History as Farce

As part of our book club discussion (see previous entry), Liu Jingwen handed out copies of a recent blog entry by Yang Hengjun (杨恒均) entitled “Ten Years of Cultural Revolution and Ten Years of the Internet: Where Do We Go From Here? (十年文革与十年互联网:我们向何处去?)” In the rest of this entry, I will translate some of the more interesting passages from Yang’s (much longer) essay. I hope this synopsis + citations will contribute to understanding about historic continuities between Maoism and what followed.

Yang Hengjun is interested in comparing the first thirty years (1949-1979) and second thirty years (1979-2009) of the People’s Republic because he believes there are startling similarities between these two eras. He is particularly interested in the comparing the ten years of the Cultural Revolution with the ten years of the internet in China.


互 联网十年里,也是以清一色的青年人为主,在虚拟的空间进行独立思考和自由言说。这时期的知识分子们一边从文革和上个世纪八十年代末的事件中吸取了教训,打 骨子里认同了沉默是金的理念;一边从改革开放中收获真金白银,忙于改善自己的生活,从物质和精神上都向官员靠拢。结果,青年人主导思考和言论成为十年文革和十年互联网最大的共同之处,同时也彰显了我们民族的困境:急需知识分子们启蒙和引导青年的时候,思考国家前途和民族命运的担子竟然落在了涉世未深的青年人的肩膀上。

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution was a rare period of “free airing of views” and “democracy” in the 60 year history of the People’s Republic, indeed in the entire history of China. The key players were young people (even high school students) as a majority of intellectuals had already learned their lesson from the 1957 anti-rightism movement and the majority who hadn’t learned their lesson were beaten early on.

Young people again have been the key players during the ten years of the internet, conducting independent thought and free speech in virtual space. On the one hand, this era’s intellectuals have learned their lesson from the Cultural Revolution and the events of the late 80s, and believe in their bones that silence is golden. On the other hand, they have gotten rich during reform, keep busy improving their lives, and their material and spiritual interests overlap with those of officials. Thus, the primary importance of young people in leading thinking and debate is the greatest similarity between the ten years of the Cultural Revolution and the ten years of the internet. This also shows our people’s predicament: at the time when young people desperately need the enlightment and direction of intellectuals,  the responsibility for contemplating the country’s future and the people’s fate has been unexpectly thrust onto their inexperienced shoulders.



Perhaps some will say that the internet is very free, netizens aren’t controlled, and there is truly independent thought. In contrast, during the Cultural Revolution “independent thought” and “free speech” occured within a controlled context, they were merely anti-corruption and not anti-emperor. In other words, the condition of their “free speech” and “independent thought” was not opposing either Mao Zedong or the institutions in his hands.

This objection is only half correct. The speaker is completely correct about the limits to young people’s thinking during the Cultural Revolution. However, s/he has overestimated the independence of today’s interet.

两者还有一个共同之 处,无论是文革中利用大字报、上书、手抄本、内部出版物,还是当今网民在虚拟空间的众声喧哗,都并不是社会的“主流”,主流始终控制在政府手里。例如,文 革中的主流媒体从来没有发表那些青年思想者的思想,而当今互联网上的异端思想,仍然被主流媒体排斥在外。

The two have one other similarity. Regardless of whether talking about the Cultural Revolution’s big character posters, memos, notebooks, and internal publications or today’s ranting in virtual space, none can be considered part of the “mainstream”. For example, the mainstream media during the Cultural Revolution never publiched the thinking of young thinkers and today, heterodoxal thinking on the internet is excluded from the mainstream media.


喜 的是我们今天在互联网上提出的大多数问题,文革中比我们学历低很多、年纪小很多的红卫兵、左派、造反派和知识青年们早就给出了答案;悲的是三十年前我们一 度鄙视的青年们提出的有关政治、社会和思想领域的问题,我们至今还在互联网上吵闹不休、莫衷一是,给不出令人满意的答案。

I am both happy and sad when I compare the thinking and debate of these two generations, who are separated by thirty years.

I am happy because many of the questions that have been raised on today’s internet were answered by red guards, leftists, rebels, and educated youth who were less educated and younger than netizens. I am sad because the political, social, and theoretical questions that they raised thirty years ago, we still have not answered, despite ranting and arguing on the internet.

我们当今在寻求答案的问题,那时的青年思考者们已经给出了很好的答案。例如,农民工的地位?看看遇罗克的文章就明白了,那应该是最早的中国特色的民间版的人权宣言。反对利益集团和特权阶级,要求公平合理与“还权于民”,听听扬曦光(原名扬小凯)40多 年前在《中国向何处去》中说的:引起无产阶级文化大革命的基本社会矛盾是新的官僚资产阶级的统治和人民大众的矛盾,这个矛盾的发展和尖锐化就决定了社会需 要一个比较彻底的变动,这就是推翻新的官僚资产阶级的统治,彻底砸烂旧的国家机器,实现社会革命,实现财产和权力的再分配——建立新的社会——中华人民公 社。

现 在有些网友认为自己很会恶搞,很能讽刺,经常能够人肉一些官员,并让他们下不了台,他们一定没有见过文革的场面,你恶搞官员,能够像文革中把国家主席王光 美都弄到台上,戴上乒乓球项链?痛斥她在洗手间使用的那些高级毛巾?你人肉那些允许你人肉的级别低到不值一提的周久耕们,能够和文革中的红卫兵冲进陈良宇 们那个级别的高级领导人的家里查抄黄金和字画相比?

