Sunday, May 6, 1968 --- I remember this day very well.
For more than a year, posters had been going up on the wall of our compound, denouncing my father as one of the criminals against the people’s revolution.
So we knew we were in trouble (my parents often talked about it - in hushed voices we could not hear) -- but what could we do ? We had tried to eliminate the most incriminating evidence from among our collection of books – and I remember that “1001 Nights” was especially problematic, so mother took it apart, one page at a time, and flushed it down the toilet. (one time, the toilet got jammed – but we had a friend in building maintenance, and he fixed it up without reporting us)
She also destroyed her father’s portrait since he had come from a rich farmer family and had attended the Military School founded by the Goumingdang. (the Nationalist regime). For many years, she had kept a large portrait of him in a picture tube, and I didn’t know it existed until the day mom was ready to tear it up.
Before she tore it, she told me that it was the only photo of her father that she had. It had been drawn from a group photo of several soldiers .
(I think my third uncle still has that photo - Grandpa was standing in the middle of the back row. He had gone to Huang Po Military School, but did not graduate, since he was dead from liver cancel at the age of 35. He had been the oldest son of 5 brothers and 2 sisters – and he was a very tall, handsome man.)
She also tried to get rid of two small bullets that dad had kept all of the years since his military service. He had been given a pistol in the military, but in the early 50’s he had to turn it in to the government since nobody was allowed to own one. Mom asked my old brother to throw the bullets in the river or somewhere, and my old brother was so afraid that it took him a whole day to throw them away. He did not get home till late night. Mom was worried and really regretted that she did not do it herself.
The schools were closed, and all us children were living at home – or actually – half our home (since the other half had already been taken away) – and on this Sunday, – with nothing better to do --- the family took a trip to the zoo.
Thank goodness the Zoo was still open ! The monkey and elephant must not have heard about the need to criticize Mr. zookeeper !
But even as we left the apartment to board the bus, father turned to mother and said “we are being followed”
And we were followed – at a respectful distance – though we still had a good day at the zoo – taking photographs of the animals – and having lunch at the zoo restaurant. Father’s payday wasn’t until the upcoming week, so we were too short on cash for everyone to get a meal – but there was enough for the kids to have bowls of rice and a couple of dishes. Father took one or two bites himself.
When we got home, my mother went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. It was twilight now – oh, how I hate the twilight ! – and there was only one small bulb to light the kitchen. My mother grew her own mung bean sprouts – and she and father worked together in the dim light, picking the roots and cleaning them for a stir fry. It was a dark, ominous evening – and soon after dinner, we went to bed.
It was 2 am when mother came weeping into our room “Get dressed – your father has been arrested!” And I remember so clearly how frozen – how terrified I was. What would happen to me ? What about our future ? I struggled into clothes and came out in time to see my father in handcuffs being lead downstairs to a jeep that was waiting at the front door. Then there was the sound of the jeep doors shutting – the engine starting, and the jeep driving away. We heard nothing more about my father for the next four years.
What was happening ? I was so terrified – my tongue was too frozen to ask.
That’s how it was – we heard nothing. We didn’t get letters – we couldn’t visit – we didn’t know where he was – we didn’t know if he had been tried or convicted – we didn’t even know whether he was alive. You would think that we might still have friends somewhere high enough in government to know what was happening --- but my father’s only personal friends were comrades from the old days – and once someone had been arrested, it was not wise to have anything to do with their family.
There was nothing to do the rest of that night but stay awake and be miserable.
In the beginning, the Red Guard had been students (like my brother and sister), but now they were mostly workers – and the ones who arrested my father were workers in his own ministry . Several of them stayed in our building for the rest of that night –and then began to interrogate us – one by one – the next morning. “Did you ever notice anything suspicious about your father ?” “when did he become an American spy ?” These were the kinds of questions we were asked – and when my younger sister (age 12) had been in the interrogation room for what seemed like a very long time – mother told me – as the boldest one – to go in and see what was happening to her.
So in I went ! (I was 15 at the time – and yes, I was a bold, though small, person) – and I told them that we weren’t spies and we didn’t know if father had done anything wrong.
I recognized the interrogator as being from my father’s ministry – and I remember his home-made pipe – the kind that was quite fashionable among the Red Guards of that period. It was made from a certain kind of tree root found in the country – and he liked to continuously oil its smooth surface by rubbing it against his cheek and both sides of his oily nose. I wanted to punch him when I saw my younger sister in tears and scared to death.
