In China, nostalgia lingers
for Mao's cultural revolution

May 16, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT (0230 GMT)


BEIJING (CNN) -- Thirty years ago this month, "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" began in China. It was an attempt by Chairman Mao Tse-tung to consolidate his power, but the result was a destructive 10-year period that Chinese scholars are now rethinking.

Throng cheers for Chairman Mao
(1.5M QuickTime movie)

"I think we need to alert our future generations to this period of history and make them recognize and understand it," said Zhu Kunian, a cultural revolution survivor. "Understand that this generation took some extremely beautiful aspirations and turned them into extremely tragic results."

The cultural revolution marked an age when students bludgeoned teachers to death, children denounced their parents and a neighbor could hack off a woman's long hair as a vestige of cultural imperialism.

In the 20 years since the revolution ended, China has become a much different place. Peasants now travel to cities in search of work, schools have long since reopened, and capitalism is in vogue.


But some Chinese still look back with some fondness at this dark period in China's history.

The Lao San Jie restaurant, so-called for the generation of Chinese who spent their youth in the countryside, is just one of a number of theme restaurants across Beijing offering patrons a taste of the "good side" of the cultural revolution.

Surrounded by souvenirs and pictures, some customers come for the novelty of trying the same simple food eaten by their countrymen back in the 1960s and '70s. Others, like middle-aged Deng, visit the restaurant to remember the tough times shared with colleagues from his generation.

"There is happiness in the bitterness," Deng said. "We were young then. Things were as they were. We were focused on what we were doing. We were happy and we didn't think about anything else."

The excitement and vitality of adolescence during the cultural revolution is the theme of "In the Heat of the Sun," a Chinese film shown at the 1994 Venice film festival.


The film's director, Jiang Wen, said he believes it is misleading to talk about this period as being either completely good or bad.

"If you look at documentaries about that time you feel that whips were being used to get people to do things they did," Jiang said. "People really wanted to do things, they (had) energy and an excitement, a fervor. It's just like we remember our adolescence. We can't say, 'Ahh, I was 18, I was stupid, too silly, and I didn't understand anything.'"

But even today, decades after the last "Long live Chairman Mao" slogans were shouted in the capital and elsewhere in China, public critique of the cultural revolution is still discouraged and sales of related memorabilia are allowed.

For a few dollars one can get a Mao button and a little red book with Mao's favorite quotations, but interested buyers are almost always tourists from overseas.

CNN Correspondent Andrea Koppel and Reuters contributed to this report.

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