The Afterlives of A Revolution: Memories of the Cultural Revolution and Political Possibilities in Contemporary China
When tasked with making sense of social and political events in the present, not only the Communist Party and the Chinese intellectuals but also the general public often make repeated references to the Cultural Revolution, appropriating it as a certain kind of yardstick to evaluate and critique events happening in the present. But even though they all seem to be talking about the Cultural Revolution, what they mean by the Cultural Revolution seems strikingly different. Differences are manifested in points of emphasis, assessments of Mao, meanings attached to it, lessons drawn from it, and so on and so forth. Through these various appropriations, the Cultural Revolution has become a discourse in the public sphere, but a contested one that has broad political implications.
In this dissertation, I investigate the ways in which various contestants in this discourse interpret the Cultural Revolution for their own purposes, and how these different interpretations imply different visions of China’s political future. These contestants include the Communist Party’s official narrative, the Chinese liberals, the Chinese New Left, the contemporary Maoists, the neo-Confucianists, and a group of subversive readers who attempt to undermine the framework of understanding the Cultural Revolution. By critically analyzing the point of emphasis, the included and excluded contents, and the moral judgments embedded in these various narratives, I invite my readers to contemplate answers to the following questions: Why do we keep coming back to the Cultural Revolution when diagnoses of the problems of Chinese society today are different? What is the function of the Cultural Revolution in these diagnoses? What are the perceived relations between China’s revolutionary past and China’s authoritarian, state-capitalist and neoliberal present in these narratives? What do different interpretations of the Cultural Revolution say about the vision of China’s political future? Is there anything to reclaim to salvage from the Cultural Revolution other than Mao, a populist leader who was allegedly antibureaucratic, idealist, visionary, and adamantly egalitarian? What should we do with regard to the memories of the Cultural Revolution if the purpose is to build for a certain kind of transformative and democratizing politics that has the possibility of gaining momentum in the contemporary Chinese society?
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