"The scholar can be killed, but he cannot be humiliated."
This Confucian thought, extolling the honor that comes with great learning, is repeated again and again in "The Cowshed," Ji Xianlin's remarkable memoir of the Cultural Revolution.
As Ji begins his narrative, he is the chairman of the Department of Eastern Languages at Peking (now Beijing) University, an esteemed and relatable professor of Sanskrit who likes his students and mentors young colleagues.
Yet neither his reputation nor his peasant background nor his active support of the Great Leader's Revolution is enough to save him from the savagery of the Red Guards — some of whom he had worked with or taught.
"The Cowshed" offers no large-scale analysis of the causes of this pivotal moment in Chinese history. Rather, the strength of Ji's narrative is its personal dimension as Ji locks arms with us to accompany him into the hell of re-education.
We hear from him what it is like to be denounced, to be dragged upon a stage before a jeering crowd where he is beaten and kicked. Such "struggle sessions" continue for 18 months at a variety of venues: Everyone wants a piece of him.
He writes, "My role reminded me of the sheep tied on top of cars driving in the countryside of Xinjiang. When a good spot is found by the picnickers, they slaughter the sheep on the spot, cook a lamb pilaf, and return home satiated."
Once a believer in the Cultural Revolution, he comes to recognize it as "an elaborate excuse for workers to persecute intellectuals." The "revolutionaries" are no more than "arrogant thugs" who have no understanding of politics.
Ji's profound shame leads him to prepare for suicide, but he is imprisoned before this can take place.
As the physical abuse slowly abates, he is penned in "the cowshed," a makeshift enclosure on the university campus with other "blackguards," living in an environment of meager rations (cornmeal buns and pickles), forced labor, Mao catechism — and informants.
Ji is an excellent writer with a talent for placing his reader alongside him, as he nervously steals away from Red Guards or crouches in "airplane position" while screaming people stone him.
Ever the scholar, he seeks understanding in the classical wisdom of Chinese poets, but they offer him no more solace than Confucius' thought about scholarly stoicism. Fortunately, Ji's wry sense of humor does. In the midst of horror or, perhaps, reflecting back on it, Ji approvingly notes that the posters denouncing the "capitalist roaders" have led to a revival of calligraphy.
After one interrogation, he observes, "The slogans were halfhearted, there was no kicking or punching, and I barely did the airplane position at all. … If I were grading struggle sessions … I couldn't give more than a 3 out of 10."
As China tired of the spectacle and the political winds changed, Ji was "half-liberated," then fully invited back into the Party, with his job and back pay restored. He found that some of his former tormentors were now colleagues, an awkward situation that led him to delay publication of "The Cowshed" many years.
Ji insists on the accuracy of everything he says, and in the introduction to this important work, he hopes others — victims and victimizers — will write "scar literature" to address disbelief in younger generations.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.