Remembering in memoirs: collective memory and cultural trauma in Red Guard autobiographies




Duan, Xuan

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China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) deeply wounded the collective identity of the nation’s population, as it caused dramatic chaos and violence in every social arena, bringing the country into a decade-long crisis. In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of autobiographical works was published in China and overseas, commemorating the authors’ (mainly former Red Guards) participation in the Cultural Revolution and post-1968 Rustication Movement (1968-1980). Focusing on the Red Guards, the main participants of the movements, this research inquiries how autobiographical works reflect the impacts of their direct engagement in the history on their self-identification. This study applies a theoretical framework combining Maurice Halbwachs’s insights into collective memory and Jeffrey C. Alexander’s conceptualization of cultural trauma, with trauma and identity as the cores of textual analysis. This research analyses two selected works in each region to observe how the different cultural and social contexts in China and North America affect former Red Guards’ self-identification and their navigation of the traumatic past. Textual analysis of the four selected works shows that Red Guard autobiographies embody the nexus between individual memory and the social framework of the collective memory of the Cultural Revolution and Rustication Movement, as the latter reveals itself in the forms of narrative chronology, verbal conventions, and recurring scenes in the texts. While the social framework of collective memory shapes the Red Guard writers’ textual representations, the Red Guard writers engage in the collective remembering process and construct a victimhood-oriented narrative of the two movements through concentrating on the narrator or other characters’ tragedies. In social and practical aspects, Red Guard autobiographies have multiple roles in the trauma process of the events: the channel for emotional catharsis, the discursive field for former Red Guard writers’ exploration of their memories, and the medium through which the former Red Guard writers articulate their identities. Published in distinctive cultural and political contexts, China and North America, the Red Guard autobiographies embody authors’ different claims: the domestic Red Guard writers remain ambiguous in attribution of the undesired outcomes of the two movements and provide no clear identity of the victims, whereas the expatriate Red Guard writers in North America claim the movements’ experimental nature with stress laid on the inner-party struggles and identify the generation of the Red Guards and educated youths as the victims. Concentrating on collective memory and cultural trauma, this thesis provides new angles to understand the relations among personal narratives, social and cultural contexts, and national history. This study analyzes Red Guard memoirs’ functions in the working-through process of the two unsuccessful mass movements, showing how literary representations assist individuals and collectives with trauma healing and self-reflection.



Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution, the Rustication Movement, Maoist era, collective memory, cultural trauma, memory, zhiqing, identity formation