Living Hell

‘In that Red Terror of 1966, the most worthless thing in China was a human life.’

Recently I purchased The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. I was intrigued by the introduction: it outlined periods and trends in Chinese Literature, which is a completely new topic to me, and one about which I would like to learn a lot more!

The anthology contains a range of texts, including poems, short stories, and essays. I began by dipping into the essays and have found myself haunted by Living Hell, an extract from Wen Jieruo’s memoirs, which details the torment suffered by her family during the Cultural Revolution.  Her essay presents a strikingly honest account of a disturbing and almost incomprehensible part of human history.


The most terrifying aspect of her account is that much of the violence was perpetrated by youths. Young people were lured out of the classroom with the promise of revolutionary glory, and told to destroy the lives of their elders, many of whom they previously held in the highest regard. In their seemingly senseless rampages, they appear less like schoolchildren, and more like wild animals: ‘I began to wonder,’ writes Wen Jieruo, ‘if the hoodlums surrounding me were men or beasts.’

The dehumanising affect of violence, a prominent theme in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, is in evidence here, too. Wen’s mother, who tried to cooperate with the regime but was only met with greater punishment, committed suicide to escape persecution. Not only did the Red Guards force her family to curse her, but the youths appeared unaffected by the knowledge that their actions had driven a woman to her death. Instead of expressing remorse, they criticised Wen’s mother for ‘alienating herself from the people.’ Even after death, the victims of the violence were denied respect. Wen records trucks piled high with corpses, so that the last thread of individual dignity was destroyed. She was not allowed to collect her mother’s ashes.

Wen’s essay represents a courageous attempt to comprehend a brutal political campaign that claimed several million lives, and shattered many more.

(Incidentally, I also learned recently that Wen Jieruo helped to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese. I can’t imagine how difficult a task that must have been!


2 thoughts on “Living Hell

  1. Yay! A Chinese anthology! I might consider buying it. I have Stephen Owen’s “An Anthology to Chinese Literature,” but it only goes up to 1911.

  2. Yet so many people took part in the Cultural Revolution,many of whom thought they did the right thing. It must have been hell, but a lot more complicated than just tormentors and tormented. That’s what I like about Mo Yan, he doesn’t try to hide that all people are bastards, sometimes doing bad by mistake or good on purpose or the other way around.

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