Modern Chinese Culture

Course Paper (30%) – Due in class Thursday April 4th

Write an essay of no more than 2000 words which analyses a modern Chinese cultural phenomenon or an example of specific cultural output in relation to

domestic and/or international historical, economic, social or political contexts in China. Include the word count at the end of the main body of your paper.

Here’s a reminder of some of the modern Chinese cultural phenomena and examples of specific cultural outputs discussed in the course:

 Words, messaging, visual representations and ideas of the China Dream

 Road to Revival exhibition at the National Museum of China  Contemporary hip hop dance and rap music phenomenon  Belt and Road Initiative, China’s international vision and Chinese culture

 Urban and rural in contemporary China and Chinese culture  Shanghai Baby – gender, market and consumer culture in Chinese cities  Chinese avant-garde art and artistic practices in China and overseas

 Ode to Joy – White collar women migrants and “beauties at work”  Shanghai Foxtrot and the emergence of modernist literature  Ballroom dance and jazz music craze in 1930s Shanghai

 The Travels of Lao Can, Call to Arms and the True Story of A Q and the emergence of modern realist literary critique

 Maoist revolution, elite politics and socialist realism in visual and performing arts

 The Cultural Revolution in film, art and literature  The Three Body Problem  Reforms and opening, Democracy Wall and High Culture Fever

 Implications of Tiananmen Square 1989 and it’s aftermath for Chinese culture  Internet, social media and changing cultural norms in contemporary China  China’s sharing economy and the shifting culture of consumerism

 New nationalistic and patriotic representations in contemporary Chinese cinema  Analysis of other modern Chinese cultural phenomena or specific cultural outputs

is also possible, including literature, visual and performing arts, and other media

References – You must use at least THREE academic sources (originally published in English) beyond the assigned readings. Include a full bibliography of references (including materials in Chinese or other languages), along with other non-academic

sources you may have used, at the end of your paper. Links to information about referencing, citations and bibliographies can be found in the course outline. Detailed Guidelines for Referencing have also been posted on CourseSpaces. While you may not

find references about the specific topic of your paper, academic sources on relevant related issues and themes are acceptable.

Other considerations – You are strongly encouraged, wherever possible and

appropriate, to make use of images, diagrams, or charts to illustrate your analysis and findings. You will not be marked down for writing a solid paper in essay format.

Originality of topics – Papers prepared for another course may not be submitted.

Anyone wishing to work on a topic addressed in another course must obtain the written permission of the instructor at least two weeks before the due date.

Late submissions – Late papers will not be accepted without the prior permission of

the instructor and only as a result of exceptional extenuating circumstances. Failure to hand in the course paper on time will result in a grade of zero for this assignment.


Your course paper should include the following components:

1. A brief introduction and overview of the topic of your paper.

2. A statement of rationale (and/or background) which justifies the analysis you plan to undertake. Why is the topic of interest? Why is it important?

3. A statement of your main objective(s), or research question(s) and/or hypothesis.

This section should include reference to the relevant ideas and debates in the academic literature. Reference to academic literature may also appear in earlier and later sections of your paper.

4. A short section on methodology which describes how you address your main objective(s), answer your research question(s) or evaluate your hypothesis. What sort of information did you use and how? What methods did you use to analyze and

present this information? 5. The main part of the paper will focus on a critical analysis and discussion of your

findings or main arguments about Chinese culture in relation to wider historical

circumstances or other relevant contexts in China or internationally. This section should include a brief discussion about the limitations of your analysis and findings. For example, you should identify any assumptions, and/or strengths and limitations

of your interpretations. 6. The concluding section should briefly summarize your key findings (or arguments) in

relation to the main ideas and/or debates – both from class discussions and from

the academic literature referred to in earlier sections.

Academic integrity – Preparation of this paper is subject to University protocols on

plagiarism and cheating as described in the course outline. Offences will result in a grade of zero for this assignment, and may result in a failing grade for the course. The instructor reserves the right to use plagiarism detection software or other

platforms to assess the integrity of student work.

