Q. and A.: Tomas Plänkers on the Psychic Legacy of the Cultural Revolution

Unlike postwar Germany or post-Communist Eastern Europe, China cannot openly face the baggage of its past, the Cultural Revolution, a psychoanalyst says.

Comments: 22

  1. Having lived in Beijing now for more than four years, associating with university students and professionals in the academic world, I can attest to the silence on the issue. When I ask a friend or acquaintance about the Cultural Revolution, as often as not the response reveals some family member harmed by it. But further information is not volunteered and I don't feel able to probe because the interactions are governed by Chinese cultural rules: "I [the individual] am not important, so what happened to my family is not worth bringing up," and discussion of any negative is avoided. Another topic, the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown and killings, is verboten for discussion at any and all times, at least with me, a laowai or foreigner because of fear, somehow, the authorities will be listening in. Young urban Chinese, today, seem interested only in personal advancement, "self-improvement," as they put it, and which means, fundamentally, becoming rich and then mimicking Western consumption behavior. So revisiting history, especially negative events, seems not of interest to the Chinese I know. Another observation perhaps apropos of the avoidance to discuss such matters, is the distrust the Chinese have of other Chinese, even the dislike, as I have observed. Routinely, I am told that the Chinese are "not ready" for freedoms the West enshrines - of the press, of speech, and so on. Chinese society would break down into chaos, I am told, with these freedoms.

  2. "the pressure to succeed is enormously high. They hope that with success they can protect themselves from the arbitrariness of the rulers.... Basically this obsession with success is a fearful way to live."

    You make it sound like the pressure to succeed grew entirely out of the Cultural Revolution and is not deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. What evidence?

    What of other Asian cultures' pressure to succeed?

    What of the pressure to succeed in certain socio-economic groups (the striving middle class) across cultures?

    If the success-driven Chinese are only "protecting themselves from the arbitrariness of rulers" what are the success-driven bourgeois protecting themselves against?

  3. Success in Chinese and other Asian cultures stems from a deeply ingrained work ethic, which unfortunately, too many Americans lack.

    "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."

    Chinese proverb cited by Malcolm Gladwell author of "Outliers, The Story of Success."

  4. A German psychoanalyst interviewed by the NYTimes reporter in Beijing about what the Chinese people think about the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps the NYTimes Berlin reporter might find a few Chinese tourists to interview about their thoughts.

  5. As Bob H (above) indicates, what would those few Chinese tourists know about it?

  6. I was interviewed by the NYT because our team made a research in China on the psychic impact of the Cultural revolution. You can read all about it in our book:
    Plaenkers, T. (ed.) (2014): Landscapes of the Chinese Soul. The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution. London (Karnac)

  7. Having taught at various Chinese universities for seven years, I can vouch for the silence around the Cultural Revolution. It seems to be not so much that the students are relcutant to speak about it as it is that they know very little about it, and especially their own families' involvement. I have encouraged them to ask their parents and grandparents while they still can but I doubt many will. It is a shame because the Cultural Revolution is such an important part of modern Chinese and world history and it would be so valuable to learn about it from those who were actually living through it. If nothing else, it would help them to better understand their parents and grandparents and how 21st century China is still being shaped by it.


  8. Governments are human organization. Human judgements sometimes fraught with miscalculation and oversight albeit our best intention. Atoning to the past mistakes is the first step toward the path of redemption and not to relive and shackled by the dark cloud of the past. China - a country afraid of and felt threatened by her own shadowy past is not the country ready for prime time on the world stage.

  9. And why should we assume that the Chinese should want to dwell upon this? How would we feel if the first thing every foreign visitor to the U.S. wanted to ask us about was slavery, not so much to determine our true feelings, but more as a constant reminder of how shameful we should feel and of how morally superior they are? Because that's the way these questions come across.

  10. We as Americans should be reminded at every turn about the nightmare of our early slave economy and the everlasting harm to our national psyche and if it takes a foreign visitor to do so then please encourage them to bring it up with every American they meet since we surpress it at most turns. We need to bring it into clear conciousness before we can move ahead.

  11. To remember the Cultural Revolution does not intend to humiliate China and the Chinese people. But - as you correctly point out with the US slavery example - social catastrophies should not be suppressed in the collective memory, in order to prevent it's unconscious impact.

  12. Most of us would probably feel very uncomfortable, as we should be given that the legacy of slavery is starkly manifest in contemporary U.S. society. Until we have truly addressed this legacy (I would say this will not have happened before our black brothers and sisters are not a socioeconomic underclass), we should feel shame. If absent others' questions about it we would live in denial to avoid feeling that shame, then others should ask about it. If those who must be the ones to make change happen won't acknowledge the problem, somebody needs to remind them.

    As a practical matter, one can debate whether a foreigner is the most effective vehicle for initiating change in a society. Not usually. That doesn't mean that fellow human beings cannot recognize and inquire about injustices elsewhere.

    Having lived in China and the U.S., my sense is that Chinese are no more keen to have foreigners press them on the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen than many white Americans are to have foreigners press them on slavery or the contemporary condition of black Americans. However, many Chinese readily point out Japan's failure to express adequate remorse for its pillaging of China from the late 19th century through World War II. Should they assume that Japanese want to dwell on this? Probably neither Chinese nor Koreans would say that Japanese discomfort should be the primary question.

