Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution is a candid account of the author’s experience as an educated youth in Inner Mongolia from 1968 to 1976. Filled with ideological fervor, Ma Bo and three other youngsters wrote in their own blood a petition to make a revolution in Genghis Khan’s birthplace. In Mongolia, Ma Bo joined his comrades in the often brutal effort to reeducate herd owners and “capitalist Chinese” according to the Maoist principle of class struggle. Ironically, he learned about being humane from those so-called class enemies and went through a painful disillusionment with revolutionary ideals. After casually criticizing a Chinese leader, Ma Bo was denounced as an active counterrevolutionary and imprisoned. He left Mongolia in 1976 with memories of a regretful eight years of ignorance, fanaticism, and brutality. Mao Zedong’s rule had brought nothing but an ecological disaster to the grasslands.
Ma Bo’s memoir was first published under his pen name, Lao Gui (Old Ghost), as a nonfiction novel. Besides the political uproar aroused by its publication, the work was hailed as the first masculine novel of twentieth century China. Its language is deliberately coarse. Its thematic loss of faith and unadorned narrative style reveal the influence of Ernest Hemingway, who is noted for his masculine style. It also reflects the influences of Chinese classical novels. Ma Bo’s fantasy of brotherhood was repeatedly dispelled by unexpected betrayals. His story becomes a caricature of human victimizing and victimization, an acid denunciation of the Cultural Revolution.
Ma Bo’s memoir fully reveals the realities experienced by young intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Unlike Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1986) and Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1994), which were first written in English for Western readers, Blood Red Sunset was first published in Chinese in 1988 and sold 400,000 copies. The book started a reappraisal of the Cultural Revolution in China. As did Nien Cheng and Anchee Min, Ma Bo emigrated to North America. The English version of Blood Red Sunset has joined the nightmarish literature of recent immigrants from mainland China.
The Cultural Revolution used to be held as a utopian model by some Western intellectuals. Ma Bo’s life story warns against fanatic idealism.