Disenchantment in the Cowshed
Memories of the Cowshed is one of China’s top bestsellers on the Cultural Revolution. Ji Xianlin’s 1998 memoir recounts the painful and deeply disenchanting period he spent in the “cowshed,” an improvised prison on the Peking University campus for intellectuals labeled as “class enemies.” The cowsheds were a taboo subject on campuses across China, where persecutors and victims often continued to work alongside each other, but unlike many of the Cultural Revolution’s chroniclers and critics, Ji never was a dissident. His time in prison left him with many misgivings about the cult of Mao worship, and yet he remained a Party member for the rest of his life.
Even as the West has rallied (and rightly so) behind Chinese dissidents, we know little about China’s more establishmentarian intellectuals, who may well be better placed to argue for moderate, humanist concerns. It is crucial that English-speaking readers have access to a spectrum of voices representing Chinese public discourse. Only through authors such as Ji can we begin to understand how today’s China reads the unsavory episodes in its recent history.
Ji begins his story in 1966 with the political turmoil of the Four Cleanups Movement. As the mass rallies disintegrate into chaos and violence, Ji decides to speak out against Nie Yuanzi, the leader of Peking University’s radical faction. As a result, he becomes a political prisoner, imprisoned in the cowshed for almost a year and kept under house arrest for years afterwards. Unlike other tales of class-struggle cruelty, Memories does not dwell on the Red Guards’ sadism. As he describes his slow disillusionment with Communist ideology, Ji’s tone is introspective rather than sensationalist. He recalls being crushed by guilt at having spent the Second World War pursuing a doctorate in Germany while so many others lost their lives in battle, a guilt that was easily transmuted into Communist zeal. His disenchantment began in the cowshed, where he was appalled to find that the workers and soldiers he idolized were often ignorant and brutal. But only as he was writing this memoir was Ji finally able to admit to himself that the Cultural Revolution had been evil and senseless.
Ji Xianlin was an eminent specialist in old Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit and Tocharian, but it was nonfiction writings such as Memories of the Cowshed that made him an unlikely celebrity during the last decade of his life. Being feted as a “national treasure” irked him. But he often used his reputation to make prominent statements: his stint in the cowsheds didn’t deter him from publicly defending the reformer Hu Shi’s reputation in the 1980s, when Hu was still a dangerous figure to support.
Ji’s moral courage is also evident in the audacity of publishing Memories during a time when China was trying hard to forget its past, and many persecuted intellectuals chose to remain silent about their ordeals in prison. Rarely has an account of the cowsheds been written by an immediate victim of the political frenzy that overtook college campuses, so Ji’s unusual perspective made his story an instant hit. Today, if a Beijing or Shanghai local has read one book on the Cultural Revolution, it is likely to be Memories. To a remarkable extent, Memories of the Cowshed achieved Ji’s goal of directing public attention to the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. And in light of current events such as artist Ai Weiwei’s house arrest and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment, Ji Xianlin’s eyewitness story of surviving “reform through labor” is an especially timely read.