  13. My husband's parents were persecuted (sent to labor camps, etc.) during the Cultural Revolution. A few years ago, we hosted in our home for a week a mainland Chinese graduate student when she first came to the US, before the dorm opened. We kept in touch, and when her mother came to visit, she encouraged my husband to tell his parents' stories to the daughter. The mother was adamant that the daughter know the truth.

  14. I have been married to 2 different Chinese women (on my 2nd, now), and have spoken with them, and family members fairly deeply. From this limited, small-sample experience, it seems to me that what we would call depth-psychology is almost totally unknown to the Chinese, and of no interest besides. They are interested in dreams, for example, but not as signs of, or from, an inner life. They are interested only as Biblical people were, in prediction or the supernatural.

    My wife, despite personifying the archetype of a poor country girl from a small village, nevertheless has MANY stories to tell of harm done to family members. Although she understands, at some level, that what happened to her family members was harmful and evil, still she does not like to discuss that much, nor does she make ANY connection between these long-ago events and the current regime. Her gaze remains studiously averted.

    My first wife was more intellectual, and was actually directly harmed by the events of June 1989 (she was eliminated from a list of university students, due to attending the demonstrations, and hence lost her university degree outright). Her father was tortured in the CR, and caught schistosomaisis from being punitively made to work in standing water all day every day. Yet she too completely resists the idea of there being a series of inner identities/characteristics that may not be the same as the apparent one(s).

  15. 17 yrs ago I had a grad school classmate from Wuhan. When I mentioned the Cultural Revolution she expressed irritation that she was so often asked about it.

  16. If you want a living sense of the Cultural Revolution that runs counter to Plankers' absurd comparisons to the Holocaust, I recommend Bai Di's "Some of Us" -- essays by nine women who participated in the Red Guard movement and went on to become teachers in the U.S. Its Amazon site has a good description and reviews.

  17. I feel sorry for the impression that the Cultural Revolution is the same like the Holocaust. I only mentioned the Holocaust as a kind of social catastrophy that demands from every society to deal in some way with it. Of course the content of social catastrophies in every country is very different. The traumatic impact in its psychic results is a common result.

  18. Grew up in 1980s Shanghai in an intellectural family which was severely harmed during the Culture Revolution, I have heard stories of grandparents mysteriously arrested in the middle of the night and disappeared for months, apartments looted and vandalized, and the hardship and miseries my parents and their siblings endured when they were sent down to the countryside. The "revolution" officially ended in 1976, but the ugly mentality remains. I remember that my paternal grandma told me when the family finally tracked down an antique painting which was looted during the revolution, she and grandpa brought gifts to pay that person a visit, asking him to return it. But that person refused, saying my grandparents didn't have official proof that the painting had belonged to them. It is the state's refusal to admit its mistakes and censorship on critiques that scares us. Many families openly talking about the Cultural Revolution have left the country for good.

  19. The Chronicles of Tao is an inciteful book giving a window into China before and after the Maoist purge. Spiritual traditions must haunt the soul of China.

  20. The cultural evolution of the 60s mainly affected the elite and the CCP itself; some of them or their offspring still have a voice. In contrast, the famine of the 'great jump forward' of the 50s affected the whole population. Many perished without anyone able to speak for them.

    History shows that the greatest problem in humanity is the tyranny of a single or a few individuals. This situation unfortunately hardly improves. New tyrants emerge by promising the fight the current tyrant. Populaces seem to have accepted it, especially in the third world.

  21. Apologies to any relevant comments missed but did not scan them all. Like some married to a lady who was 14 when it started cut out of school and finally admitted to university to become a teacher and then principal of her school. She at some point was a leader of 200 agriculture workers and said they all loved her. I can believe that she is a jewel much admired but did have a red arm band. Today we are surrounded by grand parents who lived through that experience, it is not a troubling matter. The Chinese may be the most centered people I have ever encountered in several countries. Their collective take is “ten wasted years,” the official position on Mao 70/30, the same rating Mao gave himself but have seen that privately changed to 0-0 total disaster. Perceive no heavy psychology burden in that generation; life goes on until it doesn’t.

  22. This Q &A alone will not suffice to explain why many Chinese today refuse to delve into the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. We need added insights from history.

    Fear of the state is deeply rooted in the culture due to one overriding fact: From the beginnings of the Chinese imperial era to all recent and and current regimes-- Chiang Kaishek's dictatorship , Mao's rule, Deng Xiaoping's leadership, the current government of Xi Jinping-- Chinese civilization has always put the state above the society, not the other way round.

    In all periods of Chinese history fear in its most terrifying forms has been used by the rulers as a leash on the people's neck. It has at times had a looser collar, but it has always remained the paramount instrument of governance.

    The intellectual foundations of this force lie in the ancient Legalist philosophy, most articulately expounded by Han Feizi ( d. 233 BCE). Radical censorship of thought considered undesirable by the rulers; severe punishment of dissidents by all means including execution; fostering an insipid but economically productive uniformity of outlook; sowing discord within the family to weaken elemental blood and marital bonds; conducting unrelenting domestic espionage to strengthen the state-- all these methods of totalitarian rule were first advocated by him.
    A true cultural revolution has yet to take place in China. And that can only be a democratic revolution, for only democracy puts the state under the society.