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To hell and back

Updated September 25, 2016


Ji Xianlin (1911-2009), the author of The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was an internationally recognised authority on Sanskrit and Pali languages. He was a senior teacher at the Peking University and had been a professor and head of the Foreign Languages Department for 20 years. He became a victim of the Cultural Revolution and survived to write an account of the torture he was made to suffer, and to comment on the actions of the young men, many of them his students, who committed, in his opinion, excesses worse than the cruel emperors of China.

The author gives a graphic and hair-raising account of his ordeal. According to one description of being tortured at the “struggled against” sessions, he was hoisted on to the dais, a heavy wooden plank held around his neck by a thin wire that cut deep into his flesh, and forced to take the “airplane” position — arms spread out and body bent forward at the waist. He was subjected to a barrage of abuse from the crowd, followed by spitting on his face, punches to his nose and eyes, blows to his head and kicks to his back.

Next was hard labour in a village and at a factory. At one stage he could not stand, so he crawled while carrying bricks. He had to crawl on the road to a clinic for two hours and crawl back to the camp when refused medical aid upon confessing, as he had been ordered, that he was a blackguard. Finally he was imprisoned at a centre called the Cowshed where torture was mixed with humiliation in every conceivable form. To him, the Cowshed was a hell more horrible than the 18 layers of Buddhist hell. When the rigours of torture eased, the celebrated scholar was made to serve as a security guard at a university block. And that was a big relief!

One man’s tale of struggle and survival during the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The other part of the torture was raids on his home. Antiques he had acquired over the years were destroyed and his bedroom (the bigger of the two rooms in his house) was taken over by a young guard for spending nights with his mistress, while his wife and an old aunt were forced to confine themselves to a small room. The allowance sanctioned for his family was not even enough to put adequate meals on the table.

Infinitely more devastating than the physical torture suffered by Xianlin was the erosion of his sanity, as if torture had drained his mind and character of all the goodness he was proud of. Hunger drove him to telling lies and made him covet food wherever he could find it, even in boxes thrown away or abandoned by the privileged ones, and he liked to work at the outhouses where coins could be found. Forbidden to raise his eyes while walking or facing his persecutors, he forgot to lift his gaze from the ground even after rehabilitation and did not know how to address shopkeepers or fellow citizens. This is what torture does and this is something all those who are engaged in the fight against this curse must never forget.

It is difficult to say that the system of orderly management had broken down completely, for the rigours of Xianlin’s ordeal were eventually eased; he was rehabilitated and reinstated in his former position at the university. He was also able to write, over the next 20 years or so, 70 per cent of the eight million characters he wrote in his life. It is to his credit that he regained his sanity, the sharpness of his mind and the goodness of his heart, and could reaffirm his faith in the future of the Chinese people and their civilisation. In 1993 he was able to write: “The 21st century will be the century in which the culture at the heart of Eastern Civilisation, Chinese culture, experiences a renaissance. Today’s most pressing questions of human survival, such as the explosion in population growth, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, the holes in the Ozone layer, the limits of industrial food production, and the limited fresh water supply, can only be addressed by the Chinese civilisation.”

“All my interrogators were either students in my department or lecturers I had hired. I didn’t subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that they were indebted to me and owed me respect, and I knew they were blinded by factionalism. But there were a few individuals who were especially vicious towards me. One of them, a Korean language instructor, appeared to be currying favour with the Empress Dowager by being spiteful toward me; another, an Indonesian language instructor who used to be very polite to me, was in fact hiding the skeletons in his own closet. He had taken part in anti-Soviet demonstrations before 1949, and now he was trying to make up for his past by persecuting me. His past was uncovered, and he committed suicide the capitalist way.” — Excerpt from the book

Xianlin was very keen to explain the reasons for writing his remarkable memoirs. He rejected dwelling in the past, but thought his people had not reflected sufficiently on the Cultural Revolution. Besides, the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) survived for long. Writing in 1993, he noted that it was a mistake to forgive those who had committed crimes during the Cultural Revolution — they were “the cancer cells of our socialist society” — and the result was: “Chinese society today appears peaceful and harmonious, and things seem to be going well. But our society is ethically hollow, [the] local government is often corrupt, and many individuals are incompetent.”

Keen to expunge traces of any desire to sensationalise his experiences or seek revenge from his tormentors, Xianlin revised the 1988 draft of his book in 1993, in order to tone down the tale of tears and outrage and enable readers to concentrate on the whys and wherefores of the Cultural Revolution, “a brutal disaster that drove China to the brink of economic collapse.”

The book includes Xianlin’s short account of his life — from his birth in the period of the warlords, to education in the Kuomintang era, his experience of life under Japanese occupation and his 10 years in Germany where he completed his doctorate. Pakistani readers will be struck by the fact that Chinese society kept experimenting in the field of education through all the cycles of turmoil. In Germany as well, education remained a priority during the war even when daily necessities became scarce and people went through the agonising experience of waiting for, and then facing, defeat. The tribute Xianlin pays to his German teachers and guides reads like a paean to knowledge.

The author has embellished his narrative with quotes from his people’s rich stock of literature, including verses from 4th and 10th century poets. The Confucian saying that “scholars can be killed, but they cannot be humiliated” is recalled frequently in order to emphasise that during the Cultural Revolution, scholars were not killed (though quite a few preferred suicide to public humiliation) but they were humiliated. One quote that Pakistani readers might like to recall these days is also a Confucius gem: “If even this can be tolerated, what then is considered intolerable?”

Xianlin attributes his tribulations to his decision to oppose one of the leading lights of the Cultural Revolution at Peking University and to a trait of stubbornness in his character, of which we become aware when we see him training himself to withstand torture without biting dust. He certainly had the ability to break away from the herd and say or do what he thought was right.

In 1981, at the age of 77, he went to Tiananmen Square to express solidarity with the students who had gone on a hunger strike. Afterwards he went to the police to declare that he had visited the students in Tiananmen Square and wanted to be lodged with them, and that he was 77 and had no desire to live any longer. But the resilient Chinese society had bounced back from the Cultural Revolution. The police phoned the university authorities who came running and took him back to campus.

When he published his book in 1993, it was acclaimed as a remarkable piece of literature.

The reviewer is a senior columnist and Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese
Cultural Revolution
By Ji Xianlin
(Translated by Chenxin Jiang)
New York Review Books, US
ISBN: 978-1590179260

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2016