Banished to the Great Northern Wilderness: Political Exile and Re-education in Mao’s China

Wang, Ning. Banished to the great northern wilderness : political exile and re-education in Mao’s China. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2017. 300 p. ISBN : 978-1-5017-1318-7

After Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957–58, Chinese intellectuals were subjected to « re-education » by the state. In Banished to the Great Northern Wilderness, Ning Wang draws on labor farm archives, interviews, and memoirs to provide a remarkable look at the suffering and complex psychological world of these banished Beijing intellectuals. Wang’s use of newly uncovered Chinese-language sources challenges the concept of the intellectual as renegade martyr, showing how exiles often declared allegiance to the state for self-preservation. While Mao’s campaign victimized the banished, many of those same people also turned against their comrades. Wang describes the ways in which the state sought to remold the intellectuals, and he illuminates the strategies the exiles used to deal with camp officials and improve their chances of survival.

This book illuminates the dark corners of life in Mao’s China, forty years after the Paramount Leader’s death. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-58, scholars, artists, journalists, and others whom the state considered suspicious « intellectuals » were targeted for « re-education. » In Banished to the Great Northern Wilderness, Ning Wang draws on labour farm archives, memoirs, and interviews to provide a remarkable look at the suffering and complex psychological world of banished Chinese intellectuals. His use of these newly uncovered Chinese-language sources paints a vivid and nuanced picture that challenges our concept of the intellectual as renegade martyr.

Wang examines the ways in which the state sought to remould the intellectuals at army farms and labour camps, and the strategies the exiles used to deal with camp officials and improve their chances of survival. While banished intellectuals were victims of the campaign, some also became perpetrators of injustice themselves who betrayed their friends and comrades. Isolated in a desolate northern borderland and subject to physical and psychological abuse, the exiles often denounced each other and, for self-preservation, declared allegiance to the state.

Including interviews with former « rightists » and even a camp guard, Banished to the Great Northern Wilderness shines a bright light on the exile communities, social conflicts, and history of the early PRC.

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Monique Abud

Centre d’études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d’études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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