Review: The Cowshed by Ji Xianlin, translated into English by Chenxin Jiang

By Ho Lin

CowshedIt’s generally acknowledged that the societal experiment that was China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was an unmitigated disaster, but as is often the case with such tumultuous events, official reckonings and accountings of the damage have been sporadic. While today’s China may be a bustling economic semi-miracle, the Revolution isn’t usually discussed in polite company, whether due to official policy or ingrained reticence. Those who profited and suffered from the revolution’s convulsions have moved on, sometimes within the same social or political circles, with blame and guilt and responsibility unremarked upon.

In more recent years, that cultural amnesia has been the thematic subject of several films and books. Wang Xiaoshui’s films 11 Flowers (2011) and Red Amnesia (2014) hint at the Revolution’s long-reaching effects under cover of more innocuous story forms: the childhood remembrance, the mystery tale. Amnesia is the central conceit of Chan Koonshung’s novel The Fat Years (2009), a sci-fi rendition of the near future which locates the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 along a continuum of national tragedies that is literally erased from the population’s minds.

Still, when it comes to watershed post-Revolution works, there’s nothing like Ji Xianlin’s memoir The Cowshed, first published during a relatively relaxed era of modern Chinese history (1998) and now available in English translation for the first time. In contrast to other anecdotes of the Revolution, which tend to take place in the hinterlands, where the exiles and the peasants mingle and toil alongside each other. The Cowshed is situated in Beijing and the epicenter of it all, where passion and fanaticism ran amok. Ji was a respected professor of Sanskrit at Beijing University, the preeminent institution in the land then and now, and a staunch believer in the Communist faith until those fateful days of 1966. Branded a counter-revolutionary, he was sentenced for a better part of a decade to a Kafka-esque existence in a prison on campus known as “the Cowshed” (anti-Communists were identified as “cow devils” back in the day). “I think my readers will understand that this book is not a novel,” he writes at the outset, and the words are a statement of purpose as well as a call to action. Read this and remember. This is a document about what really happened.

Ji’s narrative is nothing if not dizzying. From the start we’re thrown into a whirligig of activity and events, where even incidents with dull titles (“The International Hotel Conference”) carry a hint of the sinister. To dive into the story means wading through a thick soup of factions, accusations and counter-accusations. Individual groups jockey for position as the torch-bearers for Communism in a surreal game of musical chairs, in which the loser is subjected to mental and physical torture at the hands of the victors. Like feral children without adult supervision, students run rampant, and professors are reduced to ideological prey. Every innocuous remark, every personal relation and professional connection, and even a few specks of dust on a Chairman Mao poster are taken as proof positive of anti-Communist tendencies. When a student critic takes aim at Ji’s scholarly essay “Springtime in Yanyuan,” claiming that “springtime” is a code word for “capitalism,” Ji snorts in public at the accusation – and that single snort becomes his undoing, and a one-way ticket to an existence that reads like Hell as devised by George Orwell and directed by Samuel Beckett: nonsensical, carnival-esque, and mournfully po-faced.

As Ji and his fellow scholars are separated from their families, hoarded into cells on campus, made to work demeaning tasks, and subjected to countless “struggle sessions” and agony, one cannot help but marvel at the energy on display by the revolutionaries, all in the service of something so destructive. Thanks to the proliferation of campus-wide posters denouncing professors, Ji notes that the students’ calligraphy style has grown in leaps and bounds. Professors bent on self-preservation confess their sins, witch-trial style, and in the process become better liars; those who get a taste of blood in skirmishes against other factions become bolder and more callous. “No effort expended during the Cultural Revolution was entirely wasted,” Ji observes. The comment epitomizes his authorial stance — both powerless victim and baleful observer during his ordeal, he peppers his chronicle with dry, caustic humor:

[My students] may not have learned all that much about Buddhist history or beliefs, but they must have paid close attention to the Buddhist hell, because they managed to put theory into practice by building a cowshed in Beijing that was the envy of the land and widely emulated. Their success underscores how the student can indeed surpass the teacher… as one of their victims, I have nothing but admiration for all of them.

