Interview with Wang Zheng: "We had a dream that the world can be better than today"

From "Yan Hairong" <>
Date Fri, 8 Jun 2007 10:11:25 +0800
Cc "Behrooz Ghamari" <>, "" <>
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An interview with Wang Zheng conducted by Set the Record Straight (SRS).

SRS: There are many memoirs being written by people who lived in China
during the socialist years, or "the Mao era" (1949–1976), especially
about the Cultural Revolution decade. What compelled the writing of
Some of Us?

Wang Zheng: This book is collective memoirs by nine authors, all from
the People's Republic of China. We were all graduate students in this
country, and then most of us got teaching positions here. The
motivation to do this is that we were amazed by many memoirs published
by the Chinese diaspora, people from China. Those memoirs that were
promoted or that achieved the most market success were the ones
depicting Mao's era in China as the "dark age": terrible, nothing but
persecution and dictatorship and killings, all the horror stories,
just a one-sided voice.

Even though I cannot say they are telling lies, a lot of the stuff is
fictional. Like Anchee Min's Red Azalea, which was widelyused here,
even in universities. She claimed it's autobiographical when she was
in the U.S. But when she went back to China, among all her friends and
relatives, all the people who knew her, lived there in that setting,
when people asked her about this book, she said it's fiction. So
that's one point.

That type of autobiography achieves the most market success due to the
politics of publication in this country. What kind of books are they
promoting in this country? You see that pattern there. They play into
this Cold War mentality, still in the U.S., in the West, that
capitalist countries are wonderful lands of freedom, socialist
countries are terrible, Communist China, red China was awful, like
hell. So they are telling all these horror stories to you. Those books
always have the widest circulation, always receive a lot of media

My point is not that persecution disasters did not happen. Our point,
I just want to say, is that China is so big, with a population of one
billion. We have different social groups, and different social groups
experience even the same historical period differently. As Chinese,
when we read those memoirs, we don't share a lot of their experiences.
Whatever their experiences, even if it's true, it's not our

I found out in my peer group of all these Chinese women that we shared
the same sentiment towards those memoirs. So we wanted to do
something. At least we can raise our voices. If they're telling their
stories…what about our stories and our experiences? But our
experiences didn't get told. So we feel, especially I myself as a
historian, that the important thing is not to vindicate anybody;
rather, it is to present a complicated picture of history.

Also if you look at who wrote all this "condemnation literature," they
are usually people from elite classes. You really don't hear the
voices of workers, peasant class, those who are in the lower classes,
the bottom of society. How did those people experience Mao's China, or
Communist China?

The Communist Party was very complicated, with different factions with
different visions of China, different visions of socialism even.
People had different visions in the Communist Party. In those years,
there were all kinds of people involved in different things and the
policies proposed by different people within the Party had different

It was an extremely complicated situation. But in this country, what
you hear is just one single voice, condemnation—how the people from
the elite classes suffered during those years. That's a terrible
distortion of the larger picture if you believe that's the truth, the
only truth.

SRS: Why did this "condemnation literature" get such play?

Wang Zheng: There was a mass movement to produce victim narratives in
the late 1970s and early 1980s in China, a line that was later largely
transported to the West along with those Chinese who found an
especially lucrative market in the capitalist "land of freedom" to
claim the status of "victims" emerging in the post-Mao era.

"Thoroughly negate the Cultural Revolution" was a scheme by Deng
Xiaoping1 to pave the way for his dismantling of socialism while
consolidating political power. It was a way to whitewash or shift
attention from his and his associates' crimes.

After Deng Xiaoping's call to thoroughly negate the Cultural
Revolution, being a victim of the Cultural Revolution was a hot status
symbol in China. Chinese intellectuals jumped on this bandwagon to
produce narratives of victims. This was sanctioned by Deng Xiaoping,
and helped him clear the ideological ground for staging neo-liberalism
and social Darwinism to accompany the rise of a capitalist market
economy. In the process, they have retrieved their power and
privileges that had been reduced in the Mao era, especially in the
Cultural Revolution. Those who dare to deviate from the design of the
new architect Deng Xiaoping have been excluded from the privileges
enjoyed by the new elite if not punished with imprisonment.

