In August 1966 Mao’s Red Guards rampaged across China leaving in their wake a trail of destruction and despair. Weili Fan was a 10-year-old schoolgirl then, but even she was not immune from the effects of their activities during the Cultural Revolution. Here she reflects on impact those events continue to have on her life.
“The red August, 1966. It was the August my birthday was honoured, my 10th birthday. It was a loud August. Vans and trucks mounted with loudspeakers bigger than my arms could encircle roamed the neighbourhood, blaring, “This is a Great, Unprecedented, Proletarian Cultural Revolution”; or “Revolution is no crime, rebellion is justified!” Red Guards fully clad in imitation army uniforms—green jacket, green army cap and brown leather belt cinched over the jacket—went about destroying the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits, because the Great Leader called them into action.
On 18th August a million or so Red Guards, many having trekked from other parts of the country, gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to receive Chairman Mao’s inspection. Dressed in the olive green uniform of the People’s Liberation Army, with a bright red star on his cap and two red insignias on his collar, the Great Leader stood on the rostrum of the Tiananmen Tower and beheld a sea of bobbing heads and outstretched hands flourishing his Little Red Books.
He waved. The square shook with the surging mass. This scene would later appear everywhere, in newspapers, posters and documentaries. And on that day, even though I hadn’t seen his history-making gesture, even though I hadn’t been among the sea of bobbing heads and the waves of Little Red Books, I’d already gathered the great significance he bestowed on that day. Through the loudspeakers on the street, I heard the Great Leader in his heavily accented Hunan dialect: “Little generals of the Red Guards, I salute you!”
The crowds roared.
18th August 1966 will go down in history, the loudspeakers blasted.
It is my birthday, I suddenly realized, my tenth birthday!
18th August had always come and gone unnoticed, unmarked. But this one would go down in history! In the years to come, I fancied, 18th August would be marked with much fanfare and festivities, and along with it my own birthday would be celebrated. I couldn’t explain why Chairman Mao chose this day to make his historical inspection, but one thing I knew for sure—I was special.
From then on I took a particular interest in the Red Guards’ activities, which, fueled by Mao’s personal inspections, raged like wildfire across the country, burning down all the “Four Olds” along the way. And I, like a moth attracted to light, followed the crowds to watch the Red Guards in action: chopping off women’s high heels; smashing inscribed store front plaques bearing names such as Happy & Auspicious, Peace & Harmony, and changing them into Anti-Imperialism, or Safeguard Mao. The height of it all was watching the Red Guards as they raided the gigantic Catholic church next to my school.
The twin spires of the church dominated the skyline of Qingdao; and my school, Dexianlu Elementary, stood in its shadow. Playing at recess, I’d never failed to look up and see the crimson-coloured steeples, each topped with a huge cross, soaring into the sky. The church windows were either skinny and tall, or perfectly round, in mosaics of colored glass. I had never seen its doors open, nor heard any sound coming from it. It had always remained in a shroud of mystery and silence. All of a sudden, that mystery and silence were broken, in August 1966.
Through the gaping portal, Red Guards in olive green army uniforms carried armfuls of black books, feeding them into the flames licking the pavement in front of the church. I had never seen a black book, not to mention so many of them. The books we were reading, Chairman Mao’s teachings, all had a bright red cover. I felt there was something evil in the blackness of the books; maybe that was why they were being burned. How brave of the Red Guards to storm into this tomb-like colossal building, how smart of them to find those evil books!
Then, loud chimes and banging wafted out from inside the church, floating with the black ashes. “They are smashing a huge piano!” a boy shouted, and onlookers started to swarm into the church. “It’s too heavy to move,” the same boy announced, his sweat-streaked face smug with this first-hand knowledge. Afraid of being squashed by the throng rushing in, I remained outside, with much regret. The chimes became more scattered and muffled, then died out like a deep moan amidst more banging. I had been quite taken by its exquisite sound, and felt sad when it was gone. But when a group of women, covered in black from head to toe, filed out of a small two-story building next to the church, my little sadness disappeared. Again I was struck by the blackness, as if those pallid-faced, black-shrouded women had evil hidden under their black garments. Watched over by a few Red Guards, they were marched away in a single file, with heads bowed, eyes on their toes.
