Forty Years Ago

The New York Times has a short interview with two women who played pivotal roles in the Cultural revolution

NIE YUANZI was an ambitious college professor whose “big character poster,” displayed on the grounds of Beijing University, was said to have ignited the Cultural Revolution, a prairie fire of violent purges and denunciations that quickly spread across the nation.

Wang Rongfen was a student of German at Beijing’s elite Foreign Language Institute who was imprisoned after writing a bold letter to Mao challenging his judgment in unleashing the self-destructive frenzy of his young vigilantes, the Red Guards.

The article says very little except that the Cultural Revolution is still something of a cipher in Chinese official history and even popular memory. What it doesn’t say, though it illustrates it reasonably well, is that the ever-so-slightly more open society which has emerged over the last decade or so has made it possible for these discussions to take place, to fill in some of the gaps.

Something which I’ve been pondering since Alan asked what the audience for revisionism is is somewhat clarified by this and by other revisionism I’ve seen lately. To some extent I think we academic historians overreact to overstated revisionist claims because what’s “under attack” is a much broader popular consensus sustained — in the case of China — by official orthodoxy and censorship. I think we need to continue to respond vigorously to new sources and new arguments — absorbing them where they are credible and publicly rejecting them where they are not — but I’m getting, I think, a little more sympathetic to those who are engaging with bad history in the popular and official arena.

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