The Cultural Revolution is everywhere and nowhere in modern China. It is impossible to make sense of China without understanding what happened in this decade of political fanaticism, brutal violence and chaos, which saw perhaps two million die and tens of millions hounded. But it also seems impossible to truly understand this era, with its constant changes and contradictions. Discussion has been suppressed by both political diktat and personal trauma. Even so, its memory persists.
While many remain deeply scarred by the horrors, there is now a surprising nostalgia for the era. It speaks in large part to concerns about the present day but also reflects the appeal of powerful possibilities for transformation which existed in the era, however briefly and marginally.
What exactly are people remembering when they remember the Cultural Revolution? And how has an era which turned the nation upside down come to be an essential part of the party-state’s maintenance of the political status quo?
Tania Branigan is foreign leader writer at the Guardian and spent seven years as its China correspondent. Her book Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution won the Cundill History Prize 2023 and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize, the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding and the Kirkus non-fiction prize. It was named as one of the Wall Street Journal’s ten best books of 2023 and TIME ’s 100 must-read books of 2023.