Until I walked into my analyst’s clinic room and started my analysis, I was not sure why I tried so hard to understand what happened during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in my native China and why people would become so violent and irrationally inhumane. It was December 2015. My maternal grandmother had passed away a month before. An overwhelming amount of grief hit me. I decided to lie on the couch. I wanted someone to understand my pain and hold my feelings. When I was waiting outside the room for my first session, I wrote down the following lines: “Sadness poured out of my chest. Grandma died, and there was one less person in the world. Why do I feel pain so easily? Why can some people take the pain so well? My heart always feels hurt. It feels like the outer layer of my heart has been torn off, leaving the beating heart. It hurts every time it beats.”

My analyst is great. We have been working together for more than six years now. With her help, I came to understand that the pain I felt had multiple layers. At first, I blamed my parents for my suffering, but later, when I dug deeper, I realized that my mother carried a wound inside her soul related to her parents. She could not give me what she herself did not get from them. I also recognised that although I am the daughter and she is the mother, I have been the one taking care of her and trying to take her pain away. When my mom informed me of grandma’s death, rather than saying, “Kid, your grandma passed away,” she said, “Jun, my mother passed away. I don’t have a mother anymore.” These words, and the way they were said, brought me unbearable pain. I know now that the pain I felt was transgenerational. My mother did not give me the unconditional love and protection I needed. Instead, she remained a needy child.

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A Difficult History and Holes in My Family History

The Cultural Revolution is a difficult history for me. Like most children born after the Cultural Revolution, I could not get very much information from my parents, grandparents, and elder relatives about that history. I am still not sure what happened to my grandparents during that time. What I only know is that they lost almost everything, and my grandma used to say, “If we went with the old regime, everything would have been different.”

The history is muted. At first, I thought the Cultural Revolution was too far away and irrelevant to my current life. Later I found that nameless dread makes people not want to talk about it. The “not talking” greatly influences personality, parenting, and the family dynamic. Those secrets and that past trauma, two generations away, make their way into the present. I felt the guilt of not knowing what happened and the burden of carrying it. Such unspeakable affect haunts me, even though I did not experience that history!

So I searched for answers. I found out that the Cultural Revolution was an irrational, destructive, and inhumane event due to Mao’s political initiative and people’s extreme reactions. Youth became the Red Guards. They denounced teachers, local leaders, intellectuals, and even ordinary people as anti-revolutionist. They tied the so-call “enemy” up, abused them repeatedly, and even tortured them to death. Youths were not the only force. Everyone was in this colosseum: to be Red and survive or be Black and denied. There were also armed fights, sanctioned violence, and cannibalism. All these horrible experiences make the Cultural Revolution unbearable, unspeakable, and unthinkable. This challenges an individual’s capacity to know about and learn from the experiences of others, as it confronts the social and political capacity to contain the traumatic past.

When the Lens of Trauma Sheds Light on the Chinese Context

I was born in the late 1980s in mainland China when the era of Scar Literature had just faded. As a genre of Chinese literature, Scar Literature flourished after the end of the Cultural Revolution, which holds great significance for bringing to light the traumatic experience and historical reflection. “Scar” or “wound” were the terms closest to trauma for the Chinese to make sense of the aftermath of the difficult history. However, the lack of trauma theory and the political discouragement stifled the newly emerging public discussion in the cradle. Somatization has become the primary way

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of expressing suffering. It is not hard to imagine the massive demand for psychological treatments after the Cultural Revolution.

German experts were the first group invited to give Chinese psychiatrists and psychologists lectures and seminars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Soon after, the first three-year training program, taught by a team of German psychotherapists, was launched in 1997 and became the Sino-German program. The systematic effort to introduce and develop psychotherapy also brought the psychoanalytic understanding of trauma to a traumatized country. Moreover, German experts’ reflections on German history and applying the psychoanalytic framework to work through the Nazi past inspired their Chinese trainees and brought stormy classroom discussions of the Chinese situation. Psychic trauma started to be widely introduced to ordinary people after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. The Chinese government strived to provide psychological assistance for victims and professional training for mental health practitioners. Following the Sino-German program, the Sino-Norwegian program was launched in 2006, and the Sino-American program in 2008. As American psychoanalyst David Scharff (2014) pointed out, “We need to teach Chinese psychotherapists to acknowledge trauma and its psychological consequences at both cultural and individual levels, because until now it has been so hard to discuss the national trauma in China” (p. 56). He indicated that it is “a matter of a clinical urgency” (Scharff, p. 56).

Looking back, my awareness of trauma within the family was influenced by the emergence of psycho-boom, which refers to “a surge of popular interest in psychotherapy as well as the infiltration of related ideas and values into the cultural sphere” (Huang & Kirsner, 2020, p. 8). When I was little, I was sensitive to the emotions of my parents and the silence in our family. I grew up reading others’ feelings and taking care of their needs. To learn how to understand myself and other people’s minds, I read extensively. Psychoanalysis intrigued me. My undergraduate supervisor, who also works as a psychotherapist, participated in training courses provided by the trainees of the Sino-German program and brought the psychoanalytic understanding of trauma into our class discussion. Her talks on breaking the circle of family trauma and ending the intergenerational transmission imprinted in my heart and became the seed of my intellectual inquiry.

Doing Research as My Way of Working through Trauma

Studying the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and its

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transgenerational effects was not clear until my grandma passed away and I entered the clinic room. I found myself strongly resonating with Karoline Kan’s article in Foreign Policy magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution in 2016, titled “My uncle was a Red Guard in China’s Cultural Revolution. He isn’t sorry.” An extended edition of this article in online Chinese edition of The New York Times came out four months later. It was my first time reading how a post-80s generation in China openly talked about the Cultural Revolution. Kan showed her confusion, shock, and effort to make sense of the past. She asked questions: Why did her uncle, a very kind person, participate in violence and hurt people during the Cultural Revolution? What drew him and other relatives into the evil side of the Cultural Revolution? Why doesn’t my uncle regret his Red Guard experience? Why does he still think that the Cultural Revolution was a “good time”? I strongly resonated with the urge to go back to the historical scenes and the burden of not knowing.

