"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."

The book emerged from both archival research within Guangxi and interviews with survivors, relatives of victims, and even actual perpetrators. Because of bureaucratic suspicion of him, Zheng was able to conduct a thorough investigation only in five counties where murder and cannibalism had occurred on a ghastly scale. In Binyang county alone, a "scarlet frenzy" took place in July and August 1968. Altogether, some 3,681 people were "shot, stabbed, strangled, poked with pitchforks, drowned, pelted with stones" -- even buried alive. During the entire 1937-1945 war with Japan in the same area, by comparison, those who died numbered a few hundred. The Maoist euphemism for being beaten to death? "Subjected to dictatorship."

In Wuxuan prefecture, hearts and livers were cut out of living victims, then boiled and consumed by mobs. In Wuxuan city, "whenever victims were forced to parade through the streets, while being subjected to criticism, the old women would turn out holding their vegetable baskets. Immediately after a victim was killed, the crowd would rush forward. Those at the forefront would get good pieces of flesh." One old woman made a habit of gouging out eyes in the belief that eating them would improve her vision. Another young female cadre consumed, whenever possible, male sex organs. In one middle school, students ate their teachers. "In any religious classic," Zheng asks, "has humankind ever witnessed such a frenzied and horrible picture of hell?"

Indeed, an almost supernatural sadism seemed to prevail: When a mother and son -- suspected "rightists" -- were about to be buried alive, the militiamen forced them to lie in an incestuous embrace. Children somehow seemed always to be the last aware of death's approach: "Seventh uncle, you are kidding, aren't you? Don't hurt me too much," pleaded one, as a militiaman slipped the noose around his neck.

The driving factor in this carnage was Beijing's demand that all of China conduct a witch hunt for "class enemies." The number of dead throughout China during the summer of '68 may have entered the hundreds of thousands, as indicated by the bodies floating down the Pearl River into Hong Kong's territorial waters. But Guangxi's nightmare was intensified by two other factors: the particularly vicious fight among leftist political factions in the region; and the premodern tradition of cannibalism among the Zhuang minority.

Zheng Yi, commendably, is not content to attribute cannibalistic horrors to the customs of an ethnic minority. A former Maoist, he lays the blame squarely on the effect of revolutionism on a population intoxicated by political upheaval and unrestrained by law. "Deceived by so-called 'revolutionary humanism,'" he writes, "while at the same time slaughtering our fellow-countrymen, we surrendered our conscience and humanism to the devil. We attempted to bring about a beautiful society at the cost of our humanity. . . . Instead, we consorted with the beasts and stepped into the darkness of hell."

That darkness, Zheng writes, was hardly touched by the desultory investigations the Guangxi party conducted, at Beijing's request, in the 1980s. Only thirty-four people received any punishment at all for the deaths in Wuxuan city; the harshest sentence was fourteen years in prison. Says Zheng, "A thorough settling of accounts under Communist Party rule . . is impossible."

He is of course right. And it is this sustained moral indignation, along with the searing details of wickedness, that gives Scarlet Memorial its peculiar power. Zheng shows himself aware of the Nazis' gas chambers, of what Solzhenitsyn achieved in The Gulag Archipelago. He intuitively grasps the Judeo-Christian moral vision of a just society -- "In the West, law is supposed to restore justice in the name of God" -- although he can only fumble with the word "humanism" to denote the Biblical concept of mercy. But in his demand that the whole world know of Guangxi, Zheng confirms the human longing -- some think God-given -- for truth and justice in a sinful world. " We hope that just as in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Nanjing, a memorial -- a scarlet memorial -- will be erected in Guangxi. . . . And we hope that on the plaza in front of the memorial these words will be etched in stone: NO, NEVER AGAIN!"

"Read Scarlet Memorial and weep," Sinologist Ross Terrill writes in his eloquent introduction to the book. Yes, we should weep. But we should also rejoice that China has at last found a voice capable of speaking to the world and to the ages about the crimes against humanity committed by Chinese adherents of the totalitarian lie. Zheng Yi's book deserves to become a classic, for it has honored truth, justice, and mercy over the evil of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

David Aikman was Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine.

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