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from “Memories of the Cowshed”

Memories of the Cowshed is one of China’s top bestsellers on the Cultural Revolution. Ji Xianlin’s 1998 memoir recounts the painful and deeply disenchanting period he spent in the “cowshed,” an improvised prison on the Peking University campus for intellectuals labeled as “class enemies.” After the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the cowsheds became a taboo subject on campuses across China, where persecutors and victims often continued to work alongside each other. Published in 1998, Ji’s memoir became a bestseller as one of the few firsthand accounts of the “cowshed” to have been written by an immediate victim of the political frenzy. To a remarkable extent, Memories of the Cowshed achieved Ji’s goal of directing public attention to the brutality of the Cultural Revolution: today, if a Beijing or Shanghai local has read one book on the Cultural Revolution, it is likely to be Memories. Given that Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is one of thousands of political prisoners in China, Ji Xianlin’s eyewitness story of surviving “reform through labor” remains a timely and important read.

In the excerpts selected below, Ji describes being severely beaten in the cowshed. He reflects on the demoralizing effect of being imprisoned, as well as the mass worship of Chairman Mao that made the Cultural Revolution possible.



After the evening assembly, or sometimes even after the regulation bedtime of ten o’clock, the biology student turned prison guard Zhang Guoxiang could be found beneath the brightly lit tree in the center of the yard, sitting with his right leg planted on a chair. He would be picking at the dirt beneath his toenails and railing at the unlucky convict who stood before him, hanging his head.

One night I was surprised to find Lu Ping, Peking University’s former President and Party Committee Secretary, standing before Zhang while he sat in that memorable position. Lu Ping had been a leader of the 1935 anti-Japanese student protests, and once served as the deputy minister of railways. A principal target of the Empress Dowager’s big-character posters, he had previously been imprisoned elsewhere, and was only moved to the cowshed later.[1] I could not tell how long the interrogation had lasted, but something looked fishy about the whole affair.

I didn’t realize then that I would be standing in Lu Ping’s position only a few nights later. Some time after the curfew bell had rung, I heard someone call my name from the direction of the Democracy Block. Even at night, I was always extremely alert, and I rushed to the front yard right away. There I found Zhang sitting with his feet up:

“Why have you been corresponding with spy organizations?”

“I have not.”

“Why did you say that Comrade Jiang Qing has been giving the New Peking University Commune morphine shots?”[2]

“That was only intended metaphorically.”

“How many wives do you have?”

I was startled, and carefully replied: “I do not have several wives.”

We had a few more exchanges of this sort before he observed, “I have been very kind to you tonight.” He was right: I had not been kicked or assaulted in any way, and was as heartily relieved as the recipient of an imperial pardon. But the word “tonight” should have aroused my suspicions.

The following night, after the curfew bell had rung and I was getting ready for bed, I heard a voice yell: “Ji Xianlin!” I sped to the yard even faster that I had the previous day, and saw Mr. Zhang fuming on the corner: “Where have you been? Are you deaf?”

Before I had time to process this ugly turn of events, a storm of blows rained down on my head. I knew that Zhang’s weapon must be a bicycle chain wrapped in rubber. Not daring to move, I stood there rigidly without flinching. There was a ringing in my ears, and my head spun; the sensation in my ears, mouth, and nose was worse than pain. I thought I might faint, but I forced myself to hold on. In my confusion, I could no longer hear Zhang shout.

I finally heard the command: “Get lost!” Realizing that the wrathful god had again shown mercy, I hurried back to my room with my tail between my legs. Later, the convicts who lived on that block, terrified, told me how long the beating had lasted.

As soon as I had regained my senses, I began to feel sore all over. I examined myself: my nose and ears were bleeding, but my teeth were intact, and I could still open my swollen eyes. I writhed in bed all night long, my whole body aching, my open wounds sticky with blood. Without a mirror, I could only guess what I must look like; when Zhang’s victims appeared the following morning, their faces were always swollen with bruises, and I figured I must be in an even worse state. I was not exempt from the next day’s routine of work and memorizing Mao’s sayings, but my mind was completely blank; I didn’t even think of suicide.

