Wednesday, April 25, 2007
I was too young – but all my three older siblings joined the Red Guard right away – in those first enthusiastic months (1966) of cultural revolution.
There wasn’t any formal organization – and it wasn’t a branch of the “young pioneers” or the other groups that led up to party membership – it was it’s own popular movement – begun in the Beijing university and then spreading down to the high schools – across to other cities – and eventually to other classes beyond just the educated elite.
To join, you wore an armband with the three Chinese characters of “Red guard” – that’s all you had to do – and then join in the excitement of making revolution against the “old ways”.
For students, that mostly meant rebelling against the educational system – that strait-jacket of memorization, testing, and subsequent hierarchies. The teachers – but especially the school principals –were at fault – and they were humiliated, beaten, and sometimes driven to suicide or beaten to death. There was so much excitement in the air (just like among American youth of the time).
My siblings were in the thick of it – but they were too shy to take leadership roles. They just followed their peers and usually watched others to do the yelling and beating. Besides physical violence, Red Guards also did a lot of debating among themselves.
A frequent topic of debate was the assertion that “if you were born into a good family then you would be a good person.” I remember how one response ran like this:
Dragon gives birth to dragon
Phoenix gives birth to phoenix
Mouse knows how to dig holes at birth
We all agreed that this theory is 100% correct, since we were considered from a good family. (but this was before my father was arrested!)
Overall, my Red Guard siblings had our parents’ approval – because this was just another movement – like the “Great leap forward” – that had periodically marked my parents’ life since they first joined the red army 20-30 years earlier. But my mother was not happy about the hard language – the swearing language – that her suddenly tough little daughter brought home on weekends – and , of course, she opposed the beating of teachers.
I don’t think any of my siblings actually struck a teacher – but once my sister took her turn in holding back a teacher’s arms while she was forced to confess her crimes against the revolution. And recently she just confessed (for the very first time) that in the course of that interrogation, she picked up a small stone and threw it at the teacher’s face – breaking the skin. My sister is usually a quiet, shy person – and this teacher had been notably kind to her students, sometimes even feeding them. But when the teacher refused to confess: “I have done nothing wrong!” , my sister joined the others in venting their righteous frustration.
Very quickly, the schools were closed – and then these bands of these inspired youth roamed throughout the city to scourge the remnants of the “old rich” still cowering in their homes. My sister ran with a band of girls – my brother with a band of boys – and first they would visit the local police station or neighborhood committee to get the addresses of appropriate targets for punishment.
How were these lists compiled ? Were they based on family history – or personal grudges – or rumors of bad behavior ? Probably all three --- and once they had the address, the righteous children would smash down the door – dragging the occupants out for a beating and their possessions out for a burning.
The Red Guards were looking for gold bars, other valuables, and deeds for land or properties owned before the Party took over. This was hardly ever found – but they were beaten anyway and forced admit that they were enemies of the people. Then everything they owned was burned or destroyed – and and I saw many such bonfires in the streets of our neighborhood (in these first idealistic months, nothing was stolen -- but eventually that changed.)
The next step was to spread the revolution to other cities – and like everyone else in the movement, my siblings got free train rides to wherever they wanted .
My sister’s group took a train all the way west to Xinjiang (on the Silk Road) – where they were put up in school buildings and fed by the community. She remembers how the non-Chinese local people thought she was one of them (since she looks a bit different from other Han people) – and she remembers that the food was different, but very good – this being an area known for its tasty lamb stew. They stayed there two months – but this turned out to be her only trip. Meanwhile, my second oldest brother ended up making three trips --- to distant places like Shanghai and Canton – where language was a big problem since the dialects were nearly incomprehensible to students from Beijing.
Before they left Beijing, mom gave each of them about 15 to 20 Yuan for pocket money – while their food, and boarding were provided by the local government. I remember how my sister brought raisins back from Xinjiang, just like dad, who had brought back 10 kilos when he went to the same area on a business trip a few years earlier. We had raisins for a long, long time.
Similarly, students from other areas came to Beijing in mid-1967 –and after my parents were forced to abandon half of their apartment, the other half was assigned as temporary housing for up to 30 students. They had come from less developed areas of the country – and made a terrible mess . They had never even used a modern toilet – they were used to squatting not sitting -- so you can imagine in what condition they left the lavatory ! —and they had gotten far too accustomed to spitting on their dirt floors back at home.
We helped mom to wash down the staircase with hot water from our bath room.( She was afraid that we’d track all their spittle back into our apartment and get sick.) . The smell was horrible. Mom even had to teach them how to use the toilet.
During this time – nobody that we knew personally got killed – but still we saw some horrible things.
One day, as my mother was walking home from market, she heard a heavy sack crash to the pavement just behind her. Well, it was no heavy sack, it was a woman --- and looking up, she saw the open fourth floor window from which she had jumped. Frightened, my mother rushed home and told what happened. She told me to stay inside – but I have always been stubborn and curious – so I went down the block to take a look – and there was that poor woman crumpled on the pavement – still breathing. That was the first time I saw a person die, and I was scared.
Another time, we were at home, and heard terrible screams coming from an apartment in an adjacent building – their second floor balcony could not have been more than 20 feet away – and we saw a beaten, bloody man stumbling out to the balcony and try to lower himself over the side. There he was, grasping onto the railing, while his tormentors were kicking at his hands until he let go and fell. Then he got up and ran – but they were right behind him, and cornering him up against a wall ,continuing with his terrible beating.
All of those men were in their twenties – advanced engineering students living in a special dormitory for technicians – but we later learned that the victim was Korean – and his attackers accused him of being a spy. (or maybe he just talked funny ?)
It was autumn of 1966, when my sister began to take her second trip – and after a lot of pestering, she had finally agreed to take me lalong with her.
Beijing was full of student travelers, and it took us several hours to squeeze into a bus – but suddenly we heard someone calling our names just as the bus door was closing. It was my oldest brother, who told us to please get off at the next bus stop.
It turned out that my father’s ministry received the message from Chairman Mao that the time for the Red Guards to travel was over. This communication was only sent to high officials and the rest of the country would not be affected for several months.
I was so mad, and sad, because I never got a chance to travel with my sister again. But I think mom and dad were relieved, since some students had been killed during all this massive traveling – and I was only 13 years old.