For Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, the socialist transformation after 1949 was not only a political and administrative construction, but also a process of transforming the consciousness of the people and rewriting history. To fight lukewarm attitudes and “backward thoughts” among the peasants, as well as their resistance to rural socialist transformation and collectivization of production and their private lives, Mao decided that politicizing the memory of the laboring class and reenacting class struggle would play a substantial role in ideological indoctrination and perpetuating revolution.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Party made use of grassroots historical writing, oral articulation, and exhibition to tease out the experiences and memories of individuals, families, and communities, with the purpose of legitimizing the rule of the CCP. The cultural movement of recalling the past combined grassroots histories, semi-fictional family sagas, and public oral presentations, as well as political rituals such as eating “recalling-bitterness meals” to educate the masses, particularly the young. Eventually, Mao’s emphasis on class struggle became the sole guiding principle of historical writings, which were largely fictionalized, and recalling bitterness and contrasting the past with the present became a solid part of PRC political culture, shaping the people’s political imagination of the old society and their way of narrating personal experience.
This article also demonstrates people’s suspicion of and resistance to the state’s manipulation of memory and ritualization of historical education, as well as the ongoing contestation between forgetting, remembering, and representation in China today.
[Keywords: historiography, Mao Zedong, socialist education, memory, recalling bitterness]
…Different from “speaking bitterness (诉苦 suku)” in the Land Reform movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which was mainly implemented as a technique of mobilization, the “recalling bitterness (忆苦 yiku)” campaign in the 1960s aimed at reenacting class struggle and reinforcing class awareness by invoking collective memory.6 During this process, which was largely interactive and involved different levels of the Chinese state apparatus, history became personalized and also gradually fictionalized, and the oral presentation of memory became ritualistic and volatile to suit the needs of different political agendas. This project of ideology-driven and class-based historical writing and oral articulation was interestingly conducted mainly by writers of fictional works or manipulated by cultural officials of the state, and there was a gradual blurring of the boundary between history and fiction. Many family history stories appeared in literary magazines rather than journals of historical research. Finally, past bitterness not only became the articulation of individual and collective memories, but also involved rituals and performance, and thus was successfully incorporated into the larger institution of propaganda and Chinese popular culture.7 As a result, all depictions of the old society in the recalling-bitterness movement were dissociated from “objective realities” and became “representational realities.”8
…Lin Biao emphasized that this campaign was a “living education” that could effectively overcome the mentality of pacifism and enhance the soldiers’ will to fight. “If the past bitterness is not understood, the present sweetness will be unknown. [Some] might regard today’s sweetness as bitterness”, Lin Biao said.20
…Collective memory can be defined as “recollections of a shared past ‘that are retained by members of a group, large or small, that experienced it,’” and this “socially constructed, historically rooted collective memory functions to create social solidarity in the present.”50 During the process of socialist education, the party-state attempted to build a class identity grounded in a shared memory of past suffering, but did so by gradually compromising historical authenticity. “Pure memory” was reworked to take on “quasi-hallucinatory forms” when it was put into images to configure tragedy and trauma.51 Emphasizing class confrontation, hatred, and bitter memory, the narrative schema of semi-fictional family histories show several common characteristics.
First, many family histories during the socialist education movement appeared in multiple literary magazines at national and provincial levels or were published in volumes dedicated to reportage literature (报告文学 baogao wenxue), emphasizing “vividness (生动 shengdong)” and “literary character (文学性 wenxuexing)” in addition to “educational meaning.”52 The famous myth about a female tenant-farmer named Leng Yueying (冷月英 1911–1984) being locked in landlord Liu Wencai’s (刘文彩 1887–1949) “water dungeon (水牢 shui lao)” was published as fact-based “reportage literature” in 1963.53 Many works in this genre were written by authors of fiction and essays. The short story writer Ai Wu wrote an article entitled “Miserable Childhood (苦难的童年 Ku’nan de tongnian)” to tell the stories of 2 peasants in the Beijing suburbs. The stories were published by the leading literary magazine People’s Literature (人民文学 Renmin wenxue) in February 1964. The same issue also contained another family history written by the famous essayist Yang Shuo (杨朔 1913–1968).