Practices that are NOT acceptable include: X Persuading or paying someone else to write your essay, or otherwise presenting

someone else’s work as your own X Downloading essays or articles from the internet and submitting part or whole as

your own work

X Copying and pasting passages from books, journals, online resources or other sources, and presenting them as your own work

X Citing only a portion of a quotation, and presenting the remainder as your own work

X The use of an editor – either as an individual or service, whether paid or unpaid – who manipulates revises, corrects or alters your essay

Grading – The marker will be looking for:

 Knowledge and understanding of the modern Chinese cultural phenomenon or specific cultural output chosen for your analysis, and how it relates to the relevant wider context in China or internationally

 Solid critical analysis and discussion of your findings or main arguments  Relevance and appropriate use of academic literature, including complete,

correct and consistent citations and referencing

 Clear and appropriate structure and organization  Clear evidence of your knowledge and understanding of the ideas and debates in

the academic literature relevant to your selected topic

 An A+ paper must offer original insights and/or go beyond expectations

Formatting – 1” margins, double spaced, minimum 12 pt font (11 pt for Verdana)


PAAS 151 – Modern Chinese Culture

Three Body: Liu Cixin’s Call for the Chinese to Fully Enter the World Stage,

Despite their Anxieties

Chinese science fiction is not something unlike science fiction found in the

West. It draws on similar themes, questions, and anxieties that are shared in the

genre of both hemispheres. But Chinese science fiction is different from Western

science fiction: it was raised in a setting hostile to such discussions. The Cultural

Revolution still has an impact in China today, despite being a subject the

government is unwilling to acknowledge. Chinese author Han Song states that

many science fiction authors feel the “country’s rapid modernization [is] the stuff of

fiction,” which grounds the perfect setting in which to write science fiction: the

authors have seen the effects of incredible technological advancements (Song,

2013, 18).

Liu Cixin’s Three Body Trilogy is set over a long period of time, but begins

with the Cultural Revolution. This pivotal starting place sets the one for the series:

all hope is lost, and everyone is out to get you. This was the style of the Cultural

Revolution, but as Three Body teaches us, every civilisation in the universe must

fend for itself against the others. There are no allies. As the years pass and Earth

must face the reality that another civilisation, the Trisolarans, wishes to take over

Earth, a common humanity is declared, and nations must set aside their differences

and work for the common good.

Through a case study of the Three Body trilogy written by Liu Cixin, this

essay will examine the impact the Cultural Revolution continues to exert on


contemporary science fiction and Chinese citizens themselves while simultaneously

voicing cultural anxieties pertaining to China’s contemporary view of the West. In

doing this, this paper will bring to light the importance of these historical events

even today, and that perhaps governmental silence is perpetuating the need for

writers to discuss this troubling history. This essay will not discuss the issue of

utopianism in science fiction, as it is not a common theme in the case study; it is,

however, a crucial discussion when looking at certain works of science fiction after

Tiananmen Square and the despair that followed. Themes of utopia or dystopia are

can be directly linked back to the Chinese political platform of the 1980s, as the

Party ran on the hope of creating a harmonious society. This essay will draw on

research on Three Body specifically, but also on broader research regarding science

fiction in China. The methods of research executed for the purpose of this paper

were reading and analysing the Three Body trilogy from a contemporary Chinese

perspective, as well as determining other scholars’ interpretations of the texts.

