Q&A

Red Guards in Tibet

Robert Barnett and Susan Chen talk to Tsering Woeser

Ed: In her new book Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan author Tsering Woeser dissects the impacts of China’s Cultural Revolution on Tibet. In this interview the book’s editor, Robert Barnett, together with its translator Susan Chen, speak with Woeser about the English-language version of her book and the enduring significance of the photos taken by her father, Tsering Dorje. Later this week we will also be publishing a photo essay featuring a selection of Dorje’s photographs.

When Tibet was taken over by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1950, the Chinese officials sent to run Tibet initially made few changes to its society, culture or administration. But, as with most revolutions since the 18th century, in time the Chinese Communist project in Tibet turned to the use of terror. Initially, this took the form of Robespierrean public education – mass imprisonment and executions – but by the mid-1960s the dominant form of political violence had become the ritualized humiliation of teachers, scholars, landlords and others whom the revolutionaries identified as their enemies. These “struggle sessions” and “speaking bitterness” events, along with ultra-leftist policies, factional conflict, and rebellions, were defining features of the Cultural Revolution in both Tibet and China from May 1966 until the death of Mao in September 1976, ten years later.

 

Essays

Jack London’s Oriental War

The writer’s stint as a war-correspondent in 1904 – Paul French

“I am disgusted! I’ll never go to a war between Orientals again. The vexations and delay are too great.”
– Jack London

He had sailed his broken down sloop, Razzle Dazzle, as an oyster pirate. He had crewed the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland along the coast of Japan. He had served with Kelly’s Army and tramped the western United States. He had dropped out of UC Berkeley. He was just 19. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush; he became a socialist. In 1903, at just 27, he published The Call of the Wild and with it gained money and success (10,000 copies flew off the shelves in the first week of publication). Then, in early 1904, the San Francisco Examiner asked Jack London if he’d like to report on a war between Asia’s rising power, Japan, and Europe’s largest but crumbling monarchy, Russia. Though the war was between the armies of Tsar Alexander and the Meiji Emperor, it was to be fought largely on Korean and Chinese soil. London, in the midst of a protracted divorce from a four-year marriage, thought “why not”? He embarked for Yokohama.

London’s time as a war correspondent in Asia has slipped from his popular biography. The “big books” (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel), his leftist politics, his man’s-man adventurer persona – these are what have come to dominate. The same goes for the conflagration he covered, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05: it, too, has rather slipped from history. It shouldn’t have. Instead we mark anniversaries of World War I and, in some parts of Asia, the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War. Yet we need to make room for the big event that fell halfway between the two, a war that not only shook the solidity of Western right and might (the first time an Asiatic power defeated a European one) but offered a first taste to the generals and politicians of Europe and America of what modern, mechanized war would look like.

 

Reviews

Word War

Rana Mitter reviews a revisionist new book and TV series on China’s WWII

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II has fallen in 2020 – on May 8 in Europe after the German surrender, and September 2 in Asia with the surrender of Japan. Yet, in China as in the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic meant a muted commemoration. Five years ago, Beijing pulled out all the stops with a huge parade in Tiananmen Square commemorating the Chinese role in the Allied victory. This year, television documentaries and a speech by Xi Jinping on 3 September had to fill the gap.

One element that has not changed much in the past five years, however, is the continuing near-invisibility of China’s wartime experience in the global narrative of the conflict. Evident also is the macho way that the conflict is portrayed on Chinese film and television screens, as in Hu Guan’s thrilling but unsubtle blockbuster movie The Eight Hundred, and the hit television spy thriller Cicada of Autumn. In these productions, Chinese soldiers fire bravely at the Japanese in a doomed defence of a Shanghai warehouse, Hong Kong youths in 1941 prove more amenable to nationalistic feeling than their 2020 successors, and jingoistic gore flows aplenty.

 

Essays

Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

Contested Memories of WWII on the Chinese Internet – Johanna Costigan

Historical narratives are strictly controlled in contemporary China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s definitive history of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, included in its 1981 ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the PRC’, placed blame for the era’s chaotic violence squarely on the Gang of Four and Chairman Mao. By centering the blame on a few individuals, the Party let countless complicit citizens off the hook, freeing them to further the national pursuit of opening and reform.

In the decades following Mao’s death, the CCP refined its methods of narrative control. Accounts of the Tiananmen massacre were swiftly silenced; dissenters fled the country, went to jail, or endured worse fates. Memories of what happened in 1989 were never institutionalized. Children attended kindergarten through college without learning of the actions the Party took to repress the generation of students who came before them – their parents and their parents’ peers.

 

Reviews

China’s Good War

Jonathan Chatwin reviews China’s Good War by Rana Mitter

By the time Britain’s full Covid lockdown began on March 23 2020, the country’s right-wing press had already spent a week suggesting that this contemporary moment would require the same mythical tenacity that had seen the country through the Second World War. On the 16 March, in a reference doubtless pleasing to a Prime Minister who has written a book on Churchill, a headline in the Daily Mail asked ‘Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz?’. Two days later, a comment piece in The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid known for its populist nationalism, instructed the nation: ‘We’re fighting World War V so summon that Blitz spirit and take care of the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.’ (V stood for Virus, rather than the Roman numeral for five, the article helpfully explained.)

This contemporary invocation of a war that ended 75 years ago demonstrates something pertinent to Rana Mitter’s new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. Namely: the powerful, and often politically useful, ways in which stories of war – WWII in particular – can be invoked in the present to provide foundational narratives for nations, political parties and social groups.