May 2016

Shanghai forty years ago: If you remember “experiencing the Cultural Revolution,” you really weren’t there!

A report to the DAAD: “Über Studium und Leben an der Fudan Universität in Shanghai” (September 1976)
(click on the title to view the document)

Fudan U 1976

“Personal memory… is a remarkably slippery medium for preserving facts,” Eric Hobsbawm once observed. Although it can tell historians a lot about how people believe they once felt or what they think they once experienced, it is notoriously unreliable when it comes to figuring out what people actually felt and/or what really happened to them. To get a handle on such things, one has to look at contemporary records, assuming one can still find them.

Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, so the editors of the Asia Society’s ChinaFile tell us, “brought to a close the Cultural Revolution, his 10-year experiment in violent ‘class struggle’ begun 50 years ago this May.” Those of us who are old enough often assert that we remember this. But do we really? For example, foreigners who lived in China forty years ago – what did we write at the time about what we saw, heard, and experienced? What the Document of the Month for May 2016 evokes turns out to be a well-known saying about experiencing The Sixties. The document is a carbon copy of a carefully typed four-page report entitled “About Studies and Life at Fudan University in Shanghai” received by the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) from a young Sinology student in September 1976. What it records is experiencing China, plain and simple. To historians, what’s in it (and more importantly, what isn’t) suggests that if you were a 留学生in the mid-seventies and today claim to vividly remember “experiencing the Cultural Revolution,” then you really weren’t there!