- Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication
For the most part, book reviews are a "good news-bad news" exercise, with the nod going one way or the other, usually with an "and yet…" qualification. This time, for me, for this book, that's how it is—a toss-up. I wanted to like it, but couldn't quite; I tried to hate it, but that didn't work either. So here I go: good news, bad news.
Actually, if we start at the beginning, it's bad news first. Since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) ended in 1976, dozens of books by survivors, participants, and observers of the catastrophic decade have appeared, both in Chinese and in other languages, including translations. Running the gamut from accounts of victimization to pleas for understanding, these memoirs have painted, however redundantly at times, a fairly comprehensive and personalized picture of the GPCR. In my view, however, they have no place in a scholarly treatise, which makes Xing Lu's first chapter, "My Family Caught in the Cultural Revolution," a nearly fatal distraction. After stating that it has not been her intention "to write an autobiographical account or memoir," that is precisely what she does, including a long section titled "The Story of My Mother," in which lines like the following appear: "Mother got into the habit of going to the toilet every time she heard the loudspeaker, and to this day whenever she hears a loudspeaker she has to urinate immediately. It would seem that Mother's bladder was totally conditioned by the terror of the Cultural Revolution." A bad beginning, I'm afraid.
While some might consider it churlish to appear to undervalue a personal and genuine appeal to take note of a period of widespread suffering and the political, social, and ideological climate in which it occurred, I can muster only two claims in defense: (1) In the quarter century and more since the Cultural Revolution ended, with the death of Mao and the convenient indictment of the Gang of Four, dozens of memoirs (with "J'accuse" in evidence far more than "mea culpa") have appeared in English, along with numerous scholarly and journalistic works on the GPCR; one more may be of some psychological benefit to the author, but it essentially duplicates what others have already written, often with more power and evocative effect than the chapter of the book under review. (2) As I stated earlier, the inclusion of a personal memoir in a work of scholarship invests the entire project with an undesirable patchwork quality.
As Lu is a specialist in the field of rhetoric, the fruits of her research will likely be received by two generally discrete audiences: linguists interested in the study of rhetorical symbols and their impact on national citizenries, and those [End Page 170] interested in China's modern history, such as scholars and "China watchers." One of the author's stated goals has been to "identify similarities between the rhetoric of Communist China and those of Stalin's Russia and Nazi Germany," and although she has followed through on her promise, unique historical and sociological contexts and phenomena have conspired to limit the deeper significance of these similarities.
The second chapter, "Language, Thought, and Culture in the Chinese Political Context," serves primarily the second audience, those who would likely need to be brought up to speed in theories of language and who might require a historical overview of Chinese Communist rhetoric prior to the GPCR. Both aspects of the topic are useful; discussion of the former moves forward from a variety of "perspectives": anthropological, philosophical, critical, and rhetorical. Western and Chinese theorists and thinkers, modern and ancient, are introduced in the context of their relevant postulates on the subject. This chapter moves the work into the realm of scholarship, where it belongs, and leads the reader into the next five chapters, the project's core...