This is revolution, I gathered, Red against Black.
The fire kept burning in the middle of the street, now rolls of rugs, bursting with gold, blue, and deep red, were thrown into the flames, sending waves of heat into the hot summer air, and waves of heat into my awe-inspired heart. I longed to be part of the action.
September came but school did not start. The New Year came and school was still out. When spring came, the great leader called students all over the country to resume classes while continuing the revolution. So we started going to school again, but school was not what it had been.
Most of the windowpanes were smashed, jagged glass turning the windows into gaping mouths with long fangs, unbroken panes smudged with black ink or white paint. Doors were so warped that they couldn’t close. The unbreakable, solid mass of gray cement staircases and floors, which alone survived the force of the revolution, assumed a more austere look. Walls throughout the hallways were covered with angular characters such as “Down with so-and-so”; “Deep-fry so-and-so”; or slogans like “Rebellion is justified, revolution is no crime!” The only thing that remained intact was Chairman Mao’s portrait hanging above the blackboard, his benevolent faint smile seeming to approve everything that had been going on.
I replaced my old mauve tapestry school satchel with a new army-green canvas bag, five red characters in Mao’s calligraphy style Wei-ren-min-fu-wu—Serve the People, adorned its flap. I had embroidered the five characters myself, with a syringe needle and red silky thread, a skill I’d learned over the no-school days. Such a bag was the hottest fad, and I slung it over my shoulder with great pride.
We went to school to study Mao’s Little Red Book, day in, day out. We read it, we copied it into our notebooks, we memorized it, we recited it aloud.
Often, upon entering the classroom in the morning, we would find trash scattered across the room or scraps of sharp metal or shards of glass planted in someone’s seat. I wondered whether the Great Leader was aware of such acts under his nose, and whether he would intervene. After all, we dutifully came to school every day to study his teachings, despite the battered conditions of our classroom.
One morning, as I slid my proud, Serve-the-People bag off my shoulder and put it in my desk drawer, an awful stench assaulted my nostrils. Phew, I cried. Phew, everyone else yelled. What’s that? I pulled my bag out, so choked by the stink I had to hold my breath. Everyone’s hand went up to cover her nose and mouth. I dropped the bag onto the floor, its bottom covered in shit. Grieving over my soiled bag—my proud army-green canvas bag with Mao’s “Serve the People” embroidered in red—I burst into tears, forgetting the stench. Others fussed over it, cleaning my drawer with old newspapers or scraps of cardboard.
After the commotion was over, we huddled together in the front of the classroom, brainstorming on revenge. If we catch this rascal, my friend Jiang Ying suggested, we can get him in B-I-G trouble. Following her index finger, our gaze rested upon the flaming red characters on the flap of my green canvas bag, now empty and slumped on the floor under my desk. We all looked at one another knowingly: this rascal, whoever he might be, had committed a terrible crime—he had soiled Chairman Mao’s Serve-the-People.
Just then our substitute teacher, a lanky boy of 14 or 15, walked in. The real teachers were all engaged fulltime in the revolution—study sessions, denunciation assemblies, criticism and self-criticism meetings. So we were taught by “big brother” or “big sister,” who should have graduated and moved on to high school but, following the summer of 1966, there were no upper schools for them to move on to. Upon learning what had happened, he shook his head. “Sheer boredom,” he said to no-one in particular, an impenetrable sadness dimming his face.
I changed back to my old mauve tapestry bag. We became wise after this stinky lesson. Now we always sniffed around upon entering the classroom, which we dubbed “detecting land mines.” Once in a while, we’d find a “mine,” and armed with old newspapers and scraps of cardboard, breath held or nose pinched, we’d gingerly remove it before more damage was done.
