Anniversary of a Revolution, But Don't Tell Anyone

A poster during the Cultural Revolution. i

A poster during the Cultural Revolution. The caption reads, "The Chinese People's Liberation Army is a University of Mao Zedong Thought." hide caption

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A poster during the Cultural Revolution.

A poster during the Cultural Revolution. The caption reads, "The Chinese People's Liberation Army is a University of Mao Zedong Thought."

On this day in 1966, the Cultural Revolution began in China. Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong called on Chinese youth to overthrow the communist government... and they did. Over the course of the next 10 years, hundreds of thousands of people died as the country was swept with revolutionary fervor.

I just got off the phone with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. He told me that the Chinese government made sure that there wasn't a peep about the anniversary in public. They gave strict orders to the media and closed down some photo exhibits. But, he says, people who lived through it can't forget it.

China hasn't absorbed the lessons of the Cultural Revolution, according to Kuhn, and the government really hasn't faced up to the massive tragedy that gripped the country. And if they don't acknowledge what happened, how can people be assured that it won't happen again?

He also says that young people, who have grown up in the capitalist consumer society that makes up a lot of China today, are simply baffled by the whole thing. They see period art, like an opera portraying the landlord as the bad guy oppressing the poor worker, and say, "What's the problem? He's just trying to collect the rent, he's not exploiting anyone."

Interestingly, the official line is that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster. Kuhn tells me that in 1981, Communist leader Deng Xiao Ping came up with the precise good/bad ratio of Mao: 70 percent good/30 percent bad. I just love the precision of that.

I'm pretty sure that successfully dealing with shameful incidents in a society's past doesn't include, "hey, let's just pretend it didn't happen."

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