It is important to discuss the reality of the science fiction scene in China is

that it has not had success reaching a wide audience. Many readers hold the

impression that science fiction is nothing more than “stories for children” (Song,

2013, 15). But literary actors in Chinese cultural development of the early twentieth

century were very optimistic about science fiction in the Chinese context. Chinese

science fiction author Han Song identifies that “Liang [Qichao] and Lu [Xun]

believed that science fiction would help the spread of modern knowledge in China,

emancipate people’s minds and bring positive developments to a declining

civilization that was being surpassed by the industrialized Western nations” (2013,

15). In theory, science fiction was thought to have the capability of saving the


nation, and for a while it did lift people’s spirits “as the genre instilled pride in

readers who saw China defeat Western countries with imaginary high-tech weapons

in the future” (2013, 15). Science fiction, as a genre, suffered during the Cultural

Revolution as it was criticized for being “something from corrupt Western culture

that could lead people astray” (2013, 16). The genre has only seen a renewal of

success since the 1990s, when China embraced an economic boom and writers

were granted more freedoms as China entered the global stage (2013, 16). By

studying this marginalised genre, one can study unvoiced anxieties as they appear

in the forms of these troubled characters and challenging situations.

But even today, “most Chinese people have no idea about science fiction;”

readers are “more interested in things that have a direct influence on their daily

lives” (Song, 2013, 21). There is more interest in building relationships with the

people around them “than on exploring the relationship of human beings to a vast

nature” (2013, 21). This is a China-specific issue that has its effect on science

fiction as a successful genre. This is certainly not a negative characteristic; it is

admirable to desire to understand daily life and build relationships with those who

share our lives. But those who do read Chinese science fiction, can observe the

relationships embedded in human nature. Science fiction also offers opportunities to

think about our own lives from a different perspective, as in the Three Body trilogy,

people are still people. The Three Body trilogy has sold “more than 500,000 copies

in China since the final installment” in 2010, numbers for which it quite the name in

the Chinese science fiction sphere (Thieret, 2015, 36). But given the current

population of China being over 1.3 billion, that is not meeting anywhere near a

majority audience. Science fiction simply does not exhibit the practicality which


Chinese people are looking to find. Science fiction, and its often utopian or

dystopian settings appear to be an escape from practicality, which cannot help

Chinese people build relationships or solve day-to-day issues. This factor is crucial

to the debate of Chinese science fiction, and rather the reason why Chinese science

fiction might just never be successful, within China.

So, what can science fiction do within China? Han Song states that

contemporary Chinese science fiction seeks to place China in “hypothetically

extreme situations to see how people might respond to radical changes” (2013,

17). This is an vital distinction of the genre, as today sees the ever-growing

tensions between the United States in the west and China in the east. It begs the

question: what if the radical change forced Chinese nationalists to work with the

rest of the world? Three Body creates a world that forces the Chinese audience to

imagine themselves not at odds with the West, but working together with them.

Such an extreme example seems to suggest that such a radical situation should not

be the only cause for the two sides to get along.

Three Body can be used to examine the issues of American and Chinese

discourse, and the nations’ respective differences and difficulties understanding one

another. The author is writing at this critical point in the Chinese cultural period,

where the government is trying to protect Chinese culture and maintain the values

it has deemed important to the Chinese historical and cultural body. The author

does what Peter Gries has suggested is an answer to the problem of Chinese

harmony and American hegemony: focus on the common humanity of the two

nations (2007, 47). These two nations can work together without damaging their

own internal cultures. When given a common enemy, the world must work together


to survive the universal threat, and in Three Body China is portrayed as ready, and

willing to fight for humanity. Obviously, this work of science fiction offers an intense

reason for a need for common humanity, but it can also describe the successes of

this solution for the problem of discourse.

For instance, the United Nations still plays a prominent figure in this Chinese-

focused novel. An organisation, formed historically to unite countries in a time

following great crises between nations, organises strategies for nations to follow.

China was originally included in the formation of the Unites Nations, proving from

an early point in modern history that China could cooperate to certain extents with

other nations. This is not a novel where China is portrayed as standing alone in a

science fictional catastrophe; it speaks to a need for humans to unite from our

differences and thrive together. In Liu Cixin’s fictional future, the two languages of

English and Chinese have moulded into one language while still entirely

encapsulating the intricacies of the two linguistic spheres. This plays on the

contemporary cultural anxiety that China will adopt too many loanwords from

English, endangering its linguistic niche.

