Memory Holes, old & new

The Fifth Lunar Month in the Chinese calendar is regarded as being a time fraught with danger and grief. The arrival of summer brings forth all kinds of noxious threat both to people and to crops; while there may be the promise of future bounty, an immediate danger is posed by the Five Poisonous Creatures 五毒: snakes 蛇, scorpions 蝎, centipedes 蜈蚣, toads 蟾蜍 and spiders 蜘蛛. It is a time, therefore, to Eliminate the Five Noxious Things 驅五毒.

The Five Poisonous Creatures.

It is also the season to make good on debts and for mourning loss. The Fifth Day of the Fifth Month, or Double Five Festival, is marked by commemorating the death of the Qu Yuan 屈原. But that is the subject for tomorrow’s New Sinology Jotting on the Dragon Boat Festival.


It is five years since Yuan Peng 袁鵬, an official strategist in Beijing, warned the incoming party-state leadership about nascent threats to China and the opportunities the Communist Party had to advance its cause, both internally and globally (see The Five Vermin 五蠹 Threatening China). Among other things, he focused on the disruptive potential of five groups: rights lawyers, underground religious activities, dissidents, Internet leaders and vulnerable groups 維權律師、地下宗教、異見人士、網絡領袖、弱勢群體. Yuan’s New Five Black Categories 新黑五類 recalled both the social and political segregation of the Maoist era as well as reminding students of Chinese history of the attack by the harsh pre-Qin philosopher Han Fei (韓非, ca.280-233BCE) on the notoriously named Five Vermin or Termites 五蠹 (wŭ dù). Listed in Book Forty-nine of Han Feizi 韓非子, the Five Vermin or ‘obnoxious people’ are described by Derk Bodde as including:

…men of learning whose eloquence throws the laws into doubt, talkers who promulgate false statements, wearers of swords who assemble their own adherents, and courtiers who use bribery to advance their own interests.

Han Fei warned that, for the state to survive, these obnoxious people must be eliminated. Over the first five years of Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping’s rule, considerable progress has been made in following Yuan Peng’s cruel advice à la Han Fei in the China of today.

In the process, many individuals have been silenced or disappeared. Today, on the 29th of May 2017, we remember those who have been disappeared, lost to the Memory Hole, a chasm in knowing and remembering that, paradoxical for the present age of graphomania and interconnectivity, is growing larger and engorging more with a voracious appetite. What doesn’t disappear is distorted beyond recognition.


The Memory Hole first appeared in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Used by the Ministry of Truth to eliminate uncomfortable facts and to update untruths:

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.


It is thirty years since I wrote ‘My Friend the Memory Hole’ (see below) in what was the aftermath of the ouster of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦, and the beginning of the end of a particular phase of what was then known as ‘bourgeois-liberalisation’ 資產階級自由化, a nasty prelude to the cataclysm of 1989. My essay appeared in the pages of Renditions, a translation journal produced at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and edited by John Minford (see the print version of Renditions, Autumn 1986, Issue 26: 5-6, with a Special Section devoted to Lu Xun, 1881-1936. For the online table of contents, see here).

John and I had recently published Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, a work that reflected the cultural efflorescence of the Chinese Commonwealth. As a result of the 1986-1987 purge, and out of a belief that further ideological clampdowns in China were inevitable, when we were invited by Steve Wasserman of Hill & Wang (part of Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York) to produce a North American edition of Seeds, we added material that reflected China’s shifting cultural landscape, and our dolorous view of it.

As a last-minute addition to that issue of Renditions, ‘My Friend the Memory Hole’ was not listed in the table of contents, nor is it available in subsequent online versions and databases of that publication. As a result, this essay has, ironically, itself slipped into the digital Memory Hole. I previously included it in a 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly devoted to the translators Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, and today seems like an opportune moment to ‘regurgitate’ it for readers of China Heritage.


In 1997, ten years after ‘My Friend the Memory Hole’ appeared, Wired magazine gave me the opportunity to take another look at China’s Memory Hole industry. It was on the cusp of that country’s Internet boom and just as the Party censorate was devising ways and means of controlling what at the time seemed like an unruly threat to the Communists’ monopoly on information. I invited an old friend and collaborator, the oral historian Sang Ye 桑曄, to help me investigate what we would call The Great Firewall of China. Now, twenty years later, Memory Holes expand and contract with unprecedented sophistication.

