THE COWSHED by Ji Xianlin


Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
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Scarifying account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

What brought about the revolution, apart from Mao’s constantly stirring things up to keep friends and enemies alike off balance? Ji (1911-2009) doesn’t profess to know, but he’s irritated at those who do have the answers and won’t release them: “I think their refusal,” he writes, “runs contrary to the attitude of truth-seeking that a materialist should have.” Whole worlds are encapsulated in that sentence, for the author remained until his death a supporter of the Communist state. That makes the events of June 1966 all the more incomprehensible to an outsider. It was then that he was branded a “reactionary capitalist academic authority” and initiated in a regime that in the months to come would involve questioning, haranguing, abuse, criticism, and self-criticism. The author allows that he had been the department head of an Asian languages program for 20 years, and given that the mob of Red Guards surrounding him wasn’t likely to leave him in peace, he selected the label that fit him most closely. The Red Guards were thorough in the extreme; they accused him of being insufficiently ardent by virtue of the fact that his portrait of the Great Leader wasn’t dusty. But Ji, never quite playing along—some degree of resistance, he later lets slip, was crucial to survival—replied that it wasn’t dusty because he cherished it so much that he polished it constantly. It was off to the metaphorical cowshed all the same. A bestseller in China, this memoir calls attention to the tremendous injustices wrought in that anarchic time. Western readers may find themselves unsold by the author’s too-frequent protestations that in recounting his tribulations, he means his former accusers and abusers no harm. Still, that seems a mere formula, for his pages seethe with grievance and reckoning.

An ancillary but meaningful document of a time too little chronicled and now all but forgotten by younger Chinese people.

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-59017-927-7
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: New York Review Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2015


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