Enemies kept being uncovered among the ordinary people: historical counter-revolutionaries, active counter-revolutionaries, spies for Kuomintang or US Imperialism, Capitalist Roaders (an authoritative figure who takes the capitalist road)…
A teacher at our school was uncovered as a spy for the Kuomintang. I had known her only as Teacher Lu who taught upper class science, and now everyone called her Lu the Loony. A mass denunciation meeting was organized in the school auditorium, and I was chosen to represent the fourth-grade students to speak at the meeting.
Lu was small-built, with a mop of dark curls—her hair had to be naturally curly, otherwise, it would have become another crime of hers. She wore amber-rimmed glasses, with lenses as thick as beer-bottle bottoms. Standing on the stage, head bowed, hands behind her back, she had a placard much wider than her body hanging from her neck. Her crime, being a spy for the Kuomintang, was listed in black ink on the placard with her name crossed in red.
The auditorium was packed, with students sitting on the cement floor in the front, and grownups—teachers and revolutionary masses from outside the school—on long wooden benches behind the students. I had never spoken in front of so many people. Sitting in the front row, I felt as if a rabbit was trapped in my chest, and my palms sweated. If only someone else had been chosen, I wished. This thought, though it only flashed through my mind, made me feel ashamed. My cheeks burned; I looked around to see whether anyone noticed it, luckily, all eyes were fixed on the stage.
Then I began to hear Lu’s crimes: she had exchanged letters with someone in Taiwan, coded letters giving secret information to the enemy. Lu’s conspiracy to collaborate with the forces in Taiwan to overthrow the Communist government was laid bare before us. Anger boiled in the auditorium, shouting broke out again and again from the audience: Down with Lu the Looney! Leniency to those who confess! Severity to those who resist!
Every now and then, a punch or a kick or gob of spit landed on Lu.
When my turn came, Lu was on her knees, her glasses dangling from one ear, and her eyes bulging, looking so different without the thick lenses. Pink foam dribbled from her mouth—she was forced to hold the placard with her teeth. Clutching the speech in my hand, I walked stiffly onto the stage, the eyes of the audience felt like a spotlight shining on me, heavy with expectation. The moment filled me with a tremendous sense of self-importance—it was a great honor to be part of the revolution.
I read the speech prepared for me by a teacher the best I could, enunciating each word, with rightful indignation and clear cadence. “Strike relentlessly at the class enemies!” As soon as I finished, slogan shouting broke out from the audience. “Death to the enemy if she doesn’t surrender!” The heat of the moment, like a rising tide, bore me up, blood rushing to my head, anger expanding my chest, amid the deafening shouting I kicked Lu the Loony. The audience cheered. “Salute our Little Red Guard!” someone shouted, and the rest joined in. Lu fell at my kick, the bottom of the placard touched the floor first, her face caught by the placard momentarily before she crashed flat on the floor. When she struggled to her knees again, her glasses were gone and fresh blood oozed from the corner of her mouth. Serves you right, I thought to myself.
I marched off the stage with my head held high, aware of the approving gaze of the audience. My chest swelled with hatred for the enemy, and my ego puffed up with the excitement of being part of this great revolution.
However, my young mind, filled with pride for my role in the revolution, was soon clouded over with confusion, when my own father became an enemy overnight.
My father was the head of a newly founded agronomic school located outside the city. It took two hours by train ride to get to work, so he stayed in a dorm on campus and came home only on Sundays. Little did I know that, while I was engaged in the denunciation of Teacher Lu, or watching other “enemies” paraded on the streets with dunce caps and large placards hanging from their necks, my own father was undergoing the same treatment.
He was labeled a Capitalist Roader—as was almost everyone in an authoritative position in those days. We were spared the knowledge and humiliation of my father’s public denunciation and street parade only because of his school’s remote location.
