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from the March 2016 issue

Ji Xianlin’s “The Cowshed - Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution”

Reviewed by Wenguang Huang

I first became acquainted with the works of noted Indologist, linguist, and translator Ji Xianlin in the early 1980s, when I was a student of foreign literature in China. He had translated the famous Indian epic, Ramayana, from the original Sanskrit to Chinese, and an excerpt of Ji's translation appeared in my textbook. I remember devouring the beautifully translated verses in an unheated classroom in Shanghai as my mind was transported to the tropical forest of Panchavati, where Prince Rama fought against the ten-headed devilish King Ravana and his demon sister. 

In Ji's memoir, The Cowshed, Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, wonderfully translated from the Chinese by Chenxin Jiang, I was surprised to discover that Ji had secretly worked on the Ramayana, turning it into beautiful Chinese poetic verses during the final years of the Cultural Revolution. Ironically, just as Ji was wrestling with the proper Chinese words to interpret the Sanskrit verses describing the mythical battle against the monsters and demons, he himself was being branded by his students at Beijing University as "a cow devil and snake spirit," and was locked up for nine months in a cowshed which served as a makeshift on-campus prison.

Ji was born in China's eastern province of Shandong in 1911, the last year of the imperial rule.  At the age of 19, he studied Western literature at Tisinghua University, which was established by an agreement between the Qing Emperor and the US government. Upon graduation, he traveled to Germany as an exchange student and pursued his PhD in Sanskrit and Tocharian (an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family spoken by people living on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, an area which is now part of China) at the University of Göttingen. Ji happened to be in Germany when Adolf Hitler was in power and his experience there would foreshadow later events in his own country.

Upon returning to China in 1946, he was hired as a professor at the prestigious Beijing University, where he founded and headed the Eastern languages department. After the Communist takeover in 1949, he remained skeptical of Communism, but before long, found himself a changed person.

“In the early years of Communist rule, the new government was energetic and untainted by corruption, and its policies were popular with the masses. We all had high hopes for a prosperous new society…I got used to the new way of doing things. I felt ten years younger, and I had endless faith in the future of the Chinese people. At meetings and rallies, I shouted slogans as loudly and passionately as anyone else.”

Ji embraced the Communist ideals and joined the Communist Party in the 1950s, turning into a Maoist true believer, denouncing himself and criticizing others at public meetings, and trying to root out “the capitalist impulses in my own thinking and to adopt the proletariat mind-set.”

In 1966, as Beijing University emerged as a political hotbed after Mao openly supported students' attempts to seize power from the political establishment, students and faculty members split into two unruly factions, both subscribing to extreme leftist thinking and fighting for political control over the university.  Frustrated by Nie Yuanzi, a young rebel who had orchestrated violent political infighting at the university, Ji decided to join the faction that opposed Nie. With Nie's backing, Ji's former students raided his house, and among the incriminating evidence that they discovered was a picture of Mao's nemesis Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, gifted to Ji while he had lived in Germany. It was during this time, reduced to the position of a security guard at the building where he taught for more than twenty years, when Ji started his clandestine translation project.

“Since it seemed as if I might spend the rest of my working life as the security guard of Block 35, I decided to translate the longest and most difficult text I could think of. It would certainly be unprofitable, if nothing else, since no publisher would dare to publish a translation by someone like me. I finally settled on the Ramayana, one of the two great Indian epics. It consists of some twenty thousand verses, mostly of four lines each. I figured it would keep me busy for several years.”

Ji was well aware of the risks he was taking. If he was caught translating foreign literary works, considered by authorities as "poisonous grass," he could face beatings and end up in a labor camp. Yet he persevered, each night secretly studying the original Sanskrit text and translating it into Chinese prose. Then, during his spare time at work, he would mull over the prose that he had jotted down on scraps of paper, and turn them back into verse.

“‘As I stared into space, no one could have known what I was thinking,’ he said. ‘Outside the window, I could see the Asiatic apple trees and flowers in bloom.’”

In many places throughout his memoir, Ji recounts his grueling experience in a light-hearted albeit dark humor, accentuating its chilling effect. Ji compares the cowshed with the Buddhist Hell, which he had taught his students before they became revolutionary rebels. 

"Without having to build mountains of knives or fill vats with boiling oil, without any demonic aid, the Red Guards created an atmosphere of terror that far outstripped that of Buddhist creations.”

Unlike previous Cultural Revolution books, in which witnesses have often simplified the situation through one-dimensional portraits of morally upright and innocent people suffering senseless beatings and humiliation from fanatic Red Guards, Ji's memoir is unique because his candid descriptions of his own moral dilemma truly captured the political complexities of his time. “Everyone was either a persecutor or being persecuted," he wrote. "And as political movements evolved, the groups were constantly splintering and regrouping such that the persecutors could easily become the persecuted in the next stage of the struggle and vice versa.”

If Mao's revolution was supposed to remold the thinking of intellectuals into one required by a new society, Ji depicts instead a degeneration into the subhuman. "In the cowshed, I gradually grew accustomed to the idea that I had become a cow devil, although I had initially resisted the transformation. I stopped distinguishing between man and devil, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong."

At the end of the book, Ji laments the fact that no one has been able to explain what caused the Cultural Revolution in China. While he subtly blames those in power for their refusal to tackle the issue, he also avoids exploring the causes himself. Following Mao's death, the government reinstated Ji's Party membership and his position as department chair. In the subsequent years, he was promoted to be the vice-president of Beijing University and member of the Standing Committee of the People's Congress, not to mention the many literary and professional organizations that he had chaired. Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who called Ji his mentor, visited the author five times, praising him as a literary giant and national treasure. Such treatment should almost certainly cloud his assessment of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

The publication of Ji's memoir in the West has never been so timely as it is now. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. But in China today, this political holocaust that claimed the lives of thousands of Chinese intellectuals and Party veterans is fast becoming a fading memory. The current political elites, many of whom came of age during the Cultural Revolution, are reviving some of the old Maoist practices, and Ji's book will help Western readers gain a better and deeper understanding of China. Through his personal stories and observations, Ji offers readers a glimpse into the physical and psychological violence inflicted on Chinese intellectuals and Party veterans in the 1960s, and sheds lights on the complex moral and political dilemmas of those involved. “If you tell today’s young people about the Cultural Revolution, they stare at you wide-eyed, as though they think you’re lying,” he said. “The next time a similar situation arose, someone else would do something equally stupid and brutal. The thought terrifies me.” 

Read an exerpt from The Cowshed in the November 2012 issue of Words without Borders

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