After the Cultural Revolution

One of the most surprising things about Cixin Liu’s award-winning science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem was its direct and unflinching portrayal of China’s Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of bloody civil war and widespread oppression of academic intellectuals was not what I expected from a novel that was first published in China, and the specific dialogue as student protesters harangued a physics professor for daring to teach special relativity was at once chilling and fascinating. In some ways, there are elements of the excellent sequel (The Dark Forest) that are even more haunting. The way that an author who is so willing to stare the political doublethink of the Cultural Revolution directly in the face has no qualms about positively describing the important role that political officers would play in a modern (presumably less totalitarian) Chinese military shows, to me, how deeply embedded some of the assumptions that led to the Cultural Revolution still remain. So many things that do not seem political to use are that way purely because nobody has bothered to politicize them. But physics, like anything else, can be and has been politicized.

And then just a couple of weeks ago, I saw this fascinating article in Foreign Policy about an obscure Chinese folk singer (Yang Le) who was allowed–on national television–to sing about the personal costs to his family of the Cultural Revolution. The article notes that “Yang’s song likely made the cut, even earning accolades in a November 2015 article by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, by focusing on emotion rather than details, telling a family rather than a political story, and declining to place blame.” Here is a video for you to watch, and then the lyrics (translated into English by Foreign Policy) after:

When I was small
A family of six
Older brothers and sisters, I was the youngest
Dad was handsome and brave
Mom was young and beautiful
They worked earnestly, and were kind-hearted

After the Cultural Revolution, only five were left.
Dad suffered a wrong, he passed on first.
Mom had no choice, she married someone from a different place.
My siblings went up to the mountains and down to the countryside.

From that time on, our family was dispersed.
Brothers and sisters to the four corners of the earth.
At each holiday, we could only send distant greetings
Distant greetings
Distant greetings

Many years later, looking back again,
Brothers and sisters, no need to comfort each other
We all remember, Dad wanted us to be honest and kind
We should never change
We remember, Mom wanted us to be strong
And happy
Even today
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Strong and happy
Kind and honest
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Good and kind
Living happily