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China's divided memory of the Cultural Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution (Chinese: _____), was a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 through 1976. (Pictures from History / Contributor via Getty Images)
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution (Chinese: _____), was a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 through 1976. (Pictures from History / Contributor via Getty Images)

“3 Body Problem,” a Netflix adaptation of the popular Chinese sci-fi novel by the same name, is causing controversy in China for its depiction of the Cultural Revolution.

How do the Chinese people see this crucial period of their history?

Today, On Point: China’s divided memory of the Cultural Revolution.


Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.

Madeleine Dong, professor in the history department and the chair of the China Studies program at the University of Washington.

Also Featured

Zehao Zhou, researcher at York College of Pennsylvania, whose interests include East Asian history and the Cultural Revolution.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The new Netflix series ‘3 Body Problem’ is an adaptation of the popular Chinese science fiction novel by Liu Cixin. Episode one begins in 1966 Beijing at Tsinghua University.


“Root out the bugs,” the crowd shouts. “Sweep away all monsters and demons.”

The scene takes place during China’s Cultural Revolution. A group of Red Guards in uniform dragged a man onto the stage. He’s a physicist. He’s wearing worn out clothes and a dunce cap that names his “crimes.”


“In your physics course, did you teach the theory of relativity?” the guard asks.

When the physicist responds yes, because relativity is one of the fundamental theories of physics, another guard calls him a liar. Saying quote, “Einstein went to the American Imperialists and helped them build the atomic bomb.”

Then, the red guard bring his wife, whom they call a “genuine physicist.”


“With the help of the revolutionary youth, it has become clear to me,” she says. “I want to stand on the side of the people.”

Even as one of the guards strikes her husband, the wife continues to denounce her husband for teaching the Big Bang Theory. After the interrogations, the guards continue to beat the physicist. Eveneutally, he falls down and dies. The crowd goes quiet. And in that crowd – the physicist’s daughter, Ye Wenjie, who watches her father’s death in heartbreak and horror.

That opening scene of ‘3 Body Problem’ may be one of the most viewed depictions of China’s Cultural Revolution outside of China in recent years. And it’s caused quite a controversy inside China … with many viewers calling it a western attempt to smear Chinese history.

For Zehao Zhou, those scenes aren’t so farfetched. Zhou was just 11 years old, when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966.

ZEHAO ZHOU: Waves of red guards repeatedly stormed my neighborhood of Shanghai over a period of weeks, terrorizing the innocent, ransacking homes, and parading their victims through the streets for the purpose of public humiliation. And I heard screaming and cries for help. And they ran out all around me, and nearly every household in my neighborhood was subject to that abuse.

CHAKRABARTI: Zhou says that the “struggle session” depicted in that opening scene was commonplace in his young life. And he saw many in his own neighborhood … though they carried some differences from the show’s depictions.

ZHOU: In the opening scene, where the physicist seemed to be keeping arguing back, he was retorting, and that to me was not common. You know, most people would be silent, because the more you talk back, the more beating you would invite. The other thing that I found very interesting was the wife denouncing the husband. To a small extent, there were a few individuals that would denounce the spouse to protect themselves or to protect the children.

But more often than not, the denunciation came from the heart. They really believed that their loved ones were guilty of the crime charge. I watched a grandson denouncing his grandfather. He was a mega banker grandfather. Hiding notebooks about family history of his notes, against the regime, but he decided to come out and to denounce his grandfather in public.

CHAKRABARTI: Today, Zhou is a researcher in East Asian History and the Cultural Revolution at York College of Pennsylvania. It’s been more than a half century since the Cultural Revolution began; Zhou says that decade of pain continues to affect his country.

ZHOU: The government had enforced a collective amnesia. I ran into many people who were the victims of Cultural Revolution, but they didn’t know what was going on. They would still admire Chairman Mao. They would still admire Zhou Enlai. And they would think that they mistakenly believed that somehow Mao’s era was cleaner, was better, was less corrupt. This country is still dealing with the Cultural Revolution legacy, one day at a time.

CHAKRABARTI: So, today, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to talk specifically or in depth about Netflix’s sci-fi depiction in “Three Body Problem.” We’re actually going to use it as a way to ask, what are the ways in which the Chinese people themselves see the legacy of the Cultural Revolution? How do they understand this critical period of modern history?

Joining us now is Yangyang Cheng. She’s a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. She’s joined us several times on the show. And as evidence of how remarkable On Point’s guests are, Yangyang. I also have to tell people that you also have a PhD in physics, and worked for years at the Large Hadron Collider, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, so she might be able to comment a bit on the physics depictions in 3 Body Problem, as well! Welcome back to On Point.