After the interrogations, they went through everything in the apartment – looking for evidence of criminal activity and/or luxurious living. They had never seen anything quite like my brother’s photographic equipment – for he had managed to mount a lens in an old tin can to build his own adjustable optical projector and he could do many of the things done in a professional darkroom. More seriously, they found my mother’s coats and my grandmother’s collection of fabric – as Chinese have collected since the days when cloth almost served as currency. Good fabric, such as the linen for summer clothes, or silk or velvet or even wool sweaters or nice long scarves – all this was considered luxurious.
It was all gathered together and locked into a bedroom – then the doorway was sealed with a great sheet of paper -- so that the accused could not tamper with evidence. Unfortunately it also kept the accused away from any of their winter clothing – which would be sorely missed when the summer was over.
I said that the arrest was not all that unexpected because my father had been hounded, humiliated, and denounced on a daily basis over the previous 18 months.
Every morning, a fresh set of posters were inked up and pasted on partitions in public areas. In the beginning, they were made by students accusing their teachers – and I made a few myself. It was fun – and good practice for my brush work. But for the targets, of course, it wasn’t any fun at all – as their life history – either real, distorted, or completely fictitious -- was posted up for public contempt.
The bits about my father being an American spy – that was, of course, completely fictitious. The accusation that he wasted the ministry’s money buying hundreds of winter coats was partially true – but, of course, the coats were not for him – they were for the drivers who often had to stand out in the cold waiting for the officials they shuttled around to meetings. And it was quite true that he worked closely with the top men in his ministry – all of whom had also been accused/condemned as spies and traitors.
But a lot of controversial family history was also put up on the wall (the Chinese keep meticulous records). Often it was true – and usually I had never heard it before.
This was when I learned that my father’s parents were Christian, that my father had a Christian name, and that his brother was a Catholic priest who had lived in those two centers of world evil: the United States and Taiwan.
And this was when I learned, (incredibly enough for the first time), that both of my parents had been in previous marriages and that my father had a son by his first wife. (unfortunately, the boy had died in childhood) My father had gotten married in his village before joining the army. It was a marriage arranged by his parents and he never felt close to his wife. So he divorced her and never came back. Meanwhile, my mother had gotten married to a man from her village, but this marriage produced no children, and her husband died from illness.
These details were written on large colored paper and posted on the wall where everyone would read them. There were many “crimes” listed on these posters, starting with the 10 big crimes that included my uncle (who lives in Taiwan) and my father’s old boss (accused as being the biggest spy in China). My father had an American teacher to help him with his English – that was a crime. We lived in a big apartment – that was a crime. We had bath tab put in for us -- that was a crime, too.
And as my father’s crimes were piling up – people who held grudges against him were showing up and making trouble.
One was a young man who had attracted police attention by brushing Chairman Mao’s name on dozens of inflated condoms. Now, it seems like childish prank – but what’s a state security chief, like my father, supposed to do ? The young man was punished by being sent back to his home village – and when the cultural revolution turned everything upside down, he came back to Beijing to accuse my father of reactionary activity. (by the way, this young man went on to a career as a nationally known fine artist. I guess China and America are not that different after all!)
Another vengeful spirit was the daughter of a woman who had been accused of stealing. She thought that my father (who was in security) had a profile of her mom and she wanted him to destroy it – but my father would not
She showed up at our apartment one day to confront my father in person. She was a large, strong woman and she slapped my father across the face, knocking him to the ground. (A few years later, her husband became a leader of one of the many political organizations, but when that organization was accused of anti-Maoism – he committed suicide by hanging himself. She slapped his face too -- even after he was dead. !)
In addition to these indignities, my father was made garbage man for the Friendship Hotel - it being his job to scrub the garbage area on his hands and knees every day.
But it still took a direct order from Zhou Enlai to have my father arrested – and eventually, this is what happened. Perhaps there was so much pressure from below that Zhou had no choice. Perhaps throwing him into prison saved my father’s life (since some top officials had been killed). But whatever the reason , I do not believe Zhou deserves the respect he is still given – and I will never forgive him.
I think he was a coward. He knew the Culture Revolution was wrong, but he would not stand up against it.