SRS: One of the stories in your memoir is about when you first came to
the U.S., you heard a woman describe her daughter as a cheerleader and
your reaction to that.

Wang Zheng: Yeah, well, it was after Deng Xiaoping initiated
condemnation of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. In my essay, I also
talked about that. I was confused by all this, because everybody was
talking about how they were victimized by the Cultural Revolution, by
the Communist Party, but I couldn't find any examples in my life to
define myself as the victim or victimizer. It was kind of a confusing
period. I didn't even know how to figure out the situation because in
China at the time, a lot of intellectuals were talking about that,
producing these kinds of "victim narratives."

Then my experience in the U.S. made me see more clearly in a sense the
significance of the Chinese revolution, the changes the revolution had
made—because I had this comparative perspective that enabled me to
compare the mentality of women here with the mentality of women in the
Mao era, in the socialist period.

One example from my life here, staying with an American family, was
when my landlady's friend came and she talked about her daughter. I
asked her, "What is your daughter doing?" She said very proudly and
thrilled, "Oh she's a cheerleader," in a spirited voice. I didn't know
this word "cheerleader," and I thought what kind of leader is that? I
was very interested and when she explained that to me, I was not just
shocked, I had contempt in my heart. I thought, wow—you're feeling so
much pride in that kind of stuff? I thought this woman has never
imagined her daughter being a leader cheered by men.

So it was little things that brought into sharp contrast my experience
as a young woman being raised in red China, socialist China, with the
experience of women generally in this large society here, their
mentality, their views about what they can do and their view of their
life—there was a sharp difference.

SRS: It's a strong theme that emerges from the various memoirs in the book.

Wang Zheng: The gender issue, that's a point I have been making in my
writing actually. I would say that the Communist Party, since its
inception, incorporated a feminist agenda and attracted feminists,
even though in the Party's long history, in the war, in other critical
struggles, gender equality had not always been high on the Party's
agenda. My research has demonstrated that all the policies related to
women and gender equality have been promoted by feminists within the
Party. The Party has never been a monolithic body but always including
people with diverse political visions and interests. Each policy is a
result of negotiations and contentions among different interests. In
this sense, Communist feminists have been quite successful in
promoting policies for gender equality.

SRS: What were some of the policies?

Wang Zheng: Marriage laws. Because all these women worked very hard
from day one, from 1949, to promote gender equality, equality between
men and women became the official dominant ideology. Not now, but in
those years, dominant through all kind of cultural production,
literature, movies, posters, everywhere. Everywhere. Women broke
gender barriers in all the occupations—female pilots, militia, train
drivers, all kinds of things. Anything previously regarded as male
occupations and professions…women were encouraged to break into all
these male dominated fields.

So my generation, we were all born into this kind of cultural
atmosphere or political culture, So we took gender equality for
granted. Of course, equal opportunity to education, to employment,
equal pay—that was our experience, especially during the Cultural
Revolution. The socialist system had embraced the egalitarian idea
that worked to women's benefit, and also the socialist economic system
tried to equalize their share of the resources and that also worked to
women's benefit. Maternity leave, you were guaranteed if you worked in
state enterprises, and also in employment, education, there was no
gender discrimination.

But I have to say that many of those benefits were limited mostly to
urban women. In rural settings, there were different economic
policies. Even during the commune period in the rural areas, it was
very difficult for women to gain equal pay for equal jobs, because in
rural society resistance to gender equality is so strong, even if
women were doing the same work, women were often paid less, unlike in
the urban setting.

It's a lot more difficult to promote equality in China today because
now all the gaps, gender, class, everything, regional, all the gaps
are widening. Of course before—especially during the Cultural
Revolution when Mao wanted to reduce the urban and rural gap and the
worker-peasant gap—the Party adopted some policies, such as barefoot
doctors2 and rural teachers promoting rural education, and made
efforts to do those things during those years.

