At the height of Zhang Yimou’s great masterpiece To Live, the cultural revolution is well underway. Academics and professionals are being hounded and hunted by Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, who are mostly comprised of school and university children taking up banners and arms en masse.
The Red Guards are zealous in their mission to instill Mao’s revolutionary ethics but are naive in doing so resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of the professional class.
The result of the latter is that inexperienced and unqualified Red Guard members must take up positions as doctors and healthcare workers resulting in further heartache.
To Live is a wonderful masterpiece and reflects accurately the experiences of the Cultural Revolution. So much so that the film was banned before it was even released in China.
It is a hard reflection on what happens when revolutionary zeal reaches a fulcrum and logic and reason are replaced by dogma and humanity is replaced by indifference.
It should also be mandatory watching for the Thai student protesters of today. Though the ideological struggle is vastly different, with one aiming to perfect the communist revolutionary spirit and the other fighting for pluralism and democracy, the appeal of zealotry and dogma is around every corner.
Recent attempts by student protesters to coerce or force celebrities to atone for past mistakes or lend their voices to their cause or be “outed” or “canceled” echoes faintly the denunciations of the RedGuards of the Cultural Revolution.
The students, while commendable for fighting for democracy against an autocratic, dictatorial Prayut Chan-ocha government, must resist the temptation to give in to the demons of violence, coercion or public trials.
They must remember that they are fighting for the rule of law, a government of logic and reason, one that comes from the people. They must too remember that democracies are only strong when the voice of the minority is as respected as the voice of the majority.
It is hard and against human nature to not strike out against those that have wronged us in the past whether rhetorically or physically.
But the heroes of historical marches to freedom, the Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings of the past, are recognized and beloved today because of their adherence to non-violence.
They are remembered because they did not strike down their foe even in their ascendancy but looked him in the eye, tried to make him understand, and ultimately forgave.