CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


My Friend the Memory Hole | China Heritage Quarterly

My Friend the Memory Hole:
A comment on living with Deng Xiaoping's 'anti-bourglib' campaign

Geremie Barmé

The following essay appeared in the pages of Renditions, a translation journal produced at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (see the print version of Issue 26, pp.5-6). A late addition to the issue it was not listed in the table of contents, nor is it in subsequent online versions and databases of that publication.

Written in the aftermath of the ouster of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦, and the beginning of the end of a particular phase of China's 'bourgeois-liberalisation' (zichanjieji ziyouhua 资产阶级自由化), this essay appeared only a short time before 1 August 1987, the day that Wu Zuguang was 'encouraged' to quit the Communist Party, a development that led to his call for a collection of 'essays on dispelling despondency'. The journalist from China Reconstructs mentioned below was none-other-than Zou Ting 邹霆 whose work also appears in the Features section of this issue of China Heritage QuarterlyThe Editor

Memory holes are a socio-political phenomenon more readily recognized by those familiar with the peculiarities of Eastern Bloc countries. They are rarely identified with Marxism-Leninism as it is practised in China; although that is not due to their being in short supply.

For the layman, the memory hole is best understood as an earth-bound equivalent of a black hole. They certainly have the same devastating effect on any object which is dropped down them. However, the memory hole is even more amorphous and unpredictable than its heavenly counterpart.

Over the first decade since the Cultural Revolution, people have become used to seeing things rising phoenix-like out of memory holes, rather than watching them being gobbled up. First the seventeen-year period from 1949-1966, its literature and intellectual life (or what passed for literature and intellectual life), were disgorged. Then gradually much of the twentieth century was observed to reappear as if out of thin air, and even China's legendary feudal past was scooped from the bottomless pit of memory obliteration to which it had been consigned during the first thirty years of Communist Party rule. Of course, throughout this period of regurgitation the ingesting apparatus of the memory hole itself was always kept in good order: it still had its fair share of work. First, that irksome quartet the Gang of Four had to be wiped out of history, leaving inconvenient blanks and embarrassing lacunae in its wake; then, when the Wise Leader Chairman Hua, the instrument of their doom, fell foul of the engineers of human history in 1980, he too was made into a non-person, and everyone pretended that he had never existed. This was followed by a respite, or rather a memory hole recession, of six years, which is a long time by Chinese standards. Then in January of this year with the fall of Hu Yaobang, China's dormant memory hole industry enjoyed a healthy boost to its J-curve. This was followed in rapid succession by the nation-wide denunciation of the writers Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang, as well as the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi.

Fig.1 'The delicate application of political ideological work', by Fang Cheng 方成

Although Chinese memory holes have failed to keep up with the times, and in some cases prove downright inefficient, they can, when need be, still prove very effective. I know, because I've sat next to one. It used to have a name that appeared regularly in the pages of the People's Daily, as well as literary journals throughout China. Today nothing is left but a gaping hole of forgetfulness. I am, of course, talking about Liu Binyan.

Liu and I took part in a conference on contemporary Chinese literature held at Jinshan in Shanghai in November 1986. It was the first international conference of its type held in China, and Liu's speech to the dozens of Sinologists and Chinese writers and cultural aficionados was one of the high-points of the proceedings. In it he commented that in speaking to an 'old comrade' whose name he chose not to reveal, he was told that the present situation in China was just as it had been on the eve of the Anti-Rightist Campaign thirty years earlier. He warned Liu and others 'not to force our hand and make us carry out another Anti-Rightist Campaign'. Liu, a victim of that campaign, went on to say how 'excellent' the situation had in fact been before the purge of China's intellectuals (one, it would be well to remember, that was stage-managed by none other than Deng Xiaoping).

That night I was asked by a reporter from China Reconstructs to take part in a discussion with Liu Binyan and Leo Ou-fan Lee, an American sinologist. We sat talking for an hour or so discussing such topics as the role of the writer of conscience in contemporary Chinese culture, the question of 'art for art's sake' literature and the disturbing lack of honest writing on the Cultural Revolution. Our comments were variously recorded by both the reporter fromChina Reconstructs, who also happens to be a regular correspondent for semi-independent Chinese language journals in Hong Kong and an old and trusted friend of Liu's, and an editor of Literary Gazette (Wenyibao), 'spokespaper' for the Ministry of Culture.

In December portions of the interview were duly published in Literary Gazette over a number of weeks and a fuller version of the exchange was prepared for the overseas Chinese-language edition of China Reconstructs. Then, all of a sudden, memory holes began to gobble people up. Hu Yaobang was the first to go. The February run of China Pictorial had to be pulped by the Foreign Languages Press because the man in the cover illustration (Hu) had become a nonperson. It cost the Press an estimated one million yuan.

Fig.2 Left to right: Liu Binyan, Wang Meng and Zhaxi Dawa 扎西达娃 at the Jin Shan Conference, Shanghai, November 1986

Then Liu, Wang and Fang fell from sight, engorged by the same, somewhat dyspeptic memory hole: it has occasionally upchucked its contents before eating them up again, as witnessed by Hu Yaobang's fleeting appearance at the opening ceremony of the People's Congress in April and Fang Lizhi's May visit to Italy. Yet apart from newspaper articles and internal documents denouncing the anti-Party words and deeds of Liu and Wang, the two writers might as well have never existed. And when it came time for China Reconstructs to publish that interview in March, something rather odd happened. The two foreign interviewees appeared in the photos and their statements were faithfully reproduced, but the Chinese participant had been mysteriously metamorphosed into Yang Xianyi, the veteran Foreign Languages Press translator. Certainly Yang had been present: he had come into the room half-way through the interview after his usual nightcap, and sat with me on the floor interjecting whenever Liu Binyan got too carried away by his own eloquence. Now, in the magazine article there was no evidence that Liu had even been there, and the interloper Yang and his off-the-cuff comments became the centre-piece of the interview. Liu's old friend had simply shoved him down a memory hole as was required. That he did so should occasion no surprise; what is surprising is that he and his editors saw fit to publish this outrageous distortion without any thought that the two foreign participants who are bound by neither State law nor Party discipline might not be willing to play the role of silent conspirators in the deception.

Of course, this is but a minor example of the rampant memory hole syndrome that has left many Chinese intellectuals and foreign observers wondering whether it's a bit precipitous of Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao to publish their History of the 'Cultural Revolution', a book recently withdrawn from public distribution leaving its authors teetering on the rim of a memory hole themselves.[1]

Of course, this is all red-banner news for the corporate heads of the flagging memory hole industry. In the ordinary course of events, the 'anti-bourglib' campaign, which is still being pursued by the old men in Peking, should be able to provide endless pulp for China's hungry memory holes. But now here is the bad news: unless the economic reform policy of Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun is also dismantled and a complete return to the Cultural Revolution era effected, there is little hope that staunch Party men like Liu will stay down the chute for long. He might be out of sight for the time being, but his name is on everyone's lips.[2]

Canberra, May 1987


[1] Published in November 1986 by the Tianjin People's Publishing House, Yan Jiaqi 嚴家其 and Gao Gao's 高皋 'unofficial history' of the Cultural Revolution, 《'文化大革命'十年史》 has been reclassified for 'internal distribution' (neibu faxing) only.

[2] Liu Binyan (1925-2005) went to the US in 1988 and remained there following the Beijing Massacre of 1989. He died in exile and remains in China's Party-state memory hole.