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The Crack Magazine

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Red Memory by Tania Branigan

Autocrats and dictators always have a way with words and phrases that obscure and sanitise the indefensible and Mao was no different. The Great Leap Forward resulted in an estimated forty-nine million deaths (the famine resulting from it referred to in China as ‘Three Years of Difficulty’) and The Cultural Revolution in millions more. That these terms are still used arguably proves that misnomers can be a way of encouraging forgetting and a way for China’s ruling elite to control the narrative. Red Memory is about the art of not forgetting and bringing to light stories about The Cultural Revolution by interviewing people who took part in it, were brought down by it and suffered because of it. As Tania Branigan states in the first few pages of the remarkable Red Memory, “I had no idea, when I set out, that history would at once be fetishised and threatened. I didn’t foresee the ways in which memory would be disinterred, revived and nurtured - or policed, exploited and suppressed”. When the past is seen as a threat, autocratic governments struggle to control what it might mean, while the people who lived through it struggle to reconcile what they remember and what they’re supposed to forget, “Without the right to remember, there can be no freedom to forget”. The Cultural Revolution attempted to eradicate the wrong kind of culture and then remake it to help the Chinese people become better versions of themselves. Unfortunately, making the wrong kind of art resulted not only in the destruction of art and books but also in the killing of not only the people who made this art, but exhibited it, were seen to own it and supported it. And if you weren’t killed, you were exiled, silenced and then watched (even years later). Attempting to look at both the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of The Cultural Revolution, Tania Branigan explores what that means in terms of the past, present and what it means for Chinese people in the future. Recommended.

Published by Faber

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