YANGYANG CHENG: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, can you walk us through exactly some of the reactions that have been coming out of China, the controversial reactions to the Netflix series?

CHENG: Absolutely. And I feel that I should preface this by saying that Chinese social media is a controlled space, so it’s not a perfect reflection of Chinese public opinion. However, it does reflect certain fractions of it, and the control is not just direct censorship, but also in terms of what kinds of messages are being amplified.

And so I’ll put it probably in broadly three categories. The first, as you also mentioned, are these kinds of nationalistic critique of how the Netflix depiction of the Cultural Revolution was the West’s deliberate attempt to smear China, to show the worst part about Chinese history and the Chinese people to a broader global audience, to fit into these Western imperialist fantasies about China.

The second type of reaction is actually more moderate and it’s actually an affirmation of these kinds of depictions. One can critique how the Cultural Revolution was actually being depicted. That the fact that is actually being shown on screen at all is something positive, that is an affirmation of this memory and it’s a way for it to not to be forgotten.

And I think both of these two types of reactions is a reflection of how little space there is, not just on Chinese media and in Chinese cinema and TV. But also, in the public discourse in general, to talk about the Cultural Revolution increasingly these days. And the third type of reaction, which I think is more nuanced, is to place that into a broader context of the Netflix series, that the original sci fi novel is a Chinese story, but the Netflix depiction, it has brought most of the setting to the UK, became a Western story.

However, the heroes in a way became Western, but the villains, the most horrific aspects of the depiction that made one of the main characters, Ye Wenjie, lose hope in humanity had remained faithful to the original novel being of the Cultural Revolution. So I think the main point here is that it’s not so much whether or not the Cultural Revolution is remembered.

The topic is not entirely taboo in China, even though it’s becoming increasingly sensitive, but it’s about how it is being remembered, whether it being seen as something exceptional and exclusive to China and perfectly contained to that past into that decade. Or if there are common lessons about humanity, about governance and about power that still applies today.

CHAKRABARTI: And so that’s exactly what I want to talk about in much more detail in the show. And I’m very grateful, by the way, that you pointed out that, yes, this story is a Chinese story in terms of the novels. They originate from China’s best-selling sci fi novelists. They’ve been read around the world.

There have been, I think, Chinese based film depictions of the novel as well, which we’ll talk about in a minute. But the conversion of that very Chinese story that pulls then Western characters in the Netflix version as sort of the heroes is a point that I can imagine wouldn’t go over just that in China.

But Yangyang, do you mind if I ask you, because if I remember correctly, I think in a previous show that you were on with us, you said that your mother was a young girl during the Cultural Revolution?


CHAKRABARTI: Do you mind if I ask if how she remembers it, if that’s ever been a point of discussion between the two of you at all?

CHENG: That is such a great question. So my parents are a bit younger than Mr. Zhou that we just heard from. And so they were too young to participate, and they were just old enough to witness some of it and remember some of it. And so actually, I was thinking about it, coming on this show. When did I first became aware of the Cultural Revolution?

And I feel it’s like for us almost as long as I could remember. And then I think my earliest inkling about it was sometime in the mid-nineties when I was still a very young child, and I was going to visit my grandparents and it was in the summer. We didn’t have air conditioning at home. So my grandfather was wearing a tank top and I saw there were deep markings on his shoulders.

So I asked my grandfather, Where did those markings came from? And of course, my grandfather was an economics professor. He was an intellectual. So he shouldn’t have these kinds of markings of physical labor. And my grandfather just said very lightheartedly to a child, was like, labor, everyone had to labor.

And I think later, my mother gave me a little bit of more context of what that era was, and how intellectuals were all sent down to the rural regions, to the countryside to labor. And how people suspected and reported on each other, calling each other counterrevolutionaries and people were being struggled against.

And so I think for my mother, her main takeaway from that decade in her youth was how politics is dangerous. And so politics and death were the two biggest taboos, was probably one of the first lessons about life that my mother taught me.

And then her take away from also her father’s experience was for someone of my grandfather’s educational level, a lot of his classmates fared much worse, the ones who are more politically outspoken or active, but because my grandfather was someone who just taught and studied and he actually went through that decade relatively okay in a comparative sense, and that was a very important lesson from my mother, in terms of how one preserves oneself in this kind of society, and that was the lesson she wanted to instill in me, and I guess I was like a more disobedient child.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Madeleine Dong. She’s the chair of China Studies at the University of Washington. Professor Dong, welcome to On Point.

MADELEINE DONG: Thank you. My pleasure.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, I think we would love to collectively learn more about the facts around the Cultural Revolution.

Just prior to 1966 or so, what was the revolt purportedly against? What was the revolution about? The Cultural Revolution.

