Ten years ago this month I finished my PhD dissertation, “Remembering Red: Memory and Nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution in Late 1990s China,” in the anthropology department at the University of Washington in Seattle.
My dissertation research examined nostalgia and memory of the Cultural Revolution among members of the generation who were most active in it. Specifically I looked at memorial practices of former “educated youth” or zhiqing who were sent down to the Chinese countryside beginning in the fall of 1968. As the generation most active in the Cultural Revolution, their personal histories intersect with a problematic period in the Chinese national past. The incredibly large number of people affected by the movement and their important role in China’s post-Mao “reform” period, however, makes them a difficult group to entirely ignore.
I have never given up the hope of finishing a book on the topic. The topic fascinates me and over the years I have benefitted from so much goodwill from former zhiqing with whom I have become friends. I feel that it should be finished, somehow. It is a complicated topic, however, and things have never really seemed to come together. Other than a few stand-alone articles published early in my post-graduate career, I have spent most of my time silently mulling the topic over, patiently waiting for it to ripen. While in China last spring I reconnected with a bunch of my old friends—now mostly at or near retirement—and they meet regularly in zhiqing activities of all kinds. What was fairly uncommon in the 1990s is now routine.
Last week I was invited out to the countryside to enjoy a nostalgic “big pot” meal with a group of friends at a very special place—a rural zhiqing villa. The owner, a friend of mine, built the place entirely by hand over many years as a kind of hobby. He has fond memories of life in the countryside during his youth and in retirement wanted to build a unique place where he and others could gather for meals and memories. He filled many of the rooms with his collection of Cultural Revolution-era memorabilia. On the weekends it is not uncommon for him to have small groups of former zhiqing over for pot-luck style meals, each visitor bringing a vegetable, meat or doufu to share.
After dinner folks sit around and chat and sing songs from their youth. In addition to notes from many interesting conversations, I have shot hundreds of photos and snippets of video. Since he has been regularly visited by local media and, in fact, last year I was even briefly included in a web video about an event held last spring, I decided to put together my own video to share this year to see if I can evoke some of the feeling of the very special place.
This summer CCTV-1 began broadcasting a 45-part dramatic series on the subject titled, Zhiqing (知青) and the topic seems to have suddenly reemerged. This summer, all over the country zhiqing are talking about the show and memories of their youth. I am currently putting together an essay on the show and its reception. My hope is that it also might serve as just the incentive I need to return to my dissertation topic and finally get the book finished!
This is great! How we relate to memory I think is very significant in a world where our history seems to want to climb over our helpless bodies to grab hold of our futures. To manipulate memories to make them work for us in a pattern that promotes opportunity more than regret or ungrounded pride is, to me, a challenge worth taking. I like to get close to those that remember the melodies not just the atrocities and would like to observe them before I decide whether to incorporate them in that which makes my life more interesting or set them permanently aside.