Spring on the York College campus

Refusing Amnesia

By Zehao Zhou, Ph.D.
Preserving History
Refusing Amnesia
May 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In 1966, communist leader Mao Zedong led one of the most cataclysmic events in human history, the intent of which was to purge the country of his opponents and preserve the "true" communist ideology. "Revolution is not a dinner party!" Mao proclaimed, unleashing legions of Red Guards to every corner of the country to launch the "Red Terror." Destruction and violence of unspeakable proportions ensued. 
 
Half a century has gone by, but the events of the Cultural Revolution remain fresh in my memory. I remember the "Chinese Crystal Night" in summer 1966 when waves of Red Guards stormed our Shanghai "bourgeois neighborhood," beating up the innocent, ransacking homes, and parading their inhabitants through the streets. I watched my mother burn the entire family photo collection to destroy any possible "incriminating evidence" that could be used against us. I saw children publicly denouncing their parents, students attacking their teachers, and Red Guards setting all the Bibles of our local church on fire. 
 
As all of this was happening, the infamous "Campaign against the Four Olds," (a campaign against old ideas, old habits, old customs, and old culture) began. The material representation of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization was summarily destroyed or irrevocably damaged, the equivalent of the eradication of all material symbols of the Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian traditions. The scale and proportion of these destructive acts made the recent devastation of historical sites in Bamiyan and Palmyra by the Taliban and ISIS pale in comparison. 
 
Despite the toll it exacted on individuals and the country's cultural heritage, the Cultural Revolution remains a missing chapter in the memory of China. Most people who lived through it still don't know the true reasons for it, nor do they know who actually engineered it. Tens of millions of Chinese still revere Mao Zedong, the chief perpetrator of the Cultural Revolution, to this day. Worst of all, scholars in China still lack access to credible archival sources for their research on the Cultural Revolution.
 
My recent professional activities represent the first steps to dispel this national amnesia. I have been a member of a group of academics who created the first independently produced archival database series on the entire Mao era, including the Cultural Revolution. Published by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, and titled The Database for the History of Contemporary Chinese Political Campaigns, 1949-1976, this archival milestone has broken the Chinese government's stranglehold on the studies of the Cultural Revolution and other atrocities of the regime. Totaling 32,000 archival documents, this database series has become an indispensable resource for studying the Mao era. I am both fortunate and proud to have been a member of this small group of committed academics who refused amnesia and devoted many years of their lives to preserving history and keeping the memory of the Cultural Revolution alive.