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12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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"Liberty, liberty, what [crimes have been committed in your name!" went the cry as the tumbrels of the French Revolution lumbered toward the guillotine. In the two centuries since, the bloodthirsty appetite of revolution, no longer calling for liberty, has grown with each new scheme for implementing revolution's demands. In our own century, the ultimate revolutionary scheme of them all -- Hitler's Holocaust against the Jews -- punctuated the marginally less demonic but longer-lasting terror of Stalinism, in what used to be called "the socialist sixth of the world."

After the Nazis' defeat in 1945 and Stalin's death in 1953, it was possible to begin the agonizing process of assessing what had happened. In the case of the Nazis, the memory of evil was so intense that Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust's greatest memorialist, imposed a full ten years of silence on himself before he could write adequately as a witness. Even then, his Night -- only 109 pages in its current paperback version -- did not appear in English until 1960. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago did not appear until 1973, twenty years after the author's release from the camps. Though the two men were awarded the Nobel prize for different reasons - - Solzhenitsyn in 1970 (before Gulag) for literature and Wiesel in 1986 for peace -- each accomplished the purpose of documenting wickedness while at the same time commemorating its victims. Perhaps there is something intrinsic in human beings that will not rest until the full darkness -- of murder in particular -- is exposed to public gaze, public reflection, and public lamentation.

With this in mind, it seems extraordinary that China has not yet produced a work of similar universal power that memorializes the victims of its own brutal rush into socialism and the "communism" (in the utopian Marxist sense) lying beyond. Until, perhaps, now. With Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China (Westview Press, 256 pages, $ 32), Zheng Yi, the acclaimed Chinese journalist and novelist, sets down in black and white confirmed instances of mass murder and cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution (19661976). In so doing, he goes beyond yet another glimpse at the cruelty and fanaticism of that period -- perhaps the best such glimpse remains Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai -- and asks fundamental questions about Chinese civilization in the context of its experiment with Communist ideology and methods of rule. How could China, one of the most rational and orderly civilizations in history, embrace so willingly the genocidal political lunacy that was the Cultural Revolution, and at so late a date? What is it about Chinese culture that permitted such an embrace? What in Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought was able to precipitate such fury?

These are difficult and painful questions, particularly for a Chinese. Zheng, however, is no ordinary journalist. Author of Old Well, the novel that was made into a highly praised Chinese movie in the 1980s, he has paralleled the political evolution of his country from Maoism in the 60s to incipient political reform in the 80s to stagnant reaction in the 90s. A zealous Red Guard in the late 60s, Zheng became disillusioned with China's clampdown over the next decade. After Deng Xiaoping came to power, he devoted much of his talents to investigative reporting. When the Democratic Spring flowered briefly in April and May of 1989, he enthusiastically endorsed the demonstrations in Beijing. As a result, he wound up on the government's most- wanted list, finally escaping from the country after three years in hiding. He now resides in the United States.

Scarlet Memorial is the product of Zheng's (some might say providential) encounters with Guangxi province both in 1967, when he was a Red Guard searching for "peace and quiet," and much later, when it was possible to talk with some objectivity about events occurring there. Reports of cannibalism in the province ricocheted around Beijing soon after it happened in 1968. But it was only when Zheng chanced to meet one of China's most famous journalists, the now-exiled Liu Binyan, in 1984 on a train in southern China, that his pursuit of the story began. "Why didn't you investigate it?" Zheng asked. " Too evil!" was Liu's chilling response. "At that moment," Zheng recalls, "I decided to write about it."