is definitely using Party institutions and strengthening Party institutions in many ways, but is also making them more and more his own, if you look at the personnel for example. 

[00:21:41] Bill: Yes. And who's somebody who, you know, when he was the the vice president was on the standing committee in the 17th Party Congress, he oversaw, one of the things he oversaw was Party history. He, his story too his father got in trouble [00:22:00] in the early 1960s because of a book that was written about a political case. There was a biography that Kang Sheng, like a really nasty, especially nasty guy, told Mao, oh, this book is actually, it's a sort of anti it's criticizing you and because it involved someone who would work with Xi Jinping's father. Xi’s father ended up getting in trouble and so you see like personally, he understands how history can be used and weaponized. And how it's, how important it is to control it. And if it's gonna be used as weaponized, you want to be the person who's doing it. 

[00:22:44] Tania: Yeah, absolutely. That control of the narrative. It's obviously got very long history in, within China, of history being a sort of a moral or political force as much as a, or more than a record. But, and we [00:23:00] see that sort of being amped up under the Party over time, but there's no doubt that under Xi, it's really. Taken on renewed strength 

[00:23:07] Bill: Yeah and in some ways Xi may only be getting started. Back to your book just what's your favorite part of the book, if you have one?

[00:23:15] Bill: I know maybe I'm sure you love the whole book, but is there anything that really stands out or stood out for 

[00:23:21] Tania: you? I don't think any author loves the whole of this. You go back and think, why did I put that full stop there? I think talking to the psychotherapists for me was really interesting and maybe that's not one that sort of many readers will come away with.

[00:23:42] Tania: But I think particularly having witnessed or having spoken to people at such length about the trauma that they had been through and about the impact it had upon them, it was also really important to [00:24:00] remember that there is hope that people did survive this and that they came through and were able, as deeply scarred as they were, people did manage to come through and show love to their children or take pleasure in things. Wang Xilian, who's the composer I interview, is just this kind of extraordinary force of nature. I've never met anyone like him really, in terms of just having this kind of determination to seize life that clearly comes from his experiences. And so as scarring and as grim as many of those experiences were, I felt it was really important to remember that humans are resilient, and they find strength in ways that we wouldn't anticipate, but also that, I guess we're all vulnerable and the importance of trying to understand people [00:25:00] rather than to sit in judgment upon them. 

[00:25:02] Bill: In, in terms of the  psychiatrists, China has a vast shortage of mental health professionals, doesn't it?

Tania: Yeah, absolutely

[00:25:14] Bill:. And how there isn't any sort of special training for this sort of historical trauma. Is there h how do these psych, like how do the psycho psychiatrists know what to do or how to deal with it? 

[00:25:28] Tania: So they've definitely looked to examples elsewhere. For example, the work that's been done on Transgenerational trauma very much came out of the experiences of people, I think primarily in Israel and the US treating the children of Holocaust survivors, for example.

[00:25:48] Tania: So they were certainly looking overseas. There are people from Europe who've worked with psychotherapists there because it's such a kind of [00:26:00] nascent discipline anyway within China. And then I think what was interesting to me as well was the fact that in some ways you'd think it was quite safe territory because it's taking this huge social trauma and it's confining it within a treatment room.

[00:26:20] Tania: It turns it in a sense, into one person's problems or it treats as one person's problems. So you could think that from the authorities point of view, that might be quite welcome in some ways. But of course it also means speaking about what happened, and that's certainly why a lot of people find it too threatening to contemplate as potential patients, but I think that's also why it's been a very sensitive area as well and why Chinese psychotherapists haven't really spoken about it publicly.

[00:26:54] Tania: The people I spoke to didn't want to be identified, and that's quite telling, isn't it? 

[00:26:59] Bill: I mean it, [00:27:00] yeah, obviously there’s patient confidentiality but again, I think to your point, there's also a political overlay too. So not, this book is not at all depressing.

[00:27:15] Bill: It's an incredibly difficult topic, but actually I found it to be in many ways inspiring because there are some awful stories but they're also you, like you said earlier you see how people can survive.

[00:27:28] Tania:  Yes. And I didn't, you don't want to attack a, a false happy ending, onto this. So you really have to remember that a lot of people came away scarred and did not recover. And I talk in the psychotherapy chapter, you know the woman who says to me I. For us, the Cultural Revolution only ended last April because that's when my father died. And, his brain had basically stopped in 1966. He had a nervous breakdown after the [00:28:00] red guards persecuted him, and he never recovered. So I didn't want to create two rosy a vision, but I did want to reflect the complexity and the hope that exists. And the fact, I talk about the people who were in sort of red guard factions and turned upon each other and were trying to kill each other, and yet they have this sort of strange relationship now.