In contrast, many works of American science fiction paint the Chinese as an

enemy determined to thwart intellectual progress. Obviously, Chinese cinema has

also played on this trope as mentioned above, but also in films like the Wolf Warrior

franchise. With this common theme in Three Body, this novel could be another

patriotic voice of the Chinese people: they are not the enemy, and willing to work

with like-minded individuals for a common cause. Rather interestingly, this is a very

explicit distinction in the novel. Rather than nations competing for or against

humanity’s best interest, organisations rise regardless or nationality against


humanity’s survival against the Trisolarans. Though a character may have a

Chinese name or an English name, he or she acts on their own volition, on their

moral stance toward the outward threat rather than a nation’s decision. In the first

novel in the trilogy, the world’s population is split into those who wish to defend

Earth from the Trisolarans and those who want the Trisolarans to wipe out

humanity. This becomes the common fight: to thwart the other group from

succeeding its goal, regardless of national borders.

Characters within the novel, such as Ye Wenjie, can be seen as direct results

of the Cultural Revolution. Her disillusionment with humanity stems from the

injustices she and her family personally suffered during the Cultural Revolution.

When she is the first to contact the Trisolarans, even well-knowing it may end

humanity’s existence entirely, she “[invites] them to invade Earth, a decision that

echoes her mixed feelings about the Cultural Revolution” (Song, 2015, 10). It must

be remembered that the author himself lived through the Cultural Revolution, and

thus a personal bitterness may bleed into his writing. An argument can be made

that this negative attitude is purposefully adopted by a character who experienced

the Cultural Revolution. This critical point in Chinese history, which the current

government refuses to acknowledge, has potentially shaped a nation to be

disillusioned with humanity. Despite these disillusioned, destructive characters, Liu

Cixin creates a backdrop that this is not what China is. Though it suffers from these

anxieties, “a strong and powerful China is here to stay” (Thieret, 2015, 36). The

intellectuals existing in this dystopia may still be disillusioned with society, but the

focus is drawn to their values, disassociating them with the current situation in

China. This is because Liu sees that “the reality of worldwide risks demands far


greater attention than any perceived risks to the Chinese nation…one could say that

this is because China and the world face the same risks in the contemporary world”

(Thieret, 2015, 36). China can partake in the global sphere, and Liu wants his

readers to understand as well that China can play as a positive actor on the world


The science fiction literary world still holds its inner anxieties regarding the

Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Three Body has a significant setting based in the

Cultural Revolution, and is not exactly friendly toward the brutal history of the time

period. Though it has been over fifty years, the author still conveyed concern about

discussing the topic when asked in an interview with The Guardian (Barnett, 2016).

Though it is a very real and very recent part of China’s history, the government is

still extremely strict about content released that in any way touches on the subject

of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. But the novel was not censored by the

government, and has received widespread success both within and outside China.

This is a curious factor, as science fiction that challenged the ethicality of Chinese

politics was shut down by the government in the 1980s (Song, 2015, 7). Could the

allowance of such controversial opinions in Three Body be a sign of a shift in the

Communist Party’s attitudes toward public opinion? The Party will take all

precautions to ignore the situation, as they created the Road to Revival exhibit

which extracted the Cultural Revolution from the Party’s journey to modernity

(Denton, 2014, 1).

Looking at where China has come from, and the anxieties it still experiences

from its past, Liu and other Chinese science fiction authors believe that “the future

looks more colorful and positive than ever and more open to the spirit of discovery”


(Song, 2013, 18). Relating to this, he also believes that “China should shoulder

more responsibility for solving the problems faced by human beings in a changing

world” as it becomes increasingly involved in international affairs (Song, 2013, 18).

This is again calling on China’s shared humanity with the rest of the world: it does

not have to exist in a bubble to thrive. Current events in China are constantly

contradicting: the shutdown of the internet, the sharing of technological culture

with the west, and increased economic agreements with the outside world. It is as

if the government cannot decide how it should react to the interconnectivity of the

international playing field.

