A Debt Sealed in the Coffin: An Analysis of the Survivors of the Cultural Revolution Inspired by Ha Jin's Novel, The Crazed
by Tak-Hin Benjamin NGAN
In more than three decades after its termination, Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution still remains somewhat a mystery to both Chinese and Western scholars. This is largely due to the restrictions placed by the Communist government on research into the Cultural Revolution. According to Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, “Written history is important but dangerous” (MacFarquhar, Mar. 2004) in China, and much work remains to be done for one to better understand the Cultural Revolution.
Even though many Chinese and Western scholars like MacFarquhar have devoted themselves to studying the Cultural Revolution, their emphasis is usually closely related to the politics of the Revolution. They devote their time to revealing the “written history” which documented the Revolution and attempt to reconstruct a “picture” of the Revolution, yet few have paid ample attention to what is equally important as the “written history” – the “living history” of the Cultural Revolution.
Professor Ralph Thaxton, Professor of Political Science at Brandeis University, emphasizes the study of “politics from the bottom up” (Thaxton, Jan. 2004). He stresses the importance of understanding politics and history in terms of the people. It is critical to understand politics on a national level, but to study the impact of politics and history on the individual is equally vital. The aim of this article is to provide a different perspective in looking at the Cultural Revolution and to explore the significance of this political trauma through part of its “living history” – the victims. The arguments in this article do not revolve around Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, or Lin Biao; instead, they are presented through a symbolic “living history” of the Cultural Revolution that was created by National Book Award-winning author and Brandeis alumnus, Ha Jin, in his novel The Crazed.
THE TRAUMA OF THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION
The Crazed revolves around Professor Yang, a composite-fictional character who represents the survivors of the Cultural Revolution. Professor Yang suffers a stroke and spends the last few months of his life in the hospital being half conscious and half crazed. One significant aspect of Yang’s craziness is how it exposes the damage that might have been done to him during the Cultural Revolution, as “he was turned into a Demon-Monster [and] a target of the struggle” (The Crazed, p.21) when the Cultural Revolution broke out.
Although the novel does not describe in detail the experiences of Yang during the Cultural Revolution, one can nevertheless imagine the suffering he has gone through during the years by observing his description of his “reeducation” in the countryside: “It was horrible at night. I suffered from insomnia. So many things came to my mind that I couldn’t stop thinking about them … How often I envied the pigs in the sties behind our house, because they just ate and slept until one day they were hauled out to the butcher’s” (The Crazed, p.133). The torture of the Cultural Revolution has put an educated man like Yang into a position that is worse than “the pigs in the sties.”
In fact, according to Jonathan Glover, the major impact of the Cultural Revolution on its victims is the deprivation of their basic dignity. “[During the Cultural Revolution] the human response most spectacularly overcome was the respect for dignity,” writes Glover. “Humiliation was the main tool of the Cultural Revolution. People were paraded through the streets with degrading slogans on placards worn around their necks. They were made to wear dunce’s caps and their hair was cut in grotesque ways” (Glover, p.291). Such destruction of individual dignity, according to Glover, reflected the Maoists’ goal to “destroy people’s previous sense of who they were and to make sure there was no room for it to grow back” (Glover, p.296), and hence to deliberately construct “a new moral identity” (Glover, p.296) of the people.
Such destruction of individual dignity often involved violence and psychological assaults that would create “a sense of shrinkage of [one’s] personality [and] a partial conversion of [oneself] into nothingness” (Glover, p.296). For instance, in The Crazed, Professor Yang’s crazy mumblings reveal the psychological damage that was done to him when the Red Guards confiscated and burned his books during the struggle meetings: “Please, don’t confiscate my books, don’t burn them. I’m kneeling down to you, little brothers and sisters. Oh, please have mercy! I beg you … Water, water! They’re burning my soul” (The Crazed, pp.221-222). A parallel of Yang's experience can be drawn from Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, in a description of Chang’s father when he saw his books being thrown into flames, as quoted by Glover: “‘Every now and then, in fits of violent sobs, he stamped his feet on the floor and banged his head against the wall.’ After the bonfire … something had happened to his mind” (Glover, p.296).
THE ONES WHO LIVE ON
In fact, many did not survive the tortures of the Cultural Revolution. “For some the indignities were unbearable,” writes Glover, “many killed themselves” (Glover, p.292). For the dead, their bodies are sealed in their coffins with ever-lasting pains, illustrated by Jung Chang’s description of his father’s death: “I thought of my father’s life, his wasted dedication and crushed dreams. He need not have died. Yet his death seemed so inevitable. There was no place for him in Mao’s China … He had been betrayed by something to which he had given his whole life, and the betrayal destroyed him” (Chang, p.479).