Then I started the first stage of my research—to understand why politicians launched the Cultural Revolution and why people reacted to the initiative in extreme ways. Engaging in psychoanalytic perspectives, I used them to investigate irrationality and read the history in a hermeneutic way. Using the Kleinian perspective on the paranoid-schizoid position and persecutory anxiety, I examined Mao and the masses’ psychical world ten years before the Cultural Revolution. I illustrated how the dominant leader and followers constructed a compelling social and political reality through newspapers and radio propaganda. On the one hand, I showed that Mao’s persecutory anxiety might come from his experience of the loss of the superego’s love, the loss of the object’s love, and the loss of the object. On the other hand, I analyzed the class struggle, the cult of Mao, and unleashing of aggression as the manifestation of the masses’ psychic defenses against the persecutory anxiety and fear of death. I found that the psychical resonance between the leader and the masses contributed to the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. This study is published as a chapter, “Persecutory Anxiety and the Fear of Death as Qualities of the Cultural Revolution in China,” in the 2018 book Emotions as Engines of History.

In November 2018, I presented my preliminary thinking on the Cultural Revolution as a defense against persecutory anxiety at a conference in Poland. During the trip, I had a healing dream in which I was carrying a violin case while taking a subway train to

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visit my grandma. The violin case was old and the treasure of our family. I know I inherited it from the family/Grandma. When I saw Grandma, I also saw that my mom is taking good care of her. She took the initiative and shoulders the responsibility within the family. I felt happy and light. When I woke up, the dream seemed so comforting. It must be the gift for my courage to reclaim my grandparents’ experience in front of audiences even though I did not mention anything about my family at the conference.

In my dream, the violin case is a significant symbol. Although no one in my family, including myself, ever played the violin, I still feel the case is my dear friend. It signifies a potential container for difficult histories, intergenerational trauma, and unfinished family business. I carry it through a tunnel, dark, underground, waiting for the light. It also signifies the function of containing. In my psychoanalytic and psychotherapy training, we study cases, report cases, and seek to learn from them. As proposed by John Forrester (2017), a historian of psychoanalysis, case thinking is a mode of scientific reasoning that recognizes the singularity of the individual and its representativeness. By seeing a case like a story, the case-based method leads us to contextualize the event, unpack the generic elements through the narrative, and restore the metaphor for its ability to carry. With the case as a boundary, I can carry on now. I can play with my traumatic feelings and work on my relationship with my family without losing myself in the overwhelming past.

The artistic container, a violin case, also represents the creativity I restored through making sense of history and doing research on it. The intergenerational transmission of trauma is a case for me, and I am also a case of intergenerational trauma. For me, the holes in my family history will always be there. These familial lacunae, occurring before I was born, are compounded by the difficulties of representing a traumatic past. The void challenges our sense of relating to history, family, and others. My urge to go back to the scene was expressed through my desire to make sense of the historical void.

My thought for the title of this essay is borrowed from Do Not Say We Have Nothing, an award-winning novel by Canadian writer Madeleine Thien (2016). Through a daughter’s reflection on her father’s death, the novel brings readers to reimagine the traumatic history of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square democratic movement in China. It reveals a second generation’s

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journey to understand, remember, and work through the past.

By claiming, “Do not say we have nothing,” I am saying, “I am not fine.” I am not fine with the past, a history that is hard to make sense of and digest. I am not fine because I feel the pain of the previous generation as well as mine. I am not fine because I struggle to understand what makes us who we are today. More importantly, I do have something. I carry the past even though I may not know what it is. I have trauma, disturbing affects, unfriendly internal objects, toxic relationships, and unfinished family business. I also have the possibility of restoring or enhancing the capacity to mourn, know, work through, and repair.

Following the question of how to get close to the historical scene, to the “what happened,” I shall also work on how to live on and carry on, live with energy and vitality, and live a creative life. Therefore, my further research turns to the reception of history and explores how we make sense of the past from the vantage of the ways experiences are retold. By finding different ways of listening to painful legacies, we can eliminate their haunting, and more importantly, keep them alive to nourish creative lives.

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  • Forrester, John (2017). Thinking in cases. Polity Press.
  • Huang, Hsuan-Ying & Kirsner, Douglas (2020). The history of psychoanalysis in China. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40(1), 3-15.
  • Lu, Jun (2021). Persecutory anxiety and the fear of death as qualities of the Cultural Revolution in China. In R. Boryslawski & A. Bemben (Eds.), Emotions: Engines of History, pp. 239-254. Routledge.
  • Scharff, David (2014). Five things western therapists need to know for working with Chinese therapists and patients. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 11, 48-59.
  • Thien, Madeleine (2016). Do not say we have nothing. Alfred A. Knopf Canada.


Jun Lu

Jun Lu, MA, MEd, is a PhD candidate of Social and Political Thought at York University, Canada. She is a member of the International Psychohistorical Association and the Psychohistory Forum, who participates intensely in the courses, workshops, and conferences at the Object Relations Institute. Jun Lu has been in personal analysis for more than six years. She received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council doctoral fellowship for her current research project, “Memory’s Restoration: Working through Histories in the Ethnic Chinese Diasporas.” She can be reached at junlu@yorku.ca.

How to Cite This:

Lu, J. (2022). Do not say we have nothing: Working through the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 14-20.

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