What did you say it was?
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
Recently my in-laws came to visit, and while they were here we found ourselves, as is our wont, singing old Cultural Revolution songs. So far 物产阶级文化大革命 The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is Good is my favorite, in part because it’s got a great bouncy rhythm, but mostly because the lyrics are batshit insane. Here’s the chorus:
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is Good,
It is Good,
It is Good,
It is Good.
How’s that for nuance? More comes later, about overthrowing the imperialists, but really all you need to know about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is in the first, second, third and fourth lines of the chorus. The curious thing about this song is the phrase 就是好, which translates most simply as ‘It is Good’, but actually conveys something along the lines of ‘It is Good (And That’s Final – No Matter What Anyone Says)’.
The point of the song, in other words, is not simply that it’s good, but that it is a priori good; it is good without needing any reason to be good; the answer to the question ‘is it good?’ is already ‘yes’ before the question is even voiced; in fact, we’d really rather you didn’t ask that question, because simply asking sounds suspiciously like doubt. You wouldn’t be looking to get struggled against, would you?
This sort of brute-force use of language is deeply characteristic of those times (it has by no means disappeared), and I think both horrifying and fascinating to anyone who works in words. It’s hard to say to what extent it was meant to be an explicit warning to anyone who sung or heard it, and to what extent simply a manifestation of an era when right and wrong were so self-evident that people took a kind of joy in denying the need to think.
Wang Xiaobo mentions the song, in an essay tellingly entitled ‘The Plight of the Intellectuals’ (知识分子的不幸):
Those four repetitions of ‘it is good’ thoroughly preclude all possibility of rational discussion. Because of blind faith, no one wanted reason. I personally believe that the renunciation of reason is a worse thing than a field of corpses. Once reason has been renounced, furthermore, it’s likely to lead to fields of corpses – no small number died during the Cultural Revolution, and it also caused a general decline in the intellectual abilities of the nation.
The kicker is, it’s a really catchy tune (you can download it here), and once you get that first line in your head, it’s hard to dislodge. I’ve been humming of it over to myself in bus stops and cafés; so far no one has been moved to join in.