Earlier this month, in More Other People’s Thoughts published here in China Heritage, we quoted a recent essay by the artist-provocateur Ai Weiwei, How Censorship Works. Weiwei discusses what he calls China’s Self-silent Majority and the devil’s compact the Majority enjoys with the regnant party-state. Weiwei speaks powerfully from the Memory Hole of the Chinese People’s Republic:

Whenever the state controls or blocks information, it not only reasserts its absolute power; it also elicits from the people whom it rules a voluntary submission to the system and an acknowledgment of its dominion. This, in turn, supports the axiom of the debased: Accept dependency in return for practical benefits.

The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-censorship. It is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.

For people who accept this passive position toward authority, “getting by” becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy. This attitude is essentially defensive on their part. It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.

That’s what we have here in China: The self-silenced majority, sycophants of a powerful regime, resentful of people like me who speak out, are doubly bitter because they know that their debasement comes by their own hand. Thus self-defense also becomes self-comfort.

In China’s guided and marshalled media, Ai Weiwei is allowed to exist in part because he can be excoriated. He is what in old school Soviet-Sino-parole is known as ‘a negative example’ 反面教員; he is tolerated in part as a warning to others (see my April 2011 essay ‘A View on Ai Weiwei’s Exit‘):

It is well known that I cannot speak in any public forum. My name is expunged everywhere in the public media. I am not allowed to travel within China and am banned from the state media, where I am regularly scolded. Commentators in the state media pretend to be evenhanded, but that’s impossible, given where they sit, behind the state’s protective curtain. They don’t address topics like the right to free speech or the quality of life for the vast majority of Chinese. Their special expertise is in unscrupulous attacks on voices that have already been repressed.

My virtual existence, if we can call it that, exists only among people who notice me by choice, and those people fall clearly into two categories: those who see my behavior as strengthening the meaning of their lives and those who see me as obstructing their roads to benefit, and for that reason cannot pardon me. [trans. Perry Link and adapted from an essay in the forthcoming Rules for Resistance: Advice From Around the Globe for the Age of Trump.]

It is a commonplace that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But there is a more discomforting reality, one summed up in one of William Faulkner’s most famous lines:

The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
29 May 2017

Memory holes are a socio-political phenomenon more readily recognized by those familiar with the peculiarities of Eastern Bloc countries. They are rarely identified with Marxism-Leninism as it is practised in China; although that is not due to their being in short supply.

For the layman, the memory hole is best understood as an earth-bound equivalent of a black hole. They certainly have the same devastating effect on any object which is dropped down them. However, the memory hole is even more amorphous and unpredictable than its heavenly counterpart.

Over the first decade since the Cultural Revolution, people have become used to seeing things rising phoenix-like out of memory holes, rather than watching them being gobbled up. First the seventeen-year period from 1949-1966, its literature and intellectual life (or what passed for literature and intellectual life), were disgorged. Then gradually much of the twentieth century was observed to reappear as if out of thin air, and even China’s legendary feudal past was scooped from the bottomless pit of memory obliteration to which it had been consigned during the first thirty years of Communist Party rule. Of course, throughout this period of regurgitation the ingesting apparatus of the memory hole itself was always kept in good order: it still had its fair share of work. First, that irksome quartet — the Gang of Four — had to be wiped out of history, leaving inconvenient blanks and embarrassing lacunae in its wake; then, when the Wise Leader Chairman Hua, the instrument of their doom, fell foul of the engineers of human history in 1980, he too was made into a non-person, and everyone pretended that he had never existed. This was followed by a respite, or rather a memory hole recession, of six years, which is a long time by Chinese standards. Then, in January of this year [1987], with the fall of Hu Yaobang, China’s dormant memory hole industry enjoyed a healthy boost to its J-curve. This was followed in rapid succession by the nation-wide denunciation of the writers Liu Binyan 劉賓雁 and Wang Ruowang 王若望, as well as the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi 方勵之.

‘The delicate application of political ideological work’, by Fang Cheng 方成.

Although Chinese memory holes have failed to keep up with the times, and in some cases prove downright inefficient, they can, when need be, still prove very effective. I know, because I’ve sat next to one. It used to have a name that appeared regularly in the pages of the People’s Daily, as well as literary journals throughout China. Today nothing is left but a gaping hole of forgetfulness. I am, of course, talking about Liu Binyan.