SRS: We often hear that all the schools closed down during the
Cultural Revolution, books were burned, and everyone's education

Wang Zheng: Yeah, that's one of the myths. During the Cultural
Revolution, the first two years, the schools were closed but that
doesn't mean we were not able to read. Actually we read a lot because
the books from libraries were circulated. The Red Guards took the
books from the libraries and circulated them.

We were reading a lot of books. Actually a lot of young people had
talent and had the time, didn't have to go to school, so they were
developing their talents. People who wanted to play the violin, or if
their interest was math or physics, just did that. So a lot of people
didn't go to school but kind of immersed in their own talent. Actually
the majority of people were doing that. You only hear about the
terrible violence done by the Red Guards, that in that generation of
young people, everyone was Red Guards. No! Statistically, the Red
Guards were a small minority of my generation. I never joined the Red
Guards. Many of us didn't. We were called "Xiao Yao Pai." We didn't
like violence, we didn't like all those struggles, we just dropped
out. We didn't participate in violence, we didn't do any of those
things. We would just go home, doing whatever we wanted to do.

My critique of the film The Morning Sun by Carmelita Hinton, which I
told her, was that I liked the first part but I didn't like the second
part because the second part focused on Red Guards violence. First of
all, not all the Red Guards were involved in violence. Second, the Red
Guards were a small percentage of our generation. Why do the stories
of the lives of the majority never get told? There were the Xiao Yao
Pai who dropped out to develop their own interests during those years.
Her [Carmelita Hinton's] response was that this is a documentary film,
we want footage, and she didn't have footage of the Xia Yao Pai. If
you are smashing something, people will shoot a picture of you. If you
are staying home reading, that's boring, no one wants to shoot a
picture of you reading. The representation of the Red Guards in those
footage is of them smashing things, beating people. Yes, many Red
Guards did that, but I am afraid that may not be the majority.

SRS: From our research, it's very clear that the Red Guards played a
highly positive role in the Cultural Revolution. They were a kind of
catalyst. They raised people's awareness of what was going on in
society. Their spirit of criticizing and challenging reactionary
authority emboldened workers, peasants, and others to lift their heads
and raise their voices about the problems in society. Violence was not
the main trend of the Red Guard movement. And much of the violence
that did occur was fomented by leading capitalist roaders coming under
criticism who were trying to discredit the movement. The Cultural
Revolution was aimed at preventing the revolution from getting turned
back, and it was aimed at transforming society more deeply and
changing people's thinking.

Wang Zheng: The issue is that at a time for my generation, there was a
goal. We knew that we wanted to be different human beings, new kind of
human beings, to create a different society so there's some vision,
some purpose there and these different human beings were not just
craving material possessions, houses, cars, consumer goods.

We wanted to make contribution to the common good, we were concerned
about human beings as a whole, society as a whole, not only just
China, the whole world, how the whole world can be peaceful, happy
without exploitation and oppression. In a sense we can say that's a
utopian dream starting from long, long time ago. Whether utopian or
not, we had a dream that the world can be better than today.

I would never condone any violence. However...a revolution to achieve
an egalitarian society did involve some drastic measures, like land
reform to confiscate landowners' land, to redistribute among all the
landless people. So, if you go to interview the landlord, their
children, they would tell you that the landlord's land had been
confiscated, the landlord had been executed—if you hear that story, of
course, they are full of hatred. But if you go to interview the
landless class and they got land from the communists, you will hear a
very different story. So that's why it's important to have a fuller
picture of what's going on. The relationship of the poor peasants to
the communist revolution is drastically different. But those poor
peasants cannot write their memoirs in English. That's why you have
never heard a peasant talking. Or even those peasants' children who
can write English—their writing can never be promoted in this country
because the people who control the publishing market, they will not
promote these kinds of stories.

