In This Review

The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court
The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court
By Yuan-tsung Chen
Oxford University Press, 2022, 320 pp

In this beautifully crafted memoir, Chen, who lived in China during the first years of Communist Party rule, before immigrating to Hong Kong in the 1970s, seeks to counteract the “Orwellian rewriting” of the Cultural Revolution underway in Beijing. Authorities have blandly recast the period as part of a decade of “arduous exploration and development achievement,” suppressing the story of its upheaval and brutality. By contrast, the now 90-year-old Chen depicts a tumultuous time, when she and many other intellectuals faced incredibly difficult choices—to stay or leave, to speak out or remain silent—as the Chinese leader Mao Zedong encouraged the radical social and political transformation of the country. Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward precipitated mass starvation, and several years later, the Cultural Revolution caused further suffering, with, for instance, teachers beaten to death and prominent writers and artists driven to commit suicide after facing intense ritual denunciations. Chen moved in elite circles, and some specialists will be most fascinated by vignettes featuring Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and other notable figures. But equally illuminating are the book’s deeply empathetic portraits of more ordinary people, from minor members of Beijing’s literary world to villagers Chen befriended after she was exiled to the countryside. The book is thus a good antidote not just to official, sanitized versions of China’s past but also to flattened-out portrayals of Mao’s China as peopled by neatly separate groups of perpetrators and victims. As in other tragic times, the Cultural Revolution was one in which people could alternate between both roles.