There are many themes throughout the book that apply to the Cultural Revolution in China. The Cultural Revolution was an internal struggle in China to reassert cultural and political control. The ruler, Mao, ordered that through sometimes violent means revisionists be subdued. The main character, who remains unnamed, is imprisoned for her political thoughts in relation to the Cultural Revolution.
Hope and Despair: While imprisoned the main character is forced to endure various forms of torture in an attempt to break her beliefs. The main character is placed in solitary confinement and is restricted from reading newspapers or books. She is kept from other prisoners and is even limited in her contact with guards. Despite all this, the main character maintains an eternal sense of hope. She is confident in her belief and does not waver despite her condition.
Internal Peace: While placed in solitary confinement the main character develops ways to find inner peace in a world of hatred. The main character finds small everyday things to focus her attention on. She finds sounds and sites calming despite what is going on around her. She especially finds comfort in a distant figure named “C.”
"Sketches from the 'Cattle Shed'" explores a variety of themes through the lens of the Cultural Revolution, most notably isolation and identity. In this semi-autobiographical story, the author is able to communicate her own emotions and perspectives in a unique way.
The Cultural Revolution and Isolation
In "Sketches from the 'Cattle Shed,'" author Ding Ling explores the horrors of being locked away in solitary confinement. This story focuses on her life as a Communist woman who was persecuted as a result of her political beliefs and activism. Her experience was relatively common for the Chinese Cultural Revolution as those who had newly been placed in power sought to dispose of former authorities and often punish their followers. Ding Ling's experience in this story is used to delve into the themes of isolation and loneliness. Despite the terrible circumstances it describes, the story's overall theme is one of hope and positivity. Ling posits that hope through isolation and the darkest times is the only true path to peace.
The Theme of Identity
Ding Ling's hardships provide the unique opportunity for the author to explore the theme of identity. This theme is developed as she faces internment, a punishment that makes every attempt to strip her identity from her. Her captors attempt not only to punish her for her political ideals but to break her down so they can reshape her identity in a way that is more palatable to their cause. Ding Ling shows a different kind of resistance by remaining true to herself and her beliefs in the face of cruelty without becoming cruel herself. Since "Sketches from the 'Cattle Shed'" was a partly autobiographical work, Ding Ling was in a unique position to fully explore the ways in which her internment both threatened and strengthened her identity.
Another aspect of identity that was developed throughout the story was womanhood during the Cultural Revolution. Throughout her career, the author expressed the difficulties associated with being a Chinese woman, including the expectations and limitations of gender. Through this painful yet hopeful work, she emphasizes the dual nature of beauty and pain in her identity as a woman.