Yet, it is equally crucial to pay attention to those victims who survived the Cultural Revolution and to what the trauma has done to their lives. Like those who died, the survivors also had their dedication wasted and their dreams crushed. They experienced the same sort of betrayal that Chang’s father experienced; yet they lived on. But if indeed the Maoists succeeded, or partly succeeded, in their attempts to “destroy people’s previous sense of who they were and to make sure there was no room for it to grow back” (Glover, p.296), then one can hardly expect the survivors of the Cultural Revolution to reposition themselves in a state of normality. Even though they were already freed from the Red Guards and the torture of the Revolution, the psychological damage that was done to them is nonetheless real and perpetual.
In The Crazed, the “left-over” of the Cultural Revolution in the mind of Professor Yang seems to have never been cured. Repeatedly, Yang yells slogans and sings songs that are Maoist in nature when he is asleep, even once claiming: “I always love Chairman Mao. For him I dare to climb a mountain of swords and walk through a sea of fire. Why don’t you believe me?” (The Crazed, p.23). This phenomenon can perhaps be explained by a self-description of a victim of Thought Reform, documented by Glover: “You are annihilated … exhausted … You must criticize all of your own thoughts, guided by the official … If you doubt, you keep it to yourself. Because if you admit the doubt you will be ‘struggled’ and lose the progress you have made … You begin to believe all this, but it is a special kind of belief. You are not absolutely convinced, but you accept it – in order to avoid trouble – because every time you don’t agree, trouble starts again” (Glover, p.293). Indeed, it is not an unreasonable assumption that Yang becomes confused, in his unconsciousness, with what he believes and what he was told to believe during the Cultural Revolution. In this sense, it seems that the “scar” of the Cultural Revolution would make the survivor’s life very uneasy.
Furthermore, it is possible that, after all the tortures and suffering, the survivors of the Cultural Revolution would have to bear some permanent forms of psychological deficiency. For instance, in The Crazed, Yang becomes extremely suspicious and hostile to anyone who approaches him in the hospital because he is afraid of a potential murderer. When a nurse attempts to inject medication into his body, he yells: “Help! Help! Mur-der! They want to poison me!” (The Crazed, p.26), and his fear seems to be real, as his student observes: “Professor Yang started sobbing; tears leaked out of his closed lids, trickling down his cheeks and stubby chin. He whimpered something incoherently. I listened for a moment and felt he seemed to be begging mercy from someone, who might be an imagined murderer” (The Crazed, p.27). When Chang writes that after the bonfire consumed his father’s books, “something had happened to his mind”. What that “something” actually may be a kind of permanent psychological deficiency that is implanted in the victim’s mind. In retrospect, one may find it reasonably convincing that perhaps the victims of the Cultural Revolution might never have been psychologically healthy after the trauma, and that they might have spent the rest of their lives battling the pains from numerous psychological problems that derived from their experiences during the Revolution.
THE YEARNING FOR JUSTICE
The survivors of the Cultural Revolution suffer. For Professor Yang in The Crazed, the trauma not only brings him psychological harm, but also destroys his family life. Like many victims, Yang’s family life was disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, as he yells at his wife blaming her for having engaged in a relationship with a man while Yang was taken to the countryside: “I didn’t take my life because I wasn’t cruel or courageous enough to desert you and our daughter. So I hoped and hoped, dreaming that some day I would come back … But my home was no longer the same” (The Crazed, p.171). In reality, the Cultural Revolution has ruined the relationships and the spiritual lives of its hundreds of thousands of victims.
Naturally, victims of the trauma yearn for justice, but the trauma of the Great Leap was never settled and none of the suffering of the victims has ever been avenged by any proper means. Professor Yang in The Crazed spells out his yearning for justice when his crazed mind is sparked by the sound of sirens: “Fire, fire, that the holy fire. Burn them, burn those devils … Revenge … I shall raise this nine-section whip and thrash your fat hips, pack, pack, pack – I want to taste your blood and flesh. Ah, with full resolve I shall root out your whole clan like weeds! A debt of lives must be paid with lives!” (The Crazed, p.74, pp.78-79). Subconsciously, Yang has always wanted to avenge his suffering. In the novel, he once reflects his experience during the torture: “During the torture I would recite to myself lines from The Divine Comedy … Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the scenes in Inferno. If they forced me to open my eyes, I’d imagine that the crazed people below and around me were like the blustering evildoers, devils, and monsters cast into hell” (The Crazed, p.73). In his heart, he has always wanted to avenge his suffering and to see his torturers be subjected to proper punishments. But why the Inferno? Why the holy fire? Why not something earthly?
A DEBT SEALED IN THE COFFIN
The unfortunate part of Yang’s life in The Crazed is that there was never anywhere for him to go to look for the justice he desired. This is made clear as his student reflects on his death, thinking: “To me the worst part of Mr. Yang’s death was that he had died in hatred. Did he save his soul? Probably not. Possessed by the desire for vengeance, he couldn’t possibly have attainted the spiritual ascent he had striven for. He failed to liberate his soul from the yoke of malevolence. His soul must still have bogged down in the muck of this life” (The Crazed, p.262).
