Compte rendu : The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

Michel Bonnin. [Compte rendu de] Guobin Yang. The red guard generation and political activism in China. (Columbia University Press, 2016). The China Quarterly, vol. 232, December 2017, pp. 1123–1125. DOI:10.1017/S0305741017001473.

Texte intégral du compte rendu de Michel Bonnin

Guobin Yang’s book has ambitious goals. It intends “to bring a new perspective to the understanding of the Red Guard radicalism in the 1960s,” and from there to trace “the longer-term biography of the Red Guard generation from the 1960s to the present” and, since this generation was at the forefront of political changes, to “offer an account of the transformation of political culture and political protest in the People’s Republic of China” (p. 2). As the author acknowledges, “an exhaustive treatment of these three questions is beyond the scope of a single book,” especially, should we add, when it has fewer than 200 pages of text. Furthermore, Yang’s book is built upon a series of different articles and conference papers which span a period of 20 years. He has done his best to transform these separate studies into chapters of a unified work, rewriting and updating them. In this reviewer’s opinion, this effort was mostly successful, but not entirely. The core of the book is the presentation and analysis of different moments and different aspects of the evolution of the mentality of the Red Guard generation from the 1960s until now. This part is very convincing and insightful. This reviewer is less convinced by the objective aspects of the study, as will be discussed later, and has some reservations concerning the theoretical apparatus.

The presentation of the subjective world of the members of the “Red Guard generation” is based on a large array of primary data collected over a long period (interviews and life histories, historical documents like the Red Guard publications and diaries written during the Cultural Revolution as well as retrospective documents written by former Red Guards and “sent-down youth”). Yang is gifted with an obvious “literary sensibility” (probably linked to his first training as a Shanghai student in literature and translation). Thanks to the insertion of well-chosen excerpts of poems and diaries, many pages of the book are both informative and a pleasure to read.

In chapter one, Chongqing is used as a case study of the factional violence of the Red Guards. This city is famous for the cruelty of the fighting between the two main rebel groups and for being the only one where a Red Guards cemetery has been preserved. Thanks to a great number of testimonies and histories already published on the topic, this chapter is clear and full of interesting details. The author’s idea that “Red Guard factional warfare was the enactment of an imagined revolution based on scripts familiar to these youth” is confirmed by the narratives published in the Red Guard papers. In fact, all testimonies about this period confirm the author’s idea that the young rebels were performing a role in a revolutionary drama and that during their fights they consciously imitated the numerous war films they had grown up with. As Yang says, “for them performance and reality had become one and the same thing” (p. 45). Chapter two presents the political culture to which members of this generation were exposed in the 1950s and early 1960s. The author then proceeds to presenting the unorthodox thoughts which appeared in the minds of some Red Guards and shows that their authors did not mean to express dissent but were trying to apply Maoism in the theoretical realm. He could have added that those dissonant voices were mainly the result of Mao’s own contradictions and hesitations. Surprisingly, Mao is not discussed in this book, although the Great Helmsman had a decisive influence in the ups and downs of their lives as well as in their mental itinerary. The remaining chapters present the mental evolution of the Red Guards after they were transformed into rusticated youth, the last chapters presenting the way this generation memorizes (often with nostalgia) its own experience.

This book has a strong theoretical ambition, which is quite legitimate, but being built upon different former papers, the theoretical toolbox seems at times a bit heavy. The reader can only observe in awe the way the author juggles a number of heterogeneous theories, so as to force his rich empirical material into a theoretical straightjacket. Some of the references are quite convincing, especially concerning the interpretation of the actions of the Red Guards as a performance, but others much less so. For example, it is hard to match the life of the rusticated youth with Aristotle’s ideal of the “good life” (including the use of reason and the constant practice of virtue), or with Taylor’s idea of an “ordinary life,” characterized by a stable job and a normal family life. The life of the rusticated youth was on the contrary quite “abnormal” and “extraordinary.” Reference to Metzger’s “Confucian predicament” seems unnecessary to explain the Red Guards’ spirit of sacrifice and dedication. All young revolutionaries in the world, not speaking of crusaders or jihadists, have shown similar characteristics.

The objective aspect of the study, i.e. its historical frame, is not always satisfying and the definition of the “Red Guard Generation” is unclear. This leads Yang to refer to a number of 10 to 30 million members (attributed to Xu Youyu without any precise reference), and even to say that it could very well be extended to 120 million (p. 6). Such a span shows an absence of reflection concerning the concept of generation and a kind of carelessness concerning demographical figures. The author insists on the term “Red Guard Generation,” while at the same time acknowledging that “the sent-down experience” was “a new beginning” for them and that many so-called Red Guards did not accept this term and called themselves “Rebels.” While giving examples of the mentality of this generation, he refers to people like Liu Xiaobo, who were rusticated youth but were too young to be Red Guards, and even to Qian Liqun, who was clearly from an earlier generation, since he was born in 1939 and came of age in the 1950s.

The important question of the motivations for the launching of the rustication movement is raised in a fuzzy way (p. 103). The end of the movement is likewise presented in an over-simplified and slightly misleading way. Yang asserts that on 4 January 1979, the protesting educated youth representatives “were received by vice-premier Wang Zhen who expressed his sympathy and the government’s willingness to resolve the crisis” (p. 150). The report on this meeting published in the People’s Daily on 15 February 1979 shows that Wang’s speech was more of a scolding than of an expression of sympathy, and that the government was ready to solve the crisis as long as the rusticated youth agreed to go back to work.

In some cases, neglect of the already published research leads the author to claim discovery for ideas already expressed by others. For example, the idea that the experience of the educated youth “provided the necessary sociocultural foundation for the implementation of the state’s economic policies in the reform era” is presented as “an important argument” that “surprisingly, has been ignored”. In fact, this idea has not been ignored by everybody (see Bonnin, 2013, The Lost Generation, p. 436–438). The Lost Generation also quotes Chinese authors, like Chen Yizi and Li Yinhe, who have expressed this idea.

In spite of those reservations, I would warmly recommend this book as a general presentation of the topic. It vividly describes the main features of this generation’s mental evolution and the lessons which may be drawn from their very specific itinerary. The last pages are devoted to two interesting stories. It is not obvious that they can be considered as “oracle tales of the future” (p. 194), but they certainly represent the way the past is used in the present. The first concerns the regular Chinese New Year gathering of one thousand descendants of former revolutionary leaders congratulating themselves, their parents (or grand-parents) and above all the Party, which has brought so many advantages to them. This celebration of the past by the winners, devoid of any doubt or regret for those who suffered (including their parents in many cases), contrasts with the second story, which depicts one example of the patient work of those who were victims and now try, not to get revenge or settle accounts, but to simply salvage the past and reflect upon it. This reviewer’s paper in a recent issue of China Quarterly (227) ended also with praise for those ordinary members of the Cultural Revolution generation who modestly try to save history as a way to transcend the conflicts of memories and thus to give meaning to the peculiar destiny of their generation.

Finally, a long-suppressed irritation: when will the main US university presses stop forcing readers to constantly interrupt their reading to find the endnotes somewhere near the end of the book or at the end of each chapter?

Texte du compte rendu reproduit avec l’aimable autorisation de The China Quarterly et de Michel Bonnin (CCJ-CECMC).

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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