Literature of the Wounded

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

by Jung Chang
Simon and Schuster, 524 pp., $25.00

Voices from the Whirlwind: An Oral History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

edited by Feng Jicai, foreword by Robert Coles
Pantheon, 252 pp., $22.00

In Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic, Bette Bao Lord’s memoir of her three years in Peking as the American ambassador’s wife, she recalled that “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature, charting every change and finding the cure took all the effort they could muster.” I believe this illness was largely fear, so intense that it frightened some Chinese out of their wits; others simply stopped thinking. Long before the Cultural Revolution, Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans writes, “Many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think, in case their thoughts came out involuntarily.”

One of the informants in Voices From the Whirlwind, a chilling anthology of Cultural Revolution memoirs, remembers how in August 1966 she waited in a completely dark room with her father and mother for the Red Guards to return and continue tormenting them: they had already had their heads shaved and been badly beaten with belts. “Suddenly we had somehow become enemies of our country. Just cringing there. No idea of what our monstrous crimes might be.” So the narrator, a young woman doctor, decided that she would kill her parents and then herself by puncturing their carotid arteries with a penknife. In a scene that is almost unbearable to read, the three sat in the dark holding hands. “My mother said how lucky they were to have a doctor daughter to help them die.”

She managed to kill her father, but the Red Guards burst in, and she and her mother leaped from a window. The mother died and the young doctor, crippled for life, was jailed for twelve and a half years for “committing the crime of murder in opposition to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”

This story is terrible enough, but perhaps more terrible still is the victim’s confusion twenty years later when she tries to think about it. Feng Jicai, the eminent Chinese writer who compiled these accounts, observes at the end of the doctor’s story, “In dehumanizing times, the highest expression of human nature is destroying oneself.” But the victim of those dehumanizing times says, “Who in their right mind could stab their own father to death?… And what about my mother? How can I make up for that? If I hadn’t done what I did, my parents would perhaps be enjoying life today. If I’m not to blame, then who is…. It must be my fault alone…. I can’t say any more. Please don’t ask me to go on.”

In his introduction to Voices from the Whirlwind Robert Coles says:

The “Cultural Revolution” was at heart a crazed, wanton assault on one part of a country’s people by another part—an effort of some to frighten and intimidate others, to drive them into a land of fear and trembling, to use accusation in hopes that endless self-accusation would follow.

Over the last ten years the many painful accounts …

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