UW-Whitewater professor preserves memories of the Great Leap Forward

September 26, 2016

Written by Kristine Zaballos   |  Photos by Craig Schreiner

Jian GuoJian Guo remembers the banging on the door in the middle of the night and the subsequent ransacking of his family's Beijing apartment.

He was just 14, and his father, a university professor, had been branded as a bourgeois intellectual. Student Red Guards took Guo's father away and shut him up in a dorm room, where he was tortured and interrogated. Made to kneel on a washboard for three days, he also endured a visit from his teenage son, who was coerced into doing "ideological work" on his father to further pressure him into admitting their groundless charges of counter-revolutionary activities and naming alleged accomplices among his colleagues and friends.

Guo recalls his father saying, with tears in his eyes, "I will never say what I don't know." Released after eight months of illegal imprisonment, he ultimately never provided names.

"My father is my hero," says Guo. "I had known his kindness and generosity. But I didn't know he was so tough."

Years later, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor of languages and literatures helped to edit and translate several major works that document the Cultural Revolution and its effects, fulfilling a personal mission for the Chinese native.

Guo is one of two translators of "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962," a groundbreaking book that chronicles one of the 20th century's deadliest man-made disasters. Written by Yang Jisheng, a retired journalist from Xinhua, Beijing's official news service, it is considered to be an authoritative account of the tragedy that led to the loss of at least 36 million lives — including that of Yang's father.

Tombstone books side by side

In addition to his work as a translator, Guo is the co-author of the "Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976," published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, and co-editor of the Database for the History of Contemporary Chinese Political Movements, 1949-, published by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. The database's four parts cover contemporary Chinese political campaigns from the land reform that began in late 1940s through the Cultural Revolution.

Guo's research led him to a conference in New York in October of 2008, the 50th anniversary of China's Great Leap Forward campaign, where he met Yang, whose book had just been published. Yang signed a copy and gave it to Guo.

"As I read the introduction that night, I was shaken," said Guo. "Especially a personal passage about how, during the reform in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, some people got richer and the older traditions, which had been swept away, began to come back."

In the passage, Yang described how in recent decades people began to build tombstones again to remember their dead, a practice that had been dismissed as a vestige of feudalism in China under former communist Chairman Mao Zedong. People from his village told Yang he should build a tombstone for his father. But he recalled how in 1958 many tombstones were dismantled for use in irrigation projects or as bases for smelting ovens or even laid out as roadways during the Great Leap Forward. A physical tombstone would be vulnerable to misuse, he reasoned, but one erected in his heart could never be demolished or trampled underfoot.

Tombstone signed book"I did erect a tombstone for my father, in my heart, and this book is made up of the words I carved into that tombstone," Yang wrote. "Even after I leave this life, these heartfelt words will remain behind in libraries throughout the world."

"I was touched when I read that," said Guo, "And I wanted to help him put the book in the libraries of the world."

The first edition, published in 2008 in Hong Kong by Cosmos Books in two volumes, ran to 1,095 pages. Farrar Strauss Giroux published the condensed English translation, which Guo edited and translated with Stacy Mosher, in 2012.

Since its publication, Yang has garnered multiple international awards, including the Stieg Larsson award in Sweden in 2015 for "the journalistic courage shown in finding and telling the truth" about the famine.

Yang was subsequently awarded Harvard University's prestigious Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism in December 2015 for his "ambitious and fearless reporting." When it announced its decision, Harvard said it hope to recognize dedicated journalists like Yang who battled to "document the dark and difficult struggles of mankind."