I had watched other condemned enemies being paraded, almost daily. Sometimes, in addition to dunce caps and placards, the Red Guards introduced new tricks such as giving one a gong to beat and making him chant his crimes at each beat; or giving one a Yin-Yang haircut, with one side of the head shaved and the other side untouched. Such parades always drew a big crowd, like a circus going through town.
The Red Guards of his school decided that parading my father locally was too lenient. They made plans to come to the city, to our own neighborhood. A sympathiser passed the word to my family, which I learned only later.
Early in the morning on the day of the parade, my Nainai (paternal grandma) took us children—my elder brother, my two younger sisters and me—to the bus terminal to catch the No.1 bus that would take us to my uncle’s place. My uncle was a firefighter at the big seaport of the city. To visit him was always a treat.
The entrance to the seaport was guarded. The sentry would make a call to the fire department; before long, my uncle, tall and sinewy, in his faded olive green uniform, would come in big strides to fetch us. Just passing through the guarded entrance was enough to make me feel special. Then we got to see all the big ships berthed in the port, many of them with tiny flags in a riot of colors, fluttering in the wind like a warm welcome. We could also play in the fire truck, climbing up and down the ladders. Such a visit didn’t happen often and was always arranged on some national holiday. We had no idea why we were taken to visit him that day, too thrilled to care about why.
We had our longest visit and did not return until after dark. Without realizing it, we had missed seeing my father being paraded, missed the Red Guards ransacking our home for evidence against him. But we were not spared the fear and confusion of finding our own father being branded an enemy. There were three Red Guards waiting for us at home.
“Did you see your parents hiding anything?” one of them in a faded green army cap asked, his face awfully familiar. My heart started thrashing like a caught fish; I remembered my parents burning things in the big stove with bellows in the kitchen. The calligraphy scroll by Shu Tong, which my father treasured and his friends admired, had disappeared from the wall. Should I tell? Caught between love for my father and loyalty to the revolution, I became paralyzed. My throat felt parched and smoky, and something warm, moving like a long slithering worm, went down my leg. Familiar-face glanced at his two comrades, and then left us alone. The other two took down the framed portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in the wall above our dining table; Familiar-face opened the backing and looked inside. Finding nothing, he stood the portrait on the table against the wall and they all left.
Then it dawned on me that Familiar-face had once been a guest at our home, a student leader my father had highly praised. My head was in a muddle. I didn’t know what crimes my father had committed. I had always known him to be a loyal Party member, a good cadre. When he gave up his good job in the municipal government and volunteered to head the new agronomic school in a backward area, the Party had praised him; his colleagues admired his courage and selflessness. They said he was the embodiment of Mao’s teaching: “Be the first to bear hardships and the last to enjoy comforts.”
How could he become an enemy? How could there be so many enemies?
My mother stayed longer and longer at work, often deep into the night, attending meetings. Her hair turned grey. She had poured her goldfish—kept in a glass bowl made from a kelp-farming float—down the toilet; uprooted her potted plants—lush green succulent, pink crab-claw dangling lotus—and dumped them in the trash; as they were evidence of her petit-bourgeois life style. My father seldom came home. The only adult around was our Nainai, illiterate and with small bound feet.
When my father did come home, occasionally, he came back with bruises and a grim long face. My Nainai would prepare some small dishes such as salted peanuts or preserved tofu, together with a few shots of liquor. He always drank and slept, hardly speaking to anyone. We all kept quiet, afraid of making the slightest noise. One night I was awakened by a strange, harrowing sound. I bolted up, a cold tingle running down my spine. “Maaah…ya, maaah…ya ya!” it sounded like a child in desperate flight. It was my father, screaming in his sleep.
My fear loomed larger when death happened right beside us.
We lived on the fifth floor of Soviet-style apartment building at the east end; Uncle Teng’s family occupied the west-end unit, and he was my father’s friend. As the head of the municipal goods and materials supply centre, he also became a Capitalist Roader and was thrown into the “cowshed”—a newly coined term meaning detention by the Red Guards.
