Western press coverage of yesterday’s fortieth anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution talked about the “silence” of Chinese media on this sensitive political issue. But exactly how silent were Chinese media? A widely-circulated Reuters report said there had been a “blanket ban on the subject”. AFP said “all mainstream media – newspapers, television and radio stations – stayed mum on the subject”. These are very different statements, however, and it must be pointed out that an outright ban on coverage directly commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution does not mean the subject was not broached. How Chinese media did mark the event is a much more complicated story. Here is a quick run down of coverage over the last week, using information from the WiseNews publications database:
A quick search of 140 mainland Chinese publications for the period May 11-17 shows a total of 79 articles using the words “Cultural Revolution” (文革). Of these, just three made bold to use “Cultural Revolution” in the article’s headline, where it was more likely to draw the attention of top editors and media minders. Given a blanket ban on coverage commemorating the Cultural Revolution, these occurrences are the boldest and most dangerous – even if they headline soft news they might be seen as “lineballs” (打擦边球) and could potentially bring disciplinary action. They might be read, in other words, as naughty assertions of independence.
What do these three articles actually talk about? One, in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, is a 300-word about a showing of Cultural Revolution-era oil paintings on display at Guangzhou’s Adam Space Gallery (原子空间画廊). The headline: “‘Cultural Revolution’ Oil Paintings Shown at Guangzhou Gallery”. The next article, in People’s Daily spin-off Beijing Times on May 16, talks about an effort to restore to Beijing’s Yuetan Park a Ming Dynasty bell that was “lost” during the Cultural Revolution. The last article to use “Cultural Revolution” in its headline appeared in the May 11 edition of Jiangxi Province’s Jiangnan Wanbao (江南晚报), and profiled an old hobbyist who collects Cultural Revolution-era musical records.
Articles using “Cultural Revolution” in the body run the gamut, from a few that use “Cultural Revolution” to refer simply to an era in time (“after the Cultural Revolution”, etc.) to others that refer to writings or works of art dealing with the Cultural Revolution, or the importance of Cultural Revolution experiences in the personal growth of cultural figures.
But some coverage tackles the subject more directly, even if the story’s lede never positions it as being about the anniversary. China Newsweekly, a leading magazine published by China News Service, yesterday ran the personal story of one man’s trials as a former study-abroad student in the Soviet Union. While purportedly commemorating China’s “Year of Russian Culture” (2006), the story invoked the Cultural Revolution quite graphically:
During the Cultural Revolution, the situation of students in Beijing who had studied in the Soviet Union (留苏学生) was not bad, but outside [the capital] things were much crueler. As soon as the “revisionists” [Mao used the term “revisionist” to attack Nikita Khrushchev at the height of tensions with the Soviet Union in the 1960s] set about seizing people, they [the former Soviet students] were seized. They suffered many excruciating things. At the time, a lot of people came to inspect me, and they always asked me to inform on spies – I would say, where do you imagine all these spies are? They wanted me to expose others and forced me to write huge posters (大字报), but I couldn’t write them … Some of these former Soviet study-abroad students committed suicide, some went mad. Most, fortunately, were eventually de-purged. During the Cultural Revolution, I burned most all of my letters, photographs, books and music from the time I spent in the Soviet Union, so all I have now are memories.
A literary review in the culture and entertainment section of the May 16 Shanxi Daily says the following about a long-form novel: “It is only because the author was guiltlessly engulfed in the black maelstrom of that historically unprecedented catastrophe and suffered the torments of extreme purgatory, that he has such a keenly felt pain and profound experience of the Cultural Revolution.” This is one of six references to the Cultural Revolution in that article.
In a May 15 story in Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News, the writer talks about coming across a literary piece by Zeng Yuancang (曾元沧) during the May holiday. The meaning of the Xinmin article itself is veiled, but its crux is “remembrance”: “Ah Cang [Zeng Yuancang] felt grateful for the protection he received from his relatives in the old village during the Cultural Revolution, and could not forgot how naïve he had been, getting rid of his ‘tiger-head shoes’ as an attack on the ‘Four Olds’ [these were ‘old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits, anything regarded as feudal or bourgeouis]. The life of the ancestral village permeates Zeng’s writing … and he says in spartan prose: ‘My hometown will always flow through my subconscious’. Don’t you see? Those lines on our palms, they mark the past and fortell the future, but of course this has nothing to do with palm-reading. Zeng’s writing does talk about how his parents named him with canghai [“ocean”/ 沧海] to compensate for his deficiency of the water element [one of China’s five traditional elements], but that is a matter for fortune-tellers. What concerns Zeng Yuancang, and what concerns us as readers, is the need to remember, and not lightly to forget”.
It should not surprise us to find few direct references to the fortieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in China’s headlines and filling its news pages. To do so under the current political climate would mean running a foolish risk. It is of course sad and unfortunate that journalists in China cannot face this painful chapter in Chinese history head on. But the silence is a restless one, and by no means absolute. And as with so much news coverage in China, really understanding what is happening requires careful reading between the lines.
That having been said, a look at Hong Kong coverage of the Cultural Revolution highlights the obvious difference between these two news environments. While “Cultural Revolution” appears in 79 mainland articles for May 11-17, it appears in 176 Hong Kong Chinese-language articles for the same period, for one-seventh the number of newspaper titles. The nature of the coverage, of course, is also much bolder.
[Posted by David Bandurski and Brian Chan, May 17, 2006, 6:01pm]