The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was one of the most turbulent events in modern Chinese history. Half a century later, however, many aspects of that revolution remain inadequately researched. Other than the difficulties of gaining an archival access and obtaining reliable materials for the research, providing impartial research on the subject is also a challenging task for scholars, especially those in China. In order to close this disastrous chapter in the history of the People’s Republic, the Party decided in 1980 to single out some leaders, including the wife of Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, as perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution. They were put on show trial at a “Special Court” and all the defendants were found guilty of being responsible for the losses in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, whereas Mao himself was exonerated. The Chinese officials further backed up this political verdict with a party resolution, which has ever since served as the official conclusion of the Cultural Revolution. Alexander C. Cook’s new book, The Cultural Revolution on Trial, is a significant contribution to the study of the historical trial of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing’s counterrevolutionary cliques. The author, however, refers to the procedure as “the Gang of Four trial,” and this signifies Cook’s intention of focusing his study on the trial of Madame Mao and her colleagues instead of commenting on the two contesting groups, which the Chinese officials awkwardly put together in the same trial. Based on a detailed study of the available Chinese official documents and the media accounts, the author maintains that the trial, which was often dismissed as a political show trial in the West, deserves scrutiny for its broader significance. Despite its limitations, the trial serves as a transition between Mao’s China and the era of post-Mao reforms. The notions of a political show trial and victor’s justice, however, cannot easily be dismissed, and the author is aware of this. The introduction and the conclusion provide discussions of the political and legal problems of the trial, and of the criticism spread throughout the book. Cook, however, agrees with Otto Kirchheimer that a study of a political trial needs to pay attention to “the dynamic interplay between political power, legal procedure and cultural performances” (7–8). Perhaps the last aspect, the cultural performances, gives the author incentives to study the trial from a new perspective. Cook pursues his study of the trial in a framework known as “transitional justice,” which is a relatively new field of social and cultural enquiry that Cook, quoting The Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, defines as focusing “on how societies address legacies of past human rights abuses, mass atrocity, or other forms of severe social trauma, including genocide or civil war, in order to build a more democratic, just, or peaceful future” (21). This notion of “transitional justice” enables the author to depart from a traditional narrative account of the trial. Instead, Cook finds a unique approach to reexamining the subject: an intensive reading of the legal documents, including that of the indictments in chapter 1, of the verdicts in chapter 5, as well as of written testimonies in chapter 3. The focus of Cook’s readings is “unpacking linguistic and symbolic freight and examining its hidden contents” (10). These readings reveal that the trial was not to pursue justice for the individuals, but to address the grievances of the Chinese people in general. The trial, in the words of a judge, “signals the ending of a truly unfortunate period in the history of socialist China … In its wake a new period has appeared” (23). In this sense the trial was indeed a means of providing transitional justice. There is, however, always a danger of taking for granted the words of the Chinese officials. Cook overcomes this limitation with a juxtaposition of the readings with contemporary literary works that are “comparable in their liveliness, complexity, impact, and scale” (10). He chooses three books published around the same time. The author studies Liu Pingyan’s Between Man and Monsters (1979) in chapter 2; Dai Houying’s Humanity, Ah Humanity! (1980) in chapter 4; and Yang Jiang’s Six Records of a Cadre School (1981) in chapter 6. These literary works provide an even more “capacious interpretive framework” that enables the reader to obtain more of a sense of the trial as “transitional justice” (8–9). The three works complement the legal and rational analysis with humanistic aspects of the trial: while the Chinese officials interpret the problems of the Cultural Revolution as the result of “pathological destruction of institutional norms,” “unfounded judgments,” and “unaccountable individuals,” all of which signify personal rule instead of the rule of law, the literary accounts inquire into the broader theme of humanity, reviewing inhuman behaviors: “monstrosity, emotional trauma, and vanity” (34). Moving back and forth between the legal and literary accounts, the author brings broader cultural aspects of the trial to the reader. Cook should be complimented for such a unique approach to studying the trial. He demonstrates his broad knowledge not only of the trial and the legal documents, but also of the literature of political trials in general, as well as of contemporary Chinese literature. The entire book is an intensive reading and Cook’s discoveries are profound. The trial of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing counterrevolutionary cliques was indeed a signifier to the Chinese of the close of a painful chapter of history. However, despite the author’s convincing arguments of its fulfillment of “transitional justice,” the trial failed in two significant senses. Through scapegoating leaders at the time but exonerating Mao’s accountability, the trial failed to provide real justice to the Chinese people. Because of the nature of the political trial, it also failed to transform China into a lawful society. The legal system still cannot function independently in China today. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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