Mao may be gone but a legacy of repression lives on.
Lin Zhao, 36, was an imprisoned poetess who cut her flesh and wrote hundreds of pages in her own blood before being executed in 1968 for repeatedly criticizing the Communist Party. But the same passionate and charismatic Lin Zhao also was a fervent follower of Mao Zedong in the early days of the party.
Sent to the countryside during the land-reform movement that resulted in the violent deaths of more than 2 million landlords and their families by 1952, Lin Zhao once placed a landlord in a vat of freezing water overnight, later telling her comrades that his screams made her feel “cruel happiness.”
A decade later, she had turned against the party. During a prison visit two years before her death, she handed a close friend a tiny sailboat folded out of a cellophane candy wrapper and asked him to “tell people in the future about all this suffering.”
Such is the enigma lying just beneath the surface for the millions of Chinese who suffered before and during the Cultural Revolution (which lasted from about 1966 to 1976). By government estimates, about 36 million people were killed and as many permanently injured at that time.
In Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, journalist Philip P. Pan gets almost unprecedented access to Lin Zhao’s friends and other ordinary Chinese people still struggling to understand their past even as they forge ahead into a future of rapid transition.
Pan’s book is a dark, sober, but highly important look at the struggle against repression in China. Today, more than half of the Chinese population was born after the Cultural Revolution ended, so they have come of age with only a vague understanding of the scale of the violence endured by their parents and grandparents. Pan’s interviews help to document some of their stories.
But he also talks to Chinese involved in contemporary struggles against their government. His interviewees are often simple people, but their stories are complex. They include an elderly surgeon who exposes the government’s coverup of the SARS epidemic, a teaching instructor and former Red Guard member who is trying to identify the bodies in what may be China’s only cemetery dedicated to victims of the Cultural Revolution, and a blind man jailed for his fight against forced abortions under China’s one-child policy.