Second, landlords and capitalists were portrayed as extremely brutal and inhumane, particularly to women and children. Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr., points out that the post-famine recalling-bitterness propaganda was aimed at altering the villagers’ memory of the Great Famine (the “bitterness” produced by the CCP) and replacing it with the “bitterness” from before 1949.54 Yet, if the memory of the Great Leap Forward and the famine was more about bodily pain and hunger, the bitterness in pre-1949 China presumably had a much broader spectrum, ranging from physical pains and emotional frustrations to sociopolitical inequality, and emphasized the sense of humiliation and de-humanization in the old society. One such story recounted the experience of a boy named Xiaotieliang (小铁粱), who said that he was a helper in the house of landlord Kang and was beaten all day long. He would be beaten if he got up late, if he moved slowly, if the landlord’s little son cried, or if the pig got sick or a chicken died. If a landlord was a local philanthropist, then the story was meant to reveal his true face as a sham who hoodwinked laboring people.55 In Guizhou, the provincial literary magazine published a story entitled “The Suffering of Two Generations (两代人的苦难 liangdairen de ku’nan)”, in which a female narrator told about how the landlord’s wife pinched her breasts, causing her milk to spray several inches. This story was written by the Writing Group of the 4 Histories.56 A reader whose letter was published in the October 1964 issue of Shandong Literature (山东文学 Shandong wenxue) was deeply moved by the 3 family histories that had appeared in the magazine earlier that year. The reader said that the stories were all true and very educational, and offered his own examples of bitter experiences. He knew a 13-year-old girl, Xu Ronghua (徐荣华), who had worked as a servant and had had to carry the landlord’s daughter on her back to school. Grandma Zhang, another servant, was forced to drink her employer’s urine. Of the Zhangs’ 12 children, 3 were tortured to death by capitalists, 6 were starved to death, and the remaining 3 were sold. However, the author of the letter said that the family stories also provided evidence of how sweet the new society was. Xu Ronghua survived and became a Party member, and the sold children were returned to Grandma Zhang with the aid of the communist government. The details cited in the letter repeated the sadistic plots of the bitter story: as a wet nurse, Grandma Zhang’s breasts were pinched by her employer, Landlord Chen Number Three, with wood splints to produce more milk until her breasts became red and swollen. To prevent Zhang from breastfeeding her own child, Chen was said to have used iron rings to encase Zhang’s nipples when she went out and to have them checked when she returned.57
…Fifth, while fictitious stories were often told in the name of “reportage”, sometimes they featured a real person as the main character. The famous soldier-writer Gao Yubao (高玉宝 1927–?), an orphan who had labored for a landlord, published his autobiographical account titled Gao Yubao in 1951, which was reprinted in 1972. Gao explained how his experiences were written and revised as a semi-fiction:
With the help and cultivation of the Party and the leaders, I finally completed the first draft of the xiaoshuo (小说).64 Later, the Party Committee of the army dispatched experts to help me revise. Based on the draft, we cut, concentrated, and summarized the characters and the plots, and thus finished this novel.65
Here Gao does not deny that his work is a fictional xiaoshuo based on personal experiences, and that it had been reworked by the author and professional writers to meet the needs of political propaganda. Gao further discussed how his understanding of how to write xiaoshuo was deepened:
When I started to write Gao Yubao […] I did not have time to study some political theories and lacked profound understanding of the great Mao Zedong Thought […] Particularly I did not know what xiaoshuo means, nor did I know that the personas and plots can be created. As a result, what I wrote was nothing but an autobiography […] When revising it, I reasonably highlighted the spirit of rebellion of Yubao and the masses, and enhanced the class feelings among the laboring people in their consolidated struggle. I also deepened my exposure of the reactionary nature of the exploitative class. In addition, I added […] the Party’s influence on Yubao.66
For the reader, an autobiographical account whose title is identical to the author’s name is easily accepted as truth, but Gao did not mind blending real experiences with imagination and editing based on political need.