[00:28:26] Tania: These guys I was talking to where I don't think they necessarily like each other particularly, but they've found a way to live with each other and coexist and even take care of the ultrazealous unrepentant, ultra Maoist guy, who still thinks that that the main problem with the Cultural Revolution is probably really that it didn't it didn't go far enough.

[00:28:52] Tania: It didn't go, or yes, it didn't go on far enough or it didn't succeed. But, they've managed to find a way to live with him and they [00:29:00] give him cash and help support him. And I just, I think there is hope to be found there. 

[00:29:05] Bill: No, it is fascinating. When I, in the early nineties when I had a job in Beijing, I actually I was working as a translator at this at this now defunct publishing house called the Chinese Literature Press. And it, this was 91 to 92. And then I learned that actually, like you said, there were colleagues who were, we're only 15 at that point. It was only, it's crazy. It was only 15 plus years since the end of the Cultural Revolution. And there were colleagues who had been on either side, persecuted or persecutors. And you could tell there was tension there, but it was like they had to deal with each other in their little work unit…That was 15 years outta the Cultural Revolution is very different now.

[00:29:50] Bill: We're much further along in history. And I guess, part of it I'm assuming is, the Party will just assume that they just effectively as people age out and die off that the memories will just fade away. And then it's all about moving forward. And so I wonder in some ways, if your book isn't, it's not going be picked up by a publish in the PRC, I assume. I'm curious how they would view your 

[00:30:15] Tania: book. I don't imagine it could be printed in the PRC, but also some of those I spoke to didn't want it then what? To be published there, which I completely understand. 

[00:30:24] Bill: So that's, so will you will you try and get it published in Taiwan? In the old days you probably could have published it in Hong Kong, but that obviously I don't think would happen now.

[00:30:33] Tania: I felt in the interests of being true to the agreement, the spirit of the agreement I'd made with people that I didn't want to see it published in Chinese. And obviously, I said to them, I can't completely rule out somebody finding bits of it and choosing to translate bits of it on the internet because that can happen.But I won't be Party to it being translated.

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[00:30:57] Bill: That makes  sense. So I guess, we've talked about it, but I have, I have some questions. One. Really the other question is, what do you think, like if the memories fade away inside China, does that really matter? Or is it actually something that the Party, they just. The next generation, they move on and the top guys remember it and so they seem to be trying to prevent some of the worst excesses. I is there a way of approaching it actually going work or is it the right way to deal with all this trauma?

[00:31:46] Tania: I think that's such a good question and I can understand not just from a political survival point of view, but also from a concern for sort of Chinese society point of view why the authorities are so reluctant for this to be addressed precisely because the issues are so raw and so painful and because people were turning on upon their workmates and so on, and I think their fear was partly, how the hell do you manage this if people start saying, you killed my father. Where the hell do you go from there? And it was so clear talking to people how rancorous it remains, even among people who I had broadly thought of as being what you might call on the same side in terms of them being people who want to remember the Cultural Revolution because they think it was a time where things went dreadfully wrong or we need to learn from that.

[00:32:48] Tania: Even between them, there was so much bitterness and rancor at times about. What you should remember and how you should remember, and who you should hold responsible and how much blame you attached to individuals and so forth. So I think that was one real concern, but I don't think you can just bury it because I think these things just fester and make themselves felt in really dangerous ways. Certainly, I talked a bit earlier about transgenerational trauma. So there's a lot of evidence, as I said originally, coming from the families of Holocaust victims, but it's been well established across a range of countries of the effects of trauma being passed down between generations even, or perhaps especially where people aren't speaking about what happened. And so the psychological effects upon the children and grandchildren I think really are significant. And you do just think about how much pain. A huge number of people in China are [00:34:00] still walking around with, and that pain doesn't disappear when that generation dies, although it may ebb to some degree.

[00:34:09] Tania: And I also do think because the Cultural Revolution is. I don't think the Cultural Revolution could happen again in that way, in that form, certainly. But I think that, as I said, we need to look back at our histories to understand who we are as people, and also to see how easily humans can go astray.

[00:34:37] Tania: And in that sense, it's not just a story for China although, it could only have happened in that way within that particular sort of time and place, but it is something that has a sort of a wider resonance. So I don't think you can just bury it. And I think the final thing actually, which is sort of odd, is that for a long time the [00:35:00] Party has also relied on this unspoken memory of the Cultural Revolution to essentially send this message of either we keep very tight control of all of you or you are going to have to live with this chaos and devastation. Yes. In which anything could happen. And that has been very effective because a lot of people do remember the Cultural Revolution, but as you said, it's a diminishing asset for them in that sense because they don't want to talk about it directly and go into too much detail, and because the people who actually remember it are dying. So for younger people, it really doesn't have the same impact. 

