It was quite en experience, yesterday, reading "Red Color News Soldier," the book to which you'll find a link in my last entry. While I had a general idea of Chinese history since World War II, Li Zhensheng's book and his photographs document it in dramatic and poignant detail. Particularly disturbing are the scores of pictures of public humiliations, with offenders agaist the current (and constantly shifting) brand of communist orthodoxy forced to stand on chairs for hours, heads bowed in shame, crowned with elaborately pointed paper dunce caps, their faces and clothes spattered with ink, and holding signs that detail such crimes as "careerism" and the ever popular accusation of representing the (apparently) odious "black gang element." As is common in tyrannical regimes, a good part of its strength derived from pitting people against people, encouraging ubiquitous betrayal and mistrust.
Li led me through the experience of one brought up and educated to believe that everything in Mao's communist China represented humanitarian freedom, while everything outside represented injustice and repression. The dawning of his own realization that things were less than perfect in his own country came, he told me, with the attack on a Russian orthodox church in his home town of Harbin in 1966 where, as he describes it in his book, "the city's rebel goups went on a rampage... tearing it down with their bare hands;" and shortly after, when "they sacked the Buddhist Jile temple.: Years later, he wrote, he could still not understand "why they smashed all the statues and burned the sacred books. They even made the monks hold up a banner that said, 'To hell with the Buddhist scriptures. They are full of dog farts.'"
I like to think that the Buddha himself would have had a good chuckle--not at the treatment of his monks, certainly, but at the absurdity of the intended insult. Actually, he might even have encouraged its propagation, because he always insisted that no-one should take his word as gospel. The idea was not to to simply accept it, but to subject it to constant questioning. "Dog farts," indeed. No text is sacred beyond questioning.
Li recalls, in his book, some less than honorable acts that he himself was deluded into commiting, either in the spirit of political correctness or simply in self-defense. Nonetheless, he concludes, "I think we must try, through serious reflection, through contemplation, to relieve those whose souls were tortured. I want to show the world what really happened during the Cultural Revolution." His book serves precisely that purpose. It's a powerful indictment of a tyrannical regime and its cynical abuse of power and of the people it holds in subjugation. I hope the current exhibition at the California Museum of Photography (see yesterday's link) serves to make it better known in these United States where, even today, we need to be on a guard against those who would set us against each other and deprive us of our freedoms. We hear quite a few dog farts, these days, from Washington, DC.