SCARLET MEMORIAL

Tales of Cannibalism

in Modern China

By Zheng Yi

Edited and translated by T.P. Sym

Westview Press. 199 pp. $32

IT TOOK great courage for the Chinese writer Zheng Yi to research Scarlet Memorial, and it will demand a certain courage for the reader to grapple with the terror, killings and cruelties that he so vividly describes.

This is the story of how local Chinese Communist Party officials became accomplices in widespread cannibalism practiced against "class enemies" in a southwest province of China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Zheng Yi, a well-known Chinese author and Tienanmen activist now living in exile in the United States, offers new insights into how the factional struggles of the Cultural Revolution reached a hideous, frenzied peak in the province called the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Zheng's book combines meticulous investigative reporting, careful analysis and brooding Dostoyevskian passages describing his own state of mind as he travels on a journey toward irrefutable knowledge of the evils perpetrated in Guangxi's heart of darkness.

Thanks to letters of introduction that he carried into Guangxi, Zheng was helped at first by local Communist Party officials. They gave him access to party archives that contained details of horrors that took place against the setting of some of the most beautiful landscapes in China.

The officials in Wuxuan, however, a county that was notorious for a 1968 "typhoon" of violence, began to close doors to Zheng and kept him under surveillance. He persisted nonetheless in interviewing the relatives of people who had been killed. In a few cases, he talked with the victims' murderers themselves.

Zheng's work is important because it burns another hole in the protective cover that the Chinese Communist Party has built around the most sensitive aspects of the Cultural Revolution. The party wants to block any deep-going analysis of the role played by the late Chairman Mao Zedong and numerous party members. Full disclosure of the truth might destroy what little legitimacy the party still clings to.

The Cultural Revolution flowed from Mao's failure with the 1958-60 Great Leap Forward, a crash industrialization drive that led to widespread famine and seriously damaged Mao's prestige and authority among the party elite. In Zheng's view, Mao used the Cultural Revolution at first to destroy his political enemies and to protect his power. Then after many people turned to violence against the corrupt party cadres who oppressed them, Mao and other leaders were easily able to manipulate and divide them so that Mao's leadership itself was never challenged.

But growing evidence that Mao's ill-fated actions caused tens of millions of deaths throughout his reign as virtual emperor could be potentially destabilizing for the present Chinese regime, which still draws its fundamental legitimacy from Mao. Mao did not directly supervise any of the killing and he did not revel in it. But he did in fact target segments of society for repression through mass movements, which sometimes led to death by torture, unchecked by any legal constraints.

In Guangxi, this led to cannibalism, in which mobs -- egged on by local party officials -- went berserk and ate the flesh of hundreds of victims, most of them poor and defenseless. If one former official's estimate is correct, some 10,000 to 20,000 people from Wuxuan County alone must have engaged in cannibalism directed at "class enemies." The exact numbers remain unknown.

But once the Cultural Revolution formally ended with Mao's death in 1976, few of those who beat, persecuted to death, or cannibalized such alleged enemies were punished. The longest prison sentence that the authorities handed down to one of them was 14 years. No one was given the death penalty.

In Guangxi's Binyang County, the leading official behind the planning of the slaughter there is to this day still free, having received numerous promotions. "Later he retired with honors and is now taking leisurely walks in a luxurious courtyard behind high walls," writes Zheng.

The Cultural Revolution has often been viewed as a largely urban phenomenon. But the documents that Zheng and others obtained show that the persecution and pogroms reached into the most remote parts of the countryside. And Zheng adds the voices of peasants -- both persecutors and victims -- to the historical record. Yi Wansheng, an 86-year-old peasant, told Zheng he had no regrets for his cannibalism or for murdering a fellow villager whom he described as a "bandit." "Didn't Chairman Mao say kill or be killed?' " said Yi defiantly.

Zheng explains that an ancient tradition of cannibalism among the Zhuang people, a minority group accounting for 50 percent of Guangxi's 25 million people, provides "the most convenient explanation" for the slaughter and cannibalism that took place there. But after careful examination, he rejects this theory.

One of the saddest aspects of this book is that few heroes emerge. But two brave men, a former party secretary and an ex-guerrilla fighter, did challenge Guangxi's darkness. They investigated the killings and cannibalism and reported their findings to the authorities in Beijing. Daniel Southerland, former Beijing correspondent for The Washington Post, is now a reporter on the Financial Desk. CAPTION: Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region