The Cultural Revolution is still a part of China today

Mao’s tyranny has been erased from the textbooks, but its legacy continues to haunt China’s older generation, say Tania Branigan and Wang Youqin

A Red Army member leads the charge with Mao’s Little Red Book in a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution. [Getty Images]

This year is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. The spring festival began on 22 January, and in Chinese culture the rabbit represents the moon. Some say it is because the shadows in the moon resemble the animal, but it also reflects its characteristics. The rabbit’s quiet personality hides its confidence and strength: it is moving, steadily moving, towards its goal, whatever the obstacles. Some also say that it lives in fear all the time, finds it difficult to open up to others and often turns to escapism.

I never really thought about the meaning of a ‘rabbit’s pure characteristics’ in Chinese daily life until I read these two books about the Cultural Revolution. Formally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, this sociopolitical movement in the People’s Republic of China ran from 1966 to 1976, the year of Mao’s death.

My happy childhood ended when the Red Guards took away my parents and I became a political orphan

Since I moved to the UK in 1997, I have read about 30 books in English on the subject, most of them written by western authors and only a few by Chinese. When I read westerners’ work about it I feel like a tourist following a travel-guide walk on one side of a river, with the Cultural Revolution on the other side. When I read Chinese authors, I can feel the stories by my skin. But neither of these books are travel guides to Chinese history, or window-shopping approaches to the Cultural Revolution. They are people’s books. Both present a record of those who experienced and bore witness to the events of that time.

Tania Branigan, who has part-Thai roots, was sent to China as a correspondent for the Guardian in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, or ‘Golden Year’ for the Chinese. She discovered this neighbour of her grandmother’s homeland pushing towards the future in a whirlwind of reform.

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