Stitching the Narrative of a Revolution





It was the height of the Cultural Revolution, but in the heart of China’s capital, in range of the prying eyes of foreign embassies, young Beijingers had embraced the tenets of capitalism....

Such was the state of affairs in 1966, when selling pigeons at an impromptu street market was seen as an obstacle to the triumph of socialism — and, the official added, as a waste of bird feed, too....

The files of the Cultural Revolution, which raged from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, make up a mere 16 of the 21,568 volumes that the Beijing Municipal Archives has made public in four separate releases — in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2009. (The other files cover periods of Chinese history from 1906.) Stored in thick binders on library-style stacks, they can be viewed in the Municipal Archives building, a spacious, modern structure with overstuffed chairs and a scholarly atmosphere on the south side of the city....

“For people like me who have been studying the Cultural Revolution as a profession, it’s better than having nothing at all,” said Xu Youyu, a historian and former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But the things I want to know are, for example, how many homes the Red Guards had gone to raid and what they took out of each home. There’s not a chance of finding those things in these documents.

“If you air these things out, people may start asking why it happened. And this is not a question that is directed only at 1966, but may be turned around and asked about the current situation in China.”...

Yet a picture of Chinese life 40 and 50 years ago does emerge from the archives. The files, some nearly transparent and thin as one-ply tissue paper, include handwritten drafts of speeches, lists of production quotas, song lyrics, government regulations and minutes of groups that studied Mao’s words. The texts embrace the political rhetoric of the day, in which all problems were succinctly rendered into rhyming epithets....



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