First-person memories of the Cultural Revolution

I remember being in Munich in 1985, at the 40th anniversay of the end of World War II. Something that stuck in my heart was walking by a business run by an elderly German man — I think it was a bakery or a butcher — and in the window he had put up a huge sign. All it said were the words, “Wie war das moeglich?” — “How was it possible?” I knew that he lived through it, saw the insanity with his own eyes. The sign said everything; there was no answer, only the question.

How was it possible, for rational people to allow “Hitler the guttersnipe” (Churchill’s description) to turn their world asunder and bring their great nation to the very edge of chaos and ruin? Wie war das moeglich?

Those are the thoughts that leapt to mind moments ago as I read a tender and agonizing description of life during the culture revolution. The writer is telling the story of Tian Ying, business editor of China Daily, and her recollections of that dark and incomprehensible period.

Tian Ying wrote that she and her contemporaries hardly talk about the Cultural Revolution but “… some tiny things, a notebook, a picture, or a plastic book cover, often remind me of bitter experiences and the sudden disappearance of a friend, a teacher, or a relative. It was a night in June, 1966. All my school friends were sitting in the classroom reviewing for the coming examinations for university admission. The room was as hot as an oven. I dearly wanted to go out and enjoy the cool breeze. A voice suddenly broke the silence through loud speakers. It was announced that classes, starting the next day, would be suspended so that students and teachers could concentrate on the current Cultural Revolution.”

…. [T]wenty years later, in Hong Kong, she wrote about the tragic fate of Schoolmaster Mo, “…who was loved and respected by the students as he was a learned and kind old man.” The Red Guards punished “bourgeois authorities and reactionaries” so Mr. Mo had to pull weeds from the playground, under the blazing sun, in a dirty T-shirt and shorts. His hair had been cropped. When Tian Ying last saw Mr. Mo, his legs were bleeding as he was severely whipped by the Red Guards. Shortly after, Mr. Mo committed suicide. “As the fanaticism of the movement intensified, the thrust of the criticism was switched to high governmental authorities,’’ Tian Ying wrote. In early August, the Red Guards received a commendation from Chairman Mao for exposing and condemning, “…all landlords, imperialists, revisionists, and their running dogs.” Inspired, Red Guards took to the streets brandishing the little red book of Mao’s Thoughts. That became known as the Red August Movement.

But there is something that Tian Ying said she will never forget. “One day in Red August, my elder sister, already married at that time, was attacked by a group of Red Guards on her way to work. They were patrolling the streets looking for ‘survivals of feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism.’’ At that time, those who dressed well were regarded as people of that kind. They cut her hair, tore her skirt, and chopped the sandals with an axe. They also gave her a severe beating to “help her wipe out bourgeois ideas.’’ When I opened the door for her, I was shocked to see her legs bleeding and her head covered with a towel. Knowing she wanted to stay at our home for a few days in case the Red Guards decided to chase her again, I said, after a few seconds of hesitation, “No, you can’t. Mummy and I have suffered enough. We cannot take more.’’ After she left, I buried my face in a pillow and cried bitterly. That scene, my own sister limping away to an unknown fate because I denied her sanctuary, is etched in my memory. She did not blame me. But I blamed myself…” That is the dagger in Tian Ying’s heart.

History is so important, and I spend so much of my time (too much, actually) poring over history books. But nothing ever comes close to hearing it told by those who actually lived through it. And I read the words of Tian Ying, and all I can do is wonder, like the old German shopkeeper, Wie war das moeglich? I know I’ll never fully know the answer, but the question will not go away. As with all of man’s incomprehensible acts of inhumanity, the question remains, to haunt us, to eat at us, to obsess us, forever.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

Have you noticed that according to every account of the cultural revolution, everyone is a victim. It’s like the old myth that everyone in Germany was a victim of the Nazi party. How about all the “willing executioners” in China?

April 13, 2004 @ 7:57 am | Comment

That’s a complex topic Li En. One difference between the Cultural Revolution and Nazi Germany was that in the former, those who executed the orders were often young people who had been brainwashed for years with Mao’s bullshit and had been radicalized at a very susceptible age. Were they victims or perpetrators? I find it hard to blame the teens in the Red Guard, as opposed to those who encouraged them, like the Gang of Four and of course the big man himself. Most of the Nazi war criminals were big boys who were all grown up and more accountable.

But determining accountability for insanities like Nazi Germany and the C.R. is so difficult. When a society is swept up in the madness of a personality cult, it surrenders its critical faculties en masse. Where does blame fall? Who should be punished for the ensuing atrocities? Were the Chinese people who beat their neighbors to death in the streets — were they themselves victims or perpetrators? On a gut feeling, I’ll lean toward the victim side. They were pushed to do it by a government that had actually set up mandatory quotas for turning in informers. For a quarter-century they’d been spoon-fed CCP lies and BS, and that was their Truth. Re-education has been the only way to cope with such a vast brainwashing; punishing them all for their misdeeds would be simply impossible.

April 13, 2004 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

I don’t disagree with anything you say … but I’ve always leaned towards “personal accountability” myself … doesn’t matter what external influences are placed upon you, what you do is ultimately your own responsibility.

April 13, 2004 @ 10:30 pm | Comment

I tend to agree with Li En. I am reading “A New History of the Third Reich” (by Michael Burleigh) at the moment and he documents in great detail the vast number of instances where people had the opportunity but did nothing to oppose the ever-darkening spectre of Nazism (for whatever reason). Ordinary people, judges, politicians, churchmen, etc etc.

What the book is teaching me is that it would be wrong to think that such things could never happen in our own societies – all it takes is apathy and inaction on a mass scale. Personal courage and eternal vigilance and are our greatest weapons against totalitarianism.

April 14, 2004 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

I am familiar with Burleigh’s book, which opens by saying that its purpose is to tell what happens when an entire people voluntary surrenders its critical faculties. That’s just what happened in Nazi Germany.

The key difference, in my mind, is that after more than 25 years of Maoist rule, most of the Chinese people had few if any critical faculties to surrender. Unlike the urbane, educated and highly sophisticated Germans, the Chinese had their brains turned to mush as Mao asphyxiated them with dogma, doctrine and pure bullshit. Yes, those who participated are guilty but not to the degree of the educated people (not to mention the doctors and university professors) in Nazi Germany who sank to the lowest depths of depravity, swept up in the personality cult of Adolph Hitler. I think we are in agreement essentially — it’s just a matter of degree. I can’t in good conscience put the brainwashed 13-year-old red guard on the same level as the adult Nazis. (Now, the Hitler Youth is another story, and another post.)

April 14, 2004 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

Richard, you make good points. Dare I say (as a Chinese person myself), that traditional Chinese society, steeped in Confucian values, made it so much easier for charismatic dictators to mobilise the masses. Hierarchy and respect (read: obeying) of your elders is everything.

April 15, 2004 @ 6:47 pm | Comment

Good points, Fabian. So is Confucism a good or a bad thing? (No need to answer; I already know. Besides, such a discussion could open up a real can of worms.)

April 15, 2004 @ 7:20 pm | Comment

I would prefer some combination of the two myself. Perhaps the filial piety, loyalty and respect emphasised by Confucianists, fused with the defiance, individuality and critical inquisitiveness of the Western tradition.

April 16, 2004 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

Oil and water….?

April 16, 2004 @ 6:44 pm | Comment

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