Book Club Blues

On December 26, Mao’s birthday, our book club gathered to discuss a recent translation of Wang Shaoguang’s The Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (1995 Hong Kong University Press; translated in 2009: 王绍光 超凡领袖的挫败–文化大革命在武汉 the 80’s.). We were of several generations – the late 1950’s, 60’s, a couple from the 70’s, and a few from the 80’s.Liu Jingwen, member of the 80’s cohort led and organized the discussion.

What was striking about the conversation was the extent to which generational experience continued to dominate the conversation not just because 50’s and 60’s participants could claim personal experience of the Cultural Revolution, but also because of the relative value of political ideology amongst the different cohorts. Crudely speaking, the older the participant, the stronger was the conviction that collective politics is a pressing matter. Likewise, the younger the participant, the more likely s/he was to express surprise/ interest in/ confusion about the  older generation’s valuation of politics.

How and why the Cultural Revolution continues to matter in Shenzhen are pressing questions because Shenzhen was (arguable) the last of the great social experiments from the first thirty years of the People’s Republic. Deng Xiaoping mobilized intellectuals, cadres, and the engineering corps to leave their cities and “cut open a road of blood (杀出一条血路)” or “feel your way across the river (莫这石头渡河),” depending on the relative militarism of one’s ideological commitments – and yes, Deng was militaristic, but it was also a society saturated by martial metaphors. [Deng Xiaoping’s road of blood inevitably makes me wonder, ‘whose blood’ and ‘how much is needed’?]

Importantly, both the road of blood and the river crossed convey the idea of movement – road to where? Crossing which river? Of course in Shenzhen circa 1978, these questions have concrete answers – roads to Hong Kong at Wenjindu and Luohu and a ferry to Hong Kong at Shekou, respectively. But the also entailed hope and an orientation to the future – a new kind of modernity and xiaokang for every Chinese citizen. In other words, the values that infused the establishment of Shenzhen were the values espoused by many during the Cultural Revolution. This connection is even clearer when we take into account the extent to which freedom and proceedural justice were fundamental to the establishment and prominance of Shekou during the 1980s.

What came out of our conversation was how much history has been disappeared not only in terms of relative knowledge, but also in terms of the scope of the debate. Throughout the discussion,  I was struck by the similarity of the debate to American debates about Vietnam. Most of us don’t know enough to do more than debate the relative value of soundbites, rather than analyze and evaluate events and consequences. Moreover, instead of figuring out shared principals on which to base our analyses and evaluations, we end up comparing levels of personal experience – an important part of historical recovery and recognition of ignored lives, but insufficient to the task of building bridges if (and when) experience (or its lack) become the terms for inclusion in the discussion.

I came to two conclusions after three hours of debate: (1) we need an education that will enable us to transform ourselves and future generations into people who can contribute intelligently AND compassionately to social debate and action and (2) we need to get beyond complacent acceptance of business as usual, let alone celebrating Shenzhen’s successful establishment of hypercapitalism. As we left the coffee shop, one of the 50’s participants said to me, “And we still haven’t done anything in Shenzhen (深圳还没动手!)” Perpetual revolution, indeed.

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