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Part II: Mouth—Words

During that time the eight model works were being performed and that was it, there was nothing else. The rest was all “feudal, capitalist, and revisionist” [封资修 fengzixiu]. But we read all kinds of things that were fengzixiu anyway—Honoré de Balzac [1799–1850] and Romain Rolland [1866–1944] we read them all! At the time, I was looking after an oxen, and I thought this was quite fun. (Musician, 1942–)

In the 1980s I read voraciously: I did not drink tea or smoke or chat; I just wanted to read, and I felt I must do that. Part of it was that work in the factory was really not what I wanted to do. Whenever I was reading a good book, I would develop my own thoughts. But all of this was after the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution this kind of behavior would have been impossible. For me, these years were really lost or wasted [荒废 huangfei]. We did not learn anything. Maybe in some families with intellectual backgrounds, they could still rely on themselves to teach the children. But not us! (Photographer, 1960–)

From the 1960s onwards, there was an interesting phenomenon, the so-called forbidden books [禁书 jinshu]. There would always be these lists: Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, for example, would be forbidden. It was too “individualistic,” and we were against individualism. The Red Guards, these “little devils,” would ransack the homes [抄家 chao jia] and hit people for owning these books, but then they would take them home and read them, and indeed, they sure knew quite a bit about them. (Editor, 1930s–)



A great many myths about Cultural Revolution Culture have been perpetuated both in foreign and in Chinese language writings. The idea that the Cultural Revolution negated foreign culture is one of them; another is that it destroyed Chinese traditional culture. It is for these reasons, too, that the Cultural Revolution is singled out as an exceptional period in Chinese history, unprecedented in impact and scale. As with all myths, there is some truth to these: the Cultural Revolution saw the destruction of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples, representative of a so-called “feudal heritage.” It was a time when artists went to prison for painting in certain styles condemned as “aristocratic” such as bird-and-flower painting (see Part III). And it was a time when traditional musical instruments such as the literati zither (古琴 guqin) had to be hidden away in order not to be smashed because of their association with “aristocratic intellectualism” (see Part I). Yet, far from exclusively demolishing China’s cultural heritage, the Cultural Revolution (and the May Fourth Movement, too) actually helped perpetuate and, more importantly, popularize other important traditions within Chinese culture.

In the second part of this study, I argue that it is only at first sight that the treatment of a popular tradition such as Chinese opera during the Cultural Revolution, used fitfully for the production of a large set of ten model operas, looks radically different from that of handling elitist traditions such as the canonical classical philosophical heritage or the revolutionary canon. Chapter 3 deals with the use and abuse of a Neo-Confucian Chinese primer, the Three Character Classic (三字经 Sanzijing), and Chapter 4 discusses Mao’s works as new “Red Classics” and their status and function before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution.

The Three Character Classic, which had been used as a primary school textbook to teach the basics of Chinese writing, historiography, and Confucian and Neo-Confucian philosophy and morality to school children since around the thirteenth century, was considered part of China’s “feudal” traditional heritage during the Cultural Revolution. Accordingly, it was not officially used for teaching during this time. Far from it, it was criticized on a large scale in a political campaign ranting against Lin Biao and Confucius (and, implicitly Zhou Enlai) in the mid-1970s (See Barnouin & Yu 1993, 262–63).

Paradoxically, this campaign ultimately served the perpetuation of Chinese traditional heritage in spite of its contrary goal. As was the case with Beijing Opera, this campaign confronted a much greater part of the Chinese population with, in this case, the Confucian heritage and Confucian values, than would ever have been reached even if teaching had been continued regularly and without political bias during the Cultural Revolution years.

The obvious popularity of Confucian morals in the years after the Cultural Revolution, on the other hand—as apparent in soap operas such as Yearning (渴望 Kewang) from the 1990s, to give one example (see *Chao 1991), or the foundation of Confucius Institutes since the 2000s, to give another, and, concomitant, the renewed popular interest in the Three Character Classic in kindergartens and primary schools in the PRC (Xinhua 2004)—points in a certain direction: It may have less to do with a revival of a long-lost tradition, than with a perpetuation of these values through so-called “Black Material” (黑资料 hei ziliao) throughout the period of the Cultural Revolution. What was lost and what was found in terms of traditional cultural heritage for different social groups and different generations during the Cultural Revolution must be reconsidered.

This is all the more so in modern and contemporary times, as the traditional practice of revering sages such as Confucius and of citing from their works has been perpetuated, in a continuous revolution, through the use of Mao’s words and in particular the Little Red Book of Mao quotations. These classic “words of the Cultural Revolution” and their function before and after this time are discussed in Chapter 4.

Geremie Barmé in his Shades of Mao includes the photograph of a plastic-covered Little Red Book published by the Cultural Relics Administration of Qufu County, Confucius’ birthplace in Shandong, which contains not a text authored by Mao but one by Confucius, the Confucian Analects (论语 Lunyu) (Barmé 1996, 86). This reconceived Little Red Book provides an ironic commentary on the perceived canonic status and authority of both texts: by transfer, they are thus made to appear as equally revered, but also as equally propagandistic, equally popular.

By reconsidering the power of Mao quotations, Chapter 4 emphasizes the continuing belief in the might and power of the words of “The Canon,” a belief that has shaped Chinese history for millennia. It will illustrate that the handling of the canonical classical philosophical heritage differs only at first sight from that of an equally canonical modern philosophical heritage in the form of Mao Zedong Thought, which provides the most important “words of the Cultural Revolution.”