Mr Zhang wasn’t through with me yet. He barged into my cell at noon and ordered me to change rooms. It wasn’t as though I had any belongings to pack: I simply picked up my bed sheets and took them to a room opposite the spot where I had been beaten. By day it seemed no different than my previous cell, but by night I realized: this was the VIP room for very important prisoners. The lights stayed on all night, and the prisoners took turns standing guard. (Was this meant to prevent escapes? Surely that was unnecessary, as intellectuals are the most timid of prisoners. Perhaps the guards were wary of suicides, hangings, and the like.) I realized that the beating had earned me promotion to a deeper level of hell, analogous to death row or to the Avici circle of the Buddhist hell. Lu Ping also lived here.

Mr Zhang subsequently forced one Professor Wang and me to fetch water for the whole camp three times a day, by pushing a cart to the public stove. I don’t know how Professor Wang managed to end up in the same boat as me, since he had committed no great crime and never been a member of Jinggang Mountain.[3] Carrying water was backbreaking work, and we both had to do it three times a day on top of our daily labor and rote memorization. We looked on as other inmates ate hungrily. We invariably got soaked in the rain; we would have had to fetch water even if it rained knives. But Professor Wang seemed to enjoy himself in spite of it: when we got to the stove he would always smoke a cigarette and secretly make himself a cup of tea.


After a few months in the cowshed, I could feel my emotions being dulled and my thoughts growing more stupid by the day. I may have been a man in prison, but I felt like a hungry ghost in hell; I began to judge myself the way I knew other people judged me. I used to consider myself a person, and treated myself as one. But to borrow a popular psychological term, I now felt alienated from myself.

I hope to possess self-knowledge without arrogance: if the world has two kinds of people, “good guys” and “bad guys,” as a child might say, I profess to be one of the good guys. I have, for instance, always been neither stingy nor avaricious. When I was eighteen, the pharmacist’s clerk in Jinan once gave me too much change. A silver coin was a small fortune to a teenager, but I gave it back to him right away. His face reddened; only later would I learn what that look on his face meant. In 1946, when I was about to return to China, I sold a gold watch so as to send some money home, and exchanged the remaining francs for gold. The man made a mistake and gave me an extra ounce of gold; again, I gave it back right away. These were all minor incidents, but they meant something to an ordinary person like me.

I soon grew used to acting like a ghost, although I had resisted it. The distinctions between man and ghost, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, had become hazy. I felt useless, like a cracked jug. I thought neither of the future nor of ending my life—I had simply stopped caring who I was.

Anyway, I had more pressing problems. The living allowance allotted to my family was pitiful, and we would have starved even if we ate nothing but cornmeal cakes with pickled vegetables. Without a drop of fuel in my stomach, the hard labor made me constantly hungry. Sometimes I trailed the guards around, begging them for empty tofu cans, so that I could dip cornmeal cakes into the thin liquid at the bottom of them. At one point I was made to clean out student dormitories that had been damaged during fighting by the rival factions. In a large room littered with debris on the south end of the twenty-eighth floor, I found a couple of moldy steamed buns in a drawer. Without stopping to think about dirt or germs, I pocketed my finds and wolfed them down secretly in a corner when the guards weren’t looking.

I learned to be economical with the truth. After prison, I was still forced to work, but allowed to live at home. When I was at a worksite and unbearably hungry, I would tell the worker leading our team that I had to go to the hospital. With permission to leave, I would scurry home by back alleys no one used, gulp down a couple of steamed buns with sesame paste, and hurry back to work. This was a risky scheme: if I ran into a guard or one of their informants, the consequences would be grim.

One day I found some ten-cent and twenty-cent notes on the road, and delightedly stuffed them into my pocket. A convict was prohibited from holding his head up when walking; from then on, I turned the rule to my advantage, and kept my eyes peeled for copper coins. When I realized that the toilet in the cowshed was the best place to find copper coins, the outhouse that everyone shunned became one of my favorite places.


In 1978, when the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference resumed its meetings, I met an old Party official at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. He was an old revolutionary, much admired in literary and artistic circles. Before the Cultural Revolution, we had both been members of the social science working group at the Conference, but we had not seen each other in more than a decade. The first words he said to me were: “Our ancestors said: ‘The scholar can be killed, but he cannot be humiliated.’ The Cultural Revolution has proved that the scholar can be killed, but he can also be humiliated.”[4] He began to roar with—laughter, or were those tears? I was unable even to feign a smile. Isn’t it clear how much this old man must have suffered?

He was not alone; I, for one, also felt that way, and I imagine that many other Chinese intellectuals must have too. We are descended from the scholars who “can be killed, but cannot be humiliated,” a tradition that probably makes us even more thin-skinned than our Western counterparts.

