The Cultural REvolution in China is history. Yet, perhaps somewhat like the Vietnam war and civil-rights protests that swept American campuses around the same period, it has left its participants with bittersweet memories of a king of paradise lost without ever being achieved, of a golden moment when it almost seemed the world could be fashioned anew.
"The world is ours," a boy and girl just out of high scholl declaim to each other as they plight their troth in a forest blazing with red maples. "If we don't speak, who will speak?"
"If we don't do, who sill dare to do?"
The audience in the Peking cinema hearing these lines from Chairman Mao's famous little red book laughed, each one perhaps recalling those days 13 and 14 years ago when red-armbanded youngsters with drums and clymbals marched through the streets shouting, "It is justifiable to reble!"
There has been a steady stream of movies depicting the trials and tribulations of the Cultural Revolution period and of the rule of the "gang of four" headed by Mao Tse-tung's tempestuous wife, Jiang qing.
But "Maple," now being shown to capacity audiences here and in other cities throughout China, breaks new ground by showing in savage detail how idealism quickly degenerated into pitched battles involving guns, flame throwers, even cannon, as each faction loudly proclaimed itself the only tru defender of the Maoist revolution in all its purity. Swept along by the revolutionary fervor unleashed when Chairman Mao, Jiang Qing, and others incited youth to rise up against encrusted bureaucratism and what they called the remnants of feudalism and capitalism in China, the hero and heroine of "Maplec soon find themselves deeply involved in opposing factions, each claiming the support of Chairman Mao and of his fiery consort.
The boys' faction storms the school building in which the girls' faction is entrenched. The boy finds his beloved on the roof, mortally wounded. They exchange a few tender words that quickly turn sour when the girl makes one final effort to bring her lover back to "Chairman Mao's tru line." "Do you surrender?" the boy asks pleadingly. "Never," the girl replies. Staggering to the edge of the building, she leaps to her death. Two years later, the boy, caught by members of the opposing faction, is executed as a counterrevolutionary.
It is said that the movie originally ended with a bright red sun rising as the hero meets his end. The scene was excised on the express orders of Communist Party Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, who knew that all audiences would immediately associate the rising sun with Chairman Mao. Nevertheless, the film has enough quotations of the young in those days -- how, when all is said and done, without him there would have been no Cultural Revolution at all.
"Maple" is filmed with unabashed and overloaded sentimentality, but those who went through the struggles it depicts say the scenes ring true. Said a girl who was a student in Sichuan, scene of some of the worst fighting during the Cultural revolution: "Many of my classmates were killed in factional fighting." She and her family fled to Kweiyang to escape the carnage.
The trial of the gang of four, and especially of its leader, Jiang Qing, has reawakened memories of those chaotic years. The trial ended Dec. 29 except for the sentencing. Defiant to the end, Jiang qing declaimed "Trying me is tantamount to vilifying the people who participated in the Cultural Revolution in their hundreds of millions."
But those hundreds of millions are hardly taking to the streets in defense of memories many would prefer to forget. Instead, what remains is a pervasive skepticism, a determination never to be manipulated again as people were manipulated during the heyday of the gang of four.
"I have not lost all my ideals," says the girl from Sichuan, who is today once again a student at the mature age of 32. "I still think we should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for others, even if we cannot rebuild the world. But i have also learned I have a right to may own happiness. I should make my contribution to society, but society should also make its contribution to my happiness."
Not all who went through those searing years of turmoil would confess to retaining even such modest ideals. But along with the cynicism, there is at least a clearsightedness greater than at any previous moment in the People's Republic's 31-year history. China's present leaders, themselves victims of the Cultural Revolution, must prove to their own people, step by cautious step, their own uncharismatic slogan, "Practice is the sole criterion of truth."