Three Body exists in a culture that is unsure about science fiction, stagnating

its ability to reach widespread success. But the ideas the trilogy discusses are would

be beneficial to the Chinese society, despite being hidden behind stunning

technology and the threat of alien invasion. Three Body speaks to humanity’s

eternal problem of not being able to get along, something that China is

experiencing on a very real front today. The differences in Western and Chinese

discourse do not fundamentally separate them: it is something to work on and learn

to understand, which can benefit both nations in an exchange of culture. But China

still must face its inner demons found in the Cultural Revolution, and the

government’s refusal to acknowledge this past. This inability to take responsibility

within its own country could have devastating effects if executed likewise on the

global stage. Facing international distress can bring opposites together, but

hopefully it does not have to come to the threat of aliens for these sides to realise



Works Cited

Barnett, David. “’People hope my book will be China’s Star Wars’: Liu Cixin on

China’s exploding sci-fi Scene.” The Guardian, 14 December 2016.


Denton, Kirk A. “China Dreams and the ‘Road to Revival’.” Origins, vol. 8, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-2.

Gries, Peter H. “Harmony, Hegemony, & U.S.-China Relations.” World Literature

Today, vol. 81, no. 4, 2007, pp. 44–47.

Song, Han. “Chinese Science Fiction: A Response to Modernization.” Science Fiction

Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 15–21. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction.” China

Perspectives, vol. 101, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7–13. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Thieret, Adrian. “Society and Utopia in Liu Cixin.” China Perspectives, vol. 101, no.

1, 2015, pp. 33–39. JSTOR, JSTOR,

PAAS 151 – Modern Chinese Culture

Course Paper: The Red Guards


The Cultural Revolution is an event widely known around the world for its horrendous

impact upon the Chinese people from the ten year span 1966-1976. This destruction was

conducted by the youth followers of Mao Zedong, labelled Red Guards, who carried out Mao’s

mandate to “break the four olds — old ideas, old customs, old culture, and old habits” ; however, 1

what was considered to be old was ambiguous in meaning, and was open to interpretation by

these young Red Guards . The events of the Cultural Revolution commenced with students 2

breaking classroom windows and beating teachers in 1966 , this mandate made scenes of 3

violence and destruction against anything labelled ‘anti-Mao’ commonplace across China for

these ten years. Although the official number of deaths varies, an official statement issued by the

Communist Party of China in 1981 states that, “[the Cultural Revolution] was responsible for the

most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people since

the founding of the People’s Republic” . This paper will firstly define who the Red Guard 4

Generation are demographically. Secondly, this paper will analyze the changing cultural

1 ​Mobo Gao, “Debating the Cultural Revolution: Do We Only Know What We Believe?”, ​Critical Asian Studies​ 34, 3 (2002), 425. 2 ​Thomas Heberer, “The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”: China’s modern trauma”, ​Journal of Modern Chinese History ​3, 2 (2009), 172. 3 ​Yixin Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform: The socioeconomic pains of China’s red guards generation, 1966–1996”,​ Journal of Contemporary China​ 8, 21 (1999), 223. 4 ​Marxists, “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China”, ​


expectations that society experienced during the Cultural Revolution. During this time period,

many violent occurrences came to define this generation, as torture and destruction became a

daily scene upheld by the influence of Mao Zedong . Lastly, this paper will analyze what the 5

lasting cultural impacts the Red Guard generation has made upon China to this date. While

lasting damage was done to temples, art and literature, it was also done to this generation.

However, this event did produce the genre called ‘scar literature’ to express discontent over the

unsavoury portions of the Cultural Revolution being airbrushed away by party propaganda . 6

In order to address these main objectives this paper, multiple academic articles relating to

the Red Guards, the ‘Lost Generation’ and the Cultural Revolution will be analyzed; as well as a

short excerpt from an account of the actions undertaken by Red Guards called ‘scar literature’;

and lastly an academic article providing analysis on the genre of scar literature. The academic

articles will be used to give historical and cultural context, whereas the scar literature will

provide a source of cultural output created by those of the Red Guard generation.