In addition to writing, the visualization of class education became another form of preserving and reinforcing the collective memory of victimization. The theme was soon boiled down to 2 key words: bitterness (苦 ku) and hatred (仇 chou). The documentary “Never Forget Class Bitterness, Forever Remember the Hatred in the Sea of Blood (不忘阶级苦，永记血海仇 Buwang jieji ku, yongji xiehai chou)”, made in 1965, was based on an exhibition promoting class education in Shandong Province. The film showed the objects on display, including a leather whip, club, and walnuts filled with lead that capitalists allegedly used to beat workers. These items were interpreted in the voiceover narrative as part of the “so-called bourgeois civilization.” The documentary showed a photo of an unemployed worker selling his daughter. Most other images were painted pictures with motifs such as child laborers burying, with agony, the dead body of their little colleague, headmen watching them with whips in their hands; a child worker with a fever who fainted into a wok filled with boiling water; and a sick child buried alive in a wooden box while he was striking it from inside with his fists. The plight of the peasants was another main theme of the exhibition and of the documentary, both of which displayed a quilt that a poor peasant family had allegedly used for 3 generations, a wooden pillow that was said to have been used for 4 generations, and the one pair of pants that a poor couple had shared for many years. The forced separation of families by poverty was a recurring theme of the exhibition and recalling-bitterness literature. Parents were forced to sell their children; a wife was sold to a human trafficker to pay her husband’s debts to the landlord. The documentary ended with the liberation of the people and the founding of the People’s Republic. The voiceover stated,
In the socialist society, class struggle still exists. All these that have passed, we can never forget! The blood debt owed by imperialism, the crimes committed by landlords and capitalists, and all the suffering inflicted on us—can we forget them?
Afterward, the documentary showed a village history tablet that bore an inscription of 4 characters, Yong Bu Wang Ji (永不忘记): “never forget.” The voiceover concluded: “No, we cannot. This hatred is as deep as the sea and the animosity is as heavy as a mountain, and let them be inscribed on the rock and let our offspring never forget.”67
…After being chosen, the speakers were trained further to ensure they were eloquent, emotional, and able to cry easily.71 One speaker, Master Hao, showed good skills in sobbing, talking, eating a steamed bun, and wiping off tears—almost at the same time.72
… The deep sense of victimization was effectively used to justify the violence and physical abuse of Red Guards. One former Red Guard recalled that when he and his peers were reluctant to beat students with bad class backgrounds, one radical student stood out to do “thought work.” He talked about the bitterness and hatred of the laboring people, the slaughter of revolutionary masses by the Nationalist Party, and the death of his uncle in the Civil War. Through tears, the student asked: “Back then, who sympathized with us? Who pitied us? Today, can we have mercy on these people? Can we pity them?” Upon hearing this, some students’ eyes turned red, shouting: “No, we can’t!” Some turned back and slapped the face of the student who had been beaten, though doing so half-heartedly.87 Other former students, however, recalled their experiences with skepticism. One former sent-down youth working in Inner Mongolia wrote that recalling bitterness meetings became the “privilege” of a chosen few in his village. However, the content was never consistent, he reported. The orator first said that he became a shepherd for the landlord at 12, but then he would say that was when he was ten. The village chief would go so far as to speak about the bitterness he suffered during the Great Famine in 1961 and 1962.88
In Yunnan Province in 1969, the Provincial Revolutionary Committee issued a directive requiring ideological education for sent-down youth. In one village, there was a famous female orator who had been an adopted daughter-in-law. With innocent eyes, a tanned face, and big, rough hands, the old woman convinced listeners of her past suffering. When her talk reached its climax, she burst into tears and cried out loud. Her crying, which was in itself an accusation, automatically triggered the crying of the audience, and was followed by slogan shouting. The sent-down youth who provided the reminiscence, however, said that he was later told that the old woman’s 4 brothers starved to death during the famine of 1960, and the bitterness under communism, which she was forbidden to mention, might have been the real cause of her crying.89 Very often, an invited bitterness speaker confused pre-Liberation bitterness and post-Liberation suffering, as recounted by a low-level government official, Party Secretary Ye. According to Ye, the local government usually invited a person whose “living conditions improved substantially after the Liberation” to address the youngsters. Once, however, an old man described the “difficult time he experienced after the failure of the Great Leap Forward: how much hunger he had suffered during that period, and how many people he had seen die.” The host of the event wanted to stop him, but found that the young audience listened with amusement, that is, until the host himself began to feel like laughing.90 For the sent-down youth Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤 b. 1962), who later became a famous historian, an old peasant’s anachronism in accusing collectivization under communism, the starvation of the villagers, and deprivation of the right to beg for food, was much more enlightening than it was entertaining, because it destroyed his youthful dream of revolution in toto.91