[00:35:42] Bill: No. And of course the, this sort of the messaging around otherwise it's chaos leaves out that otherwise it's chaos like it was chaos caused by Mao. And that is the, that’s the, again, in the eighties, especially in, in, [00:36:00] they're maybe some more discussions about Mao and his role in history. And now of course it's, again, Xi made very clear soon after he became down secretary and there were these sort of the Pre-reform and opening sort of the founding of the PRC and the early years of the PRC and then there was reform and opening and, neither one of those basically were, you can't negate either one.

[00:36:33] Bill: And then, since then he's added effectively this third era, this new era, right? So we're into the third era of the PRC history, and it's all about looking forward. The previous eras have their historical what's the right word? They they have their historical judgements in place and so those aren't gonna be overturned. And so anything that would open up the Cultural Revolution. In any way now. It [00:37:00] just it's a massive political problem, I think for Xi, and so I just don't think I think we're gonna see your book is really important, but I think ultimately we're not gonna see any sort of reopening of the Cultural Revolution in any and Xi's only, we look at his age, he's he's what's gonna turn 70 this year.

[00:37:23] Bill: He could be with us for a long time. And so by the time he fades from the scene, most likely, most of the people who have a direct experience of the Cultural Revolution will also have faded from the scene. And it is, it is interesting too, like how, the formative experiences and how they inform his approach to governing and it just risk taking and decision making. And we may never know, and you can certainly speculate, but one of the other things that were quite damaging were that whole generation who lost their [00:38:00] education. Look at Xi he went he basically, Barely even got a high school education. 

[00:38:10] Tania: And this is, this is one of the things that's fascinating to me, which is that is the one part of the Cultural Revolution that the authorities are willing to talk about and even to celebrate because they managed to detach it entirely from its political context. So when they talk about these 17 million people who are sent off to the countryside. Thinking that they were going there forever. They’re not portraying that as being part of the Cultural Revolution or, part of Mao’s many sort of terrible failings of his people. It's become this sort of story of comradeship on his toil. This is where Xi Jinping learned to be a man of the people he grew up into [00:39:00] manhood. And, all of those things are very appealing, particularly in an age where we were seeing these sort of constant ca cases of hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions being racked up by high ranking Party officials. To be able to contrast it with, here's Xi Jinping, he went down to the countryside, he struggled, he knows what it is to labor. All of those message are very potent

Bill:. Yeah. He's a man of the people. No, and it really is like you said they've figured out how to separate out the trauma and actually turn it into this positive, constructive formative experience and I think, but to be honest, I think some people in retrospect do believe it was. 

[00:39:51] Tania: That's what's fascinating when you talked to them. And in a way, I think that's probably where it came from the Party, that there was already this sort of grassroots nostalgia [00:40:00] movement among the sent down youth which Guobin Yang has written about brilliantly, where people started meeting up, going to exhibitions, and there's this sort of fascination with that time, and it's a very bittersweet thing.

[00:40:14] Tania: I sort of draw a comparison with the Waltons and the way that people have this slightly romantic impression of, depression era America. Everybody was terribly poor, but they all loved each other and worked hard, there is a kind of nostalgia for that time, for a sense of meaning and belief and purity. And so that was a very potent thing that was already there to tap into. I think. 

[00:40:42] Bill: Yeah it's one of those things that I dunno, this is why your book is just, it's a, it's an important contribution to trying to help understand and because it does, again, to the question I asked earlier and that other people have raised why should we [00:41:00] care? It isn't just about trauma, but it's also about it. It has just been so formative for the people running China now and trying to understand how this affected them really does have real implications for how they see the world and how they see ordering China. 

[00:41:19] Tania: Absolutely. And right across the spectrum as well, if you talk to business people so often they'll say, oh, it was my years as a sent down youth that were this kind of transformative moment that made me realize how hard I would have to struggle to get there and so forth.

[00:41:36] Tania: So in so many ways, it shaped the culture, it shaped the politics, it shaped the economy. 

[00:41:41] And 

[00:41:41] Bill: I wonder, there, there certainly it was a shorter period, but I wonder if the sort of the covid, especially the last 2022 with dynamics here, COVID and just how hard it was for so many people and so many businesses. I wonder if, I think we're already gonna see this talk about, oh this was a really formative year. [00:42:00] This, we survived and then therefore we're able to do, we understand risk and we understand how to managed through really difficult periods, even though I don't think it was I mean it was obviously different than the Cultural Revolution, but it was also in certain places, clearly very traumatic for people.

[00:42:20] Tania: Yes. I feel, I think even looking around the UK, it feels like people are only really starting to realize the impact that the pandemic. Yeah. Had upon them how much it's shaped individuals, how much it's shaped communities, politics, that sense that sort of several people said to me, seeing friends or relatives disappear down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories during the pandemic because they were suddenly locked at home with nothing else to look at. And the thing that's striking to me actually is how little we are talking all about all of that. And it does make me think when terrible things happen, people want to forget them [00:43:00] and move on.