Critical Analysis and Discussion

While the severity of the Cultural Revolution is contested, with some experts saying it

was “[a] hideous abuse of totalitarian power, perhaps second only to that of the Nazi period in

Germany” , this event is widely believed by historians to be Mao’s creation to usurp his political 7

enemies . However, in doing so, essential pieces of Chinese culture were changed. Mao’s 8

5 ​Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform”, 220. 6 ​Shenshen Cai, “Scar Literature reconsidered: Yan Geling’s novels The Criminal Lu Yanshi and A Woman’s Epic”, ​Social Semiotics 25​, 3 (March 2015), 322. 7 ​Julia F Andrews, “The art of the Cultural Revolution”, in Richard King (eds.), ​Art in turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-76​, 27. 8 ​Andrews, ​Art in turmoil, ​30.


directive not only destroyed Chinese art, historical buildings, and literature, but also the future of

a generation. This generation was the Red Guards themselves, who, because of carrying out

Mao’s mandate, created detriments against their own future. In doing so, they have become both

influenced and been an influencer on Chinese culture. The Red Guard generation consists of

approximately 27 million young people from urban areas, born between 1947 and 1959 . This 9

generation is widely labelled as a “Lost Generation”, due to the time they lost while being

‘re-educated’ in the countryside after the Red Guards were denounced by Mao . While not all of 10

the youths from this time period were sent to the countryside for reformation or participated in

the Red Guard movement of violence, the majority of members from this generation experienced

the many facets of the Cultural Revolution.

One of these facets was the change in cultural expectations, which started to occur under

the gaze of Mao Zedong. This change of values started to occur with the pre-Cultural Revolution

education that the majority of the Red Guard generation received, which made them susceptible

to follow Mao’s mandate which was in line with what they had learned in the classroom. This

education was vastly different from what the Red Guard generation’s predecessors had received.

Instead of focusing on sciences or math, this education instead focused mainly on subjects in the

humanities, arts, and social sciences ; as well as ideals such as “heroism, patriotism, altruism, 11

communist internationalism, some Confucianism” . An example of the ideals within this 12

9 ​Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform”, 221. 10 ​Lin, Qianhan, “Lost in Transformation? The Employment Trajectories of China’s Cultural Revolution Cohort”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 646, (March 2013), 173. 11 ​Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform”, 238. 12 ​ibid., 222.


generation, as a product of this education, can be seen in the General Secretary of the Chinese

Communist Party, Xi Jinping. While the Cultural Revolution is over, the ideals carried within

this generation are still present, as these ideals were so deeply integrated into their minds by the

education taught to this generation when they were youths . The messages of patriotism, 13

altruism, communist internationalism are all echoed in his policies today. From the China dream,

which promotes patriotism and altruism; to the One Belt One Road, which supports

internationalism, these policies showing the ideals held by creator. Overall this education

changed the Red Guard generation’s way of thinking, making the Red Guard generation

idealistic as well as susceptible to carry out the actions of the Cultural Revolution, as they truly

believed that their actions would bring light to a “great revolution” in China. 14

This belief that they were ‘bringing light’ to great change fueled the vast violence,

destruction and cruelty that plagued the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Another cultural

norm during this time that was adjusted was the status structure regarding age. During this time

the youth held the power, not the educated aged elite. These youths of the Red Guard could

strike fear into others simply by reciting quotes from Mao, the mere threat of violence silencing

people of all ages . This fear of violence was not unfounded, as during this time many people 15

were persecuted for any possible reason, to be arrested, tortured or killed . While the Red Guard 16

movement was founded by Mao “to destroy the established order in China” , and many Red 17

13 ​ibid., idem. 14 ​Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform”, 222. 15 ​Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 172. 16 ​ibid., idem. 17 ​Juliana P Heaslet, “The Red Guards: Instruments of Destruction in the Cultural Revolution”, ​Asian Survey​ 12, 12 (December 1972), 1046.