The events of the Cultural Revolution led me to consider the history and present state of intellectuals in China. Although they did not constitute a social class, scholars would have ranked ahead of farmers, artisans, and merchants in feudal society. Neither at the very top nor at the very bottom of the feudal system, they nonetheless commanded respect. I was born too late to ever have known intellectuals like those in the Qing dynasty novel The Scholars. But I did know a few intellectuals of the warlord and Kuomintang era, such as the respected and well-paid and –university professors of the time. Since social existence determines consciousness, they were often self-assured, cocky types. By the time I myself became a professor, Kuomintang influence was waning, inflation had reached unbelievable levels, and the real income of a professor was pitiful. Yet professors still wore the long scholars’ gown preferred by scholars as a mark of their social status, like the man caricatured by Lu Xun in his short story “Kong Yiji.”

I, like many other professors, greeted the Liberation enthusiastically. We felt we had stood up and been counted, had been given a new lease of life. We were as excited and naïve as small children. To borrow the phrase of a popular song, we felt that “the skies in the liberated areas are blue.” Everything we set our eyes on seemed to glow.

But the glow didn’t last. During the Three Anti and Five Anti-campaigns, the first major reform movements targeting capitalists and other “counterrevolutionaries,” I made a public confession at a department meeting and came away feeling lighter, stronger, as though I had been cleansed of my filth. Such was the euphoria of self-criticism.[5] But before long the criticism campaigns came thick and fast, and I could barely keep up. We criticized Wu Xun. We criticized Redology, we criticized Hu Feng, we criticized Hu Shi… There was no end to the campaigns, which culminated in the anti-Rightist campaigns of 1957.[6] Although I had not been assigned any class labels or political “hats,” I was always keyed up, always on edge—those were bleak days. But at the time, I believed in the mass campaigns. I had no misgivings. Incidentally, the “airplane position” had not yet been invented, so public struggle sessions were not the great spectacles that they later became during the Cultural Revolution. But nonetheless, during the anti-Rightist campaigns, I went to many of the “struggle sessions” at which crowds tormented individual “Rightists,” and read the thick files compiled about their “crimes.” I was bewildered, especially as I saw the crowds acting in ways that were difficult to reconcile with Mao’s original directives. Even so, I had no doubts, not even about Mao’s famous declaration: if the anti-Rightist campaign is a conspiracy, it is a conspiracy carried out in broad daylight!

 Before 1949, I had assumed that all politics was filthy, and made up my mind to have nothing to do with it. I did not understand the Communist Party; I simply felt that the Kuomintang government was corrupt and must collapse. But as I have said, the febrile self-criticism of the post-1949 political campaigns transformed my attitude. I realized that not all politics was necessarily corrupt; the Communist Party, for instance, was not. But I also excoriated myself: while the Chinese people were bleeding in battle with the Japanese, I had selfishly been pursuing my own academic career thousands of miles away. My scholarship, my scraps of erudition, if they could even be called that, were a source of vast shame. For a long time, I called myself a member of the “fruit-picking faction,” a parasite who had contributed nothing to the war effort but returned to pluck the fruit of victory. How could I make amends?

My thoughts ran wild. I even wished there could be another war against Japan, to give me a chance to prove myself. I knew I was capable of fighting, of sacrifice. I devoured novels about World War Two and about the civil war. I worshiped the soldiers and Communists they depicted, vowing to emulate their heroism. My state of mind at the time can be inferred from the eagerness with which I threw myself into these childish fantasies.

I had formerly despised cults of personal worship. Before the war, I used to sneer at Kuomintang supporters for worshipping their leader, Chiang Kai-Shek. As a student at Tsinghua University, I had met this so-called leader when we marched to Nanjing after the Mukden incident and requested an audience with him. He had lied to us then, and we resented him for it. My mentor, Chen Yinke, felt the same way about this man, as the line “One who delights in flowers is saddened to climb high towers” from his poem shows.[7] I later moved to Germany during the war, when fascism was at its height. The German greeting “Heil Hitler!” sounded preposterous to me. A pretty teenage girl once told me, “Bearing one of Hitler’s children would be the greatest honor of my life!” I found this sort of delirious talk incomprehensible, and couldn’t help thinking: we Chinese people are too shrewd to fall for something like that.