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution and through the Reformist era, there has been almost not one single effort from the Chinese government to address the victims of the Revolution properly. Even though, according to Professor MacFarquhar, the CCP resolution of 1981 officially “assigned blame to Chairman Mao” (MacFarquhar, Mar. 2004), the resolution did not go too far to actually deal with the Cultural Revolution, because “the Chinese could not afford to destroy Chairman Mao’s credibility” (MacFarquhar, Mar. 2004). Understandably, any attempt to attribute justice to the victims of the Cultural Revolution is automatically out of the Party’s agenda, because to do so would simply ruin more of Chairman Mao’s reputation.
Besides, if the survivors of the Cultural Revolution were to avenge their suffering during the years, who is to be punished? To what degree, and how? Who should Professor Yang or Jung Chang’s father go after, even if they were given a chance to avenge their torture?
The wrongdoers in the Revolution are in fact themselves part of “the people.” There were hundreds and thousands of Red Guards, and violence and assaults were carried out in arbitrary and non-systematic fashion by these teenagers and the Maoists. As Jung Chang explains, quoted by Glover: “Mao had managed to turn people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship. That was why under him there was no real equivalent of the KGB in China. There was no need. In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred” (Glover, p.297).
Since the assaults of the Cultural Revolution were carried out en masse and in a non-systematic fashion, it is almost impossible for its victims to look for any kind of justice if the government is not going to address the issue properly. And precisely because the matter was never resolved or settled properly on the individual level, the damage that was done to the survivors self-multiplied as the years went by. Yang illustrates this with a metaphor in The Crazed: “Every day he presses more thoughts and emotions into his brain, in which a good deal of stuff is already stored but none is allowed to get out so as to accommodate new stuff. Yet day after day he squeezes in something more, until one day his brain becomes too full and cannot but burst. It’s like a pressure cooker which is so full that the safety valve is blocked up, but the fire continues heating its bottom. As a consequence, the only way out is to explode” (The Crazed, p.12).
In the end, Yang’s pressure cooker exploded. And sadly, he died before anything was done to avenge his suffering. For his whole life after the Cultural Revolution, he seems to have worried a lot about the purpose of his living on. Several times in the novel, Yang lamented in his utter sincerity that “I’m only afraid I’m not worthy of my suffering” (The Crazed, p.172). If what he means is that he is only living so that justice will come to him one day, then perhaps his student is right that he never did save his soul. His last words before he died are uttered to his student: “Remember, avenge me and … don’t forgive any one of them. K-kill them all!” (The Crazed, p.260). In the end, of course, there was no justice, no revenge, and no holy fire. Yang died, and the debt that is owed to him from the Cultural Revolution will forever be sealed with him in his coffin.
In reality, how similar Professor Yang is to the survivors of the Cultural Revolution remains to be seen. But the insights drawn from Ha Jin’s fiction are nonetheless significant. Ha Jin’s novel shows us that the psychological damage done to the victims of the Cultural Revolution was permanent. This damage could have prevented many of the survivors from returning to a state of normalcy because their desires for justice have never been answered.
Their dreams have been crushed, their lives ruined, but if the Chinese government will never step forward and address this issue properly, perhaps the regrets of these victims will occupy all their remaining years and they will all be owed debts from the Cultural Revolution when their bodies are finally sealed in coffins. Perhaps, after that, they may have a chance to hear the wrongdoers being cast into hell, just like the one spelled out by Dante. Perhaps they may not. But the saddest thing of all is that it seems almost an inevitable reality that those remaining survivors of the Cultural Revolution will have to continue to lament like Professor Yang: “Ah, life, what an ocean of grief!” (The Crazed, p.172) While no one would stand up and return them the justice that they deserve, this line from one of Yang’s favorite poems may echo much in their hearts: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel Ornungen (Who, if I cry, would hear me among the angelic order)?” (The Crazed, pp.46-47).
Tak-Hin Benjamin Ngan (’05) is a final year student at Brandeis University majoring in Economics and Politics, and minoring in Mathematics.
Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.
Ha, Jin. The Crazed: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 2004.
Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. 'New Perspectives on China's Cultural Revolution.' Lectures in the Social Sciences. Harvard University. 17 Mar. 2004.
Thaxton, Ralph. 'Introduction.' Pol148b: Seminar in Contemporary Chinese Politics. Brandeis University. 15 Jan. 2004.
Ha Jin, author of The Crazed, speaking at the Brandeis University “Meet the Author” series on 11/16/04 in the Shapiro Student Center Atrium (picture by Tak-Hin Benjamin Ngan).
Benjamin Ngan, author of this article, met Ha Jin, author of The Crazed, at a talk given by Ha Jin at the Brandeis University “Meet the Author” series on 11/16/04 in the Shapiro Student Center Atrium (picture by Tak-Hin Benjamin Ngan).