Guards did initially participate to follow Mao’s mandate, some red guard members did undertake

violent action to take matters into their own hands to further their own personal agendas and

grudges . An example of this pursual of a personal agenda can be seen in an excerpt of scar 18

literature which depicts the experience of a former red guard:

As soon as I was pressed into the room with the others, my nostrils were filled with the

stench of feces, urine, and unwashed bodies… Then I saw the accused woman. She was

perhaps in her forties, kneeling in the middle of the room, partly naked. . . Her hair was in

a mess, and part of it seemed to be matted with blood. Her eyes were bulging out in

desperation as she shrieked: ‘Red Guard Masters! I do not have a portrait of Chiang

Kai-shek! I swear I do not!’… The flesh on her back was covered with cuts and

bloodstains. I was so frightened that I quickly averted my eyes. Then I saw her tormentor,

a seventeen-year-old boy named Chian, whom up to now I had rather liked. He was

lounging in a chair with a leather belt in his hand, playing with its brass buckle.‘Tell the

truth, or I’ll hit you again,’ he said languidly…My feeble protest was echoed by several

voices in the room… Outside the door, I saw the woman informer with the ingratiating

eyes. . . As I glanced at her face, it dawned on me that there was no portrait of Chiang

Kai-shek. She had denounced the poor woman out of vindictiveness. The Red Guards

were being used to settle old scores. 19

18 ​Gao, “Debating the Cultural Revolution”, 423. 19 ​Jung Chang, ​Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China​ (2004), quoted in Thomas Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 172-173.


Although this piece of scar literature is just one example of the many occurances like this

during the Cultural Revolution, it illustrates the mixed emotions held for wanting to be empathic

but ultimately clinging to self preservation because of the fear of the possible repercussions. It

depicts the “everyday life of terror” for many during this period of the Cultural Revolution , 20

where the power was held in the hands of youth Red Guard and the consequences for stepping

out of line were grim. This shift of power signaled that the Red Guards were practically

invincible with the support and protection of the government , even if only to pursue their own 21

personal vendettas in Mao’s name. The shift in morals and what was found to be culturally

acceptable during this time makes for a deeply troubled sense of self for those involved. A work

analyzing these events states, “The Cultural Revolution not only left millions dead, it also

crushed humanitarian values and defiled the sanctity of the human spirit… How can a people

which morally has fallen so deep ever rebound back?” . All of these actions can be traced back 22

to the foundational element of education the majority of the red guards received which was in

line with Mao’s mandate to remove the four olds. This belief that the actions being undertaken

were right and just and the change in social norms and ideals all lead to the commencement of 23

the horrendous events of the Cultural Revolution.

Another differing cultural norm, in comparison to other countries and cultures, was that

during and after the Cultural Revolution, the political outlets do not address the events for all that

20 ​Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 173. 21 ​Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 172. 22 ​Bo Yang, ​The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture​ (1992), quoted in Thomas Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 180. 23 ​Chen, “Lost in revolution and reform”, 222.


they entailed, instead only the positive outcomes are touted and praised by “camouflaging and

beautifying” the events that took place. These positives overlook the pain, suffering, and 24

horrors that occurred to many during this time. As well, the social norm of rectifying events after

a mass period of devastation was unlike other countries. In this event, no one was held

accountable for these actions by the state, nor no one to blame or stand trial besides the 25

scapegoated ‘gang of four’, whereas Mao is still held in high regard today.​ The subject of the

Cultural Revolution itself has also become a ‘persona non grata’ so to speak, as it is only

addressed by state leaders using “​euphemistic labels such as the ‘ten lost years’ and addressing it

in the most abstract terms.” . This has turned into the creation of a “ ​ cultural memory loss” 26 27

regarding the many unsavoury events that occured. This memory loss is set to be remedied by

scar literature; however, compared to the power of the state media, the power of scar literature

pales in comparison to reach an audience as wide as the population of China.

Finally, the cultural phenomena of spectatorship is showcased during this time period.