Ji provides not only an account of the harrowing aspects of his incarceration, but finds time to poke fun at the sheer drudgery of it as well, right down to choosing what his “label” will be (finalists include “capitalist-roader” and “reactionary capitalist academic authority”), and being sure to arrive at his struggle sessions in timely fashion (“I couldn’t guarantee a struggle session would finish on time, but I didn’t want one delayed on my account”).

The Cowshed is at its most riveting when Ji’s humor mixes with succinct, memorable details. Forced to hunch over in place, arms extended, during his struggle sessions, his memory of the position is haunting: “I slunk back to my room, and dreamed of men hugging emptiness.” Incidents of subjugation are mixed with brief moments of resistance: one professor is forced to write a “daily thought report” and chooses to do so on toilet paper, offering up a not-so-veiled commentary on what he thinks of the assignment. Another professor is castigated for having a character in his name that is the same as one of the characters in “Taiwan,” and forced to stare straight into the sun for hours on end. Under threat of a beatdown if he dares to raise his head, Ji remembers his captors by the shoes they wear, rather than their faces. His story is at its most mordant when, at his lowest ebb, he considers suicide:

I produced the following observations for my comparative study of suicide methodology… Overdosing on sleeping pills, the classic capitalist method of suicide, is in fact employed by both capitalists and socialists, or perhaps only by nervous insomniac intellectuals; peasants who spend their days in the fields don’t need sleeping pills.

Ironically enough, his suicide attempt is interrupted by the arrival of revolutionaries, who promptly drag him to a new cell and further struggle sessions.

A polished prose stylist, Ji is not. Like many intellectuals who grew up on the Chinese classics, he’s apt to go florid from time to time, as when he reflects on his circumstances: “Our lives lay entirely at the hands of these men. We were like ants beneath their fingertips, and heaven could not hear our cries. The world seemed to be ruled not by men but by ghouls or beasts.” He’s far more affecting when he pares down the rhetoric, focusing on the bare essentials of survival (“I wanted neither to kill myself nor to be killed. I wanted to live”). That Ji’s predicament doesn’t resolve itself with any sort of vindication — his eventual rehabilitation is just as senseless as his initial descent — is the point of his chronicle, and the point is driven home in his essay “My Heart Is a Mirror,” which is included in the appendix of the book. As he recounts his early life amidst the chaos of twentieth-century China, from warlords to Japanese masters to revolutionaries, it is clear that China is still struggling to break free from a widening gyre of chaos, where today’s hero is tomorrow’s villain, and every movement is met with its own brutally destructive counter-movement.

While it would be easy to point fingers at those who mistreated him, Ji has a bigger project in mind with The Cowshed — by documenting his experiences, he intends to educate future generations, and those future generations were very much on his mind when he participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 alongside protesting students. By that time, he had become a respected elder statesman among scholars, and suffered no repercussions for his part in the movement. Still, what would he make of present-day China, seven years after his death in 2009? Call it fate or coincidence, but this new edition of The Cowshed dovetails nicely with China’s current crossroads. As the country edges towards the brink of another economic crisis and the Central Government censures those who speak against it, when it’s not outright abducting free-thinking Hong Kong book publishers without warning, one wouldn’t be out of line wondering if history was prepping for a return engagement. To the end, Ji was haunted by what he had witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, and struggled with a sense of guilt for having survived, as well as for having been caught up in a revolutionary zeal that turned against him. Absolution is a western capitalist concept, he would probably joke, and yet what lingers from The Cowshed is the sense of incompletion, and the nagging fear that without responsibility and reflection, there is no escape from what history has wrought. “Where have we come from, and where are we going?” Ji wonders in the postscript to his memoir, and the bitter, bracing truth of The Cowshed (and history) is that what is old inevitably becomes new again.

The Cowshed
By Ji Xianlin
New York Review Books
ISBN 978-1590179260