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Dreaming in Chinese

(Original story by Richard Wolin at The Los Angeles Review of Books...)

"My Nanjing audience regards my presentation with an admixture of bemusement and national pride. On the one hand, they are well aware of Mao’s penchant for political overreach and the resultant landmark policy disasters. How quaint that political zealots in the West would embrace a form of ideological extremism that, in China, wreaked such lasting havoc! On the other hand, China remains a venerable, ancient civilization. The Chinese are convinced that, having reacquired their economic and political clout, they are now regaining their lost global geopolitical centrality, as befits their historical self-understanding as the “Middle Kingdom” — the pivotal realm around which all other, lesser polities revolve. Thus they also interpret my narrative as a testament to the potency and global reach of Chinese ideas — even the fairly retrograde ideas that emerged from the dizzying political maelstrom that was the Cultural Revolution.

At the lecture’s end, my host, a mild-mannered professor of theater studies, underlines the latter point for the students’ benefit. The “moral” of the lecture, he insists, is that China is no longer a sleeping giant but a world power to be reckoned with in the here and now.

With one exception, no one in the lecture hall has a positive word to say about the Cultural Revolution. Ironically, the lone dissenting voice is that of an American Sinophile — a visiting professor of American studies — who remains convinced, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that the Cultural Revolution was the high-water mark of 20th-century political radicalism. In his estimation, its achievements should be retrieved from the dustbin of history and vigorously celebrated. My interlocutor is more Chinese than the natives — plus royaliste que le roi. I have yet to learn how to debate someone who is impervious to all countervailing facts and arguments. (Just give him enough rope to hang himself, perhaps…) My compatriot concludes by praising the achievements of the Shining Path, Peru’s misguided Maoist insurgents who flourished during the 1980s, spawning an undeclared civil war that resulted in some 70,000 deaths. At this point, the preponderantly Chinese audience begins to visibly fidget [uncomfortably]..."

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