The death of the revolution in China and its re-birth – told in a brilliant new novel

The generation of workers and peasants who made the Chinese revolution in the course of the bitter fight against Japanese occupation in the 1940s has largely passed away. So have most of those who endured the years of anguish and catastrophic famine that goes by the name of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. Now the generation that lived through the so-called Cultural Revolution of the latter half of the 1960s is passing away. And the stories of these generations, the horrors they witnessed and the struggles they fought, have gone largely untold, at least in print. In China, the truth of these events is still actively suppressed; their grotesquely inaccurate names remain intact. Even outside of China, with a handful of priceless exceptions like the wonderful Wild Swans by Jung Chang, few authentic accounts have appeared in print.

In families, however, stories about relatives who went through these events live on, passed down the generations orally, beyond the reach of the censors and jailers. Although it is tragic that so few memoirs of those extraordinary events have been published, we can still expect that some of the truth will eventually appear in fictional form. “The things we never say aloud … they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late,” says Ai-Ming, a character in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a terrific new book by Madeleine Thien published last year.

This book is a novel, a finely-constructed narrative centred on the years of the Cultural Revolution and its long ‘before’ and ‘after.’ But it is only semi-fictional: it refers frequently to actual episodes and real historical figures great and small, and it is scrupulously accurate about those events. The fictional reconstructions also seem thoroughly authentic and convincing.

The story centres on the relationship between two musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and how the events of the Cultural Revolution tore them apart. Its historical sweep is much broader than that, however, from the anti-Japanese war, through the Tiananmen battles of 1989 and right up to the present, in which the daughters of the two musicians meet in exile after Tiananmen and attempt to piece together their common history.

The musician at the centre of the story was born in the midst of the anti-Japanese war and is named Sparrow, “a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain.” To be passed over was not this Sparrow’s fate, however. Nor was it the general fate of sparrows in China: they became the targets of a misguided eradication campaign in the late 1950s, which included hounding them constantly to prevent them landing, until they dropped from the sky in exhaustion. This was closer to the character’s experience.

Author Madeleine Thien
Photo: Adelaide Festival

The story shifts backwards and forwards in time, back as far as the story of Sparrow’s mother, named Big Mother Knife, her sister Swirl, a wandering musician driven out of Shanghai by the Japanese invasion, and Swirl’s husband Wen The Dreamer, a poet from an aristocratic family. It recounts their experiences during the anti-Japanese war and the land reform that followed the seizure of power by the Communist Party in 1949. Big Mother Knife is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. She has “long eyebrows over slender eyes, a small nose and big cheeks, shoulders like hilltops… a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper and a shouting voice, and even when she was a small child, no one dared to treat her lightly… After vanishing for years, Sparrow’s father [Ba Lute] returned a revolutionary hero…Big Mother…saw that her youth, those years of catastrophe and flight, of running along a precipice, had come to an end. Gone were the crushing sorrows and terrors, and gone, too was her independence…she had somehow ended up married to the king of slogans.”  Ba Lute was a musician and an enthusiast for the land reform. His hero status gave the family some material privileges, including entry to the Conservatory for his son, but no protections against persecution.

Swirl and Wen the Dreamer fall foul of the land reform and the associated ‘anti-rightist campaign’ when a secret stash of books they had preserved is discovered. They get sentenced to eight years hard labour in re-education camps in the western desert, while their daughter Zhuli joins the household of Big Mother Knife and Sparrow in Shanghai.

But Shanghai and the other cities, relatively unaffected by the upheavals of the land reform, become the centre of the Cultural Revolution a decade later. What started as a factional struggle within the leading clique spills over into mass mobilisations of youth in denunciation of their parents’ generation, and a wholesale destruction of the cultural heritage of the past. Sparrow is by this time a composer at the huge and prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of music, where traditional Chinese songs and European classical music are his sources. He has a secret homosexual relationship with a pianist at the school who has aspirations to travel to Europe to continue his studies of Western music.

The author’s portrayal of the insidious way that the sloganeering of the Cultural Revolution slowly permeates the Conservatory is chilling. The campaign feeds off the rivalries, disappointments, envy and resentments that are common in such institutions – while also riding on the widespread enthusiasm for revolutionary change, the willingness to make a sharp break with the oppressive past of imperial and bourgeois China. The campaign builds in a rising wave of terror, the denunciations becoming ever more violent and sweeping, crossing the line into physical destruction of things (all the Conservatory’s many pianos are destroyed, along with Chinese traditional instruments, as products of feudal and bourgeois culture), and then physical attacks and public humiliation of individuals.

