Shadow of Cultural Revolution: Review of《故园的背影》

ZHEYAN NI reviews the gripping generational memoir《故园的背影》(Retreating Figures in the Garden of the Past) published in 2018.

Guyuan de Beiying 《故园的背影》(Retreating Figures in the Garden of the Past) consists of a series of memoirs written by Chinese students enrolled at Hunan Normal University in the early 1980s who later moved abroad to study and work in the United States. These stories vividly portray the authors’ memories of their fathers, many of whom are intellectuals themselves with roots in well-established families that valued education and personal merit. However, when the Cultural Revolution struck, many of them were politically persecuted, imprisoned, publicly humiliated, and deprived of any chance of social mobility due to their undesirable backgrounds. The “capitalist stigma” imposed by wide-spread political fanaticism also barricaded the abilities of their sons and daughters—the authors of these memoirs—to receive education and expand their social networks. But by 1978 when the national college examinations resumed, opportunities surfaced. These children of denounced capitalist families endeavored to succeed in exams, went on to college and grad schools, and studied abroad in the U.S where they settled down. Decades later, they are now leading contributors in academia, science and technology development, business and finance.

The dominating masculine perspective in this book is paramount in setting the basic tone of narratives. Most images of their father convey resemblance to a mentor inculcating philosophy, life, and career onto the children, while lacking details of everyday life activities. For example, authors tend to recall the time when their fathers were studying and reading books, working in the office, teaching children, or socializing with neighbors and friends. By contrast, memoirs of mothers and grandmothers in other literatures are often filled with everyday life moments, such as dining, making and wearing clothes, farming or laboring, as well as marriage and child-rearing related to personal choices and values. In other words, memoirs about one’s father and mother represent a public versus private life dichotomy. Fathers are always viewed as historical agents that belong to the public domain.

From this book, one salient crux is that, experientially speaking, the generational gap in historical context for the authors and their fathers is unimaginably huge: personal merit and educational background were a curse for their fathers to struggle with. They were matters of life or death, yet the same qualities were precisely what empowered the authors to not only achieve career success and personal worth but also to save their families from misery.

With this gap in mind, the very act of recounting becomes quite intriguing. Knowing life’s turbulence from their youth but currently leading a satisfying life in their 40s and 50s, these children ultimately became authors able to compose and evaluate the history of their fathers. These memories are composed of chronologically fragmented moments—factually blurry but emotionally firm and animated.  For example, some authors cannot even remember their fathers’ faces, much less the details of their shared experiences. However, almost all authors revere their fathers as their moral icon and spiritual torchlight. Many mention that their fathers embody the unyielding virtue of integrity and the spirit of public service even during the most demanding and humiliating moments.

Raising children to become college graduates in the 1970s was extremely difficult given the anti-intellectual political climate, pervasive poverty, and constant revolutions. The father-children relationship in this book has become a symbol of hard-earned family mobility in virtually all aspects: material wealth, family honor and tradition, personal achievement…

Generational memoir is a common and powerful genre in modern Chinese historical literature, epitomized by Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Zhu Ziqing’s Retreating Figure.  Memories of parents in early People’s Republic of China leave indelible marks about everyday political and economic life at that time. It seems that, in this book, no one can escape the Cultural Revolution, severe poverty, famine, and lack of personal choices imposed by the planned economy and the Great Leap Forward. No one can treat the year of 1978 as just another normal year. It is a crucial turning point where the fathers had attached tremendous hope and expectation to their children, wishing they could fight their way out of the historical abyss of political chaos. The authors mourn the fact that their fathers’ talents, skills, ambitions, and moral virtues were “wasted” by history. More broadly conceived and taken as a whole, these memoirs constitute an epitaph of a generation of talents withered away by historical trauma.

It is also worth noting the subtleties behind the title of this work and the meaning it lends to these emotional stories. Beiying (the silhouette or shadow of a retreating figure) is quite suggestive: a glimpse into a desolate character that is receding slowly into the dusty and secret garden of history. Beiying is a commonly invoked connotation in Chinese historical writing, which implies a modest stance that the author takes to commemorate the persona because the writer is quite aware of the obscurity and challenge of historical writing of modern China. When many voices and images are being lost or forgotten in the mists of chaotic eras, sometimes coercively by political censorship, how can we delineate a clear storyline to rescue memory? When memories themselves are scattered around in fragments, who would care to read the last appearance of that retreating figure before he disappears permanently from history? Fortunately, unlike other heavy and serious writings about trauma, Guyuan provides a collection of not-so-bitter voices for us to understand the conundrum of why and what we should remember about individuals in historical suffering.

Zheyan Ni can be contacted at

Edited By Guo Shiyou
Hunan Normal University Press, 2018. CNY 58

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