[00:43:01] Bill: move on. And it's also early, right? You people. I mean it and we'll thank you for writing the book.Is there anything else you'd like to say to the audience or, anything else I should have asked you? 

[00:43:16] Tania: No, in many ways, I think you probably know this subject as well, if not better than…Me, because you are, you've obviously lived with it at a family level as well. And I just hope, I think that people, it's clearly about China, as I say, and about how you can't understand China unless you understand this period. But I would also hope that people didn't see it as being a book about this kind of distant place that has nothing to do with them because it, for me, it raised so many questions, the parallels with our own society in terms of the way that we choose to [00:44:00] address our own history.

[00:44:02] Tania: And particularly looking at what's happened with politics in the UK and especially in the us, Trump is clearly in some ways, a more, a much more Maoist figure, you might argue, than she is in terms of his sort of reveling in chaos and disorder, and particularly in this incitement of hatred. Adam Serwer talks about the cruelty being the purpose in the use of hatred and division for political purposes.

[00:44:36] Bill: So one question if you're willing to to entertain it would be about politics in the West. You hear a lot of this, call it cancel culture, whatever, and people say, oh, it's just like the Cultural Revolution. How do you react when you hear someone compare, like people getting canceled on Twitter or just saying, how do you, when someone says, oh, that's like the Chinese Cultural Revolution how do you what do you think when you hear that? 

[00:45:09] Tania: I think it just speaks to how fundamentally people misunderstand the Cultural Revolution in the West. They either regard it as a sort of a punchline or something, a bit kitsch or they regard it as young people being very left wing and getting carried away essentially. And that's really not what the Cultural Revolution is, right? The Cultural Revolution is about a very powerful man exploiting and fomenting public sentiment for his own ends.

[00:45:42] Bill: and violent and public violence.

[00:45:43] Tania:. Indeed. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. So it's about the use of power and I just think that's fundamentally distinct from any of the kind of discussions that are going on now. It just speaks to a [00:46:00] really basic misunderstanding of what we're looking at.

[00:46:01] Bill: Good. We agree. I have a, I've tried not to engage, but it drives me nuts because I find it to be incredibly facile and an incredibly shallow that portrays a real lack of understanding and appreciation for the horrors and the trauma of the Cultural Revolution in China.

[00:46:22] Tania: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:46:23] Bill: So how do we end on a happy note? What's a happy takeaway for the, from your book? 

[00:46:31] Tania: Oh, dear, that's tricky. I think it, unfortunately it was my day job as well involves writing on foreign policy. I do spend a lot more time looking at the the darker sides of things. As I said, I do think people have in many ways managed to move forward. I think there is a wealth of extraordinary and thoughtful work out there on the era, particularly done [00:47:00] by Chinese scholars officially or unofficially, within China and then especially outside it as it's become more difficult to work there.

[00:47:12] Tania: I think there's such sort of richness there in terms of understanding the era better, but also in learning, as I said about human nature more generally and those things we can take away. So there's that. And then there is just the fact that people live through horrors and they manage to go on and lead meaningful and loving lives against all the odds, even if they've been deeply scarred as well sometimes…I was just gonna say incidentally, if anybody has the chance to go and look up Wong, she Lynn's work on YouTube. There's a sort of a bunch of his music out there. So he's the composer who nearly died in the Cultural Revolution. But as I said, is this octogenarian with an incredible appetite for life. Still working assiduously living in Germany now, and he would love people to hear his music. So I think if you want a sort of a blast of life in contrast to all the horror that we've been talking about then lease go and listen to you. 

[00:48:17] Bill: We'll, and I'll, we'll put some links in the in the show notes.

[00:48:20] Bill: No, thank you. That's great. And the thing I would just add is, and why, again, I think your book is so important. Is it, as, especially from the US perspective, US China relations worsen, there's just lots of othering on both sides. And one of the things is, It's, we're all human and so much of the pain and suffering and experiences, the reactions are human and it's a reminder that people, even as they go through different experiences, different cultures, there's still some real, there's, we're all people.

[00:48:54]  And so in many ways your book is important in a way that, [00:49:00] again, it’s so easy to abstract a way what's going on in sort of US China or Chinese politics. You help humanize it in a way that I think is important for everyone to understand, that in many ways we're all the same.

[00:49:16] Tania: Thank you. I did want this be, I wanted this to be a book that was about us rather than them, so that's really good to hear. 

[00:49:24] Bill: Thank you, Tania. It's, I really, I can't recommend Tania's book Red Memory enough like I said I will also be running an excerpt on Sinocism from one of her chapters. And thank you all for listening and thank you, Tania, for taking the time. 

[00:49:41] Tania: Thank you.

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Sinocism Podcast
A podcast from Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, in which we talk to experts from around the world to help us all get smarter about China. Topics discussed include politics, foreign relations, business, finance, culture, history and markets.
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