Rarely, outside of a revolutionary crisis, have the deficiencies of leadership of the working class had such catastrophic consequences as in the Cultural Revolution.

He Luting

In real life, the Director of the Conservatory, He Luting, was hauled before a ‘struggle session’ for defending the music of Claude Debussy. That session happened to be broadcast live on television. In an act of extraordinary courage, He rejected the accusations against him and denounced his accusers as liars. This incident is depicted in the book from the viewpoint of Sparrow, who by that time has been banished to a factory in a remote region, where the workers are routinely summoned to watch broadcasts of the struggle sessions. He Luting’s defiance was exceptional; far greater numbers were driven to suicide by the persecutions ­– when not actually beaten to death ­– including the parents of Fu Cong, one of the world’s finest Chopin pianists, who had left Shanghai in 1953 to continue his studies in Europe.

There is a terrifying scene where Zhuli, waiting in line to pick up the family’s rations, is suddenly confronted by the sight of a woman her mother’s age being brutalised by a young Red Guard. The girl pushes the woman’s face at Zhuli.

“Slap her insolent face,” the girl screamed. Zhuli froze. “Slap her!” the girl shouted. … Somewhere very near, a man was speaking in her ear. “Go ahead, don’t be afraid. We all have lessons to learn, don’t hesitate.”… She lifted her right hand but nothing happened. … “Just shout the slogans,” the girl beside her whispered. “Quickly, they’re watching you. Oh, why are you so afraid?”… She found herself in another line… a dozen people with her, old women, mothers and even girls, staring in shock. Red Guards swaggered around them, pushing them to their knees. Zhuli felt a shock of pain as she hit the concrete. … A girl, a different girl, was coming with scissors. She was yanking the heads back one by one and cutting off great clumps of hair.  “Disgusting bitches,” the girl repeated… Someone said, “Oh this is the violinist, whose father is a counter-revolutionary”. They pulled her bag from her, turned it upside down and the Beethoven score slid out in a wild flutter of pages… They were laughing at it, stomping on it, pretending to sing from it….

Heilongjiang province Governor Li Fanwu’s hair is shaved and torn by young Red Guards in Red Guard Square. Harbin, 12 September 1966. Photo: Li Zhensheng Mag501


By the time this paroxysm of denunciation, humiliation and violence finally peters out, the family is irreparably torn apart.

Within the novel there is another novel, of uncertain origins and authorship, incomplete with missing chapters, whose readers fill the gaps from their own experiences, and make copies which pass from hand to hand with these additions, sometimes containing coded messages as well. It is called the Book of Records, a story of impossible love between an adventurer and a scholar, set in the time of the anti-Japanese war. All the characters read it, and merge their own stories with it. Wen the Dreamer, languishing in his desert detention centre after the anti-Rightist campaign, takes the names of fellow prisoners who die of starvation beside him, and hides them in the text, populating the fictional world with real names and real deeds, the only accurate record that exists. The Book of Records becomes the universal story, and the only record, incomplete and fragmented as it is, of these terrible events.

One of the difficulties of Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the number of relationships that get broken and never repaired. We meet parents who are separated from their children by banishment and persecution, we get to know them and their longing to be reunited with their children. And it never happens. This makes for an achingly unfulfilling story – nevertheless, this is not a weakness of the novel, but rather a fact of history which the novel truthfully recounts. For millions of people subjected to political persecutions of this kind, their lives were disrupted permanently and broken into separate phases. They never returned from their places of exile or banishment.  In some cases, they spent their entire lives in detention.


Livestock being distributed to farmers as part of land reform, 1952

Revolution is the correct word to describe the events of 1949 and after in China. A mighty movement of China’s workers and peasants defeated first the Japanese occupation and then the Chinese landlords and capitalists, and eventually overthrew capitalist property relations. But this revolution was not led by a revolutionary proletarian leadership. On the contrary, the revolutionary strivings of the Chinese masses were obstructed at every step by a perfidious, reactionary Stalinist leadership. The result was a revolution grossly deformed from birth.

