SCARLET MEMORIAL: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China. By Zheng Yi. Edited and Translated by T. P Sym. Boulder (Colorado): Westview Press, 1996. xxii 199 pp. (Photos.) US$32.00, cloth, ISBN 0-8133-2615-X; US$19.50, paper ISBN 0-8133-2616-8.
THE EXILED POET YANG LIAN recently complained of a spate of books for Western readers on modern China with 'redness' in their titles, books which recount atrocities committed under Communist rule, and which, in Yang Lian s view, feed orientalist preconceptions of Asian barbarism. This book is one of the works so characterized, and the acts of savagery recorded here in painstaking and painful detail certainly reinforce the impression that in the period discussed - the early years of the Cultural Revolution - China was in a state of moral as well as political crisis. Whatever the merits of the other fruits of the red harvest, this is a book which commands attention for its grim seriousness of purpose and its author s courage, even if the rhetoric occasionally distracts from the effect.
Before undertaking this project, Zheng Yi had already published fiction exploring themes of violence in Chinese society: between Red Guard factions in the short story 'Maple' and between feuding villages in the novel Old Well. It was rumours of cannibalism in the southern province of Guangxi heard while he was a Red Guard in the late 1960s which led the author there, almost twenty years later, to conduct his own investigations. He was not the only one to have heard the rumours: China s leading investigative journalist Liu Binyan also knew of them, but told Zheng Yi that the events were 'too evil' for him to cover. Zheng Yi researched Scarlet Memorial in the mid-1980s, and wrote it while on the run from the authorities in the months following the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, and before his move to the United States.
The slaughter and cannibalism uncovered here were not furtive criminal acts, but public orgies instigated by Communist party officials, participated in by local residents in their thousands, and followed by mass feasting, with the livers and hearts of the victims particularly prized for their restorative and nutritional properties. In Wuxuan County, teachers were killed, cooked in school kitchens and on barbecues on school grounds, and eaten by their neighbours. In the same county, a man was murdered during a public parade: 'After [the killer] Wang Chunrong extracted the liver with his five-inch knife, the crowd rushed forward to get at the flesh. [The victim] Tang immediately died. Full of excitement, Wang Chunrong took the human liver to the pork counter at the food factory, added some spices, and boiled it together with some pork to serve as an appetizer with an aperitif (p. 81).
These events enact Lu Xun s assertion of cannibalism as a metaphor for social relations in China made a half-century before in his story 'Diary of a Madman,' and confirm that Lu Xun s fiction can no longer be read as the condemnation of an 'old society' ended by communist liberation. There are resonances also in writing of the young contemporary writer Yu Hua, who portrays surreal acts of irrational cruelty and implies a society little changed from Lu Xun s time.
What was to blame for the carnage? For Zheng Yi, it was the politics of the Cultural Revolution, zealously transmitted by local leaders, that released and legitimized the vilest of human tendencies. Most of the victims were those who, by the standards of the day, were politically suspect: 'Anything was acceptable as long as it was in the name of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship' (p. 32). Instigators and participants in the slaughter and feasting felt morally justified in their actions; few of those interviewed by Zheng Yi expressed remorse, the guilty have remained largely unpunished, and the descendants of the victims still feel ostracized. The author rejects as Han chauvinism the suggestion that the cannibalism in Guangxi was merely a manifestation of the cultural traditions of the Zhuang and Yao minority peoples, but though he is able to cite appalling acts of brutality elsewhere in the same period, there appear to be no other cases of mass cannibalism, and his assertion that the events he describes were a national shame, rather than a regional manifestation, remains unproved.
University of Victoria, B.C., Canada
Copyright University of British Columbia Fall 1997
SCARLET MEMORIAL: TALES OF CANNIBALISM IN MODERN CHINA. By Zheng Yi; edited and translated by T.P. Sym. Westview Press; 224 pages; $32 and [Pounds] 23.95