DONG: Counterintuitively, interestingly, the Cultural Revolution, we might think it was the CCP trying to control the people. But in fact, in many ways, it was the Mao against the CCP establishment. Because after any revolution, when the world was turned upside down, there would be a moment when things would settle and things would, after revolution, would always settle into a new pattern.

So for a revolution of the nature and scale of the Chinese revolution, then what kind of system would it establish? And so Mao saw that the situation in China in the 1960s, after the Great Leap Forward, that huge disaster that ended in a famine, when certain leaders in the party, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi in particular, tried their best to reestablish, they restored the economy.

And Mao saw that as dangerous, because they were leading the country into some kind of minor form of capitalism. So and Mao hated the idea of bureaucracy, but for any modern nation state or modern state, as much as we find it problematic, some form of governance would exist. So it became this kind of ideological disagreement of what should happen in this country.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay and remind us just briefly, the Great Leap Forward, what was that?

DONG: The Great Leap Forward started in the 1950s after China completed its first five-year plan, in which it collaborated with the Soviet Union to quickly industrialize China. And it focused on heavy industry and tried to quickly catch up with the level of development of the U.S. and Britain.

So interestingly, communism or Chinese communism and socialism, it was, in fact, a form of developmentalism. It’s a socialist development, socialist modernization, but they tried to do it differently in the socialist way and do it quickly. But when they did it, so tried to do it so quickly, through a strictly controlled administrative system, the party control, and over done, overdid the whole economic system, within a really quick time.

Collectivization in agriculture, it ended up in a huge disaster of famine that killed millions, of tens of millions of people.

CHAKRABARTI: And I’m also reminded that we’re talking about China also emerging from all that it experienced in the second World War as well, right? Prior to the Great Leap Forward.

So the further back we look in history, the more complex things get, which is actually why we’re having this conversation. Yangyang, can you just chime in here? Because when Professor Dong talks about that part of this was Mao’s criticism of how leaders like Deng Xiaoping were managing China.

That’s actually interesting to me. I had no idea. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

CHENG: So I think one way to think about this is a lot of times when the Cultural Revolution in the collective memory now is becoming represented by these abstract symbols like the Red Guards, or it’s being seen as some kind of a mass revolt.

But behind this mass revolt, there is an elite power struggle that’s happening at the highest levels of the Chinese government. And so some of that is reflected in what Professor Dong just mentioned. That Mao Zedong was trying to insight the masses, partly it was out of ideological reasons that he was a revolutionary and believed in certain ways that China should be governed.

And on the other hand, it was out of, also out of practical reasons as a way to solidify and confirm his personal power. So he needed this kind of cult of personality.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Dong, then, so the depiction that we saw in the Netflix series, and I think the one that’s most often, if there’s any familiarity with the Cultural Revolution in the Western mind, it has to do with this subjugation of the intellectual elite in China.

So can you explain a little bit more about how would you actually describe what the Cultural Revolution was in terms of who was targeted, who were part of the Red Guard, etc.

DONG: So to pick up what we were talking about. So Mao had the idea of a permanent revolution in order to keep a society never from settling into any comfortable sense of new hierarchy or status symbols.

The only way to do it is to have a permanent revolution, and you do it once every few years. And so that was the argument that started, with which they started the Cultural Revolution. But of course, there were hidden intentions. The elite of politics that Yangyang was talking about, there were power struggles among the elites, party elites, but it was not explained to the people clearly.

So the Cultural Revolution is to us today, it’s this weird thing that it was started by one person. It was about the elite politics, but then it was also massive. So these two things don’t always go together in world mass movements and politics. So how did that happen? So basically, I mentioned that it was Mao against the party establishment and the administration, national administration. So in order to, for Mao to start this movement, he had to have his own forces, his own army. And so he directly, he tried to directly reach to the mass level. And the Red Guards were part of his army. The Red Guards.

CHAKRABARTI: They were young. Right?

DONG: They were young. They were teenagers. Many of them were actually middle school students. But what we need to keep in mind is that they were not your every middle school or high school student. The Red Guards started in the very top elite middle schools and high schools in Beijing. Those were the schools where the top leaders’ children went.

So they were sensitive, and they knew the national politics from their parents.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So a constant revolution, that is so interesting. And then just to be clear, was the revolution in terms of Mao’s vision to, as you said, constantly shake up how the nation was led?