I returned to China after the war. Three years later, the country was liberated. Many old intellectuals probably shared the euphoria I have described above. Each year there were two grand parades at Tiananmen Square, on Labor Day and on National Day. We always got up at dawn, and assembled on the main campus to march to a narrow lane near the Dongdan crossing. We would wait there for hours. When the parade began officially at ten, our company would pass through Tiananmen to be inspected by the Great Leader. At the time, the three great gates to the square had not yet been demolished. East of the gates, it was impossible to see either the main Tiananmen gate or the leaders. But once we had turned the corner past the gates, we could see the Great Leader, so the crowd, thousands strong, would begin to cry: “Long live Chairman Mao!” At first, the phrase “Long live” struck in my throat. But before long, because of my natural tendency to go along with the crowd, I too found myself raising my voice in elation, as though this were the cry of my soul. I had fallen at the Great Leader’s feet.

This is a true account of my intellectual journey. If the existence of oceans can indeed be inferred from a drop of water, or the universe seen in a grain of sand, then perhaps other old intellectuals had similar experiences. If nothing else, our ordeals demonstrate that Chinese intellectuals, both old and young, are consumed with love for China. Patriotism has been our heritage for centuries; it is part of what makes us distinctive, what makes us different from intellectuals in other countries.

“Who wakes first from a dream?/ Only I know the life I have led.”[8] Waking from dreams is not one of my strengths. Even after I had been imprisoned, I continued to support the Cultural Revolution. But then I found that “all that glitters is not gold.” During my imprisonment, I encountered the soldiers and workers who had been sent to “support the leftist faction” at Peking University. I used to worship soldiers and workers: “All citizens must learn from the People’s Liberation Army!” “The proletariat must take the lead in everything!” I had believed in and obeyed all these slogans. But in my dealings with them, I found that some of them were arrogant, brutal, ignorant thugs who cared nothing for politics. I came to my senses, as though someone had poured a bucket of cold water on me. I knew no one is perfect, but I had not imagined that the objects of my worship could act so despicably. As materialists, our approach to things should be pragmatic and our motivations transparent; deceit and duplicity are incompatible with our convictions. We intellectuals had our faults, but we were not the worst offenders in this respect.

The persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution was indefensible. For the vast majority of those who were persecuted, it is not merely a thing of the past. For myself, I suppose I am glad that the cowshed left me with an unforgettable experience. But even now that my paltry successes have surrounded me with a cacophony of flattering voices, I sometimes think: I should commit suicide. That I have not done so is a stain on my character; my very existence is cause for shame, I am living on borrowed time. I know such thoughts can lead to no good. But since I think them, I may as well say them aloud.

[1] The “Empress” is Ji’s sarcastic epithet for Nie Yuanzi (1921- ), the radical philosophy professor whose big-character posters sparked radicalization on the Peking University campus and helped to fuel the Cultural Revolution nationwide. Ji mocks Nie’s revolutionary credentials by comparing her to the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who controlled the Qing dynasty courts for half a century.

2 The New Peking University Commune consisted of Nie’s supporters.

3 The rival faction to Nie’s New Peking University Commune.

4 This “old revolutionary” was Zhou Yang (1908–89), a controversial character who took the lead in several political campaigns, including the campaign against Hu Feng which Ji mentions below. He was imprisoned at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and only released in 1978.

5 Using Party language, Ji writes that he “bathed” in a “medium-sized tub”—a public confession was referred to as a “bath,” and a “large tub” would have been a meeting of the whole staff and student body, whereas Ji’s medium tub would have been a gathering of all staff and students in the Department of Eastern Languages.

6 Wu Xun (1838–96), late Qing dynasty figure who rose from poverty to become a landlord, and used his money to establish schools for the very poor. Redology, the study of the eighteenth-century classic novel The Dream of the Red Chamber [Hong Lou Meng], by Cao Xueqin. Hu Feng (1902–85), prominent literary theorist who became the target of a national criticism campaign. Hu Shi (1891–1962), a leading reformer of the May Fourth movement.

7 This seemingly cryptic line is a recasting of the first line of the poem “Climbing a tower” [Deng Lou] by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (717–70): “The traveler climbing a tall tower to gaze at flowers is overwhelmed by grief.” Du Fu’s poem condemned the weak central government during a time of political turmoil; Chen Yinke’s poem indirectly criticized the Nationalist government by comparing it to the tottering Tang dynasty court.

8 Quoted from a poem spoken by the military strategist Zhuge Liang in Luo Guanzhong’s fourteenth-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms [San guo yan yi].

From 牛棚杂忆. Translation © 2012 by Chenxin Jiang. All rights reserved.