Liu and I took part in a conference on contemporary Chinese literature held at Jinshan in Shanghai in November 1986. It was the first international conference of its type held in China, and Liu’s speech to the dozens of Sinologists and Chinese writers and cultural aficionados was one of the high-points of the proceedings. In it he commented that in speaking to an ‘old comrade’ whose name he chose not to reveal, he was told that the present situation in China was just as it had been on the eve of the Anti-Rightist Campaign thirty years earlier. He warned Liu and others ‘not to force our hand and make us carry out another Anti-Rightist Campaign’. Liu, a victim of that campaign, went on to say how ‘excellent’ the situation had in fact been before the purge of China’s intellectuals (one, it would be well to remember, that was stage-managed by none other than Deng Xiaoping).

That night I was asked by a reporter from China Reconstructs  中國建設 to take part in a discussion with Liu Binyan and Leo Ou-fan Lee 李歐梵, an American sinologist. We sat talking for an hour or so discussing such topics as the role of the writer of conscience in contemporary Chinese culture, the question of ‘art for art’s sake’ literature and the disturbing lack of honest writing on the Cultural Revolution. Our comments were variously recorded by both the reporter from China Reconstructs [Zou Ting 鄒霆], who also happens to be a regular correspondent for semi-independent Chinese language journals in Hong Kong and an old and trusted friend of Liu’s, and an editor of Literary Gazette 文藝報, ‘spokespaper’ for the Ministry of Culture.

In December portions of the interview were duly published in Literary Gazette over a number of weeks and a fuller version of the exchange was prepared for the overseas Chinese-language edition of China Reconstructs. Then, all of a sudden, memory holes began to gobble people up. Hu Yaobang was the first to go. The February run of China Pictorial had to be pulped by the Foreign Languages Press because the man in the cover illustration (Hu) had become a nonperson. It cost the Press an estimated one million yuan.

Left to right: Liu Binyan, Wang Meng 王蒙, Minister of Culture, and the Sino-Tibetan novelist Zhaxi Dawa 扎西達娃 at the Jin Shan Conference, Shanghai, 1986. Photograph: Geremie Barmé.

Then Liu, Wang and Fang fell from sight, engorged by the same, somewhat dyspeptic memory hole: it has occasionally upchucked its contents before eating them up again, as witnessed by Hu Yaobang’s fleeting appearance at the opening ceremony of the People’s Congress in April and Fang Lizhi’s May visit to Italy. Yet apart from newspaper articles and internal documents denouncing the anti-Party words and deeds of Liu and Wang, the two writers might as well have never existed. And when it came time for China Reconstructs to publish that interview in March, something rather odd happened. The two foreign interviewees appeared in the photos and their statements were faithfully reproduced, but the Chinese participant had been mysteriously metamorphosed into Yang Xianyi 楊憲益, the veteran Foreign Languages Press translator. Certainly Yang had been present: he had come into the room half-way through the interview after his usual nightcap, and sat with me on the floor interjecting whenever Liu Binyan got too carried away by his own eloquence. Now, in the magazine article there was no evidence that Liu had even been there, and the interloper Yang and his off-the-cuff comments became the centre-piece of the interview. Liu’s old friend the journalist had simply shoved him down a memory hole as was required. That he did so should occasion no surprise; what is surprising is that he and his editors saw fit to publish this outrageous distortion without any thought that the two foreign participants who are bound by neither State law nor Party discipline might not be willing to play the role of silent conspirators in the deception.

Of course, this is but a minor example of the rampant memory hole syndrome that has left many Chinese intellectuals and foreign observers wondering whether it’s a bit precipitous of Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao to publish their History of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, a book recently withdrawn from public distribution leaving its authors teetering on the rim of a memory hole themselves.[1]

Of course, this is all red-banner news for the corporate heads of the flagging memory hole industry. In the ordinary course of events, the ‘anti-bourglib’ campaign, which is still being pursued by the old men in Peking, should be able to provide endless pulp for China’s hungry memory holes. But now here is the bad news: unless the economic reform policy of Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun is also dismantled and a complete return to the Cultural Revolution era effected, there is little hope that staunch Party men like Liu will stay down the chute for long. He might be out of sight for the time being, but his name is on everyone’s lips.[2]

Canberra, May 1987



[1] Published in November 1986 by the Tianjin People’s Publishing House, Yan Jiaqi 嚴家其 and Gao Gao’s 高皋 ‘unofficial history’ of the Cultural Revolution, 《’文化大革命’十年史》 has been reclassified for ‘internal distribution’ only.

[2] Liu Binyan (1925-2005) went to the US in 1988 and remained there following the Beijing Massacre of 1989. He died in exile and remains in China’s party-state memory hole.