Widely shown in ‘scar literature’ pieces, these recounts depict the role of onlookers looking by

as extremely violent and heinous acts are committed, like in the account of Jung Chang above as

well as in various other works. Another example of scar literature can be seen in a work by the

author Yan Geling, where scenes of citizens watching others experience pain and suffering with

no move to help, instead watching with rabid fascination at someone other than themselves being

harmed. She states in one of her novels, ​“…the prisoners immediately rush to watch the event…

24 ​Cai, “Scar Literature reconsidered”, ​327. 25 ​Andrews, ​Art in turmoil, ​27. 26 ​ibid., idem. 27 ​Cai, “Scar Literature reconsidered”, ​327.


Someone is enduring agony and punishment… Someone else instead is tortured and his skin is

split and his flesh breaks forth, so how lucky they are, being only the onlooker…” . ​This 28

depiction showcases the mindset within those who experienced these events during the Cultural

Revolution, which shows the “coldness, and numbness of the Chinese mass” while watching as 29

their fellow compatriots experience suffering over a long span of time ​. This long exposure to an

“everyday life of terror and arbitrariness” became deeply ​integrated into the mindset of the 30

affected Red Guard generation​. These events serve as a vivid reminder that will be mentally

carried into the future to always be a “rule-obeying spectator” rather than an activist. While this 31

‘bystander syndrome’ is not unique to China, because of these events, China has gained a

perspective in the minds of many that getting involved means making yourself a target.

However, because of this, some sources state that even those who did not physically commit

these acts still “were to some extent the ​assailants” by allowing the events to unfold. 32


Overall, the Red Guard generation is seen to be both influenced by Chinese culture, as

well as an influencer of Chinese culture. The education this generation received under Mao

served as the foundation for these events, and Mao’s mandate was the explosive catalyst which

unleashed the violent events that spanned the Cultural Revolution. The cultural production of

scar literature by former red guards shows the repressed pain and anguish still needing to be

expressed about the events that occurred. This genre also showcases the phenomenon of

28 ​ibid., ​330. 29 ​Cai, “Scar Literature reconsidered”, 330. 30 ​Heberer, “The ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’”, 173. 31 ​Cai, “Scar Literature reconsidered”, 330. 32 ​ibid., idem.


spectatorship, which we discussed briefly in class as prominent feature of Chinese society today.

The events of the Cultural Revolution give the people of that experienced the events a vivid and

traumatic standpoint in which to view the world as well as shape how Chinese culture was

shaped, and still is shaped today because of their past experiences. This is important, because

even though China possesses a vast and expansive cultural fabric that spans across thousands of

years, and the phenomena of the Red Guards and the ‘Lost Generation’ is a minuscule portion of

this background, it is nonetheless a pivotal factor in understanding the nation identity of China

and how Chinese culture exists today.


Reference List

Andrews, Julia F, “The art of the Cultural Revolution”, in Richard King (eds.), ​Art in turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-76​, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Cai, Shenshen, “Scar Literature reconsidered: Yan Geling’s novels The Criminal Lu Yanshi and A Woman’s Epic”, ​Social Semiotics 25 ​, 3 (March 2015), 322-341.

Chen, Yixin, “Lost in revolution and reform: The socioeconomic pains of China’s red guards generation, 1966–1996”, ​Journal of Contemporary China​ 8, 21 (1999), 219-239.

Gao, Mobo, “Debating the Cultural Revolution: Do We Only Know What We Believe?”, Critical

Asian Studies ​ 34, 3 (2002), 419-434.

Heaslet, Juliana P, “The Red Guards: Instruments of Destruction in the Cultural Revolution”, Asian Survey​ 12, 12 (December 1972), 1032-1047.

Heberer, Thomas, “The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”: China’s modern trauma”, Journal of Modern Chinese History ​3, 2 (2009), 165-181.

Lin, Qianhan, “Lost in Transformation? The Employment Trajectories of China’s Cultural Revolution Cohort”, ​The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science ​ 646, (March 2013), 172-193.

Marxists, “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China”,​, accessed November 22nd 2017.


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