Landlords forced to parade through a village in dunce hats, early 1950s

Thus, the land reform – the single greatest achievement of the Chinese revolution – was carried out using the most ‘traditional’ methods, borrowed directly from the imperial court. The landlords were not just dispossessed of their land, and the worst exploiters and abusers among them brought to justice – that much was necessary, and popular. They were also publicly humiliated, tortured, and in many cases, murdered. Children of a landlord suffered discrimination and persecution permanently – their class designation became a mark of Cain which they could never erase, and which could be drawn on again and again as a justification for further punishments, no matter what they actually did. Scapegoating on a mass scale became the norm, as did lying. In this way, despite their deep reluctance which is described well in the book, the peasantry was made complicit in criminal acts, which would soon be turned against them.

Moreover, although the landlords were overthrown, many of the institutions of landlord rule were retained, even strengthened. In particular, the hukou system under which every peasant was registered in the village of their birth, and forbidden to leave without special permission, was kept intact. Hukou was essentially the feudal social relation that bound peasants to the soil, in return for the paternalistic care and protection of the landlord of the village. Something similar existed in feudal Europe. In its Chinese form it also institutionalised the collective responsibility of the whole village for the behaviour of each of its members. These crushing social relations were not only preserved, but expanded in scope by Mao as part of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, as a tool for regulating internal migration and the labour supply to agriculture and industry. With the landlords obliterated, the central state took over their responsibilities for the care and welfare of the village. Over the subsequent decade, hukou also became one of the pillars of the Stalinist police state apparatus in China.

Hukou codified in law the greatest deformity of the Chinese revolution: the failure to build an alliance of the working class and peasantry as the basis for proletarian rule. The division between toilers of town and country was cemented in place, and then progressively widened. Hukou institutionalised inferior access to welfare pensions, education and social services for rural dwellers. During the famine which was the outcome of the Great Leap Forward fiasco, in which between fifteen and forty million people starved to death, one’s entire fate depended on their place of registration, making the difference between living and starving to death. An estimated 95% of all deaths occurred among rural hukou holders. The restrictions on travel also suppressed news of the famine, such that many city residents had no idea that mass deaths were occurring in the countryside at all. This was the greatest famine of the twentieth century.

Hukou also became the foundation for a whole phase of political persecution, whereby targets of political vendettas, both individuals and broad categories of people, could be banished to remote villages by government decree – and left there to languish for years, even decades. That was the fate of millions in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

If the Great Leap Forward brought the Chinese revolution to its knees, the Cultural Revolution was its death-blow.  The destruction of the cultural heritage of class society – the smashing of Confucian temples, the bans on European and traditional Chinese music and their replacement by eight ‘model operas,’ the vandalism of Ming burial tombs etc ­– futile, self-destructive and reactionary as all of that was, it pales into insignificance beside the real thrust of the campaign: mass terror against any and all who might dare to think for themselves.  The Cultural Revolution was the act by which workers and peasants were finally driven out of the political arena into which they had fought their way in 1949. All that remained was the regime, resting on its bloated armed forces, which rose as a hostile force above the people, and the despot, entrenched as never before. Henceforth, any working class struggle would be outside of and in opposition to the regime.

The re-birth: student protesters gather in Tiananmen Square, 4 May 1989. Photo: Peter Turnley, Guardian

The counter-revolution had pushed the workers and peasants so far back that new struggles inevitably erupted soon after the death of the despot. These struggles culminated in the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989. The demands put forward in the protests were inchoate and hesitant, but included the demand for an end to press censorship, for the right to demonstrate in public, and condemnation of campaigns against ‘spiritual pollution’ which constituted the last gasp of the Cultural Revolution. By implication, this included an end to banishment and the dismantling of hukou.

While most foreign news reporting focused on Tiananmen Square itself, the biggest and most decisive battles were taking place in the Beijing streets adjacent to the Square, as working people in sympathy with the protesting students mobilised to block the army units sent to crush the demonstrations by force. Some of the most moving and vivid scenes in Do Not Say We Have Nothing are from this most recent mass political upheaval in China, which marked the re-birth of working class struggle. These depictions must surely have been based on direct experience.


All that remains of the Chinese revolution today are its bourgeois-democratic conquests – liberation from Japanese domination (and the thwarting of Japan’s eager replacement, the United States), the end of landlordism in the countryside – though these are not small matters. The astonishing economic development of China in the recent decades has been built on these achievements, as well as on the de facto breakdown of the hukou system won at Tiananmen. The secret of China’s rapid capitalist development has been the productive forces unleashed by massive migration of peasants to the cities, legally, semi-legally, and illegally.

This historic migration has brought into being a powerful new contingent of the working class of the world. When these proletarians rise again and begin the process of assembling, for the first time, a leadership worthy of their class, one of their urgent and necessary tasks will be to open the Book of Records.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s