One morning we woke up to find the building covered with big-character posters—characters in black ink on large sheets of white paper, stating that Teng chose to alienate himself from the people and the Party, even death would not expiate all his crimes. Such words always meant that the named person had committed suicide. Later, we learned that the Red Guards had taken him home the previous night to search for evidence; he’d flipped open a window and plunged to his death. We could still see dried blood on the cement trash collector in the yard below their apartment. Rumors also went that he had been beaten to death; as a cover-up, the Red Guards had taken his body to his home and dropped it from the corridor window next to his apartment to fake suicide.
I remembered seeing Uncle Teng the last time, when he’d visited my father one Sunday. He was wearing a forest green sweater, while most people—men, women, old or young—were wearing dull colors of gray, dark blue, or the revolutionary army green. My father joked that he still managed to look youthful despite the circumstances. “Green is the color of hope,” Uncle Teng said, patting his chest. “People like us have got to keep hope alive.”
I don’t remember which version of Uncle Teng’s death I believed, but I do remember the growing fear. Although the grownups never told us any real goings-on, from my father’s battered body, grim face, and ill temper, I could sense things must have been bad for him. Only years later, after he was exonerated and restored to his former position, he and his friends who had suffered the same fate would get together, sharing their experiences over food and drink, with humour and mimicry.
Such get-togethers were always preceded by my father working in our four-square-metre kitchen—the cleaver hitting the chop board with a rhythmic beat; metal spatulas and iron wok clanking, with an occasional “kang kang…chee kang’” from my father’s mouth, imitating the Peking Opera cymbal and gong. Sizzling peanut oil and quick-fried scallion sent greasy smoke and nose-tickling aromas into our whole apartment. My father had become an excellent cook by working in the kitchen of the school cafeteria—he was sent to work as a kitchen hand after his status was upgraded from detention and menial labor, but before he was fully exonerated. I would usually sulk through such gatherings, for the bustle and boisterousness meant there would be no quiet for me in our two-room apartment, and I would also be called now and then to empty their ashtrays or fill up their teapot.
But sometimes I’d find myself eavesdropping, involuntarily drawn into their stories. The most common treatment at the hands of the Red Guards, I learned, had been the “airplane ride”: my father was made to stand upon a chair, head bowed, arms raised backward, listening to the Red Guards’ denunciations. Someone would, at random intervals, deliver a hard kick at the chair and my father would fall. Then they stood the chair up and my father was to climb on it again, waiting for another takeoff and crash. My father and his friends, whom I called uncles, would compare notes to see who’d had the highest airplane ride: was it one chair, or a chair on top of a table, or two, three chairs?
Perhaps nobody had had a rocket takeoff, my father said to his drinking buddies. After being released from the cowshed, he was sent to work cleaning out public lavatories—the kind with no plumbing, merely a long ditch with brick steps. His job was to empty the human waste into two wooden buckets, carrying them on a shoulder pole to the manure pit in the field. Once, taking a break, he sat at the end of a conveyor belt attached to an idle water pump. The conveyor belt was smooth, raised a foot or so above the ground, and felt like a good comfy seat to him. Someone saw him sitting on the belt and, by stealth, turned on the water pump. The conveyor belt shot my father out in the air, landing him just a foot or two short of the manure pit.
That was why he had come home unexpectedly on a weekday, with a bad limp, I suddenly realized. His legs and arms had been skinned and bruised, his face scraped. We had only been told he was ill, and he rested at home for a few days.
Nobody had this special drink, Uncle Yu, the principal of the prestigious No.2 High School, proudly claimed. During his detention by the Red Guards, he was locked up in a dark room, writing self-criticism again and again, but it always failed to meet the Red Guards’ standard. One day a furious Red Guard brought in a washbasin of water, washed his feet—his hyperactive, sweaty feet—right in front of Uncle Yu, then ordered him to drink it. Uncle Yu refused. Sneering, the Red Guard locked him up with nothing but the soiled water. On day four, he drank from the washbasin. “Heavens, I so wanted to live!” Uncle Yu thus concluded his story.