如 果现在把文革中有些反腐败反特权的大字报和手抄本打印出来,换几个当今领导人的名字,把“特权阶层”换成“利益集团”,放到互联网上,说真话,那理论水 平,那遣词造句,那情真意切,那义愤填膺,现在的网络写手还真没有几个可以相匹敌的。现在有人谴责激烈言论、不讲道理的文体的时候,动不动就说你在搞文 革,使用文革语言,注意:他们说的主要是文革时期主流报纸上的文革。当时存在于青年思考者之中的非主流思想,并不让现在的人那么反感。

The questions we are trying to answer today, the youth from that time already answered well. For example, the question of the status of farm workers. If you look at Yu Luoke‘s essay [出身论] you’ll understand. That must be the earliest popular manifesto for human rights with Chinese Characteristics. If you oppose interest groups and special classes and crave justice and “returning power to the people”, listen to what Yang Xiguang (original name Yang Xiaokai) said 40 years ago in Whither China?, “the basic contradiction in Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is the contradiction between the governance of the new class of bureaucrats and the people. The development and sharpening of this contraction formces the need for a total transformation, which is overthrowing the governance of the new class of bureacrats, throughly smashing the old state apparatus, realizing social revoltuion, realizing a new material and political distribution–establishing a new society–the People’s Commune.”

Today some net friends believe they can spoof, satirize, and do a human flesh search on an official, putting the official in an awkward position. They haven’t seen the Cultural Revolution. Could they spoof an official like they did during the Cultural Revolution, when the country’s chair Wang Guangmei was forced to where a necklace of pingpong balls onstage? Complain about the expensive towels she used in the bathroom? Netizens do flesh searches on the unimportant leaders they’re allowed to. Can this be compared to when the red guards stormed the homes of high-ranking officials like Chen Liangyu to confiscate their gold and scrolls?

If today we were to print anti-corruption big letter posters and notebooks from the Cultural Revolution, exchanging the words “special interests” for “special class” and put it on the internet, there would be few internet writings that could compete in theoretical level, composition, intimacy, and righteous anger. Today when people accuse an article of being overenthusiastic and unreasonable, they don’t even think twice about accusing the author of doing a Cultural Revolution. Be careful: What they are refering to is the Cultural Revolution as it played out in the mainstream press. Most people today wouldn’t be opposed to the ideas of the non-mainstream Cultural Revolution.

文 革是一个“解放思想”和“怀疑一切”的年代——当然不能怀疑毛泽东思想和他建立的制度。文革的大民主,用林彪的话来说就是:无所畏惧地让广大的民众运用大 鸣大放、大字报、大辩论、大串联的形式,批评和监督党和国家的各级领导机关和领导人。同时按照巴黎公社的原则,充分实现人民民主权利。(林彪讲话,1966.11.3

The Cultural Revolution was a time of “liberating thought” and “doubting everything” with the exception of doubting Mao Zedong Thought and his system. We can use Lin Biao’s words to define democracy during the Cultural Revolution, “To fearlessly allow the masses to air their views freely, large character posters, debate, and exchange experience; to criticize and monitor the Party and every level of the countries leaders. At the same time to use the principals of the Paris Commune to completely realize the peoples democratic power (Lin Biao Talk, November 3, 1966).”

Yang Hengjun sees three key differences between youth then and youth now:

(1) During the Cultural Revolution there was much less to read – they read Mao and Lenin, while today’s netizens have access to different books and ideas from everywhere;

(2) During the Cultural Revolution, youth were interested in social questions, while today’s netizens are interested in their individual lives;

(3) During the Cultural Revolution, youth relied on the sponsorship of a leader, while today’s netizens can’t rely on sponsorship because most leaders won’t risk going online.

Yang Hengjun then concludes:




When we compare 2009 and 1979, aren’t the historic similarities obvious in a glance? In 1949, “the Chinese people stood up”, after which they followed the direction established by the great leader Chairman Mao toward progress and the result was that they almost walked into an eternal abyss. The Cultural Revolution was undoubtably a disaster. However, with respect to young thinkers, it was also the beginning of independent though and a new start. Today when we reflect on the thinking that characterized the Cultural Revolution as an era, its not difficult to discover that the road we’ve walked these 30 years since 1979, including economic reform (household quotas, for example), political reform, and social progress all carry traces of how the Cultural Revolution youth survived, though, and struggled in a difficult environment.

Now, after thirty years of “feeling our way across the river”, especially after 10 years of exploration, thinking, discussion, and using the internet, we are still vexed by the question “whither China” and if we will continue to leave this question to generation after generation?

In fact, no one can answer this question for us. We must ask ourselves: where are we going? When more and more people discover the universal values of freedom, justice, human rights, and democracy, when each of us can answer the question, “where am I going” then the question “whither China” will no longer be a problem.

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