Memory of Imprisonment in the Cultural Revolution

In the past few sessions we have been reading about the Cultural Revolution and how different people experienced it. Here, we revisit the memory of Wang Ruowang, this time his imprisonment in the Cultural Revolution. Remember, this episode of Wang's imprisonment was carefully positioned after memory of his first imprisonment and his hunger experience during the anti-Japanese war. In the first two episodes, Wang maintained high spirits despite great adversity because of his belief, but this time, he was imprisoned by his fellow comrades, and in the name of an adversary against the revolution he risked his whole life for. He was extremely well aware of this, hence the positioning of this piece of memory after the first two episodes, to accentuate the irony of it.

A typical way to be condemned in the Cultural Revolution was to be referred to as "cow-devils and snake-spirits." Despite its ostentatious purpose to sweep away Chinese feudal tradition, the CR could not help borrowing from traditional Chinese jargons, as reflected in the use of Monsters and Demons, from traditional Buddhist terminology.

During the Cultural Revolution, many loyal Chinese communists were detained, persecuted, or executed on trumped up charges. And forced confessions were extracted or attempted to be extracted from people in order to persecute those the government wanted to nail down "with evidence." After all, the CR was meant to be a mass movement, and needed to look convincing, with proven evidence.

In terms of memory, the memory of Wang Ruowang in this chapter is like a black and white photograph that contrasts the author with the Communist system that imprisoned him as opposite forces. This contrast was juxtaposed with warm memories of the previous two hunger experiences: how he ate the chewing gum, coffee, and grasshoppers during the second hunger episode, and how he reached out for peanuts in the first. (p.73) The contrast also extended to how he was allowed to read in the Nationalist prison but denied books in the Communist prison.

Emotional antagonism against the Communists for whom he fought all his life and who put him under arrest also colored Wang's memory. Although he did record how bad the food was given them by the new Nationalist ward in the first chapter, which was the reason for their first hunger strike, he talked of the food in Nationalist prison as if it was so much better than that in the Communist prison in chapter 3. Everything about the prison and the guards was negative, in contrast to the warmth and trust developed among the cellmates. The contrast is made more poignant by showing how the Communist prison system fulfilled what the Nationalist prison or the Japanese were not able to destroy: he met Lao Zhou (old Zhou), the husband of Wang Lei in chapter 2, and witnessed how the Communist system destroyed such a happy family: Wang Lei's longing for her fiance Xiao Zhou (young Zhou) in the second story now contrasted with Lao Zhou's dying of hypetitis because of malnutrition and lack of medicine. And his final meeting with Wang Lei and witness of her grief as well as his meeting with Xu Yushu, who had organized the hunger strike in chapter 1 and taught the author Japanese in the Nationalist Prison, where he met Xu in solitary confinement and tortured, again added weight to his indictment of the brutality of the Communist system in that the Communist system succeeded in killing fellow Communists where their enemies had failed. This denunciation of the Communist practices in the CR was reinforced with the stories of people like Dr. Gu, where people who contributed enormously to the country ended up in jail the same as criminals.

As mentioned in the preface of Hunger Trilogy, this book was situated against a background when the CR was denounced and the hypocrisy of the Communist policies during the CR years condemned. So Wang's book served the double purpose of "history should not be forgotten" and "the CR was even worse than persecution under the Nationalists."