DONG: It’s constantly try to keep the country, how the country was led, on the right track. And the right track is, he talked, Mao talked about three big differences, the differences between mental and manual labor. The differences between the countryside and the cities, and the difference between industry and agriculture. And in his view, that when you erase these differences, the differences in these three areas, we reached, we would reach a more ideal society.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that explains the labor. We’ll come back to that. Yangyang, so I think Professor Dong has really described this with clarity that makes me have my mind wander back to the United States. A little bit or a lot. In terms of this idea of looking at the entrenched intellectual elite as a source of unfairness, inequity, and wanting to, as she said, erase the differences between mental and manual labor, between city and countryside, et cetera.

Do you see echoes far outside of China when it comes to that way of thinking? That is a difficult question, but it is a very pertinent one, right? And I think one of the ways, one of the misunderstandings about the Cultural Revolution is that it’s often being depicted as anti-science, but it was not so much anti-science as it was pursuing a very specific type of, very specific type of science. That when scientific development is driven by very specific ideologies, and the ones that the deviate from it are being struggled against.

And so that is partly tied to what you just mentioned. And Professor Dong mentioned. That scientific development was driven by this egalitarian vision. It’s mass proletarian science. As I said, science as a tool of revolution. And if I might turn back to what we saw in the earlier scene of the Netflix depiction, where general relativity, right?

Einstein’s theory of relativity was being specifically mentioned as struggled against, and that was actually indeed a particular episode in the Cultural Revolution that I found very illuminating. And where there were these elite scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who are forced to come together and struggle against Einstein’s theory of relativity, including in the late 1960s, when there were border conflicts between China and the Soviet Union. And one of the ideas, the evidence against the theory of relativity was that, Oh, if the Soviet Union shot at us and we shot back, if time is relative, how can we determine who’s fired the first shot?

Of course, Einstein was wrong. So it was a certain way to see how science is being seen in this very specific ideological lens, but it was not anti-science per se, but it was more that there was a certain bit fervent belief in the power of a certain type of science that it cannot just bring about mass worldwide proletarian revolution. But can also be used as a tool to struggle against nature, to overpower it.

And there was a certain element of techno utopianism to it as well. And these are lessons that are still highly relevant today when we think about what is the power of science, what is the power of technology, and what is the purpose of development that Professor Dong also mentioned.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Dong, I see you have some reactions to that.

Go ahead.

DONG: It’s a complex issue. I totally agree with Yangyang about the role ideology played in the understanding and practice of science. For example, scientific experimentations were sent down to the level of the workers and the farmers, and some types of local knowledge was emphasized.

For example, using insects to control worms. These kind of experiments, on the other hand, the Cultural Revolution, if it was not 100% anti science, it was in some ways. Just by the little examples that we have shared here, there was a tendency of it being anti-scientific spirit, because the scientific spirit is, or the principle is about that you have to be objective, that when you do experimentation, it really has to be about experimentation, is not about ideology.

And with the techno utopianism together with that, it came with this idea of in Chinese, what they called Ren Ding Shen Tian, the human will win over nature, which was the spirit that guided the earlier, Guilin forward that ended up in a famine. And so out of the Cultural Revolution state encouragement of that type of scientific practices came something like the mass science.

So that did exist, but it existed at the same time in contradiction with an understanding and practice of modern science and the scientific spirit and principle.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. Tell me if this is a stretch too far, but when you talked about the emphasis on the human will overcoming nature, this concept of will being so powerful.

It reminds me of some of the language that came out of Nazi Germany.

DONG: That is a really interesting connection you are talking about, bringing up. Because much of it actually came from the confidence that the Chinese gained through the discourse or representation of their war year experience. That look, we defeated the Japanese in spite of the fact that we know how complicated that history was, and we defeated the nationalists.

They were more powerful and bigger than we were. And then we defeated the Americans, the world’s strongest army in the Korean War. And so if we could accomplish these under the leadership of the CCP and Mao, what can’t we accomplish? And so Mao actually said economic development, how can it be more difficult than winning wars?

And so this idea of the human will defeat nature. Of course, there were older stories. For example, what is called the foolish old man moved the mountain, which was a text written by Mao, and it was used in school textbooks. And so these old traditional stories were given new meanings and used to elaborate this spirit of the human will.

And of course, that brings us back to this issue of science during the Cultural Revolution. Together with Einstein, Darwin, we cannot talk about evolution either. Darwin has been totally misunderstood, but because revolution existed to defeat evolution, because everyone evolves, every culture, every society moves.

We are all in evolution. And it’s at the same speed. And by carrying out a revolution, you’re defeating that pace. And you’re trying to get ahead.

CHAKRABARTI: Of evolution.

DONG: Exactly. How else do you, the British, the Americans, they’re leading already. You’re moving forward. They’re also moving forward. How do you catch up with them within 10 years, 15 years, and you’re going to beat them and become the leader in the world?

You do revolution.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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