The world should have equality and justice. We wanted to improve
ourselves internally so that we can build that kind of world. I don't
see anything wrong with this dream. I still don't see anything wrong
in this dream, even though people may say that's naive. But I think
the human race needs to have something beautiful in our mind,
otherwise we will all become ugly animals. What's the point to live in
this world that's dog-eat-dog, an ugly world? What's the point?
Meanwhile, possessing so much material wealth while destroying this
earth. What's the point? We could live in a different way, that's why
dreams are important.

SRS: It's an important point that the world doesn't have to be like
this, and during the socialist period in China, those changes started
to happen because it wasn't just a utopian dream. I want to talk about
the mass movement of urban youth like you that were sent to the
countryside. That's one of the things being attacked.

Wang Zheng: Yes, yes. There are a lot of debates in terms of why Mao
and the Party did that in terms of motivations. Even today, I don't
think it's wrong to ask the urban educated youth to make a
contribution to the poor areas even though we may not have to use that
kind of drastic measure. Still I think it is necessary for educated
people to go to the poor places, to contribute their knowledge to
develop those areas.

Even though I was sent to the countryside, I never shed a tear all
those years when I was on the farm. If you read all those memoirs
talking about how terrible it was for "sent down girls," like in Wild
Swans for example, where she [Jung Chang] talks about her "sent down"
experience, her countryside experience…oh, she felt so wronged.
Because she was from this high Communist cadre official family—how can
she be sent to work on the farm like a peasant? She just couldn't work
as a peasant. It's horrible! When I read that part, I was so offended
by her sense of entitlement, her sense of being elite, how can she do
that kind of work? So when her parents went through the back door and
got her out of the countryside, oh, she was so elated. And even to the
time when she was writing, she never reflected on that privilege.

Why couldn't you be a peasant where some 90 percent of Chinese were
peasants at the time? On what ground could you not work as a farmer?
Do you have a crown on your head? I just don't see it. If you read all
those condemnations, they are all complaining, saying that we are
urban people, we are educated, my parents are professors or high
officials and I had all these talents, now I have to work as a
peasant. What is wrong with that? You can contribute your talents to
the peasants, to the rural community. I still don't know what is wrong
with that.

SRS: The Setting the Record Straight project is also working to take
on the distortions and lies and to bring out the true history of
socialism. Given your own interest in this history, how do you see
amplifying our work?

Wang Zheng: Yes, they have the whole machine behind them to promote.
We don't have that. Yes, how to increase our volume in a sense. We
have been trying to raise our voice to be heard, but always kind of
overshadowed or suppressed by the market. That's a huge issue because
we do live in this capitalist market economy.

Maybe one important thing for scholars is not to just produce academic
works confined to academic circles. I just came from a conference in
the China field. Many scholars think that Jung Chang's new book [Mao:
The Unknown Story] and their story of Mao is a piece of shit. These
scholars do research, study history and documents, and they know this
book cannot be held against academic standards. I think that academics
in the China field, all my colleagues, as far as I know, have been
trying to inform their students. But you know in this country, a lot
of the students are not interested in anything besides America. So our
classrooms are not large. A few are informed, but not many.
Conferences are not a venue to inform the large public. That's the big
issue, the big problem here. How to make your work accessible to the
larger audience, and circulate among them? It is actually who can
promote you. So these are political issues in this country, because
the mainstream has an interest to demonize socialism.

Let me just say, how much does the U.S. government invest in the Iraq
war, more than $70 billion now, right? Okay, so in this system you can
invest so much money to kill people with another religion, rather than
offer free education, college education, to make your citizens an
informed citizenry. Is this system better than China when it was
socialist when many people were informed through free education? Are
there any efforts made in this country to offer free medical care,
free education instead of so much money to kill innocent people? This
is evil. If you talk about evil, this is evil.

If the practice of Chinese communist revolution had been thwarted by
various mistakes or various forces, we need to explore new ways.
Whatever the Chinese Communist Party's mistakes, it doesn't prove the
superiority of capitalism.