I've read histories and analyses of the Cultural Revolution years in China, plus some of the memoirs available in English. Still, it's hard to get a sense of what it was like.


Fewer and fewer people can actually remember the 1930s or 1940s, but we all feel we have a sense of what the Nazi era was like in Europe. There are so many novels, so many movies, so many memoirs, so many museums, so much accumulated lore, apart from the histories and analyses themselves. Life under Stalin is not quite as amply rendered for a world audience, but thanks to legions of Russian writers everyone has some idea.


For obvious reasons, there are far fewer public representations and reminders of daily life in China during the Cultural Revolution. Main reason: the current Chinese government is still uneasy about backwards looks at that era. Such documents as do exist, in Chinese, are less accessible to the rest of the world than are the German, French, English, Russian, etc memoirs of Word War II.


Here is a brilliant addition to the existing evidence: Confessions, by Kang Zhengguo, now a professor at Yale (and with an introduction by Perry Link of Princeton). Kang makes it sound as if he would have been a handful under any regime at any time. He said just what he thought, especially when he thought powerful people were being stupid; and he liked doing things exactly his own way. The book's subtitle is An Innocent Life in Communist China, and in his deadpan, innocent way Kang describes his downward process through the stages of horror as a prisoner and labor-camp inmate in those years. A depressing subject matter but never a depressing or uninteresting book. Very highly recommended.


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