I eavesdropped on so many stories my father and his drinking buddies shared with one another: stories that shocked me, stories that pained me, stories that confused me. How could people be so cruel? How could there be so many evils in everyone’s life? Accompanying such thoughts, Teacher Lu’s face, with her thick glasses dangling on one ear, her mouth bleeding, always surfaced in my mind. How could writing letters to relatives in Taiwan make her an enemy of the nation? How could such an ordinary act warrant the mob action against her? Where did the ability to reason and the capacity for compassion go among all the people? Now I would think of her not as an enemy but as someone’s mother, and I’d remember how I had kicked her.
The 18th August still comes and goes, often marked by some token of celebration by my two daughters. I continue to think of Teacher Lu. Does she have daughters? I would wonder. I hope she had survived the “ten years’ turmoil” (an official term for the Cultural Revolution). I wish to know that she is doing well, reunited with her family members in Taiwan, and I wish…
“The struggle of man against power,” says Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
In Prague, at the foot of Petrin Hill, there is a series of statues—a man gradually diminishing one part at a time—commonly known as the Disappearing Man, and officially named the memorial to the victims of communism. There is a bronze plaque that reads:
“The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”
Standing in front of the Disappearing Man in the summer of 2006, I shed silent tears, while some young tourists romped around and posed by the statues with a mischievous grin. My mind, of course, went back 40 years, to the summer of 1966, to Teacher Lu, to Uncle Teng, to Ba Jin’s still unfulfilled wish for establishing a Cultural Revolution Museum, to the fact that the Cultural Revolution was disappearing from history and fading out of memory.
I wish the day when the CCP can openly acknowledge its own mistakes, the day when a memorial like the Disappearing Man in Prague can also be erected in China, will come, sooner rather than later.
Until that day, until China as a nation can face her history squarely, the only hope for us to keep a national calamity like the Cultural Revolution from happening again lies in personal narratives and individual memories.
Writing of my own experience is my personal struggle against a national amnesia.
This past summer, I was encouraged by a series of open apologies from former Red Guards—apologies long overdue, yet nevertheless necessary, as the most famous apologizer among them, Chen Xiaolu (son of Chen Yi) says: “Though my formal apology came way too late, still I have to do it. For the purification of the soul, for the sake of social progress, for the future of our nation, apologize we must. Without self-examination, how could we move forward?”
This past summer, I was also discouraged by the new leadership’s call for reinforcing the party’s role in the ideological sphere and, for invigorating the Party’s propaganda campaign. Invoking Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought, editorials from various Party press denounced the Western “constitutionalism,” “civil society,” “universal values” etc., and cautioned the public against the “Western forces hostile to China”… It was exactly the enforcement of unified ideology and vigorous propaganda, which had deprived or disabled people’s critical faculty, that paved the way for the Cultural Revolution.
The recent clampdown on bloggers, and the intimidation by highly publicised arrests, may chill some of the internet activists, for some time. But, the genie is already out; the “universal values” have already made their imprints on people’s minds. The orthodox ideology can no longer wield the same power as before.
In 1983, amid the inchoate flourishing of art, thought and ideas upon the wasteland of the Cultural Revolution, a cleansing spiritual pollution campaign was launched. It lasted 27 days, thanks to the interference from the General Party Secretary Hu Yaobang.
In 1987, another political campaign against bourgeois liberalization was launched, with the removal of Hu Yaobang as the General Secretary of the Party.
In 1989, following the untimely death of Hu Yaobang, the unstoppable “bourgeois liberalization” evolved into the large scale pro-democracy movement which ended in the bloody crackdown that shocked the whole world.
In 2013, 30 years after the cleansing spiritual pollution campaign—the first left-turning ideological campaign after the Cultural Revolution, the same fight is still going on, though in different forms and by different ways and means.
Another left-leaning campaign may hinder the freedom of expression, but not the freedom of thought.
The genie is already out of the bottle.”